There’s a smell of apples in the air. The candied kind, with nuts stuck to them. It’s coming from the carnival at Holy Family, the Catholic school at the end of my street. This spot on my front steps earns me a good view of the parade of people leaving the festival. Families and friends are marching in tight clusters with armfuls of leftover cotton candy, popcorn, stuffed animals, and bags of goldfish.
I naturally assume their liveliness and excitement as they pass by me. The buzz of their joyfulness makes me dream a wish. I want those people to all go home and do great things for the world. Because the world needs those kinds of people; hearty people who do great things, big things with their hearts, for the world.
I work best on my drawings here on the cracked concrete steps because being here near the old tree trunks and under their leafy limbs makes me feel protected from the heavy hand of the world. This sacred spot is my only safe container.
It would be nice to draw a picture that would show my parents what goes on inside my head so they would stop asking what’s wrong with me—why I’m so deep, so careful. But it would take mountains of paper and rivers of paint to draw that picture. So instead I’ll draw simple pictures on letter-sized paper, like the ones my older sister Toni makes, with princesses and fashions and trees with red apples.
Quiet times like this give me a break from having to feel everyone else’s feelings. It’s better to feel my own. When I do, a strong knowing comes inside me that I have big things to do with my heart for the world, too. The idea of it makes me shiver and beam. I rake the stair step below me with my fingers to clasp an orange heart shaped leaf, which I know is a clue telling me yes, keep believing in such good things; you’re on the right track.
There’s this bush right beside my spot here on the steps that looks just like the apple trees my sister draws. It’s round and green and seems lit up with bright red berries. Mom must have known I wanted to eat those berries the first day we moved here since she made a point to tell me and Toni not to eat them. She instructed us very clearly saying, “Be sure to leave those berries alone. They’re poisonous to people. They’re only good for birds.” And of course that very second I wanted to be a bird so I could fly down and eat the bright berries right off of the bush.
Dropping my paper and crayons, I take a good look at what makes for a poison berry. It’s just good manners to take a closer peek at the things nature has put out there for you to see. Snap, snap, snap, the berries drop off easy, like they almost wanted to be plucked. The peanut sized fruits look so bright and juicy in my hand, like three tiny red balloons without strings, just calling to be popped.
I toss two of them aside, their weighty round juiciness bouncing once in the grass then landing for good, full and still. The third gets squished between my fingers with excited anticipation of what human poison actually looks like. A filmy blob with clear juice and tiny seeds spurts out the berry’s small opening. It’s not black or ugly like you’d expect poison to be, but see-through and maybe even clean, pure, like the birds who eat it.
The second I lick the mash of poison and seeds off my fingers a cramp forms tight around my stomach. Wondering about the effects of this personal experiment, I peer suspiciously toward the bush. It crosses my mind that the beauty of the berries could have been a trick to attract kids like me who’re dumb enough to take chances with poison. I can’t be too sure. But then again nature wouldn’t do anything to hurt me. It couldn’t.
I’m probably just getting that regular stomachache that Dad says I get when I worry too much. He says I worry about everything–calls me an emotional yo-yo. I just wonder who’s holding the string.
“C’mon Jenna, pick yourself up by your bootstraps,” Dad said last time I was curled up with a stomach ache.
“You can’t pick up your own self,” I murmured. “Only other people can pick you up.”
But my Dad didn’t get the hint.
I shrink when mom calls from inside the house. Sensing she’s heard every thought I’ve been thinking all this time I don’t want to answer her. I won’t be able to explain why the poison was a temptation. I grasp my drawings nervously, fearing they might blow off into a trail that will lead me to be found.
I jam my hand deep into the massive berry bush beside me, fishing for a strong branch to grab and pull my body deep inside it. After a short spell of flying branches, breaking twigs and shedding leaves, I rest inside my shelter, a capsule of green shrubbery.
“Jenna, come on out of there.”
My mom is a twenty-seven-year old square faced blonde, her small frame still tan from the summer. She’s always pretty no matter what the sun does or doesn’t do to her.
“What’s going on?” Mom gets right to the point, never wasting a word.
She yanks up her pants at the knees to squat down to find my eyes. There’s no way she can deal with my troubles. As a social worker, she fixes people’s problems at work all week as it is. It’s not easy finding jobs for people with disabilities, she says. So I want to give her a break when she’s home.
I hug my legs tight, hoping she doesn’t see me peering out at her from inside my leafy shield of armor. I’m scared that whatever she’ll ask me will remind me I’m over-emotional, in other words, not normal. The worry I cause my family with my overdone emotions complicates what I’m going through. There’s no justification, just more damp patches of sadness on each faded knee of my jeans.
“It looks like your senses are working overtime again, Jenna. What could you possibly be all that miserable about?”
Her eyes are alive with a crystal blue tint that makes her appear innocent and harmless, just like the berry poison. When I don’t answer, she picks up one of my drawings and sees I was coloring the beginnings of a tree.
“Let’s get you out of there.”
Mom shoves her teased and sprayed hairdo straight towards me, way deep into the bush’s bulk. If Mom is risking her hairdo, I know she’s serious about reaching me. But it seems like every time she really reaches me, she lets go again much too soon. To protect myself from being abandoned by her touch I dig deeper into the center of the shrub, farther out of her grasp.
Mom’s hair gets stuck on one of the limbs, making her have to back out and pinch leaves, twigs and berries from her matted head. Still, she’s determined to dive in again. Holding her breath as if she’s plunging under water, she extends her arms through the branches far enough to give a light-encouraging tug to my elbow.
Her touch leaves a cool scent of lemon on my sleeves, giving me that feeling like I’ve been loaned back some part of me that’s been missing. A great surge of love tempts me to leap into her arms and hold steady in a spot right close to her heart. I want her to say “I’ve got you” while I cry rivers for the relief of actually belonging somewhere in the world.
The neighbor’s keys jingle outside their door, making Mom spring away from the bush, quickly dusting herself off.
“She’s just stopped sucking her thumb and now she’s hiding in a bush. Kids!” she announces to our neighbor, red-faced. And even though I’m hidden deep inside this great big bush, I still feel the need to disappear.
The neighbor knows that six years is too long to suck your thumb. Mom says it messes up your teeth and makes you swallow funny. Dad tried to get me to stop the habit by wrapping my thumb with black electrical tape at night. What made me finally stop was my dentist, who said, “If you keep sucking your thumb, you’ll have to take swallowing lessons.”
The picture of a man who smells like a cough drop telling me what to do with my own tongue and spit made me lose the taste for my thumb completely. Now it’s on to bigger problems, like figuring out once and for all what’s wrong with me.
My body slumps with relief when mom withdraws back into the house, the screen door snapping shut tight behind her. I don’t even know why I want to cry again except that so much of what happens in my life makes me feel off-center. I’m forever losing at this thing called living.
I stretch out from under the bush, dust myself off, and slide back into my preferred spot at the top porch step. It’s where the tree branches hang over me, sheltering me from the sky that’s falling inside my head. I know one thing for sure. Trees don’t need any explanations. They let you feel any way you please and just sit there with you in peace. I think that’s why trees are here on earth—to give every person the chance to experience the feeling of quiet kindness at least once in their life.
It helps to sit still in nature and think about what I’m going to do about life; knowing I can’t go on giving everything I have just to make it through each day.
Scribbling up my paper with crayons I finish my picture of the bright yellow oak trees on my street. In the picture the trees are emptying their branches. Their leaves have covered up all of the roads that might lead to confusing places. And there’s a special golden road that I pretend will take me to a nice place that always feels safe and good to me.
I guess the carnival is over for the day because the sidewalk below my house has already cleared of people.
Setting my box of crayons on top of my drawing will keep it from blowing away while I walk down eleven concrete steps to the sidewalk. I like looking up at the leaves spinning off the granddaddy oak tree in the silent sweet air. They take their time circling above me, floating in and out of the rays of sunshine that poke through the tree branches.
It makes me remember the feeling I had last fall, daydreaming into the swirl of woodsy smells that could only mean the end of summer. It was an easy escape from my heavy feelings. I’m feeling the same peace right now, watching the sun paint bright colors over the fading green leaves. It’s so pretty here. I can’t help but expect that this new season will bring good things with it.
Mom says the seasons come and go in cycles. On cloudy days, she says, “Oh well, the sunshine will come find us.”
I suppose the sunshine will come find me.
I just wonder how long I’ll have to wait.