by Nick Ekkizogloy, 3.49am July 10th 2022
I once found a girl in a tree. It was 1995, Helen, Georgia. My folks and brother were eating dinner on some picnic tables alongside the Chattahoochee River that ran clear through the middle of town. The place looked like Bavaria in a Disney sort of way. People ate giant bird legs roasted to the color of used car oil. Men drank enormous beers. Nonetheless, I found Helen uniquely beautiful. The river with shoals. The hills that most girls from south of the piedmont like me never got to see. The mountain chill. I was lost in its natural beauty.
Our family had just left a funeral for Blemy, a great aunt I’d never known, someone whose graveside only had us, a preacher, and one other man who didn’t introduce himself. Dad was drinking. Not for Blemy, but because the beers were cheap. He’d had two steins full just walking the town, and at dinner, after slapping a rug-sized wax-looking pizza on a picnic table outside Edelweiss Pies, he’d disappeared to find what he called his own St. Pauly Girl. Mom just ate, and my little brother Vinny was crying about not being able to go tubing.
Back then I was a dreamy kid, always getting lost, trying to be alone. The funeral had left me sad, and I wasn’t keen on watching drunk men dance in the streets to polka music. So, I left them for the quiet of the woods alongside the river. My mom watched me go and shot me a knowing wave. Vinny didn’t even notice I was gone.
I followed a path that ran alongside the river until I could not hear the din of people in Helen. Another creek converged with the Chattahoochee in a roiling V. I stood and watched it for a minute, mostly the way the evening sun made the whitewater purple. A dead tree was on a spot of land right at the convergence, a monstrous thing probably fifty feet high. I saw the girl then. She was at the top of the tree in a dress that was gently flapping, and from the distance it looked like some garbage. I squinted and sure enough it was a girl in some type of white dress. I crossed the river on some shoals and made it to the base of the tree. From beneath, I couldn’t see the girl past the overlapping branches that made an eyeball’s iris.
I began climbing and realized the tree was eaten up by something, and like a dumb kid I kept going. As I got closer, I would look up, and I saw her face in brief flashes when her dress and the branches moved. She was on a branch nearly at the top of the tree, arms tightly around the thin remains of the trunk’s crown. I perched opposite where she was holding and wrapped my arms over hers.
“What are you doing?” I said. The full moon of her pale face leaned forward.
“Killing myself,” she said. I let that hang in the breeze. I looked out and the spire-topped buildings of Helen stabbed up from the dark green mouth of the forest. The river reflected the sky in a scrawling vein down through Georgia.
“Why?” I asked, looking down at her dress which was a white tent dress like the hippies used to wear, only this had a hypnotic pattern of grey Aztec shapes.
“Well, that’s sort of complicated and deeply personal,” she said dangling her feet like a kid on a swing. “But you made the climb, so I’m not going to be a snoot.” She was older than me. “It’s a boy I love who doesn’t love me back. Everywhere I go, I think of him. His face on other people’s faces. Even my dreams aren’t safe. I wake up on fire, skin burning up.”
“You’re serious, aren’t you? You climbed up here to kill yourself.” She didn’t respond. She adjusted her arms and I had to move mine back into position over hers. Her skin was cold, and I looked over and saw that riding just under her collarbone, past the spaghetti straps of the dress, was a black tattoo, a simple poker spade.
“Aren’t you going to say, don’t do it?” she said, laughing.
“How long have you been up here?”
“I don’t know, maybe an hour. I come up here a lot, so you don’t have to worry. I’ll know when the time is right. I won’t do it with you here. I’m not an animal,” she said.
“Animals don’t kill themselves,” I said, and felt stupid for blurting out.
“They respect life, no? Well, they also live short lives, unless they’re some giant turtle on a tropical island. They don’t get a chance to be sad,” she said. I looked her face over to see if I’d misjudged her age, but she looked young to me, maybe in her early twenties.
“What’s your name?” I asked leaning forward ever so slightly to see her full-on.
“Tara,” she said. She didn’t ask me mine back. I guess there was no point. In her mind the whole conversation was for my benefit. “I’m just ready for whatever is next.” She dislodged one of her hands and pointed down the Chattahoochee. “You see that little blue light there?” There was a blue glow through some branches that looked like the blue on a stained-glass window. “That’s my church, at least it was when I went to church. My daddy used to take me by the hand and sing with me in there. He’d open the bible and read to me about heaven because he knew I worried about death. I used to repeat the word forever in my mind over and over again. He told me about the green jasper walls of heaven and the golden city within, and I would cry out of happiness.”
“But what if there isn’t a heaven? Would you still jump?” The girl sighed.
“I don’t believe in heaven anymore.”
A rogue breeze shook the tree.
“There isn’t a heaven, for sure,” I said.
“You ever been so desperately in love that you ran a fever? That’s how sick I am. That’s how much he got me,” she said. The sun was setting behind us. I didn’t have to look. Our shadow on-top of the old tree danced in the rippling water. “He was never mine. I’d see him in town, and he’d act like I was a stranger. Then he’d show up at my window at night, daddy snoring down the hall. He’d tap on the window with his belt buckle, having already taken it off. The way he would leave me there, alone, him disappearing back out the window like a creature from the woods.” I felt the blood pumping in her forearm against my arms that were braided around hers. A whippoorwill sang the first of many calls. The reflection on the water dulled. Helen was a golden beacon. We were quiet for a time. “This tree is a Tulip Poplar. Did you know that?” I didn’t. “I used to come up here with my mom. Well, not up here. There’s an area back in those woods that has scuppernongs, which she was wild about eating. When this tree was alive it was really something. We’d hunt for the grapes and we’d sit under this tree.”
“He doesn’t sound that great,” I said. Her grip on the tree loosened and I held her tighter.
“They’re too sweet for me. Taste like some chemical I can’t put my finger on. What’s that green stuff? Comet cleaner. Yeah, that’s it. Comet. Scuppernongs taste like Comet smells. Mom loved them though. Daddy put a whole curled up vine full of big bronze clusters on her grave over in the churchyard. He held hands with me and prayed about heaven.”
“What happened to your mom?”
“The only thing I used to really enjoy was a special moment. Like when you go outside and a bird lands nearby and sees you and just sits there like it could be her again reincarnate or it could just be a bird that knows a secret about you.” she said. My arms ached from holding on so tight.
“What if your mom is somehow inside me, or like she willed me here?” I said.
“That’s a beautiful thought,” she said.
“I’m serious. I was sitting in Helen and I just got up and left my family and walked into the woods and found you here. How can I explain that?”
“I don’t know. You know I don’t believe in reincarnation either, or ESP, or ghosts. My daddy does. He wrote the dictionary on being a sucker for those things. But, you know all I’m saying is I’d do just about anything if I could just start over.”
“How do you think the person will feel who has to come find you, the cop or whoever, and then they have to knock on your dad’s door and tell him the last thing he had is gone? Have you thought of that?”
“Yeah, and I hope and pray that the vultures get me first. Make one good thing out of this body. There’re hungry coyotes and hawks, and dammit crows. Lots more of them than cops in these parts, so I like my odds.”
“Why don’t you climb back down with me before it gets too dark,” I said. She leaned over, kicked her leg out to move a little closer to the stalk of the tree.
“If you kiss me, I’ll come down. And I’ll believe in God for another day. And go see my daddy,” she said.
I perched closer. She did the same and I could feel her warm breath on my cheek.
“You know you’re someone’s baby,” I said. She kissed me.
“Yeah, but not the right person’s,” she said. I kissed her, too. If you take away all the high school locker-side boys, that was my first real one and first with another girl. “I’ll never be his.”
“He doesn’t love you,” I said.
“Exactly,” she said.
“He wants to hurt you.”
We climbed back down together, falling branches and rotten bark flaking off with each step. Back on the ground she was short, and she reached around my chest and pulled me close. I thought I felt her heartbeat overlay mine, but maybe mine was beating wrong. Then, without another word, she turned and walked into the woods, vanishing behind the tulip poplar.
I jumped from rock to rock to get back to the path that led to Helen. I walked for a while and I could hear people singing in the streets. Drunk dads. I stared back at the tree before it was lost in the past and darkening distance, and I could see the ghost of the girl, or a silvery wisp of something climbing up the tree, the same branches I’d just descended. I stopped and turned around. I was astonished. I squinted and it was someone for sure climbing the tree. Something girl-shaped and painted all silver in the moonlight.