“She had been the loveliest girl, my Carolina, and had once stood tip-toe on one of the protruding roots to plant a kiss on my quivering mouth. ‘Darling Marcher,’ she whispered in my ear when Mother wasn’t looking, ‘I swear to you, while standing over the bones of our ancestors, I will be the one to make you happiest. I am yours for all time.’ “
I look upon that arthritic tree, a living testament among the grey gravestones on the Marcher burial lands, and the dank autumn air constricts around my fluttering lungs. Carolina told me not to come back here, to the home of our youth, the landscape from which I had been running from these previous eighteen years; the happiness of my life constantly mildewed by the past whose memory lay stagnant inside me, rotting away the sunshine of my life with Carolina.
Our parents introduced Carolina and I under the Marcher tree, had kept us apart until we were thirteen, then made our acquaintance on a shimmering summer’s eve. The long limbs of the willow had been dotted with dancing leaves, and the waters of the river down the hill still ran freely. The riverbed has been dry for many years now, though pungent puddles, infected with mosquitoes and rank odors, remain. I stand at the top of the hill, looking down on the tree and various stone monuments, down on the clotted river, and choke on the odor that could never be forgotten, sick with the scent of developing fungus and slow decay. The smell creeps into your nose and mouth until you can hardly remember when the blossoms were sweet.
That wretched tree. It’s whip-like willow branches hang dead, and the roots appear to writhe along the ground like unearthed worms. She had been the loveliest girl, my Carolina, and had once stood tip-toe on one of the protruding roots to plant a kiss on my quivering mouth.
“Darling Marcher,” she whispered in my ear when Mother wasn’t looking, “I swear to you, while standing over the bones of our ancestors, I will be the one to make you happiest. I am yours for all time.“
I neither inhale nor exhale, yet that rank odor fills my head. The damp air weighs my wool coat down until I can no longer stand straight. My normally nervous hands are on the pendulums of unwound clocks.
Our parents needed our union to be perfect, the family’s fortune depended on our happy communion. None dared to hope, but from the minute we met, Carolina and I would require each other, with a love greater than all our Marcher family elders combined. Carolina was my one true love, born for me, and I for her. All the breeding, all along, had been to form this one perfect coupling: our family, the respected Marcher clan, had been planning and waiting for us; without our fruitful marriage, the Marcher bloodline would cease. My throat, coated with swamp odor, was beginning to suffocate my sensibilities.
The topside roots are as gnarled as Carolina’s fingers in her last emaciated days. After the miscarriages, she was never the same, and though I begged her to stay, Carolina’s life withered away. Without her, my soul fermented.
My family, my love, all buried beneath the shallow roots of The Marcher Tree. No rope could ever even be hung from one of its flimsy branches.
The final Marcher family member was placed beneath the ground, extinct; the withered ancestral willow tree remained. Its roots uplifted all gravestones, making the family’s burial area an unmarked bone yard. Marchers of years past spent much time keeping the consecrated land manicured, but with no one left, no one cared.
In the field of unmarked graves, on a crumbling cliff, surrounded by a dry riverbed, the willow tree that stood among its previous caretakers was a hunched, lone soldier. Too much sun to coax the leaves from their shady buds and not enough water to excite any growth, the tree was stagnant. No happy breeze for dancing, the tree’s branches hung listless. Roots continued to grow topside, stretching long and far across the surface of the poisoned Marcher waste land.
Time blew by. The grounds were sold to a developer. Pavement was laid over the river, forming a jolly neighborhood lane. A darling home was built on the cliff; the new owners decided to keep the willow tree. The Marcher tree was showered with attention and fine mists of water by Rosalie, the new home’s mistress.
Rosalie gave birth to her first child, named Allan after his father, and nursed him under the shade of the tree’s blossoms, which happily came forth that spring. Rosalie and her two Allans spent much time picnicking in their backyard, comforted under the shade of the tree that was coming to represent their growing family.
Wanting more moisture during the hot summer, never desiring a return to the arid thirst of its infertile past, the roots of the Marcher tree began to stretch downward. Deep into the ground, through many feet of hard, compressed earth the roots began to dig. Inching downward, winter passed, and then another; the roots kept growing deeper, searching.
During the first picnic of the new spring, Little Al, as he was fondly called, was toddling over the ground-protruding roots, stretched across the property like varicose veins, when he tripped. The poor boy smacked his nose and mouth on of the gnarled beginnings of a root, knocking out his little tooth and leaving remnants of blood on the wood. “Poor darling,” Rosalie cooed, “ssshhh, now, it’s O.K.”
A calm passed through; the baby stopped crying, but the willow began to weep: the tree had never tasted life before, so long had it been surrounded by death. Deeply colored molasses-like fluid began to seep down the tree as Rosalie and her family went inside, leaving the Marcher tree alone with its enlightening pain.
The Marcher tree had too long been a silent watcher, a kindly giver of shade and comfort. The Marcher tree, deep in its existence, knew Carolina, and knew she had sworn eternal devotion to her love, her darling Marcher, as well as to the cultivation of her family. Roots found a home in Carolina’s decomposing grave and grew inside the place of arm and leg bones; a bundle of offshoots puffed her chest into ribs.
As birds fly, roots manipulate ground, and during the evening’s torrential downpour, Carolina’s corpse was brought up by the tree. Unearthed, Carolina became the tree’s puppet, its long roots reaching the family home, sent to propagate the bidding of The Marcher’s Family Tree.
Torrential rain slid dirt down the cliff in a muddy waterfall. Silty water coursed down the freshly paved lane that was once the arid riverbed; the land gushed forth water once again.
Soil from all around the Marcher tree streamed down the hill’s face. The roots became free and began to look as if the tree was standing on stilts. The roots, stretched out across the lawn, were uncovered, muck-dripping, carotid arteries.
Carolina’s skeletal limbs were vined tightly, reinforced, with roots connected through the back. Carolina, whose fetid body was instrument of the Marcher tree’s memory, proceeded toward the home to fulfill her living covenant. Through the mire of the landscape Carolina was compelled forward with no shortness of earthly length she could travel.
Roots that had maintained stability for centuries were free of their terrestrial constraints and comprised Carolina’s bones; burgeoning shoots her mass. She moved toward the newly built house, on the soil of Marcher land, lit warmly from the porch and downstairs living room.
The brambled body of Carolina was subject to the Marcher tree’s will, but the tree knew, when Carolina reached the house and slogged up the wooden stairs, that they thirsted after the same fruitful existence that nature had denied.
A smiling, yellow flower grew where Carolina Marcher’s lips would have been in the thatched skull as she passed under the light above the front door and into the dim hallway. The floors were polished oak. Drenched silt made Carolina’s slippery entrance silent.
A comforting light was at the end of the hallway. The skeleton, wrapped in life, moved toward the concerned voices. Carolina’s newly fertile insides felt hollow.
Living room curtains open, the Marcher tree was barely discernable outside in the terrible storm. The boy was golden, even with the tender wound on his little nose. He was surrounded with his parent’s lush adoration.
The dirt continued to cascade down the cliff.
The coffins, having rested in the Marcher unmarked graveyard, some for centuries, became unearthed and waterlogged. Many coffins simply fell apart, others were easily pried open by the unfurling limbs that were the Marcher tree’s invasive roots.
Dozens of Marchers were filled with offshoots of living mass, drooping joints strengthened and upright. All were of one will, one desire: Marcher continuance.