This piece was written April 22, 2007 to a prompt at a weekend retreat: Write about a place that no longer is.
The oak trees in my grandmother’s yard had colors for names. Black oak, white oak, red oak. But as far as I could see as a six-year-old, they all had green leaves in the spring and summer and brown leaves in the fall and winter, and I thought they might have been rightly called green or brown oaks by someone of little imagination.
The red oak was massive and it stood a little to the back of the house and to the side, and its sprawling roots that protruded above the ground were splayed out like spider legs all around it. Between those visible roots, I planned my home. The living room was between the two roots that were tallest, the dining room was between the next root and one of the living room roots, and the bedroom followed, then the kitchen. I don’t know why I didn’t think to have a bathroom. Perhaps, in retrospect, it was because my grandmother’s house did not yet have an indoor bathroom. Beneath that tree, no grass grew, just reddish brown dust. It wasn’t quite the red clay of other parts of the yard nor the rich brown loam of the garden.
When summer brought dry wind and no rain for a time, I pried pancakes from the earth. I could put a thin stick just under the thick piece of dried mud and pry up a piece of cracked earth intact, placing it on a large leaf plate, and underneath the pancake I could leave my fingerprints in the moist earth that gave the faint smell of spring rains past.
Under that red oak, I played house. I swept clear the acorn caps and oak tags and leaves with my small broom. I used bark and broken dishes and a dented red and white enamel pot as the cooking implements. I allowed visitors in but only if they wiped their feet, brushing off the dust before entering. I held school in the living room most days, making my brother and younger cousins sit quietly to read or spell or write or count. How many sticks am I holding? If I take away two of them, how many do I have now? I know I still have five, but how many do I have in this hand?
I looked for fairies under that tree nearly every morning when my parents dropped me off as they drove to work with other uncles and aunts who lived nearby. In the cool of one summer morning, I sat under the red oak in the living room checking to see if the bluets I had smushed into the acorn cups had indeed been supper for the fairies and planning my housekeeping tasks for the morning when I felt something hit my head, a light plop. I brushed it aside. Another plop, light as a pod of peas my grandmother gave me to shell but of a more giving shape. Then many plops and one large swoosh and I was covered with yellow and black caterpillars crawling, falling and trying to hold to some part of me where they had landed.
My grandmother who could not walk well and who rarely ventured outdoors had told my cousins and me not to pick up any worm or snake. Not trusting us to tell the difference between a copperhead and a tent caterpillar, she told us all of them would bite us and kill us. “Just like that. You’re dead,” she told us.
I looked at the caterpillars crawling on my legs and belly and elbow, and I knew I was going to die.
I ran across the yard, shearing some of the creatures off as I brushed under branches of a Rose of Sharon bush. I ran erratically, trying to fling them off by the sheer power of my legs pumping and pushing as I drew in sharp breaths.
When an older cousin caught me under Uncle Boyd’s apple trees, I had stumbled and fallen, but I had managed to shake off most of the caterpillars. Only a few remained, inching their way through the curls in my hair. I must have looked like a miniature Medusa, and I felt as if I had outrun death.
More than forty years after this, I thought of this awful surprise and the wish that I could outrun death when a young sheriff’s deputy brought the news that my daughter was dead: killed instantly in a car crash less than half a mile from home.
The red oak tree never had quite the same comfort and security for me after the caterpillars fell from its branches. I didn’t sweep so proudly each morning, and I started holding court at my school on the screened in side porch where the old church bench nudged the wall instead of between the roots of the red oak. But I still looked to see if the fairies had enjoyed their bluet pudding or Rose of Sharon blossom stew in the cool of a summer morning. I needed to know the fairies might still come. I needed to know the thin veil that separates night from day, spring from summer, time from forever is still there.