people have country ways, and dont you ever forget it,
my grandmother used to tell me. I wasnt always sure what
that meant. As a child, I was sure that it meant something embarrassingperhaps
having to do with hand-made clothes or lunches brought from home
instead of purchased in the yellow and green school cafeteria.
We used to take long walks on my grandmothers land. Constitutionals,
she called them. Wed walk along the creek and past the old
barn that lost its top floor in a Big Wind and was never replaced.
We walked through the hay fields with her knocking the tall grass
out of the way with her hickory cane. Finally, wed walk
up to the Woods to see The Lady.
Lady wasnt a person, nor was she precisely a thing. She
was a tree. An ancient tree. When I was a child, she was wider
around than my arms could reach and my grandmother said shes
been just as big since she was a child. The Lady was a beech,
smooth-barked with high limbs and leaves the shape of a persons
eyes, half-closed. She stood deep within my grandmothers
property linepast my grandfathers tree stands, past
the rusted remains of an old still, past anything that looked
kin to man. When you were in the heart of the woods, you couldve
been anywhere or anytime. The only sounds you could hear were
the sounds of the trees and the winds and the animals that passed.
Sometimes it was so still you could hear your own breathing as
shy and whispery in your ear as a frightened hare.
can remember standing beneath The Lady, her highest branches far
out of reach of my eight-year-old eyes, and almost forgetting
to breathe. Wed always bring her somethingshiny stones,
a ring of hair tied with a ribbon, a robins nest found along
the wayjust something. It seemed disrespectful to visit
empty-handed. You never drop by someones house uncalled
without a little somethingor so Id always been taught.
You made a welcome for yourself so that next time theyd
be glad to open the door even if they didnt look too welcoming
time went on, I visited The Lady, and indeed, my grandmother less
and less. It seemed like I always had something important to do.
Lots of things are important to a high school girl and later a
woman in college. There were friends to meet, shoes to buy, and
boys, always boys. Sometimes though, when the wind moved across
my face just right, Id think of The Lady for no reason.
I wondered how the woods looked just then with sunlight or rain
or moonlight streaming through the trees. Id think about
how quiet they could get and the way the air tasted like lightning
and smoke all at once. Id think about the low hum the trees
could make and the crackle of leaves under my feet, and for a
moment or two Id feel empty and lost. Then, the light would
change or the phone would ring and I would forget. Blissfully
ignorant and distracted, I would go on with all those meaningless
and everyday things that can fill up an entire life if you dont
pay close attention. Id do the laundry, watch TV, read a
book, and Id forget. Until I slept, until I dreamed. Sometimes,
Id wake up with a sense of something gone that was so severe
that Id check my arms and legs just to make sure that nothing
had fallen off in the night. But, by morning, with a clear light
shining through my dorm window and my roommate eating cereal straight
out of the box, Id forget.
was almost Halloweenthe time of the year when the air is
as crisp as fallen leaves, and you can smell something unplaceable,
almost like cinnamon, with every breath. Thanksgiving break falls
hard on you that time of year and then Christmas and before you
know it, the year has gone and youre up to your neck in
another semester of exams and theses and roommates with problems.
Every Halloween, we had a big bonfire party to celebrate the almost-end
of the semester. Some farmer would be begged or bribed into lending
a field still sharp with hay-stubble, and it would be ringed out
for the autumn fire.
took nearly two days to build the teepee-like structure that would
be the heart of the fire. Wed usually drop by and watch
the progress, sometimes lending a hand between classes. The air
that time of year still had a hint of moisture in it during the
day, but at night, even here in the South, it had a bite. On Bonfire
Night, I threw on a jacket and my roommate and I, sans boyfriend
this time since she and he had a screaming match right outside
my door the night before, drove down to the hayfield and waited
with everyone else for the lighting of the fire.
was an event. The fire, sometimes reluctant, blazed up on almost
the first lighting. The crack of a big fire starting is something
to heara mixture between a Fourth of July rocket and an
old Chevy backfiring. Then, there are the crackles and pops of
the fire coming to its own. Ive always liked to watch firewhether
it was a candle or a spectacle like this, but somehow standing
there with a group of cheering and half-drunk sophomores and seniors
roamed away from the scene barely feeling my roommates half-hearted
tug on my jacket sleeve towards a little clump of woods nearby.
Not a forestjust a little round of trees that someone had
left for looks or due to lack of initiative. The trees were mostly
pine with a few birches and maples thrown in. Brown needles and
leaves crunched under my feet. It had been a hot dry year and
the leaves had fallen early. I took off my jacket and tied it
around my waist. The air was cool on my arms after the fire, but
I didnt care. I leaned my head against one of the bigger
pines and was surprised to feel tears on my neck. I put both hands
flat on the tree-trunk and wept in earnest. Big flat sobs, nothing
that a soap opera heroine would have ever owned, but tears from
a while, it started to rain. I could hear the hoots and screams
of those at the bonfire. And I could imagine their scramble to
keep the fire going. The rain was low and gentle. Just sprinkles.
As silent and as unobtrusive as a wind through your hair or a
pat on the back. The moon was rising above the trees, pushing
through the clouds and I noticed it was almost full. The rain
cast a ring around it and in its shadow I could see a tree. It
stood apart from the others, even in this small space, and it
seemed to have strength to it, missing from all the others. In
the moonlight with the smoke of the bonfire drifting and the rain
padding gently, it looked like my tree, my Lady, standing alone
in this unforgiving place. I walked toward it, shielding my eyes
to look past the rain. It was dead. It was hollow. I could see
where lightening had struck it, and the tree had rotted away a
space big enough for a man. I put my hands on the treenot
the wisest course during a rainstormand I wept again. But
this time, I cried not only for myself, but for the tree. I cried
for what I was and for what I wasnt. I cried for everything
that couldve been, and mightve been, and might yet
be. Eventually, I walked out of the woods. I dont remember
it very well, but I ended up in my dorm room under flannel sheets
with blue stars.
Thanksgiving break I went home. I practically ran up my grandmothers
porch and flung open the screen door. Tea Cakes in the oven
was the only acknowledgement she gave me. I walked into the kitchen
and found her at the white enamel sink, pulling dough off her
guess youll be taking a walk, she said. I nodded.
Been awhile, she said. Cookies should be out
when you get back and cool enough to eat. I put my backpack
down on the floor and headed out the back door. It was true autumn
now and the air was cold. I pulled my jacket around me. We had
already had the first snow of the season and in the hollow, frost
still clung to low weeds and crunched under my step. In tennis
shoes, the climb through the woods was hazardous. I slipped on
wet leaves and slid on muddy slopes, but finally I made it to
the clearing. There she stood. The Lady. As serene and commanding
as ever. I pulled a ring from my finger, sterling silver with
a claddagh heart and approached her base. Nothing looked wrong,
but something felt off-balance. I dropped the ring and ran to
her. She was dead. It was lightning. She stood intact, except
for the burn mark running down her far side. But I could see that
there was no life in her.
sat down in the dead leaves and covered my face with my hands.
Then I felt it. A small brush against my leg. It was a cat. A
kitten, really, no bigger than my hand. I picked her up and looked
around for others, but she was alone. Tiny, big-eyed, with white
and silver fur, she brushed her tiny head against me with a strength
beyond her size. I scooped her up and wrapped her in my jacket.
When I got back to the house, I could smell vanilla and molasses
when I opened the door. A tray of cookies sat on the wood-burning
stove. Still hot, my grandmother said.
you know? I asked, still panting a little from my run and
clutching the cat in my jacket. She nodded. Yep, she
said, happened a while back. Wasnt nothing to be done
for her. She picked up a cookie and bit into it. I put the
kitten down and she began walking with high-steps around the living
room finally hopping onto the couch and circling herself into
a sleep. We watched her until she was still.
wish I couldve done something, I said, I feel
guilty. But I knew as soon as I said it that it wasnt
true. I felt better and more complete than I had in a long time.
She finished the cookie and took a drink of tea. Some things
happen, thats all, she said, She had a good
long run and I guess it suited her well enough.
thought shed always be there, I said. Grandma nodded,
Seems that way, sometimes, but I guess she needed a change.
I nodded and picked up a cookie. There werent any
sprouts, she continued, I checked.
odd, I said. Grandma just shrugged and looked at the cat.
None that I saw anyway. She picked up another cookie.
Its hard waiting for visitors sometimes. Might be
nice to visit a bit yourself. The cat turned over in her
sleep and made a tiny sound almost like the whistle of wind through
leaves. I took a bite of cookie. The kitten slept on.
Forehand is a freelance writer and painter living in Nashville,
Tennessee. Her short stories and poems have been published in
Atriad Press' Haunted Encounters, Bewildering Stories,
FATE, The Harrow, LongStory Short, Quantum
Muse, Typhoon.net, Waxing Waning Moon, Ultraverse,
The Wheel, Zephyrus, and other publications. She
recently published a pet recipe book with Dawson Progressive and
is a monthly columnist for Critter Exchange. Her hobbies include
cultivating her medieval herb garden and begging her cats (unsuccessfully)
to stay off the sofa.