The Mimosa Tree

The mimosa tree grew on a hillside of grass and wild herbs, and at the top of that hill stood a cottage with a long flight of stone steps leading up to the front door. In the cottage lived a woman and a man. Every summer, the mimosa bloomed with deep pink flowers shaped like feathery plumes. They swayed like sea anemones in the faintest breeze. The leaves clustered close together in the shape of fern fronds, and the branches curved gently under their weight. It was less like a tree and more like a cloud. When the Southern summer days grew long, a flock of hummingbirds would visit the tree to drink nectar from its flowers. The beating of their many wings made a low buzz, and their jeweled feathers caught the sunlight as they darted back and forth. At dusk, the woman and man would sit together at the foot of the mimosa tree and breathe the sweet evening air. A host of fireflies awoke and lit the tree with a scintillation of tiny lights, flashing, blinking, calling to their mates who they hoped waited somewhere out there in the dark.

Early one autumn, when the leaves were still on the mimosa tree but the pink flowers were long gone, the man grew sick and died. They had dearly wanted to have children together but were never able to conceive. After the funeral, late at night, the woman stood under the mimosa tree and looked up at the full moon. She was numb with grief. The luminous moon poured light onto every leaf and stone and blade of grass and the woman’s dark skin. Everything it touched took on an otherworldly glow.

The woman said, I wish I would have a child as dark as the night and as bright as the moon, and she was so weary that she lay down and fell asleep right there, her cheek pressed against the grass, her arms wrapped around herself as the moon and stars kept watch.

By the time the next full moon had passed, and the darkness of the new moon made the stars shine brighter, the woman knew she was pregnant. Through the winter, her belly grew. By the time the spring peepers and wood frogs made a hopeful ruckus every night from the pond, the woman’s round belly was unmistakable. The people of the town wished her blessings, knitted her tiny socks and hats. They assumed it was her late husband’s child, and she did not tell them what she knew: that the child was hers and the moon’s.

During her pregnancy, she craved fiddleheads and wild leeks and mushrooms that grew from damp earth under the brightest moonlight. She walked the woods on those spring nights, searching for them. The tides of her blood waxed and waned with each lunar month. In the middle of the night, she often woke to a beam of moonlight falling across her pillow. She would open her eyes and say, Hello, my love. By day, she gathered silvery feathers dropped by herons and doves, and she tied them with a ribbon over the headboard of her bed. In her garden she grew artemisia, yarrow, lamb’s ears, all the pale flowers and herbs that reminded her of moonshine, and she hoped that at night her love would look down and see them and smile.

Though the cottage with the pink mimosa tree was many miles from the sea, when the wind came from the east, the woman could smell salt.

As the long spring grew warmer, there was a newcomer who came to town, a man with a face as pale as milk, and the woman married again. Although she still loved the moon, she wanted someone to help her care for the child, to help feed her and change her and sing to her. Her new husband had a young son, about three years old, and the two of them moved into the cottage.

The woman still woke in the night and whispered to the moon, but her husband was a heavy sleeper and rarely stirred.

Summer came and the heat simmered and the buds swelled on the mimosa tree. In the thick heat, the woman could barely sleep at all anymore. She couldn’t even toss and turn with her heavy belly propped in a nest of pillows. Her thin shirt soaked through with sweat. Finally she rose and left the bed where her husband, against all odds, slept. She walked over the damp grass in her bare feet and sat down with her back against the trunk of the mimosa tree. There was no moon tonight, but she looked up and saw the fireflies blinking in the boughs of the tree. They mirrored the stars above in the inkwell sky. The baby kicked wildly in her belly, and she said, Please come soon, please, there is a whole world I am aching to show you.

The woman sweated and swelled, her feet too big for her shoes, her body filling with seawater, her tongue licking crystals of salt from her own skin. Everything was blooming outward, the moon in the sky slowly cresting to fullness, the moon as round as her belly, her belly as round as the moon. The mimosa buds burst open and the silken flowers opened to the air. July was wanton and wet, bringing heavy thunderstorms that poured rain and soaked the soil, riots of ferns overtaking the woods, owls crooning in the small hours of the night.

Finally the woman’s water broke and she labored all night long with the moon looking in the window. Just after dawn the baby was born, squalling and screaming. Her mother cleaned her up and saw that her skin was patterned with patches of dark and light, as if she had been splashed with paint. Her hair was black except for one white shock at the top of her forehead. The woman looked at her daughter and said, You’re perfect, my love.

The man came in and revealed his true colors then, saying: That thing looks like a spotted dog. We should drown it in the pond. It would be a mercy.

Never, the woman said fiercely, and he stormed out of the room. From then on, the man no longer bothered to hide his meanness as he had before the girl’s birth. His temper, like the thunderstorms, was worst in the summer months. Sometimes he struck his wife and children and lashed at them with bitter words. But like many vicious people, he was not cruel all the time, and so he cajoled the woman to stay.

The girl with dappled skin grew and learned to talk and to walk. Even by age six, she walked slowly and sometimes her legs were shaky like a young fawn’s. Still, she climbed the mimosa tree fearlessly. She always wanted to climb higher, to reach the sky. Her black hair with the white streak grew long and curly. The other children in the town were cruel to the girl, but her mother dried her tears and called her moonbeam. Her brother was kind to her, too, despite the small torments that siblings like to inflict on each other.

The year the girl turned eight, it was another hot, humid July. Her mother had gone to town and she and her brother were at home with their father. The boy was upstairs washing the floors. The girl was carrying water from the spring in a clay pitcher. She lost her balance and stumbled at the threshold of the cottage, and the pitcher shattered into pieces on the doorstep. Her father grabbed the girl by the shoulder and shook her so violently that she tumbled down the long flight of stone steps and landed in a small heap at the bottom. He had broken her neck. Her father dragged her body to the foot of the mimosa tree, which was heavy with blossoms. He left the girl lying in the grass and went into the cottage to find his son. The father said, Have you seen your sister, boy? Run and fetch her.

So the boy looked upstairs in the bedrooms, he looked downstairs in the kitchen, he looked by the bookshelf where the girl loved to sit and read, and finally he went outside. He called her name once, but then his voice died in his throat as he saw her crumpled body under the mimosa tree. He ran to her and tried vainly to rouse her. The boy began to weep, and his father came along after him, saying, You should have kept a better eye on your sister. Now she’s fallen out of the mimosa tree and broken her neck. We had better hide her before your mother gets home, or you’ll be sorry.

The father dragged the girl’s body back into the cottage, where he fetched a sharp knife and carved up the girl. Then he made the boy bake her into a huge pot pie with heaps of carrots and onions and peas. The boy cried as he worked, and his tears made the pie savory and the dough tender. Finally it was done, and steam rose from the oven. When his father wasn’t looking, the boy took his sister’s bones and buried them in the soft earth at the foot of the mimosa tree.

When the mother arrived back from town, she greeted her husband and son and asked, Where is my daughter? The boy was too scared and heartbroken to answer, but the father said, Oh, she went down the hill to gather flowers from the woods. She’ll be along any time now.

Where did you get the meat for the pie? the woman asked.

A peddler came along and sold us a brace of geese, the man said.

Ah, the woman said. But why is there so much blood on the kitchen floor?

It’s only goose blood, the man said. The boy will clean it up.

So the father, the mother, and the son set the table to eat their supper, but the woman said, This pie is surely too big for us to eat. We’ve got to invite the neighbors. So she sent the boy to ask the closest neighbors, and that family in turn sent a child to knock on the door of their neighbors, and so on until everyone from the town and the surrounding valley had gathered at the cottage.

Where is my daughter? the woman asked again. The man said, She went to catch fish in the pond. She’ll be along any time now.

The neighbors sat on chairs in the kitchen, on wooden crates in the hall, on the stone steps leading up to the house, and on the grass. They ate slices of pot pie with forks or knives or spoons or with their hands. Somehow the pie was so much that everyone was fed. The mother had a slice, the father had a slice, and even the sorrowful brother had a slice, because he was a growing boy and his father would not allow him to skip supper. Everyone said it was the most delicious thing they had ever tasted. Still, with their bellies full, they found themselves with tears welling up in their eyes.

The woman asked the man one more time, Where is my daughter? And he said, She went to stay with her cousins. She’ll be along soon.

Just before dusk, as the full moon rose over the hills, the townspeople and the girl’s family heard a commotion from the mimosa tree. They all watched as a flock of hummingbirds flew down to the patch of bare earth where the brother had buried his sister’s bones. The birds hovered there and beat their wings as mightily as they could, their bodies small but multiplied together in their strength, and at last they blew away the soil covering the girl’s bones. Up out of the ground rose a barred owl, her feathers patterned all over with dark and light. She flew skyward on hushed wingbeats.

She tried to sing her story to the townspeople, but her voice would only make a deep hoot that sounded like: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all? She flew in low circles, staring down at the crowd with her big round eyes, and the people looked up at her uneasily.

The father strode forward and craned his neck upward with a scowl on his face. Get out of here, you miserable beast, he shouted. But the owl kept circling over the man, and she asked again: Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?

A powerful dread rose up in the father’s stomach. He ran to fetch his double-barrel shotgun and loaded it with brass shells. But the bird flew higher, out of range, and hooted one more time, Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?

The father shouted and shot his gun uselessly into the sky, spending all the ammunition. Then the owl called to the hummingbirds, to the doves and wrens, to the crows and ravens, to the ducks and swans, to the hawks and eagles, to all the birds for miles around in the forest and on the pond. They heard her and flew to her side, then all at once they rose up as a great flock in the sky.

The sound of the birds’ voices all together was wondrous and terrible, and the townspeople fled in fear. But the father stayed where he stood on the green grass. The owl looked down and saw that he was a small and broken man. He raised his arm and cursed and raged at the flock, his mouth forming words that were swallowed by the din. The owl pitied him in that moment. But the other birds had reached the peak of their frenzy, and they swooped down and tore the man to pieces.

There was a great whirling of feathers as the birds spiraled around the spot where the man had stood. The owl flew down and disappeared among the flurry of wings. They drew closer and closer together until the tips of their wings almost touched, and their cawing and chirping and scolding was so loud that nothing else could be heard. The mother and brother watched in trepidation from the stone steps.

In the center of the maelstrom of feathers, a shape slowly began to form. At first it was only a curl of mist, then it took on substance until finally it coalesced into the shape of the girl. Her dark- and light-patterned skin had a luminous shine. The girl stepped forward and the flock pulled apart, unraveled like a skein of yarn, as one by one the birds flew back toward their nests.

Behind the girl lay a pile of her father’s bones. On silent paws the coyotes crept out of the woods and picked the bones clean, and the foxes came and carried away the bones to their dens.

The girl’s mother and brother ran forward to embrace her, and then they all went into the cottage together as the night’s first fireflies blinked in the mimosa tree. They mopped up the blood on the kitchen floor and did not speak yet of what had happened.

The girl went on to live a long life, though on some nights when the moon was full, she startled awake in her bed. The skin over her shoulder blades itched as if being pricked with a thousand tiny pins. Fragments of dreams loomed just at the edge of her memory. The girl opened her window and looked up at the moon. Its face was dappled like her own. She longed for that feeling she had once had of being held aloft by only the air.  

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