A very tall red oak tree grows on a hill past the barn, past Mom’s sheep and llamas and goats. It is the tallest tree on our Tennessee farm and because it plunged its roots down on the hillside, right where the slope begins its descent, it towers over everything, a kind of watchman or guard.
My family loves that tree and we worry about it every time strong winds come through the field. But the oak weathers them all. Even lightning zapped through its leaders, once, and cracked the trunk from twenty feet up all the way to the ground, but the tree absorbed it and callused around the jagged parts of the crack and kept living.
The tree is a playground for my big brother and me because instead of going to college we became tree climbers. We can set ropes in its top branches a hundred feet high, attach swings, and glide out over the little valley because the tree is on that hillside. All we have to do is get a little momentum and suddenly the ground drops away. We close our eyes and we’re flying.
We even climb up the lightning crack, scramble up the split trunk like rock climbers ascending a cliff. We put on our climbing shoes and pretend we are making a first ascent, pretend the magazines are all there with their cameras flashing.
One weekend we are swinging on a rope and some of our climber friends come around which always makes everyone want to go higher. The game is to get on the swing and then someone grabs the frayed tail of rope knotted beneath the swing and runs like hell, pulling as high as he can before letting go in order to give the biggest and best arc over the little valley, where the sheep and llamas and goats chew their food and try to make sense of what is happening above them. These are the gifts we give each other.
But we can’t get high enough. And because the boys have come around we start talking about all the ways we can get that swing higher, and then my brother, Aaron, drives the crane truck we use for tree removals out into the field. He parks it beyond the oak and lowers the giant metal arm toward the swing.
Everything makes sense in our heads, all the calculations of things that could go wrong and kill someone. Aaron decides he’ll test it so he goes to put on the helmet he sometimes wears when things get dangerous in the trees. One of the boys goes to the crane and works all the levers. Aaron grabs the end of the arm while he sits on the swing and he is hoisted fifty feet into the air.
My brother lets go of the boom and swings like a pendulum out over the valley and screams as if he were the kind of bird that screams, a predator bird like a hawk or an osprey. He screams like that the whole way out. It is a beautiful and amazing thing, but the truth is these things happen to us all the time.
A wind comes through the farm one night that tears the red oak over. The tree falls downhill, toward the pond, and its root flare pulls out of the ground bigger than a dining room table, the broken tendrils jagged and wet.
The next day we grieve over the tree and climb all over it as it lies there, marveling at all the lofty forks, some that used to live over a hundred feet in the air, suddenly lying on the ground. Some of the limbs even puncture the ground and go deep into the soil. Before long we bring out the chainsaws and cut the tree into pieces and bring a bulldozer to scrape it into a pile. It is a sad and terrible thing. And as it burns we think about how these things happen to us all the time.
Listen: there is a seventeen-year-spike in cicadas, and if you lay on your back in the field, stare straight up at the sky, they will criss-cross your vision like buzzing paper airplanes. The air throbs. You can feel their love-hungry hum all through your body.
Mom and I are in the field among the cicadas. We are half-hidden by grass and there is a dead rabbit at her side. She is stroking its white fur even though there’s no life beneath it.
“The coyotes chased it last night and trapped it behind the barn door,” she says. “Its heart must have been beating so fast that it seized up.”
Faster than a hummingbird’s wings, I figure. Poor thing. Scared to death.
I dig the graves around here. I dig so Mom doesn’t have to because she hates death more than anything. I take the job seriously, too. I search for headstones on the hill and only stop when I find one that looks like it will properly fit the animal being buried. I’m good with a shovel because I climb trees and I plant them too. I know this: dig a hundred-dollar hole for a fifty-dollar tree. The same ethic applies to Mom’s burials. I make a wide circle with my shovel and scrape off the sod, placing it in a separate pile, then I work my way around and around until I have a nice deep hole, deep enough that the coyotes can’t smell the death, which will get them digging, too.
It happens. I was away once and Mom tried to bury Valentine by herself, her ancient chocolate-colored sheep, but she finished off the grave with only an inch or two of dirt. The coyotes were digging and ravenous by dusk. Mom carted out wood chips and spread them over Valentine, then tacked a tarp over that, but the coyotes still came. Then the vultures. Mom went inside and turned up the TV and cried.
That’s why I dig the graves around here. A hundred-dollar hole for a fifty-dollar tree. This rabbit is safe from the dogs. I put boxwood twigs in the grave, not because they have any real significance, but I like boxwood and so does Mom, and sometimes I figure all our ceremonies start this way. We make something up––a handful of dirt on a casket, a bottle of liquor poured onto concrete––call it special, repeat it over and over and suddenly we have ceremony.
Boxwood is ours. I finish the grave, stand over the dark Tennessee dirt, let my sweat fall. We walk back to the pond and Mom calls the turtles to her. She has a magic. She calls the turtles and I see their dark, diamond-patterned shells surface on the water. They start to drift toward the edge where we sit. I see their tiny nostrils flaring. They love my mom.
So do all the animals milling around, the llamas that wander over as we sit, lowering their long faces down to the back of her head, breathing in her smell. The goose and gander that live for her touch, running their silky white necks under her hands. Every cat and dog and sheep and goat is smitten with her, which is why she spends most of her days out here in the field. When things up at the house get complicated the field stays simple enough. She comes out here and yells Sheep! and just the name of their species gets them running up to her so quick you’d think she was their long lost queen.
“I got a call the other day from my friend Merle in Knoxville,” she says as we sit by the pond. “Merle, the one with all the cows.”
She is speaking slow and deliberate. We have nowhere else to go, nowhere we’d rather be.
“Merle said he caught the tail end of that big storm that came through last week. He was scared for his cattle but the rain and lightning were so bad he had to wait till morning to check up on them. He had to search around for a while. They had all gotten together under a tree in a little holler. All of them were there.”
She pauses, threads a piece of grass through her fingers. The cicadas are a symphony.
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