The first stick grew from my belly after my third husband died. Not all my husbands died. Just the third one. I divorced the other two and eventually would have divorced Drosk also. But I can't do it now because they won't let you divorce a dead guy.
Drosk was a huge man, twelve feet tall and weighed over five hundred pounds. But he wasn't strong; I could easily break his grip. The day he fell through the ice we were walking by Lake Shenanigans. It's really more of a pond than a lake, not very deep, but so murky you can't see the bottom. I've never seen a reflection in it, only muddy images like faces looking up at me from just below the surface. I imagine they belong to people whose lives are stuck knee deep in the silt, their arms strapped to their sides by the tangled hairs of swamp growth.
As we wandered by the lake, Drosk kept ducking to avoid the tree limbs that hung like the heads of guilty children over the water. Each time he turned towards me, I would glance at him and blink deliberately, like a fawn. He was very in love with me. Once, when dodging the arm of an oak tree, he turned his head toward the lake and saw a squirrel out on the ice. The squirrel beckoned him, and he paused, staring at it.
I thought I heard the squirrel say, "Come help me, I'm stuck out here and I have all these nuts to bury by night fall. If you don't help me, I won't be able to bury the nuts and my children will die."
Drosk always loved children, so he walked carefully out on the ice. He walked as delicately as a big man can, with the steps of a ballerina who has not yet taken off her ski boots. Just as he reached the squirrel, the ice broke and Drosk fell in. Of course, I'm afraid of squirrels, so I couldn't go to help him.
Instead, I kept yelling at him, "It's not that deep, you can stand up there, just stand up!"
But he was thrashing around and did not hear me. When I yelled louder, the squirrel began throwing nuts at me. One hit me on the head and stung like buckshot. So I ran away.
The next day I saw the first twig. It was a tiny stump in my belly button that caught in the towel as I was drying off from the shower. I thought it was a scab and tried to pick it out, but it wouldn't budge. For days after it continued to grow until it was about a foot long. When I tried to bend it, I could see the bark peeling back and exposing the dried-up inner flesh of a tree. For a week I did not venture out to the coffee shop or the grocery store. Then I ran out of milk. I tried to hide the stick by folding it down inside my waistband, but it wasn't flexible enough. I decided to cut it off. As I opened a cabinet to get the scissors, the door hit my stomach and the stick broke. I was relieved, even though it left a small piece wedged in my belly button. Eventually the scabby bit of wood shriveled, and like a leftover piece of umbilical cord, fell out.
That night I took a good fall down the stairs and spent the following year in bed. One morning, as I lay on the rough wool carpet, I was suddenly aroused by the scandent odors of sweat and linseed oil. I rose and made my way to the balcony where I watched my new neighbor, Trill, in the yard below me, bent over a human sized canvas, flexing his spine and painting an arty thing. The tomcat that Trill owned sat on the fence licking its balls and purring like a lawnmower. Trill brushed his fingers across the picture like a child finger painting at the kitchen table. He lingered on some points and pressed his thumbs deep into the belly of it, then used his fingertips to march around the stapled edges of the canvas.
"Ah," I thought, "a man who knows how to use his hands." The arch in his naked white back was bumpy with vertebrae as he stooped to caress the head of that cat.
After that, each morning I woke to the smell of his sun-toasted human flesh and oil. Spying on him became my daily habit.
One day, Trill's lover visited. She walked into the yard as though she owned it. They concealed themselves inside for the rest of the day. My ears pricked. I wanted to know what kind of lover he was and what sounds he could compel a woman or man to make. But I couldn't hear anything over the noise of the cat perched on the front porch, locked outside and squealing with jealousy.
The next morning, after Trill's lover was gone, the heaviness of my desire bent me over the lip of the porch so that I was exposed, hanging over Trill as he painted. My mouth fell open and drool ran over the wooden rail, falling onto his wet canvas in a gooey blob. Trill looked up, smiled, and still watching me, he squished the spit into the paint, mixing it in the colors. Then, lying on the canvas he rubbed burnt umber into the thin hairs that grew between his nipples. He massaged aqua green into his ankles and heels. Staring up at me, he swam across the colors over and over until he rolled onto his side in fetal position and slept like a postcoital man.
Now I was sure Trill would be mine, so I went downstairs and walked into his yard; he heard me coming and was watching the bottom porch step when my foot touched it. I posed like a model, one hip tilted up, butt out, breast forward. I know I have the voice of a siren, so I used it to ask if he had any paint I could borrow. He laughed but did not speak; I do that to men. Then holding a brush dipped in tangerine paint, he gestured me towards his canvas. I took the brush and splashed paint over the surface, then took markers from my pocket and drew purple and pink dots over his wet paintings, and ruined everything. As he watched me, his irises grew so dark they blended into his pupils, looking like the black dot eyes of comic book characters. Later he took my hand and led me inside. Without washing away the paint from our hands, we made love while the Tomcat sat under the window outside and roared. I had never had sex with a short man before. Trill was barely as tall as me and weighed only a little more. I said we fit together like lipstick in a lipstick case.
"Yes," he said, "we fit well. I can love you for now."
I thought about that for a moment, the words he used, "for now," and then leaving his bed, I went to the kitchen where he stored large gallons of paint. I opened the cadmium yellow. Closing my eyes and holding my breath, I poured it over my naked body. It coated me with a thick skin, staining me yellow. Some of the droplets swan dived from my limbs and splatted on the floor. I opened the can of magenta, let it flow over my shoulder and down one breast, then I added a can of blue to the other breast; it oozed along my hip and pooled at my feet. I opened more paint and more paint, pouring it over myself until it became a rivulet of dull orange that leaked out the door and dribbled off the porch, wandered along the lawn, and blended together until the grass was nothing but brown. Trill came from bed and found me in the kitchen, but he was not angry; I could see that he wanted me again. He took a brush dipped into green paint and began painting himself like a tree. His arms were the smooth branches, his fingers the leaves. His hips became fronds and his feet the roots. Still, the cat stared at us through the window, buzzing like a chainsaw, but we ignored it.
Later, still sticky with paint, we stood stomach to stomach and pressed ourselves together. As the paint dried, we slept.
When Trill woke he told me his dream, that he had seen me with a stick protruding from my body. I said nothing but stared into the black dots that were his pupils; he looked like he'd woken from a nightmare.
We stood, still fused breast to breast, and discovered that our knees bent in opposite directions. I said it was too uncomfortable to walk like that, so Trill doused us in turpentine, making my mascara run, until the paint loosened. He then took his brushes and gently painted my back, like he was petting the head of that cat. As long as I groaned and mewled, he went on stroking me. At last, he laid himself down on my back and slipped himself inside me like a rutting animal until we exhausted ourselves. Then we let the paint dry.
I said, "Now you must love me forever." He stared out the window, the cat was gone, and he nodded as though he agreed.
For three months, six days and fourteen hours we painted as one body, Trill's chest attached to my back. He was still inside me like a lipstick in a lipstick case. The process was this: First I would smear color on the painting, then, as I bent over, Trill's hips fused to my buttocks, his feet lifting off the ground, he'd reach over my shoulder and touch his brush to the palette joining the smeared lines and filling in the hungry spaces.
One day as I was bowed forward with his little body poised above mine, the big Tomcat padded into the yard, sat, and hunched over, began licking itself. Trill watched it, mesmerized in a way I found very annoying, so I took the brush from his fingers, which were sprinkled with bird's egg blue paint dust, and continued where he had left off. I didn't notice when he peeled himself from the shell of my back until I saw him near the sidewalk. He sat down next to the cat stroking its fur over and over.
Ruby colored drops fell on the ground around my feet. I was confused at the dots of paint sprinkling near my feet until I realized it was blood oozing from the open tears on my back, spreading down my hips and catching in the lines of flesh behind my knees.
I thought, "That is going to scab for sure."
Then a river of blood, the color of dirty pond water in a moat, poured from me, filled the yard and grew deep and wide between me and Trill. The flow lapped against the raised sidewalk in tiny waves and pushed up to Trill holding the cat. Ripples of rust-colored liquid slipped up Trill's ankles and engulfed his legs, quickly rising like the tide, higher, to his waist, but he didn't notice, he was preoccupied caressing the cat. The cat looked at me once, then turned its ass to me and flicked its tail.
I screamed at Trill, "It's not that deep, just stand up and walk to me."
The tomcat purred in a roar, like a coffee grinder spitting up grains, so Trill couldn't hear me.
I yelled again, "You can stand up there, just stand up!"
Oblivious to me, he did stand up. He picked up the cat and waded away from me, off the lip of the yard and out into the street, trailing bloody footprints.
When Trill did not come back that night, I went inside the house and lay on my back on the floor to staunch the bleeding. That's when I noticed the branch. It was a little leaf, a tiny green fringe clinging to the skin inside my belly button. I pulled at it, but its roots gripped my organs and left a deep ache in my bones. Tugging at it even lightly made my throat close and I choked and struggled for air. Pressing against it shot a buzz of pain up my spine.
After that I stayed in my house, I did not want to go out until the branch had dried up and fallen away like the crust of a half-eaten pie. I spent all of July clipping the twig every morning. If I forgot, it grew overnight, thicker and stronger so that I worried I would need an ax. For the month of August I tried not feeding it, but it thrived on nothing more than water, and I was too thirsty not to drink. In September I poisoned it with evil thoughts, but trees cannot hear, so it continued to spring from the root of me and wave its single branch in the breeze of my warm breath and kept on growing.
I could not kill it, so I have resigned myself to the twig; I will no longer cut it. I will lay in the backyard to give my bellybutton tree some sun. I will not rise from there and the tree will grow deep and tall. Its roots will break through my flesh, twist past my stomach and curve around my body like living ropes. It will spiral the neck of me tighter and tighter and tighter.