Tree Lovers

By Clynthia Burton Graham

She loved me once and then once again. It was what I took from her that made me yearn for her, after my departures. What I took always confounded me, but the feeling of her kept me tethered. Inside the roar of waves, under the blistering sun, sitting at the edge of the sea, I couldn’t stop wanting her. I’d hate myself, never her. Sand would burn the soles of my roaming feet, while the tide slipping back into the ocean would taunt me with regret at what I’d lost. No, not lost, thrown away like floating debris ensnaring the neck of a gasping seagull. I’d get up and walk the beach with the same message pounding my thoughts, you can’t exist incomplete. Half a heart can’t support a body. The other half of mine was gone at my expulsion.

It was easy to go back to her the first time. Her arms were still open, her lips still soft and her eyes still saw me. The me I couldn’t see. Pain dissolved into absolution. Tides parted like the red seas to reveal the shining gem lying on the ocean floor, waiting for me to grab it and hold it in my arms for eternity. She was still mine, and yet, I left again. Again, I went to search for myself. I traveled from place to place, from arms to other arms, wearing myself, learning nothing new, and becoming less than I was before my journeys started.

I returned, the last time, with the pace of a slowing heart. My steps displayed my state. My hair a graying bush and my jowl sagging with remorse. She called us star crossed lovers who could tempt our fate, if I but dreamt with her. I willingly closed my eyes. At first I saw darkness, then the stars came, then the light exploded everywhere. When she began her unnatural Siren song, leading me away from the dangerous rocky coast of my existence, I was filled with a rush of cleansing breathe, dissipating the wandering itch in my feet and the confusion in my head. I became hers forever.  

I watched her walk away from me.  Long graceful strides touching the earth with lightness. Confidence and merriment in the twist of her head when she looked back at me. Soaking sun played tricks at the curves of her smile and hips, making her look younger than her years. The smell of earth and water filled my nostrils at the slip of her robe. I watched her wrinkle free body dive into an engulfing wave.  She emerged from the water a glistening butter brown nymph holding a sparkling sapphire seashell. She offered it to me just like she’d offered herself to me years ago. We’d shared so many woeful yesterdays, but they dissolved into the present, leaving remembering unnecessary. I laid the shell on the ground. We held hands and leapt together like dolphins into the air, then splashed into the water. We stayed connected as we purposefully sank. Our arms entwined, bodies touching, mouths wide open, until air was no longer needed. Our feet anchored. Our skin split open revealing a second skin, thicker, darker with deepening striations that spread across the swamp bubufloor, destining us to become lore, to become the one we were always meant to be.

“And that is the story of the tree lovers. Tomorrow night under the light of the full moon, you will be able to enter the water to marvel at the roots of the twined trees, and if you are so inclined, touch it. It is said, with a single touch, faded romance will glow again and romance, yet to be, will blossom and last forever. Ailing bodies become healthy, jumbled minds get set right, as bad spirits leave and good ones embrace. So, tonight, get to know each other. The boats will be at the dock at 11:00 pm to take you into the fresh water Mangrove swamps, where you will swim in pairs. After deep sea diving tomorrow morning, you might want to take a nap, so you’ll be ready for the power of the healing pool to change your life,” said the full-bodied woman griot with waist long dreadlocks, in a colorful caftan that fluttered with the evening breeze. Her alluring tone was somewhat reverent, with a touch of mystery, leaving the group of twenty spellbound and quiet.

Mena looked around at the hushed group, sitting in a circle with luminous faces, poised as if they were about to sing “Kumba Ya.” She leaned over to whisper to her best friend, “Why does this seem spooky as hell to me?”

“Oh, my God, girl. It’s romantic. You do remember what romantic means? Anyway don’t ruin the moment for me,” replied Cycle.

The mesmerized guest of the Royal Hotel stood up, brushing sand from their clothes. Some went to the storyteller to talk, others began to talk to each other. Raymond drifted out to the edge of the ocean. He wished he’d skipped the evening’s activity. It was the kind of hokey romance stuff Darlene would have loved. She would have insisted they hold hands and kiss a million times under the plethora of stars. He liked how their hot and heavy thing had mellowed into a steady companionship, but she wanted more. At some point, they always wanted more, he thought, as he kicked sand into the ocean. Darlene wanted kids, a home in a well-to-do neighborhood and her dream car, a Porsche Cayenne to cart their kids around in. At fifty-three years old, Raymond had avoided all that mess and wasn’t about to find himself in debt and up to his neck in soiled diapers. Right before the summer vacation trip to Bimini, Darlene gave her final ultimatum, “I’m forty-one. I want to have children. Marry me or go on the trip by your damn self. Matter of fact just go on and live your life. I’m out.” Raymond decided to go solo. He’d paid for the trip and he would enjoy not having to be romantic just to please someone else. Walking towards the hotel, he passed couples kissing, holding hands, gazing into each other eyes, and thought maybe he should have just sold the tickets.

The next morning, while the group waited. Raymond walked down to the boat, away from the cackling laughter of two women. Their noise was antithesis to the musical rush of water filling his ears. He stood at the shoreline mesmerized by the varying blues meeting each other in perfect blend. Turquoise blue. Sky blue. Royal blue. He thought about the paint strip, he and Fay had grabbed from the local hardware store when they were renovating his new home. That was before she decided she wanted a different life, an unexplainable life that didn’t include him. Years had passed since she’d remarried, went to live in France and left him like an old Muddy Waters blues song. Now, Darlene was gone, but it mattered less than Fay, he’d loved Fay. Nothing was ever enough for women, so best to stay alone, he thought as he fiddled with his gear to make sure he had everything. The nearing and incessant cackling of the same two women invaded his space again.

“I am passed ready to get to the Healing Hole, tonight. It’s the thing I came for. Not deep sea diving. Do black folks even do deep sea diving? You and your, “Let’s be adventurous,” said Mena, striking the sand with angry marching steps.

“Girl, we will be at the Healing Hole tonight. Midnight to be precise. Plenty of time to enjoy the sun, water, and the view. Nice looking brother over there by the water. Tall, built, color of maple syrup, nice precision trimmed gray beard too. I don’t see a ring,” said Cycle.

“Just because there is no ring on mine doesn’t mean we’re a perfect match. Why does every married woman try to get every single woman married?”

“Not trying to match make. Just trying to get you to loosen up and have a good time.  You think Sharon wanted to let me go with you to this paradise? We’re both tired of you moping around. David is gone and you need to sing a new song.  Look around you, we don’t see this every day. Soak in the magic and release those demons.”

“I will, at midnight. I promise.”

Mena looked out and felt the loss of David. He’d been sick for two years before he died on her fiftieth birthday. Those years had been miserable and taxing, leaving her angry and lost. She always thought they would grow old together, despite the ups and downs of their marriage. They’d wanted children, but four miscarriages and a hysterectomy erased their hopes. She dropped her head as she walked to the shoreline, where a line had formed to get on the boat.

The sound of an island woman blowing a conch signaled the group to board. The skipper announced three people had decided not to go diving, leaving an uneven number. He also told them, inexperienced divers would be paired with experienced ones to assist the expert divers.  Raymond shuddered when he and his partner were called and the taller of the two women, who’d been talking, stepped out. Of course, he thought, it would be my luck.

Cycle laughed when her best friend since grade school jerked with surprise.

“What is this? Cycle, you and I are supposed to be doing this together.”

“Changed my mind when I saw that handsome single guy last night. I’m going to help the odd man out. Go. Be friendly, Mena.”

The intensity of Mena’s angry stare did nothing to alter the warmth of the sunshine or Cycle’s resolve to get her out among the living. Raymond and Mena stood next to each other like tin soldiers, both with straight unsmiling lips and hunched shoulders, while all around them were chatting and laughing inside the slight tepid winds. Mena secured her life jacket and took her seat next to Raymond.  He went to settle his gear under his seat and brushed the bronzed leg of his unwanted partner. Cycle looked over at them and wondered if she’d made a mistake. The man looked as miserable as Mena did. Her wondering was interrupted by her nervous partner wanting to know everything about deep sea diving in a New York minute. God let them get along was Cycle’s last thought before turning towards the panicky, pale, man beside her.

Despite Raymond’s obvious agitation at being paired with her, Mena was grateful for his patience and breadth of knowledge. Her compliance in following his instructions eventually put him at ease. He was surprised that she didn’t talk his ear off. Instead she was thoughtful, quiet and focused. By the end of the day, they were able to look at each other and smile. When the boat docked, he told her she’d done a great job. Mena asked him if he wanted to get something to eat. Cycle saw the connection and made herself scarce.

Over a lunch, they learned that their paths were more similar than different. He was a lawyer in St. Louis. She was a paralegal in Chicago. He was single, and she was a widow. They were both over fifty and childless. Before they realized it, they were laughing out loud and accidentally touching hands as they reached for their wine glasses. He marveled at her deep brown eyes like dark moons and the kinky gray edges of her natural hairline giving a brilliant radiance to her skin tone. The cord striking him most deeply was her laugh, it was like unfiltered sunshine. She was drawn to the lushness of his baritone voice and the suggestive way his mustache ends flared when he sat forward listening to her like no one else was on the bluish white stone patio. They decided to pair up for the evening swim before they parted for their rooms. When Mena got back to her room, Cycle was on the phone with her wife, twirling her blond braided extensions around her finger.

“Girl, you should see the shine on Mena’s face. I think she caught herself a fish.”

“Did not. Didn’t even throw my line in. He is just a nice man and he helped me a lot today. I might even get into this deep sea diving thing a little more. Anyway, mind your business and stop trying to mind mine. Hey Sharon, get your girl!”

Raymond stretched out across his bed for a short nap, but sleep evaded him. He kept seeing Mena’s smile and tried to get a grip on why she felt so familiar to him. Talking with her, as they ate, was like talking to an old friend, comfortable, easy. He was beginning to drift off when his cellphone rang.

“Well, you having a good time without me?”

“Hi Darlene. As a matter of fact, I am,” said Raymond. The line went dead. He turned the ringer off on his phone, then blocked Darlene’s number.

Azure skies had been replaced by a deep midnight blue, illuminated by stars and a powerful orange-yellow moon that seemed to be sitting on the water. Mena and Raymond walked together to the small boat waiting to take them to the healing hole. He helped her on board with a sultry breeze encircling them. Dazzling moonlight bathed their every movements. Cycle and her diving partner from earlier in the day walked a few paces behind them. Cycle had heard the low talking between her best friend and the handsome stranger and felt satisfied that she had completed her mission of getting Mena outside of herself to meet someone.  She only hope he was the right someone to halt her grief.

A lamp by the tree roots illuminated the downward path to the tree lovers. Mena circled the tree once with Raymond on the other side of her. They were enthralled with the tree sparkling like buried treasure in the light. When Mena reached out to touch the tree, it seemed to draw her to it. In a slight panic, her foot got tangled betwixt the two wrapped trunks. She began to struggle. Raymond swam to her and tried to free her foot. Mena began to count her breathes and knew she’d soon need to rise from the water to get air. Raymond, tired from diving earlier, felt his tugging arms giving up. It was when Raymond placed his arms fully around her body that the tree released her. At that moment, it seemed as if their hearts had stopped beating, until they crested the water surface sputtering and panting. They got into the boat and looked at nothing but each other.

In the moonlight, she looked like something he wanted to discover. In the moonlight, he looked like something she had lost. The leaves at the top of the exposed part of the trees began to sway. The sound was in syncopation with Mena’s heart mending and Raymond’s opening. On the boat, he kept his arms around her until their heartbeats slowed and became regular. The rhythm of each seeming to fold into one heart.

Years would pass, but they would never tire of telling the story of the magic moment the tree lovers grabbed Mena and Raymond grabbed her.

 

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