The Maple Tree

 Zoe Goldstein

We learned how the sticky parts of the helicopter seeds stuck to our noses perfectly, like tiny green wings.

We learned how it was best to roll down the grassy slope three times in a row so that, when we stood up, the field spun and turned as if we were seeing it from upside down.

We learned how to make an acorn circle in the dust near the sandbox, inside of which we left gifts: the crusts of our peanut butter sandwiches, scented erasers, shiny rocks.

We learned that if we sat in the crook of two low branches in the maple tree outside the kindergarten classroom and were still for long enough, we could feel the tree moving slightly beneath us, in the same way our chests rose and fell with breath. And if we waited even longer, the birds we’d scared off would return to the tree and sing. Of course, if the recess monitor noticed us up there during recess with our legs dangling down, our skirts blowing in the wind, and our dirty fingers in our mouths, she would blow her whistle and we’d have to shimmy down to earth. She said it was indecent to sit like that, and, pointing at our scabby knees and scraped-up palms, she said we would hurt ourselves. But it felt right that way, as if we were peeling away our outside bark to reveal the sinewy sapwood beneath.

We learned all that before grade three. Our lives then were simple and full. When we were inside, in class or at dinnertime, we listened to adults telling us about triangles and wiping dirt off our faces. When we were outside, we were ferocious beasts who dug in the mud and yelled loudly and sometimes bit when the first graders squashed the tall grasses we were hiding in. That is to say, we were ourselves.

But the summer before third grade changed everything. Our bodies lengthened in new ways, we were allowed to bike around the neighborhood alone, and for the first time, we were tall enough to reach the tallest branches of our beloved maple tree, which beckoned us upwards.

The tree had a sturdy trunk with furrowed bark, and although it was located on the edge of the playground, its reaching branches shaded both the swingset and the monkey bars. In the fall, the kindergartners built fairy houses among its roots. In the spring, the teachers looped it with pastel ribbons for May Day. When all three of us wrapped our arms around the trunk and touched fingertips, we encircled it perfectly.

Although the tree was popular, it was ours during recess, and we were the tree’s. If anyone broached the edges of its shadow to peel pieces of bark or grab at its twigs, we hissed until they ran away.

That summer, we found that, if we stood on our tiptoes, tilted our heads back into the deep green shade of the tree, and reached up, we could grab onto the high-up branch that would grant us access to the lofty heights of the tree. We swung ourselves up at the exact same time and then stood in the sky. The leaves rustled in the wind as if to welcome us.

We climbed high enough that we could sit on a wide branch and watch the sun set golden over the field, like it was dousing the world in syrup. The tree sighed beneath us, and we pressed our toes into it.

On the way down, we decided we had to leap to the ground together like we’d come up or else we’d be cursed, like when you smashed a mirror, or leaned your desk back to balance on one leg. We jumped, but it was higher going down than up and we hit the ground hard, falling into each other in a tangled mess.

Our parents drove us to the hospital, and we sat in bed all day, watching TV and drinking juice with ice packs on our ankles. We got matching orange casts for our sprained right ankles, and in the evening, the nurses released us to the clutches of our fathers, who were waiting for us in the hospital dining hall. We ate rice pudding out of styrofoam containers; they talked and pushed fallen pieces of chicken back into their sandwiches.

“Girls,” they said, “you’re in the third grade now. It’s time to learn to behave. The world can be a dangerous place for little girls, and we don’t want you hurting yourselves. Do you understand?”

We didn’t. All we had done was jump and hurt our ankles a little, and only our right ones at that. And the nurses had fixed us up and given us juice. So we stirred our rice pudding and stared at the grainy tabletop.

They told us there were three new rules for the year:

  1. Behave yourselves
  2. Be nice to others
  3. No climbing trees

When our fathers asked us again if we understood, we spilled our rice pudding on the table and on our laps and walked out of the cafeteria into the light summer air.

In the middle of the parking lot, our fathers grasped our arms and told us we wouldn’t be allowed to see each other anymore if we didn’t follow the rules.

We decided to comply.

When school started after the swollen ankle summer, we tried to be good. It was the first recess of the year, and we were supposed to be drawing, like the other perfect girls who sat on the concrete gripping their tins of colored pencils. We sat criss-cross-applesauce on the concrete nearby, fanning our pencils out in rainbows just like theirs, but they turned their backs on us, and we thought we heard them laugh.

It was only then that we noticed how with our legs crossed, our skirts didn’t sit flat over our knobbly knees and instead tented to expose the darkness underneath. Indecent. We shifted our weight onto our heels, like the other girls, and pressed our knees together, shoe soles grinding into thigh flesh until it hurt. It doesn’t matter, we murmured to each other. They don’t know what we know. They don’t know what it feels like to climb higher than anyone else and stand above the world. We whispered until our voices blended with the wild undercurrents of the wind. They’re just stupid girls, and they will grow into stupid women.

We decided to draw pictures of each other, but our drawings quickly turned into pictures of the trees. Branches here. Curve of a nose there. Until the pages were just thick dark lines.

We tried so hard to be good. So hard it ached. We walked carefully on our legs even after the casts came off. We chewed with our mouths closed. We remembered to sit on our heels, and then we admired the reddish webbed marks they left on our thighs. Clean as porcelain for a week, until we started edging towards the roots of the old maple tree. Every day, we edged closer and closer until we could prop our sketchbooks on its roots.

One night we had a sleepover because of our good behavior. We ate slices of pizza and a cone of ice cream each and turned out the lights early. Once our parents went to bed, we gathered our flashlights and sleeping bags and walked ten minutes to the maple on the playground. Its roots spread like veins.

As we lay our sleeping bags down, we learned something new: our bodies perfectly fit the contours of the roots, and when we rested our heads atop them, they were better than a pillow. We slept on our stomachs with our limbs askew. When the sun broke over the playground, we ran back home and pretended to sleep late, our hearts pounding.

From then on, we crept out every night to the roots that held our bodies in the same way we held each other after we fell from the tree and hurt our ankles, our bodies interlocking until we couldn’t tell whose arm this was or whose leg that was or whose tears were falling on whose skin. We slept better than ever, and we were so cheerful that our parents began to think their plan had worked and we were not wild anymore.

But we were, even if every morning we had to rub away the creases the bark left on our cheeks. Our hearts beat at the same pace as the murmuring leaves on the blacktop. We moved in step with the grasses. We discovered that, if we brought fallen twigs into class with us so our hands could explore their textures deep in our pockets, we could focus on subtraction until we were free again.

And then one morning, we awoke with a strange tracery on our arms: faded brown lines traveling up from the crooks of our elbows to our biceps. We kneaded them, but they didn’t leave. Neither washcloths nor handfuls of leaves could expel them.

The following night, we nuzzled our heads against the bark before laying our sleeping bags down. To thank, or to query. Or maybe just to be let inside. We felt something hot pushing at our arms, and we saw it was tiny fibrous roots, growing just beneath our skin.

We didn’t worry. We knew the world was safe. Even if it scratched us and nicked us, we could still fall into its soft arms every night, like the storybook mothers those perfect girls on the playground would one day become. But not like that at all. Because we had found something better.

November came warm and sticky, so warm that by the afternoon, we could strip off the fleeces our mothers had made us wear and run around in t-shirts.

At the fall assembly, we sat with hands in leafy pockets as the principal told us about the fall play. The bake sale. The coat drive. The maple tree which was dangerously close to the roof of the school and would be chopped down at the end of the month.

We all went down with fevers for the next week. In our sleep, we screeched and ripped at the sheets. Our mothers tried to adjust our blankets, but we pushed back their hands again and again, only letting them touch us to press cool cloths to our foreheads or hand us cups of ginger ale.

Our fevers were gone on Monday, and we went back to school with orders to sneeze into our elbows. At recess, it was cold for the first time that year—real November cold. We shivered in our sweaters. We noticed that the helicopter seeds had turned brown and crumbled into dust when we tried to pry them open to stick them to our noses.

At the far end of the playground, we spied a group of construction men putting up yellow tape around the maple. We knew exactly what we shouldn’t do, saw it clearly outlined in our heads. But we did it anyway. Maybe it was the pulsing heat in our arms, of angry roots. (For a second the pressure was so intense it hurt, sharp and twisting beneath our skin, and for the first time, during that half-moment, we feared our bodies.) Or maybe it was just that no one had ever told us what to do instead.

We ran at them. We screamed. We ripped at their uniforms and kicked at their knees. But they ignored us. They thought we were playing a game. They didn’t meet our gaze. They chuckled to themselves. When we tore apart the yellow tape, the recess monitor grabbed us by our collars, rolling her eyes. We howled like wolves for her to let us go and she told us to behave.

“The tree is hollow inside, kids,” she said, turning from us. “Bugs eating it. Nothing you can do.”

So the tree came down.

But we knew the tree wasn’t hollow. There was only a little hole at the center. We had known it was there weeks ago, before the yellow tape, back on the night after the roots had spread beneath our arms.

It would’ve healed, with time. It would have filled.

The rest of that year is hard to remember. The tree was chopped down, that is what I am sure of, and all that was left was a small stump and some fine wood shavings that blew around on the breeze until there were none left. The other kids played with those shavings, sprinkling them in their hair, putting them in mud pies. Some of them drew pictures of the stump that the teachers laminated and hung up in the library. We didn’t do any of that.

I can’t say that I remember much, but I do know what did not fade: the marks on our arms. Spreading from our elbows to our shoulders. That faint brown tracery that sits as if just beneath our skin, waiting to break through.

These days, I wear long sleeved blouses and pencil skirts. I put on silver jangling bracelets. I wash my face every morning and exfoliate the dead skin in the evenings. Sometimes I think of those perfect girls on the blacktop and how they would cluster at the far edges of the maple tree, like they were waiting to be let in. Waiting to curl against the tree like us.

And every year in the late summer that is almost fall, in that thick syrupy light we used to drink from atop the maple tree, I let my eyes catch on each tree I pass on the street, as if to find the match to my marks, the one that would break me open at last. And while I haven’t talked to them in years, I know that they are all doing the same, somewhere far away, all of our bodies aching for what is almost gone in the deep changing light.

Zoe Goldstein

is a recent high school graduate from Massachusetts. She has attended the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop and the New England Young Writers Conference at Bread Loaf, and she is a 2021 National YoungArts Finalist in Short Story. Her work appears in perhappened mag and Eunoia Review.

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