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Tree, Raven, Hillside, Fire

Volume XXIII | 2023 Lacroute Prize Winner

By

Élana Gatien

It's so peaceful here, where the incense cedar smells sharp and clear and the Oregon myrtle breaks with the smell of my dad's spaghetti sauce. River-smooth boulders tower over the water, dotted with Jeffery pines and Douglas-firs. Lichen grows like mottled fur on the rocks by the clear water of the ambling Illinois River.

Just past the riverside, the scars of fire show: silver-black corpses of trees and shrubs, madrone and tan oak surrounded by living siblings who came back from scorched stumps and deep roots. Charred logs, black and nearly iridescent, rest along the trail. Most of the shrubs and grass on the hills are reduced to silver, wispy ghosts, side-by-side with living counterparts in an elaborately random pattern. Such dichotomies: pebbles next to boulders, water next to rock, living next to dead. Life and death coexist here, tangling brittle and supple branches together in a shared prayer to the sky. I see a tree (an incense cedar?) burned completely in its bottom half, thicker and greener than any other tree on the hillside in its top half.

 

We sit, silently engrossed in the task of writing reflections, after a chaotic and scattered dip in the glass-clear, glacial water. I scribble the names of the plants we've just learned: Oregon myrtle, tan oak, madrone, incense cedar, wild grape. Snapshot: a sun-golden contentment rising from our chests, spreading out and tangling in the living and dead branches until it dissipates into the azure sky above.

 

It strikes me that so many older trees and bushes on this hillside live. Disfigured and charred, they live. Destroyed to the roots, they live. Their brethren fall around them in a conflagration they can't escape, and they live. Oh, to have a tree's resolve to never give up, even as the flames flow around them in a river of hell-and even more to be one after, not just able, not just willing, but completely determined to keep growing— even alone— on a scarred, serpentine hillside. 

I am alone on my own serpentine hillside.

Well, not exactly alone. There are others here, others who would like to think they planted the roots that survived this fire. Others who believe I struck the first match, nurtured the flames like a grudge until they consumed us all.

I didn't start the fire. I just grew differently. And in their fear and disappointment and denial, they decided that they would rather see our relationship burn until I am small enough to fit within their mold— until the word "family" leaves a bitter taste in my mouth— than let me grow as I was designed.

When I was seventeen, I began to question my gender identity. It was secretive, careful work— checking and re-checking that my headphones emitted no outside sound, that my bedroom door was closed, that I had another tab on standby in case an oblivious parent entered without knocking first. It was hours of watching videos by trans creators, scrolling through Wikipedia pages on various identities, and scanning articles boldly titled "Five Signs You Might Be ___" It was passing through the polished wooden doorway of my parents' church and shivering from fear and shame. It was laughing along to a now ex-friend's transphobic jokes, feeling sick and scared in my soul.

 

I hyperventilate in the backseat of a gray Kia Sportage. Flames lick my ribs. Smoke pours from my ears. That same ex-friend holds my hand, shooting me concerned looks, while she debates whether LGBT+ people should have rights with my sister. Completely unaware that she is the source of my panic. The memory is made even more bitter with my sister's recent decision to agree with her. Snapshot: the consequences of their beliefs hanging as smoke in the car's recirculated air; me choking, them oblivious.

 

I remember car rides and dinners spent listening to radio pastors rail against the evils people like me unleash upon the world simply by existing. Shoveling bay-seasoned spaghetti into my mouth to avoid the faux-wise discussions afterwards, crafting carefully neutral replies to my parents' prying questions. And when hiding became too hard, too exhausting, too painful, I let my secret see the sun.

I don't know what I expected. They reacted as I knew they would: with denial and tears and appeals to a religion I no longer believe in. Half-apologetic gifts and hollow vacations were offered in place of acceptance. Misgendering and hateful sermons turned stubborn and intentional. Anger and frustration bubbled out in torrents of dread-sharpened words that sparked and flickered into the conflagration that, to them, still rages.

Perhaps it does. But I am now far from the flames. In that way, I am not the tree, who stays and endures. I am instead the raven, soaring from the flames in opalescent blue-black glory.

When I moved to Linfield, I was so afraid. I put my pronouns in parentheses, never telling those around me about it unless asked- and even then, often lying. I buried myself in nights of Cards Against Humanity, impulsive excursions to Third Street with near-strangers, and careful, quiet surveys of the college and its people. I convinced myself to stay silent, to hide the matches I never lit for fear of burning any bridge I built.

 

Acquaintances and new friends ebb and flow through a white-walled dorm room lit by strung pinpricks of blue. A half-finished dragon with lionfish crests takes shape under my hand. Around me, students who share my secret laugh and joke; still, I am afraid. Snapshot: pages of strangers' art papering the walls in a room I will soon know.

 

I quickly learned that hiding from friends was out of the question. Emboldened by the way my hall's Resident Assistants introduced themselves with their pronouns, I tentatively confessed my secret to a few new friends. It felt, like placing a lit match in their open palms. But the amount of support I received was overwhelming, and I learned that this place was not the dry environment I had become used to. My once-secret did not burn a single person— in fact, many of them shared it. It was there that I realized I did not start the fire. I realized it again and again, as the difference between friends and visiting parents became more and more stark.

 

My dad fidgets uncomfortably with his Starbucks cup, carefully choosing his words. When he does, words like "unnatural" and "sin" and "biology" and "damage" and "irreversible" fly like embers from his lips, and the flames flare and jump around us, and I feel the now-familiar dull disappointment as our tentative, distance-fed peace crumbles into ash. My entire room is on fire by the time he leaves. Snapshot: a friend, afterward, passing me water as we steadily douse the flames.

 

Now, in the Siskiyous for the first time, I contemplate the patchwork landscape of silver, gray, brown, and myriad shades of green. The group chatters pleasantly around me as we wait for bulky white vans to come tearing down the narrow gravel road. A thumb-sized piece of serpentine shines in my pocket, and I rub its smooth sides to distract myself from the sun's overbearing gaze. We joke about going over the edge of the mountain roads we travel as we pile into the vans, certain that they will be pockmarked with gravel-made dents by the time this trip is over. Perhaps I am not the fire-scarred tree, not the escaping raven. Perhaps I am instead the hillside— those in my life may come and go, cleared by flame, but my life is far from bereft of greenery and vitality. I see a madrone, a tan oak, a sugar pine seedling, a towering cedar, and call them the names of my friends.

 

Snapshot: a manzanita huddles away from the trail, its teal leaves a curtain against right vinous bark that peels away in tiny scrolls. I call it sibling.

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