Mary of the tall pines

They come with the rising sun now: praying on their knees, crying at my feet, asking for forgiveness, for healing, for miracles. My feet are wet, still as the day folds and ends. Below, pine needles flattened in rounded divots, radiating outwards. The sunlight filters through the low branches and the whispering pine boughs. The young woman who found me first, stumbled and then crashed at the base of the tree trunk; her face, bleeding, and turned towards the tall treetops. She looked past me to the blue sky above.

“Please, God, help me.” She cried out. It made my heart heavy to hear the pain in her voice. The despair. She lay on her back while the wind arranged the branches to let the sunlight pass to her cheeks. When the first shaft of warm sunshine touched her, she saw me. I watched her scramble to her knees, and clutched her hands together, knuckles white and stretched.

“Please, I am no one special,” she sobbed, ‘but if you could please help me just this one time, I will make my life different. My name is Anne Marie, and if you help me, save me from this, I will change, I promise that I will.” Anne Marie ran the words together, losing breath at the last. She sat back and wiped her face with the heels of her hands. She cried for two hours. Speaking between the teardrops. She told me the story. I listened to the river that poured out of her. Fragments tumbling in the currents of daily life; her husband left her after sixteen years for a girl half her age. He left her humiliated, doubting everything she thought she knew to be true. Her job didn’t pay enough for her to support her daughters, buy food and pay the rent. Some days she went without eating because she was afraid there would not be enough for her daughters to eat properly. She had no family in town. It wasn’t even her town to begin with. It was his. She knew no one. Her mother died a year ago of cancer. Anne Marie’s brothers and sisters, father scattered, no longer speaking to each other. They spoke to her, making her the hub of the wheel. Alone and in the center. Helpless to do anything except be there when they need her. Her heart so thoroughly broken she lost faith, wandering aimlessly, hollow empty. She felt ugly, weak, useless. She could never be enough for someone. They always leave. Please, just one miracle, not for her, but for her children. She needed to know, to be reassured that there is meaning behind everything that happened. A reason, some hope. When the words stopped, she sat and listened to the wind and the trees singing. I was tied with a rusted wire around a branch that had been snapped off in a storm some time ago; rocking gently with the swaying wood. Blue-green eyes, rimmed red and full still of tears watched me. She looked into my face, and I saw her change. A ripple of recognition, then the ecstatic smile.

Anne Marie did not return for three days. She didn’t come any closer than the outer edge of the crowds. Always watching, she kneeled by the clusters of white and purple violets growing around me and bowed her head in prayer. I heard her voice mingling with others. One voice in the ocean. She was asking questions on the third day. What had she done to lead herself to where she was right now? What had she done wrong? What had she misunderstood about her path? What should she do next? She never used to mind about money. She never had much, but it never worried her. No matter what happened, they worked it out, but now that she was alone, with no one to help, she was paralyzed by fear.

“Should I let go? How do I do that? I can give up and give over to you everything that I am, let you guide me again. I did that, and everything fell apart. Do I need to do that again? Give up and die again and again. How many deaths? What comes next? I am afraid.” She whispered. I listened.

It was not long after she left that the others came. They came, prayed, touched my feet as they passed by. Their stories make the violets grow. Sickness, heart break, worries, sorrow, asking for forgiveness, for healing, no story the same, no story any different. Two sparrows greeted the day with me to begin the second week. The crowds grew as they do. It was no long before the pine needles gave way to mud. Still people crouched to kneel on the hard roots and exposed granite. Some wondered how I came to be attached to the tree, dangling so high above the others. The rusted wire had begun to seep through the cracks in the wood and old brittle pain, staining my face. The sparrows hopped from branch to branch around me, chattering to themselves and eating the seeds from the pine cones. Once in a while a seed would fall loose and drift to the forest floor. Anne Marie held her vigil while the priests came and went. The Diocese came to evaluate. They could not determine the how or why either. It seemed I just appeared from their vantage point down below. Red cords and brass poles pushed the faithful back further. Ladders and magnifying glasses revealed the embedded wire. The tree had claimed it and me years ago.

The first day I found my home in the branches was not unlike this day. The sun was shining. Small white clouds dotted the open sky; an invitation for a pause. Sparrows and chipmunks scurried on the ground. Penelope was nine when she wrapped the wire around the trunk. Pine sap ran over her fingers. She tasted it hoping that it was sweet, but it was not. She stood, hard faced staring at me.

“I don’t feel you.” She said finally. “I am supposed to, I think. Emma said that if you stare at your statue long enough you start to feel. I feel nothing.” Penelope stepped back and kicked at the ground. She looked me in the eye again; fierce blue from behind a veil of blond hair that had fallen across her face.

“Is it because I am not Cath-o-lic?” she demanded. She touched the blue painted shawl covering my head, her finger rested in the palm of my hand.

“I am sorry for that. I don’t know what I am. Emma’ s mother picks me up on Sundays to go with them. They say it is to be closer to God. I don’t know about him. I like your face, the way that you look in the stained glass windows and the big tall statue in the corner of the church. The priest talks in Latin. I can’t understand but it makes me sleepy. I am afraid to sleep anywhere else. I pretend to pray so that I can close my eyes and listen.” Penelope said to me in a small voice. “It’s not safe to sleep at my house. Not when she’s still there.” Every day after that, Penelope came to talk to me. There were no houses then around the trees. As the tree grew taller, I went with it. Penelope stopped coming when the snow fell. She came back in the spring with flowers she pulled out of the ditch.

“These are for you.” She said holding up her fist. Roots and dirt dangled from her wrist.

“I don’t even know if you like flowers, but I thought they were pretty.” She said dropping to her knees. “I am going away and won’t be back for a long time. Maybe never. The police came and took her. She tried to take me first. My dad says we’ll be safe now. I hope he’s right.” That was the last time I saw her.

Thirty years later, the clutch of pine trees were a parkette behind the Wendy’s on Fifth Avenue. The crowds were spilling onto the asphalt. It was good business for the fast food restaurant. Even the faithful get hungry sometimes.

Three young boys stood in front of me in the late afternoon sun. Two of the boys had stones. They threw them one by one towards me, trying to hit me in a game.

“Oh! That one hit her on the side of the head. Did you see that?” one boy with red hair shouted. The other two shouted in unison that they had and that he should try it again. The crowds left two days ago when the officials from St. Peter’s church confirmed that there was nothing extraordinary about me. There were those who milled about for a while. Some did not want to leave. One or two lay down on the ground among the piles of garbage left from dinners at the fast food restaurant. Take out wrappers and empty drink cups blown and torn in the lowest branches of the pine grove. Anne Marie stayed longest. She picked up the garbage and took it to the dumpster at the back of the restaurant. There were those who laughed at her.

“Why bother? It’s a fake anyway. No miracles here. Just a hunk of wood stuck up in a pine tree. Go home Anne Marie.” Mrs. Wilson told her. Anne Marie ignored them. When the forest floor was finally cleared of debris, she went home to cook dinner for her daughters.

The second boy stood forward and took aim. He held a bigger rock in his pudgy hand. After a few practice swings he threw it. The rock landed short and the other two laughed.

“See guys, I told you this would come in handy.” The third boy said. He unhooked the strap of the bee bee gun from his shoulder and leveled the gun at me. The cold black barrel pointed squarely at my chest. He cocked the gun, took aim and squeezed the trigger in a single breath. The pellets hurtled towards me and in seconds shattered bits of wood flew everywhere.

“That was for my dad.” The boy said. He spat on the ground and walked away. The other two boys burst out in a sudden fit of laughter. I hung partially held by the pine tree that had grown around me after all of those years. Head, shoulders and part of one arm remained after the rest fell away.

They would forget that I was there. Some would remember when the time was right. Anne Marie would never forget. Penelope surprised herself. She lived twenty miles away. The news found her huddled in the corner apartment over the convenience store, Penelope told me. She arrived just in time to hear the gunshot. Penelope picked up the large splinters of wood and cupped them in her hands gently. She found my feet at the base of the tree, lodged in the crook of a branch. She stood underneath looking up as the rain started to fall.

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