I am six years old when, one summer afternoon as the sun beats down and rolls sweat down my neck, my sister yells, “Catch, Judith!” She launches her porcelain doll at my head. I am one second older when it slips through my fingers and shatters on the concrete driveway at my feet. I run my fingers over the broken pieces and gather them up in my arms, and I dig with my hands in the backyard until my fingers are sliced open by the earth, until my blood mingles with the blades of grass and the bits of doll. I am hot, but the green under my fingernails seeps coolness into my veins that lodges itself somewhere deep inside of me. I shiver and rub goosebumps from my arms.
I bury the shards in the shallow grave. My sister has already forgotten it. I imagine earthworms crawling through the eye holes and digesting the cloth-and-stuffing body, dandelions rooting through the lace on the dress, turning the linen into pillowy seed puffs to be blown into the wind by some child who has no idea.
That summer I sit over the grave with my dress spread around me in a circle, my feet sticking out the front, grass tickling between my toes. My sister flits about the yard, barefooted and red-cheeked and carefree, calling songs to me that I refuse to answer, puckering her cheeks and lips with sour crabapples, while I watch over her baby.
The grass blades brush the backs of my bare thighs, then begin to sting—but nicely. The green sends chilly tendrils up through my skin and into the muscle. The leaves seem to wrap their hands around my bone and root me to the ground.
My brother, Henry, is fourteen. He sits wide-legged on the porch steps, plucking out folk tunes of his own creation on his hard-earned guitar, stopping to jot down the notes and wipe summer perspiration from his brow. The light catches in his eyes. I hum the tunes with him once I hear the melody, and he stops and grins and says, “Is that a good one, Judith?”
I say, “Yes,” and smile, and I want to gather the notes into a heap inside my chest and use them as kindling to keep me warm.
My mother steps around me to hang wet laundry above my head. Bright droplets of linen-scented water soak deep into my hair, all the way to the roots.
I lay on my back, and this way, the grass is taller than me.
Ants crawl over me.
The earth trembles beneath me, and I hear the first whisperings, saying, Shhh, shhh.
I stretch my fingers above my head and yank out handfuls of grass and cover my face with it. I breathe in the green.
My mother gasps and drops the laundry in a wet heap in the yard and yanks me up. She brushes me off and grips my shoulders too hard and says, “Judith, be careful! You could disappear in that grass, don’t you know that? Some people—they sink into the ground. They vanish right in front of you. I’ve seen it. Listen! What if I couldn’t find you someday? What would I do?” She shakes me. “What would I do?” Her cheeks flush and her eyes seem far away for a moment before they snap back to me. Heat from her hands radiates through my shoulder blades, and when she finally lets go, I run inside and drink glass after glass of ice water to quench the fire still burning under my skin where her fingers pressed in.
At dinner she says nothing, only sets blood-red Jell-O and burnt potatoes in front of me. I watch the Jell-O wobble, and my stomach wobbles with it, and all I can smell is green. I cannot eat a thing.
That summer, I learn to soak up sunlight like a flower when no one is watching, to drink my fill of jade brightness from the stems of plants until I am cool like the dew and full like a bead of water suspended on the edge of a petal, ready to drip.
War rages in the jungle half a world away. My friends’ brothers disappear into the steaming ground. My mother bakes Henry an 18th birthday cake and ices it with thick chocolate frosting. She smiles and claps as he blows out the candles. It is the last moment I remember her happy. Every day after, she sweats through her clothes and wrings her hands until the mailman arrives, until one day—she stumbles into the house with tears already soaking the white draft paper with Henry’s name on it.
He snatches it from her. She begs him to run, run anywhere, do anything, don’t go! She doesn’t talk of it often, but she says, “Henry, the heat. That jungle steam blasts through you. The leaves, they consume you. You won’t come back! Feel my hands.” She presses them to his cheeks. I know they are hot. She has done it to me before. “That’s my hospital exploding around me. That’s the blast that tore my patients apart. That is Philippine humidity still in my veins, twenty years later. You feel it forever. You smell it forever.”
But he swallows hard and turns his eyes away, shakes his head and packs anyway. At the same moment, I imagine my friends’ parents opening their mailboxes to yellow slips from Western Union, running trembling fingertips over deep regrets stated in cold black type. I imagine plants in the heart of Vietnam growing roots through their sons’ young faces.
My mother’s face thins and deep lines appear like a rose hung upside-down to dry while she waits for her own yellow slip.
One summer night, I stand in our muddy backyard after a hailstorm, a television blaring the news through our neighbor’s open window. I hold an armful of fallen cottonwood twigs to my chest. I breathe in their chilly mint color, rub my cheeks in the leaves, back and forth. They speak gentle words to me: Shhh, shhh. It is cool beneath our surface. Fill up with water. Disappear into green.
When I pull them away, I catch my reflection in the puddle of rainwater at my feet.
I crouch down and touch my fingers to my cheeks.
My skin has melted away. My cheeks are not pink and freckled anymore, not even the pale white of death—they are clear as water, the fleshy color drained, my freckles swallowed up, and cold as ice. The surface of my skin is iridescent like a soap bubble with liquid underneath. I snap my jaw open and shut. I press my tongue to the inside of my cheek, and instead of warm wetness, a wall of cold, swollen water presses back.
I drop the branches. I rub at my cheeks. My heart pounds and my hands tremble and goosebumps run up and down my arms from the chill. I squeeze my eyes shut, and I pray that I am imagining it and that when I open my eyes, my skin will be whole again, flushed rosy and warm. When I peek one eye open, my cheeks are still watery, gone. I press my hands to my face and sob and stumble inside. Tears pool in the creases of my fingers. I run fast into the kitchen and bury myself in my mother’s thighs. She kneels down as the pot bubbles on the stove and spits tomato sauce in stinging droplets on our backs, and she lays her hot hands on top of my own and asks me what happened? What happened? Am I okay? Did I get lost and only just find my way home?
Under her palms and under my palms, layered like petals, the blood floods back, drawn through my veins by her heat. Warmth gathers in my muscles, seeps back to my skin, and I imagine my cheeks flushing white, then peach, then pink. My freckles erupt one after another against my hands in soft, tiny pops.
My mother searches my eyes and pulls my hands away from my face. I can tell by her expression she sees only a trembling ten-year-old in a stiff cotton dress, flushed cheeks streaked with salty tears.
When my alarm rings in the morning I have a fluttering in my stomach like dry leaves skittering across bricks. I pull on my best sundress, the one with orange and white flowers that I begged my mother to sew for me. These flowers don’t chill my blood. I tie my long hair back with a matching headband. I swallow steaming eggs and bacon that burns my fingers, and my toes curl with excitement. On this last day of school, the best day of school, I want to revel in the end with my friends, eat a piece of sickly-sweet cake from the cafeteria, and fling my hair in the breeze of a bright green teenage summer.
The bus screeches to a stop down the street, and I throw open the front door and run to catch it. But I stumble and fall on the porch, my arms tangled, legs flailing over a solid body asleep across the threshold.
My brother is home.
Still dressed in faded jungle green, still smelling of thick humidity and heavy metal, he sleeps in a heap on the porch with his Army-issue duffel by his side, dropped off in the night like a package.
He stirs. My mother runs and pushes me aside. She lifts him by his arms with a superhuman strength and searches his face. He stands a head above her. She buries her face in his shoulder, strokes his hair with a trembling hand. Neither of them looks like themselves anymore. She cries, “You’re here, you’re here, you’re home, oh my God! I thought you had disappeared.”
He doesn’t hug her back. He stands with muscles twitching and eyes straight ahead, hardly breathing, it seems. I lay a light hand on his shoulder and whisper, “Henry.” He doesn’t turn to me.
My bus spits exhaust into the air and carries my friends to school, but what is sugar for lunch when your brother is alive?
We lead him inside and sit him by the window. My mother fries eggs that he doesn’t touch. I make him dandelion tea and set it in his hands, and hours later, he hasn’t drunk a drop. The tea should be cold, but it is steaming when I take it from him as if there is violent heat trapped under his skin.
He does not see us. Does he hear us? I have long forgotten his made-up songs, but I hum what little I can remember to pull him back to us. But he is only skin with no person left inside, a pitcher poured out onto saturated ground.
I spend my summer away from the house, outside under the sky from sunrise to sunset. I rub oak leaves against my bare shoulders until they are numb with cold. The skin shimmers and liquefies, and I wonder if it would be so terrible to disappear this way.
Years later, my brother is the same as the moment we found him, silent and wrung out. My mother feeds him and tends him like a yellowing plant, and then, like a vase of dried flowers that everyone has forgotten, he fades into the background. The television blares news of the war, and protestors march through the country declaring the tragedy, saying it out loud. They will not let anyone forget. It sticks like a thorn in my mind. I watch unblinking until my eyes burn, and then I switch it off and play a record instead—John Denver, with his rocky mountains, his flowers, his crumbling cities and fading sun.
I tell my mother, “I’m seventeen. I have to go. I have to do something, don’t you see?”
She clutches my hands. She shakes her head violently back and forth but says nothing.
My brother sits by the window.
Before I take my suitcase to the cab, I sit on the windowsill across from him. I rub the back of his hand. He is still warm from the jungle. I put on my John Denver record.
The first time I heard John Denver, I thought of my brother’s folk songs. He would have loved John Denver. He would have saved up and traveled for miles for the concerts and smiled wide amid the crowd, alive, full of light—if everything had been different, if the war had never been. My brother pulls his eyes from the window and closes them just for a moment, the way he always does under the trembling of the notes. I whisper goodbye and let the music keep on playing.
I hug my mother. She kisses my cheek with dried-out lips wet with tears.
I pull Henry’s yellow windbreaker off the back of his chair. It is warm with him.
I take his jacket with me, and I leave, for good.
As the cab pulls away, I think of the porcelain doll in its grave and wonder if it is all gone yet, all sharp edges dissolved, carried away piece by piece over the last eleven years.
I march with the throng. I hold bright sunflowers with gloved hands above my head while others hold signs with thick, black words demanding peace! Peace! Peace for Vietnam. I scream the words until my throat is dry and my voice used up.
Once we have said all we can, once the war is over and battered soldiers sleep on street corners and people step around them like thorny weeds, then what?
My girlfriends and I rent an apartment in the heart of downtown.
“Look at that wall of windows!” I say. “You can’t beat natural light, girls. And that rooftop garden is to die for.”
They nod and agree it is beautiful, but do we really need something so grand?
“We could grow flowers up there,” I say. “We could eat them, they’d be so pure. They would fill you up the way nothing else can. Or we could grow vegetables.”
We hardly see each other. We work long, tedious days: a waitress, a receptionist, and a florist.
I am not the florist.
When I know they will not be home for hours, I eat whole strawberries, leaves and all, on our rooftop patio that looks over the street. Plant vines twist around the short metal fence and breathe on me, and I turn the insides of my arms to the sun. I rub a fingertip along the vines, and the skin that touches turns from pink to white to crystalline, and for a moment, I can see my veins and my bone underneath. Cool tremors run up my arm like trickles of water, not unpleasant at first, calming and numbing. But the chill spreads until my teeth chatter.
I know how to fix it: I wrap my finger in my brother’s windbreaker. It still has some warmth left in it. Even so, it takes a few minutes before my fingernail returns, before the fingerprint fills in with substance.
Caroline brings home giant sunflowers and purple iris blooms, slightly wilted. When I am hot at night, I stand in our dark kitchen and press the heads of the sunflowers to my chest until my skin fades away and the seeds leave divots of chill under my surface long after the pink returns. I run a tender iris leaf in trails across my arms, across my legs, in painter’s swaths back and forth across my stomach, and my skin disappears until I am striped like a tiger in a jungle.
I know if I wrap myself in leaves for long enough, the coolness will eat all the way through me until I am nothing but water, until I burst and disappear into green.
There are others before Dean. They run their fingers through my hair. They smell of nothing but skin. Their fingertips trace the veins in my arms and legs, and there is a drop of warmth in them, but not enough. Not like my mother, not like my brother. Their heat cannot hold me here. They can’t counterbalance the cold beckoning of the green.
Dean is thirty-four when I meet him. I am ten years younger. He runs smack into me as he jogs through the park, and we land on the fresh-cut grass near the path, all our legs and arms intertwined. The tender blades of grass beneath me cool my blood, but something radiating from him shoots heat all through my body, and I shiver under the clash of sensations. The grass digs tiny holes into my palms and the backs of my arms as we untangle, and I throw my brother’s windbreaker over my shoulders and shove my hands deep into its pockets before Dean can see.
“Oh my God, I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t even see you.”
“I know. I’m alright, really,” I laugh.
He brushes a bit of grass from my shoulder with a violently scarred hand. He picks a dead leaf out of my hair. It is undeniable; there is ample warmth in his fingers. He smells of smoke and sweat. He flicks a speck of dirt off my cheek—was there really anything there?—and when he asks me to grab a drink with him, I don’t wait. I don’t play the games. I say yes.
Weeks later, we curl up on my sagging couch, and I ask him what happened to his hands. I trace the scars that crawl up his arms and stop halfway to his elbows, pink and puckered. When he stretches out his fingers, the skin pulls tight across the bones.
He clears his throat. “Fire,” he says.
I laugh at the obviousness of it. I press his damaged palm to my face and feel the ridges, the hills and valleys, the unfamiliar topography of the scars against my cheek. “So warm,” I whisper.
A year later, we sit in a greasy ’50s diner while burgers sizzle on the grill. The paper-hatted servers slide a giant milkshake sundae between us, and when he reaches for the spoon, my hand is already there. He flinches when we touch. He pulls his hand back and spreads it flat on the table. “It was an explosion,” he says. “In ’Nam. My hands were wrapped around someone who . . . ” He doesn’t look at me. “Someone who disappeared.”
I take his hand in both of mine and squeeze, but he doesn’t react, lost in thought, eyes faraway and unblinking. So instead, I wrap one hand around the carnations wilting in a vase behind the salt and pepper shakers. I don’t let go until my skin is crystal clear and my teeth are chattering from the cold.
I slide my watery hand on top of his, and his eyes widen.
I take his palm and press it on top of my hand and hold it there until his heat races through me and pulls warm blood back into my veins.
That summer, we say our vows under the sun.
Dean is a fireman. He comes home smelling of ash. The soot under his fingernails, the fire in his skin, it keeps me here. He brushes his fingers through my hair and along my arms and legs, and his heat pulls me along through colorless days and nights. I wear gloves in the garden. I wear shoes in the yard. The trees at the edge of our lawn shake their leaves and call to me, saying, Shhh, shhh. Come away with us, to green, to water, to coolness, to peace. To peace, peace, peace!
But I close the windows, and when they call louder amid summer thunderstorms, when a stray leaf blows into the house and skitters across my kitchen floor, I sweep it out with the edge of my boot and lock the door behind it.
When the children come, they dry me out. They suck milk from me like nectar from a honeysuckle until I am wrinkled all over, my plumpness consumed, my watery sweetness devoured. I hang laundry above my children’s heads as they search for lucky clover in the grass. I hold their cheeks in my calloused hands when they stumble and cry salty tears.
Michael, my oldest, picks bouquets of weeds for me when he is young. I put on gloves and set them in vases all over the house until they wilt and the water is yellow and brown. I do not throw them out until he brings me more, and one day, he is too old to think of it, and the weeds stay where they are, wafting their smell of decay through the house.
When he comes with me to visit my brother, still seated by my mother’s window, he kneels down and holds Henry’s hands and asks why Henry won’t look at him.
My mother says, “He lost something over there. Something inside him evaporated right into those jungle leaves.”
The towers fall in New York City, one after another. We watch on the edge of our couch as bodies jump from windows into the flames. We cry and wring our hands.
Michael is eighteen. He sits silently through meals and won’t look me in the eye.
I hold back hot tears I thought were long dry when he finally tells me, as if I hadn’t seen the crisp white envelopes in the mailbox day after day, hadn’t noticed his hands shaking over breakfast. I cup his cheeks in my hands and beg him not to, please, and he pulls my hands away and says, “I’m eighteen. I have to go. Someone has to do something, don’t you see?”
They send him to the desert.
It is not 1965, no, not in many ways. I don’t wait by the mailbox as my mother did. I try not to think of it, try to busy my hands. I weed our garden without gloves until Dean comes home and makes me stop, or until my fingers and palms are gone up to the wrists, and I must sit by the window with my hands wrapped in an old windbreaker and wait for blood and blisters to return. But I can’t stop. It’s cathartic—ripping the thistles out by the roots and dirt sprinkling on my toes as the weeds’ thin fingers release the earth for good. I leave them in a mound on the concrete patio to shrivel in the baking heat.
Every knock on the door clenches my throat tight with panic until one finally comes that tells me the truth.
I knew it as soon as he left.
The sand has swallowed him whole.
I can’t help but wonder, what leaves were there to soften his fall and lessen the heat of war? And I wonder if swallowed whole is better than emptied out.
The day they tell me, I slip off my sandals and walk barefoot through the grass, past our fence, through the field of wildflowers and weeds, to the edge of the forest, until the coolness of undergrowth tingles around my ankles.
When I force myself home, I am chilled deep to my inner organs, and I am hungry for ice. My feet and calves are all water, numb. I throw the windbreaker away. I don’t let Dean touch me for a week.
The other children have scattered in the wind. They grow with their roots in rocky mountain clay, rich southern earth, volcanic island sand. My hair is gray and white, and the wind flings it about like corn silk. I sit by the window with my face in the sunlight during the day, but on summer nights, I drive with Dean to the home improvement store, and while he is searching for the right lightbulb, I wrap the thick leaves of houseplants around my arms until Dean pulls me away and throws a sweater around my vanishing skin, and I cry and say, “Let me, Dean. Let me disappear.” Parents near me speak in whispers to their children. Dean buckles me in the car and drives home in silence.
He still smells of fire and ash, even retired for years. He sweats in his sleep and when the war is close to the surface, he yells in the dark and twists his neck tight. I wrap my cool arms around him. I bathe his forehead with ice. I gather handfuls of grass from outside and cover his hands and face in it, let him breathe in the green. It cools him, just a bit, but not enough. I wish I was the water, that I was the cold, and I whisper to him, Shhh, shhh. There is peace in the green.
I think of my Michael, I think of them all, shot through with hot metal and fear. I hope that vines and undergrowth cradled them as they fell. I hope the leaves have cooled them and dissolved the sharp edges.
We pack up our dishes, our glasses, my vases of weeds. We move far away from the asphalt stench and metal street lights that stretch over the road like dead trees. We unpack our delicate things in a cabin in the woods, one with no wires running through the walls, no lightbulbs to buzz loudly in my ears. But late into the night, the logs cry to me, saying, The nails, the nails! Shot through us like bullets! Where are our branches, where is our green? We are always thirsty.
I sit outside with my feet in a bucket of lake water and mud. I eat up the sun. I drink through my roots.
Dean makes his coffee black and silty like soot. He walks around the lake. Each morning he runs his hot fingers through my hair to remind me to stay, until one morning, he does not come outside to me, and I pull my feet out of the muddy water bucket to find him. His coffee is still hot, and he sits upright at the table, but when I shake his shoulder and press his palm to my cheek, there is no heat left in him. My toes curl against the wood floor, gritty from the mud.
I stumble outside and into the brush. I peel off all the fabric wrapped around me and lie in weeds that are taller than me. The daisies sweep their petals back and forth against the bottoms of my feet. The thistles sting and burrow behind my knees. The dandelion leaves caress my ears, and I rub branches of wild raspberries along my arms, along my legs, in swaths across my stomach.
My skin fades from pink to white to glass, until only my eyes remain. The green curls up in wisps through my organs until even the bones and ligaments become water.
I am colder and colder and I long for Dean’s hands in my hair with their smoky ash fire warmth, for my brother’s fading heat, for my mother’s hot palms, until I can’t breathe I can’t breathe I can’t
There is a lake here, through this forest of trees. I float on the surface of the ripples, arms outstretched, legs outstretched, face in the water, like a leaf. I do not need air anymore. If someone were to come upon me, to sit quietly at the water’s edge and lift their gaze to the middle of the lake, they would see only a shimmer where the light is not quite right. Nothing more—no wrinkled and sucked-dry skin, no white-and-gray corn silk hair.
It takes weeks before I learn to dissolve the thin skin around my watery being. It is months before I can run through the veins of plants, until I am sucked up into the air, falling again as rain scattered across miles. It takes years to learn how to find my pieces in the lake or the stream or beneath the forest floor. I gather up the bits of myself from the land. I build my fingers and hair one droplet at a time until I rise from the forest floor with watery hands and cheeks. I lie in a field of Queen Anne’s Lace and let ladybugs drink as they skitter across my surface. Their feet are wet with me.
One morning, I open my eyes, and the whole world is green, as if I am seeing through a leaf. My skin is not withered anymore but taut and swollen—a raisin soaked. My veins are visible again and flowing with emerald blood, plump, twisting. Alive.
But I am cold, almost numb. The wind whips around me, and I shiver in it.
There is peace here. The leaves were right. But there is no warmth, and my arms have no one to hold.
Bullets rip through jungles the world over, but I whisper my desires to the clouds, and the rain takes me to a new war, one full of vigor like an infant, not yet wise, not yet tired. Smoke approaches through the trees where I wait, and when sons and daughters cry and stumble in the fray, I reach out my leafy arms to catch them as they fall. I soak up their blood as the cities crumble. I cool flushed cheeks and wipe away salty tears.
And when the bloodshed pauses for breath, I race through the rivers and roots to find other mothers to join me, and I whisper to them through the leaves, saying, Shhh, shhh. Don’t throw out the weeds. But once your arms are empty, come with me, to peace, peace! Come comfort the raging heat. Disappear with me into green.