Ivy and that Old Oak Tree
By Amy Kruzan
Sometimes Ivy liked to stand at the base of that two-hundred-year-old tree on the edge of the farm and imagine what the tree had seen throughout its lifetime. Maybe it was an oak tree – she never did learn to tell. The leaves changed colors in fall, fell in the winter, and started to bud in the spring, so did it really matter what they looked like in the summer? The balmy, humid air sank into her pores and made her irritable. At least in the spring a fine mist seemed to swarm over the hills, giving the leaves a strange yellowish hue from the tanning factory down the road. In the summer, ticks were out in abundance – on the dogs, the cats, even the horses, who rubbed themselves silly on that old wooden post just outside the barn. In the fall, the farmhouse windows stayed open, the wind creaked through the shutters, and the stars moved close to shower the night.
Ivy never liked the summers, but still she spent summer days roaming the birch forests . . . or were they aspen? She never knew . . . and feeding the cows and dangling her feet in a small creek by that cabin no one had inhabited since Old Man Jed died many years back. She placed a hand on the furrowed bark of the oak tree . . . or was it a maple? . . . or maybe it wasn’t even a tree.
The farmhouse door swung open long enough for her to see her mother’s face. She headed back to the woods, setting feet into the mud. It had rained last night. One of those rare summer thunderstorms that used to set the whole farmhouse shaking on its timbers – that kind of storm where water leaked through the hole in the roof, the one just above her pillow. But the rain wasn’t enough to save them from the stifling heat and the broken-down waterways.
The dry grass tickled her skin as she moved farther down the slope. Wads of pollen floated by her. The air should be filled with them, and the small stream should be overflowing, but the dried-out stream overflowed with rusting metal cans. The rain seldom came, and the tannery was scheduled to shut down. Even their closest neighbors were packing up. But her mother was staying. Maybe because this place reminded her mother of Ivy’s missing father and brother, or maybe because her mother simply didn’t have anywhere else to go.
Sometimes Ivy wondered if the trash in the stream came from the rusty red truck her father used to drive. The backseat was covered with stuff her mother refused to throw out – even after the smell started to attract horseflies. But Ivy didn’t broach the subject to her mother because she didn’t see the point.
If Ivy craned her head just enough, she could see the edge of the tanning factory smokestacks, maybe it was good – at least that’s what the outsiders said, the ones who came last year with their picket signs. They filled up the inn and tied themselves to trees she still didn’t know the names of and tried to get the tanning factory to shut down. She supposed they had a point – after all, the stream used to run full and clear and blue, and now the brownish water, what little there was, was scary to walk through. But she didn’t want those outsiders in her town, and she certainly didn’t want them telling her how to live her life.
She dipped one toe into the water and tried to ignore the list of chores that her mother had given her this morning. It always included driving into town to pick up feed. Not that the barn wasn’t already stacked full with feed bags. Maybe her mother forgot she asked Ivy to go to town every day, and maybe Ivy forgot when she went. Or maybe they just both wanted to feel like the farm wasn’t choking from the inside.
Ivy sighed and started back up to the slope to where her oak tree still stood. She and the tree liked to make up stories together. “Two years ago the wheat died because of the locusts.” “Last year one of the horses died because he got sick from the pollen.” This year nothing was growing except metal cans. Maybe the tree didn’t want to admit everything had gone downhill, and that neither one of them knew why.
The oak tree seemed to gloat sometimes. It always survived – it was hard to kill a tree from a single year of drought. Much harder than it was to kill people. She liked to think her tree stood alone in the world. That somehow, some way, it made her special, to live next to such a tree. One winter, she scavenged the farmhouse for spare coins and saved up enough money to purchase a tree book. All season it sat on her windowsill. But spring came and went, and Ivy never touched the book. She would never amount to that tree.
The sky seemed to hang low in the summer, and Ivy wished she could sprout wings and see the world beyond her farmhouse and tannery. But really, she just wanted to sit under the oak, stretched across the ground where the roots of her tree twisted around and under her bare feet. She picked up a twig and wondered why the tree had dropped it. Drought?
Ivy held it in her hands like a baby. Slowly, she placed it at the base of the tree and wrapped her arms across the trunk. She grabbed the first branch and hauled herself up into the tree. Every summer of her life she’d spent on the ground, watching the oak – always envious of its height and freedom. Now she rose through the branches, the humidity fading for a brilliant moment as a breeze swept through her hair.
In the distance she could see the tannery, the smokestacks knifing just above and through the clouds.
Maybe her mother would never forget her father or stop hating him, and maybe Ivy would be stuck here for the rest of her life. Maybe the tannery would reopen and pollute the stream until she had to spend every summer lying in the dry grass staring up at the cloudless sky. Or maybe she could stop waiting for fall – for things to die, for the sound of wind blowing in from the west.
Amy is a sophomore environmental studies major at Ithaca College with a minor in writing. She is a licensed scuba diver and has done dives in Hawaii. In her spare time, she likes to design book covers, write fantasy novels, and lie in a hammock in nearby natural areas.