Literary Orphans

The Beech Tree
by Emily Eckart

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Until I stood before her casket, Grandma was the only person I could not imagine dead. She’d looked as aged as ever when I saw her days before, a husk of raisin wrinkles, already so wizened it seemed time could do nothing else.  I thought she could live for centuries.  But now she lay still in her woolen dress; her lucent eyes were closed.  Her hands were leathered and grey, like the bark of an ancient beech.

The room was dim, the air thick with the scent of white chrysanthemums.  Mark stood behind me.  He was always watching for signs of slippage.  I leaned back against him, his body warm with concern.  I could feel right through him, through membrane and muscle, to dry, stiff bones beneath.  His skin felt like an apple peel: too soft to stop the flesh from bruising and falling away.

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Later, I peeled a pear in grandma’s kitchen—Mark liked to eat them that way.  It had fallen to us to sort her things.  The chrysanthemums stood in a vase on the table.  Their scent was like the beech flowers, blooming yellow in June, when on weekends at Grandma’s I’d lean against the trunk, and look up at the green dome of its branches.  Back then the bark was smooth, grey and finely textured, like the back of my own hand.

The beech tree stood behind Grandma’s house.  Mark had never seen it.

The peeler slipped and sliced a sliver off the joint of my thumb.  I gasped.

“Geez, Kacey,” Mark said, rushing over to inspect.  “You okay?”

“It was an accident,” I said.

He frowned.  He did not believe in accidents.  A drop of blood sat glistening on the pear’s pale snowy flesh.

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I was ten when I started spending summers at my Grandma’s house.  She and my mother did not talk.  It had to do with my grandfather, who had died young, long before I was born.  He survived World War II only to meet a mundane death at home: an icy curve, a slip of the wheel, an oak where his car left the road.  My mother was nine years old at the time.

But no matter if Grandma had continued cooking Grandpa’s favorite meals long after he was dead; no matter if she bought men’s shirts and hung them in her closet with the tags still on, or brought home books he would have liked—Trees of the World, The European Forest.  Need trumped uncomfortable memories.  My mother had to work.  She couldn’t afford daycare when I was out of school in the summer.  My father’s sister, who used to watch me, had moved away.  Starting at the end of fifth grade, my mother drove me the two hours to Grandma’s and left me there for the summer.  The first time, she had driven me as soon as school let out, that very same afternoon.

I stood on the stoop of the brick house, listening to the raspy cries of cicadas.  The door cracked open; cool air spilled from the darkness at its edge. Mom waved and drove away.  I was swept inside with my suitcase, and the door swung shut behind me.

Grandma wore a brown long-sleeved dress; her hair was held back by silver bobby pins.  She smiled, but did not come forward to hug me.

“You look just like your mother,” she said.  “A lot like your grandfather, too.”  She nodded, as if that had decided it.  “Come in.  Dinner’s ready.”

I followed her down the narrow hallway.  The dining room had a bay window and dark hardwood paneling.  There was a glass-doored hutch, mostly empty, and a dining table covered with a white lace cloth.  In the center was a plate with a chunk of roast beef, surrounded by dishes of green beans, mashed potatoes, and corn.  Three places were set at the table.  The third plate was covered by a thin sheet of dust.

“Sit down,” she said, pulling out a chair.  I left my suitcase next to the hutch.  She carved the roast with a massive fork and knife.  Her hands shook; the knife gleamed in the dim light.  It had a beautiful serrated edge.

“This was one of your father’s favorite dishes,” she said.

“You mean my grandfather?” I asked.  She paused and looked at me.

“Oh,” she said.  “Oh yes.”  She sounded dubious.  She put a thick slice of meat on my plate, much more than I could eat.  She accompanied it with a generous scoop each of beans, potatoes, and corn.  She served herself, but put nothing on the third plate.

“How old are you?” she asked.

“Ten.” I said.

She sat down and smiled.  “Ten,” she said it as though the word were a poem in itself.  “When I was that age, I loved to go exploring.  The yard extends quite a ways.  There used to be an arboretum in the back.”

“A what?”

“A place where they grow all different trees.  Like a tree museum, with trees from all over the world.  Researchers went there to study them.  That’s how I met your father, when I was just a few years older than you.”

“You mean my grandfather?”

“I saw him one day, out by the back stone fence.  He wanted to come see the beech tree.  There was an old one in our yard, probably hundreds of years old.  I invited him over.  He said specimens like that are hard to find.”

She had barely touched her food, while I had eaten as much as I could.  The beef was tender, seeping with juice.  The vegetables were sautéed with butter, salt, and pepper.  It was entirely different from my mother’s bland cooking.  I felt happily full.

“I think I’m done.  Where should I put my suitcase?”

“You have a suitcase?”  She seemed confused, but stood up.  “In your room, I suppose.” I followed her down the hallway.  There were two doors across from each other, and a door at the end.  She opened one of the side doors.  “This is your room.  Don’t you remember?”

Strangely enough, I felt as though I did.  The bed had purple sheets with printed white flowers.  There was a desk and a shaded lamp in the corner.  The room had an old, familiar smell, like clothes that had been left in a drawer for a long time.

“You seem tired, Patty,” she said.  “You should rest.  I’ll take care of cleaning up.”  Her voice was gentle and patient, as my mother’s never was.  There were kind wrinkles at the corners of her eyes.  Her appearance, which had before seemed plain, suddenly seemed elegant and beautiful.  I admired her simple dress, her white hair held back by silver bobby pins.  Despite her confusion, I decided that I liked her.

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Over the summers, I grew accustomed to her forgetfulness and her calling me by my mother’s name.  She drove to the grocery store each day, buying fresh ingredients for her elaborate meals.  She would leave in the morning, get into her ancient Toyota, and back down the long gravel driveway, going about five miles an hour.  I would stand by the front screen door and listen to the the sound of her car fade, gradually overcome by songbirds and the stirring of the wind.

While she was gone, I had lots to explore.  Besides her room and mine, there was a third room at the end of the hallway.  I imagined that a cool air seeped from under its door, as though it led to stone steps that would spiral into underground darkness.  The first time, I tried the knob tentatively, and jumped back when the door swung open.

The shades were closed.  My eyes adjusted slowly to the dim, grey light.  There was a desk, a bookshelf, and a bureau, all piled with papers and books.  There was another door in the corner.  I stepped carefully across the room and opened it.  Inside were men’s shirts and shoes.  In the front hung shirts that smelled new, many with the tags still on.  In the back, the shirts were soft; they smelled like dust and cedar.  This room must have been my grandfather’s.

When I could no longer breathe the stale air of my grandfather’s study, I went to explore outside.  Grandma’s house was at the edge of a quiet town, with the nearest neighbors miles away.  The lawn was more like a meadow.  I waded through tall grass, daisies, and Queen Anne’s lace to the backyard.  There was a stand of pine trees about a quarter of a mile off.  I went toward them, pausing occasionally to stare at spots where animals rustled in the undergrowth, catching sight of rabbits and chipmunks.

Behind the pines, there was a clearing bordered by a stout stone fence.   In front of the fence stood an enormous tree.  There was no visible trunk.  It looked like an exuberant garden shrub, grown to full capacity without humans snipping at its branches.

I pushed my way through the foliage.  Inside was a dim space, enclosed by branches sloping to the ground.  The trunk presented a wide, almost flat surface, reminding me of a canvas.  I rested my hand against the grey bark.  It was finely textured, smooth like my own skin.

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Grandma would return around noon with bags and bags of groceries.  I tried to help her put things away, but her cabinets had no discernible order.  Flour fraternized with stewed tomatoes and olives; sugar sat in wanton repose with canned pineapple and bouillon cubes.  The pattern always shifted, random new items replacing ones that had been used.  The only constant was the bottom shelf of one cupboard, which held a cardboard box filled with shards of dishes.  Grandma said they were from her wedding set, and that she would have them fixed one day.

She made lamb with rosemary and garlic, duck with orange sauce, stewed beef.  Each had been a favorite of my grandfather’s.  She said he had blond hair like mine and thick fingers, strong like the roots of the trees.  He had loved the beech tree out back. It was because of that tree that they had met.  The story varied.  Sometimes he invited her to come look at it; sometimes she invited him.  Either way, the tree was constant.  After the beginning of their relationship, it became their meeting place.  After they were married, she would wait there for him to come home.  They would sit together on one of the low branches.

“Have you been out there?” I asked.  “Recently?”

“No, not for many years.”

“Why not?”

“I’m afraid it might have changed,” she said.  “Since I saw it last.”

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I found her romantic, almost mythological.  I couldn’t imagine her existing in any other way.  At home and at school, I thought of cursive script on envelopes, of book spines in dim light; I thought of grey bark, as smooth and vulnerable as skin.  I missed their special scents, their dim and quiet solitude.

When I arrived each summer, the guest bedroom was set up for me, with the purple flowered sheets she always used, as soft and old-smelling as my grandfather’s shirts.  I came to know the way the door creaked when I first started to open it.  I knew the height of the bookshelf and the surface of the desk.  In the desk, I discovered a stack of blank, yellowed notecards.  These, too, became mine.

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As a teenager, I became afflicted with a strange new sadness, one that enveloped my body like a film of gelid air.  When I looked at other people, I saw the skeletons beneath their skins: pale calcium scaffolds, the only thing that would outlast rotted brain and perished muscle.  Inside each person was a smooth, white pile of bones.  The image came to me at odd moments: in the gym locker room, when everyone was lounging in sports bras; in the school bathroom, when girls puckered into mirrors to put on lip gloss.  All of us would be consumed.  I felt dizzy on the school’s wide lawn, where soon we might be buried.

I became fascinated with my grandfather.  At Grandma’s that summer, when she was away, I spent hours in his study.  I sat down on the office chair, and a cloud of dust rose up around me.  I read his research paper drafts and perused his books, as ancient as the redwood forests they described.  I found a note to call the arboretum written in his hand. I opened a drawer and found an envelope addressed to my grandmother in cursive.  It was empty.  Then I saw the jewelry box.  I started to lift the lid, which was covered with dull brown fabric.  It jumped open suddenly, and a lock of hair fell out.  The hair was soft, its blonde unfaded.  A cool thrill raced through me: I had just touched part of a dead person.

The hallway floor creaked.  I rushed out of the study, scrambling for an excuse.  But Grandma still was not home.

I went out back to climb the beech tree.  I sat on one of the thick branches with my back to the trunk.  Wind blew through the leaves.  I looked up at them shifting and caught the scent of autumn.  Though the air was warm, and the leaves still green, I knew what would happen to them soon.  They would turn brown and desiccated; they would tremble and fall away.  Thinking of this, I felt sorry for them.  They would be ground into dust while the tree kept on living; no one would remember them when it grew a new batch in the spring.  I saw myself, too, rotting, festering flesh falling in slick chunks off the bone.  The blue sky seemed so cruel.  It would continue to exist after I was subsumed in earth—shining, unaltered, without me.

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Back inside, I went into my room and opened my suitcase.  I dug to the bottom and pulled out a pair of rolled-up sweat pants.  I shook them out and picked up the X-acto knife.  I liked how precise the tip was.  It made me think of a fine calligraphy pen, with a nib perfect for writing.

I took off my shorts and sat with my legs spread apart.  I held the blade lightly against the upper part of my thigh.  I took a breath and exhaled as I gently parted the skin.  The first one was always hardest.  The white skin split; my mind rushed to the small line of pain.  I sighed and did it again. Two small cuts, in parallel, a red drop welling from each.

I had cotton balls and disinfectant in my suitcase—hydrogen peroxide, which I loved for its exquisite sting.  I dabbed some on the cuts and shut my eyes against the reassuring pain.  The nerves were wired and working, the flesh undoubtedly alive.  I spread some antibiotic cream on a Band-aid and smoothed it over the wound.  The cool analgesic soothed me.  Soon, like it had in other places, my cut-up skin would heal.

Later, Grandma returned with her groceries.  I watched her mix a marinade, pour it over chunks of lamb, dice the eggplant and chop the rosemary.  While the lamb was stewing, she made a blueberry pie, layering the sweet mix with strips of pie crust she had rolled that morning.  After dinner, we sat eating warm slices while listening to a record of stately, minor-key music—Handel, she said, my grandfather’s favorite.

“Grandma?” I asked.  “Do you ever feel like things are decaying?  Right in front of you?”

She did not answer at first.

“That’s what memory is for,” she said.  “So you can keep things as you like them.”

If the years fell like leaves, she was the tree: solid, despite everything, and lasting.

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It was because of a boy that I did it.  I was twenty-one.  I had not visited Grandma for two years.  There were internships to apply for, research papers to complete.  I had started dating that boy when I was a sophomore.  Because it lasted for a year, I thought it would last forever.

Perhaps he was just as desperate for friendship as I was.  That would explain why he waited twelve full months for me to take my shorts off, a mistake that proved my downfall.

He was kissing me up my leg when he saw the scars on my upper thighs.  I had completely forgotten about them; they were as familiar to me as my eyebrows and fingernails.  The oldest were faint and mostly healed.  But the new ones were brown with tiny scabbed ridges, like freshly piled dirt marking a grave.

He started back with a look of concern.  In that brief instant, I imagined he would ask what had happened.  I would consider lying, but would choose trust, and would tell him everything.  He would wonder why I did it.  I would explain how I felt bad, really bad sometimes, and it was strange, but the cutting helped.

But that was not what happened.  He didn’t say anything.  He resumed with some distracted kisses, and then remembered he had a paper to write.  He withdrew quietly from my life, becoming more and more absent.  When I finally asked him if he wanted to end it, he shrugged.

That summer, I did no internships.  I went to Grandma’s, just as I had used to.  When I arrived, her hair seemed thinner than before.  But the kind crinkles around her eyes were there, and the dazed warmth in her voice.  It was as though no time had passed.  I was Patty, and Grandma’s was still alive, about to come home any minute.

I came forward to hug her.  Her arms trembled as I held her.  I wondered what she would think of my silly life, of the box cutter I carried in my purse.  I drew away sooner than I should have, ashamed.

She went to bed at eight o’ clock.  It was a warm June evening, still light at that hour, so I went to see the tree.  I knew it was waiting loyally, as people never did.  I waded through the grass in the back.  I pushed through the branches, through its green leaves that still looked new.  I remembered each root, each knot, each branch.  I sat on a low limb, loneliness tightening my throat.  I had the box cutter in my pocket.  Earlier, I had planned to cut myself there.  Maybe the tree would appreciate my blood.  It would absorb it and use it like water, for growth.

But my hand brushed against the bark, and it was so smooth, like paper to be written on.  I took out the knife and slid open the blade, making just a small cut at first: a little line in gray, a mark to prove I had been here.  I widened the gash, little bits of bark peeling away like apple skin.  Before I knew it, the lines had become letters.

K, A, C.

I stabbed and slashed, tearing out hunks of bark, letters proliferating before my eyes.  I am here, I thought with each letter.  I am here; I exist, however briefly.

KACEY.  KACEY.  KACEY.

Sap glistened boldly where I had sliced the skin.  There, I thought.  It will be there forever.  My etched name, eternal, unlike me.

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It was easy to avoid her.  I invented friends, brutal classes, crucial interviews.  I graduated and started working without ever seeing her.  It wasn’t until I got engaged to Mark, two years out of school, that I went to Grandma’s again.  He wanted to meet her, this woman I spoke of so much.  I hadn’t realized that I talked so much about her.  There was no reason I could tell him for delaying a visit, and so we got in my car, and drove up to her place for a weekend.

We arrived on a September evening, when the sun was just going down.  The house was exactly as always.  The front door was unlocked.  There were asters in the vase on the counter.  There was the same glass-doored hutch, the same white lace table cloth.  I expected to see Grandma in her favorite brown wool dress.  But she was nowhere to be found.

Mark brought our suitcases in while I went out back.  I called for her.

“Grandma?”  We had seen her car in the driveway, so where could she have gone?  She was eighty-five and fragile.  I wondered if she was becoming one of those elders who wandered, if we’d find her by the side of a highway ten miles from here.

“Grandma?”  For some reason, I walked toward the beech tree.  I fought through the grass, nearly tripping on sticks and roots in the fading light.  When I got to the tree, I slipped through the draping branches and saw a hunched silhouette.

Her skin had become more wrinkled; there were new spots on her face.  Her hair was thin and limp.  Her bones, I knew, were frail.

“I saw the picture you mailed,” she said.  “He looks just like your father.”

I didn’t want her to say that.  It seemed like an omen that Mark would be taken from me—that I would be made alone, like her.

“He proposed here, under this tree.”

“You shouldn’t have come back here,” I said.  “You could have fallen.”  My voice was loud and defensive.  “It’s completely different now.”

“I knew it might have changed,” she sighed.  “But I couldn’t bear not to see it, just once more before I die.”

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The trunk looked like the wall of an urban underpass, covered with graffiti.  The carvings were dark brown against the grey bark, as clear as if they’d been cut yesterday.  KACEY JENKINS, sprawled in letters five inches high.  KACEY, KACEY, KACEY, KACEY.  I remembered exactly what I had been thinking.  That someone—not my grandmother—would come upon this tree, would see my name, would wonder who I was.  It was the only way I could think of that I might be remembered.

Grandma looked small, like she had shrunk inside her skin.

“I’m tired,” she said.  “Let’s go inside.”

Turning away, I walked her back to the house.

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Emily Eckart graduated from Harvard University in 2012.  Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Potomac Review, The Summerset Review, and The Bacon Review.

Emily Eckart photo

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–Foreground Art by Simona Capriana

–Background Art by Marina Ćorić