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Read an Excerpt

Here is the first chapter of my novel, Black Tree.


          I closed my eyes. Willingly, I let the sight before me fade. With a reddish tone, only the light moved through my shut eyelids. So I convinced myself that since red is a warm color, the light surrounding me must likewise be warm. I focused on that red light, allowing all my senses to grow from it. My mind expanded and fed to me a new image. The blur that I saw of black nothing, glowing in redness, shifted to a blue desert sky embracing a land of rough, unkempt hills. This was the land where I had lived before; this was where I wanted still to be. But now I was far away. This land that I held in my head was the land I had deserted, all for intangible plans that I would never succeed in fulfilling, plans that had made themselves look so simple. This was the land before failure. 
          In this place, this innocent place, growing on my eyelids, the world was alive. Grasses blew in a dry breeze; saguaros reached upward from the ground; prickly pears kept fruits and flowers among their needles. Shades of color melted from pale white and yellow to green, brown, bright orange, and deep red. The sky was no limit to the edges of the earth because beyond the horizon of each hill there grew yet another tableau of warmth. On and on went the color and the plants and the life, beauty held within eternity. Only the desolate could not see the life here. Everywhere, there was growth and endurance. The very spines on a cactus were declarations of survival, perfect points to catch the water whenever it came. Where others ran away, those who remained persisted, and the land became rich.
I had delighted in living here before, and I delighted in the entire vision of it now. I felt powerful here, held up by this land that was in my very bones. The heat ran upward and I watched it make its way across the ground; its blaze of color lit up the whole setting. It was a lovely place. I breathed inward, wanting to taste the air. It would be tinted with the baked aroma of the sweet desert’s vegetation caught up in the burning sunlight. That draught, so full of wonder, was the life force once offered to me, and the idea of drinking from it once again was irresistible.
            But I had made a mistake. I had torn apart the image, once so clear and real, now so distant. That desert was no longer my reality: even if my mind didn’t accept this truth, my physical senses did. Deliberately breathing in and anticipating a scent that was not there had ripped my attention from the fantasy behind my eyelids. The image dissolved. The lids lifted. Pain shot from my shocked head down through my arms. My physical sight returned in the dream’s absence, but my heart retreated: it did not want to see reality. My heart had gone away to follow my desert, or to mourn it in solitude. It seemed that the two were bound together and so I believed that I could not keep one without the other. If I could not go back to the desert, then neither could I have my heart again, and my plans did not include going anywhere. I felt lost, pinched and desolate, in my heart’s absence. There was nothing here for me to look at, nothing for me to feel, and nothing by which to feel. Experience dissipated, and life hollowed.
            My weak fantasy, however, had taught me something during the time that it had overtaken my sight. It had shown me that the act of believing creates an image infused with more reality than that produced by the eyes. The eyes do not pay attention to what the mind does not want to see. Consequently, the absence of one’s heart, which holds the capacity for faith, shades the eyes and bereaves them of their true sight. My vision, broken as it had become, remained muddled, and I was not sure what I saw in this unfamiliar land I had come to live in; it was so far from home and from all that I had learned to esteem. Why could not all the earth look and act the same? Why did life have to mean so many things, and why did my decisions have to bring me here, here to the place I did not love?
            I closed my eyes and watched my heart run away until I could no longer see it. Eternity faded from my sight and all beauty vanished. I didn’t know where I was, or when I was, or why I was. If eternity went on forever, then this moment that I was in went nowhere. I panicked within the silence.


            The air was heavy as Abigail opened her eyes to the night. All light from the sun was long gone, but its heat was not. It lingered about in the form of thick air that moved differently through the lungs; it was not like breathing in a solid substance and it did not drown like water, but this warm air did hold more tightly to her throat and beg her lungs to move more quickly. Such a feeling ought, perhaps, to have been uncomfortable, but Abigail was used to summer heat; it came every year, whether she welcomed it or tried to fight it, and complaining only made it worse. Even on the days when the heat was suffocating, she accepted it. Tonight was one of those days of extra warmth; the air pressed hard against everything it touched.
Completely unnecessary, then, as far as temperature went, was the blanket Abigail clutched above her while she tried to sleep. Sweat formed a pattern across her skin despite the thinness of the blanket, yet nothing would induce her to remove the veil of cotton. She needed it; she needed anything that might help soothe her right now. Even her arms Abigail kept hidden away: the touch of the fabric released a comforting influence on her mind that she needed tonight more than she wanted physical comfort. Freeing her arms would only make her feel exposed and unsafe. Yet even while clutching her blanket, shreds of worry still made their way into Abigail’s head: she knew that the quiet stillness of the night, however peaceful, could only be temporary. Chaos was everywhere, and danger could be very near. That was horrifying. Abigail’s thoughts, pounding through her like the desert atmosphere, refused silence. Sleep would not come.
Gazing above herself in an attempt to find a distraction, Abigail found the wide sky, shining in black and white. Both colors appeared in complete clarity; two opposites stood in perfect juxtaposition. The stars smiled in the sun’s absence as their giant, glimmering swirls mingled brightness with the dark atmosphere; the white glitter frosted the black background in an effortless gesture of beauty. Everything had such texture and depth that Abigail felt as if she could put her hand up into the misty setting and blend the host of celestial lanterns into the dark mist. Neither side, neither dark nor light, would protest the mixture: they seemed entirely happy together already. Yet the force of her hand could never be enough to move either the stars or the dark sky from their places. They were both too adamant, they who lived so high up above in the clear sky. If only the sky were closer to the earth.
Abigail sighed and turned from her back onto her left shoulder, knowing that the earth could never be so peaceful as the heavens. Now those faraway skies seemed too happy. She didn’t want to watch such peace anymore, not when it was so different from the chaos on earth. Seeing the contrast was too painful: if the sky could not let its quiet fall down to the land, then why did it taunt those down below? As Abigail moved to face the earth again, her gaze fell to a pair of hedgehogs growing together a few feet away. The two cactus plants, on earth though they were, grew in harmony with each other. They didn’t try to stay apart or take the focus for only one instead of both. Given the similarity in their sizes, they had probably grown together since their first day; maybe that was the only reason that neither one stood out more than the other. Gazing on them for a lingering moment, Abigail brightened as a second thought came to her mind.
“They’re made of stars.”
She could see it so clearly now.
Leaning forward, Abigail put two fingers around one of the needles of another hedgehog that was more within her reach. This cactus was dying, melting away from the top of its small tube body. Its weakness made Abigail’s attempt to pull off one of the stars easier. With just the slightest tug, the needle she had put her fingers around came apart from the plant, bringing with it a whole collection of spikes attached to a tiny, central, brown circle. All the spears pointing outward from this central point came together to create a star, so clearly. And everywhere the skin of the hedgehog was made up of the outstretched needles, the arms of dozens or maybe even hundreds of stars pressed right against one another. How had she never noticed this before? Abigail saw the earthen stars so clearly now that she couldn’t imagine looking at the cactus without seeing their shapes. 
Pulling at another needle, Abigail found that it came away, complete with the rest of its star, just as easily as the first one had. She tugged at the hedgehog’s spikes again and again, just to make sure it was true. Everywhere she pulled, Abigail further revealed a bare tunnel where the cactus was beginning to decompose into powder. Already the plant looked like a seamless part of the land, less distinguishable than it had been while alive: though it still kept its narrow barrel shape, its color and texture were different. It looked more like dirt and wood than the rich, succulent plant it had once been. When the spiky stars were finished fading, the cactus would become one with the land; first it would turn into a flattened carcass of black and white color and then into a barely discernible lump on the ground, visible only to the keen eye.
Just as only a keen eye would reveal the dead cactus, also only a keen eye could find the stars on the living plants. But now, everywhere, they seemed so obvious to Abigail. She shifted her gaze to a prickly pear. There, on the smooth green pads that were so different from the short barrels of the hedgehogs, were the same stars. These stars stood alone, evenly spaced out on the green surface instead of directly against one another as they did on the hedgehog. Yet still both plants held the delicate and fierce stars that echoed the stars up in the sky. What beauty there was here on these strong plants, so much like the reflected light from above.
Still Abigail did not feel much encouraged. This beauty was just another aspect of nature, existing in the plants instead of the sky. Was there really such a difference between the two? The plants were on the earth, yes, but plans were not people. In mankind was where she could never find such kindness and harmony.
            Never? The question came silently to her mind as an echoing reminder. Abigail could not say that there was no compassion at all in the human world, even if it too often seemed that conflict was the only thing left on the earth. The life she remained living today was proof on the contrary. Some people could live every action with their hearts, and without receiving such compassion and protection Abigail would not have survived. That much she could not deny, however much the chaos lasted and the harmony dissolved into rarity. Some people could make everything seem better just with the simplest and most momentary actions.


            I remembered them standing up against the barrier, clinging to the metal to get a closer look despite the long drop that fell in front of them. These children of mine were curious and eager. I watched them closely, and as I watched them, I also let myself look around. Beyond the two small heads I could see the ruins of Sinagua homes built into the earth many generations ago. This place was called Montezuma Well, not to be confused with the nearby Montezuma Castle, though visitors often went to both on the same day. Although it had a mini museum, which the Well did not, the Castle covered a smaller area of space; the greater length of paths at the Well had always made it my preferred destination of the two. I liked the opportunity to spend more time leisurely walking about. After all, the ruins here were still remarkable to look upon and every bit as worthy of being called a castle.
Rather than viewing the structures from below, we looked down toward them. While we stood level with the main ground, below us was a large bowl of water placed within the earth; the sides of the bowl were tall and steep cliff sides. This was the well, and its depth was great. Perhaps it did maneuver some of the attention away from the castle-like ruins simply because of its size and its unexpected presence. The water within the well flowed naturally from an underground spring, and the fact that it sat within such a deep bowl made it more intriguing than any lake. It immediately dismissed any notions that there was no water in this land where prickly pears and mesquite trees grew instead of green grass; water was just not always where you expected it to be. The water here liked to keep the surface of the earth in awe of where it hid, just beyond sight until you were right above it. Either its hidden state was a display of power or a way of helping us to appreciate its presence.
Looking across the water’s surface to the ruins of a miniature city, I had always tried to imagine the lives, so many lives, that had passed by here. How different had everything looked then? What were their days like, and how accurate was the information we had about them? I wondered by what method, for instance, the original people had gone in and out of their homes day after day. Standing in boxy layers, the rooms and walls of the dwelling were dug into the cliff side opposite to where we stood, across the empty space above the well. Even if I had a wooden ladder, tied in place from the ground down to the dwellings, I could not picture what it would be like to climb in. Would the ladder go down to the dirt floor, or would it end sooner, hanging above the ground? Would I have to climb against the cliff, using it for stability, or would the ladder run across the empty air in the alcove? All of this was without even considering the long fall down to the water that would result from a single misplaced foot.
It was not that I was pondering over fear at the idea of living in the place; rather, I was in awe of the people who had made this their home. Such strength and such care they must have had, regular people though they had been. Delicacy and concentration, along with planning, had helped them survive, and acceptance and appreciation had made their days full. There must have been so much beauty in their lives from living directly against the earth and so much that, from a modern standpoint, I could only try and imagine. Yet I had sometimes felt like them, when I had walked up the steps to my apartment or even the short doorstep to my first home and whenever I wandered in outdoor places, like here.
            My children had been more interested in the well than in the ruins; I suppose they had been too young to care about building homes when there was so much world to explore. They peered at the water through the metal bars and pointed out ducks that swam on the green surface. Patches of brown grew on the edges of the well, with some of it coming into the middle; it made the place look even more lush, like something you would find in a garden. Something complex and treasured was what this place became in the viewer’s vision. Contrasting with the green plants that grew on the bowl’s walls were the occasional, lighter-colored prickly pear and the dry, white rocks, worn down to a slippery texture by many footsteps, on which we stood. At least, the rocks were mostly white; in some sections, especially on vertical surfaces, the stone was stained black. It was the look of age and many years passing in this single place. So many feet and so many eyes had been here before us.
Angling down toward the water was a staircase made of this pale stone; here I needed to be extra careful. Although the way was rocky and without railing, the children scattered down quickly to the small lookout space at the bottom, level with the water. The steps were uneven and turned so often that I used to worry that someday the children would trip and tumble into the pool, returning to the earth by way of the spring. If it could shoot out life, perhaps it could also take it back. Out of caution, I always tended to see less of the views from here than from above because I was so busy making sure that no one did fall. My eyes were busy with the two heads of brown hair, the small limbs climbing down the rocky steps, and the young voices in a pitch so singular to me that it was sight as much as sound. Nothing could happen to them; I would make sure of that, however closely I had to watch them. Steep and crooked steps and deep water aside, my children were safe with me. My task of watching was simpler on our way back up, when their small legs were too tired to ascend the tall steps at any more than the pace of a whisper. I was glad for their tiredness only because it kept them closer to me.
            There was also a second path that sprung from the main one after the well fell behind, but I had almost never, when I was with my two children, taken this other path. It was shady and cool, flowing right beside the river, an especially welcoming place on warm days. Yet, like the walk down to the well, the river path was at the bottom of rocky steps. Though these were less in number than the steps to the well, they were possibly even steeper, and that was too much for small and tired children. I had only come here with them as very young children, usually on my days off when my husband was busy with work. Now, so many years later, I took both side paths: now I was alone and I did not get tired. At least, I did not tire physically.
            The land above this low path was bright and open and almost like the peak of a hill because of how the land beside it sloped down toward either the well or the river. After standing on such yellow and white openness, always it seemed strange to descend into the darkened, moist river area. You would not find a cactus growing here, as you would up above; skinny plants with voluminous, bright green foliage took their place. Trees shaded both the path and the river, making the space secluded and quiet. A sign just past the steps warned passersby of poison ivy, but I always considered this to be a sneaky way of keeping people on the path. Indeed, a simple sign marking the trail’s end several paces away had, apparently, not been enough to keep walkers from clambering over the long white tree that grew, half horizontally, where the paved stones ended. A gate was eventually constructed there that, I thought, would probably be much more successful than the ignorable sign. People never liked to obey orders, but most were conditioned to obey barriers: it took more trouble to get past fences, and tangible barriers implied tangible danger.
Of the same stone as the pavement was a raised structure that served as both wall and bench. When you reached the end of the path, a cliff of earth was on the left, the pale tree straight in front, and the short wall to the right. This wall overlooked the river, and it was here that the edge of the path fell closest to the water. That was probably why there was a protecting wall here and nowhere else. This was simply another barrier, disguised as a bench for contemplation, yet this space remained a tempting place to linger.
I would sit by myself here at the end to rest and stare into the black water. The trees reflected into its surface and I felt like I could melt right into their dark branches. Looking carefully, sometimes you could discern small fish already there in the shadows. Your eye would lock onto one, then lose it again, but then you would see, without trying to focus on anything, a whole swarm of them within the wavering reflections of white branches turned into black echoes of themselves. The water turned to air and the shadows into plants and the whole world reversed into an unknown image of what it wanted to be, of what it thought that it was, of what it could never become.
I watched, and I clung to the stone bench, and I connected my eyes to the river until my head swayed. The longer I stayed, the more difficult it became to look up from the shadows of fish swimming through trees; that sight became all that mattered, for the moment, at least. Always my depressed mind fell into the water, so easily. It could slip and fall and fade into the branches of the river and see nothing else, nor worry about anything else but the coolness of the water, flowing back and forth through the shadows. Heartache drifted away into a drowsy numbness that remembered nothing and also, because it could hold onto nothing that was good, felt nothing worth feeling. My mind could not sleep here for long before the waking of reality came upon me. The problem was, I was not sure that I wanted to wake up.

Could I wake up? Could I wake up to the reality of the trees in the sky and the fish in the water, or would I forever melt them together into a reverse image of reality? Would I sleep forever in this silent aloneness?

Copyright 2016 by Deanna Skaggs.

You can buy Black Tree now at this link.