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  • by Janet St. John

Art & Soul Short #52

Photograph by Kim Manley-Ort

Cradle of Life

Clara found the hollow place while walking. At the north edge of her family’s eastern Nebraska dairy farm, she saw a fallen tree. She shouldn’t have been there. She was afraid of the neighbor’s growling, jaw-snapping, black and white sheep dog because it knew exactly the boundaries of its master’s property. But the dog was absent. The partially decayed tree trunk, brown-grey as driftwood, bark-bare and splitting, beckoned her.

She figured it had been there a long time, based on its weathered state, and she wondered which storm had felled it. Or had it died of old age? Maybe it had been sick and feeble like she was. Clara had come to accept her range of infirmities as normal, at least until she was reminded by overhearing other peoples’ not-intended-to-be-heard sighs and statements to her parents like, “Poor thing. She’s just so sickly.”

Clara did shiver with every chill and catch every illness that swept the county. She also frequently bumped into objects and lost balance. A month earlier, Clara had sprained an ankle while trying to chase her nephew, collapsing like a marionette in the children’s theater her father had built for Clara and her sister when they were young. Clara had wanted to feel her age for once. Twenty-two. Her older sister Ceci was so vibrant and robust, married, a mother, living on a soybean farm nearby.

The worn old tree trunk seemed to hum, and Clara approached. She carried in her left hand a smooth black stone she had found in the pasture. In her right, she held a maple leaf, drained from blazing orange to weathered gold. She ran her bony hand over the tree trunk. It, too, was gnarled, brittle, and didn’t encourage touch. Clara thought it was beautiful. Wanting to gift the tree some “thank you” for its unexpected presence, she placed the stone and leaf in the tree trunk’s swirled depression, at the juncture of an amputated limb that once branched toward light and air.

Each week, Clara returned to deposit more stones, twigs, leaves, even a feather. The hollow became a bowl, container, an altar. She believed each item held a piece of her—the unforgettable hurts of someone’s words, hopes of a neighbor’s son reciprocating interest, the frustrations of her fragile body.

The tree trunk lay a quarter mile from the stone farmhouse, which had been in her father’s family for three generations. Clara still lived there with her parents, and though they were aging toward retirement, they still ran the farm and did all the same chores, much of it work Clara had never been able to do. In fact, the half-mile roundtrip to and from the tree took so much physical effort, Clara would stop before reentering the back door to the kitchen, slowing her breath so her mother wouldn’t worry or fuss or remind her that she could barely care for herself. The walking, despite aches and lungs struggling, was Clara’s refusal to accept, just once, or really every three or four days, the classification of her body as fixed state, the sum of her, a final judgment.

After weeks of unseasonable weather, a first winter snow powdered fallow fields. Clara arrived, panting, and stared at the tree trunk—its hollow filled and cradling nature’s shapes, textures, and manifestations. It had become more than dead tree trunk. To Clara, it was art. A collage, collection, a merging of bodies. A still living, worthy thing.

She tugged her coat collar closed to a bitter wind gust. It had taken Clara twice as long to make the walk that day, and her only offering was an irregular, notched-top flake of grey stone. Clara placed it on the tree trunk, last in a trail of three stones, outside the jewel-filled bowl. A trinity of stones marking a third act, or strikeout. She glanced back toward the farm house situated on a rare little rise in the land. It looked somber, even amid the snow dusting everything new like another chance. Clara wasn’t sure she would see the tree again, if she would be able or need to. She had bristled at the dire predictions from Farmer’s Almanac when her father read them. She turned her whole body and began the laborious walk back to the house, certain only of the long housebound winter ahead.

This is the last of my year's worth of Art & Soul Shorts. I’ll be taking a break from my blog until spring. Then I will start an entirely new bi-weekly blog approach based on working with Kim Manley Ort's book Adventures in Seeing. Please subscribe to my email list (no more than 1 email per week) to find out more!

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