The Totem.

When you’re twenty, I’ll tell you what things were like just before you turned two: how I felt like a totem pole being whittled by the Carpenter, how the bits of my life that were once so green and life-giving began falling like scallops of wood ’round my feet. I will tell you how unsettling it was to watch them rest there. These shallow wisps that were once so inextricably affixed, firm ridges of root and of bark, were now curling, lifeless and inconsequential, lifted and scuttled farther away on even the mildest of winds. There, a longtime friend. There, an unfulfilled desire. There, an entire branch of the family tree.

I was once indistinguishable from other oaks. My functions were fully understood. I was beauty and shade and breaths of fresh air. I was considered suitable for climbing, a welcome place to rest. Stalwart, I could always be found where seekers of solace had left me. Immovable and silent, I was ever their refuge, their asylum.

No one considered this could change, least of all me. It wasn’t foreign, transformation–not entirely. Every autumn, I’d watch myself and others turn. We were rouges, then dusks, then maize. And soon we were naked and barren.

But this was nothing compared to the cracking of skies, to the virulent force that struck me as though I had wronged it. Perhaps I had. I spent those first days claiming fault: I wasn’t attentive enough. The shade I provided did too little to stave off the sun. Maybe my branches cracked and snapped under the weight and expectation of climbers. Maybe the lightning was lonely and cursed me for being so passively grounded, so unfailingly accessible.

It didn’t know these were not things that I wanted. It comprehended as little of my life as a tree as I knew of its need for a crackling rampage. I have heard that it does not aim, that it smites wheresover it will. But it is hard to believe, when I wince at the memory of a trunk rent in two, of the tremulous roots’ bewilderment, of the ground’s utter fright as it crumbled. It’s impossible to imagine that the bolts move without motivation, that they are not willing agents in such acts of irreparable destruction.

I nearly died when lightning toppled me. I can tell you this now that you’re twenty. When I was 32, I learned that the absorption and transmission of oxygen are necessary performances but are not the crux of a life. I lay there for hours, for days, still alive, but the purpose of life had eluded me.

It is never the lightning that kills.

For me, it was the pitying looks and the scorn, the whispers, the warnings of the fallen tree, with one perfect burst of fruit on its withering branches. Beware lest it obstruct your path. This kind of decay is contagious.

Were it not for the Carpenter’s carving, I am not sure you’d have much of a mother. I would’ve loved you on what was left of my confidence that, as a tree, I was capable of cradling the fruit I had borne. I would’ve gazed at you with rootless adoration. But I no longer knew who I was without sturdiness, greenness, or shade. I was little help to anyone then–and all those who’d once come to me for friendship or familial love began to notice. They’d pluck up the bits that hadn’t begun to rot and they’d try their hardest to replant me. But I was no longer amenable to their insistence that I thrive on their terms. I was starting, very steadily, to pull away.

None of us knew then what I would become–none save the omniscient Carpenter. His eye caught only what could be restored; His hand sloughed all evidence of harm. For a time I felt stripped; there was nothing. Even with you nearby, I felt alone.

Carefully, He swept away the excess. He pared and cored and whittled till I became a statuesque testament, a living narrative of restoration. I had been more than salvaged. I had been re-purposed.


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