My first memory is of my momma. I can’t remember her face, only the angles of her body and the way she could calm me just by singing nonsense words. But in my memory, I see her as she was in old photographs, her face blurred from turning away from the lens, her brown hair with edgy green streaks aloft in an eternal breeze. But my memory of that day is clear. She lifted me from a spill down an unexpected hole in the yard where I found a nest of fire ants.
I screamed from the pain of the bites, my legs, arms, and cheeks aflame with poison. But then she sang to me in the weird, nonsense words she used to sing me to sleep at night. The pain subsided immediately, and I dozed in her arms as she stood where I’d fallen. Rocking me. Singing her strange melody, its meaning tickling at the edge of my awareness.
I still wonder how many bites she endured that day, whether the sacrifice she made to rescue me was the reason she walked out the front door and faded into the forest beyond the yard. I wonder if I’m the reason she left, the one who drove her away, the ward on the house that would not allow her to return.
When I turned sixteen, Gran served cakes topped with whipped up cream and offered me a stick of driftwood she’d found along the riverbank for my present. I asked her why Momma had left.
Gran smiled. “Honey, your Momma is just a dandelion, at the whim of the wind. One day, you will be, too.”
“Never, Gran. I wouldn’t leave my daughter behind.” The thought of doing that to someone else enraged me, but Gran put a soft hand on my shoulder.
“You come from a long line of dandelion seeds, sweet love.”
I studied Gran as she wiped down the counter. “You didn’t leave me, though.”
Gran paused and tilted her head. She’d never gotten angry before, but she seemed so stiff and unsure, I thought she might do so then. “No,” she finally said. “But I left your momma with my momma. We all have to take our turn.”
I grasped the driftwood and pulled it into my lap, suddenly needing its solidity to tether me to this world as a swirl of emotion compelled me to run out of the house, away from Gran’s words. “I won’t have a child if there’s even a chance I’d have to leave her.”
Gran’s tinkling laugh caught me off guard. “You don’t always have that choice.”
I scoffed that night, but Gran was right. We can’t always choose who joins a family, just as we can’t choose our heritage. The only thing we can choose is what we leave behind.
A year or so after that conversation, I left the house at the edge of the forest for college and a degree in environmental engineering. I was gone for fifteen years, flying Gran to me for visits, trying to convince her to sell the house and move in with me. I missed the old place dearly, but the rooms were full of dust and bitterness, rage and resentment. I didn’t have the energy to filter any of that mess.
Gran always refused to leave, and I never returned to the only home I’d known as a child, not even when the loneliness became a steady ache no doctor could diagnose or treat. The pain took a couple of years to start, and at first, I thought it was stress. The doctor agreed. As the pain worsened, I thought maybe it was an ulcer or five. The doctor ruled that out. Four years out of college and in the world, with company-provided insurance, I still couldn’t get a diagnosis. I learned to deal with the ever-increasing ache that sometimes bloomed into a fiery, breath-stealing pain no emergency room would take seriously.
Then one day, Momma called me.
“Gran passed, my love,” she said. “You should come home.” No hello. No explanation. No acknowledgment that we hadn’t spoken to or seen each other for decades. Only a worn gentleness that reminded me of Gran.
I knew her voice the second I heard it, tinkling but graveled by age and what sounded like disuse. Grief tried to overwhelm me, but I took deep breaths and calmed myself, even as the ache in my stomach intensified in a way that told me my insides would feel like poison fire before the end of the night. “As soon as I can get a flight.”
When I packed my bag, I tucked my driftwood between t-shirts in my suitcase, but before I left, I pulled it out and stuck it in my carry-on bag in case I needed its solidity to tether me to this world while I flew through the air far above it. Before I buckled my seatbelt on the connecting flight, I dug the driftwood from my carry-on bag and held it against my chest until we landed.
When my ride pulled up to the house at the edge of the forest, I held that wood tight between my palms and hoped I wouldn’t have a panic attack. Gran had been gone less than two days, and I missed her so desperately, I wasn’t sure I’d ever feel the Gran-shaped hole filled back up. But the Momma-shaped hole I’d forgotten was ever there now reminded me it could be filled again, if I’d let go of my resentment.
Momma stepped out the front door and stood at the edge of the porch, a living sigil warding the house, blocking my way back in. She clasped her elbows and watched me in the car with starving eyes.
At first glance, she looked so much like Gran had when I was a girl, shock stole my breath. I could see Gran holding tight to the column of wood at the edge of the stairs while Momma rocked me, sang her nonsense song, and carried me, stumbling, back to the house and away from the fire ants.
Gran again when I chased Momma to the edge of the woods and couldn’t see where she’d gone, spreading her arms wide, offering her love, promising never to abandon me. Visceral memories as Momma stood in that same spot, folded in and waiting.
I recorded a tip on my phone for the driver and took my time retrieving my suitcase, but too soon, I stood at the bottom of the steps, Momma at the top. She smiled wide at me, tears in her eyes.
“I didn’t know it would take you so long to come home,” she said.
I stared up at her, disbelieving, then moved up the stairs. “I could say the same.” I shouldered past her, headed into the house and up to my old room.
That night, I had trouble sleeping, even when I opened the window, let the green-scented breeze flow through the room, and clasped the driftwood to my chest.
We spread Gran’s ashes at the edge of the forest the next evening, as the sun set, and I fancied the swirl of her remains on the wind looked like she’d formed wings and taken to the forest in a new form. When that image fell apart, it was like a crop of dandelion fluff had snowed along the forest floor. I couldn’t get the thought out of my head the rest of the day.
Momma headed back into the house while I waited at the edge of the forest for the ash to pull back together, reform into Gran. At least for one last hug goodbye. Instead, her ash blew farther into the forest, away from me, towards the plant life the last bits of her would nourish. I imagined how green the trees and scrub along the ground would be this time next year. It might be unnoticeable to most, but I’d notice. I’d know the slightly brighter green of the leaves would be Gran, smiling out at the world.
On my way back to the house, where Momma watched from the kitchen window, I nearly stepped into a small sinkhole in the yard. The bottom teemed with ants that didn’t look so much like fire ants as tiny thief ants that had bathed in bright red paint. They piled over one another, picking over what was clearly a serving of last night’s dinner, left here like an offering. I hadn’t seen food in the hole I’d fallen into, but I’d definitely seen those ants before, and my skin prickled like they had climbed up my legs all over again.
I returned quickly to the house, but inside, I pulled up short again. From the kitchen, momma’s nonsense song drifted over the air and instantly soothed me. But then rage prickled my skin. She’d lost the right to comfort me, and her song irritated the shit out of me now.
I went upstairs and spent the rest of the day in my room, picking through my old stuff, deciding what I wanted to take with me and what I’d leave to molder and rot with the house.
“I’ll be heading home tomorrow,” I told Momma the next night after we’d picked a casserole dish to bits. A neighbor I’d never met had dropped it off and disappeared into the side yard before I could get her name.
Momma didn’t answer, just gave me a look that seemed half-haunted and half-hopeful. I had no idea what she could possibly be hopeful for, though, so I said goodnight and went to my room, tidied up my suitcase and tucked a few gewgaws Gran had given me inside, opened the window, and crawled into bed.
Sleep evaded me again. Exhaustion had ridden me hard all day, but I was wide awake, aware of every cicada and the applause of a million leaves, grateful for the breeze that animated them. Momma came into my room sometime during the night looking like Gran in more modern clothes, with rebellious green dye shot through where gray would normally be. She perched at the edge of the bed and stroked my hair away from my face. The loss of my grandmother in that moment opened the ache in my stomach I hadn’t been able to rid myself of, but then it eased, and I realized my mysterious stomach pain had gone away sometime after I got on that flight back here. Grief had covered it, I thought, but as I relaxed into the bed, I felt only that I had come home where I belonged, and maybe I shouldn’t leave.
When Momma sang, it was the old, strange melody, but the words almost made sense now. I still recognized them as the same nonsense sounds as before, but the inflections and melody dredged up imagery that made sense, that told a story. It was one of those songs that never ends, constantly repeating, telling the same story of love and loss and reunion until the singer fades away.
Then a song from the forest drifted through the open window, like a hundred voices softly singing a harmony that filled in the rest of the story as Momma sang it. The words were foreign, but they were also clear, and the imagery was clearer. I rose from my bed and stood at my window, feeling the knowledge unfurl in me, changing me into the person I needed to become.
“It’s your turn, my love,” Momma said, and then she left the room.
I went outside with bare feet, the thin tank top I wore to bed not quite enough to stave off the cool breeze, wondering somewhere in the back of my mind what the hell I was doing. But the song of the forest called to me, and I responded, curling up against the base of a tree near where Gran had settled the day before.
When I woke in the morning, I knew I would have a daughter soon. I knew why. I knew I would now live in the house until my daughter was old enough to know the pain of abandonment, and then I’d return once Momma had passed. The song that never ends.
Momma was glowing when I returned, took hours to show me books in Gran’s bookshelf I’d never looked at before, giving me information I needed to understand our history and our future. I called my boss and explained I’d need another week or two to take care of things here, offering to work remote, but he assured me the job would still be there when I returned.
Over the next week, I learned the songs Momma had sung to me, and I learned the tree I’d curled against would open for me in less than ten years to receive me again, cocoon me until the world was ready for me to return. I stared into the mirror at my dull eyes, fixed on the worst possible ending I could have ever imagined for myself.
At the end of the week, I sat at the kitchen table while Momma wiped down the counters, and I told her I was leaving.
“You can’t. Your daughter won’t survive.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
When Momma didn’t immediately answer, I slammed my fist on the table, and she jumped. It took her a second of searching around for the words, but then she finally responded.
“If you don’t return to your tree, or if you wait too long, it will take her instead.”
“How?” I asked.
Momma folded the dishtowel and laid it beside the sink, then leaned against the counter. “I saw you looking at the hole out there. The other day?”
“With the ants? Like the one I fell into?”
Momma nodded. “I don’t know if you remember when I left—”
“Of course, I remember. It was the worst day of my life.”
Momma flinched but nodded. “I know. But it’s necessary. After I left, did you see another hole like that in the yard? Until now?”
I thought back and couldn’t recall one. I couldn’t even remember seeing that one again. I guess I’d assumed Gran or Momma had filled it. “No, I didn’t.”
“If you wait too long to return, it will send for you.”
“And if I refuse, it will come for my daughter?”
“Any one of us. It will take any one of us. Or it dies.”
The next morning, I returned home and to my job and friends. I refused to think of my mother, refused to imagine she’d watched me leave from her bedroom window.
Until my contractions began. Her voice sang to me from far away, and the child within me moved in time with the sound I thought only I could hear. So I sang louder, a little Gloria Gaynor to drown out the noise.
When the midwife tucked my daughter against my breast, I sang to her in soft words I knew were nonsense to everyone else but sounded like love and freedom and joy to me.
I hoped her first memory would be of me, singing her an endless song she’d never entirely understand, singing her into the person she would become. But many nights through the years, I could hear another song drifting through my open bedroom window, singing a different song of love, loss, and reunion. Every time I heard the trill of momma’s voice, a small burning sensation would flare in my stomach.
The burning grew in frequency over the years, until my daughter turned eight and the pain became constant. I knew how to heal it, but I also knew I would never abandon my daughter. Going home meant I was much more likely to fall into the trap my ancestors had created. Going too near that tree, my heritage, could doom my daughter.
But if I didn’t go, I’d never be free.
I left my daughter with her favorite babysitter and flew back home with only my wallet, my phone, my house key, and the worn piece of driftwood.
The ride dropped me off around midnight at Gran’s house. The windows were dark, but one was open.
When the car drove away, I waited at the edge of the yard and watched the house, felt the pull of the tree in the woods, the song it sang in the wind as the leaves applauded its solo. Cicadas joined in harmony. As my eyes adjusted, I noticed the holes pockmarking the lawn, and though I wasn’t near one, I swore I could hear the tiny legs of the creatures crawling through them, searching for a sacrifice.
As the sounds of the night resumed, I began my song, singing toward the open window. My voice wanted to sing along with the tree, but I closed out the world around me and focused on my own intentions. Within an hour, a face appeared at the window.
Momma stared across the yard at the trees in the woods, her eyes searching but empty, a window into the dream she thought she was having, that I was singing into her mind. Then she stepped away, back into the gloom.
A minute later, she came through the front door, leaving it open behind her, and stumbled into the yard, over numerous holes in the ground, barely crying out when her leg disappeared into a hole, toppling her over. When she pulled her leg out and brushed frantically at the biting red ants, her eyes never strayed from the woods. She stood after a few seconds and limped forward, eventually disappearing into the dark.
I stopped singing and listened. The cicadas had quieted when she entered the yard, so I waited until their song returned, a slowly building crescendo that reached its peak and remained, louder than I’d ever heard. A hum floated from the forest, a tree reunited with its other half. Hopefully she’d stay there for a very, very long time.
As I walked toward the house, an urge tickled at me to send for my daughter and make this home our own, to live like the generations of women before us, to resurrect my gran’s favorite traditions. It was her voice I heard in my mind: This is where you belong. This is the life you should have had. You could have years with your daughter, protected in the shade of your ancestry.
It was tempting to think I could be here and give my daughter the life she deserved. Homesickness would never bother me again. I could give up city life and live here, in the quiet majesty of a beautiful forest, near a river that deposited treasures like driftwood on its banks, near trees that wanted me here, that needed me here.
The desire wasn’t overwhelming, but it was frightening nonetheless.
I reached the front door and paused, my hand on the doorjamb. From across the yard, the breeze brought the scent of blooming magnolia and the chatter of busy leaves.
I closed the front door, walked out to the main road, and waited for my ride home, the piece of driftwood clasped tight in my hand.
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