The Red Coat

Part One

Ah. Safia.

She returns.

Falling slush hardens to ice as this girl-turned-woman steps from the car and leans against the roof, her arms crossed beneath her chin, feet rooted deep in the snow. Soil bleeds through the whiteness; it webs around her.

Her gaze roves up the hill. I remember how green those eyes were, like dewy leaves, when years ago Safia clung to my branches with slender calves and bony fingers. Then she was French braids and fingertips stained orange with pulp. The tang lingered in my grooves until I couldn’t-wouldn’t-stand-it anymore.

Then she disappeared; she bid me no goodbye.

Now she wears grooves of her own on that skeletal face and I can’t-won’t-stand for the smoke lifting up from the cigarette between her lips. But my branches . . . They say, Don’t leave me just yet, please. Please stay.

She may go. She ought to. She ought to take that sleek, savage machine back east. She analyzed data there, the wind says. She feared what the reports—clinical, certain, exquisite—might have told of horrors to come. Perhaps outer space warfare, the galaxy bursting with sparks of fire, and rather than shedding rain and stardust the skies would release human blood and the remnants of ships.

If only she could put an ax to my trunk. She would come across my pith and the lines grown there would sing with the dense copper smell of blood and the gurgle in men’s throats as they bid farewell to breath. The land memorializes warfare, but humans never learn, never prepare.

She fidgets with the key, slips it into her pocket, and takes long strides up the hill. Snow clings to her jeans, to her calves and her knees. Her gaze is heat on my bark and flames explode along my fissures—deep like a river—when her fingers brush against them. She tucks her cheek into the nearest crevice.

I fold into myself, trunk bowing, wishing for this girl to swing her foot into the hollow above her knee and climb until she can no longer. My heartwood stampedes with this desire.

But she steps back, thinking of the daughter who broke her neck climbing in a backyard that spoke of safety. Weariness settles even deeper into her marrow. Her fingers lose grip on the youngest of my branches and she tips her head to look up at my entirety. Tears cling to her lashes. Tears and shadows, a certain inescapable darkness.

Part Two

Mariela cannot sleep. The rain tap dances along the tin window casings until the tap tap tap drives her not to sleep, but to insanity as the sounds echo 8-2 8-2 8 within her.

Numbers won’t save her. She wants to forget the digits that served as fodder for the corporate work in her previous life, the enterprise resource planning that never satisfied her soul. The digits dried her up but refused to leave her.

Her palms fisted, she presses them against her forehead, pushing away memories of stories spun from these very digits. The nights in the twelve-story library that blocked them all—the best friend who picked up her guitar and disappeared into the L.A. smog, the man she’d intended to marry, calling out his last see ya around—both such clichés.

She stumbles to the arthritic wooden panels of her bedroom, slides her feet into slippers and swings one hand against the sole indentation of a body in the mattress. Her wedding band wedges deeper between her fingers.

Goddamn you, Charlie, she thinks. She ignores the portrait of them on the bedside table as she swings away. Let me be.

But it is not Charlie that bothers her.

It is everything he left.

The silence.

Shh.

Desperation clings to her blood and the urge to crawl from her skin moves through her vessels and arteries. What power it would be to run run run until she was a mass of pure sensation so so cold and emotion constant-anger-explosive-like-a-fuse—what power.

Part Three

The girl-turned-woman is standing behind window glass on the top floor, the second window from the right. That room used to be her mother’s. Even now Safia remembers their full-costumed polka dances around the bed and dresser after her father left. He liked to throw around his words—crazy, schizo—and finally their meanings dawned on him. Packed two bags and left, he did. The women opened the windows. The music filtered out with the breeze and Safia imagined that the cottonwood (that is, me) heard and danced along.

I know what she sees now from her vantage point and it is not the sun peeking its way through the clouds, glinting off whatever snow she didn’t brand with her footsteps. She is not focused on me either—not just me. There is a story to be told here, a narrative rooted to the ground, tied to my pith and heartwood and years alive.

Part Four

The door to her baby girl’s room swings open with a creak 96423 and Mariela settles on the edge of the bed.

Ghosts brush their fingers along the skin revealed beneath her shirt that rode up her stomach—1.0007— during the night, itching like wheat against an earlobe, but colder.

Her girl sleeps with an adult-like wrist laid across a teddy bear’s neck. The leather watch Mariela gave as a birthday present is black against porcelain skin.

Mariela runs her fingers through her girl’s hair and then over the hard cover of the fairy tale collection left at the edge of the pillow. It smells of must and imagined possibilities, and Mariela remembers waking in the night to the rhythm of her own mother’s voice as she read aloud.

1, 2, 3.

She opens the book, runs a finger over the S embedded inside, tries to focus on the words, and breaks inward when she cannot; the molecules holding her together, giving way to air pressure and disappointment—the numbers that refuse to leave her head.

And the rain tap tap tap taps.

And Mariela cannot sit anymore.

Closing the door behind her, she jams her fingers into the knob as she holds it behind her back. She breathes quick and harsh. 9. 9. 9.

Leave me be.

The orchestral disjointedness in her head increases in volume. It throws her off, leaving her to run down the stairs with both hands wedged against the walls in an attempt to keep her body upright.

She paces in the living room, across the Oriental rug that Charlie found at the carpet store down on Main and 7th the year they bought the house. Pausing at the potted Azara next to the foyer closet, her fingertips brush against the velvet while her nostrils inhale the pungency.

Thoughts itch at the inside of her mind. If she were a dog and her mind the fur, she would scratch until everything just stopped.

Mariela paces again, to and fro.

The house sits more silent than a tomb while her baby sleeps.

Escape.

4.

A nosy neighbor might see her as she runs down the back hallway from the living room, to the closet, at the backdoor with hair flailing behind her—loose, untamed and boring.

She pulls on a jacket, deep red, thick and poofy.

Opens the door, walks through it, slams it shut.

Part Five

Safia disappears from the window.

I imagine the pause at the one photograph forgotten by the bedside, now encased in dust; the wringing of palms during the slow descent to the main landing and the leftover remnants of winter floral, their scent escaping from beneath the door.

Between it all there is a pull, deep inside.

Part Six

The vastness of the field out back is never empty to those who walk it. Humans cycle through the seasons as if they were four distinct phases, as if greens could melt into orange overnight and as if the most vivid detail were the apex of an experience. Their memories are like mine—each day shifts the shades of color and I notice each one, the same way that mothers can catch changes in their children’s bodies.

I remember Mariela does too.

And her memories, like mine, span the field. They grow from the ground, branches expanding outward like fingers grasping for empty air.

She grimaces there on the deck. Her skin stretches, crinkles and pulls at her hair. For a moment she freezes, her body a statuette of marble left to the ravages of winter. The storms that come through would pick away her skin until she was nothing more than a had-been.

Her eyes flutter closed. There is so much that might cross her mind now. But surely—

“Mariela!”

Charlie shivers on the deck.

“What the fuck are you doing?”

She’s pacing the snow in bare feet, blistered now, soon to be shades of blue.

“Mariela!”

He turns toward the door, then back around and rushes out into the snow in his socks that dampen within a step, beginning to freeze up.

“Come inside.”

“Not right now.”

“Marie—”

“The walls won’t stay quiet. Fifteen by fifteen by eleven feet, two thousand, four hundred seventy-five feet cubed.”

She looks up from her footsteps at Charlie—the chiseled cheekbones and the indent in his nose below the glasses.

“And the kitchen? Twelve—”

“Come inside.”

“I can’t.”

“You’re going to get sick.”

“No.”

“Fuck it.”

He leans down and tucks his arms around her shoulders and feet, picks her up and carries her across the threshold until they disappear. She is screaming.

It is summer and the sky shimmers with stars and a moon that glows with white life. Mariela sits with feet tucked beneath her on the deck bench, a cup of steamed-out Earl Grey below. I cannot read her, despite the lives I’ve observed. A face set still with emptiness, really—a face absent of Mariela.

Charlie again, Charlie and his fisted hands and energy that explodes outward.

“She fell asleep on the kitchen floor— again!”

Mariela blinks from her daze to find her husband in the doorway, his jacket hanging from his fingers, the way a towel may hang discarded, left to dry and left to be remembered.

“What?”

“Your daughter—on the floor—again.”

Mariela is up and moving, ready to save the day.

For the first time, Charlie stops her.

“What is wrong with you?”

“What?”

“It’s two o’clock in the morning. What have you been doing?”

“Thinking.”

“About what? What could possibly be more important than your child?”

“I was caught up.”

“In what?”

“My thoughts. I was thinking about one thing, very linearly”—she won’t tell him about the numbers because he will laugh at them in that forced way of his, ha haha hahaha ha—“and everything else kind of fell away.”

“Right.”

“I’m sorry. I’ll go put her to bed.”

“Already did.”

The tightness in Mariela’s shoulders loosens.

But Charlie?

“This isn’t working.”

“What?”

“You… me. This is . . . I don’t know what. A psychotic breakdown. You need a doctor.”

The numbers, they are circular, never-ending.

Part Seven

Safia closes her mind against the husband who wanted her to sleep, even when the muse came in the early hours, the husband who turned his back to her when she wrote or read by the light of the stove in their apartment. She closes her mind against the freelancing contract she canceled—no more analysis of words and reports and an unbroken sea of possibility.

It is time.

Part Eight

Mariela never visits the cottonwood at the hillcrest.

Seated on the rocking chair deeply embedded in the snow banks on the deck, her gaze traces the tree—those outstretched limbs encased in frozen water—and her mind clicks forward the way it does often these days, sifting through thoughts in search of a new status quo and that peace that will carry her until dawn.

A.D. 3

A.D. 2

As she considers, the freezing rain picks up again.

An engine starts down the street.

The wind curves within the hollows in the snow and whistles an invitation.

She loses herself.

It is not something that I understand. This just being is a human thing—emotion and essence and spirit without body.

Mariela’s hand clenches the chair subconsciously. She doesn’t feel the cold, even as it sinks into her skin and stiffens her muscles and stops the blood flow. Charlie called her ‘his ice queen’ long before his words grew less funny and more acute.

But the pain dissolves into the cut of winter. It numbs her.

Her head falls back. Snowflakes melt into the dead blush of her cheeks. Dunes grow at her ankles and spread over the plane as the woman rocks, planning.

A few hours later, Mariela disappears for a moment. She returns before the five-year-old is up, keening her request for milk.

For the first time in years, she drags her feet through the snow toward me—bare toes growing blue even as she lifts them in her next step forward.

So naïve am I. I do not recognize her intentions until she stands beneath my leafless branches, hunching into one arm, muttering “Hail Mary.” And then nothing that I do—no creaking of my limbs, no looseness in my form—can stop the unfolding.

Part Nine

Inside the closet, the girl-turned-woman finds a red coat and it reminds her of Mother’s flowers. Something else, too, buried deep within her mind in a lagoon of memories. Something she saw, once, when she was barely old enough to understand.

Part Ten

In her red coat, Mariela climbs me midway.

I expect her legs to shake as they tuck around my bark but they are tight and strong, courage-filled. She leans onto a thick limb and swings a rope over it. The endless supply comes from deep within the coat pockets—it keeps coming.

She and Charlie met in the navy.

I call upon wind and storms to shake her off, but none come. She doesn’t fall into hope and a future. She falls into the opposite—bare feet clasp along the bark’s thickness, the caverns and mountains that jut into her skin and the ridges absorbed by the coldness before she has the chance to feel.

She falls. Just steps off the limb and lets go.

It’s done before I know it.

Her body crumples inward.

Crack goes her neck.

1739-5801-

24-

3—goes her mind.

And while the wind grieves and I wish for leaves to shed as tears, the world offers her its infinite silence.

Part Eleven

The girl-turned-woman scares me.

Safia leans against the doorframe, the red coat open on her chest. She memorizes me from the thickness of the trunk to the definite absence of leaves and color other than the brown of bark, which melts into the sky because it fits—you have to look for me to care about me.

And she is looking.

And I know that she remembers.

Just like Mariela before her, the girl-turned-woman takes to the snowy hill—royalty—her shoulders thrown back and fingers splayed away from her hands for balance. She returns to the trunk and looks at it, looks at me with that sullen gaze from eyes black and pithy.

She is humming.

It is a melody of childhood and sunsets on the river and of board games played on cabin floors while mothers bake cookies and brew iced tea. She sinks into the snow, taking off her coat and pulling from the pocket an orange. Her other hand grasps a dried snowdrop, its whiteness bitter.

My heartwood clenches inside me.

Charlie gave her an orange the day they found her, hidden beneath her bed with rivulets of salt staining her cheeks. He had it in his jacket. She fell in love with oranges then. They remind her of Mariela.

She peels the orange skin. It unravels easily in her fingers, encases the snowdrop between her legs. Then she bites into the pieces, savoring the sour taste against her lips as flakes plummet toward her bare shoulders. She drops the leftovers to the white-like juice stains on a wedding dress.

The girl-turned-woman lies with her arms and legs crossed through the numbness until her last breath frosts the air.

Part Twelve

Let me tell you something: they found her remains eight weeks later.