We Have Always Been Who We Are
by Sofia T. Romero
It’s no better, one way or the other, to tell you the truth.
The tree in the sculpture garden has branches that brush the earth with pointed leaves. We approach it from the east; there is only one well-trodden dirt path. Once we pass through the soft murmur of hanging leaves, we’re under a canopy of twisting silver, some branches so gnarled that they have grown into each other.
Now inside, I hold my breath for a moment, hoping that we are the only pilgrims in this tiny cathedral. For the moment, sanctuary is ours alone. I place an open palm on the tree’s trunk, hoping to feel its heart beating. It doesn’t answer me.
The tree is covered with carved names and initials, some blackened and deep. We also carve our initials into the tree. There will be a time when we return to earth, but the tree will remain. Others will bear witness. But we forget: there will also be a time when the tree returns to dust, and what it remembers will return to dust. And no one will bear witness.
Now, I look up at the heart of the tree, and see pinpricks of light in the canopy, and I feel that light flow into me, and through me, and beyond me, singing I will not be held back, I will not be restrained, I will not be, I will not be, I will not be. And it bursts forward singing valentine, sweet valentine, do not ache for me because I am joyful, we are joyful, we are all joyful.
I run ahead and get there first, but it doesn’t feel like winning. I slow my pace, and we walk together until we get to the creek, and when we get there, it flows past us, frosty and clear. And there is no way across but to walk through it.
Could you lift me, I wonder, but you are already walking ahead, picking your way through the slick stones. I look up to watch a raven skim across the moody sky, but this is a mistake; I put my foot down in the wrong spot, the mossy spot, the wet rock, and slip, going down and down into the icy water. Falling forward, my hands tear at your back, the bottom of my black dress sucks at the creek and grows heavy.
I pause for a moment while you turn, bending one knee before me. Now you, your legs soaked. The frigid vortex numbs my fingers, my toes, my legs. You give me your hand and pull, the wetness clinging to your skin. I gather the dress in my hands, wringing it, wringing it, wringing it, and it weeps, returning water to the earth.
Your molasses eyes are dull as you turn to walk away. Beside the creek, the ferns, and among ferns stands a tree, several trees, but one has a small bud of waxy green leaves spiraling out of the dry bark.
We got it wrong, I say, calling to you. We got it all wrong.
It is some time later, as I stumble through the countryside, the sky dark, I cannot find my north, but I go forward, going forward, drawn toward the shore.
I come up over the hill, and in the distance, the chapel. The rock that was used to build it is real and raw, ripped from the quarry, mined, squared, made holy. The light that comes from the windows is beeswax, soft and warm. I pull my cloak around me and watch as the guests arrive, they come arm in arm. The cold is an ache I can bear.
And you, you are there, and you are dressed all in black, and inside the chapel, it is hung all with tiny white lights, and candles are lit. And she is here, and we are all waiting for her, all of us waiting for her, and she comes to you, and love makes her beautiful to you, and we all see it.
And you take her in your arms, and you say to her: I will love none other than you. And I tear these worthless words into tiny pieces, their shreds falling to the ground. I gather them all in my hands and toss them, stained with blood, as she smiles at you and says again: I do.
Standing outside the chapel, the cold dirt beneath the window is hard under my feet, my heart freezing from the inside out, and I choke on the ragged shards. The waves lay siege to the dune below, and I whisper, my voice in splinters: I’m the only one who knows. And you do, too.
And now, the worst part is over. If it wasn’t everything to you, then it was dust.
Sofia T. Romero is a writer and editor who lives in the Boston area. Her work has appeared in Blue Mountain Review and Rigorous, and is forthcoming in Leon Literary Review. She is a graduate of Wellesley College and Boston College.