Lila starts, awakening on the family room couch, a blanket noosed about her torso and legs. In her nightmare, a monstrous tree leafed in violent red thrust skyward along their yard’s furthermost edge, its roots mounded with freshly turned soil like a grave. Her grave. She’d grabbed a shovel. Advanced, then stopped. Poison ivy, her husband Henry said. An accusation. She crossed a field of poison ivy like fingers pointing to her neglect, a dot-to-dot of failure, the tree not a tree, but a towering ivy bush throwing their house in shadows. It was her responsibility, removing the vines, yet each time she dug they grew. Multiplied. They bored through her shoes and hobbled her limbs so she could neither reach nor resurrect the buried thing coated with toxins that flamed then boiled her skin. From somewhere unseen a baby had cried, soft at first then like a wave, becoming somehow both Alicia and Chris, their children, twisted and strangling in the ivy’s red and green arms.
The crying child was not a child but her phone, its alarm a frantic reminder she has to be somewhere rather than on the couch, heavy and stiff with dread. She thumbs it off. Considers.
Upstairs, the shower runs. Henry. She runs her tongue along her achy teeth.
They’d fought again last night. He said he needed her help removing the ivy, but really he wanted to hurl accusations, none of which were true, just true to him. He’d coldcocked her, knocking her to the ground when she tried to explain. “I don’t need to justify my decisions to my wife,” he said. Wife a curse, oily with scorn. He’d misunderstood, was wrong, would not listen, and she crouched alongside their white picket fence—plastic—hair stuck in her mouth like a gag and tasting blood. He’d never hit her before. Had the children seen? She longed to tug her hair free but couldn’t—her hands were sheathed in gloves, protection against the ivy scourge she’d been digging resolutely from their yard. For him. He couldn’t do it—the merest brush or whiff a violent assault on his too thin skin—and refused to hire help. He hadn’t meant to strike her, he said. Look what she’d made him do. A fallen woman on her bed of poison. She rose calmly, talked calmly. She didn’t want to fight. They always fought. The fighting always turned her inside out, exposed. Not Henry, though. Henry never saw her. He never even talked, after. Instead he manufactured contempt like armor beyond which he retreated, deliberately mute, for days until…What? She never knew. He never said. You are a fool, she’d told her reflection, scrubbing her arms and legs at the mud room sink, after. She tasted blood and spat.
The children’s anxious whispers pierce the ceiling. Witnesses, then. Her stomach revolts.
Enough. She swings her legs to the floor and checks her skin. No rash.
Last night, spine stiff and heart a pounding, angry knot, she’d studied the dark swallowing their bed and timed his snores, his breathing and snuffles, then slowly, carefully, headed to the couch, pillow and blanket and phone in hand, and made an appointment at the bank. “Money first,” the lawyer had said. “Secure it all so you’ve something to negotiate.”
The kitchen clock chimes the quarter hour. Time enough for one more step before he leaves for work. She searches Locksmith, presses Call. Above, the shower ceases. A razor hums. The children walk back and forth, back and forth, straightening their beds before school.
Lila opens the curtains. Blinks in the sunlight. Uneven hills of dirt mar the yard, but the ivy is gone, bagged like trash at the curb. “Your website says same-day appointments. How soon can you get here?”
The Story of a Story: ‘The Poison Tree’
Writers are magpies, gathering story snippets like treasure. ‘The Poison Tree’ originated from one such collection.
The tree, a dying maple choked by poison ivy vines, pokes skyward through the finger woods bordering my neighbor’s yard and is visible from my deck. The nightmare is mine-ish, borne of anxiety for my husband who is horribly allergic to all Toxicodendron radicans.
However, he is not Henry and I am not Lila. Those characters arose organically in one of my Swiss cheese drafts that later became ‘The Nail Club.’ As I wrote that piece, I was unsure of their credibility and so wrote backstory scenes to determine whether their reactions to radically different settings and situations remained consistent. One of those scenes morphed into ‘The Poison Tree’ and occurs years after ‘The Nail Club.’
Bonus points if you recognize the title’s allusion to William Blake’s poem ‘A Poison Tree’ ( Read it here), which I chose for its thematic similarity: Think duality and the toxicity of silence. How might Lila’s story have been different had she not overheard her children nor asked for help?
Finally, while imagination curates such seemingly random items, critique partners provide valuable insights throughout the creative process. A special thanks to writer friends Marta Pelrine-Bacon, Judi Wildfeuer, Julie Duffy, Leslie Stack, and Neha Mediratta for their feedback and support as this story evolved from idea to publication. I treasure you all 🙂