And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning, glad, I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
A Poison Tree, William Blake
They stand under me digging. I see a plastic shovel and pail; I hear high-pitched giggles and squeals. A boy with wispy golden hair making a dirt castle; a girl with light red hair throwing that dirt back at him and laughing.
“Get away from me!” The boy yells.
“Nope.” The girl yelps a sort of war cry, licking her fingers before sliding them through the dirt and painting her face. She looks like a warrior as she pounces on the boy, tackling him through the mud.
They crash into the castle, bodies fumbling and contouring around each other’s. I hear something about cooties, but I don’t think the girl cares too much about getting the boy sick. I think she enjoys making him squirm.
He calls out for help, but does so through laughs and annoyed groans. A part of him must enjoy the teasing, the attention. They are just playing after all. Once he successfully shoves her off, they collapse into the dirt and smile up at me with their crooked teeth and bright eyes.
They are older now; time passes quickly for me. Here under me they sit again, touching each other in places that now have an entirely different meaning than they did when they first played in the dirt. The girl makes sounds that slightly resemble her war cry, only this time a little softer. I watch the boy’s face flush as he touches the girl’s cheek, whispering what I think is a nervous, “I love you.”
The girl doesn’t say it back—she seems hesitant—but she does pounce onto him again, this time skin getting muddy instead of clothes. I’m not sure if cooties still play a role in this story, but it sure doesn’t seem like it to me.
There is no castle to crash into now, so they crash into each other instead.
On one particular fall night I recognize the boy, but I don’t recognize the girl walking beside him. She has a different way of touching the dirt underneath me. She isn’t gentle or calm or respectful; this girl is tearing at it with her fingernails. She’s yelling at the boy with a determined resentfulness, yelling things I try to make out but end up only getting confusing fragments.
“You’re killing her… son of a bitch!”
“She wasn’t like you!”
I’m not sure what any of that means. I don’t understand how the boy could be killing the same girl he said he loved such a short time ago. I determine that I don’t like this new girl shouting these new words. She is foreign to me and she is hurting someone I love.
She hits him then, throwing blind punches and screaming. I’m not sure what she has to do with my two friends. Family? Friend? Enemy? I just want her to leave.
I’ve never wished more that I could move on my own. I’m supposed to watch over him, but I’m failing at my job.
Whiteness drapes over me, balloons tied on my arms and legs. Soft music plays from down below, a melody I’ve heard before, many times, many lifetimes ago.
The girl I recognize is back, more beautiful than I’ve ever seen her. There’s a bandage on her right arm and a tear in her right eye. She walks with a perfect glide, sashaying across the dirt and to the boy who is rocking on his feet directly underneath me. I see the top of his head, the halo above his wispy blond hair.
I waited months to see them again, and here they are. I watch as they tie themselves to each other, as they kiss and squeal and cry. They fell in love under me a lifetime ago, and here they still fall.
I feel the tickling, the itching, of the knife. But it’s worth it to see their smiles. The boy and the girl carve their initials into me, into my torso, and I get tattooed with the very lovers whom I fell in love with long ago. The girl is crying I think, her face growing older with the passing sun.
I can see the lines forming across her pale skin, the redness within her eyes, the slight limp in her step. The boy holds her while she moves the knife, carving a “J” and then an “A.” He takes the knife then, beginning to draw a heart around her piece of art.
I don’t know how many years it has been, how many seasons have changed, since I first saw their tiny bodies giving each other cooties. All I know is this boy and this girl.
She pulls an oxygen tank behind her now, dragging it through the dead leaves and dirt at my feet. It slams against my legs, but I don’t care. I’m so happy to see both of them. A breeze flutters by and I lean down, so close now that I can almost touch them. I want to whisper in their ears how much they mean to me.
The girl has to be helped down by the boy in order to sit in the dirt at my feet once again. She stumbles and coughs and can barely bend her legs. He holds her tight, keeps her from tumbling over, and I watch as they kiss. A gentle, soft kiss. Not at all like the ones they used to plant everywhere and anywhere back when they had the world at their fingertips.
She makes a little moaning sound, so very different from that first war cry, and then falls into the boy’s arms. I watch for a very long time. She does not move.
He stands under me digging. There is no giggling, no squealing. No plastic shovel and pail. Just a body going into a hole.
I like the dirt. It makes me feel as if I’m a flower growing out of the earth. It makes me feel free and natural, like a warrior heading into battle.
He’s icky, but he thinks I’m ickier. I enjoy torturing him. It’s fun. He tells me to go away, but I refuse. Secretly, I think he enjoys it. I think one day he’ll admit he likes me.
Today he says he loves me, and I freeze. I should say it back—it has been true this whole time, but I freeze. He’s not good for me; that is an undeniable fact. I’ve sure as hell been told it enough times. So I don’t say it back. I do what feels natural instead of what doesn’t. I feel the needle in his pocket as I press myself into him, but I choose to ignore it.
Those green eyes lock onto me the way they did when we played into the dirt and I affirm once again that yes, I do love him. The needle digs deeper.
He kisses me with such intensity, with such loss of control, that I begin to get nervous someone is watching us. If someone is, maybe they could knock some sense into me.
I wake with a needle in my arm.
The ground is shaking. Or is it the sky?
Oh yeah, I’m under a bridge.
“Get a job, junkie.”
Yeah… about that. Personally I don’t like the idea of getting a job when I could die of blood poisoning any minute now. There are visible red veins spreading out from the inserted needle, a line of dried brown blood forming an arrow from my upper arm to my palm.
He got me into this. He caused my family to desert me. He caused my addiction. I am living under a fucking bridge. I ran away from him, from my family, from everything, and yet I still don’t blame him. I can’t. I blame myself for falling victim, for not being strong enough to help him quit. For being weak enough to let myself start. I wonder where he is. I wonder if he’s under the tree right now roping some new girl into his tricks. But then comes the worry. Worry is an inevitable emotion that intertwines itself in love. It’s annoying.
“I found you.”
Yup, he found me alright. But I wanted to be found. I must have, because I’m in a hospital. And if I wanted to be found, that’s definitely where I would go. There’s another needle in my arm, except this time it’s one that’s trying to save me.
“I hate you,” I say, but I can’t hear myself say it. I really wish it were true.
“We’re getting help now,” he says.
“No thanks to you,” I say. Yet I know it isn’t his fault.
So when he asks me to marry him once we are released, I say yes even though I shouldn’t. Even after all this time, I’m still saying yes to him. Playing his game.
There is no family at the wedding. No one but a few druggie friends, all bad influences the way he once was. Now, we are both clean as far as I know. There is no needle in his tux pocket as far as I know. I don’t think I care to find out. It may change my mind, but I doubt it. I’m still too weak. I can no longer paint dirt on my face and lead an army into battle.
I admit, he is beautiful standing under our tree. He quit for “me,” or so he says, and I have no choice but to believe him. I start to think maybe I should stop blaming myself and start moving on.
“My queen?” he says, reaching out his hand to mine.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I reply.
I’m holding a knife tight in my hand, my aging fingers wrap around the handle, and I glance down at them. Sometimes I feel as if I can physically feel my body withering away by the day, and the wrinkled, bony fingers reaffirm this.
At this particular moment we’re carving our initials into the tree, an extreme cliché if you ask me. Who said we had to grow up? Who said our bodies had to betray us? He holds me tight and I wish I were stronger; I wish I didn’t still need his arms to support me. But I’m grateful for them the way I always have been.
I am in the hospital once again, lung cancer this time. Yet another consequence of him. Yet another weakness. We are much older now, all of that is behind us. We blame it on being dumb kids. The drug abuse, the smoking, the addictions. But if I had gotten away when I should have maybe none of this would have happened. Love is fucking stupid. It controls you, takes away your common sense and intelligence. Takes a hold of you and pulls you along train tracks that you can never get off.
I can’t breathe. My lungs burn and my body aches… and where is the damn oxygen?
This oxygen tank is clunky and embarrassing. I’m not even that old. 80 isn’t old, right? But I’m dying much less gracefully than I would have hoped. Constant pain, constant inability to breathe. It’s ridiculous and terrible and stupid. But I have him. Somehow just as many times as he has broken me, he has fixed me.
We lumber over to the tree, a skyscraper through the clouds, and I begin to wonder what it thinks of us. If it even thinks at all. Then I sit down for a final time. Working my way down to the ground isn’t as easy as when my body still did what I wanted it to. Being 5’11” doesn’t quite help either. Add being what would be considered “elderly” (that word is the worst) and “sick” (even worse… I don’t have a damn cold—I’m dying), and sitting on the ground becomes an exercise in patience and strength.
I turn and watch him grow old before my very eyes. I see us playing in the dirt, me teasing him the way I still sometimes do. I see us kissing as teenagers and on our wedding day. I see our initials behind me, our memories in this dirt. I don’t see the needle in his pocket or the alcohol on his breath or the tobacco on my own. I don’t see those things anymore because they are long gone. They haven’t been reality for a long time. I just see him. Regret? It’s too late for that shit.
Then I look up and smile at the leaves, at their winding veins. I think of the way the tree has seen us—as happy, caring, and in love. I hope it’s how everyone can see us. Will see us.
The leaves wave in response and I see the light in between them. I go towards that.