catalpa

This is faint, but it’s slowly coming into focus.

A boy about thirteen, wearing jeans and no shirt, is draped in a staggeringly high but thick and sturdy limb of a southern catalpa tree. The sun shines just barely through the canopy of heart shaped leaves, creating shadow hearts that move over the boy’s tan skin. He’s brought a paperback  book with him up the tree, but I can’t see the title or the author because he’s got it wrapped around itself. He’s kind of chewing on his bottom lip, and there are beads of sweat starting to form above his white-blonde eyebrows.

There’s a girl (she’s also about thirteen) watching him from behind a rhododendron bush twenty yards or so from the catalpa. Under the bush (which is blooming at the moment, all pink like a ballet slipper) is a soft carpet of moss, soft enough for her to lie down on if she wanted. No one would find her. Maybe she would lie there so long that she’d get to courage to walk to the tree and climb up to the branch the boy’s on. Maybe she’d ask what he was reading. She guessed it was probably something very masculine, like a James Bond novel or a guide to rebuilding a carburetor. She secretly hoped it was something more fitting of his looks, though. Something by an existentialist, which she had heard were very wise old poets with scraggly hair who liked to live in the woods.

The girl isn’t watching the boy as closely now, there’s only so much excitement that comes from a boy in a tree who every three minutes or so scratches at a mosquito bite, bites a fingernail, or turns a page. She starts watching three red-spotted admiral butterflies in a patch of sun near her hiding spot. She likes how their wings are blue underneath orange and black. She wonders if they know how short their lives are and if they remember being caterpillars. What could it have felt like to completely change after being wrapped up tight like a mummy for so long. Did they think they were dreaming once their wings dried out? Did the beauty of what they had become compared to what they were born as shake up their little systems? The girl was so deep in thought that she doesn’t notice the boy change positions on his branch, tuck the paperback into his back jeans pocket, and walk like a tightrope walker (one foot in front of the other, arms to his sides) back to the trunk of the catalpa.

She doesn’t look away from the three butterflies until she hears a rustle of leaves and a hollow-sounding thump. Peeking through the waxy, dark green rhododendron leaves, she watches the boy leave his tree and head to the riverbank. She tries not to breathe or blink, not wanting to miss seeing what direction he takes. If he hollows the river to the left it leads further away from where she lives. If he goes left he’ll be passing her cabin. Her heart aches and beats kind of sideways, and a dreadful feeling that she might sneeze starts to fill up in her nose and eyes.

He goes left, whistling a little as he walks. The girl notices how blonde his hair is, how strong his shoulders look. He walks not three feet from where she crouches in her rhododendron, and she can smell sweat, and the fresh, briny smell of the river, and something else that reminds her of a place she saw in a dream when she was little.

When she’s sure he’s out of sight and out of hearing range she walks over to the catalpa tree. It’s so tall, and its branches are almost as thick as its trunk. She’ll have to look up its proper name in her father’s illustrated encyclopedia when she gets back to the cabin. Deep down to her toes she wants to know everything about the tree. Is it native to Tennessee? Where was it cultivated from, and does any particular Indian tribe give the tree some strong, spiritual meaning?  Can it heal you when you’re sick if you boil the heart-leaves and drink what’s left?

The girl is late for dinner at this point, she can tell because the sun is leaving the forest and heading to the valley below. She picks up a heart-shaped leaf from the forest floor, tucks it into the front of her dress,  and follows the boys tracks in the muddy riverbank on her way home.

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"... all my lovers were there with me, all my past and futures."

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