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The wood rots.
Praying the mushy 2×4 will hold my weight,
I heave my body into the familiar crevice,
a cradle of trunk that held me as a child.
I almost don’t fit anymore.
To my right, a rusted nail stares back at me,
its head twisted and mouth agape in despair,
a pitiful remnant of the fort that once stood here,
stronghold against pirates and giants and mothers:
every mortal enemy of a five-year-old and his sister.
A few steps of ladder remain chiseled into the bark;
it’s how I got up here.
But the rest of the fort is gone.
I helped Dad tear it down last fall.
He claimed it was an eyesore;
surely someone would see the atrocity?
Who would see, Dad? The cows?
They’ve got enough on their minds as it is.
They don’t care for the tree or the boy who sits in it,
that is, until feeding time. Then I’m the honorary bovine.
They bow to me when I come from the barn and the grain silos,
bales of hay upon my back.
I know the real reason Dad took the fort down.
He struggles with it more than I do,
which doesn’t make much sense.
He’s seen us up here, high in the tree that sits
alone in the pasture.
The smell of manure inescapable, Brenda and I used the fort as kids.
But Brenda went away.
She’s on another Earth, my big sister.
When she left home, I went to the tree often.
In those calm summer dusks,
when the tractor had grumbled for the last time and
the casserole had been devoured, I came to this tree.
But I wasn’t alone.
I came with him.
We climbed the ladder to the plywood fort.
I sat with him and we watched the
Illinoisan Earth swallow the sun.
The heat of the day was replaced by a chill,
a serenity felt only in the Midwest and
nowhere else on Earth.
His golden hair melted into the tree’s canopy
of summer-green leaves.
Lightning bugs danced in our tree,
surprised to find love here, of all places.
Our feet dangled from the boughs, and
bullfrogs sang, and crickets spoke.
They told on us.
Their cries grew as our lips met; I placed a palm
on his freckled cheek.
We should have listened to the farm.
It was trying to warn us.
Moons later, I took a sledgehammer to the plywood.
Will Brenda be okay with this?
My father watched me do it.
I had already failed him in so many ways.
I guess the destruction of the fort was the one thing he could control.
He knows that I am leaving.
He knows that as I sit here, in my tree, his only son is truly alone.
And while I love them all:
Mom, Dad, and Brenda,
my father betrayed me.
He destroyed the vessel of his son’s childhood.
He destroyed the place his son
found love with the boy down the road.
My dad told the Reingner parents.
He told them what he saw
in the tree.
Their son and I:
The Reingner boy went away,
just like Brenda.
But he doesn’t come back
for Thanksgiving like she does.
He is in another life,
As I sit in my tree, winter receding and leaves still gone,
I wonder if it’s the same tree at all.
Because I am not the same person.
That person died with the fort.
That person left with the Reingner boy,
my first love,
when my father took away everything I held dear.
Two things wait for me at the base of this tree:
and the cows.
They are both hungry.