It was a crooked tree with one large limb that bent almost to the ground. It grew alongside the property near my girlhood home in Kentucky in a new subdivision that my mother named ‘Twelve Trees’. The tree stood strong for its age on a bit of yet undeveloped land – unaware of the role it would adopt as my parents laid plans to live out their dream.
The lowest limb on this tree gathered great character as my six siblings and I got older and more daring. It held many adolescent bodies all at once; it took on feathers, scales and fur; it grew the body parts of dragon and panther depending; it grunted and growled and sighed and soared as the first to arrive declared what large creature it would be for the day.
Laughing, joking, and making up rules to welcome newcomers to the neighborhood, we shoved each other off the limb and pulled one another back on again.
For many years, we won and we lost all sorts of imaginary battles and the tree played along: resting when we left, but – I frequently thought to myself – always longing for our return the next day.
On days when we could not visit the tree, it was still visible from the bay window over our newly varnished hardwood deck. Through the years, the tree grew ears as the varnish on the deck faded. It crouched and leaned in to hear my elder siblings sitting on splintered benches searching for ways to win at a different game, a game my parents seemed to be losing, a game I no longer wanted to play. I know this, because together, the tree and I heard them.
The tree was different when I visited it alone; I was unable to make it move under my tall, thin frame. It did not have a head or a tail. Its bark was just bark. Settling in the crux between trunk and limb, I could only rest on the back of all those daydreams, usually with a journal in hand.
Not even on angry days would the tree pretend to have scales or breathe fire. Even when I held onto the trunk, pushing and shoving on the limb, the tree would still not buck or run or fight back.
One day, I was so determined and jumped so hard and long that I slipped and my bare, upper leg got caught between the trunk and limb of the tree. I knew then how strong we had made that tree: neither part would budge so that I could free my leg. I was not hurt, but I was stuck and alone until my older sister and brother returned from school.
When they did, they helped me push the limb down far enough that I could climb out of that predicament. They laughed. I cried. Through my tears, the tree then did the oddest thing: As they let go of the limb so that it could bounce back up, it bent further downward instead, like a creature taking a knee to lower its back for a rider to mount.
I felt my sister’s hand and then my brother push me up onto the limb. They climbed on too and between them I grabbed tightly onto what felt like thick fur growing under my hands. We stayed for a long time that day and I don’t remember much else, but I do recall the ground moving beneath us, wind on the thin skin of my closed eyelids, and the feeling that this tree knew far more than me.