Still Literary Contest Nonfiction Winner: Brittany Rogers
Brittany Rogers lives and writes in Ravenna, Ohio, although her family hails from Duck, West Virginia. She earned an MFA in fiction writing from the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts (NEOMFA) consortium program. She’s currently working on a collection of short stories.
Nonfiction contest judge Karen Salyer McElmurray writes of Rogers's winning entry: "This essay crosses the boundaries of seemingly seperate worlds—rock house preaching, DNA strands as long as generations, far-away places where bears merengue—and in the process, it creates something new. A kind of magic realist creative nonfiction, we're reminded of the ineffable that transcends the changes of body and time, leaving something we can't always name, something standing as tall as a church steeple against the West Virginia hillsides..."
The Tree People
For a week, the weather has been changing in the hills. Autumn winds strip trees naked in the holler and suddenly the air is raw, marking the coming of winter. Rain clouds throb in the sky. Like my grandmother, I feel bad weather in my bones as sure as a mother may sense life in her womb. As I’ve done a hundred times before at this time of year, I melt a saucepan of paraffin wax on the stovetop so she can soak her rheumatic joints. When the liquid cools, I carry the saucepan to her lift chair and prepare to help her dip.
Today, she tells me her right leg is turning. She says this hangnail-casually, canker-sore-casually, as if muscles and bones always decide to pack up and move during the fall season, to head westward toward the left femur before winter comes. She pulls up the right side of her dress and I’m scared by what I see—the knotted, twisted trunk that is her leg.
“It’s the weather,” I say.
She smiles and shakes her head. “Not this year.”
I used to preach on top of the rock that curls up next to my grandparents’ West Virginia home. Fire and brimstone, walking stick held high in the air, I preached especially for Ha-Ha because she missed another Sunday evening service at Hallburg Baptist because of arthritis and for my own repentance because I fell asleep in the pews. Propped up on the porch swing, crutches in hand, she’d shout “Amen!” and sing refrains from “Amazing Grace.”
At that time, I had a pair of good creek-jumping and hill-climbing legs, although they often ached at night. My mother rubbed them down with alcohol, massaged my calves and feet, and plugged in the heating pad. I pictured squirrels burrowing in the hollows of my bones, storing acorns beneath my tendons, scratching at the inner surfaces of my skin. I was convinced that one day my legs would be thick, twisting oaks like my grandmother’s, that branches would grow from my knees and birds would build nests between my thighs.
These days, the growing pains are gone and my legs have grown long, free of squirrels. My grandmother’s, however, are twisting still. But I don’t believe my outdoor preachings were in vain. I think God chooses the strongest people to turn into trees.
She submerges her hand in the wax, pulls it out, pauses, and submerges it again. She is propped up in her lift chair, legs spread out heavy and quiet before her, and the Gaither Brothers are playing gospel music on the television. Her face is as smooth as a creek stone, her eyes round and turned up at the corners, an effect that makes her appear perpetually friendly. She is alternately humming and giggling at the wax dripping from her fingers. I think she knows it’s a ridiculous treatment, but both of us hold on to the hope that it may help the pain.
“I went to the doctor last week,” she says as the newest layer hardens. “He’s the E-raqi man. Kahn. I think that’s his name.”
“He’s not really from Iraq, is he?”
“Somewhere over there. I can’t really understand him. It was hard for me to walk that day. The doctor was outside eating lunch and I was hardly out of the car when he said to Pap-Paw, ‘You get her back in there. I’ll check her out right here.’ Can you hardly believe that?”
“That’s wonderful,” I say, trying to hide my disappointment. “Maybe when spring comes you’ll walk again. One morning we’ll find you dancing.”
A couple years ago, Ha-Ha woke up dewy and refreshed, not her usual four-pain-pills-and-three-pee-trips groggy. She had dreamed of dancing with a black bear. Tucked in his arms, her body loose and billowy like a silk curtain in the wind, she had spun around the room with his fur tickling her skin. “We danced all night,” she said, grinning and looking off in the air, her eyes creases on her face.
Sometimes Ha-Ha dances in her chair, hardly moving, a stiff, subtle kind of dance only tree people know. She closes her eyes as Pap-Paw plays a hymn on the fiddle, his soft brown skin pressed against the old wood, and Uncle Jay plucks the banjo. And Ha-Ha sings all the words. I’ll fly away oh glory, I’ll fly away, when I die hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly way.
On good nights when Pap-Paw says the barometric pressure is down, Ha-Ha nestles into the most comfortable crevice of her mattress and sheds her bark and branches for a tango, maybe a merengue if she’s feeling feisty. Sometimes I catch her after one of these nights. It’s usually around dawn, when I’m creeping through the cold house with duffel bags and coffee to stand next to her bed and kiss her on the forehead and say goodbye until another long weekend. She looks so alive, so rosy and delicate under the guise of the sheet, but I know that these are the saddest mornings, the mornings when she desperately wishes to be absorbed in the dark cloak of the bear’s fur and fall into an eternal cha-cha-cha. But she wakes up because she knows she will dance again, the same passionate, billowing-curtain dance she dances every night when her blinds are closed.
She endures each waking minute because of the promise of sleep, and, in that far-away place where bears merengue, she is whole. I know this is when she really lives.
“Roscoe Bee came over last week and he was looking at my paintings. He said I have a knack for mixing colors. There are only five colors that come with the kits, you know.”
She’s finished dipping her hands. They’re wrapped in plastic and her bones are absorbing the warmth of the wax. I’m looking through the velvet art kits she’s completed in the past few months. She calls them paintings, although the designs are pre-printed in velvet and colored with markers. But no one seems to notice the difference. Neighbors, family, the preacher and his wife, they all have studied Ha-Ha’s prints as if she is Monet or Picasso, astounded by what she can do with what they see as two worthless hands. I’m also taken aback by the work she’s done. In each piece, the white space has been overwhelmed with brilliant swirling blues and greens, indigos and yellows and maroons. I’ve never seen colors combined the way she’s combined them. I look at her hands and then back at the paintings.
“These are really good, Ha-Ha.” I imagine her thick fingers twisting around an indigo marker like the roots of a great oak, the ink absorbing into her skin and mixing with her blood, surging through her vessels, urging her heart to recognize indigo’s undertones for the first time. I can’t help but believe that the combination of poverty and youth once blinded my grandmother to the nuances of life. There was a time when she could move, but she may have been moving too quickly, too quickly through her life, too quickly through the lives of her children, desperately hoping and believing that tomorrow would be easier than today. I don’t think she ever expected that kneading and burping would stop. In fact, I don’t know if she ever recognized the brilliant hues and saturations of color until she sprouted branches. Tree people see everything from their vantage places. God makes them immobile, attune to every flicker of sensation, so that they see absolutely everything.
She catches me staring at her hands.
“It started in my hands when your uncle Jay was born,” she says. “I was forty or so. They were hurting me, so I went to Doc Boggs. He said I had this roomy-toid arthritis, that it’d never get better, that the rest of the bones would probably get worse. But I got in the car and came home and lived. What else was I supposed to do? And I’m still kicking, ain’t I? God sure has blessed me!”
She’s laughing now. The same wide-eyed, gummy, forehead-scrunching laugh I’ve known all my life. And I’m laughing, too, at this wildly-funny tree woman whose hands are wrapped in Kroger grocery bags.
A few months ago I met with a doctor in a tiny white room so she could tell me what I’ve always heard at any doctor’s office: Everything’s fine. Super. Blood pressure, glucose, cholesterol, triglycerides. My body is a warm, ripe tangle of perfectly-functioning mechanisms. But that afternoon there was a test I’d never had. The doctor pulled my foot into a machine and told me to hold still. After a few seconds, the machine spit out a reading. She frowned and asked if I’d ever considered taking calcium supplements. I hadn’t. The machine, she told me, measures bone density according to foot proportions and mine was slightly lower than normal. She sent me on my way with a pamphlet about bone disease and calcium supplements and the nutritional value of milk.
At home, I Googled rheumatoid arthritis and genetic in the same query and came up with over two million hits. I stared at the computer screen, afraid for myself, angry for Ha Ha. For decades she’s been slathering on rubbing alcohol and watching her body warp, not knowing why—out of the blue—her joints began to take on knots like the old willow trees that hang over the pond at Hall Holler. She believed country doctors who made poultices and tracked rain by the aches in their backs and told her that becoming immobile was a normal part of aging. She had it coming to her, they said. She was, after all, a workhorse, a real Clydesdale. Now, in the cruelest, most unsympathetic phase of her disease, I know the truth. Ha Ha’s a victim of the potential for disease and destruction that lies within us all—the sleeping genes that may stir at any moment and send our bodies into a state of unwellness.
Sitting in front of the computer screen, I closed my eyes and imagined the faces of Ha Ha’s people, my people, people I’ve never seen: her father, Ben, who held her tall and proud at a Roosevelt rally; her mother, Sarah, who caught sheets for whole afternoons while Ha-Ha sent them through the wringer on the old G.E.; an entire lineage of people who hoed rows and strummed mandolins and slept on straw ticks, people long gone and tucked away in the family cemetery at Point Pleasant. I imagined our DNAs linked together like the long, tangled garland children make from strips of paper at Christmastime. Someone left my grandmother with the tendency for skin tags, deep crevices around her eyes, and an immune system that attacks joint tissue and destroys the structure and integrity of her bones. Someone knew what it was like to have his arms and legs turn to branches.
And now—maybe, just maybe, that gene is floating around in me.
It’s time for peeling, and Ha-Ha looks sleepy. The paraffin has hardened and cooled and it’s time to coax the misshapen gloves of wax from her fingers.
“Okay,” she says. “I’m ready.”
So I peel all five layers away. Each hand. I try not to graze her knotted knuckles with my soft, straight fingers. Try to resist lingering in her palms too long. Try to look beyond the ravine that’s formed between bones on the underside of her forearm. But evidence of her deterioration is here, under the peeling, near my hands, unaltered by the paraffin, urging me to see. No better, no worse.
When I was little, Ha-Ha and I played hide and seek. I’d hide and muffle my laughter and she’d guess my whereabouts from her chair, purposely making wrong guesses before she gave in and found me. She was in her chair when I started kindergarten and when I graduated college. She was in her chair when Pap-Paw had a heart attack. She wasn’t at my wedding. She hasn’t been upstairs in her own home for twenty-five years—her world is one room and, occasionally, a Chrysler’s front seat and a short, familiar stretch of West Virginia highway. Ha-Ha and her chair are one entity. I want to cry for Ha-Ha the same way I want to cry for starving children or Time Magazine pictures of civilian war casualties, because I just don’t understand how it could be. I’ve begged God to give her a day without stiffness or pain. But while I’ve cried and begged and preached for healing, she’s breathed. She laughed. She’s fought and loved and woken up when she could have withered away and disappeared in a dancing bear’s arms. Ha-Ha defies the definition of health. She is health.
One day I’ll bring my grandchildren to the cemetery on Point Pleasant, and they’ll zig-zag between the rows of gravestones with healthy, strong legs and plump arms outstretched like airplane wings. They’ll stop and trace the etchings with their fingertips and ask if bugs get into the coffins and I’ll tell them that I don’t know. Maybe I’ll be able to run with them, up and down hills dotted with stones and crab grass. But maybe I won’t. Maybe my back will have arched and my joints will have taken on buds like springtime forsythia and they’ll have to walk carefully by my side, holding me tight around the waist so I can show them the trees. The tall spruces and oaks like maidens draped in grey satin, the old ones and the new ones springing up from the soil, tall and silent, making me wonder how long I’ve been away. Together we will discover the best tree somewhere near the church, a thinking tree, I’ll tell them, with low branches thick enough to hold ten men and all their worries and they’ll hoist themselves up and make their best thinking faces. I’ll watch them—the masses of healthy, pink flesh from my blood, my body—innocent, still too young to be aware of all the things that will always be happening inside of them. If my bones allow, we’ll sit together on that branch with our legs dangling. We’ll see everything from our vantage point, my grandchildren and I: the church steeple standing tall against the West Virginia hillsides, the lark swooping down from its perch, and with the breeze blowing against our skin, I’ll tell them about the tree woman and the happy things that occur when bones turn to wood.