“How can you tell the Tree is a girl, Gran?” The shea butter applied to my scalp in neat little rows slid onto my forehead and mixed with beads of sweat as I sat on the front porch between my grandmother’s knees. Every Sunday, we took my braids down and washed my hair. Then Gran braided it right back up again, greasing my scalp as she went. I can’t imagine a Sunday that we didn’t spend together, managing the mane that fell past my waist. It took all day, but the best part was sittin’ on that porch, listening to her tell stories about our family and the land that provided for us over a hundred years. The oldest member of our family is The Tree, who we simply referred to as She or Her. It’s fitting because She isn’t limited to being called one thing, She is everything.
Her roots reached up from the ground and looped back beneath the soil at odd angles that tripped you up if you tried to escape – even from over thirty feet away. If you didn’t know her and dared to venture towards her massive trunk you might not make it out alive. Gran told me She’s been here since the beginning of time, always adding a new fact that she deemed age appropriate for me to obsess over for weeks until I appeared ready for a new story.
“Simple, baby girl,” she replied as she slid a rattail comb across my scalp. I closed my eyes and relished the minty tingle that the occasional wind brought to us while she told me, again, about the family history Mama should be telling me had she not ran away. I wasn’t old enough for that story yet, but that never stopped me from asking on Mother’s Day or my birthday. Or any day.
“You can tell she is a WOMAN because she’s lived longer than anything and anyone who’s stepped foot near her. This tree been watching us our whole family’s lifetime- over our great-great-great grandmothers when they were your age and getting strong enough to help when needed. She’s seen a lotta life, and even more death. She comforts the heavy hearts and bears the weight of our sins; sins no man can handle on his own.” She snorted to herself and for the first time I became aware that I didn’t know any living male relatives.
She pauses to take a sip from her iced tea and a drag from a cigarette she rolled herself. “There will never be a time anything of male blood could bear the weight of a woman, which is why they seek to destroy. You see She wears chips from man’s axe, but she still stands. Fire couldn’t bring her to her knees. One, one hundred plus men have hung from her branches and none have yet to string her or any woman living among her roots.”
Sometimes I think she can read my mind. Gran, not the She. But She probably can too.
“And that’s why we never have to leave, because she provides as far she can reach.” I recited this with Gran after the end of each tree story. I left home for school and the occasional outing, but that was about it. I didn’t make many friends because the town knew about our strange female coven and most kept their distance. Everything else I gleaned from the world came from the screen of my iPhone gifted to me for my birthday.
Our home was its own bustling community where people came to us and everything we could ever want was, just like Gran said, the Tree provides as far as she could reach. Deliveries were left at the gate separating our Paradise from the rest of the peasants around us. Living on land that shared its ever-changing mysteries never made me long for the world outside until now. I rode horses and took care of farm animals all day, we lived on land owned by our ancestors, it’s a rare miracle that despite the Oklahoma Land Run and Trail of Tears, our family managed to defend our Tree and everything around her.
Weeks after my thirteenth birthday while watching makeup tutorials I felt an unfamiliar feeling that I’d been preparing for since I turned eleven. I rushed to the bathroom and nearly screamed when I saw what I’d hoped for- my first period. I’m officially a woman.
I called to Gran with the good news, and she nodded solemnly. I saw on tiktok that people had period parties and assumed she needed time to plan so I went back to my cat eye videos, hoping she chose Black Forest, the canned cherries made more sense than a boring red velvet.
“Come on, girl, we goin' on a walk.” Gran opened my bedroom door and motioned for me to get up. Her light grey dress grazed the floor and her waist-length braids swung behind her, making her appear more Celestial than usual. I jumped up and joined her, leaving my phone behind.
She didn’t have to tell me where we were going; She’d been calling all morning.
I caught up to Gran and she handed me a bag of candles. I guess the cake was already there, but I also worried that she might not know about how they celebrate the beginning of becoming a woman in this century. I don’t think people her age even gets periods anymore.
“Don’t worry ‘bout what I do and don’t get.” She pushed me forward and I tripped over a root that I’d never noticed before. Gran giggled to herself and took a drag from her cigarette.
The walk took nearly ten minutes to reach Her, but the land spread around her almost like a red carpet; allowing a view that felt and looked more beautiful as you inched closer. Warm wind lifted the hair on my arms and thin silvery clouds parted to brandish a full, pink moon.
“Strawberry Moon,” Gran’s eyes twinkled as she lifted the sleeve to her dress, revealing a large tattoo on her arm that looked almost identical to the moon in the sky. Got this when I was 37. It means something different for me every year. It felt like seeing her for the first time. A tattoo sleeve from the top of her shoulder to her wrist boasted that I’d failed to notice in my fourteen years of life. Was my Grandmother, with her dreadlocked hair and tattoos exciting before she became a grandmother? I couldn’t imagine her existing before me.
When we finally approached the base of Her massive trunk Gran lit a bundle of sage while I placed the candles around a small space facing the moon- it would have taken hundreds to completely circle Her and the thirteen candles to signify my age made Her look enormous but still somehow, incredibly feminine. The glow almost seemed to dress Her in shadows that would have scared me had I not become a woman today; it excited me.
We sat beneath Her outstretched branches and the moonlight played a soundless rhythm that danced with the nighttime sounds. The creek full of fish that I jumped into fearlessly all summer long rushed in the distance, the leaves rippled like tiny flags in different octaves and the animals sang in tune.
At that moment I realized that whatever I felt coursing through my veins skipped a generation. If Mama held an ounce of what I felt from this divine bloodline we inherited, she never would have left us.