The Hanging Tree
“I always loved that tree,” I say.
Mother wields her axe. She chops—decisively. A chunk of tree bark falls to the ground. I look away, not wanting to witness her dismantle the solid structure of my childhood.
“It’s a reminder,” she explains.
I picture Father’s feet dangling in the air, too high for either of us to reach. Mother got the ladder. She held it steady while I climbed its thin metal rungs and cut him down.
The police arrived with the rising sun. I stared blankly at their blue uniforms while the sun painted its masterpiece in the sky. Father always marveled at sunrises. Sometimes, he’d wake me from a dead sleep just to show me the painter’s handiwork.
“Look,” he’d say, “Live art.”
The police ask, of course, about the whos and whats and whys of the thing. We tell them we don’t know anything. Strange to think of Mother as being in the dark about anything, but she says she never even suspected.
“I miss him,” I say.
Mother shrugs. She brandishes the axe again and swings mightily. Crack. Father was a good man. Thirty nine is far too young to die.
“If you don’t want to watch this, Cali—”
I shake my head.
“No,” I say. “I’m fine.”
I will endure this destruction, along with all the others. The grass tickles my toes and I cannot keep from laughing. Mother smiles. Laughter is always better than tears. She hands me the axe. I hoist it high. It is heavier than it looks. The sharp wedge blade could split a man in two. I lower the axe—swiftly—and feel myself shatter a million memories with a single swing.
“Cali, Come on!” Father runs far too fast for my little legs to catch up. I have to match every one of his strides with two of mine.
“Wait!” I scream. He is even more of a child than my seven year old self. A big kid to keep me company in the giant playground of life, Father catapults his body into a sudden summersault. I’m too afraid to follow suit, so I do a lopsided cartwheel instead.
“Look!” Father spots a cluster of dandelions, rips the weeds at their roots and hands me a cluster of nature’s most ordinary of offerings. Together, we blow cotton buds into oblivion.
“Why can’t people be like dandelions?” I wonder.
“What do you mean?”
I pause to reflect on the exact nature of my question. “Why can’t we go wherever the wind takes us?”
“Maybe we can.”
Wind rustles the leaves in our tree. Father points at its swaying magnificence.
“Do you know…” he says “… that years ago, before the Civil War, they hung a man from that tree just for being black?”
I don’t understand.
“Black?” I ask.
He points to his sandy beige skin. Mine is speckled with freckles and sunburnt pink.
“We’re white,” he says. “Some people are black.”
I want to ask him why we’re called white, when we’re both obviously rosy hued, and if, by black, he means brown.
In town, I see chocolate covered men and café au lait women and envy them for their smooth, unpeeling skin and the fact that they don’t have to wear big ugly hats to keep the sun from scorching their faces. But, just as I open my mouth, I hear Mother ring her dinner bell.
“Cali!” Mother hollers from the front porch.
And thus concludes my racial education.
“We should go inside,” I say.
Father tells me to go ahead. He wants to marvel at the grass a little longer.
“Grass?” I am forever being surprised by Father’s delicate sensibilities.
He plucks a blade of green and hands it to me.
“This,” he says, “is a miracle.”
As I turn and sprint, barefoot, across the grass, I let Father’s little gift fall to the earth. Who has time for poetry when food is on the table?
Mother has a wooden spoon and she’s not afraid to use it. Dinner is at six sharp. Not 6:05 or 6:15 or even 5:45.
Father meanders in at 5:59. Technically obedient in his defiance, he sits at the head of the table. Once, soon after we moved here, I overheard one of the neighbors say that Mother “wears the pants in the family”—whatever that means. Tonight, they are both wearing casual cotton trousers, sitting across from one another, like wartime generals facing off before a battle. Father wipes his grass-stained hands on Mother’s great grandmother’s yellow linen napkins, the ones she inherited along with the house.
Smells surround us. I know by my nose that she has prepared something decadent and meaty. And new. I’ve never smelled this particular smell before. Mother takes the lid off the big sterling silver tray.
Thick German sausages served with sauerkraut, spicy mustard and cheesy fingerling potatoes. Mother refuses to cook southern. She says the food down here is unpalatable.
Father holds up his sausage. “Are you trying to tell me something?” he asks.
Last night, we had hot dogs. The night before, she attempted fried pickles.
Mother bites off the tip of her sausage. “Why whatever do you mean?” Her voice is maple syrup and cotton candy. It is long, lingering hugs and the time we all went camping in Joshua Tree National Park and Father made an illegal campfire outside of one of the designated fire pits so we could all toast marshmallows.
Father’s voice is belt straps and black molasses, the kind they force down my throat when I’m sick, even though it never makes me better. “Okay,” he says. “I will eat your objects of emasculation.” He takes a bite. “Yum,” he says. “Phallic.”
I do not understand. “Mine isn’t phallic,” I protest. “It’s good.”
Mother flings her sausage at Father’s head. She disappears upstairs.
“Wanna go for pizza?” Father asks.
Even though I’m enjoying my meal, I know it is best for us to get out of the house. Mother is having one of her episodes. If we leave now, maybe, by the time we return, she will be pretty and pink and smiling again, instead of Loch Ness Monster, dragon lady who breathes out fire and destroys anyone reckless enough to come close. Fleeing is a learned skill. Father is teaching me.
I am a treed cat. Stuck. The axe broke and Mother is on her way to the hardware store to buy another. Before she cuts it down, I have to hang by my feet from the branch that broke my heart and his neck.
I need to know.
Shimmying up here was easy. I’ve been doing it for the last ten years, ever since we moved here. The first time I climbed up here to see out over the yard into the distance, no one knew where to find me. I watched them walk the property, calling my name, their fear-infused voices gaining volume with each successive shout. When I finally scrambled down, Father wept with relief. Not mother. She went into the house and returned with her wooden spoon.
Right now, I am trying to be brave. Instead, I find myself crying. Not because I’m up here, not wanting to come down, but because I am suspended and I don’t want to be. Father would’ve climbed up after me and danced atop the branches, swinging his monkey self and making me laugh. Then, he’d have coaxed me down and, together, we’d have run across all ten of our acres until the clang of Mother’s bell beckoned us home. As I wait for her return, I console myself with the story of my name.
Before Mother made Father move here, into her inherited house, after he lost his job teaching at the university—because of a mysterious set of circumstances which my parents deemed me too young to understand—the three of us lived in Buffalo, New York. Before that, they lived in California, where I was conceived. When I asked Mother what it meant to be conceived she talked about swimming guppies and chicken eggs, a confusing explanation involving body parts and animals and garden fertilizer. Later, I asked Father for clarification. He told me something completely different. He said conception is the moment when an idea becomes reality.
“That sounds like magic,” I told him.
“That’s what you are,” he agreed, even though, as far as I could tell, there was nothing especially special about me. Sure, I could make farting noises with my armpits and, if I concentrated really hard, I could fold my tongue in half, but only sometimes and never when anyone was watching.
Father was never self-conscious. He used to be an actor, before giving up the stage to teach drama at the university. I thought he’d have made a phenomenal actor. He had a flare for the dramatic. Plus, whenever he read me bedtime stories, he always did the voices. Mother refused to marry an actor.
“No job security,” she said.
This struck me as strange because, after we moved here to Clayton, Father never worked again. He called himself a stay-at-home. She called him a degenerate. She was a therapist. She helped other people’s dysfunctional families pretend to be more functional. One night, over dinner, Father said the real secret of mental health was to embrace your dysfunction. I said, if so, that meant Mother was the sanest person on earth.
She threw her fork at me. It only grazed my arm. I plucked it up off the floor, wiped it on my napkin, then handed it to her. We laughed so hard I almost started crying.
They didn’t just name me California because I was conceived there—an idea that came out of sandy beaches and salty oceans. They named me California because it was where they discovered themselves and each other. Sometimes, I used to lay in bed and wonder… If they never left there, would we have been a happy, Hollywood family, instead of what we were?
It wasn’t like Father never tried to find a job. He did. He would get dressed up in these fancy three-piece suits and drive so far he’d have to stay overnight at hotels to go on something called interviews. From what I could tell, an interview was like a date, but, instead of getting married at the end, you’d get a job.
No one ever hired Father. Mother said maybe he should stop trying. She made enough money and the house was hers free and clear. It wasn’t like they had a mortgage. It took three more years for Father to give up. Finally, he made a bonfire in the backyard and burned all six of his fancy suits. He let me be the one to throw the match.
On my thirteenth birthday, I fell out of the hanging tree and broke my arm. Mother decided then and there to cut it down. I said, if she did, I would go on a hunger strike. That was the year of my Gandhi obsession, the year I took up meditation and made Father buy me hummus at the grocery store. Cold chickpea soup. I hated hummus but loved the philosophy of nonviolence. In the end, it was Father who saved our precious sycamore. He began a revolution. Mother went inside to get the phonebook and look up landscapers and, when she returned, she found the man she’d married butt naked and tethered to our tree.
“You’ll never get anyone out here,” he decreed. “Not with me looking like this. It’d be too embarrassing.”
For once, Mother admitted that he had bested her.
Mother cared about few things, but one of them was her reputation.
I hear her car pulling into the driveway and I know that I can’t stay up here forever. I trace the bark forearm beneath me and remember holding Father’s hand as I walked across the street.
When the police came, his face was a deep, dark purple. I cut him down and his body fell in a crumpled heap upon the ground beneath the shadows of branches, but I could not cry in front of Mother or the cops who judged Father as just another casualty in someone else’s war. If Mother had let me destroy the evidence, I’d have wiped the words from his naked chest and covered his body with a blanket, but she was always a stickler for the rules and I was never one to disobey her.
By the time I got my learner’s permit, Mother and Father had already begun to occupy separate bedrooms. She cited his snoring as her excuse. Father needed no excuses. He was happy just to get away from her, even if they were still in the same house.
Driving lessons were a strange business. Both Mother and Father vied for my affections and neither one was about to be outdone by the other. This meant I’d come in from one of Mother’s hands-at-ten-and-two, high-alert, butterflies-in-my-stomach, IBS-inducing practice sessions only to have Father shuttle me back outside for a playful parking lot excursion. Weaving in and out of emptiness, pulling in between parallel white lines. No instruction. Just me behind the wheel and a disinterested passenger. Father seemed to be of the as-long-as-you-don’t-crash-everything-is-okay school of thought, which also had the unwanted effect of upsetting my gastroenterological system. I spent most of that period sitting in the car or sitting on the toilet.
I prayed for a reconciliation, but, in the end, it wasn’t prayer that brought peace. It was poker night. After nine years of living in Clayton, Mississippi, Father, effervescent and extroverted, had not made a single friend. All that changed when he joined a men’s poker group. They met once a week, alternating houses, and smoked cigars and played card games with incomprehensible rules and complicated loopholes. Mother thought poker was commonplace, but she delighted at the return of Father’s smile.
They began going for long, meandering walks together, holding hands and exchanging quick little kisses when they thought I wasn’t looking. Sometimes, I’d walk into a room and find the imprint of her glam girl lips staining his cheeks crimson.
Dinners were no longer silent affairs.
Father never hosted poker night at our house. Mother was too eccentric, too demanding. She never would’ve left him and his friends alone to play their games without womanly interruption. Neither Mother nor I minded. We didn’t want a bunch of testosterone-fueled Neanderthals stinking up the house with their cigars.
Seventeen. The start of summer.
Father has a friend. His name is Steve. They do everything together. Mother doesn’t mind. She’s come to terms with the separateness of their lives. As long as Father comes home every night and she and he disappear into their once-shared—now hers—bedroom every Sunday for an hour, she is content to pursue her own interests and allow Father to pursue his. Fishing and jogging and playing an assortment of expensive instruments—badly—is of no interest to her. Let Father have his Steve. If he’s happy, she’s happy.
Not that she doesn’t still have her little outbursts, but she stops throwing hard things and switches to soft ones.
I never was sure if Mother loved Father, but she liked him well enough. He liked her too. I’m sure of it. Why else would he have stayed with her?
The rumors didn’t start until the last, dwindling days of summer and, when they did, they danced like fireflies, specks of illumination followed by darkness. I ignored the whispers.
Most nights, Father sat in his recliner reading. Always, he chose the most torturous of novels—the ones where everybody dies at the end. Tears like Windex. He was always a gentleman, wiping the vestiges of sadness off his glasses with a decorative handkerchief.
Mother’s papery thin patience tore at the edges of her tone. Tissue paper love, fragile and delicate. She detested weakness of any kind. “Again with the tears?”
“It’s just so… tragic,” he would say.
Steve was married too, although neither man’s wife particularly cared for the other. Mrs. Steve, addicted to crochet, could talk of nothing but her cats. Mother measured other people’s value by the yardstick of education.
“What would I have in common with a high school dropout?” she wanted to know.
What indeed? I was in high school. I knew from experience that she couldn’t relate to anyone without an advanced degree.
The men sailed. Often. Mostly, they’d disappear for a day or a weekend at a time. Three weeks ago, just as fall had begun to issue its fatal kiss, murdering summer in an instant, like a black widow spider, bitingly terminal, Father declared that he and Steve would be gone for a week.
Seven days. Seven days alone with her. We were strangers on the footpath of life, careful not to invade each other’s space. Mother nodded her hellos. I spoke mine. I spent a lot of time dangling from the tree by my feet and dreaming of escape. If only Steve and his wife had had a daughter, maybe I’d have had a friend. But I was lonely, like Father had been. I am a different kind of seventeen year old girl than the typical Claytonite. I salute the sun and dance amidst the dandelions. I’ve never kissed a boy or suffered through a drive-in movie. I’ve never been on a date or gotten drunk or smoked a filterless cigarette until my lungs ached with the filthy resonance of normalcy. I am, after all, Father’s daughter.
“Did you finish your summer reading?” Mother asked me on the unseasonably sweltering afternoon before Father returned. Apparently, the heat had returned—aberrant and deviant—just to disrupt the natural order of things.
“Sure,” I lied. She pretended to believe me.
Later, I disappeared into my bedroom, flipping through enough pages to understand—at least superficially—the greatness of Gatsby.
Father came home wearing a rainbow-striped fedora, tilted jauntily on his head. The hat cast a shadow across his handsome face which partially obscured his face, but there was no mistaking his upturned lips or the happy hue of his cheeks.
“That hat makes a mockery of our marriage!” Mother seized it and threw it in the trash.
Father’s smile didn’t even falter. “I’m leaving you,” he said.
He didn’t go. It was the same recycled threat as last summer and the summer before. His trips to Provincetown always made him think that he could make it on his own. Mother laughed, then yelled, then cried. When she stormed upstairs, I asked Father to show me how to tie a bowline knot, but he must’ve been confused, or upset, by their spat because he looked perplexed and said he had no idea about knots, bowline or otherwise.
The great irony is that, when I cut him down, the knot he used to hang himself—or that someone else used to hang him—was the knot of the sailor. When I saw it, I thought of Steve.
The day Father dies is the same as any other. He makes pancakes for the two of us. Mother doesn’t eat them. She says she has no appetite.
At 6:37, when Father and I are still in our pajamas, Mother leaves for work. Earlier than usual. Good thing. Lately, the tension has felt oppressive. I’ve been balancing on the beam of their mutual dissatisfaction, wavering and wobbling as I try, and fail, to walk the line. I thought the screaming was a thing of the past, and maybe it was, but the trip seems to have tugged at the threads of their marital tapestry. I am happy that school has started and I have someplace to go. I cannot affix myself to Father’s side and be his ally. Not again.
When I walk out the door to school, Father looks at me with his wide, oval eyes, magnified by his wire-rimmed glasses. “Whatever happens,” he says, “Don’t blame your mother.”
I nod. Whatever happens… Father the dramatist.
It happens after dinner. Mother asks Father if he is meeting Steve. He says he is. She does not argue or retaliate or demand he spend quality time with us, his family. She doesn’t even implore him to stay and join her for a cup of tea. She simply rises from her seat, walks slowly across the room, and retrieves his coat from the closet.
“It’s supposed to get nippy,” she says, although I’ve never once known my mother to be concerned about the weather.
Then she kisses him tenderly. “I love you.” Red lipstick smear on his lips.
Father doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t wipe away the stain of her. Instead, he takes Mother’s face in his hands, stares deep into her eyes, and smiles. “You’re my person, Ava. Always will be.”
I am without ritual. I give a little farewell wave as I sprint past Father on my way up the stairs.
“No goodbye?” he asks.
“Bye!” I shout down. I refuse to return to the landing and stare down the stairs for one last look at the man who raised me.
“Yeah?” Exasperation snakes its way into my tone.
“How about a hug?” Still shouting now.
Sometimes, he can be so needy.
“I love you.”
“Jesus, Dad, I’ll see you when you get back.”
Then the sound of the door opening and closing. Soft, muted tears. Mother is crying in the kitchen. I do not bother to investigate.
I am fully out of the tree by the time Mother and her hatchet return. No. Not one hatchet. Two. Matching. She hands me mine and I swing. Wooden splinters fly through the air. It’s later than I realized.
“Beautiful,” she says, pointing at the setting sun.
“He always loved a good sunset.”
Swing. Chop. Hack.
Mother is more forceful than I. She’s always been the strongest. But I hold my own and match her swing for swing. The fireball sun lights up the sky and pink and orange twin together as we destroy the beast that destroyed my father. No one will ever dangle from its branches or scurry up its sides again. As winter approaches, Mother will see to it that we burn one log after another, a constant fire even when we do not need one, just so we can burn every last trace of Father’s final resting place.
Gay. That was the word they scrawled across my father’s naked chest—ironically, in lipstick. At first, I wondered at the absurdity of the sentiment and the choice of writing implement. What homophobic man would bring lipstick with him to murder a man who liked other men?
That’s what he was, of course. I always knew. I heard what the kids at school were calling him. Faggot. A word that sounded like the cloying, annoying buzzing of a gnat. Maybe that’s why, every time I heard it said, I swatted it away, along with the truth.
Once, when they thought no one was watching, I witnessed a moment between Father and his friend. So simple, it was. They’d both come in from a run, sweaty and out of breath. Father poured two glasses of water. The first, he handed to Steve. The second he kept for himself.
I watched him devour the contents of that glass, voraciously thirsty. He gulped and gulped and, when he lowered his glass, his bottom lip was dripping liquid. Was it sweat or water that remained? I didn’t know.
Steve reached out his hand and wiped away the liquid. He put his finger in his mouth and savored the flavor of whatever it was.
Neither man saw me. They were oblivious to my presence. Lost in the moment. I stood in the doorway, observing what was, and feeling like a trespasser in my own home.
Steve did not come to the funeral. He was not invited. Mother made that clear. She blamed him. And the hanging tree. I didn’t. I blamed the men who committed the act. Or man. Or woman. I’ll never know if it was a stranger or a friend or if father climbed the tree of his own volition and allowed the noose to be slipped around his neck.
I do not want to know. When the police come, I am glad they do not question me too closely. If they did, I might accidentally let it slip that, about an hour after Father left that night, I heard the downstairs door open and close one more time and the sound of Mother’s footsteps on the porch. If they did, I might inadvertently mention that I recognized the color of the lipstick immediately. Three letters scrawled in her hand on his flesh in that unmistakable shade of crimson.
Dara Lyons is a summa cum laude graduate of New York University and her work has been read by over half a million readers. She has written twenty novels, two children’s books, a nonfiction book about yoga, numerous articles, short stories, and two full-length screenplays.