The seed might have been a weatherborne fluke or dropped from the beak of a bird. It might have been left behind by a grown-up careless with her fertile heart. But as with the skin that held her in she couldn’t conceive of a time before the seed was there. She dug in the dirt fingering the tender spot where the seed lay buried disturbing ashy memories.
She recalled the itch of the first prickly sprout in her belly reaching upward. The sprout grew in fits and bursts until a long green stalk shot up through her stomach and branches grew off the stalk and filled her chest and wound around her spine and filled her arteries. Her face hardened and smoothed and bark coarsened the trunk and roots dug deep into her pelvis and down through her legs and by the time she was fully a woman she had a thorn tree inside her.
As the tree grew she grew uneasily around it. She twisted and shifted to avoid piercing her organs on the thorns. She tried to break the branches but they grew back stronger. She gnashed her teeth and tore the tree down and pulled and dug at the roots with ragged fingers but the tree and the thorns grew back stronger too. Defeated in the dust she struggled to let it be.
She tried to drown the tree with drink. The world outside swirled further out of focus with each swallow and a warm wind swept through the branches and she’d forget the thing inside that had driven her to drink. She’d wake with thorns boring holes in the walls of her skull and she’d stick her fingers down her throat to heave up sickly leaves but she’d only choke on twigs and scratch her throat with bark and she’d swear with her hand on the cool porcelain of some toilet that she’d never drink again.
She discovered the strong hands of men and she let them undress her and she bore the inward pressing of thorns against their graspings with gritted teeth. Sometimes she flashed them a glimpse of the tree inside her hoping one would chop it down but each yielded to the barbed branches and love—or whatever it was—bled to death again and again on the roots of the thorn tree.
She lived off odd jobs that lasted weeks or months and never more. She cleaned motel rooms on stretches of discarded highway. She sprayed perfume and folded scarves in department stores or airports. She cared for old people whose sickened memories twisted over on themselves repeating and deleting and unraveling before her eyes. She scooped popcorn into cardboard tubs in movie theaters.
She drifted west with the sun to the edge where cracked cliffs fall into the ocean. She followed palm-lined boulevards to beaches where wind whipped her hair and waves broke over the roots of the tree inside her and drowned out the rasp of leaves with their roar.
She was lying on the sand with her branches splayed and the sun was sinking heavily into the ocean and the pier was all dancing in neon and noise. She closed her eyes and listened to the bellows of waves and voices broken by wind. She slipped into a kind of dream where the screeches and calls and laughter on the pier morphed into the barks of seals and she felt as if she were one of them and felt her body cupped in the still warm sand with the salt spray kissing her cheeks and she forgot her tree and she forgot about thorns and she felt a kind of love she hadn’t known seep into her in the dimming of the day.
She awoke trembling in the cold dark. She had slept through the setting of the sun and the beach was lonely and strewn with seaweed. A huge hollowness engulfed her and she felt so hungry she could eat the world. She trudged through the sand away from the pulling tides and sliver of rising moon. The gnawing new emptiness drew her toward the flash and spin of the pier as if it might fill her up and sate her with lights.
The pier heaved under the weight of drunks and teenagers stumbling into her like solid air. Slick oily skin shone under the pink and yellow lights and silhouettes of bodies drifted in and out of the smoke of onions frying and she thought again of seals. She wandered starving through the bodies not knowing what she was looking for until she saw him. His skin speckled white with paint. The tree bristled and a thorn stuck in her side. She watched him shoot a toy gun at a prize she couldn’t see and she wished that he would point the gun at her.
She followed him through the sparks and neon noise and all the popcorn and burnt sugar air and off the pier and onto the concrete of quieter streets and the sour scents of bars on algae breezes. She followed him up a narrow alley where the backs of beach houses turn into garages stacked with peeling porches leaning with surf boards and strung with prayer flags flapping and she watched him as he walked up to a garage door and unlocked it and she watched from the shadows as he flipped a switch and light flooded the garage and spilled into the narrow street where she stood in the shadows and she saw that there were white canvases on easels and white paintings stacked against walls and there was white paint speckled and smeared all over the concrete floor and she saw that the paintings were all of bones. White and dried out bones on white canvas.
She moved into the light and stood there looking into the bright where he was bent over splashing brushes in a bucket until he stood up and saw her and looked right into her face while the brushes dripped onto the floor and she felt her leaves ripple and curl against the fleshy soft of her insides. They stood there without speaking until finally she broke his gaze and looked around at all the white paintings and asked who or what all these bones belonged to.
She sat for him and as she sat she let her boughs unfurl and the tree inside her settled under his gaze. She watched his face as he painted and watched him look through her skin and watched his eyes wander over her veins of wrinkled wood but when he showed her the canvas she saw bones.
The next day they went walking through the canyon up into the brittle brush hills above the city with the air smelling of evening and the sky bleeding red. She told him to close his eyes and take her hand and told him to pretend he was blind and let her lead him. They walked side-by-side playing leader and led and when he opened his eyes after a long time his face had changed and he said he felt free. He kissed her hard then tender on the mouth and told her it was her turn and she closed her eyes and he led her until she thought she felt free too. When they reached the top they stood right up against the edge of the cliff and looked down over the city beneath them and she thought of his bones and her tree lying together in the enduring sun and she pressed his palm against her own and felt the ache of longing and of thorns.
She moved into his house with a shed at the bottom of the garden nestled in lemon trees. He went to his studio every day to paint the bones of living things. Athletes and oligarchs and movie stars commissioned him to paint their skeletons. He worked late and hard and he loved the work but he was not often home.
She spent her days in the shed at the bottom of the garden which she fashioned into a studio of her own with the leaves moving in lemon breezes and birdsong all around. She took a few brushes and tubes of paint from him and she sat in front of an easel and tried to paint what was inside her. She tried to paint bones like he had and tried to feel how she had felt that first night when she had sat for him and he had looked through her skin and painted bones.
She painted and painted and painted. Stacks of canvases closed in around her and when there was no room for more she painted over the old ones. But the more she painted the more the bones began to look like branches. She reached and begged for bones but always what stared back from the easel was the tree inside her. Thorn upon thorn upon thorn. Branches over leaves over bark over roots. She painted every new bud and each entangled knot and she kept the door to the shed locked and never said a thing about it.
They never spoke about what was inside them. She kept fresh milk in the house and poured it for him in cold glasses or mixed it into meals she laid before him on late nights when he came home spattered in the white of his labors. She loved his bones and she fed them so they’d last forever but she never said a thing about it.
One day after years had passed she woke with an itch in her eye and she turned to him in their bed and asked if he could see anything. He lifted her lid with gentle fingers and saw a tiny speck against the white of her eye and said it looked like a freckle but it was probably just dust. When he’d left the house and his cup sat by the sink still warm she went to the mirror in the hall where the light was brightest and she stood with her face up close and held her breath so she wouldn’t fog the glass and she saw the speck for herself and a frozen wind blew through her branches because she knew that it was neither a freckle nor dust but the tip of a thorn.
She denied her creeping blindness and the man was working later and harder than ever and she was glad not to have to explain herself to him. She’d begun misjudging distances and knocking things over. She spent more and more time in the little shed painting her tree. She strained to paint clearly but her good eye had to work hard to see the strokes she made with the brush and soon she had to close the other to keep the blur at bay.
One morning before dawn when she could no longer remember a world unsteeped in milky haze she rose with an itch in her good eye. The man woke to her absence and found her finally in the shed hemmed in by hundreds of paintings he’d never seen. He looked at them all one by one and each for a very long time and then he gathered her in his arms and held her hard and told her how beautiful they were and how he had never known a thing about it. He carried her back to bed in his arms and brushed the hair from her face and she smiled with closed eyes so he couldn’t see that she couldn’t see and they fell back asleep finally in the late morning with his bones wrapped around her tree and the sky full of birds and the sun enduring.
The man trucked a dozen of her canvasses to his gallery and curators made room on their walls for the stacks of paintings that had gathered dust on the floor of the garden shed. The thorn trees in the paintings didn’t look like thorn trees to anyone except the nearly blind woman who painted them. People across the world claimed that she had painted their dreams.
She was indifferent to the fame that was thrust upon her. Collectors paid great swollen fortunes for the paintings of her tree. Her vision dwindled daily and her canvases got smaller and smaller and soon she was painting on matchboxes and the tiny trees flickered in miniature windows of white.
She hid her blindness from him until the very end and even then when she saw nothing but white and white and white she never let him know. When it happened at last she lay in bed unable to move or cry or utter a word. The man begged her to tell him what was wrong but the thorn tree had petrified and hardened against her throat.
One evening when the days were long he took her hands in his and led her to the canyon. When they were on the road they’d walked a thousand times he told her to close her eyes and pretend to be blind and she lowered her lids to play their old game because after all this time she couldn’t tell him they were already closed. The last warmth of the day swept around their faces and the dirt crunched under their shoes and the soft hold of his hand guided her. It was quiet except for the beat of their feet on the earth. After a long time he stopped and turned her towards him and looked at the freckles in her otherwise empty eyes and said that it was his turn now to be blind. He gave her his hand and she took it and they started to walk slowly at first as she felt for the way beneath her feet. She knew the road like she knew the curves of gnarled wood inside her and the ground was smooth and she quickened her pace until they were walking fast and the dust was rising under their heels and the sun had just begun to sink behind the ledge of sea in the distance. He let her lead him under the enduring sun and she charged on through her white washed world and when the edge of the cliff came the bones of his hands were entwined in the branches of hers.