Black Estrangement • Vol. XLV FictionSeptember 2, 2023 |

We Think of Our Mothers like Trees

MAN ASSAULTS TREE IN VICTORY PARK.” Toby reads the headline like he’s a news anchor. He rattles the paper at us, and I wonder for the second time tonight why he is in my house. Then, I feel Cane next to me. She lays her head on my shoulder. We been best friends since we were sprouts. I know her as well as I know my own skin. As for Toby, when we were in third grade, he spotted Cane from across the street. He walked up onto my porch, told her he was gonna be her boyfriend, and never really left.

Toby unfolds the bottom half of the newspaper. “It says the man is being charged with dendrophilia and disturbing the peace.”

“The trees in the park are kept trees, not our mommas,” I remind him. And I remind myself that it isn’t winter yet. I know this because the leaves are still falling, and Momma is still here. But I can feel it like a beast breathing on my neck.

In winter, our mothers leave us and walk into the woods. They trade their arms for branches and their feet for roots. They wander naked into the twilight, their bodies elongating and hardening, their bones splintering and groaning as they reshape themselves. Their naked skins meld into the darkness, and then they are gone. Our winters can span from nine months to sometimes years. So there’s just no telling when the next time you’ll see your mother is.

In autumn, our mothers prepare for their departure. Packing away their dresses and storing everything in the cellars. Labeling boxes with strange little symbols on them that only other mothers can read. They hide away any artifact of themselves, probably because they hope we won’t miss them if we aren’t reminded of them.

In spring, when the things come up from the ground, a few mothers don’t return. Maybe when we were little their leaving scared us more than it does now, but most of us eventually learned not to get too attached. Our mothers, they do as they like. They are cunning and capricious, and the woods call to them, summoning, beckoning, seducing them with the Seed Song.

Winter makes us wilder. With no mothers to tell us what to do, we run amok. More girls get pregnant in wintertime than in any other season. Sometimes, when our mothers return, they are grandmothers, but without the bad backs. We stay out too late, kiss too many people, and try to bury our fears with the illusion of freedom.

Winter makes our fathers restless. They take good care of us for the first two weeks. Cook us dinner, make us do our chores. But by the end of the first month, they are staying long hours at work. Meeting their friends for drinks at the bar. Our fathers, they trust us too much. They trust us to take care of ourselves and to heat up the leftover pizza if we’re hungry instead of spooning chocolate frosting into our mouths.

Our fathers also find that they like each other more in wintertime. They stay over at each other’s houses, sometimes not coming home until early the next morning. There are movie nights in which our fathers do not invite us. It is common to find them strolling hand in hand down the main drag laughing, a joy they have only in wintertime.

When our mothers leave, it seems the world begins, but something else ends.

Toby passes me the newspaper with the guy’s mugshot blown up, taking up more space on the front page than it needs to. I imagine the guy lifting his shirt up and rubbing himself against Momma. Against her trunk. Against her guts. Against Toby’s momma. Or Cane’s. I do that thing I’m never supposed to do. I imagine her stuck in the Change, betwixt tree and human forms. Her top half has grown into a treetop, while her legs remain brown and soft like how they are now. I shiver and toss the newspaper on the table.

Dendrophilia,” Toby says as he tip-taps it into his phone. Me and Cane exchange looks as we wait for his next report. “It literally means love of trees.”

I switch out the word trees for mothers in my mind, and it makes me feel sick. I coil one of my dark curls around my finger. “So, tree hugging.”

“Tree loving,” he says. I don’t like how he says it.

“What if he hadn’t gone to Victory Park?” Cane asks. Her voice seems to come from some faraway place. She passes me a blunt. “He could have just wandered out into the woods and come across one of our mothers.”

Toby shakes his head, scrunches up his face. I can tell he’s imagining it.

“Maybe he thought he was being ‘subversive,’” I say. “Like if he was going to touch a tree, he wanted it to only be a tree.”

Cane looks at me and I can’t describe what she looks like, but I know she doesn’t want to talk about this anymore. That even being here or visiting Toby makes her uncomfortable, because he and I still have our mothers. Hers has been out in the Wilder three long years now, never having returned.

“It makes sense that the guy went to Victory Park,” Cane says after a while. “At least if it’s only a tree it can never leave you.”

I hear my mother. She’s busy in the kitchen making me and my sisters baskets. Baking us bread, making us candies, and writing us each a letter. She’s leaving us a list of things she wants done and, of course, a bit of money. In her letters, she’s probably telling us to buy ourselves pretty dresses and to kiss as many boys as we want. Telling us to stay out late and drink only when we are at home sitting around the table. And she’s deciding which secret she’ll leave us at the end of our letters, a secret that we aren’t allowed to tell anyone until winter ends.

Like my mind has sent off some kind of bellwether, Momma appears in the doorway. My eyes travel from her bare feet up her legs to her floral dress that skirts just above the knees. We have the same face, but she is darker than me. She has sharp features like an eagle or some other dignified bird. Plump lips the color of cherry oak. Curious, dark eyes that seem to peel the skin from anything they settle on.

“Dinner’s up,” she says. Her voice surprises me sometimes because when I look at her, I think of how it should be smoky and deep. But Momma’s voice carries lightly on the wind and caresses us all. A feather-soft timbre in which even consonants sound tender. We all nod. She’s done it again.

She’s spelled us.

……

One morning when we wake up, Momma is gone. Our baskets are perched politely on the dining room table in a triangle. She’s arranged candles into one of her strange symbols in the middle of the triangle. I look at my sisters as Daddy starts lighting the symbol with a long matchstick. He does it like it’s instinctual, like it’s a part of him, even though he knows it won’t start until he leaves the room. Till he leaves us with what she prepared for us.

We sit down and break Momma’s arrangement by scooting our baskets toward us. We don’t miss her, because we’ve taught ourselves not to. Daddy kisses us each on the top of our head and he leaves us to our secrets.

My older sister, Mar, opens hers first. That’s the tradition, I guess. Plus, Mar mysteriously turns from stoner to Stepford wife as soon as Momma’s gone. She starts doting on Daddy and cooking us breakfast every morning. We don’t complain until she starts telling us what to do.

Me and our little sister, Bea, watch as Mar lays the contents of her basket out on the table. Mar’s box has a smaller wooden box inside it. She runs her fingers over the circular symbol, then pops it open. Inside are Momma’s famous hand-dipped chocolates with powdered sugar sprinkled over them. There’s also some lengths of ribbon tucked in next to a new sewing kit, a bundle of silk scarves Momma made, a small envelope of money, and her letter. We ooohh and ahhhh at Mar’s basket. We ask her for some candy, but she wrinkles her nose and says, “Get your own.”

I’m next. I do the same as Mar. I lay my boxes out. I pull each thing out gently, as if they are fragile. There’s a handmade journal and quill set, a sleeve of chocolate truffles, a tiny Bible with my initials hand embroidered on it, money, and my letter. Bea gets new socks, two silver rings with obsidian stones in them, a new pair of jeans, money, and her letter. We all get homemade candles with instructions on which days to burn them for which saints, because Momma knows we’ll forget our feast days. We always forget our feast days.

We read our letters silently, except for the laughing. Momma’s funny that way. She always writes something that has us all cracking up, almost splitting our sides open. For our secrets, she usually tells us something about one another. Last year, she told me that Bea kept stealing my socks and not putting them back. The year before, she told me Mar wasn’t her favorite, because Bea was. The year before that, she told Bea I was her favorite. It took us a few winters before we realized we were all her favorite. Or none of us were.

This year she tells me about her time in the woods. How she fell in love with Cane’s mother, Cargne, and how when Cargne did not return in spring, her heart splintered open. She also told me that this winter she’d be sure to fall in love again with someone new. That she’d intertwine her roots with another lover.

“Momma, you sly devil,” Mar says, clutching her letter in her hands. “She gave me a juicy secret.”

I shake my head, and for once I have no desire to tell either of my sisters my secret. I feel kinda cheated. What do I care of trees loving other trees? It’s not criminal like the man in the newspaper and his dendrophilia, but it’s intimate and root-deep. Something I feel like I’m not supposed to hear, like the first time I heard Momma and Daddy having sex.

I fold my letter back up and lay it on top of my basket. Mar does the same, but Bea just holds hers in her hands. She doesn’t move. Her face is stiff, except for her eyebrows, which are drawn together. Without a word, she stands. She stuffs her letter in her back pocket.

“That bad, huh?” Mar says to Bea. “Fine. I admit it. I stole your jeans last year.”

Bea laughs in that nervous way she does. She’s probably afraid Momma told us something scandalous about her. Momma always told the juiciest secrets about Bea. Or maybe it just seemed juicer because she was younger and quieter than a dormouse. She had not yet had her first Creaking.

“I, uh, I’m going back to bed,” Bea says.

And she doesn’t even help us clear the table. She leaves me and Mar there packing our baskets and hers too. I hear the faint sound of her sniffling as she wanders up the stairs like she’s half drunk, even though she hasn’t had a drop of wine.

……

Cane comes over that evening looking rosy-cheeked and giddy. There’s something about winter that wakes her up. She once told me that she can only really be herself when she’s wearing a scarf. And when she’s with me, of course. We smoke a spliff on my bed with the window open, and I ask her if she misses her Momma.

“No,” she says, coughing out smoke. “I missed her last winter.”

I think about the secret Momma left me. I wonder if she’s with Cargne now, or if she’d found her new lover. I wonder if she is holding her lover through their roots like me and Cane hold each other sometimes. I once tried to kiss Cane, but she sorta turned her face away, and I ended up kissing her cheek.

“I like those kinds of kisses best,” she’d told me, but for a while after that I’d wondered if it was just me. Then she started dating Toby, and he always kissed her cheek. I believed her after that.

I suppose I never really understood my attraction to Cane. She’s beautiful, winsome even. But there’s a prickliness about her. She looks almost exactly like her mother. She’s got Cargne’s black hair and her thick eyebrows that make her look wilder than she is. And her lips are so red, even without lipstick. Like cherry juice. Our skins look so different next to each other, yet sometimes I can’t tell where hers begins and mine ends.

Cane likes to cuddle, so we do. She says it’s because she lacks her own real body heat. Momma told me that’s normal before the Change. That our bodies’ internal processes use all of our heat. Cane is the little spoon. I’m the big spoon. I try not to smell her hair or think about how her skin feels when she wraps her arms around me.

We pour more wine into our Solo cups, and our eyes catch on the Wilder outside my window. We climb into the window seat, passing a cup back and forth between us.

“You ever think about what it will be like?” I ask her.

She takes a long drink and says, “Never. I’m not going.”

“You’re still on that?”

She smiles. “I’m not going out there.”

“Yeah,” I say because I don’t know what else to say.

“I don’t ever want to see my mom again,” she says. “Not here and not out there either.”

I know she means it, too. Cane never really got along with her mother. Not like me and my sisters get along with Momma. Momma’s cool. She’s not like Cargne. She never made us think she’d come back. I don’t think Cane ever learned how to not love her mother too much.

We listen as the wind picks up, blowing through the woods. Pollen tickles my nose, making me sneeze into Cane’s sweater.

“Ew!” she says. And we laugh. We laugh so hard that Bea comes in to see if we’re alright. We pull her onto the window seat, where she sits in Cane’s lap. Jealousy spikes in my chest because Bea looks better in Cane’s arms than I do. We peer out the window wondering where in the thicket our mothers have grown.

When Cane reaches for the wine bottle, her arm creaks. I know the sound well. It’s unmistakable, like a branch being wrenched back. She jerks her arm away. I almost drop the wine. Bea slides off Cane’s lap onto the window seat. We watch Cane inspect herself. Then she holds her arm against her chest, closes her eyes, sighs.

You never knew when it would happen, the Creaking. That moment when the wood inside made itself known. It could be when you stretched in the morning after sleeping wrong or when you went to get something from up high. Whatever the circumstance, it always meant the same thing: the Change was imminent. Maybe it wouldn’t happen that day or that week or even that year, but it was on the horizon like a gathering storm.

Mine started a year ago. Cane’s six months ago. Mar’s a year before that. After came the knots and knurls. Once, I caught Mar picking a knurl off her neck. If it’d been on me, I might’ve mistook it for a pimple, but Mar was light-skinned. She pinched the woody growth with her tweezers, wincing as she plucked it off.

“I hate these things,” she’d said. “Third one this month.”

I’d stared at her from the bathroom doorway, fascinated, afraid. “Let me see.”

“Uhn-uh,” she’d said before dropping it in the toilet, flushing it into oblivion.

She’d acted disgusted, so I’d feigned disgust too, but I’d secretly hoped for my first one. Because it would bring me one step closer to being able to follow Momma into the Wilder.

“You OK?” I ask Cane.

She nods, reaches for the wine. “Not nearly drunk enough.”

Bea looks terrified. I pretend I don’t know why. Her Creaking hasn’t started yet. She hasn’t heard the groaning from beneath her skin or felt the roots start to wind themselves around her insides. She hasn’t yet felt her growing pains. I can tell from the wide-eyed look on Bea’s face as Cane settles back into the window seat that she isn’t ready to, either. That some aches are just too tender to touch.

……

Me and Mar take Bea to a movie to get her mind off things. Bea insists that at fifteen she doesn’t need an escort. We laugh at her, buy her favorite candy and a bucket of popcorn just for her. We share a large drink between us. Momma doesn’t like when we drink soda. We swear we can hear her voice telling us to stop drinking so much sugar, though we imagine her talking to us like the Ents from Lord of the Rings, and that makes us laugh.

Bea picks a horror movie. She covers her eyes the whole time. She jolts at the cheesy jump scares and screams when the horrific thing comes loping onto the screen. A group of boys sitting in front of us laugh at her, and we do too. They follow us out into the lobby walking too close. One of them around Bea’s age asks her if she was really scared. The boys are out tonight looking for girls because without our mothers around they don’t have to be as decent.

I meet this boy named Miles. He’s tan and has pretty eyes and a spray of freckles over one of his cheeks like little dots of ink. I decide he’s sexy after he starts talking. The boys ask us if we want to get food. Mar stands with her arms crossed. She says no, but me and Bea drown her out and pull her along with us.

Turns out these boys are sweet. They offer to buy our milkshakes. We protest. We tell them this is a matriarchy, and they laugh at us and say, “Who doesn’t like free shakes?” And we realize they’ve got a point. So we let them buy us shakes. Bea is already sitting on someone’s lap and me and Mar have to remember that we were both about her age when we first had sex and it feels weird and we don’t like the feeling, but we know there’s nothing we can do to stop her chemicals from reacting because our chemicals are reacting too.

We invite the boys back to our house. Daddy will be out late with our neighbor’s dad James. Every winter, Daddy and James become a thing. We don’t mind it because James cooks better than Daddy and he always packs us lunches.

When we get home, the lights are out in our house. Bea and her new boy run through the house flipping all the switches. There are more boys than we can pair up with, so we all sit in the living room passing a bottle of whiskey around while we watch another scary movie. Bea takes her boy up to her room.

Cane comes over with Toby and brings pizza. We tell her we already ate, but we eat again. I share a loveseat with Miles, and our knees touching feels more intimate than something like that usually does. I decide that I’m going to sleep with him, though I’m not sure when. I think he sees me decide this because he smiles and just sorta nods.

……

A week later, Bea starts having strange dreams. She dreams that her arms are tree branches and that her hair has turned to leaves. We remind her that she can’t even go into the woods yet. We tell her she’s got at least three years before she has to worry about it. Or until the Creaking begins.

I try not to think about how Mar might be going into the woods soon, about how I keep seeing knurls on her neck, too many for her to pick off now. I try not to think of how I might leave too or what Bea will do if me and Mar both go without her. I don’t know if Bea will survive a winter without us. I don’t know if I will survive a winter without us. Mar holds Bea in her arms and rocks her.

“I’m not a baby,” Bea says.

Mar squeezes her tight. “You’re never too old to be held by your sister.”

I lie on Bea’s legs. She plays with my hair. We fall asleep like that. Me and Mar have boys in our rooms, but we leave them to their own devices. Whether they leave or stay, we don’t care. What matters is us lying together under Bea’s blankets. This version of us preserved in the stone of our memories.

……

Miles rolls off of me, panting. We’ve started seeing each other almost every day. I think I’ll keep him past the winter. He’s goofy and he smells good even after he’s been sweating. He has this smile that lights up his whole face. He thinks I’m funny even though I’m not.

He pulls me into him and says, “How did we never meet before?”

I shrug, but my body is sore because we have sex a lot and he never seems to get tired of touching me. He’s so different from most high school guys who just want to lie on top of you. He likes to look at me during and after. He kisses me on the lips. He tastes good. Sweetness populates on his mouth the way pollen does on flowers.

For some reason, I think of Cane. And then about Cargne, and I wonder if something in my skin wanted to kiss Cane because our mothers already fell in love and the skin just knows things like that. Or maybe I wanted to kiss Cargne and Cane was a version of her. I wonder if my mother’s skin and my skin are the same thing.

“Let’s go steady,” Miles says. He laughs because I look at him in that way I do. The way that says, This isn’t the 1950s.

I wonder how it will be if our relationship survives high school. Will we get trapped in this town like our parents did? Will he take over his dad’s barbecue business? Will Momma finish teaching Mar how to sew dresses? Will I be able to leave him when the Change comes? Will he understand?

“OK,” I say. “We can go steady.”

He kisses me. I meld into his side. I like him. I really like him. I wonder if Momma ever felt this selfish.

He tells me a story about when his aunt did not return one winter. “She was my favorite aunt.”

“Why you talking about her in the past tense?”

He shrugs. “She feels like the past.”

He tells me he knows he shouldn’t, but he misses her more than he misses his mom. He tells me that his sister just had a baby, then moved away. He tells me about how all of the women are vanishing from his life. I don’t have the heart to tell him I’ll probably be another one.

A strangled cry erupts from somewhere in the house. Me and Miles bolt from the bed, half naked. I throw open my bedroom door. I see Mar’s head sticking out into the hall, Miles’s friend Jay shirtless and flushed behind her. Another scream echoes down the hall, and me and Mar charge toward Bea’s room, praying, ready to fight.

Bea’s boyfriend has his hands up as if we’re the cops and he’s at the scene of a crime. “I didn’t do anything! I swear we were just—”

Me and Mar shove him out of the way. Bea’s in the corner, topless, holding her wrist out in front of her. She’s rocking with her back to the wall, shaking her head, tears streaming down her face as a sapling branch grows out of the tip of her pointer finger. A leaf unfurls, and Bea closes her eyes, doing what Cane did that day in the window seat. Trying to will it away. I look at Mar. She looks at me. We both look at Bea. Her chest creaks loudly as she arches her back.

Me and Mar chase the boys out of the house, screaming like banshees. We corral them into the foyer, then push them out the door, tossing their shirts out behind them. When they are gone, we hold each other. We look at Bea’s hand as the sapling branch slips back into her skin.

“We were just messing around. I was too scared to go all the way,” Bea breathes out. I don’t know why she tells us. Like the sapling was some cruel consequence of her exploration. “I just didn’t want to have anyone else inside my body yet.”

I know there’s no way to prepare her for what’s coming. I don’t even know how to prepare myself. I can’t remember what it feels like for no one to have been inside me. I don’t remember what it was like before. Just who I was after. Still me, but with woodier bones. I don’t tell Bea that after she has sex for the first time, her mouth will taste like sweet sap for a week. Or how that kind of intimacy will bring both pain and pleasure.

I don’t say any of that. I just stroke her hair. “It’s OK, BumbleBea. Boys ain’t shit no way.”

“She’s not coming back this time,” Bea says finally. “That’s the secret Momma told me. She staying in the Wilder.”

Me and Mar look at her, our eyes wide. We say nothing. We hold each other tighter. Me and Mar promise Bea things we can’t ever really promise her. We say we’ll never leave her, but we are all our mother’s daughters.

……

I call Cane to tell her what happened. She comes over, looks in on Bea. Mar murmurs something to Cane I can’t hear, but it feels comforting. Like now that all of us are here everything will be alright.

In my room, Cane hooks up her phone to the speaker. “I made you a mix.”

We listen to Fleetwood croon Damn your love, damn your liiiiiiies, and I don’t tell her what Bea told us. I didn’t tell Daddy, but something told me he already knew.

“I’m going to break up with Miles,” I say.

“I’ll break up with Toby, too,” Cane says. “Let’s go on a double date and break up with them at the same time.”

Cane is cruel sometimes. I’m not, but now I’m thinking I should start practicing so I can get as good as Momma is at it.

I nod. “Deal.”

We get drunk, and then Cane pulls out a joint.

“Let’s have babies,” I tell Cane. Perhaps then there will always be someone to love me. Someone who will never leave me. “Big fat ones with angel faces.”

She laughs. She says, “We have to have boyfriends to have babies.”

We both laugh, then roll from our opposite sides of the bed toward each other. I catch myself almost crying in the middle of it. We lie with our backs pressed together. I can feel her heart beating through her shirt.

“She’s not coming back,” I say.

“Who?” she asks. She pretends not to know who I’m talking about because that’s what she’s supposed to do.

“Momma.”

“How do you know?”

I sniff into my sweater. There aren’t real tears, but there could be soon. “She told Bea.”

She doesn’t say anything because we been friends long enough to know that’s what I want her to do. She rolls over and hugs me. She brings my face close to hers, and I can tell what she’s about to do. I gaze at her red lips. She pulls my face to hers, kisses me. First she presses her lips to mine lightly, then she parts them with her tongue. We do this for a few minutes. I feel like I’m losing my breath.

When she pulls away, my eyes are still closed. I leave them closed because I don’t want to end it yet.

“I don’t let people kiss me on the lips,” she says.

I nod.

“My mom used to kiss me on the lips when I was little,” she says. “Mom kisses.”

I nod again, opening my eyes. Hers are full of tears.

“That’s the last thing she left me,” she says, touching her lips. “And now, it’s gone.”

She doesn’t say it, but I know what it all means now. Why she didn’t kiss me back that time. Why she’d turn her head when Toby tried. Momma wasn’t the only one who left gifts.

“Why’d you give it to me?” I ask.

She looks at me, blinks tears from her eyes. “Because you need it now more than I do.”

We stare out at the Wilder beyond my window. There’s something in the way she said it that rings true. I think of Momma. Of how she may never come back. Of what it means to be a motherless child. Of what it means for Mar and for Bea. That’s when I know I’d give it all up to be with her. I’d leave everyone, anything, to be among our mothers. The realization shifts something in me.

Before I know it, my bones are creaking. Green sprouts from my fingertips. I welcome the Change.

Cane grabs my arms. “Don’t leave me.”

I reach back for her as the sprouts become leaves. I ask her with my eyes. I say, Come with me.

We look at the Wilder from my bed, unable to will ourselves to go. We can’t leave. We can’t stay. Why is there nothing in-between?

We know we are meant to leave for the woods now. That the last woman who’d turned in her home, once she’d grown up from the foyer, went through the skylight. We know her family watered her, yet she desiccated within the year. Turned to dust and blew away. I know this. Cane knows this. She knows I want to go. I know she wants to stay.

She shivers, wraps her arms around me, then sighs. From either side of her head, spindly branches begin to grow like antlers. For a moment she reminds me of a doe. She has given me her answer.

The weight of us bears down on the bed. The box spring cracks beneath us. Our skins harden. Our arms become branches dovetailing into one another. Our legs become root systems. Our backs arch. Our ribs open like hands. And just there, in between the wood-shod bones, our hearts dangle from a stem, saplings sprouting from every chamber.

Photo of alex terrell
alex terrell (she/her) is a Black Southern writer and maker of worlds. She is a recipient of the 2018 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. Her work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, The Offing, Puerto del Sol, BAX 2020: Best American Experimental Writing, and elsewhere. For more info on terrell and her writing, visit her website at alexterrell.com.

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