Fiction by Victoria Buitron
When we last spoke is murky like hastened water borne from a flash flood. It was after the divorce, after replacing the Maine mountains for the flat dust of Nevada, when Mom’s new boyfriend settled in with us inside adobe walls, once I had more than two friends who hardly knew anything about my past. Lila used to walk with me to search for berries on the trails behind the cabin in Maine. Pungent spheres stained our palms violet as we dodged poison oak. She was sure my parents wouldn’t leave each other.
I mean all parents have problems. You think people like each other every day if they see each other every day? Don’t worry about it. Don’t touch those, those are poisonous.
She’d swat my hand before I let the ripe touch my lips. She was there when Mom and I moved. But every time we went outside she’d groan and say it was too hot.
You shouldn’t live in a place where someone can cut off your tongue and cook it well-done on the pavement in some measly minutes.
She went away, the way Dad’s calls started off as constant, then every other week, then every month, stopping all at once except for my birthday. In my dreams his face evolved from the shape of a man, to a scarce ghost, to an eventual shadow.
Decades later, alone in Sequoia National Park, I walked around the bulge of the trees, cradling the lumpy bark with my right hand, wondering who touched it a thousand years ago. Their girth doesn’t tower——it envelops——swallows so much that they mostly die due to their heaviness. Killed by the weight of themselves. Taking in their mammoth form before me, I thought I saw a girl who was lost. Then I recognized the red cap, the knee scar in the shape of a jellyfish, dirt-brown Bermuda shorts, and that yellow t-shirt with a dribbled Drumstick stain. She wasn’t looking at me, but up. To the girth of branches at the top, surely counting them, while the air of sweet sap and pine flooded my lungs. I looked up to follow the path of her eyes. To see if there was a lone warbler or a rare spotted owl perched above us, but there were just pockets of light barely cutting through high branches. I glanced down and she was gone.
Once I had cellphone reception, I called my husband to tell him I had made up my mind. We both knew this trip was for me to find out if it hurt more to be with him than without him. You can keep it all, I said. I felt a weight lift, but in the comforting way you thwack a mosquito from a shoulder——because no children meant the unspooling of our lives was just between us. I hung up and embraced a tree, put my weight on it, almost climbing it, thinking about how sequoias need fire. Their bark resists the flames while other flora withers to make way for nutrients to seep into the soil. The blazes leave strips of top canopy open for the sun’s rays to heat the aged wood. Their surroundings die while they prosper for centuries. I looked for Lila when I let go, hoping for a glimpse as I trod deeper into the forest, but she didn’t appear again——not for years——not until I understood she’s my phantom of perilous beginnings.