Cottonwood

The historical park where I worked as a teenager was full of old cottonwood trees, and in June they shed their soft white, gossamer seeds into the air below their branches. They looked like a thousand tiny fluffy galaxies, all lit-up by the sun. I loved looking up at the blue sky, watching them float, but occasionally one of them would fall into my eyes and get trapped behind one of my contact lenses. This was very unpleasant, and I would have to leave my post in front of one of the historic structures and travel half-blind to the restroom, clutching my sore and red eye, fumbling in my pocket for contact solution. If I forgot the bottle I had to use tap water from the sink, and afterward my eyes felt worn and raw.

Despite the threat of blindness, the cottonwood seeds were lovely.  I adored the way they pooled and gathered around the tree trunks, forming clumps of pillows that would get kicked up in the wind. I also liked the way they floated after being disturbed by light puffs of wind, and the way that children would gather up armfuls, throw the fluffy clumps into the air, and spin around as the clouds of seeds fell. Their mothers would cluck then, and try to pull all the little white bits out of tangled hair. Their purses would swing by the straps at their hips, and they’d bend at the waist to smooth their children back to orderliness. I liked that a lot.

One day when I was stationed in front of one of my favorite structures, a stone cottage built in the early 19th century with a little herb garden out back, I noticed a handsome, caramel skinned young man turning up the little path that led to the cottage. He was wearing a long sleeved white linen tunic over a pair of loose-fitting white pants. On his head was a small white fez, which covered his wavy black hair. I was accustomed to giving tours to people of different cultures than my own; the historical park was on the national register, and featured artifacts from a Wright Brothers airplane to the first automobile that came equipped with a self-starter. People from all over the world came to see things that the Wright Brothers had touched or created. Before speaking to him I smiled, smoothed down my green polo shirt and khaki pants (which were pretty well covered in cottonwood seeds); ready to begin my well-rehearsed tour and presentation.

As I spoke about the gloriously simple cottage, about the three hundred year old wooden loom inside, and the modern-for-the-time whitewashed walls and dark dovetail trim, the young man didn’t speak. He merely smiled at me, and looked at my face and at down at his hands a lot (which I noticed were long and brown, with beautiful long fingers like a piano player’s or an artist’s hands). His eyes, rimmed with lovely thick long black lashes, were hypnotic: almost black, with flecks of gold and green near the pupils. I thought perhaps the young man didn’t speak much English, but carried on.  My footsteps were loud on the old plank floors of the cabin, but his were soft and barely audible. I noticed he was wearing simple white slippers, and his ankles were thin.

After showing him the herb garden, after telling him about the use of lavender, yarrow, and rosemary in everyday life in the 19th century, he finally spoke.

You are beautiful.” His voice was soft; his eyes were still steady on my face. At sixteen I had already grown used to men looking a quite a bit lower on my body when they spoke to me, not right into my eyes.

“Thank you. Do you have any questions? About the tour?” My voice was shaky, now that I was done sharing the history that I knew and now that this handsome, exotic young man had called me beautiful.

“I have one question, ma’am. Will you come to dinner? With my family and I?” He looked back at his hands after he asked this, and I sputtered out an anemic reply:

“No, I have a boyfriend.” (I didn’t.)

“I see, ma’am. Forgive me, I am new from Afghanistan, and to ask a girl out as a girlfriend, we must have her over to our parent’s first. I am very sorry to bother you.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

He shook his head a little, shrugged slightly, and walked out of the garden, through the little white gate, passed the short stone fence into the big field behind the cottage.

I watched him walk toward a grove of cottonwood trees, where more seeds were falling from the sky like glitter. His white tunic blew in the breeze and was the same color as the clouds.

What would a life with a man like him be like? What would his caramel skin look like pressed against my olive skin? What would those full lips, the color of plums, feel like against mine? When we lay together, would his black hair tangle in mine, and  would his eyes always watch me, waiting, wanting… At sixteen I didn’t want to have that question answered. I wonder now, though.

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13 thoughts on “Cottonwood

  1. Gauzy beauty. There was a cottonwood tree outside my elementary school, and in the spring when the windows were open it would blow through the halls like snow…

    Do you know this poem by Jane Hirshfield? For you….

    Muslin

    “I never knew when he would come,”
    my friend said of her lover,
    “though often it was late in the afternoon.”

    Behind her back the first plum blossoms
    had started to open,
    few as the stars that salt the earliest dusk.

    “Finally weeks would go by, then months,”
    she added, “but always I let him in.
    It made me strong, you see,

    the gradual going without him
    I think it taught me a kind of surrender
    though of course I hated it too.”

    Why he would appear or stay away
    she never fathomed—
    “I couldn’t ask. And that also seemed only good.”

    A small bird fluttered silent behind her left shoulder,
    then settled on some hidden branch.
    “Do you ask the weather why it comes or goes?”

    She was lovely, my friend, even the gray
    of her hair was lovely. A listening rope-twist
    half pity, half envy tightened its length in my chest.

    “When he came, you see, I could trust
    that was what he wanted.
    What I wanted never mattered at all.”

    The hands on her lap seemed quiet,
    even contented.
    I noticed something unspoken begin to

    billow and shimmer between us,
    weightless as muslin,
    but neither of us moved to lift it away.

    From: Given Sugar, Given Salt
    HarperCollins, 2001

  2. Holy moly Hannah…that is beautiful. Thank you for sharing that with me…it is perfect.

    My knowledge of poetry (and of a lot of fiction and creative nonfiction) is sorely lacking. I love learning from friends such as you (and so look forward to the fall, when I can fully begin my life’s work!). xoxooxoxo

  3. Love the connection between the fluffy, cotton seeds and his white-clothed magical appearance and then, disappearance. It leaves me feeling like I’m in that sacred space between dreaming and reality. Like maybe, he too, was picked up upon the gentle breeze and lifted out of your life just as quickly as he lightly floated into it. You tell these stories of your lifetime so beautifully and honestly. Love them!

  4. I am imagining him too, now. It could have been such an erotic experience.. my lover now is Moroccan and very dark. It’s pretty hot for me because I am white as a ghost. He’s like a slip of buttery brown coloured candy.

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

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