A Broken Tree
My first memory of my father—your grandfather—begins only with the sound of typing. He appears, young, writing his first book on what must be our old Commodore 64. He’s using his index fingers to strike each key, like he’s still on a typewriter. I’m standing behind him, in the doorway to his office, eyes level with his desk. Dusty light swirls in from the window like pond water jarred and held up to the sun. I’m thinking of the summer heat beyond the glass, bugs swimming through the humid air, woods whispering the names of would-be explorers. But here I am, inside.
From this angle, I can’t see his face—just his body, stooped over the keyboard like a pitcher pouring itself out.
Nearly three decades later, your grandmother calls. My father has had a brain aneurysm. With retirement mere weeks away, he was under more pressure than ever to finish well. Though always the constructivist, he insisted “pressure,” like “stress,” was simply a metaphor, toothless.
She says he was happy for the final few hours. He suddenly forgot where he was and just grinned and chatted as they drove to the hospital. Then, in the waiting room, in the middle of a story, he laid his head on her shoulder, tenderly, she says, and closed his eyes.
That great crackling city of his brain, which remained neon day and night for six decades, went finally dark.
Your grandmother says she can’t decide what to do with all his books.
Southern Indiana is bright and softly gridded. Fields of canola blooms swell like a sea of settled pollen around our bridge, the highway. The sky stretches above, blue and cloudless. Set back from the road, old billboards succumb to the stolid press of trees. Panels are missing and messages are partial: “Why settle—” or “Call 8—” or “—happy.”
Your mother is sick with you, so we pull onto the gravel roadside. She opens her door before we’ve stopped, swivels in the passenger seat, plants her feet on the ground, and heaves twice, spitting afterward.
I remember our second date, when I drank too much and your mother drove me home. This view of her bent over, back tense anticipating the next spasm—this is the view she must’ve had of me that night. I’d asked her to pull over, and I remember sitting like she is now, numbly disconnecting a beaded strand of saliva from my bottom lip, watching it arch from my fingertip in the night breeze like silk web till it came unstuck and flashed into nothing.
I met your mother just under a year ago, when I was finishing seminary. I’d spent three years in books there, standing ankle-deep where reason lapped at the shore of the unknowable, squinting against the dark.
Your grandfather opposed my religious studies. On the cheap pine table he bought the year my twin brother left college and I first considered graduate school, he opened a notepad and drew concentric circles over and over. God, he said, left all the pieces of a great existence scattered around the universe. It took meticulous observation—the kind of careful examination your mother is using on the gravel between her maroon Keds right now—to piece together this model. He asked me what theologians examined but themselves.
My father was an anthropologist, and a good one. He taught me that nothing is more beautiful than God’s created order and our created order. Ethnography, he would say, is a beautifully pure pursuit.
After seminary, longing for laymanship, I became a journalist and critic. In that work, I quickly learned that everyone stands on the same shore I did in seminary—only most of us turn from the dark, act as though the backs of our necks don’t prickle.
I met your mother at a house party just before graduation. We were both sipping whiskey with the caution of early evening, and she was wearing a maroon sweater that gave her brown skin warmth you could feel across the room. Orange shocks of hair in her Afro radiated out from her freckled face like sunrays. After refilling my glass, I sat beside her.
We talked about God, our parents. Your mother, who moved into her own apartment at fifteen, had come to seminary to find a father, yet every description of God sounded to her like a mother. She wanted children who could be children, a family strong enough to stay together, things she’d never known.
We shared the couch that night, our bodies fitted together, my arms wrapped around her from behind. In the dark of early morning, she turned and pressed herself against me, and I tasted the mild invitation of alcohol on her lips.
I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable, imagining your parents as young or passionate. I just mean to tell you we understood each other and loved with certainty that first night. It was only out of decorum that we dated three months before marrying.
We’re in an Indianapolis drive-thru when my mother texts. My older sisters are already driving up, she says. They’ll finish grading finals in Indiana. She asks if my brother might rather hear the news from me.
During my engagement to your mother, your grandmother the physicist described marriage to me. If you look up at night, she said, certain stars burn brighter than others. The reason, for some, is that they aren’t single stars, but binary systems. For each massive body you add, she said, a solar system becomes less stable. But two-star systems are common enough.
Stars together, she explained, aren’t like Earth and the Sun, one orbiting the other. Instead, they orbit one another simultaneously, in a drunken sort of dance around an invisible, shifting center. When one body gravitates left, the other glides down and away. Each star is always just late, catching only the fleeting scent of a partner already departed.
The trick, said my mother, is to treasure the near misses.
My parents met in school—like your mother and me—but my father never told a story of romance. Your grandmother was simply one of the girls with whom he exchanged letters after graduating. The other correspondences fizzled, and my parents were married.
Your grandparents loved each other truly, but it was a pragmatic love grown over time into dependence, reliance, and only then, in an odd inversion, that uncomfortable and liberal stomach-love—like when you ache for a stranger across a room.
I missed one brief relational stage of my parents: a short period of collegiality, as they edited manuscripts and traded theories. This lasted only a year or two, before that gut-love set in—as retirement neared. They approached that final deadline with the growing giddiness of a chaste couple nearing marriage.
Perhaps what makes death mysterious is precisely that our understanding, our plans, are irrelevant to its task. Like waking from sleep, we can’t simply will it upon ourselves. Neither can we abstain from it.
After each of his kids grew up and moved out, your grandfather bought shelves for the newly empty rooms, filled them with ethnographies long boxed in the garage. During his retirement, he planned to finally turn his dissertation—on the lore of waste and death in the Aguaruna tribe of the Amazon—into a full manuscript, now lost to us along with him.
But loss isn’t the only byproduct of unknowing.
Your mother and I spend nights up wondering whether you’ll keep your father’s limpid hair, or if unruly dark coils will spring up and out of your head like a garden. We guess about your skin and eyes, too, and so make a place for you in the world among dozens of projections of who you might become. Those paths will shine out before you, and hope will grow along the sides of each.
Your mother is asleep in the passenger seat, now, fries half-finished in her lap. The sun has disappeared, and to our left pink and orange light melts like sherbet along the horizon. The rest of the world has gone dark: fields, trees, turbines turned only to sharp silhouettes against the sky.
Feeling myself drowse, I dial my brother.
When he answers, I tell him simply. The static on the line breathes into my ear, and for a moment I feel close to him. Then he speaks, says he’ll come after clocking out Friday.
When we were still living in the south, our house had a screened-in porch overlooking a lush backyard where we caught frogs to race and coaxed lizards to bite our earlobes, to dangle like green wriggling earrings. Each morning, my mother would cradle a steaming mug of coffee in her hands and speak quietly to a hummingbird while she thought we still slept.
One afternoon, while my father was writing and my mother was in a graduate class, your uncle and I got ahold of our older sister’s BB gun. We hunkered at the edge of the porch, slid the barrel of the gun out a peeled-up corner of screen, and aimed for the hummingbird that kept my mother company. My brother turned to me, whispered, watch this, and squeezed the trigger. The bird fell as though just remembering gravity.
We were six or seven, and understood justice to be inevitable, unerring. The bird would be discovered, a copper pea lodged like a twin heart in its breast. I hid in our room while my brother resolved to run away. He left out the front door, began to cross the street that was our childhood’s boundary, and stopped. He knew he couldn’t return home, but there was nowhere else to go. A child alone with his guilt, my brother sat in the road. He stayed until my mother returned home, found him, carried him inside.
I don’t know why, but I recalled that afternoon when my brother told me he had lost his faith. We were in college then. My father, over Christmas break, rejected the confession, bent every dinner table conversation for two weeks back to belief. My brother had no explanations.
I have struggled with doubt, too, and so will you, I am sure. To doubt a God you’ve known all your life is to doubt your knowing—your own self—prior to the moment of doubt. The world seems suddenly liquid, as though any surface could be broken at a touch. As though you could be broken. In response to this feeling, my brother tried to hold very still. He stopped school, stopped reading, and began work at a convenience store in Lexington—the first place he could find. He wouldn’t talk to my father.
My father and brother were more similar than they knew. Neither understood that doubt is nothing to fear. It teaches us to test truth—to seek out the solid in a world turned liquid.
My father forgot most things just before dying. He might even have forgotten his faith. But I know why he wasn’t afraid: he also forgot his certainty, a certainty that one moment, one breath, one life must give way to the next. Or perhaps—and this is unlikely, but not impossible—he simply realized he didn’t need it.
We arrive late at my parents’ house, where your grandmother has fallen asleep watching Survivor. Your mother turns off the TV, and I cover the old woman on the couch with a plush throw. She murmurs a forgiving thank you and curls up tighter.
The groceries we brought to avoid spoilage we leave on the table. Faint furrows in the wood catch my eye, and I realize they’re the carbon-copies of my father’s notes. He always drew as he thought, and his pen tilled the soft pine table through his papers. Here are the vestiges of a civilization of one: cave paintings, a dead language.
Upstairs, your mother and I undress. We are in the room where you were conceived the week before we married. We’ve smiled and demurred for the last few months when older couples at church wink and chuckle that you’re a honeymoon baby.
Here in this room you were begotten. Your mother and I didn’t set out to create you, didn’t assemble and arrange your features. We loved each other, and you naturally emerged, mysterious yet not unexpected. Like poetry or faith—begotten, not made.
Your mother and I stand naked before each other now and feel no shame. Her skin is still warm and soft, only her belly has grown round and firm as the Earth, and a dark line trails like comet dust down from her navel, disappearing under the horizon of her. One of your heels rises on her belly like a continent from the depths, and we both lay our hands over you to feel the miracle of creation.
When we slip into bed, we lie like we did the first night, my arm around her, my body conformed to hers. And now cradled in the middle: you.
In seminary, I studied the writings of the Venerable Bede. I’ve forgotten nearly all I read by him, except one description. Bede said, to read Scripture, one must tether himself to the church, then lean out into the text.
I’ve always imagined he was picturing one of those tall trees—shorn of limbs and topped with a tiny platform—that early ascetics balanced on for sixty days at a time. Only this tree would be surrounded by utter darkness. The darkness, though, would be like closing your eyes—not complete, but rather a place of negatives, of ghosts. And a leather strap would be anchored to the center of the platform. To Bede, reading Scripture meant fastening that strap to your waist and leaning out into the void.
I’ve always aspired to read Scripture this way, taking courage in the certainty that what I perceive is wrong, but also taking hope in the chance that my wrongness is not entire.
Bede might’ve described family similarly. When you grow older, you’ll meet my sisters and brother. You’ll know them briefly and separately. Only when we congregate in Indiana—maybe once or twice—will you see them together. We will marvel over the smile, the eyebrows, my brother and I share. My sisters will exclaim at how you’ve grown.
But my parents’ union was the tree to which we all tethered ourselves, and it grew brittle and broke, as all trees do. And so we will all fall away into the void. My brother, who came unfastened before the rest of us, is already receding to the point of vanishing, little more than a point of light in the dark.
This is not to say you shouldn’t lean out for fear of coming unmoored. This tree, too, will break. But at the breaking, the falling, we are together—your grandfather, you, and me—intimate in our finitude.
Lying in bed with you and your mother, I have a dream.
I stand alone in the narthex of the church where my father’s memorial is held. A set of three small rose windows spreads across the wall like a stained glass ellipsis. I look through the windows into the sanctuary.
And you’re a toddler now, and together we’re peeling up clods of earth. It must be winter, because the mud has frozen into little bundles of icy needles. You reach out a finger to test their sharpness, and when you draw back, they’ve disappeared and your finger is shining, wet.
And I am home now, and finally working on my book, though I can’t seem to remember what it’s about. Your mother walks by and her fingers flutter across my shoulder. In my periphery, I see you—our only child—standing in the doorway. I shut my eyes and think, subject predicate subject predicate, until my fingers twitch back to life.
And you’re long gone now, working across the country. I’m watching your mother—hair feather-gray and short—pace in a sterile room. She has lost herself, forgotten who we are to one another. She pats her arms and breasts as though they might drift away, touches her face, her lips, holding herself against time and loss. She will go soon, and I know I will, too.
And I’m driving now, alone, and talking to God for the first time in years—I must’ve lost myself, too. I’m talking aloud because I can’t focus in silence anymore. I say, if I die and haven’t contributed good work, it’s God’s own fault for being so damn inscrutable. I begin to say something more when, in the hum of the road under my tires, I hear a voice say, “I am.”
And now I feel something tugging at my waist, pulling me back to waking, as through water. I’m sitting at the kitchen table with a pen, a notepad, and a mug of coffee, which is swallowing its steam. Your mother, stooped, uncracks eggs and places them in Styrofoam cartons. I look down at my hands, watch dense liver spots drift like clouds across them, as though a storm is clearing. I look up, and you’re skipping backward to the pantry, replacing bags of chips and granola bars, which your mother, wearing jeans and a t-shirt now, hauls away in grocery bags. Each time you enter, you grow smaller, and your Afro—with coils never as tight as your mother’s—flops as you bounce.
Your chest deflates, leaving you spindly; then your legs shorten, your whole body compresses. All the while you and your mother keep pausing at the doorjamb, following your progress down the wall, erasing each height and each date marked.
The windows darken, and your mother walks backward from the kitchen. I follow. At the top of the stairs, I hear quiet keening behind your door. I stop a moment and listen to your mother inside comforting you, murmuring, “Your father does love you.”
I wait for more, and nothing comes. The tug on my waist—toward my bedroom now—is gentle. There’s not much time till waking takes me.
And when I slip under the sheets, your mother lies beside me, twined in blankets, asleep. One arm cradles her pregnant belly. The room—which is now the guest room in my parents’ house—is lavender with expectation of morning. Soon voices from the kitchen will rouse us, the women in my family talking over coffee.
I wrap my arms around my wife, like that first night, like now. I put my lips to her ear, and as one moment gives way to the next, I whisper, “Stay, stay, stay.”
David Priest is an MFA candidate at the University of Arkansas and a 2018 International Regional Magazine Association (IRMA) Gold Award recipient for Nature and Environmental Writing. His work has appeared recently in Salon, Arkansas Life, Reservoir, Transect Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives in Fayetteville with his wife, Lindsey, and two sons, Idris and Atticus. In his spare time, he can be found playing board games or Super Mario Party with his family.