The Way the Ladies Ride
Lynn E. Welsh
There she is, fifth on the left.
Other kids had rocking horses. I had my old live oak tree. My favorite limb swoops low, stretching out from the grizzled trunk, forming a swaybacked saddle big enough for two young buckaroos to ride. The tree's grown bigger, but looks smaller to me, like everything about Granpapa's world.
I shimmy up - not so easy now - scoot myself carefully along the limb. The rough-grained bark rubbing my inner thighs still feels warm from 26 years ago. I let my legs dangle, hug the branch in jockey's position, whisper, "Giddy up Belle Star, giddy up."
Take me back to when it all began. Back to my first bird's-eye view of Clayton. Maybe I'll see what I missed the first time. Maybe I'll ride away on the Natchez Trace while I still can.
They say a tree grows in Brooklyn but during my eight years in Manhattan I never saw one to rival my Belle. The only one worth climbing was a tortured elm tucked away along Central Park Lake, but its uptight limbs couldn't even manage a half-assed trot.
Bareback branch riding is a sport unto itself. You have to have a tolerance for pain. You have to squeeze the gnarled treeflesh tight between your knees and supply your own locomotion to prime the pump.
Back and forth. Up and down. Forward, backward.
This is the way the ladies ride, Tra la Tra la, Tra la Tra la. This is the way the gentlemen ride, gallop a trot, gallop a trot. This is the way I ride, hell for leather. I give Belle her head and lay limp along the limb. Except my eyelids which squeeze tighter and tighter. Damn these tears, dammed up all day on the plane and through the slow Southern supper. This is the bayou, not Babylon, but it's finally my turn to sit down and weep.
Back and forth. Up and down. Belle Star creaks. The gray green Spanish moss that droops so charmingly, so parasitically from her limbs writhes in its own ecstatic Sufi dance. The fitful moon flings shadows of unholy scenes.
Clayton kneeling in front of me last night in New York. Clayton at eleven, just arrived at Courtman's Landing, the old pseudo-antebellum mansion marooned at the end of this crushed oyster shell driveway, a mirage of some never idyllic past.
I was hiding right here, watching him mosey out of the house. He was kicking up a hundred years' of leaves all the way to my tree. I threw an acorn. Hit his head. He looked up and I bounced another acorn off his teeth into his mouth. Bulls-eye. He choked. Spit it out.
I giggled. Next thing I knew he was up this tree, quicker'n a gator off a log, shaking and whipping this very branch.
I hung on like a tick.
Clayton hollered "I see your panties," but I said I could care less. He stopped bouncing for a minute, so I crawled over and introduced myself, just like Mama taught me.
"I'm Charlotte and you must be Clayton. Welcome to Granpapa and Izzie's place."
He just sat there with his mouth hanging open again. I was such a little thing, six years old, way littler than him.
I said, "This is my horse, Belle Star. Wanna ride?"
I dream I'm falling and realize I must have rocked myself to sleep. This old live oak limb has been rode hard and put up wet too many times to remember. Seems like trees just naturally know how to forgive. Rain, tears, winter, even lightning. Only a flood could rip this one up by her roots.
I dismount on the right side and drop to the ground. My numb legs buckle. I have to kneel on all fours. Something's wet between my legs. Sweat, desire, blood. It doesn't matter; moon's gone behind a cloud, too dark to tell.
The front porch light has been turned off. I slip inside among the ghosts, open the liquor cabinet in the walnut sideboard, pour myself a shot of bourbon; knock it back. The Courtman family portraits on the hallway wall look down on me, but they have their own secrets to keep.
©2005 Lynn E. Welsh