Friday, September 16, 2011

Parallel Universe: going outside reality to enhance it

This little bit of narrative is from an assignment in fiction workshop to create a parallel universe.  Think super heroes and Oz.  We were to tell how this parallel universe functions.  I decided, as I have been doing, to marry my short story work with my assignment.  I worked on what Betsy's tree knows.  How does the universe operate from the tree's perspective. 

What the White Oak Knows

A white oak draws water from the ground. I do that because ATP is soluble in water, and I need it for photophosphorylation. You need water too and also make ATP, which is how you draw energy from what you consume, although I’d bet my oldest root you don’t even know it. Plants have been doing it much longer. We invented it.

We draw other things up too. Bits of things long dead cling to water, riding up to my leaves and twigs. I have some of fourteen humans in me, and I can tell the difference in each one. The dark cold season has come and gone more than 400 times since I first drew up tiny pieces of what had been people. Humans change me in ways that the persimmon tree can’t imagine. He’s a shit-eater, that one, wrapping around that human stink hole and sucking it up through his long taproot.

I have human blood in me. For five seasons the ground was thick with it. Two men fell just here, trying to hide behind me. Metal balls spilled them open. Two of those same hot projectiles tore into me, metals leaching out into my cambium, coloring my heartwood. That was a bad time for living things.

I have her blood too. The little skinny one with the brown tufts on top of her head bled into me. On a hot day a hundred seasons after the five bad ones, she tore open her limb on mine, and her sap ran in a trickle down into the folds of my bark. She dripped more red onto the underside of a leaf, marking me until a storm. I grew new roots hoping to catch the rainy drops of blood and suck them up too. Often her tears fell just in the notch by the place where she sat on so many days and more nights than you might think. Once, she waited too late to climb down and wet me with her urine, the pungent salty rush soaking down into my tender layers. I knew her.

I contrived a splinter to work into the back of her knee. Long, cold seasons passed after she left, making it harder to convince myself that the splinter stayed burrowed down in her limb’s heartwood. But she is a part of me. When the other one with light tufts on her head finally came up the same way and sat where the first one sat, we both felt the loss. She too eventually stopped coming up, although I sometimes would feel her twigs brush me as she stepped from root to root around my trunk, making the sound of the two of them with her one mouth.

I had to cut off the flow of water to that limb. With a fork down low, it had been perfect for child root limbs to wrap themselves around while child top limbs grabbed for my own and pulled into me, her soft tender flesh without a bark, so easy to tear. I couldn’t bear another one in her spot. Rot took that entry limb, and it was burned on a fire close by, bits of smoke entering the respiration stomata on the white underside of my dark green many-lobed leaves and the leaves of my sister oak and the leaves of all the plants around, even the persimmon, who missed her more than I gave that shit-eater credit for.


What does he overhear, I wonder?   How does a tree get to know that the gooey stuff in a girl is called blood?  It still feels like sap to him.  Yes.  Trees have feelings.  This one does.  It puts the story on a different level for me.  For a long time, I have viewed the place of Chickahatchie County from the eyes of various little girls and a mule driver.  Now...a tree shows me so much more.  The tales are changing.  I'm getting excited. White Oak is stuck right there on that hilltop.  He can't escape to another place.  How will that work out for him?

A bit about my thinking and writing process.  I wanted the tree to sound wise and smart--for the reader to see him that way.  Old and knowing.  He knows how he gets energy...could rattle off the whole chemistry of the thing.  I wanted also to show how he is changed by humans.  They break his heartwood.  They really do.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Betsy's Place

My writing on this collection coincides with a fiction workshop class this semester in grad school.  Dr. Catherine Kasper assigned us to write about place. One of my goals for this class is to work on description of place and narrative.  I find it too easy to fall into dialogue and miss the narrative of what is occuring around the speakers.

I took some things from various bits of story and pruned away the dialogue to just get Place.  I was limited to around 500 words.  My first draft was nearly 950. I pruned more. Here is my submission to her:


Betsy’s Place

A root from the white oak pokes its way out of the pale Tennessee dirt. The size of Grandy’s lower leg, the root emerges six inches from the massive trunk for a span of eight inches more, only to run back to ground for the remainder of its unknowable length. Other roots around the tree have revealed themselves, some of them overlapping. Are they the first shallow ones that nourished the infant acorn? Did the Chickasaw hunt here when the root first emerged?

Maybe it was later, when Great-grandfather Milton bought the land or took it. Did the tree, feeling unfamiliar rhythms, send down signals along with oxygen through the pulp to the roots? The air is changed, it might have sensed on the white underside of its dark green many-lobed leaves. This smoke has a tangible otherness as these pale beings cook their dinner. Did the roots return watery replies with questions for which a tree cannot have answers?

My childhood self had her own ideas. It’s a toad house, this root. I found the lumpy jumpies secreted in their own little root cave in the mornings before Memma stirred from her featherbed to toast cold biscuits that Grandy left for her. I used the roots as safe steps around pretend waters full of crocodiles, like the ones I saw on Tarzan. The steps of many children compacted the dirt around the toad house. Two of them were Lucy Belle and me.

After I turned eight, this was my whole world—two white oaks many times taller than Grandy, a low white house too plain to have thoughts of grand additions, and a vegetable garden with grape arbor out back. All the pieces of my world were set on top of the highest hill around. As I grew, losing the memories of other houses, Memma taught me to climb one of the white oaks, how to swing my feet up over a forked limb and to skin the cat to get down. I could see more of Chickahatchie County from the hideout in my oak. Our Bourne’s Grove Baptist Church, its concrete blocks stacked off center to keep them from falling down Grandy said, was just in front of my tree. Kelso’s wood frame First Baptist Church was just over the honeysuckle-covered rail fence from the grape arbor. Up high on my limb that made a seat, leaning against the perfect matching limb to make the seat a couch, my back would have been to Kelso’s church. I think that’s why it was so long before I found Lucy Belle and Sanctuary.

It was no time at all before I met Kelso. On my second day living with my grandparents, he drove jangling into our yard. I had watched him cross the two-lane highway from a little gravel road beside the store that wasn’t a store any more, even though signs— Wonder ~ It’s good bread—split two screen doors on the concrete porch. I couldn’t see the most important place, even from my tree. Behind the store that was not a store any more lived Kelso’s four mules, brown like fudge. Lucy Belle had a cat, and I never wanted a dog. I had part of those mules. And they had part of me.

I don't know what of that might end up in the story.  It does tell me something.  I know how Lucy Belle and Betsy meet.  The whole thing came together in my mind while I was writing about what she was seeing and not seeing.  I can't wait to write about that.