The Black Poplar Tree

“Not so hard,” my mother said. “You’re hurting me.”  My arms, thin as cat tails, stretched around the trunk of her solid, unforgiving waist.  I held on even tighter.  I wouldn’t let go.  No didn’t mean no. No didn’t mean, let go.

“Too tight,” she finally screamed. Then, “Let go!”  And with that, Mother slapped my hands away and my body went with them. Together, my family of limbs fell to the forest floor, broken and alone, where I lay long after she had left, so long that moldy poplar leaves began to worm their way into the quiet space between my turtleneck and hair. Pill bugs nestled deep inside my ears, finding a home in the darkness of Mother’s words.  A caterpillar crawled into my mouth and took up residence, forming a hard-shelled chrysalis until when I opened my mouth again, a great Painted Lady flew out and up into the sunlight that forced its way past the foliage of the tallest trees.   I saw her fly away, and she saw me hovering fluttering above me. “Get up,” she said before flitting up into the light, leaving me alone on the dank forest floor.

It took me years until I found the courage to walk back into the woods  – to the very spot where I last saw my mother stand before me like a sultan; her massive robes billowing like white sheets drying in the wind. It was a thing of beauty, really.

I forced my hands around the tree’s thick waist, hugging the trunk tight.  I was frightened, but this time, I wouldn’t let go. No still did not mean no. No meant hold on tighter than before. So I did.  I handcuffed my cut wrists around her trunk and tossed the key across the forest floor, where it hopscotched from one dying leaf to another, finding a home far out of my reach.

I held Mother tight, swearing I would never let go. Too tight, I thought I heard her say once again, then Let go! But she wasn’t there.  Her voice was simply caught in the afternoon wind; a breeze strong enough to rinse the trees of unwanted leaves. This time, Mother could not say no. She could not she slap my hands away.  My arms, now far thicker than a dog’s tail, hooked her waist with abject hope.  Days past and yet still she could not break me free. I held on, watching the termites break down her heavy bark near my feet. The fine dust carried up in the wind and through Mother’s wild hair, while a team of soldier ants carried away large pieces of bark like boats on the shoulder’s of Lewis and Clark’s men; the poor studious ants portaging their own violent and convulsive rapids near my aching feet, carrying on beneath me without a clue as to what I was doing.  Or who I was.

There was a point that I couldn’t stand any longer. My legs buckled like an aluminum can under force of it all, leaving me hanging by the bones of my wrists. The handcuffs digging ever deeper into my thinning skin. Rivulets of blood rolled down my arms like tiny mercury balls suddenly free from the confines of their glass thermometer.  Yes, the weight of Mother’s words still hung in the air of quiet desperation. Leave me alone!

It was then that I spied the key still sitting atop a poplar leaf, like a fork on a picnic napkin, as though its sole purpose was to keep the wind from blowing the leaf away.  I envied the key for days, weeks even, until my wrists were almost small enough to fit through the handcuffs themselves. But even if I could wriggle free, I wouldn’t have left her there alone in the darkness of the forest. She was my mother and she needed me.

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