Martha worked the soil under the sycamore tree, hair tied back with a bandana and a spade in her hand. It was the same tree she had planted with her father over fifty years ago. She knew it so well she could close her eyes and feel every crease and curve of bark, every twisted limb and leaf. Her aches and pains had disappeared, as if she were twenty-two again.
She stood up, a little dizzy from the sun and exertion, and wiped the sweat off her forehead with the back of a dirty hand. Martha pulled a tulip from its planter, and brushed off the loose, dry dirt. The tulip was big enough to live outside the house now, if she could keep Wormy away from it. Wormy sat on the porch behind her, flicking his tail in his catlike way, as if already stalking his prey.
A microscopic blood clot that had formed in her stomach passed into her brain. Her eyes grew wide as the painless shock rolled over her. She was falling slowly, floating downwards, or perhaps the world was drifting up to meet her, the earth coming to regain what was rightfully its property. The tulip was falling beside her, in a slow arc. She knew with grave certainty that she was dying. She didn't shout or cry or fight back. There was only the peaceful sense of completion, and a faint pang of reminisenc . . .
. . . Terry, in a velvet coat and puffy top hat, was swinging upside down from the lowest branch of the sycamore tree, so drunk that he could barely hold on. The senior play had finished that night, him as the Cheshire Cat and her as Alice. His brown eyes showed no fear or forethought as he told her I love you. I will always love you . . . . . . Looking down at the seatbelt in the car that had seemed so big, she chewed on her pigtails and thought about what she presents she wanted for her birthday. It's all going to change, she told her father. I can't even believe I'm going to turn eight tomorrow. They draped streamers and ribbons all over the sycamore tree in the back, and planted new azaleas. All of her friends came and brought her presents . . . . . . Holding hands with Philip, she looked at the ring on her finger, the huge beautiful ring that meant that she would never have to worry again. He wasn't Terry, but he was patient and kind and he was hers. Her father beamed and puffed up his chest, so proud that her daughter was marrying one of the Reginalds, from on top of the hill. Philip, her beloved, flashed a smile that would grow comfortable but wearisome in the many years to follow, like a ratty sweater you can't bring yourself to throw out. I do . . .
. . . But I don't want children, Martha had said, picking up a canvas, a fresh young
landscape of flowers and bees, still young and beautiful and proud, I have so much work to
do. When little Juliet was born, she realized how foolish she had been. Holding that tiny
piece of herself and Philip in her arms, youth and beauty seemed to matter so much less . .
. . . . Juliet was five when she looked up at Martha with bright eyes and said Mommy, does
it hurt to get old? Martha had sighed with a smile. If only she had a million words to explain,
there was nothing to do but try. Well, I'll tell you . . . . . . Juliet didn't even want to finish high
school -- she was going to throw away all of that expensive education and move up to
Aspen. They had a huge fight and she stormed out of the house. Martha stayed up in her
rocking chair, holding Wormy like a security blanket, waiting for her to call. The police came
by late that night and told them about the accident. They were so relieved when Juliet came
home, unhurt . . . . . . Leaves rustled overhead in a dry September wind. The branches of
the sycamore hung low and swayed back and forth, as if weeping. Parts of Martha's brain,
neglected by sugar and oxygen, began dying. Living biological memories, just collections of
proteins built over decades, poured out of them in a bright, fragile rain that lasted only
seconds before they were gone, forever gone. The sycamore tree towered over her,
protective, like her father no longer could . . . . . . Her father swinging her around and
around and around until she got dizzy. She squealed and begged him not to stop. He was
so handsome and strong, he could hold her up forever . . . . . . He loomed over her with a
stern look after she had crashed his brand new '67 Mustang convertible. She knew for
certain that she would be grounded for a month . . . . . . Lying in bed with tubes up his nose,
the white from the hospital bleeding into her his skin and blackness seeping into his breath.
The heart monitor chirps, as the doctor's low, patient tones describe that the cancer has
reached a critical stage. He held up the consent form and a pen, and she cried as she
signed his life away. Why couldn't I have spent more time with him? I was always too busy
and full of myself. The doctor lowered his head as he turned off the respirator . . . . . .
Paintings whirled around in her head, colors and shapes that were really just neurons firing,
neurons that were gasping for breath and dying one by one . . . . . . Wormy was sitting on
her lap, purring, when the phone rang. I'll get it, Philip said. It's the gallery. They want to do
your show. He took her in his arms, took her for everything that she was, and finally started
to see the worth in her. I'm so proud of you. Years later, with the lines etched across his
face from worry, worry about her, he had said. We can't do this anymore. I need more
space . . . . . . After the divorce, Philip took on a new life in her paintings, one that had lately
been missing in her bed. Then, Terry came back from Austria and filled the hole that had
been missing in her life . . . . . . the studio was huge and airy, and she filled it with her
creativity and concept, the corners swallowed by drop cloths and broken brushes, scraps of
canvas that she had torn apart in a frenzy, because they could never, ever be good enough
. . . . . . So many galleries, exhibitions. If I have to eat one more cheese puff, laugh at one
more stupid joke, I'm going to kill myself. Dead painters, dead painters; why are dead
painters so important? Because they have seen everything we will ever see, only they have
seen a little more . . . . . . Part of her raged against death, knowing there was so much to be
finished, but mostly it was comforting. The numbness started in her hands and spread
across her entire body. Terry leaned out of the back window, and he was shouting at her,
face wide with shock, but she couldn't hear him. Like a grey hand caressing the back of her
neck, it moved up across her head, and forced the light from her eyes. She could only feel
her body hitting the ground, returning to the fertile soil from which she was born.
© 1998 Eric Michael Schultz, all rights reserved
appears here by permission