The wind shifts and a thousand leaves quiver above my head. I pull the wool of my collar up higher, but warmth cannot erase their whispers. They know—I know they know. My mother comes up from behind me and clasps my hand. Hers are cold and thin, cloaked by wrinkles and time. Her wire frame looks so frail against the towering oak—powerless. I squeeze her hand a little tighter, but I’m cautious. I try to exercise restraint. I’m scared of squeezing it too tight, I’m scared of not squeezing hard enough, but either way she gives me nothing.
She does not speak, she never has. She simply tilts her head to the side and lets a tear discreetly roll off the weathered peak of her face, and tilts it back. She stares at the tree tenderly, mournfully. I just stare.
* * *
I was eleven when she told my uncles to bury him four feet deeper. She wanted to leave room for the roots, not that anyone asked—no one cared. They simply did what they were told. But a foot from finishing I took the shovel from their hands and buried him six. I packed the dirt tight, so when my mother came with the sapling she hit me with an open hand and cried. She clawed at the earth with her fingers for hours. My uncles took me inside and let her. I laid in bed for the rest of the day and played with my cheek, putting pressure on it till I felt the warmth flush my face and sting.
She came in my room that night and for a second I thought my father had raised from the dead. I laid still and pretended to be asleep. I wanted to pray but I didn’t know what to ask for anymore. So I just alternated please and thank you over and over in my head and hoped that it would do. I felt dry lips press against my forehead and crusty fingers brush back my hair. But they were gentle and fair. I released a heavy sigh that gave myself away. She whispered sorry and disappeared. That night I tossed and turned. I kept trying to wipe off the dirt that fell in my bed but no matter what I did I always found more. I tried not to care, I knew I’d never hear those words again.
* * *
A yellow leaf drifts from the tree and brushes my face. I swat it down and resist the urge to crush it beneath my feet. Twenty years later his touch still makes me cringe. My mother tries not to notice. The cold coffee and toast I forced down for breakfast begins to rebel against me; the acid in my stomach rises and my brow instinctively furrows. It frustrates me how reactionary it is. Makes me feel strung up like a marionette, unable to tell myself when to breath or blink or cry. I just do. Even in death he still pulls the strings.
My eyes begin to water and I feel myself constrict, my mother lets my hand fall. I cannot tell whether I feel heavier or lighter.
The tears burn paths down my skin and mix with the earth. I can’t tell whose I am.
I collapse at the feet of my mother, and beat at the earth with my fists. I cannot tell whether I’m old or young.
The wind wails, the leaves shudder and I feel moved by everything, and nothing at all.
She turns away and solemnly takes her seat in a rusted folding chair, attempting to take shelter in the shadow of a beast she never could outrun. I close my eyes in no spirit at all, and try to muster a please and thank you to a God I pray is not my father.