The doctor delivers the diagnosis.
He tells Gulisa, “It could be worse.”
He names two diseases more terrible than her own.
Gulisa understands this and is disappointed in herself for not feeling more comforted. She accepts a few pamphlets from him, information about what to expect, about treatments if not cures, about diet and exercise. Her hands tremble but she doesn’t care about the trembling. She wants to lie down.
“Most likely, the quantity of your life won’t be affected,” the doctor says, “just the quality,” as if such a trade were fair or desirable. “There’s a support group, but I wouldn’t attend, it might scare you. Some of the people there look truly awful.”
This is the only reason she wants to go, to see what truly awful looks like.
“It’s a beautiful afternoon,” he says. “Try your best to enjoy it.”
Gulisa thanks the doctor, gathers her pamphlets and purse and jacket, wanders in a daze to the reception desk to make her next appointment. She takes the elevator down to the first floor and after some bewildered wandering—I came in healthy but now I—she finds her car in the parking lot. She calls her husband and sobs the news into the phone, but she only feels sorry—feels anything—for him, for her two children, and when she says goodbye she hangs up not only on him but on her pity, too.
Later, Gulisa parks the car near a trailhead—Disaster Creek, a crooked sign reads—and walks into the woods. She thinks about her legs as she walks: They’re moving, they’re pumping up and down, they’re doing what they should do, they aren’t compromised, not now, not yet. There is a low-level panic brewing in her, a warm desire to experience the course of her life all at once so that she can comprehend, fully, what the future holds. She’s excited and half-in-love with the bad news, she’s angry at herself for her recklessness.
Gulisa rounds a pathway beneath the tall ponderosas and there, hunched over in the middle of the trail, is an old witch.
Gulisa knows about witches. As a young girl, Gulisa lived a few doors down from the town witch, an old crone who punished rude children by cooking and eating their favorite pets. It’s imperative to be courteous to the witch, deferential.
Gulisa says hello, compliments the witch on her black shawl, on the long silver necklace that hangs from the ledge of her sagging breasts.
“And what lovely claws,” Gulisa adds, and kneels before the woman to admire them. The black talons twitch atop hands as red and trembling as leaves.
The witch enjoys the attention. She brings the back of her hand up to Gulisa’s face and brushes the coarse knuckles across her lips.
“You are a good, young child,” the witch says, even though Gulisa is middle-aged and has children of her own. “It seems I’ve dropped my basket. Can you help an old woman gather her things?”
Gulisa gladly agrees, and finds the basket in the grass a few feet away. Near it, scattered in the dirt, are glistening hunks of red meat. Gulisa hangs the basket from her wrist and stoops to retrieve them. Organs much larger than a chicken’s, hearts and livers and kidneys. They are warm to the touch, ripe with stink and ooze. Gulisa squints and they fuzz and glow, garnets and rubies.
She fills the basket until it is heavy and dripping, then wipes her bloodied hands on her jeans. She returns the basket to the old witch, who has taken a seat on a scabby boulder near the far dirt lip of the path.
“Very well, dear thing,” the old witch says, accepting the basket and resting it on the boulder beside her. “For your kindness, I’ll tell you a secret. Listen carefully: All of our bodies, however compromised, harbor a secret avenue.”
The witch leans forward and pokes a sharp knuckle into Gulisa’s stomach, then into her arm, then into the smooth plane between her eyes. Gulisa winces but does not pull away.
“You must search every inch of your body for the avenue,” the witch says.
Gulisa’s voice rises with desperation. “Is it so easy?”
The old witch closes her eyes. She pokes Gulisa in her throat, pinches her ear lobes. She leans over and drives the pad of her thumb into the soft recess below the knee cap. Gulisa’s leg buckles for a moment, and she looks up at the witch with a bright hope. Was that it? Is it gone? But the old witch clucks her tongue and shakes her head sorrowfully.
“It’s not in the usual places,” she says. “But it’s there. It always is. You must find it. Examine every inch of your flesh.”
Gulisa’s heart knocks in her head so loudly it’s as though it knows the secret place. Tell me tell me tell me. Gulisa, remembering her manners, tells the witch, “Thank you. I won’t forget.”
The witch nods, picking up her dripping, bloody basket. “It will save you,” she says, “or the un-saving will save you, eventually.”
Gulisa watches the witch hobble away from her, strong on one side, lame on the other. Her dark form floats into the trees and dissolves into the evening mist.
Alone in the clearing, Gulisa begins to poke at herself, first here, tentatively, then here, inch upon inch around wrist and elbow and up to the shoulder, across the neck between crown and shoulder, down the other arm, spiraling, pulsing along deliberately to her very fingertips. Eventually she is stunned to realize the sun has set, the forest is cold and lonely and filled with sound and wretchedness, and her phone peals in her coat pocket, no doubt her husband, wondering where she is.
She stops jabbing herself, her fingers hot and sore from the effort, and struggles to remember where she is and what has happened to her. The air smells watery, cold pine and moss, the black sky is yellow toward the south where the city lies, a thin baseboard of electricity and light. Gulisa’s children are there in the big house, cared for by her husband, maybe watching a movie together, eating pizza, dipping carrots into hummus, and she realizes she’s hungry, and the normalcy of such a thought irritates her.
The phone stops ringing.
Her fingers poke and explore and seek. She bruises herself, the bruises turn purple to brown, her skin thickens into bark. She returns woodenly to her car, limbs stiffening. As she drives, Gulisa’s hunger dissipates, but her thirst becomes intolerable. Her fingers, sharper now, piercing, move around her body as she travels. Her vision seems to tunnel in on itself, she brakes and accelerates in a fog, barely remembers to turn left or right. By the time she pulls into the driveway her entire body is onerous. To move is painful, unwieldy. She leaves the car with much effort, feet first, pulling her head and arms after her. She comes free of the car in a burst of leaves and wood and the entire vehicle shudders at her exit.
She thuds onto the doorway. Someone hears from inside the house, comes running. Mommy’s home!
She wonders dully, Who is Mommy?
The wind picks up and rattles the leaves of her hair, the loose branches of her cloven limbs. Her trunk sways. The door opens and part of her falls through the doorway, scratching her daughter just under her eye. A superficial wound, but the girl slaps her hand over it and cries out in terror.
Who is Mommy
Glass splinters around her, a chair is knocked over. Her body is bursting forth, sylvan, sprawling. She is all heartwood and sapwood and cambium. The avenue in her glows amber. As the family gathers before her, wonderingly, hesitantly, she bends and rises and blooms. They back away, faces uplifted to her canopy.
Her roots spear the ground. They pierce and search, they sink and lock, they drink deeply the water under her home.