Texas Deputy John King Fisher was interred under an oak, loving father and husband ripped from his wife by bullets torn through his body by those who didn’t convert from crime to law like him, torn from the roots of his grave-marker by the moving of a cemetery, his cast iron box un-ensnared by roots that only wanted a companion, laid to rest beneath dirt and stone as the gnarled tree waves its limbs longingly at its former cohabitant.
The Ojibwa and other forest tribes swaddled their parents and grandparents in blankets and placed them in the forked limbs of cottonwoods, the loving arms protecting their charges from the mouths of predators and scavengers. Children and grandchildren could sit at their feet and listen to the dead whispering the leaves, taking comfort as those messages loosened and fell in their asking hands.
When a tree dies naturally, it usually happens slowly. Something, a fungus or other parasite, takes up residence within the roots, sapping its nutrients. We can’t see the effects of the parasite until it’s too late. When we do finally notice, it’s usually because the leaves blacken and fall too early, the air-gatherers shaking free in one long cough. When the tree finally succumbs, it can stay upright for years, bony fingers frozen in the sky, marking its own grave. Squirrels may still use it as a pantry. Birds may still perch on its branches, singing.
These dead-standing trees are called widow makers. They dry out, whitening in the sun, brittling. A strong gust of wind from the right direction can push them to the ground, like an older sibling playing too rough. When the tree lands it becomes a log, but anyone resting under its sparse shade is unlikely to survive the transformation.
When I die, I don’t want to lie in a tree, or underneath one. I want to become one: a seed buried, watered by rain, softened until I split, sifting through dirt like a child, a finger poking through the earth, hand raising slowly not in uncertainty, but in quiet determination. My arm bends, splits, limbs stretching toward the sky’s belly, lifting up, up, up. Time speeds as I slow, my children watering me, grandchildren reading under me, great-grandchildren swinging from my branches, their laughs rustling my leaves.
I will remain standing for years, eventually weakening and cracking, my leaves thinning as I sicken. In this way, I will teach my family patience, and resilience, and that losing things is a part of life. And when the parasite finally takes me, I will teach them that sometimes it’s best not to linger.
Danielle Hale is an English Instructor and emerging poet. Her poems have appeared in The Citron Review and Helen Literary Magazine. She received her MA in Creative Writing from the University of North Dakota and currently resides in Wausau, WI. You can connect with her over Twitter, @DanielleHale1.