RETREAT

Diana sat in thought so long against the trunk of the great cypress that her hair began to grow up and down, circling and embracing the roots and limbs. Like a strangler fig, her dark tresses twined around the tree and meshed with its bark. But the tree sensed she meant no harm, was just in need of strength and solace, so it made no move to disturb her thoughts.

A powerful lot of thinking to do, that’s what she had. The loss of a child to carelessness and the subsequent gulf that grows between mother and father are not things that can be dealt with in a day. So Diana sat against the gentle cypress and wandered the depths of the swamp in her mind. She sat there through the dry, cool winter, when her skin dried to gray, flaky patches. She sat there through the moist, heavy summer, when her body soaked up the daily rains, replenishing the liquid lost to tears. Above her, the feathery green of the cypress’ leaves waned and waxed again and started back into the cycle. The wood storks nested, fledged their young and flew away. The baby alligators hatched and grew inches with each round of the sun. And still she sat.

She thought and didn’t think of John, her husband once upon a time. Somewhere in a dusty corner of her mind, she knew he wouldn’t come looking for her, knew he couldn’t worry about her whereabouts. Not just yet. When Micah, their star child, rode down the street on his shiny bike that day, they were still different people. They laughed. They talked. They loved. But the crash that left bike and Micah mangled, that stupid, senseless, sudden meeting of metal against metal and flesh, that crash catapulted both of them into another world.

What is a day? she wondered. I knew that word once. What is a word?

It was then Diana started her wanderings in the swamp and found the tree. Her tree. Her comfort. Four hundred years old, if it was a day. What is a day? She needed that kind of perspective. Myopia had closed down her world. She needed to see without eyes.

Gradually, Diana took to leaving for the swamp earlier and staying longer. It didn’t matter to John. With every wandering, he seemed to notice her absence less. One night, when she returned to their home, she found the house empty. Of all presence. John had left on his own retreat.

So Diana returned to the swamp and simply didn’t leave. She sat down against the tree, sighed and settled into thought. There was no decision to this. Just a doing. She thought beyond words and beyond time. She traveled eons without moving an inch, and she plunged into the darkness beneath darkness that underlaid the swamp.

The cypress birthed knees on which to rest her arms. Her hair grayed into strands of Spanish moss, and her skin patched into the reds and yellows and greens of lichens. Snails inched up her body; anoles scampered over her legs. Once, a raccoon investigated her lap for a burrow but, noting her sadness, decided this was not the place to raise young.

After Diana had rested in thought for a year and a day -- what is a day? -- a hawk flew by, shrieking a warning. Or blessing. Diana moved her head, slowly, carefully, bits of bark flaking away as she shifted, so she could see the sky. She was surprised she had forgotten how blue it could be. The sun danced through the cypress’ branches, bringing a host of sounds she hadn’t noticed before. Bird songs. Insect scuttlings. Flowers unfolding.

This is a new day! Diana thought in amazement. And she remembered what made a day. There was a new sound then, a foreign sound echoing in the swamp, and she pushed her ears from the tree to hear it better. I know that sound. I remember. Footsteps.

She turned her face again, in the direction of the soft plodding and saw a form grow in the semi-darkness, semi-light. Like a shapeshifter, it came gradually into focus, and she noticed it was a man. A man lost and searching. A man her heart recognized even as her eyes strained to see clearly.

John, she said, and the voice unused for so long came out a dry twig snapping. John, she tried again, and it was the sound of branches creaking under heavy wind or weight. Summoning the strength of the tree and the swamp, she tried again. John! and it was a siren’s song dancing on the air.

“Diana?” The hopeful question was as much in his eyes as his voice. He looked about him with the quickness of a startled marsh rabbit, daring but not daring to believe what he heard was real.

The cypress, she said. Look to the tree. And her words brought him forward, halting, tripping, catching himself against the trunk and inching his fingers around until they caught her hair. I’ve been thinking, she said when their eyes met. And the smile that came to her then broke more bark and lichen from her face.

“So have I,” he knelt and whispered. “I miss you. And I think it’s time we went home.”

Yes.

“Can you...”

Yes. I think so.

And with that, Diana closed her eyes, sent a silent thanks to the tree and asked blessing to leave. Down her back, she could feel the sap-carried answer, an answer that brought strength to her long immobile body. Pushing -- forward, upward -- like she had when she’d delivered Micah, she tore herself away from the cypress and back into the world. Chips of bark and bits of moss and lichen and leaves scattered through the air like dust motes, and she emerged clear skinned and rosy as a newborn.

John reached out for her; Diana mirrored his gesture. Then both pulled hands back, a little shy after all this time. Without a word, they turned and headed back out of the swamp, back to their little house, walking side by side the entire way, the cushion of air between them sparkling and crackling. When they reached their front yard, John turned and watched the sunlight dance on her long dark hair.

Reaching toward her, he said, “You have a bit of bark and leaves still tangled here.”

Diana grabbed his hand in mid-reach. “Leave them,” she said. “They’ll fall out when they’re ready. In a day or so.” Then she brought his fingers to her lips and gently kissed them.