Imagine the body, this body, in it’s true form. It is not a skeleton. Not a skeleton over-layed with muscles and tendon, whizzing nerves and electrical impulses. No. The body, this body, is every story handed down from Eve, passed mother to daughter and then the daughter becomes a mother, to hand the story down again. The body, this body, does not weigh in pounds or kilos, a measure of the inescapable pull of gravity. The body, this body, is borne upright, to walk, to run, in dreams to fly, borne upwards, ever upwards, forwards and forwards, by all the stories first born and then carried within.
There are no skeletons here.
There are trees.
There are trees with their great roots stretching down, down, down. Down so far, the roots come up again in the south pole. There are trees whose trunks arabesque forward, a sun salutation. There are trees hidden, deep within the old forests, sheltering the crone. There are no skeletons here. There are branches waiting to bud, branches clothed in leaves and some branches, naked- hibernating.
These are the truest stories I’ve ever told. They came to me by my mother. They came to me in whispered lullabies and soft caresses. They came to me in dreams. They came to me carried by hushed voices when no one thought I was listening. These truest stories are the ones I know in my tree trunk-tree-branch-tree-root bones. These truest real stories are the only things I really own.
Who tells the story of fleeing?
Who tells the the story of being transformed?
Of being chased by man, by god? Of being rescued by their own miraculous transformation? Who wrote the stories of Daphne, of Lot’s wife, Edith, not them.
Laurel tree, salt pillar.
I have a picture of someone holding my son, Joseph. Their arm is curled around all his week old newness, pulling him tight against their body. He is so new that he still looks like a little gnome. Sunlight must have been flooding the room; the photo is washed out from all the light coming in. I can’t tell if it’s my arm, or my mother’s.
Who owns these arms? Even if they’re mine, they must also be my mothers. Her mother’s? Eve’s? There are no skeletons here. Only stories and trees. Baby in a bough.
JonBenet Ramsey was six years old when she died. She’s buried next to her mother, who died ten years later. Of ovarian cancer. (I do not want these words on this page. On this page, the same page where my son is named) Who invites tragedy in? Lock your windows, lock your doors. It won’t keep the monsters away, but maybe you can then, sleep.
Odette the swan princess. Odette the woman-girl under the spell, the swan, the daughter who lived beside a lake full of her mother’s tears. Tears for a daughter transformed to an unknowable swan.
A Memory: I was ten when JonBenet Ramsey died. Old enough to know that death and murder was terrible, terrible and so very sad. But I could not stop being envious of her beauty. Of her white blondeness and wide eyedness that did not protect her. Her white golden beauty that made her vulnerable to exploitation- first while breathing, then dead. As a child what did I know of the deep divide between envy and the appearance of grief?
What do we take from our mothers, given or not? The crook of the arm that rocks us? Sharp words forgotten except for the sting? The dreams of beauty from a hollowed out womb?
When I was pregnant I didn’t know if Joseph was a boy or a girl. When he was born the midwife held him, naked and bloody, umbilical cord still stretching towards me, in me, so that I could see my son. Over and over I said, “It’s a baby! My baby!” as if I had expected puppies. It was another ten minutes until I realized I had a son. My son, Joseph.
A Memory: I am in a meeting and I have something important to say. I keep trying to speak, but as half a word comes out, someone else speaks over me and the second half of my word, my voice, trails off into silence. I keep trying but the more it happens the quieter my voice comes out until I go to speak and there’s no voice there at all.
This is the story of the lost girl, I heard it when no one thought I was listening. Who can listen to the news and really hear? Who told her story? Not the little girl unformed, still plastic, still so new that her newness was like the egg yolk of the sun breaking across a new sky. Not the white gold blue blonde who smiled and smiled and charmed and charmed, giving all of herself away, even her stories. Her story was shouted by men behind counters behind fake tan and bleached smiles who smiled and smiled at the camera as they described the deaths of the wide eyed blonde girl while mothers wept tears that no one filmed.
It’s A Baby! It’s a Boy! A beautiful, bouncing baby boy. I was flooded with relief.
I don’t watch the news. I listen to NPR, in the truck, while driving away from home. Lock the doors. Lock the windows. Don’t invite tragedy in.
Lot’s wife, Edith, is never named in Genesis, instead named by the historians who came after her, who never knew her. Fled her home, and looked back once. Furious God, old testament God, God of vengeance and destruction, the same God who flooded the earth, transformed her to a pillar of salt. His angels had told Lot of the coming destruction, the need to flee but had anyone told her, asked her if she wanted to leave?
A Dream: I am wandering through a house. It is my house but not my home. It’s every house I’ve ever lived in and there are rooms that I’ve never been in before and corridors that lead to rooms that never were there. In the attic is a hatbox. In the basement a department store. Off the side of the kitchen is my bedroom from when I was five. Lavender walls with white eyelet curtains. I am wandering and searching. I cannot tell you what I am looking for. Only that I will know it when I see it and I do not know it’s name. I will know it when I see it.
Daphne. Chased by Apollo, her beauty igniting his lust. In fear she cried out for her father to save her. And she was transformed to a laurel tree beside a river. Was the river formed from the tears her mother cried?
Objects of transformation, done to, acted upon, set upon as prey. Who tells their stories? The Greek chorus, the historians, the choreographer. Not them. There are no trees here, just skeletons of laurel and swan, desiccated by salt. Save yourself, or remain ensnared.
Another Dream: I have a reoccurring dream where I am falling. Falling down from the sky. The wise woman whispers, “Spread out your wings and fly!” My mother’s voice echoes from the reaches of childhood, “Be careful with her, she’s fragile!”. My own voice is quiet as the ground reaches up to root me.
A Memory: I am sixteen reciting “Crecio en Mi Frente un Arbol.”. There are men staring at me, waiting for me to stumble over my words, to forget the poem I have worked so hard to memorize. In the moment I am not a tree, not a bird, all I taste is salt as tears run down my face. I am too afraid to declaim my fiery tree with it’s tangled foliage. I am frozen by my salty tears, and I cannot hide myself or my shame.
A Dream: In my dream I feel the pull of gravity, the ground rushing towards me and I jerk myself awake. In my dream I feel the wings wait to be summoned, exhorted to sprout and spread.
When I sleep tonight I will fix my shiny wax-free wings to myself and fly.
There is not a skeleton here. There are wings soaring above a silver laurel tree.
A Memory: I am twenty and I am listening to some blowhard tell me how lucky I am to be with him. I am lucky, oh so lucky, to have his gaze run up and down my body like he is a master violinist and I am a Stradivarius violin . I am not a violin. I am an upright bass with achingly low notes that echo out from my very core. I am twenty and so very lucky that this master musician is trying to pluck me.
Bluebeard’s wives. All hacked up. Eve cast out of Eden. Pandora left only with hope. Curious women. This is the story of the unwrapped box. This is where the light comes in.
Curiouser and curiouser fell Alice down the well. Falling. Falling.
I have set my mind to it. To craft pasteboard-titanium-fiberglass-featherful wings. Affix them along my scapula- those traitorous bones that slump- and find myself aloft on the current of belief where no pools of saltwater dwell.
This is a story of transforming. The skeleton becomes a tree, becomes a phoenix, becomes wings upon a current. The phoenix rests back upon a bough and becomes a tree again. There are no skeletons here. This is where the light comes in, where the tree branches claw at the heavens until they crack and let the light tumble forth. The cracked places are how the light gets in. the light gets in in the places where the trees are broken and the branches bend. The slant of light wedges itself into the darkness until it cleaves it clean.
A Memory: I set a pen to page and told my story. I have stripped myself down to my tree root-tree trunk-tree branch oak heart and listened to the things I had to say. I have let my words be written upon my leaves and let them go, let the wind take them up.
I’ve affixed my wings to my strong back. Ultralight titanium feathers on a fiberglass frame. My wings, my self chosen transformation are made from every story that I’ve chosen to be true. I am loved, I am strong. I don’t fall, I move ever forward, forward, born up by the belief that the transformation I am undergoing (overgoing) is my own. Not done to me, but by me. Not set upon, but picked up and affixed by my own small hands. There’s a feather for every truest thing I know in my bird bones, in my chicken legs, in my eagle heart. There’s a feather from being an indian princess singing with my father, “do your ears hang low, do they wobble to and fro” while he eats every scorched marshmallow I’ve roasted. Treasured. These wings are my mothers, their arc and wingspan a mirror of hers. She plucked herself, down to the core, to give me all her true stories. Beloved. These wings stretch out, with the wise woman’s voice buoying them up, telling me to fly. There are no skeletons here. There are wings that rest and shelter in the laurel tree.
I am in the process of transforming
My daughter, with her flame kissed hair
And her father’s blue eyes
Drew on her lips, her lips that are my mother’s in miniature, with permanent marker
With wet perfect sloppy kisses she marks me as her own.
When she was born
(It’s a baby! My baby!)
I cleaved myself in half
In the moment I thought it was only my body that had split
Walking out of the sterile safe hospital I carried her in a bucket seat
And left my acorn shell self behind
There is no skeleton here
I am a tree my daughter does not fall far from
A perfect love apple. Not a snake in sight.
 Arbol Adentro, Octavio Paz
Crecio en mi frente un arbol (A tree grew within my head./A tree grew in/Its roots are veins/its branches nerves/thoughts it’s tangled folliage/your glance sets it on fire/and its fruits of shade/ are blood oranges/and pommegranates of flame.)
Annie Wenstrup is a writer living in Fairbanks, AK. She’s currently working on a collection of essays about the geography of belonging.