VIEWS: 3 PAGES: 11 POSTED ON: 11/30/2011
The Struck by Lightning Tree My name is Ada Johnson and for the beginning of my life I lived at a place called Fogged In Mountain. It’s a rural place, far out in the country, forty acres of steep wooded hillside, a creek that ran close to the house, and a rutted driveway that went to the road. The road was dirt for three long miles til you got to the hard road. The state crew came twice a year to grade it, but it was difficult, especially in winter, to live there. Over the years, most folks had moved away. There were still a few falling down places, people came back to every summer. And there was still one mean old man who lived even further up the road than I did. His name was Pappy. We were not kin, but since he’d known me all my life, he felt like he could tell me what to do. I always felt lucky to be born in a place that I liked, that way I never had to leave it. My house was an old one. It was made of sawn oak logs that were chinked together and was exactly what a log cabin should look like. It was a comforting house. Downstairs there was a large kitchen and a sitting room with a stone fireplace in between them. Upstairs there were two small bedrooms under the eaves. Dad had enclosed the back porch for a bathroom and I had running water and electric. It was exactly all I needed. I built log cabins. Little ones, they’re a doll house. I made all the parts from materials I got in the woods. I used small sawn logs, twigs, and little rocks for the chimney. Dad did this first and mom made all the extras. There was a tiny broom with real straw tied to a twig, cotton curtains, a stitched quilt for the bed, a rag rug for the floor. They did this as long as I remember, and after they died, I kept it up for myself. The one thing different about my cabins was I included my tree. There was a giant oak, before the house was. It was at least two hundred years old and had always been in my life, 2 towering over the house like a huge protecting friend. Since the tree and the house were in my mind together, rooted to one another, it was natural for me to craft them together. I loved my tree as much as my house. From my bedroom window, I looked out in summer and saw baby birds in their nests. In winter, I watched squirrels chase one another on branches piled with snow. And at night when I lay quiet and listened, my tree swayed in the wind above me and made peaceful, singing sounds to put me to sleep. * * * But then the storm came, it was an awful storm. It roared through my mountain with a horrible fierceness I’d never known. It was a howling storm, mad, and angry. The hail raged on the roof until I thought it would whip away. The thunder crashed up and down. Each time I thought it could be no louder, it was louder. But the worst was the lightening, it seemed aimed directly at me. At first, it hit on the hill, but that was just playing. When it struck the tree, I saw a gigantic arc of blue green out my window. There was an instant loud, deafening crash. Great chunks of tree exploded outward, broke my windows and I dived beneath the table. For a long time I cowered there, until the storm subsided. The din on the roof lessened, the sky lightened and the wind became more peaceful. I stood in my open doorway and watched the rain drip off the roof of my porch. The smell of charred wood and smoke was all around me. I saw that my tree had a long clean split in its bark, from the point of impact at the top of the trunk, all the way to the bottom. It was terribly wounded. For a long time, I watched the clouds move off and the rain drip. I prayed in my heart for it to feel better. Then Pappy’s ancient truck ground down the mountain and I heard his door slam. He walked in my yard, kicked at the exploded chunks of wood, and hunched his shoulders into his jacket. He had a hard face, not a nice one. He had a stubbled chin, a ratted cap, and his eyes were fierce old hawk eyes. But on this day, as his eyes went up and down my tree, he looked like he would cry any second. “It’s done for, Ada.” I shook my head. 3 He shook his back.“When a tree this big, gets hit this hard, it’s got to come down, otherwise it’ll fall on your house.” Pappy worked in lumber all of his life, but again I shook my head. “No.”I told him. “You’ll see it will live. You’ll see that.” And I walked off my porch to the tree, to this round indented place, which was really a knot. It was exactly my height and I put my hand there, because I knew it was the heart of the tree. And I closed my eyes and willed my energy and all my healing into that wounded tree. In my mind I said it over and over. Live. Live. I was in love once. His name was Billy. He was a good looking boy with soul blue eyes and sometimes he would tell me, “Ada, you and me, we got the same heart. We got the same mind. We’re always going to be together.” And I would feel the rightness when he said it. But Billy had a weakness, a sadness, a hole inside him couldn’t nothing fill. Many a time I lay by his side when he was sleeping and put my hand on his heart. If I could have filled that hole, I would have done it. He didn’t live long. Mountain roads are hard in winter. The day of the storm, it was March and I was cold and I was angry. I was thirty-five years old, a big, capable woman who lived alone on her own land and made her living with no one to help her. I lived rough, I guess I looked rough, I couldn’t see no other way to be. * * * Spring came. My little creek gurgled and raced. The dirt road was a long and undulating mud hole. Everyday I went to my tree and put my hand on its heart. Everyday I gave it my love. And my tree leafed out. Tiny buds, they opened, they blossomed. Pappy stood in my yard and shook his head. “That sap was already in there.” He pointed to the center of the tree where the great limbs branched, to the exact center of the strike. It was charred solid black from the lightening, “All that’s dead there. When it goes, it’ll crack on your house.” Still, I shook my head. 4 And then he did an extraordinary thing. He never said a word extra, or tried to start a conversation, but on this day he cocked his head to the side and his eyes caught at me. “Did you never hear of a tree that’s been struck by lightening?” “No.” “It’s magic wood,” he told me. “When you build something with it, it’s stronger. When you burn it, the fire is brighter. If you breathe in the smoke, you do crazy things.” He was almost close to laughing. But that made me harder against him. I folded my arms across my bosoms and drew my head in like a turtle. “No.” I told him. * * * June was the time the school kids came to see me. They parked the bus on the hard road and walked the last three miles up the mountain. They were mostly ten and very good observers. I showed them how I made my cabins. “How do you make the doors swing?” “On teeny tiny hinges.” “You should put a bird nest in the tree,” a little girl told me and I thought how I could do that. “Is that real cement in the rocks to make the chimney?” A million questions, then they’re silent, then they nudge each other and whisper, “I could do that.” Over the years, Mrs. Henley had always been their shepherd. She’d scooted them all to the creek where they ate their bagged up lunches. But the year my tree was struck by lightening, a man came. His name was Linwood Jenkins. He was somewhere close around forty, with a sandy balding head, a big wide forehead, and a happy grin. He told the kids to call me Miss Ada. He held his hands out, “When you talk to her you say – Miss Ada.” “No.” I told him. “Just Ada.” I intended to say it strong and I did so. He really looked at me then, in my eyes. We were eye level to one another and his were a warm brown color and laughing. I think he expected to see inside a solid oak like woman as strong as the floor boards. But he didn’t see that. 5 And I, because I was curious about a man standing in my yard with a bus load of children, I expected . . . bullish, censor, a mind set thick with plaster. But no, I didn’t see that either. I saw caution, yes, but something in there flashing, like the way my creek was, tumbling over and over. He drew back and I did also. He cornered the kids and I answered their questions. We sat on different levels of rock and eyed one another. Birds darted in and out of the bushes and the sun shone. I told them how I made my little rugs and curtains. The boys wanted to know how I made my roofing shingles. “It was a nice time,” he told me, nodding. He didn’t shake my hand the way a man shakes hands with another man. He said to the kids, “You thank Miss . ., I mean . . . Ada.” And he winked at me then, a quick, easy kind of wink. Something he, no doubt, did every day, but, in all my life, I’d never been winked at. “Thank you, Ada,” all the kids waved and went down my path, along the dirt road in front of my house and around the last place by the rock where they could see me. They went on, but he stopped and just stood there. He waved. I waved back. It was a very funny feeling. * * * Three days later, while I was collecting sticks and moss for my cabins, he walked in my yard. I’d not heard a car and concluded he’d parked on the hard road and walked up the last three miles. He was winded and red but not about to admit it. He stood on one leg and breathed in deeply, then stood on the other leg and breathed in deeply. Finally, on the inhale of the third breath, he asked me, “Would you like to have dinner?” Of course, I’d imagined and wondered, thought what it might be like to have him say this, but now that he had, all my feelings horrified to one. I lived in dungarees and tee shirts. I did not own a dress. When Billy died a woman from the church had lent me one of hers. It was Saturday morning. Did he mean tonight? “Tonight?” It was a shrill cry that echoed. 6 He smiled and then looked at me intently. Was I was more loose wired than he figured? Then he righted himself, he didn’t stand on one foot or the other, but up on both feet. He lowered his head and studied the ground in between us, “Next week.” he raised his eyes. “How about that?” I nodded. And then he did something – something I’ve always remembered. The sun was shining on top of his balding head and he gave me the biggest, widest grin I ever saw. He spread his arms as wide as he possibly could and shouted, “One week, Miss Ada, then it’s out to dinner!” I just stood there. * * * I lived off my land, by my own wits, from what I made by myself. And when I bought clothes, I bought thrifty. There was a thrift shop in town and Maebelle was the lady who ran it. She’d known me all of my life. “I need a dress.” I said it softly. There was no one else in the store, but I wanted her to keep it secret. Her face got concerned, “Who died?” I shook my head, but it was worse than death was really. “A date.” I whispered. She lifted her eyebrows to the top of her head, “A date,” she smiled. “A very special date?” Well, I didn’t know then how special it might be, but it was a first date.” A first date, at thirty five, with a whole man, out to dinner. Maebelle looked me over closely. “You might live through it.” I wasn’t sure. I searched the racks, the bins, the piles she’d set by the window. I wanted more than a dress. I wanted a new skin, a magic cloak that I could slip inside of. So I could emerge from the door of my cabin as a butterfly emerged its cocoon. I would see him flabbergasted, in awe. Speechless. Senseless. Dazzled. 7 That’s what I wanted. I wandered, hunted, drifted back into her storeroom. In the very far corner, up against the wall sat an old wooden trunk. I pulled the junk off, the hinges whined as I lifted the lid. Did you ever want something, need something, wish for something so hard? And there it was! Soft faded cotton, blue and white flowers, lace at the neck and on the sleeves. I held it up to my face and breathed it in. It was musty, yes, and old. But deeper down there was this essence, this fragrance. This quiet sense of female . . . power. * * * On Saturday night I was ready. I was scrubbed, combed, lipsticked and perfumed, and something more. I’m not beautiful really, but, I am. He rounded the rock ten minutes early. I saw him through the window. He was not winded and I suspected he’d collected himself on the other side before he proceeded. He advanced slowly up the pathway in a nice pair of pants and a sports shirt. His shoes were clean on the top, but covered with mud on the bottom. I took a breath in. He stepped on the porch and I heard the boards creak. It’s alright, it’s alright. It’s alright now. My door was open, just the screen. “Knock, knock.” he said it softly, quiet. Still the maleness of his voice was like a rattling. I stepped inside the open doorway and stood there. His eyes, his guard, the utter loss of his jauntiness against me. For one split second I saw him clearly, and yes indeed, it was enough. But then, he righted himself. He inhaled slowly, “You sure look pretty.” “Thank you.” I answered. * * * I didn’t know what a man thought of when he stepped on a woman’s porch to take her out to dinner. What entered his brain? There was the eating part, and hoping for laughter, hoping for talking. Hoping for more. 8 I did know as a woman, I hoped that there would be no awkward places, or long silent pauses, or sitting and staring, wanting the evening to end and it just be over. I hoped for a good time. A really good time. But I was totally unprepared for the energy and the power of the current beneath us. And he was also. I saw his face over and over. On many occasions, I saw it engulf him, just as it did me, this incredible, swiftest, headiest river. I was not the ideal woman he had dreamed of. I think he was often stunned to find that I was her. Just as I was. And he was incredibly hungry. You wouldn’t think a man named Linwood Jenkins had too much animal in him, but he did. But what surprised me most was my own most overpowering hunger, my complete wholeness against him. I was a spider spinning him in layers and layers of webbing. All summer long, he lived inside my cabin. We collected rocks together for my chimneys and twigs for my little beds. We lay warm and naked beneath my covers and watched the birds feed their babies in my tree. The breeze blew in the curtains gently. The creek gurgled and played. In deepest night, we lay together and the branches of my tree moved softly in the moonlight, sighing and singing, rocking us like a cradle. * * * “Let’s get married,” he said one morning. It was late in August, we lay side by side in my bed together and the sheets were warm around us. The house was quiet and held those gentle secret shadows. “Yes.” I answered. “When school’s in session we’ll live on the hard road and when it’s summer, we’ll live up here.” I shifted myself to where I could see him. His hair was out to the side of his head. He had that sleepy half grin that made me feel gentle towards him. But now I began to feel a fear I had no name for, “I just can’t do that.” “Sure you can.” he jostled against me. He rubbed his eyes with his hand. “Why can’t you do that?” I didn’t know. I never had, I never could. 9 “You could, too, do that.” He said it softly, he said it coaxing. So, I turned on him with a blasting, with a white hot anger and shouted, “I will never, ever, leave my house, or my land, or my tree, or my anything.” And then there was this long, awkward silence between us. There was this total, total stopping. We were two naked people lying together and we knew it. “I’m so sorry,” was what he answered. * * * Fall came. Every single day came Pappy, to sit on my porch and criticize my coffee. “Ada,” he’d start and I’d throw my hands up. “This tree is dead, child.” “It’s got branches, it’s got leaves.” I pointed to my beautiful branches. “It’s just wounded, but it’s healing.” He shook his head and gave me his truly disgusted sneer, “It’s saps used up now. When it falls, it’ll fall on your house.” I wouldn’t hear or believe it, and said what I knew in my heart, “It will never, ever hurt me.” “Cut it down,” he told me. “See what it’s like.” “What what’s like?” “What wood is like from a tree that’s been struck by lightning.” * * * I lived all my life in the same way and I could see no other, but loneliness was a constant companion. Loneliness sat at my table. Loneliness slept in my bed. Even now, all these years later, I know it was loneliness that made me go in my yard and gather all the pieces of my tree that were still there. I picked up every bit that exploded out when the tree was struck, went to my fireplace and lit it. It caught slowly. Sometimes it hissed, sometimes it popped. Sometimes great embers shot out and burned themselves in my carpet. Other times, there was the faintest flicker, so I got on my knees and blew and blew, not to let it go out. After awhile, it crackled softly. In the dimming 10 light, it sent out a warm, close haven that I watched intently. Of course, I didn’t believe in magic, but I wanted to. I very much wanted to. I drew up my chair, propped my feet on the hearth and the dry sticks snapped and caught and were consumed to the brightest embers. The embers glowed red hot. But did they burn more brightly than any other fire? Did the flames waver more intensely blue? More brilliant gold? I couldn’t tell, only that the room was quiet, as it had been many years. It was a nestling fire and a peaceful fire. I settled in my chair and felt the warm heat on my face. I breathed in the gentle smokiness, heard the wood as it sizzled and cooked. And after awhile, my eyes closed. My mind began to go down a lazy pathway. A path that was both sides overgrown with daisies, sweet blue chicory, and Queen Anne’s Lace. As I went down this path, it was a summer’s day. The sun was shining and the wind was soft. The shadows of the trees were all around me. The woods got darker and darker. The branches of the trees were so thick and close together, I had to pull them apart with my fingers. And there in this sunlit clearing, I saw him – Linwood Jenkins sitting on a blanket, playing with a baby. He looked up when he saw me, grinned and waved. It was the most natural feeling. But then I stopped it. I sat bolt upright, took my poker and stirred my fire til it all came apart. There was no secret something. No unusual brightness. No magical power. * * * Did you know hurricanes come to the mountains? They sweep inland and rain and flood, they’re extremely destructive. And that’s what happened. On the night of the storm, I put my hand on the heart of my tree and told it, “It’s alright, it’s alright now.” I held my hand there, steady for a long time and heard it sway above me. I fed it all my energy, all my love, and it loved me back. When the wind came, the blow was fierce and horrific. All around on the mountain the trees whined and sawed, snapped and broke like twigs. For awhile my old tree held, it really tried to. But there was a sudden rushing sound, an incredible roaring, then the great wrenching, splitting, thrashing, the gigantic heaving. I ran underneath the biggest beam by the chimney and pulled the table above me. I crouched low and cradled my head in my arms. 11 At first, the branches flailed at the windows. Then there was this hideous shudder, then cracking. The glass in the windows shattered inward and there was this agonizing, whine from my tree as it hit full force on the roof. The roof exploded. All around there was this huge tremendous crashing. I held my head and waited for death. But death, itself, did not come. Pain came. Confusion came. Fear came and then anger, terrible, terrible anger. And then down the mountain, he came. It was with the most profound, spitting anger of my life that I looked up to see Pappy climbing in through the branches. He peered at me through the complete rubble that was left of my house. “I told you, Ada.” * * * I was bruised, cut, scratched, swollen and broken. Both hands were wrapped like I’d been in a prize fight. But on my very first day in the hospital, a balding, sandy headed man came in to see me. His name was Linwood Jenkins. He had a great big bunch of flowers. Very gently he sat at the foot of my bed. He leaned toward me and whispered, “In the winter we’ll live on the hard road. ” He smiled, he grinned, he winked. For a long while I said nothing. I couldn’t talk or even think, except to know I had no home to go to, so I nodded. He continued on in his happy manner, “In the summer, we’ll work and work and build your house back.” And because I didn’t want to be cold, or lonely, or homeless, I nodded again. And since then, the cabins I built from my tree took on the most amazing power, as though they were real. The fires I burned from my tree, burned somehow brighter, charged with a more lasting comfort. Storms have raged and blown, but this warmth has remained inside me. A quiet promise that I will never be cold.
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