When lightning strikes the tulip poplar, five hundred years of leaf lifting crashes into splinter wood, and several notables roll over in their graves.
When lightning strikes the tulip poplar, five hundred years of leaf lifting crashes into splinter wood, and several notables roll over in their graves, so Mama says. Among the dead mourners of the mighty poplar are: Christopher Columbus who shares its sproutday; an Indian chief, Emperor of the Piscataway, whose councils held under its green pavilion failed to stem the white pestilence; a Civil War widow by the name of Trump who to this day leaves her ghostly hairpins on the branch where she upstrung herself, Mama says. Not only that, but me and my younger brother Beeboo’s old fort, hidden in the tulip’s roomy trunk, is charred black as burnt marshmallows. Beeboo tells me girls don’t belong in forts. But I’m twelve and don’t take lip from ten.
You have to be tough when you’re fatherless. Not long ago the tenant farmer’s kids snuck down the road from Croom Crossing and murdered all our box turtles in their cozy washtub home out under the willow tree. We discovered the sad remains, busted shells and smashed heads. In a righteous state I grabbed Lieutenant Beeboo and we tore up the road, found those kids in the gravel pit. We loaded up our jeans with rocks, climbed to the top of the pile, and fusilladed the unwary bastards. We high-tailed it out of there alive, although they outnumbered and out-aged us too.
On the day of the lightning strike, Mama, Beeboo, and I, as soon as old thunder roils by with his sheets of downpour, we scurry down to the foot of the yard to view our blasted sentinel. Mama favors trees over people. It was a horticulturalist on the hunt for Big Tree Champions, with his measuring tapes and clinometer, who told her our poplar was aged among trees, oldest in the county he claimed. Mama had said to him, “Don’t you dare put this tree on any national list! We don’t want crowds of gawkers coming up our road. Five hundred years this tree has stood ground, given shelter, harmed nobody. What human being does that for even five, young man?” (Pure sassiness on Mama’s account, since the weasely looking fellow couldn’t have been much younger than she was). “Get out!” She’d fixed him with a sky-wild glare of her blue eyes and he’d slunk away, mistaking her fierce conviction for looniness. But Mama isn’t crazy; she’s strong-minded.
Which I explain to Beeboo when he complains about Mama’s tendency to chase off marriageable males. “If you’re looking for a new Dad,” I tell him, “You’d want one with more gumption than that horticulturalist.”
Mama looks at the massive broken trunk and sprawling pile of downed boughs of our tulip poplar and mourns aloud. “Nature giveth and taketh away, kids.” She shakes her head. “I feel a prognostication of disaster.”
Next day the bulldozers come. Don’t tell me there’s no causal effect. Raging through the woods, red earth opening in a wound. They rip up trees, claw the tender hillside. We hear the cries of saplings and honeysuckle. The swinging vines and creek pools of Southernmaryland were our stompground schoolroom. That’s where Mama taught us the names and tastes of growing things—sassafrass and pawpaw, persimmon and milky mushroom, wild onion and tangy grape. The big machines chomp them up and spit them out mashed flatter than panjacks. Men in yellow hats holler at her to clear her damn horses from the pasture. She stands, shaking her fist, yells back at them, “Give me more time, you bastards!”
“No more time, lady. Progress coming through.”
She slumps and says to me, “Help me get the horses in the barn, Tizzie.”
“Don’t let them on our land,” I tell her, remembering how she chased the horticulturalist away.
“No way I can stop them now,” she sighs. Those big machines might as well be flattening my Mama.
Since old Dad skedaddled with nary a backward glance when Truman was still president (I don’t remember either one) and this year we lost our farm to the bankerman (land that’s been in the family since Lord Baltimore wore shorts), all that’s left to Mama is five acres, four horses, Beeboo, and me. Against the jaws of change we’re puny. All we can do is help her string fences around the new perimeters of our little patch, what’s left. We commence next day, under the sweating sun. With muscles bulging, Mama mans the handles of the posthole digger, screwing it into the loamy soil. Beeboo and I set the posts; Mama pounds with the sledge. We unroll and stretch wire, with Mama hurling curses across the barbs at the earthmovers on the other side. “Go ahead!” she shouts, “Grind our heritage into suburban lots. Fill the earth with ticky tacky boxes. Just don’t cross this line. You can’t drive us out.”
I hope she’s right.
Privately Beeboo points out to me the advantages of two-legged neighbors who can actually perform the higher arts of conversation and ball-batting. Maybe Mama is a little nuts, I tell him, but she’s majestic. I’m allied with her in war against the furless species.
Three days into backbreak fencing, watching the slow destructive circling of the earthcrunchers move through our exhausted apple orchard, the locust grove, the abandoned icehouse, we’re nearly as done in as the land. I’m helping her muck out the stables. The horses, confined to paddock until we get their new munchyards fenced, are spending long tail-twitching afternoons in the stalls, passing poop. Mama stops in mid shovelful, leans up against the rail, her head bent down on folded arms. Her shoulders shake up and down like earthly tremors.
If you’ve ever seen your mother cry, you’ll know what a godcursed sight it is. We’re not the hugging sort, so I pat her on the back, the way you’d gentle a skittish horse. She pulls out a wiper for the eyes and nose. “Thanks, my girl,” she says.
I make a silent vow on Jehovah thundering out of Zion, and am rewarded with an unholy visitation. It’s as though lightning has struck all over again, but this time it’s not our tulip poplar but the invaders who will take the hit.
That evening in the bright slide of sun to horizon, I explain my plan to Beeboo and crank up the volume on the Rock and the Winkle. We slip out the back door, aiming to pay a stealthy call on the demilitarized zone. Out past our new fence line, we follow the fresh-cut track down into the woods to the edge of Tarzan gulch. Three yellow beasts are parked where the hard hats left them, like dinosaurs left out to graze for the night. All about them uprooted trees lie in piles, bodies on a battlefield. Clumps of churned red earth stick to the dozers’ treads like flesh. They’ve been chopping and filling the old ravine, trying to iron her flat for suburbia. Beeboo closes in to inspect a machine. Its tread is taller than he is, but that doesn’t daunt him a bit. “Looka here, Tizzie,” he says. “They left the keys in it.”
Right then I know that Someone Big is looking out for us. “You reckon you could turn the thing on?” I say.
Being a boy, Beeboo naturally gravitates toward all things internal combustible, and already knows how to drive our little farm tractor. His eyes bug wide and a regular Alfred E. Newman smile spreads between the mounds of his cheeks. Before you could gut a sock, the two of us are scrambling up into the sleeping bull, pouring over it all our curiosity and loathing now that it’s inert and harmless. Levers and knobs and pedals reek of the power of metal, of grinding, squeezing, shoving, and forcing new shape onto our tired old prince of hills. I grab a lever and yank. It won’t budge.
“Let’s just turn the key,” Beeboo says, “and see what happens.”
What happens. Oh man! It’s like rockets taking off, the way that machine wakes up, shaking and roaring, like Tyrannosaurus tromping the mighty Pleistocene. And there we are, me and my little brother, riding on the back of a full-grown monster bulldozer, ripping its way through the forest.
Now I’m no sissy, as I mentioned. My mama earns her bread by breaking horses and I’ve ridden bareback since I could walk, but that’s nothing to riding on the back of a machine that can’t hear you cuss, can’t feel you pull on the reins, just goes where it wants and you might as well be a gnat on its butt. Not even that, because a horse feels a gnatbite, but this thing is invulnerable. Like Superman.
I love it.
The dozer rumbles forward, inch at a time, mawing through brush, branches snapping, rocks crunching, eating its way through our back forty clod by clod. Beeboo and I cling tight to any handhold we can find, sucking in oxygen like it’s our first breath.
“Whoo whee!” I yell, thumping old Beeboo’s back.
We come to the edge of the ravine, where the whole hill takes a steep dive down toward Little Trickle. Way down at the bottom below are the clay pools where Mama, Beeboo, and I tub it on steamy summer afternoons, places so shady they carry the memory of chill even through August. Dead below, the deepest pool, perfect fit for our unruly dozer.
“Jump!” I shriek.
I go right. Beeboo goes left. The bull plumbs over the edge, plunging in slow motion down the ravine, spitting out underbrush as it goes. It just misses tall man oak where our favorite grapeswinger dangles. “Do you think it will stop?” Beeboo asks. The lumbering thing seems inexorable, like progress. Down through sapling and bush and honeysuckle to the very brink of the creek.
“We’ll find out now,” I say.
Like some stately hippopotamus it dips its front to drink, headfirst into the waterhole, its fat yellow behind stuck up in the air, the dozer is near vertical. Then half submerged, its grumble chokes and dies. The treads stop their crawling.
“Yee haw!” Beeboo and I whoop and dance like wild Indians.
Then we scamper back to where the brother dozers slumber. Do they know the nasty fate of their numero uno? I’m feeling cocky, all-powerful, SuperTizzie takes on tons of steel and vanquishes foes. Beeboo, though, is thinking skeptical. “Won’t they just send in more dozers?”
I won’t suffer doubt. “We keep at it until they go away. Sooner or later they’ll decide country people are too nasty for suburbanites to live among.”
He ponders and then expresses an unmighty twinge of caution. “Suppose we’re caught?”
I offer him my sagest solace. “If the Mounties come, you can say I made you do it.”
“Fiddle on that,” he has to say to salvage his tough stuff. He leaps on board and quick as a greased pig turns the key. This time, as the bull roars awake, Beeboo grips a lever and heaves with all his peewee might, biceps popping out of his tee shirtsleeves like ping pong balls. Heave ho! And the big machine swerves to the right. Heave ha! on another lever, and a slow swerve to the left.
My brother has mastered the art of dozer driving. Like a superhero’s sidekick, Beeboo steers with great two-handed grabs at the lanky levers, until the machine and us two riders shudder into the path, all torn and blasted, of the first machine.
“One down, two to go!” my brother yells with his demonic grin. Now I’m not the only one with fiendish visions. This is wild. This is rich. We cling to our bucking behemoth until once again we reach the lip of doom. We leap. The dozer slowly dives. Down the well-crunched track of number one, number two gathers steam. Gravity and the flattened path suck it downward, fast for an earthmover, faster, until we boggle-eyed watch it slam into the upreared first. What a roar of rage! It grinds furious into the tracks of its twin, as if it’s eager for a dunking and pissed that someone beat it to the spot. Straining and groaning, engine whining, treads tearing, finally it pushes the first dozer over, plunges after, and dies in the water.
Beeboo and me, we are more than satisfied. We sprint back to the last remaining giant. At this moment we hear the distant yodel of our mother’s voice echo over the pasture and through the woods. “Beebooooo … Tizzieeee … where are you! Supper!”
Mama’s discovered the Rock and the Winkle are playing to an empty house, or more likely are done and given over the stage to Mouse Ears. “Quick!” I say. “Before she comes looking.”
The last one’s not a pusher but a scooper, sitting propped up on its shovel bent like a chicken wing, treads off the ground. We yank at the levers, but like the others, they won’t budge without power. “Nothing for it,” Beeboo says, and he turns the key. The machine fires on with snarls and gnashing of gears, until Beeboo pulls back a knob that lifts the shovel high and drops the treads with a jolt, where they rip into the marl. We lunge forward, waving the metal mouth like a banner. Beeboo pilots the scooper to our favorite jumping off point, and we wave the brute a ceremonial goodbye. We’re splitting our guts with yucks as our last victim follows its fate. The overgrown spoon plummets and careens sidewise off the bottomed dozer. Its outstretched arm keels over and finds the dirt. Last one down.
We perpetrators turn and lickety-split on up the hill, burst out of the woods to Mama’s last halloo, crossing the pasture right as the evening star blinks on.
The death-watch beetles make a louder racket than usual that night. Tick … tick … tick … spaced out like suspended episodes, the sound comes out of my bedroom walls. It’s like they’re measuring out the heartbeats I’ve got remaining in my life. I’m not scared of any normal mortal, not the creeps up the road or the skunky girls at Elmore Stickly Junior High, who beat you up because you don’t have a Dad like all the other kids. They just make me furious. I don’t remember the bygone Dad, and Mama threw out every photo. She says let bygones be, we’re better off without him. At least, we were till now. And I aim to return us to betteroff if I have to bury every dozer in the state.
Ghosts, however, bug me. The lamp in my bedroom glows for no apparent reason when the Widow Trump is in my room, waiting at the window for her young soldierhusband to come back from Gettysburg. I hear the floorboards creak when she sneaks in. There are angels warping in the plaster ceiling over my bed. Furthermore, the drainpipe outside my window would be an easy climb for any rampant robber on the loose. Ordinarily when the ticking in the walls fires up it’s after midnight, and I tip on downstairs and find Mama, who so far as I know never sleeps, reading romance novels on the sofa by a single lamplight. She cuddles me and wards off widows and maniac angels and insomniac robbers and says, “Silly lamb! They’re only death-watch beetles, nothing to be afraid of.”
But tonight I don’t want to bother Mama, risk her going tearful and me having to explain how Beeboo and I have taken care of everything so she doesn’t have to worry. If the Mounties show up to haul me and Beeboo off to jail, I figure ignorance is her best defense. So I lie back and think how mad the hard hats are going to be and try to imagine their faces with rage red cheeks and eyeballs spinning and puffs of smoke. The thinking calms me down, and I keep turned away from the lamp so I don’t have to see it glow because if the Widow’s in the room I’d rather not know it, and I decide to count the ticking of the beetles to see if it works like sheep. I guess it does because the next I know the sun is shining and a little morning breath is moving the curtains at my windows, and I smell bacon cooking.
I’m sliding down the banister and skittering toward the kitchen when I stop as short as a hog on ice. A voice is coming out of the kitchen that’s not Beeboo’s or anyone I know. The jigster is all up. I see life without parole. My heart doing jumping jacks, I’m calculating on a lam out the back when Beeboo zooms up behind me yelling, “Hey! Bacon! Beat you to it!” And he screams on through the kitchen door.
Our cover is blown higher than Everest. I can’t leave Beeboo to the wolves alone. Nothing for it but to follow him into the firing squad. Sure enough, sitting at the breakfast table is one of the yellow hats. Mama’s leaning over pouring coffee for him and he’s smiling up at her like he’s Bret Maverick on a winning streak. I can’t help but notice that Mama has on her pale blue halter top that she wears when she mows field or lawn, which she does first thing in the morning, and that the blue sets off her eyes and the halter flatters her figure. And her hair is pulled back in a ponytail that makes her look a lot younger than thirty-two. She straightens up and says, “Tizzie. Beeboo. Say hello to Mr. Joe Darling, foreman of the crew. He came in to use the phone. Vandals destroyed some bulldozers in the night.”
At this the archfiend gives a breezy chuckle, and I can’t help but notice that he’s handsome in a hard-muscled, weathered-skin kind of way. “Oh no! Not destroyed, Miz Sasscer. Just tampered with,” he says in a voice that purrs like a brand new 1960 Corvette Convertible with all the trimmings. “We got the equipment out. No real damage done.”
It’s time to ream the wax out of my lugs. This can’t be. We planted those earthcrawlers deeper than Davy Jones. Darling dear is up to something. I aim to find out what. “What did the vandals do, sir?” I ask, ladling on the manners.
“Drove the dozers into the creek, honey. A little water doesn’t hurt that kind of machinery.”
“That’s a relief,” Mama says. She sounds like she actually means it. Like she wants those metal-hearted juggernauts up and running rampage over her world, our world that the tulip poplar defended for five hundred years. I’m plain stupified. Hollowed out, my heart pounding around in the dark emptiness of my chest like Tom Sawyer looking for Becky in the cave. “You must have worked up an appetite,” Mama says. And before I can raise a peep of disbelief and objection to the unnatural event occurring in this very kitchen that’s been in my family for eleven generations and to the linoleum’s being yanked from under my feet, Mama places in front of the interloper a plate piled high with odiferous flapstacks and bacon swimming in golden honey, every bit as if he were lord of the manor.
Beeboo slides in next to Darling and tuckers up for his plate of stacks.
“Nice ears, sonny,” the enemy says. Beeboo is wearing his Mouse Ears. He grins up at Darling like butter won’t melt. My brother, who normally has a brain, doesn’t seem to realize what is evident to me, as clear as a prince clattering up on an armored steed, or Dudley Do-Right arriving to unsnag Little Nell. The stench of bacon congeals in my nose and sinks like a boulder to my stomach.
I see it now in living color: all my allies have abandoned me. I’m the last soldier on the battlefield. In my kitchen overcrowded with stacks and hats and ghosts and jaws of progress, I’m lonelier than the last leaf to drop, as lonely as the mighty poplar himself after all the great unbroken forests of sighing oaks and singing maples have fallen to the clang of ax and buzz of chain. I know now that even a heart of wood can break.
Deborah Clearman is the author of the novel Todos Santos. Her short stories have appeared in The Adirondack Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Connecticut Review, storySouth, Witness, and many other journals. Formerly Program Director of NY Writers Coalition, she has led numerous NYWC creative writing workshops for people from diverse backgrounds. Since 2011 she has led weekly writing workshops for women in jail on Rikers Island. For more information visit deborahclearman.com.