It was far colder than I expected it to be. I walked quickly, into the breeze that carried the whooshing of the water from the nearby creek. I pulled my cocoon of sweatshirts closer and wondered which was more chilling, the late-winter breeze or the sound of the winter water. As I followed the creek, its gurgling sotto voce mimicked my rapid pace.
I had walked there many times, listening intently to the creek’s susurrant mystical language, unintelligible to me yet tantalizingly wordlike. It was always trying to tell me something that I couldn’t understand.
The trees along the banks were brown and bare, crowded as though seeking warmth from each other, lifting as one supplicant bony fingers to the featureless white sky. Except for one, which mutely called to me. I stopped, puzzling. Then slowly, over spongy early-spring ground, with a mysterious sense of presence, I approached it. The creek ran smooth there, silky and subdued.
That tree was darker than the others, and it wasn’t just beseeching; it was screaming. Long thorns burst from its branches and a spiral of thorns entwined it. How had I not seen its pain before, and why did it seem familiar to me? It was at once new and known. Why? What was it? The winter-bound trees stretching their scraggly fingers to the pallid sky, the black tree with its girdle of thorns – they settled in me and unsettled me. What was it?
I continued on my walk, chilled in a different way, slowed, turning again and again to look back at that tree as it gradually receded into the wooded tangle, assuming its previous anonymity. What was it?
Days later it came: Dachau. The memorial sculpture. The same frozen reaching, the same silent screams, the same motionless writhing. In the background the ovens I would not walk through. I had had no thought of encountering such a thing on my walk. I wasn’t looking for it. But there it was and will be, every leafless February.
How is it that some things in our daily landscapes are suddenly seen with a new eye? How is it that something so obvious – like pain – can be hidden? Were these the mysteries carried in the current of the creek?
The Dachau agonies and the cold trees grasped at the same indifferent sky. By accident or design that I saw the one in the other? No matter. Enough that I did.
- Maureen O’Hern
Maureen O’Hern is a former English teacher, a botanical artist, a graduate of Purdue University and a member of the Indiana Writers Center.