He lives in the same town as a number of other writers and musicians, Black Oak, Arkansas.
Mark is 48-years-old and has a wife and three children.
My hands cradled my head as I stared at the black starlit night, searching for answers to questions I was terrified to ask. I had escaped the guilty barrage of vulgar insults into the rural quietness of my yard. The small towns were pinpointed by the lights within glow distance of my country home in Poplar Ridge, AR. My community was a center blip in three triangular points of nowhere. These concentrated lights meant that the local Little League teams were playing night games against other small Northeastern Arkansas towns. There were dads coaching, grandpas and uncles umping the bases and moms doing their best to scream their small sons and daughters into greatness. The only sounds around me were tree frogs and the incessant buzzing of mosquitoes in my ear, rivaled only by the numbing hum with lost scenes of my childhood of when I was an active participant in those rituals replaying in my head. My whole inner being was in a constant turmoil with the stress of my everyday life. The addiction had hit hard. My sweet wife, Laci Lee, the absolute love of my life, was caught in the downward swirl of the pills. They had consumed her to the point that fantasy had won the battle with reality, in her mind. I knew of two paths that had to be traveled to get the result I needed for my kids and me and neither was comforting. It was the witching hour and it was time. I knew she had taken her hourly allotment and would be asleep.
As I quietly slipped the door open to the den, I noticed my two girls, Rena, who was 9, and seven-year-old Jena, had retreated to their rooms and Laci was floating in her opioid-induced dreamland. The pill bottle was still in the top of her purse by the couch, where she lay. I eased it out and made my way to the door. Once outside, I stopped by the barn and picked up my shovel. I went to the edge of the yard and dug a small six-inch-deep hole. After popping the lid off the bottle, I watched in the moonlight, as half of my last paycheck, disguised as Xanax and Hydrocodone, settled into the still cool dirt of the late June night. The dirt was patted back into place and the plug of grass replaced on top. When I reached the concrete patio, I stomped the empty bottle with the heel of my boot. There would be no more devils let loose from that Hell.
I was dressed at first light and ready to head out to work. Locking the door behind me, my eyes inadvertently cut towards the scene of the burying and a curious sight grabbed my attention. There seemed to be a bush growing out of the hole. “This isn’t possible,” I thought to myself. It wasn’t there last night and unless I had miscalculated my steps in the darkness, it was growing from the very spot I had deposited the poison. Once closer, I realized it was a small tree that had a solid stalk and finger-like limbs off the main trunk that split into even smaller branches, with tiny buds on the ends. It was unlike any I had encountered in my years spent in the surrounding wood lots. It was puzzling as to how it was possible that this tiny tree could have grown that quickly. The many buds on the end of the limbs looked as though they were ready to bloom, but how? The spring bloom was over and who ever heard of a plant of any kind blooming that quick? It simply wasn’t possible.
The day at work was agonizingly slow. My mind was totally consumed by the tree growing at the edge of my yard. I shared the photo with some friends of mine and they all agreed that they had never seen anything with such rapid growth potential. We talked about the possibility of the chemicals from the surrounding farmland; we talked about how the septic system could have created a mineral-rich pocket that would allow for an intense cellular growth. Most of our ideas had been passed on through the viewing of either the Twilight Zone or some low budget “B” horror movie. My friends, Dave and Josh, decided to follow me home so they could see firsthand that this alien plant was real, and mainly to verify that I wasn’t going crazy. We were completely astonished at the sight that awaited us when we pulled into my driveway. The tree had grown to around 10 feet tall and spread out like a weeping willow. The amazing thing was not the tree, but the horde of people standing around picking something off the ends of the branches. There were some local people I knew, some friends of my wife, and then some who I had never seen. Dave, Josh and I took off in that direction to clear the grounds. As we approached, the majority of the folks scattered like feral cats. One gentleman decided he was not ready to go and proceeded to tell me, in close proximity to my face, to fornicate myself, because he was not leaving. I decided against his proposition and promptly set him on his ass with a swift left jab. He instantly had a change of heart and slinked out of the yard like windblown trash.
Dave ran up and asked, “What the hell was all that about? Man, what are you not telling us? We thought this was just a big joke. Have you seen what they were getting off that tree?”
I made my way over and stood as mystified and speechless as a child who sees fireworks for the first time. Tears began filling my eyes, when the reality of my attempt to rid my family of this curse had resulted in me supplying every giver and taker around. What were once buds on the ends of the fingerling limbs, had bloomed into pills. Every limb produced a different variety. There were all sorts of anything that could dig claws into your soul and drag you into your own personal Hell. Josh and Dave were as unsure as I was as to what to do next. Obviously, it had to be taken down. This addiction tree would feed no more. It would be taken down, and now. I asked Dave and Josh to stay and they were more than willing to help in the destruction. The chainsaw was brought out and fired up. The trunk had zero heart. It was just a pulpy mush that frothed up off the chain of my saw. Once on the ground it was doused with gasoline. The match seemed to fly in slow motion towards the soaked addiction tree. Instantly, the single match became a roaring volcano of flame that erupted from the thickest foliage. As the flakes of bark fire flitted away skyward, twisting and turning for its momentary freedom, another body melded into our half circle, growing it to a four-count. It was Cherokee.
Cherokee Cotton was an old man who lived on the river. Not out of necessity, mind you, but by choice. He didn’t like the ways of the modern world or any of the people driving it. He would visit at my place and I at his. The visits here were his outreach to the world.
“Saw the black smoke and thought I better check it out. Why you wasting your time trying to burn that thing? It’ll never die, not that way,” he said.
“Wait, Cherokee, you’ve seen these before? You know what it is?” I asked.
“Sure do and I can tell you this, only one way to kill this tree and that’s by killing the root. Problem is, finding the root. I can help you, but I need to know the capabilities in your heart and mind. You come see me tomorrow and we’ll talk.”
“I’ll be down right after work,” I told him, unaware that wasn’t the plan in Cherokee’s mind.
“After work?” he exclaimed. “You have no idea what in the Hell you’re dealing with, do you? Aren’t you tired of making excuses for that pill-head wife and dumpster fire of a marriage? Tired of every damn day having to haul the kids to your Mom’s house so they don’t see this crap? You be at my house first light and bring me a limb off that tree.”
“But we burned it already….”
“Yeah,” he laughed. “Just bring one off the next one.”
The next morning, the addiction tree had grown to almost six feet tall and the buds were already beginning to show signs of opening. I took the chainsaw and broke the morning silence with the grinding of the chain. Two cuts and I had a two-foot section of the trunk that Cherokee had requested.
There was no way of knowing what I was walking into or the time involved, but I could tell by the anger and urgency of his voice that I would not be questioning him. Arrangements had been made with my mother for the girls to stay with her, so, after dropping them off, I drove the old gravel road that paralleled the St. Francis River and pulled the truck up to the gate on the edge of Cherokee’s property. The morning sun had just cleared the horizon and was beginning to burn the dew from the grass and send out a light heat wave of air, making breathing a chore. My jeans were wet from walking through the knee-high weeds and the dust had already begun to cake on them. The occasional mosquito would flit around in front of my eyes like a stage diva on the red carpet before making its way to sing in my ear.
After finally reaching the edge of the woods, the shade of the canopy of age-old Tupelo and Cypress made the heat from the early sun somewhat bearable. I could never imagine living in this heat with no electricity, but Cherokee always said it was better than living shoulder-to-shoulder with wickedness. I guess there really are no limits as to what a person can adjust to with the proper motivation and will. I was about to learn a very real lesson in that very subject, as I walked the woods’ trail up to the clearing, by the bough-covered cabin that was his home. It was hard to distinguish between the sweat that had begun to run down my face, my back and through the hairs in my legs from the countless flying and crawling critters that were attempting to invade my personal space. With all that was going on with my marriage and the common struggles of everyday life – and, now, this stupid tree – my patience was worn thin.
“Come on Cherokee, let’s get on with this show. Tired of the heat already.”
“Calm down, young ‘un. This won’t take long at all. Have a seat on that stump and listen carefully. I’m going to ask you straight questions and I want straight answers. Don’t him-haw or choke on bullshit. We ain’t got the time. Main question is simple. You want this crap to stop?”
“You know I do.”
“You willing to handle it the only way you can make it stop?”
“Yes, I am. I don’t want to have to worry about my girls dealing with this crap.”
“Then, give me the limb you brought. This won’t be as easy for you as it would me, but it has to be you in this situation. You can kill the tree only by the killing of the root.”
“Not a problem. I can go home and dig down to the root and I’ll tear it out piece by piece, until it’s all gone.”
“You missed the point. Remember what this grew from. It doesn’t grow from an actual root, it grows from the pills. It is fed by the addiction. You have to kill Johnny Appleseed. He’s the root. Whoever is dealing these pills is the root.”
“But, how do I know who that is? I have suspicions, but it could be a bunch of folks. Is there a way to be sure I get the right one? I’m not sure I can do something like this, unless I’m sure it’s the right one.”
“Is there anyone that hangs around more than normal? Someone you may or may not know, but you all of a sudden see them everywhere? Anyone that’s approached you or challenged you to try to get in your head? Anyone picking a fight?”
“No, closest thing I’ve had to any of that was punching a guy that was picking pills off the tree when I came home the other day. Everyone else scattered like ashes in a high wind but him. He turned and cussed me.”
“Well, I would say he made himself a prime target to be your dealer. If he’s not, chances are he needs killing anyway. We will work this part of the tree down to a super sharp, skin-splitting sliver and this will be the key to unlock the chains on your life.”
I walked back out of the river bottoms with what was once a piece of wood and would now be considered a weapon by any front. The thoughts of what I was looking at doing both terrified me and made the anger in my spirit from this come skin-side out seeking retribution. Seriously I was just hoping that I would pull in the driveway and the whole existence would become a family friendly sit-com from the 80’s. Unfortunately, not the case. My yard looked like free commodity day at the local community center. There were some on the shoulders, picking up high just to get high. Thinking if they would work this hard to get clean there wouldn’t be a problem to begin with. At the slamming of the door, they began scattering into the open fields like rats when the light switch was turned on. They hid in ditches; they laid in the rows of the young cotton. All but one. The one that I was hoping had suddenly floated off the Earth and disappeared forever. He nonchalantly glanced over his shoulder and went back to gathering. In my heart, I knew I would never be able to kill someone. Just wasn’t in me. And then he spoke.
“How bout you take your punk-ass on inside and take care of that wife of yours? You can even pick a few of these and take to her. I’m sure she’s ready for another mix. Her magic carpet is probably starting to flutter down. Go on boy, leave me be. That sucker-punch caught me by surprise last time, but it won’t happen again.”
Instantly I was within arm’s reach and the surrounding landscape became blurry. The haze of the afternoon sun caused it all to be dreamlike. The only absolute focus was on the spot between the two ribs that I would thrust this wooden blade into. It sank smoothly and solidly up to the hilt of the stake. There was only a grunt from the root. I had wrapped my free arm around his throat and held him, as the life drained from the open wound. When the battle of the living body was taken over by the loss to gravity, I laid him slowly to the ground and watched his face become void of light. The blood poured around the trunk and into the dirt. It was visible first from the tip-top, as the limbs started turning a dull, dead brown like a sudden freeze had stripped all color and life from it. Once the dying had reached the bottom of the trunk, the tree twisted as if melting and fell across the body. I stood breathless and shaking at what had just occurred. I felt the presence of someone and turned in time to see Cherokee with a can of gas.
“It’s o.k., son; it’s over, now. The root is dead and the addiction tree can now be killed. You grab a shovel, while I start a fire.”
We stood in silence, as the last of the tree burned to a glowing pile of ash, making sure the stake was burned with it all. Tree, buds, root and all became nothing more than a pile of ash. Cherokee instructed me to dig a hole and bury it all in the same spot where the addiction tree had sprouted. I saw Cherokee walking out of my yard and head off down the gravel road, as I stamped the fresh dirt as solid as if done by a hard rain. As I turned to put away the shovel, I noticed Laci Lee standing in the yard, crying. I went to her and she held me as strong as her depleted arms would allow. She held on with her heart; she used her love to hold tight. I just held her against my chest and she spoke the words that made the day complete.
“I can’t do this anymore. Can you get me some help? I don’t ever want another pill. I want my family. Please? Help me live again.”
And it would be done. The addiction had died that day.
“The Cypress Altar”
The cold air of the pre-dawn November morning burned the throat as the hum of the outboard motor was lulling me back into any outdoorsman’s dreamland. The boat ride down Maddox Bay to the dropping-off spot of the deer hunters of the Poe family was cold but quick. The morning discussion covered where everyone would be hunting today and concluded with the choice of either quick-and-cold or slow-and-moderate for the 10-minute or so boat ride, depending on the vote. Quick and cold won out. We had all survived, as assured by roll call rounded as the boat slid to a stop on the sandbar. From here, we would begin our stalking of any legal whitetail to be found in the North Unit of the White River Refuge in southeast Arkansas. We had copied this exact scenario countless times in my 25 years of hunting with this family. No thought in heart or mind could foretell the future relevance of this over-played song of the deer hunter. Unbeknownst to any of us, today would change the lives and the future of the clan.
My nephew, Brooks, had selected a slough leading out to Hill Bayou. My brother, James, chose to hunt the opposite side of the Bay, on an oak ridge that ran parallel to the water. My father chose to hunt a crossing on the slough leading to Kansas Lake and I would head out with him and hunt an area between Kansas Lake and Cole Slough that has been a whitetail interstate for as long as the family had been there. My father was getting on up in years. His eyes were starting to dim and his back had begun to cause more pain than he would ever let be known. His body was paying the price for the many years of back-breaking work he had subjected it to – everything from chopping countless acres of cotton to loading wagonloads of watermelons, along with the other callous-producing labor associated with running the 80-acre family farm. Hunting was his escape from the reality of life. It was the driving force to make it through another day. The outdoors was his magic wand that transformed hell of life to living. And make no mistake about it; he was a wizard at it. He had a feel for the woods he trod and the lakes and rivers he fished. Never mind the elements. He would always produce something for us to eat. We knew that when Pop was out with gun or rod, the bologna could stay in the cooler. When he yelped that familiar “heeeup,” you could start peeling potatoes, because Pop was headed in with meat in-hand.
I followed him close that morning, with both of us headed in the same general area. The clay road that had been made once by the logging trucks of the Potlatch Company – and later by the graders and the dozers of the Federal government – cut through the dense tangle of woods and vines, just as a river cuts its way thru the rock-walled mountains. Even at my age of 33 I could see the shadow of the wide-shouldered man I knew as a child. He was still larger than me and I still saw him in my heart as a giant that would never meet his David. He had the ability to lead a family with his will and his eyes, without the use of guilt or force. There was never the thought of being made to do any job. He put it in a way that you knew it was expected to be done and was completed more out of the fear of disappointing him than the consequences of ignoring his wishes. He had a heart for people, but he also had a burning desire to be surrounded by family. Understandable, considering this man came from no family. He was adopted at two years of age and raised within shouting distance of the St. Francis river bottoms. Grandpa Jim and Grandma Ruby had no other kids. His real mother was full-blooded Cherokee, so that gave him an almost spiritual connection to woods and water. Not to mention being raised by Grandpa Jim, either on the river or in the woods, hunting anything that would run from him. This was never for sport. The taking of life was done so with the utmost respect for the sacrifice of the animal or fish. We thanked the animals for feeding us and we gave thanks to God above for providing us with the food and the strength to hunt and fish. This was instilled in us by the man I now trailed behind, as we cut off the hard road and down a wooded trail. I was watching him ease along in the total quietness of the morning, with just the faintest light leaking above the broken horizon, through the matting of trees and a cloudy morning. I thought about how amazing it was that a man could build a family unit that many others coveted. This family was the epitome of the Southern farm family. Work hard Monday thru Saturday and then Sunday morning found us lined in the pew at Black Oak Methodist Church, like turtles on a cypress log. Pop would be behind the pulpit leading song service. After church, we would walk into a house with the air flavor-soaked from the dinner already cooking. It was an after-dinner King Edward and maybe a hand of cards before everyone loaded up their families and went home. No one made excuses as to why they couldn’t be there. No one was too busy or worried with the daily grind. Your presence was expected, but not demanded.
Pop whispered over his shoulder that he would yelp if he needed me and took off on his trail through the dense woods, just skirting a massive thicket. Within a moment, he was out of sight. I followed the road until my slough came up on my right. I crossed onto the high bank. I eased down quietly to avoid spooking any deer that may have already crossed. I made my way to the same old cypress tree that had been supporting the backs of my family for years. After carefully moving any loose limbs that could possibly cause unnecessary racket, I raked the cypress needles and other ground clutter up to build my nest for the morning. I nestled in to my familiar spot, as light poured through the trees in a gray mist. The trees were lightly swaying under the cold north breeze that would still sting any exposed skin. The cold ground worked its way up my spine like dead fingers taking the life from every muscle and I went through the early morning ground shakes that anyone who ground hunts for deer experiences. I focused my eyes on any stumps or logs that might jolt the psyche into thinking it’s a deer and in my mind marked trees to calibrate the inner windings for the distances. As everything settled into the morning sound of the bottoms coming alive, the distant wail of snow geese riding the wind took me away from whitetails and my mind wandered back to my Dad. I thought about the times that he taught us to be honorable men, through lessons that were his everyday occurrences. Most were not even meant for our eyes. One of those instances was watching him stop on the side of the gravel road leading to our house and sort through a bag of household trash someone had dumped, until he found an envelope with a name. We went home, where he immediately called the county sheriff. We then took garbage bags back to the dumping spot. We were still sacking up the garbage, when the deputy arrived. Dad showed him the envelope and they talked quietly. We loaded the bags into the truck and headed to our own burning barrel. Within the hour the doorbell rang. Dad answered the door to the deputy and we followed him to his car. He opened the back door and out stepped a young man. Embarrassment and shame made it difficult to raise his head to eye level of my nine-year-old self. The weight of his petty littering was an anvil on him. The deputy proceeded to tell him that my father had cleaned up his mess and how no one should be too lazy to take care of their own garbage. Deputy Golden asked my father what he thought would be a good punishment. Dad said he didn’t want him punished, he just thought he needed a good lesson in right and wrong. For the first time, the young man raised his eyes to meet my father’s. He apologized for what he had done, thanked my father for cleaning up his mess and shook his hand with the promise it would never happen again. I never knew if that young man kept his promise, but I can assure you those young eyes of mine learned a lesson in responsibility, accountability and forgiveness that no Sunday school lesson could ever teach.
The lone breaking of a limb brought me back to the here-and-now. I froze and began scanning my peripherals. All other sounds quieted. My tensed muscles released when I heard the yelp. “Heeeup.” I knew I hadn’t heard a shot, so it wasn’t the need of someone to drag his deer. Was something wrong? Was he in need of help? I jumped up and turned the direction I heard the yelp come from and I saw an orange hat wave from behind a large tupelo tree. I yelped back and he stepped out. He said he was afraid the cracking stick would get him shot, because he just knew I was probably asleep. And then he flashed that smile that let you know he was messing with you. He came over and asked if he could hunt with me because, in his words, “some idiot that doesn’t know shucks from pignuts about deer hunting was sitting with his back to one of the best deer crossings in these bottoms”. After we settled in on opposing sides of the cypress, I poured him a hot cup of coffee from my thermos. He sipped and we started talking. Deer hunting was over, because a father and a son were connecting on a level that so many of us long for in this day and time. Not to mention the regrets and wishes for those chances that can never be. We began talking about this old cypress tree spot. He told me the background of when they found it and he told me about this being my Uncle Frank’s favorite spot. There were mentions of times spent hunting with him and of the times that he sat with his dad on deer hunts. We talked of the past and the future, as if they were one. We laughed at the untold embarrassments that had happened to each of us while out in these woods. He was the master storyteller. There was no need for a stage or an audience. Sitting in these woods was all the catalyst that was needed to set his tongue ablaze and he proceeded to burn through 60 years of family tales. Time was irrelevant. I wish it could have lasted forever.
I was not sure how long we had been talking, but I noticed he had gotten quiet on his side of the tree. I peeked around and noticed he was shaking.
“Pop, you ok?”
“I’m freezing to death MAP. You got some more coffee?”
“Sure do. Here, put this coat on and I’ll get you a cup.”
I fixed him another cup, as he put on the extra insulated coat. I wasn’t sure what to do or say, so we sat there a bit longer, while the warm coffee gave him some relief. After he finished the cup, I thought it might be best to head out to the boat for lunch.
“Hey, Pop, what say we head back to the boat? I can fix some sandwiches and get some more coffee.”
“Sounds good, MAP. Kind of a wasted hunt, huh? Sure did have fun just sitting out here and talking, though.”
“Me, too, Pop. Best hunt I’ve been on in a while.”
As I helped him up from beside the tree, something had changed. I noticed the hero that I had trailed behind my whole life, looked old. He looked tired and slumped over. It was if that damn cypress tree had drained him of years, right in front of my eyes. The same tree that I had watched all the other old timers waste away from. This tree is a thief of family and I will cuss it daily until I can sneak in under the cover of darkness with a saw and free the unused years of them all. The tree that we thought was a part of us has been a destroyer. I walked along beside my father, trying to fight back the tears, so as not to explain to him why they were there. I was confused, I was hurt and I was mad as hell. None of it mattered. We walked, arm-in-arm, down that same old wooded trail, him leaning on me for balance and me leaning on him for life. We made it out to the clay road and he wanted to stop, just for a second. Even though I was trying hard to mask the flood of emotions on my face, his fatherly wisdom saw the truth. What I thought was anger, he saw as fear.
“You know, MAP, these woods have always been like a church to me. What better way to see God in his creations but to be one standing in the middle of all the beauty he wanted us to see while here on Earth? God has been so good to me and my family. I’ll never forget today. Let’s get to the boat.”
As I sat beside him during the boat ride back to the landing, I realized something important. Those woods were his Church. It was where he would go to find peace and comfort in a maddening world. It was where he could plug in and balance it all. That old cypress tree wasn’t a thief; it was an altar. It held bits of every one of the Poe boys that had rested beside it. It had taken in the stories that were in each of us. It heard the grumblings of misses and the excitement of firsts and heard the prayers mumbled by those of us who had never darkened the door of a proper Sanctuary. It holds our memories. It continues to gather those today, as many grandsons and great-grandsons rest their backs on this same tree. And I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it holds a few of those “heeeups” that we knew so well.
This was the last time my father was in those woods. Hard work took his back and diabetes took his eyes, but there are still bits of him in every covered-over muddy footprint that he left in those bottoms. I count as my dearest and most precious memory, the day I got to spend visiting the Cypress altar for the last time my father walked out of his church. I still visit. I still stop. And I cry. Not out of sadness, but respect. So that I may one day sit and listen to him tell stories again.