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Thursday, March 30, 2017

Step Over

by John McCaffrey

The best year of Allen Iverson’s life was my worst. Determined to shed a “me-first” image, AI had bought into a team concept under new coach Larry Brown and propelled the underdog 76ers into the 2001 NBA Championship series against the star-powered Los Angeles Lakers. On the way, he had won the All-Star and League MVP trophies, dazzling fans and fellow players with his mercurial quickness and relentless offensive attack. He was relentless and fearless going to the basket against much larger foes, flinging his tat-laden, skinny body into thick seven-footers, finding a sliver of an angle to arch the ball up and under massive arms, taking the invariable hit, and falling, his cornrows glinting in the arena light, like a spent bottle-rocket. The miracle was never that the ball went in, which it almost always did that year, but that he got up off the floor after such a beating. But he did, every time.

For a while that year, I wasn’t sure I’d get up. Not literally, but emotionally. The hit I took was my wife leaving me, and while it might not have been as breathtaking as an AI swoop to the hoop, it had still been a six-year journey together as a married couple, and it hurt to have it end. Basketball helped to relieve the pain: watching, as well as playing. Like AI, I was a guard, and while I held none of his absurd athleticism, I could move well, dribble well, and shoot, I must admit, very well. I excelled in pick-up games, or at least held my own, and while I had never stopped playing once I got married, my forays to the court multiplied, and intensified, after my separation. I literally wore sneakers out, and nearly my knees and feet, but the game, the competition, the sweating and striving, helped me let go of tension, ease depression, and forget my troubles for a while.

Nights were spent scouring the television for games, and, as I had gone to school in Philadelphia (Villanova University) I gravitated toward the Sixers, and, naturally, AI. He was an underdog and so was the team that year, overachieving and winning games in bunches. I identified with them and felt inspired by them—if they could beat the odds and make a run for a championship, I could surely overcome my grief and feel good again. But like an NBA season, it was a long haul—feeling good again, that is. There were times when the grief was overwhelming, and with it came doubt and insecurity. Bouts of sadness led to fits of anger, tears produced clenched fists. I hardly ever felt comfortable, or at peace. I had trouble enjoying things I always enjoyed: reading, writing, even day-dreaming. About the last thing I wanted to do was spend time in my head, but that’s the only place I seemed to dwell, deep inside, a dark place. It was like a self-inflicted prison sentence, and my pain was the warden. Break time from this metaphorical cell came from hoops. The basketball court was “my yard,” a place where I could breathe fresh air, even if it smelled of sweat, where I could loosen my limbs, release anxiety and let go of aggression, where I could feel like myself again, or at least as long as I held “winners.”

About the same time the Sixers made it to the NBA championship that year, I was taking steps forward, small, incremental movements of progress, moments when my shoulders would release tension and I would take a whole breath in, rather than just an anxious sip. The growing sense of ease encouraged me to take chances, to be less isolated, to think again about a life lived and not hidden from. To this end, my family had a vacation house out in the Hamptons, in the bucolic town of Wainscott, just a mile from a beautiful beach and the Atlantic Ocean. It was just after Memorial Day, the start of the summer season, and I had a hankering to go there and spend the weekend away from City life. I also was looking forward to playing basketball.

Wainscott, at that time, contained in its small confines one of the few remaining one-room school houses in the country (it since has added a separate building to accommodate an increase in students), and on the grounds was a sun-bleached (and cracked) concrete basketball court. It was here that an evening hoops game was played every evening during the summer. There were no lights on the court, but from early June to late August games would last until darkness, or until the players gave up from exhaustion. I was a habituate of the game, considered it my home court, and must have launched thousands and thousands of jump shots (during contests and alone) at those two rusted rims over the years. There were others who were regulars, but none as regular as me. I lived for the game throughout my high school and college years, never too tired from a summer job or from having too much fun the night before to be first on the court. Graduation from college, moving to Hoboken, getting a full-time job, and, eventually, getting married, limited my time in the Hamptons. But I still put in enough weekends to maintain a presence at the evening game, gaining comfort in its continuance and my place in its history.

That Memorial Day weekend, 2001, I left New York City on a Friday afternoon, taking as a mode of transportation the Hampton Jitney, a bus by any name, but one jazzed up, perhaps, by its destination, the haughtiness of the mostly wealthy riders, and the provision of free orange juice and peanuts for the just-over-reasonable fee. The Jitney was good for me because it dropped me in Wainscott, and I could walk to my house. It was something my ex-wife and I liked to do, that walk, easing the transition from the cacophony of the City, the long bus ride (always traffic on the Long Island Expressway), enjoying, finally, the quiet calm of passing under a tree-lined, non-lighted street and, when conditions were right, the distant sound of ocean waves finding the shore. This was the first time in years I had done the trip solo, and, truthfully, the first time I would be at the house alone for such a long weekend. It was a bit daunting, but I comforted myself that it would be good for me, give me time to reflect, and, mostly, play lots of basketball.

Unfortunately, for the first part of the evening, time alone was not good for me. I paced the house as the sun dipped in the sky, starting to feel sorry for myself, thinking about my ex-wife, feeling sad and lonely. I finally called my parents, not wanting to worry them about my state, but to connect and let them know I was safe. Of course, I worried them. I wept openly to my mom and dad, telling them all my struggles. They showed their support  for me, let me know they loved me and that I would be okay, and my mother, in infinite maternal wisdom, told me there was a casserole dish of baked ziti in the freezer. I hung up and felt better. It was enough to give me an urge to take a jog. I laced on sneaks, shorts, T, and with headset on, took off.

I had never run so hard and for so long in my life, not before, and not after. Sweat and fury poured out of me, and when that was extinguished, out came all the other emotions I was holding. By the time I made it back to the house, more than an hour later, covering at least ten miles, what was left inside me, what I felt, was one thing: relief.

I was also starving. Remembering my mother’s suggestion, I took out the ziti and popped it into the microwave. Then I turned on the TV. About the time the ziti was ready to eat, Game One of the Lakers vs. 76ers was starting. According to the announcers, and just about anyone who followed the game, it was going to be rout. So dominant were the Lakers that season (they had won twenty games in a row), and so stellar was the play of their two stars, Shaq and Kobe, and so steady their coach, the renowned Zen-Master, Phil Jackson, that few, if any, gave the 76’ers a chance to win even one game. A sweep, it seemed, was inevitable.

Which was what the LA faithful, including Jack Nicholson and other Hollywood glitterati, were standing and chanting in unison before the opening tip that night at the newly-opened Staples Center: “Sweep, Sweep, Sweep!” The sound of their chanting reverberated throughout the arena, like a Roman Coliseum crowd calling for a fallen gladiator’s head. But as I gorged on ziti, still clad in my sweat-drenched shorts and shirt, it was clear the 76’ers had not gotten the message, were not defeated yet, at least not that night.

And it was all because of AI. Basically, he played out-of-his-mind, doing everything he did all season and more, taking it to the rack with fearlessness, ball-hawking on defense, breaking down defenders and causing uncontrolled chaos on offense. His brilliance willed them to overtime, where he hit the shot that has been since called the “Step Over,” a far-right baseline corner juke of a “j” over a fallen, “ankle-broke” Tyron Lue, the then back-up point guard for the Lakers, and now head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. They were just two of the forty-eight points AI scored that night, butthe most memorable. Sportsmanlike or not, what AI had done, after hitting the j, was take a giant monster-truck stomp over Lue’s prostate body. I saw it not as bravado, but defiance, an unwillingness to concede to a more powerful enemy, a David vs. Goliath triumph (even though Lue was shorter). I stood, and with ziti sauce caked to my mouth, cheered like a maniac. Then I cried. I cried and cried and cried. And at the end, just like my run, what I felt was one thing: relief.

I finally did clean up that night: showered, went to bed, and set my alarm. There was supposed to be a special game the next morning, at nine am, and I planned to get there early, to warm up and be ready. But when I got there, and waited and waited, no one showed up. My information had been wrong. There was no game that morning. Rather than go back home and risk feeling depressed again, I ventured to the far right baseline corner and started to shoot jumpers, and, whenever one hit the mark, I emulated AI, lifting my leg up and stomping over my imaginary, but very real foe, feeling, at least for that moment, defiant and in control.

John A. McCaffrey grew up in Rochester, New York, attended Villanova University in Philadelphia, and received his MA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York. His stories, essays and book reviews have appeared regularly in literary journals, newspapers and anthologies. His debut novel, The Book of Ash, was released in 2013. His collection of short stories, Two Syllable Men, was published by Vine Leaves Press in 2016. John is also a Development Director for a non-profit organization in New York City, and teaches creative writing at the College of New Rochelle's Rosa Parks Campus in Harlem. He lives in Hoboken, New Jersey. Find him @jamccaffrey.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

This House Burns Blue

by Gabby Vachon

My mother wears so much blue, it’s fucking ridiculous.
Her whole house is decorated in blue, so much so that she has a room called “the red room” because it lacks the hegemony of blue of its neighboring kitchen and laundry room.
People—like her sisters, her personal trainer, and the cashiers at the local grocery store—often remark upon the blue, even poke fun at it. But their criticism never bothers her.
She just smiles her famous tight smile and lets out a light suburban-mom laugh.

I don’t know for sure why she’s so attached to the color blue, but I have a few theories:

1. Blue may remind her of her childhood, as her parents were ardent Quebec separatists. If you don’t know much about Quebec politics, here’s a very basic overview of the Sovereignty movement, or at least my version of it, keeping in mind I am a pure-bread French Canadian who grew up in Montreal: French Canadian people made up most of Quebec, a large Canadian province; English people made up most of the rest of Canada. The Quebec provincial government was pissed at Canada’s federal government for a multitude of reasons (some rational, some lunatic) and decided to make the Quebec people vote twice, in 1980 and 1995, about separating the province of Quebec from Canada, making Quebec its own country. The vote failed both times, but the periods between 1970 and 1995 were wrought with aggressive discourse, xenophobia, and even terrorism.

My mom was born into a house with a big blue Fleur de Lys flag (the official Quebec flag) planted on its lawn. She had been cradled in this flag; it was her first toy, her first friend, her first truth. My grandparents made phone calls for the Separation party, hosted events, and were even investigated in relation to terrorist acts on federal representatives. The big blue flag, separated into four corners, represented a people she could call her own, through childhood all the way through young adulthood. She was proud Separatist.

Then she moved to Toronto to study. She met my dad, an anti-Separatist to the core of his being. She learned English. She got a good job. She read more than what was available in her childhood home and French Catholic convent high school. And slowly but surely, she changed her mind.

This house that was once unified by Separatism had fragmented. She fought brutal political wars with her parents and siblings, with whom she remained, despite the political divide, very close. These fights hinged on identity, on the very idea of belonging, on the very notion that the family had come from the same blue roots and beliefs, yet couldn’t agree to the same nation state.

The Canadian political climate calmed after 1995, the year I was born, and my parents moved back to Quebec. They settled in a nice English neighborhood. They raised a nice bilingual family. They held nice Christmases with my mother’s family, tiptoeing around the glass shards of a once unified familial political belief.

I know she would deny it if confronted, but there is still a fragmentation inside my mother’s heart. There were nights of endless fights that don’t escape nightmares even for fifty-year-old women with blue yoga mats and blue Mercedes SUVs.

A river runs through my mother’s heart when politicians mention a third referendum, and that river, though thin and filled with old rotten sticks and stones, runs blue.

2. Blue may remind her of my teenage years. When I was sixteen-years-old, I was admitted to a children’s psychiatric hospital. I was bulimic, depressed, a nervous wreck, and saw myself at the edge of something. I wasn’t sure what that something was, but it felt violent. It’s as much as you’d expect from any sixteen- year-old, really, but I was empty, and lonely, and suicidal, so the hospital, after I’d called an emergency hotline and met with their team a few times, decided I should be admitted for a week’s worth of treatment. They called my mother into a small blue room filled with many chairs. She sat in the one furthest from me, closest to the doctor. The psychiatrist then explained how my mother, because I was a minor, would have to go downstairs, sign me over to the hospital’s custody, and pack a few of my things from home, like homework, pajamas, and toothbrush.

My mother paused for a short time, though it seemed like forever, until she said: “What if I don’t sign her over? What happens then?” I couldn’t believe her reaction at first, but with thought, I could. My mother came from a generation that found disgrace in therapy, shame in weakness, and secrecy in suicide. There was no “sixteen-year-old girl who lives in a nice house with a nice family who goes to a nice school with her nice friends and gets nice grades” who was also suicidal. Whatever the problem, it wasn’t something a little bit of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps couldn’t fix. She believed that these doctors, with their sharp teeth and parent-shaming, would seek to destroy her blue-blood beliefs.

I saw my mother not as angry, but as scared. Scared of the small blue room that separated us, mother and daughter, blood and flesh, alive and, well, less alive. There were too many chairs. I could see it her in her eyes, that she thought there were too many chairs. There were too many chairs for too many therapists and counselors and psychiatrists with their Pfizer checks and pernicious hands. She didn’t want to believe this team of strangers could do a better job repairing me than she could, the one who had birthed me in a room not unlike this one.

The doctor answered her, looking at me directly: “Well, we are keeping her, whether you sign her off or not. We will take custody, but it is up to you how peacefully it is done.” And that was that. I stayed a week. My mother came during visiting hours and brought me awkward hugs and bowls of fruit.

That wasn’t my last time in a mental hospital, not by a long shot, and my mom has gotten better at handling the devastation each time. But I know in retrospect that it was in that moment when my mother understood she couldn’t contain my sanity in a clean Tupperware container. There was always going to be too much blue inside my heart for her to warm with her burnt banana bread or long heat-curled eyelashes. I was born a red-blooded girl, but numbed to a pale blue shade as I grew older; and though my mother wears her blue proudly, she also knows the color to be bigger than what any mother can fix.

3. Blue may remind her of the eyes of those she loves.

We are truly the whitest family on the block. We have light blond hair and alabaster skin, and, yes, blue eyes (except my dad, but we really have a hard time believing he’s actually physically related to us).

All my cousins have eyes like sapphire engagement rings, so bright and faceted you could neglect the possibility of divorce with one hefty check at Kay jewelers.
My aunts have eyes like Pillsbury chocolate chip cookie dough packaging, warm and sweet and definitely in danger of sugar rush and/or salmonella, depending on their mood.

My brother has eyes like an airy blue sky, free of trouble.

My grandparents have eyes like the Caribbean Sea, clear and distinct and free of pollution.

I have eyes like an angry lake, dark and moody.

And my mother, my mother has eyes so vibrant blue you can see the embrace of her safety.

You can’t slip on the blue carpeting in my house.
You can’t spill juice on the blue tablecloth.
You can’t hurt your back sleeping on the expensive blue mattress in the guest room.
You can try to escape it, certainly, but my mother possesses blue so potent you can see yourself in its reflection. You see yourself, and your family, and the cracks in your skins, and your smile lines, and your stress wrinkles, and your veins.
Those blue veins that unite us all: separatist, mentally ill.
Those bulging lines in our arms that trace our heritage from France to this home in the suburbs where my mother paints the walls in our honor.

For our sake, she wears her blue parka when it’s cold and her blue Speedo one- piece when it’s hot.
For our sake, she is monochromatic.
And maybe also for her sake.
After all, a dark blue Mercedes SUV is so much easier to clean.

Gabby Vachon is a writer and artist from Montreal, Canada. She has been published or has work forthcoming in Tiny Tim, Ink in Thirds, and The Corvus Review, among other publications. She is an editor for Soliloquies Anthology. Her favorite food is the skin around her cuticles, and she is happily and forever married to her true love Justin. Follow her on twitter @gabbyvwrites.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

So Long, Promised Land

by Michael Engelhard

Tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who you are.
— Ortega y Gasset

As the old year fades from view, I am busy boxing up things for my move to Alaska. Sifting through detritus accumulated over the years, I try to decide what is essential, what is too heavy or bulky, what can be left behind. Stacks of discolored photos quickly distract me from my task. Lost in reveries I shuffle these mementos of a love affair with the Colorado Plateau, an affair that began more than two decades ago.

I was exploring the Southwest in 1982, as a tourist. Smitten with the sublime light, the uncluttered space, the convoluted canyons and silk-and-steel rivers, I decided to live there some day. Life had other plans, but I kept gravitating toward the red rock gardens, where Moab became a haven of sorts. Eventually, I moved there for good. Following my conviction that a perfectly sized town is one in which everything—including wilderness—lies within easy walking or biking distance, I settled in Moab on the tail end of the uranium-mining boom. I felt fortunate, as this muscular and reclusive landscape became not only my home but also my workplace. During summers, I spent more days on the Colorado and its tributaries than in town. My working outfit as a river guide consisted of sandals and shorts. Peoples’ faces often lit up with envy when I asked them to step into my “office,” the raft.
   Too soon, I became aware that the Promised Land—like many other places these days—suffered from industrial encroachment and greed. The West’s troubled legacy revealed itself in cattle grazing the canyons inside a National Monument—“Escowlante.” Thumper trucks explored for oil, destroying delicate soils and vegetation bordering Canyonlands National Park. Politicians supported proposals to extract and process oil shale along the Green River’s marvelous Desolation Canyon. Commerce and people in garish outfits discovered my hideout, pronouncing Moab the Mountain Biking Capital of the West. For the longest time I denied living in a resort town, even when the annual Jeep Safari forced me and many other residents to flee town for a week to avoid traffic and the attendant mayhem.
    In synch with rising visitor numbers, the wealthy started to buy second homes in town. Property prices and taxes rose accordingly, forever placing the dream of a little shack of my own beyond reach. The cost of some frou-frou coffee drinks soon began to equal half the hourly wage dirt bags and river rats like me made in service industry jobs—naturally without benefits. Moab lacked a shoe repair place, affordable health care and housing, a food co-op, noise control . . . Instead it sprouted real estate offices, T-shirt and “art” boutiques, motels and gas stations, jeep, bike, and boat rentals. Mountain and road bikers rubbed sweaty shoulders with hikers, climbers, jeepers, base jumpers, skydivers, kayakers, rafters, golfers, and vintage car lovers. They all rubbed my nerve endings raw. They drank dry the bars, clogged the river and canyons. The off season—welcomed by many locals as a change of pace and reminder of why they had chosen this town in the first place—shrank year by year, cropped at both ends by mountain unicycle festivals and other bogus events. It got harder and harder to escape unwanted company in the Best of Beyond. I often wished my domicile could be famous (if famous it must be) for record-breaking pumpkins or the nation’s oldest hay barn.
    Revisiting a favorite haunt in the Escalante watershed the first time in ten years, I was appalled by the changes. Foot trails cut through crypto-biotic soil carpets, betraying people’s laziness, their need to shortcut across canyon meanders. They had not simply trampled single tracks but whole networks into each knobby surface. Some morons had clearly misread the BLM’s plea to leave behind nothing but footprints. At popular campsites, which appeared strangely denuded even for this arid country, wooden signs directed visitors to pit toilets installed—and hopefully emptied—by monument staff. The voices of nearby campers echoed around slickrock bends, undermining the privacy for which I had hoped. Aluminum pull-tabs and charcoal from illegal campfires had replaced the arrowhead fragments, potsherds, and centuries-old corncobs once safe in alcove vaults. On Cedar Mesa, cameras now eyed ruins and rock art, trying to catch vandals in the act. Elsewhere, fences guarded petroglyph panels, and walkways channeled tour groups.
    Faced with these changes, I realized for the first time that too many hikers degrade a wild place as easily—and permanently—as do too many cows. While it seems obvious and convenient to point fingers at off-road vehicle drivers, any sentient biped will have to admit that he or she is part of the problem. Homo ambulans, too, leaves nothing but traces and often takes peace and quiet from the backcountry.
    Even the Four Corners’ Navajo reservation, which long had been spared the worst excess—perhaps due to its “Third World feel” and user-unfriendly permit system—now suffers tourism’s side effects. A few canyons became accessible with guides only after a flash flood killed eleven visitors, possibly to avoid costly search-and-rescue missions or even more expensive liability suits; about a dozen more canyons were recently closed to all outsiders. Sadly, non-Navajos hiking without permits, harassing livestock, littering, and disturbing archaeological ruins brought on these closures.
    For years, I was still content to take paying customers down rivers and canyons. But I slowly realized that many, if not most of them, were only after the glossy skin, not the meat and bones, or—heavens forbid—the soul of a place. They considered wilderness a sort of outdoor gym-cum-tanning salon, a thrill ride with a picnic on the side, pretty scenery to write home about, or perhaps worst of all, just another checkmark on their bucket list of “adventures.” I’ve since heard of people who try to visit all fifty-nine U.S. national parks in fifty-nine days. My suggestion to them: spend fifty-nine days in one park—Grand Canyon or Gates of the Arctic. You might truly learn something.
    One Moab river company did not hire me because I was too outspoken in my “environmental convictions.” Vacationers did not want to hear about mining or overgrazing or hydroelectric dams. They wanted rapids. They wanted fun. They wanted gourmet food, horseshoe games, solar showers, and, if possible, sleeping cots on the riverbank or a little “canyon magic”—to hook up with a blonde river guide. The manager told me I would set a bad example for the younger guides and that his company was “pro-growth.” Later I heard that a luxury tourism conglomerate had swallowed the outfit. The former Moabite and critic of industrial tourism, Edward Abbey, named the spiritual price paid by those who depend on it for their livelihood: “They must learn the automatic smile.” I had a hard time with that, though it cost me some tips and the goodwill of my boss.I reached the low point of my guiding life during a Marlboro Adventure Team trip, an event for winners of a contest to promote smoking and rugged individualism in countries in which advertising for tobacco products was still legal. I prepared myself for trouble when I saw the trip leader remove the motor rig’s spare outboard from its box, which he then filled with ciggies and booze. The organizers wanted us to flip boats in the whitewater to provide the cameramen on shore with footage for commercials aired in South America. Between rapids, they asked the paddle raft guides to tie on to a motor rig that dragged boatloads of macho, hung-over, helmeted conquistadors to the next “cool” spot.
    Worst of all, though, I sensed, no, I knew I was part of the problem. My writing about the Four Corners’ besieged landscapes seemed to make little positive difference; simply educating the public would never provide a cure. As my Coyote Gulch visit had shown, the lofty goal of educating backcountry users about wilderness ethics and etiquette is based upon optimism with regards to human nature. Defaced rock art, scorched campfire rings, torn-out Wilderness Study Area markers, and fouled waterholes in even the most remote quarter quickly put dampers on such enthusiasm. I could not rid myself of the feeling that, by publicizing this region, I ultimately contributed to its defilement and destruction.
    An argument can be made that public lands need to be used recreationally to ensure their continued protection and funding, to keep them from rapacious developers or corrupt politicos. On the other hand, more than three million visitors per year might easily enjoy the Grand Canyon to death. There are no easy solutions to this dilemma.
                    Vandalized rock art panel in southeastern Utah (photo by author)

Some of the boxes that will hold desert keepsakes still have old addresses on them; I think half of all my belongings must be in transit or storage at any given time. When I see the labels, more bittersweet memories come rushing in. I’m reliving the anticipation and reluctance I felt when shipping these boxes off. Disenchanted with academic life at the postgraduate level, unwilling to objectify cultures, and unable to secure grant money for my Ph.D. project, I’d dropped out of school. There were few guide openings at the time for someone with limited experience and a great deal of competition for them. Opportunity called elsewhere, seconded by the desert’s siren song—I’d been offered an outdoor instructor position in a youth program in Arizona. With my moorings already cut, I followed the current. The rest is river history.
    I am aware that moving to Alaska—the destination for these packed boxes—is not a solution. The political climate in the Last Frontier State closely resembles that of the Beehive State. As a latter-day itinerant, I will become part of the problem there—it can’t be avoided. But approaching middle age, I feel that time is running out. To paraphrase Aldo Leopold, I simply don’t wish to grow old without wild country to be old in.
    While moving to Alaska in mid-winter seems unwise, I cannot think of a better place to start the New Year—or a new chapter in life. Let it be cold. Let it be dark. Let summers be buggy. And let us hope we can keep some places wild.

Michael Engelhard is the author of the essay collection, American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean, and of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.

(photo credit: Melissa Guy)

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Wild Cherry Tree

by Gabriella Brand

Mother hated that tree. The messy wild cherries that fell over our bluestone patio, the undisciplined way that the thin branches spread out like unkempt hair, the crookedness of the limbs.

“We should just chop it down,” she’d say every spring when yellow-white tentacles of blossoms appeared, then gave way to small, pea-sized fruit.

“But it’s beautiful,” I’d say.

“We have other trees,” Mother would insist.

It was the 1950’s. We were living in a historic valley in New Jersey, settled by Dutch colonists in the 17th century, rapidly becoming suburban. Our yard was full of mature maples and oaks, a solid hickory, a couple of weeping willows down by the shallow drainage brook that bordered our property.

In August, when the small reddish-purple cherries ripened, Mother would repeat her threat.

“This year,” she’d say, “we’re going to get rid of that monstrosity.”

Mother liked order. Precision. Cleanliness. Everything that the Prunus Serotia was not.

As the wild cherries fell, the air around the tree would smell slightly sour and fermented, like a child’s lunch bag left behind in a school locker.

 “Couldn’t we eat the cherries?” I once asked.

“Of course not,” said Mother. “They’re barely fit for birds. It’s a totally useless tree.”

I found that hard to believe. The cherries looked perfectly delicious. Besides, wasn’t Mother always talking about how people back in Europe, starving during World War II, had eaten shoe leather and bread made from cellulose? Animal carcasses?  Cats, even?

It was odd that she considered wild cherries to have no value.

But Mother had her firm opinions. I knew better than to try to sway her mind. She could give the impression of being steely or cold, but underneath, she was sensitive and emotional, largely ruled by melancholy, not meanness.

Even as a child, I knew that she struggled with inner ghosts. She was estranged from her far-away family of origin, with its traditional codes of honor and shame. Clearly something had happened, maybe during her childhood. There was the uncle whose name she refused to say, the distant cousin whose letters she destroyed.

Nor did her marriage seem to bring her happiness. Although she tried hard to be a dutiful mid-20th century American homemaker, collecting recipes from Good Housekeeping, decorating the house for Christmas, her heart clearly wasn’t in it.

“I don’t belong here,” she’d say.

But where was here? In suburban America? In the comfortable house with the cherry tree? In the big double bed she shared with my father, although she never spoke of loving him.

“If it weren’t for you kids,” she would say, but she would never finish the sentence.

She had lost one of us. One of her children. A little boy, my baby brother. I vaguely remembered his tiny coffin, fitted with brass handles like two half moons and a smooth satin pillow. Perhaps, because of that loss, she held a personal grudge against the wild cherry tree, so prolific and careless with its bounty.

Fortunately, Mother would always forget about chopping down the tree by the time autumn came around and the leaves had turned a lovely, benign shade of yellow. With the arrival of cold weather and the diminishing light, she would no longer go outside. Like a bear, she would hibernate within the thick walls of the house.

I, on the other hand, loved the outdoors in all kinds of weather, even in the grayness of a late winter afternoon. Out in the fresh air, I could breathe freely and sing silly songs and make snow angels and lie on by back looking up at bare branches creaking in the wind.

In summertime, I remember climbing up that wild cherry tree with a cloth bag slung over my shoulder. The pink bag was supposed to hold ballet shoes, toes shoes actually, the kind with small tufts of rabbit fur inside. A delicate, girly-girly bag, it was. But I preferred using it as a mountaineer’s back pack. I’d twist the bag around, depending on how I needed to maneuver as I climbed. Inside the bag would be a few books, maybe some colored pencils, a sketchpad, and contraband candy such as Necco Wafers or a Bonomo Turkish Taffy. About half-way up the tree, maybe ten feet or so, after scraping my knee against the coarse bark a couple of times, I’d stop and settle into a sort of seat that my older brother had helped me fashion out of hemp lashed between two limbs.

All morning long, I’d keep my nose in the silence of The Betsy-Tacy Stories, but I’d be serenaded by chickadees and warblers. They’d grab the purplish fruit and fly off. Sunlight would dapple the oblong leaves. I’d run my fingers along their fine, serrated edges. The cherry tree was my own cathedral, my sanctuary. Solid, tall, sheltering. Like a protective parent.

Did Mother, burdened with grief and memories, really know where I was? I don’t think so. Back in those days, most kids in small towns were largely unsupervised. When I wasn’t with friends or at summer camp, I left the house after breakfast and showed up at lunch time. I’d take long bike rides by myself, sometimes stopping at the candy store for fresh supplies of forbidden sweets. Sometimes I’d walk along the brook that bordered our property. But I always made time to sit in the tree, invisible to the rest of the world.

Every day our town blew a whistle at the fire station at twelve noon sharp. The siren would crank up and the German Shepherd who belonged to the neighbors on the other side of the creek would start to howl. That’s how I knew to get down from the tree and show up at the lunch table, wiping the traces of Necco Wafers and wild cherries off my lips. By then I had discovered, through my own experimentation, that the fruit of the Prunus Serotia was perfectly edible.

One night, the year I was eleven, a particularly heavy summer storm blew through our valley. When I woke up in the morning, Mother began talking about storm damage. She had been worried about the brook overflowing and heading towards our house, but now the rain had stopped. I ran outside to explore.

Almost immediately, I saw what was left of my tree.

Lightning had sliced the graceful wild cherry down the middle, leaving a black slash in its wake, like the old movie character, Zorro. Higher limbs had fallen onto lower limbs. Branches had flown off, torpedo-like, across the lawn, and ripe cherries had bombed the patio, like small red grenades.

I came rushing back in, breathless.

“But you didn’t tell me about the tree!” I said. “The wild cherry tree!”

Mother shrugged. “Nature accomplished what I had meant to do years ago.”

I could feel myself on the verge of tears, but I didn’t want Mother to see me crying. I ran back outside and stared in shock at the destruction.

In those days our family had a book called Life’s Picture History of World War II. Black and white photographs of Normandy beaches. Dunkirk. The London Blitz. I sometimes would take down that book and leaf through it. Mother usually discouraged me from staring too long at the wreckage of war.

“It was a horrible time,” she’d say.

Now I knew, even as an eleven-year old, that a tree struck by lightning was not in the same league as the bombing of Dresden. I knew that I shouldn’t be crying over a tree. A wild cherry tree was not a human being. The loss of one tree was not the same as the loss of a baby or the devastation of an entire city. I wiped my tears and went down to the brook to calm myself down.

A couple of men with chainsaws arrived later that day. They clumped around in their heavy work boots and discussed the best way to clean up the heap of ripped greenery and split bark. Then they started cutting until only a stump remained.

Mother and I never talked about the tree. Eventually she planted herbs where the cherry tree had stood, and the smell of mint and tarragon and rosemary seemed to give her pleasure, but it was hard to tell for sure.

Gabriella Brand’s writing has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, The First Line, Room Magazine, The Citron Review, and dozens of other publications. Her poetry has been featured in the series “District Lines” from the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. One of her short stories was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2014. Gabriella divides her time between Connecticut, where she teaches foreign languages, and the Eastern Townships of Quebec, where she is learning to paddle board on Lac Massawippi.