The Tree That Girdles Itself

by Donna D. Vitucci

She had me mostly confined in the house. They've coined a clinical word for her fear, now I know, but then I was told Mama's cautious or Mama's blue or Mama loves you so very much, Kayla, so she aims to keep you close. She insisted she was "delicate." Daddy called her "a pain in the ass."

My early years, I wasn't looking for explanations. For so long, this satisfied me: the yard contained by a cockeyed fence; the basement dripping its cobwebbed glory; even my coffin-like under-bed where I lay, arms pinned along my sides, my slow breath bringing the torn batting from the bottom of the box spring to and from my face. I mean to say, these were places that made me feel safe.

But safety will satisfy only until it suffocates. Until you can walk down the street to the corner store alone and they forbid your skipping there, you hardly question what they claim, what they insist, what they ask you not to do. I had limits because Mama had limits, had few friends because she had no callers. What to do with a woman who inspires loneliness, who insists on it? Give her what she asks for?

He left her alone a lot, my daddy, because that's what men did. Men worked, and their jobs tethered them to the world—sales junkets, golf games, bowling teams, fishing trips. No wives horned in; no one thought of bringing wives into it. Hell, wives were to get away from. I imagined him and his sales buddies, or the customers he was paid to woo, their ties loosened, shirts damp at the open necks, hoisting beers at a smoky bar, and boasting about shedding their wives, while Mama balanced her rings in the soap dish lifted to the window sill so as not to spill them down the drain.

With a cheap, abrasive cleanser she scrubbed. "Some stains aren't meant to be removed," she said, but she went at the sink incessantly.

Once a child's eyes are opened to adult weakness, and when she sees her mother's oddity can leak to her, how it must look to outsiders as heritage, then all the milk sours, there's not another tranquil afternoon. Every game of bondage looms more real, every rope burns the wrist hotter, every pointed stick in the side is a lance. Everything has a meatier purpose.

The mound of sticky burrs and pine cones Lanny Piston made me walk through barefoot hobbled me, but I looked out for him, eagerly, after that particular torture because my days needed his high fuel injection. My summer had been static, predictable, a world of endless torpor. Lanny slipped in through the beat down wire fence. We kidded that my yard was Alcatraz. I called him Steve McQueen. He said he was headed the wrong way, should have been trying to get out instead of in. I pinned back the poison ivy with a hoe so he could make it through. The shed hid us from any house-bound peepers.

We played victim and violator, were thrilled to repeat the plot. There's the dream of a white knight who'll rescue, but just as often his horse draws up lame, he's delayed by dragons, he never arrives. One time, I sat bent in a lawn chair behind the shed, my arms and legs striped with rope, my skin marked by frayed, scratchy mesh. The sun stamped my eyelids and whirled like the devil when I looked at it. It ticked across the bleached afternoon. The smell of disinfectant drew the word "lye" out of me, the simple soap of pioneers. I wondered when Lanny had disappeared, and even more, where.

Mama rushed the shed, peeling the skin from her arms. No, those were her scrub gloves she cast yellow in the blue-grey where the shed shadowed so only wild violets grew. Yards away, in the blasted sun, several deep holes, sink holes Daddy called them, had widened in the drought. He planned on setting trees in those puckery old mouths, if he ever got a minute.

She'd forbid me from playing back there: "You'll break an ankle, or worse." Across from the sink holes, I sat lashed to an old chair, proof playing was serious work, bloody business, as grim as the slip-away sale or lost promotion Daddy claimed while chewing Mama's oven-tough dinner.

Honeysuckle rivered over the tilting shed structure and bees droned in its thousand blossoms. She shrieked "you'll get stung!"

"I'd run if I could." I was badly allergic; I hoped she'd see how impossible running was. We had a drawer full of EpiPens in the house. I expected she'd stick me with one whether I needed it or not.

She bypassed the tools and machines and honed in on me. She knelt at my feet, rubbed my knees and my shins and that felt good because they'd been itchy, had grown stale behind the rope. The sun behind her halo-ed her hair as she paid me homage. Me! I managed to think before I fainted: Now who gets the royal treatment?

The drapes at my bedroom window, like mosquito netting, went gauzy with wind. She never completely closed my door, and draft blew a story through.

"They're playing vicious."

"It's just games," Daddy said.

"Too real, you ask me."

"Can't stop kids from playing."

"I will if I have to."

Me and Daddy, one listening and the other ignoring, we had no cause to believe her.

How could she know the way the world bullied us? She, who kept a pantry stocked with more ammonia products and sponges than noodles or canned peaches or soda crackers, orders by telephone, delivered by a boy in a muffler-noisy Chevrolet.

In the kitchen, evaluating me, she said, "What about the marks on her neck?"

Daddy said, "You mean sunburn?"

I touched my throat. I wanted to get up from the bed and examine myself in the mirror, but my arms and legs were lead, they were lead and they were the manacles that held the lead in place, just in case lead wasn't heavy enough.

Daddy said, "If you start a tree in a burlap ball, the roots grow in that same form. Without cut roots, the planted tree in the ground, maturing, chokes itself." He might have been reading aloud a pamphlet.

Plates cracked before suds silenced them. She was turned toward the sink, her voice directed at the dish rag. "You're talking gardening, and I'm talking girl."

Daddy sounded caught-out. "I'm talking about Kayla."

"You're talking about trees."

"You want me to go look at her neck?"

In her complicated game, she'd won him over to her point of view and now she'd let up. He knew he wouldn't have to do a damned thing.

"In a minute," she said, "I'll bring her back some aloe." She was ever full of cures for somebody else.

With hands around my neck, I felt my pulse lift the one finger that held that tender place. If there were marks, they were from no choke-hold. Lanny and I knew when to switch from torture to other, equal terrors. His mouth had been working my throat. There and there and there, lacing up torn parts of me, making me a patchwork and float-y, loose pieces of fabrics sewn together and lifting in the scented, honeysuckle wind, above the sink holes and the ghost roots of what Daddy would never get around to planting.

Donna raises funds for nonprofit clients in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her stories have appeared in dozens of journals, including Natural Bridge, Hawaii Review, Meridian, Gargoyle, Broad River Review, Hurricane Review, Front Porch Journal, Beloit Fiction Journal, Storyglossia, Insolent Rudder, Turnrow, and Ginosko. She writes about the assumptions and unexpressed love that tangle families, lovers, and friends. A devotee of the long form, (4 novels patiently waiting to be discovered; even her short stories rarely come in under 15 pages), Donna has been trying her hand at flash fiction for about nine months, and she's rather liking the results.