The Fixing Tree
Marilyn, purple-chested, broken-fingered, the tiny flowers on her dress like a wind-scattered field blowing down his dirt road. He watches her from his porch, watches her bare feet kick the gravel up as she runs. His body is a loose pair of overalls covered in soot. His head is shiny-black, a chunk of coal atop his sooty shoulders, and he chews a grass stalk in his cracked lips.
He leans palms-back on the cool cement; soot falls from his hair like a breath. When she gets near enough, he whistles at her through the grass.
“Your mamma make you into a new color today?” he calls out. “What’s your name, flower girl?”
She stops with a few long strides at his mailbox, skids. Gravel powder climbs over her in faint grays, the cloud-dappled sky leaking bits of its light through to her dress. She clutches her busted hand and coughs.
“That bruise on your chest make you look like a grape sweating in the sun,” he says. “You know that?”
“Shut up, coal miner’s boy,” she coughs. “You’re as black as that cave your daddy has you work in.”
“Maybe,” he says, “but I ain’t hurting like a little grape-breasted girl. My daddy got me hurting ten minutes ago, too, but I ain’t hurting at all right now. I went to the Fixing Tree.”
“The Fixing Tree?” she says. “What’s that?”
“Yeah,” he says, “the Fixing Tree.”
“What is it?” she says.
“It’s real simple,” he says. “It fixes you when you’re hurt, fixes everything like magic. It’s just down the road.”
“Is it really magic?” she says. “Think it can it fix me?”
He hops off the porch. Soot hops off with him, matting the ground like a second shadow.
“What’s your name?” he says.
He chews his grass.
* * *
Rusty barbed fencing follows the road they walk, separating them from pastureland filled with wild side-oat for grazing. She stops to pluck tiny purple flowers growing along the roadside. When she bends over, he bends the roadside weeds under her dress with his dirty toes.
“I told you to stop it,” she says, swatting at the weeds with her swollen hand. “I’m getting flowers for the Fixing Tree.”
“Ain’t me,” he says. “It’s the wind. It’s picking up again. See?”
He stoops and shakes his head, shakes all the black out onto the breeze. Soot speckles her dress so light, so thin, it looks as if he could touch all her tiny flowers with just his hair.
“Why you need flowers for that old tree?” he says, staring up through his hair. “The Fixing Tree don’t need paying. It’s magic.”
She stares past the barbed fencing, out at the long, green fields that sway in the wind like broom bristles cleaning the sky.
“I want to thank the Fixing Tree,” she says, “for when I’m fixed. I want to give it flowers like these.”
She motions below her milky plum sternum at the flower-pattern. His grungy fingers reach out for the flowers in her hand.
“Then I hold all your flowers for you,” he says. “Don’t want this fool wind to blow them out your busted fingers.”
* * *
Blood and filth dangle at his knuckles. He is bracing the barbed fencing with his hands, holding it hip-high for her young body to crawl under. He watches the arc of her spine as she scuttles forward. Her purple flowers dangle from his cracked lips.
He drips on the grass beside his toes. The grass stalks bounce at the drops, the clay soaks them up and they disappear. He drips on the back of her dress. Dark splotches wet through the flower-pattern to her skin.
“We almost there?” she says. “My chest is aching.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Almost there.”
“I can’t breathe so good,” she says. “You still got my flowers?”
“Yeah,” he says, dancing them around with his tongue. “Still got them.”
He offers her his dark-red hand. She grips it, but winces as the grip tightens. The field is green and open before them.
* * *
They run now, dried-red fingers locked crooked together, her flowers pinned between his teeth waving so wild in the wind. Their bodies split through the tallgrass like his pickaxe scraping a line out the smooth stone wall of his daddy’s quarry. As they run, soot explodes off his body, swirling fast behind them into the countryside.
“I’m tired,” she says.
“Keep running,” he says. “Fixing Tree’s at the edge of the field. You see it yet?”
“Not yet,” she says. “My chest hurts. Can we stop?”
“Hey, I still got you your flowers,” he says. “Just keep running. You be fixed real soon.”