Mebba told me once that in the south, Magnolia trees mean something different; to our people, anyway. Their stock and branches, thick and twisted between delicately soft blooms that almost make the trees seem beautiful. Almost. I visit her every summer, but this one has been quieter, stiller. We still walk and talk like nothing is changed, but the house doesn’t feel as comfortable under my toes. It often seems so alive, beating to invisible rhythms that polish the wood with the presence of too many guests and kind strangers that smile and tell me I look just like my grandmother.
“Grandmother?” she would shout whenever she’d hear the term. “Can a grandmother do this?”
And then she’d swing her hips something fierce to that same invisible beat that I knew she could hear too. She’d hitch up her skirt, well above her needs, and shake her derrière —a french speaking man from another part of the world that came to visit Mebba told me that was a more elegant way of saying ass. I tend to agree with him now that I’m older, back then, it was just another word I couldn’t remember how to pronounce. Things don’t seem as real when you can’t pronounce them. She’d shake her derrière from side to side, lowering herself towards the ground as the guests of the house would chant and cheer and grind their own bodies the way Mebba would move hers. She’d stand slowly, her back inevitably knotted and tightened, but she’d never complain. Then if it was hot, which it almost always was, she’d wipe the sweat off her brow, as would all of the people I was yet to know. Their faces glistening, smiles and teeth shining with embers of brown skin, deep oak panels and floor boards flying around in a suffocating warmth that made me feel full instead of out of breath.
With her hand on her hip she’d say, “Ain’t no grandmothers here.” Then she’d laugh so unapologetically the room would hum in a milky pleasure and anyone there would be compelled to join in, not because they had to, but because something inside them told them it was okay to. My grandmother’s name is actually Melba, but when I was four and she, some half century older, decided she didn’t want to be a grandma. So she’s a Mebba.
I’ve been here all of two weeks and not a single guest has stopped by to visit. I considered asking her about it, but I’ve come to know her as someone who does things in her own time, in her own way. So we sit and talk and cook and listen to jazz and I trust that this is exactly the way she wants things to be. That she wants some quiet and still.
“Tulie,” she calls. She gave me the nickname as a baby, said that my face was shaped like a blossoming tulip and that I was the most spectacular bloomed bulb she’d ever seen take root.
“Let’s go pick some apples,” she says, pushing up from the sofa, her movement labored but fluid.
I’m inclined to go to her, to help her get on her feet, but I don’t want her to start dancing, so I follow closely behind as she puts on her wide brim hat and motions to the apple basket I’m being directed to bring. I watch her fingers wobble as they unlatch the chain lock, the lines of her hands matching the peeling paint edges trying to hold on to the door frame. The back door is known to stick, usually, she’ll pry it open in an unnecessary fury, like she had something to prove. She doesn’t open it fast today though, she works through the knob, turning it in its entirety to a point where we hear something click. I didn’t know that door clicked. She gently pulls it and the door falls open in a way that looks like it’s falling apart. Like the pork from last night fell off its bone, delicate and subtle. We walk together and Mebba takes hold of my arm as we head down the dirt path towards the apple trees.
“It’s mighty hot today,” she says.
“No hotter than usual,” I reply.
Our steps are in perfect unison, I have slowed down some and find myself grinning as we unintentionally ease on down the road.
“It don’t have to be hotter than usual for it to be hot, Tulie.”
I nod and shrug, “I guess that’s tru-”
Mebba stops walking, the abruptness pulls my arm back, impeding on the musical momentum.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
She doesn’t answer. She is looking down, so my eyes follow her line of sight and I know why she stopped. Not two feet in front of us is a copperhead. Its body coiled and neck upright like an image that came to life. We’d see snakes out here, footlessly running through the brush like excited children, it was perplexing. I knew snakes to be silent, stealthy, but behind Mebba’s house they were free, and slithered like freedom meant something different there. Usually, when we’d run across a poisonous one, Mebba would immediately pull out her axe and take to the snake’s head. The first time I saw her do it something heavy fell into my stomach, something weighted and stone like. Seeing the snake’s head off its body was only a part of it. I think it was seeing Mebba cock the axe over her head. The purposefulness of its descent. The speed in which she killed the copperhead. I’d seen her swat at flies and shoo spiders, but never kill a thing like that.
When I asked her why she had to kill it, she said, “They’ll get you if you don’t get them.”
I suppose that’s the thing about killing, everyone, can have a reason.
Mebba doesn’t have her axe now. We left the house and it hadn’t occurred to either of us that exactly what’s happening would happen. My eyes lift off of the snake’s dully burnt scales and back to Mebba. She isn’t moving. She is just watching the snake. Her pupils are dilated and her breath is soft. I glance down at her hand and she is making a fist, a tight one where her axe should be. I look back at her eyes and think maybe she can’t remember the last time she felt so vulnerable. I turn away from her and feel the heavy apple basket hanging from my grasp. I know if I hesitate, I’ll miss. So I take a quick step towards the copperhead and as my foot lands above the small rolling pebbles so does the basket, directly on top of the snake.
I look at Mebba again and she still isn’t moving. I rattle my arm and rub it against hers as if to wake from a dream.
“What do we do now?” I ask, inching into her line of sight.
She blinks twice and looks at me with a surprised glint stuck in the corners of her eyes, like I haven’t been standing with her the entire time. Like the basket appeared with the lack of wind not blowing through our clothes.
Mebba tightens her arm around mine and continues walking, “We’ll get the axe later. Take care of that ole’ copper and get the basket back. Let’s go get our apples.”
“But,” I frown a bit. “We don’t have anything to carry them in.”
Mebba looks up at me and I remember when I used to look up at her. She opens her hands wide, stretching her slim fingers apart, and then she winks. Our teeth cluck in a small laughter pen and we keep walking towards the apple trees I can see in the not so distance.
There aren’t enough trees for this to be considered an apple orchard. When I think of those there are long rivers of leaning trees lining paths down acres of unkempt grass. Here, Mebba has nine trees that she planted when she and my grandfather bought the property. He was in the military and so much of their life was spent there and here and in hidden places. They made friends all over the world, fueling their sense of purpose and pitter-pattered life steps – singing through their lives because they had a new chorus every year. But when they moved here, Mebba found a piece of her soul in the land. Her land. Something no one in her or my grandfather’s family had ever been able to say. So she planted flowers and herbs and bushes and trees, she planted everything that could give what was hers, life. To breathe easy was what she called it, her love of gardening and nourishing the earth. She said it helped us all, to breathe easy. She soiled a hand full of apple tree seeds in a clearing behind the house, nine took. Even though there were so few, she still called it her orchard, and no one told her that it wasn’t, because too much of the world already makes us feel small.
Mebba releases my arm and motions to the step ladder leaning under an especially crooked tree. I open it and climb a step. I know how to pick the apples she likes now. Extra firm and smooth to the touch. I wrap my fingers around some, squeeze them and trace my fingers around their skin. I do it by touch. I can tell by the grooves circling their sides if they’ve been battered or are still too young. When I feel them I know and I pull harder than I need to because I don’t want to pull again. The snake has the basket so I feel for five or six good ones.
She asks as I pass her the first apple, “You been having fun this summer, Tulie?”
“Always,” I grin at her. “It’s been quiet though.”
I roll my fingers against another apple, its skin is sharp so I take it.
Mebba answers, “I know it has, but I thought it’d be nice to spend some time, just you and me.”
She takes the second apple as I say, “Any particular reason?”
She pauses. I grab hold of the third apple and lower it to her, but she doesn’t take the fruit. I look at her and see that she is looking right at me. She still hasn’t responded. Her eyes are full and wet but not from tears, I don’t think, but from something that makes her feel like the copperhead did. She’s looking at me and holding her hand in a fist again. She wants her axe, but this time, only Mebba knows why.
“Mebba?” I lift the apple higher and watch her blink twice the way she did before.
“Sorry baby,” she takes it. “What did you say?”
I want to ask her what’s going on, but I don’t.
I repeat myself, “Is there any particular reason you wanted this summer to be just you and me?”
A wave of remembrance floods her face as she nods and I feel for the fourth apple.
“Oh no,” she says. “I just thought it’d be nice. So much of my life has been a full house and parties and too many people. Sometimes I forget that just spending time with someone you love can be a party all on its own.”
She sort of bobbles her head in a fun-loving way as she takes the fourth apple. Her pockets are becoming full.
“What do you mean, your life has been,” I ask. “Don’t you mean is?”
She rolls her eyes as she points to an apple that I take as the fifth and says, “Has been, is, you know what I mean.”
I step down and she holds the fifth apple near her face.
Mebba says, “I thought you had to take bites out of life the way you would an apple. But I ain’t got no teeth now, so I can’t bite it the way I used to.”
I chuckle as I put the step ladder back and she says, “But baked apples taste sweet too, don’t they, Tulie?”
I nod, “Even sweeter.”
She smiles at me with her eyes and I feel like I see her whole life in them. The wonder and joy and sadness and fear and music. I sometimes think that only older people can really smile that way, that in order to smile from your eyes you have to be able to smile from the soul. And that has to be a deep, deep, happiness, quite many years in the making. She touches my cheek and pats my face like I’m her little tulip again, small and innocent and every other scary thing a child naturally is. She pats my face and her eyes still smile, and I can’t imagine a world without her.
“Let’s keep walking,” Mebba says as she walks past the trees and further away from the house.
I don’t move, knowing the only thing further than the apples was not a good place.
“Do we have to?” I call out to her.
I know she can hear me, but she keeps walking. I close my eyes and let out the breath I didn’t realize I was holding since she started walking. I look back at the house and exhale again, resting my hands on my hips before looking back at Mebba who has already turned the corner. I don’t want to go. But I do anyway. I drag my feet and feel the blades of grass whip the tips of my shoes as I kick my foot out harder. I turn the corner and see Mebba approaching her orange lawn chair. She’s moving quickly because by the time I get next to her she is sitting comfortably in that uncomfortable chair right beneath the one tree she didn’t plant on the property.
“I don’t like it back here,” I say.
“Neither do I,” she replies.
I look at her as I lower myself to the ground, “So why do you insist on sitting back here, Mebba?”
I glance upward at the over-reaching branches of the Magnolia tree and shutter at how much they look like a hand, with the sky as its backdrop, inching downward to close in on us both. The flowers aren’t in bloom anymore, and I like that whenever I come they aren’t. I don’t want to know it as the almost beautiful thing I always heard about, but the haunting one that it still is.
Mebba looks out on the rest of her land where the corn used to be, and other things before it, tall, leaning, unwithered, and proud. It’s flat now, but clean and bright and proud in another kind of way.
“Because it reminds me of all the bad, Tulie,” Mebba speaks in a low voice. “And that makes me appreciate the good, even more.”
She turns to face me, “When you’ve seen so much pain, you have to harvest the good things. Tend em’, grow em’, let yourself live in them, let them burst through and spoil you so good. But sometimes you have to know that the pain is still there, sit in its shade and let its cool breeze wash over you. Because when you ignore it, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. You got to learn to sit with it sometimes, let the shade make you stronger, then believe, even if you won’t see it, that just like you can walk from under it, maybe ya’ll new babies won’t have to feel it the same way. That maybe one day, all there will be, will be apple trees.”
Mebba smiles and I smile back, she continues, “I got something to tell you, Tulie.”
“I know you do,” I reply.
“My doctors say they found a bunch of polyps inside me,” she whispers like it’s a secret we’re keeping from all the nobody around us. “They’re small little flat bumps that can start growing inside you. They said I got a lot of them, probably had them for years. Don’t know what it means yet though, could be nothing. Could be not nothing.”
I listen and feel my heart begin to tap. It beats like a sprinting baby running in place, maybe on a leash, trying to push forward but stuck in my limp body. I know this isn’t bad news, but I also know it could be. The baby begins to sprint from my chest to my stomach, notching and contorting itself into a feeling I am trying to hide from Mebba. She is still talking but I can’t hear her. I just feel the sprinting baby and prepare to hold my stomach in a not so obvious way. As soon as I touch my side the baby runs to my head, its feet even faster, beating on my temples as it tries to break free of the leash. I know this isn’t bad news, but I also know it could be.
Mebba takes hold of my hand and squeezes it with a strength I forgot she had. It hurts a bit and I am not sure what she’s doing, but as she squeezes, I feel the little sprinting feet travel down my neck and arm, brushing the inside surface of my flesh, and I feel the baby run from my fingers. Mebba squeezes harder and I squeeze back because I’m starting to understand. I sit and look out from under the shade of the Magnolia tree, feeling my hand in Mebba’s. We sit like this for what I imagine are lifetimes, or just summers, and stare into the vastness of warmth around us. Soon, I can no longer feel the baby. Mebba seems to know, and lets go.
“We should get back to the house soon,” she says. “Do me a favor first, go get my axe from the house and I’ll meet you at the basket. Got to take care of that copperhead.”
I nod and press my hand against the bark of the Magnolia tree and push myself to my feet. I don’t move my hand though. I rub my palm and fingers up and down the body of the tree, feeling its dents and grooves embed themselves into the lines and spaces of me. I watch the color of my hand blend with the tree’s and think of how we resemble; of all of the things we have in common. Then I take real notice of what I am feeling, the flat bumpy surface that occupies every part of what I am touching. I close my eyes and imagine I am touching Mebba, but on the inside.
“What if they weren’t called Magnolia trees anymore,” I say as Mebba watches my hand. “Then maybe they wouldn’t have to mean something different to us.”
“Tulie, baby,” Mebba says. “When Magnolia’s are in bloom they’re one of the most recognizable trees around. They can’t be anything but Magnolia trees.”
I spread my fingers against the bark one last time, my fingerprints carving in tiny pieces of me I didn’t intend to leave behind.
“But if you look closely, when they’re not in bloom,” I whisper this time. “They look like they could be called Polyp trees, and that wouldn’t always have to be bad, would it?”
Mebba nods as her eyes smile again, more fully than the time before. Her mouth smiles too, and all that beams from her in this moment make me feel like we are exactly where we need to be; my hand pressing against the past and its familiar ridges still fitting too well, and Mebba’s eyes cast in the shadow of the Polyp tree.
I start to walk back to the house and think of stopping to tell her that I love her. I glance over my shoulder and she is looking out onto the field of nothing again, so I stay quiet and keep walking because I know she already knows, and right now, she needs to sit under her tree.
I am passing the down facing basket and quicken my pace. Just knowing the copperhead is under there hurries me. I can see the house now, clear as day, but I stop. I stop and glance next to my feet. I’m parallel to the basket. It’s so deceiving, sitting here in this unassuming way. It almost looks normal. Almost. It almost looks like it’s just a basket. I step towards it and feel the tapping begin again, but these steps don’t feel like the baby steps, they just feel like taps. Deep and heavy ones that ricochet against my spine. I take notice of the rolling rocks again and feel unstable as I take my final step. I am above the basket. Looking down and picturing what’s beneath looking up. I kneel and place my hands on each corner, gripping its rough wood and twine. I think of counting down from five because it feels like something I need to do, but things don’t work that way. I consider counting down because I’m scared and think that’ll make it easier, until I’m at one and realize that it won’t. I feel the taps on my spine and exhale.
I crack the basket upwards on the side I can not see. In not even a second, the copperhead slithers with the speed of something bigger, its body curving from side to side so quickly into the grass it doesn’t look like a snake anymore. It just looks gone. I pick up the basket and head back to Mebba, sure she’ll be concerned I did what I did. But I already know what I’ll tell her, and it’ll be the truth, and I know she’ll understand, because I do; I’m just not sure I’d like what the copperhead’s death would mean, hidden amongst all of the, almost, beautiful trees.