Madonna was lost in the woods. The air, thick with fog, smelled of damp earth, and she tripped over underbrush she could not see. Then she heard the noise, an unearthly sort of moan. She followed the sound until coming to a clearing. A man knelt in the grass nearby. The light was poor, everything in the forest shades of greenish gray, and he was so still she at first mistook him for a tree stump. There was that haunting cry again, the sound causing the very marrow in her bones to expand until she feared they would shatter. The man was hunched over, every line of his body mirroring the agony she endured. He clutched his dark hair, ripping it out in clumps. She knew those hands.
“Carl?” she said softly.
As he stood, turning, the landscape around him changed. The clearing widened, drawing him further from her. A house was far off to her left, a man and woman standing together a short distance away. They were indistinct, featureless, their hair and clothes billowing in the wind. The sky threatened over them, but where she stood she saw the sun’s rays strike Carl’s face. She took in a sharp breath. It was his painting. He reached out for her, inviting her in.
She suspected he would vanish when they touched. He always did in dreams. His lips were soft, gentle, but this was not enough. Torn between her desire to encourage and punish, she raked her fingers through his hair, pulling his closer. His grip tightened, crushing her, but it didn’t matter; she no longer required air. She barely noticed the strange tugging sensation in her feet at first, the perception of being slowly swallowed by the earth. When she no longer felt her legs, she broke the kiss, gasping. Her torso had fused into a trunk. She looked up at him, wide-eyed; what had moments ago felt and tasted like skin had hardened into bark. His face was a cluster of wooden knots, her hand nothing but a clump of leaves brushing against him. Yet his voice was still clear in her mind. “We're fused at the root, Madonna. How long must I wait for you to see it?”
In The Oak Lovers, Carl Ahrens’ words transform Madonna from the young and proper step-daughter of an Episcopal priest into an unrepentant home wrecker. For me they were damned inconvenient.
You see, the dream was mine first. Even now, a year later, I can remember how that forest smelled, how my feet tangled in the underbrush. I can still hear that haunting cry, trapped between a moan and a scream, though the pain is an indistinct memory now. At the time I felt it deep in my bones, worse than childbirth. Had a tubercular hip felt like that, I wondered? Is that why I assumed the man pulling at his hair was my great-grandfather? Yet the voice that whispered his name wasn’t my own, the wisps of hair blowing across my field of vision were dark where I’m decidedly blond. The man turned and the resemblance to Carl ended at his height. I was disappointed. He often appeared in my dreams, but always at a distance, and he had never heard me when I spoke.
As the scenery changed my pain turned to longing, a longing so intense it was terrifying. The man before me was a conglomerate of several men who had starred in my daydreams over the years, but the emotions inspired by the sight of him were deeper than desire, than sex, than anything I’d ever imagined. I approached him with a sense of dread, fearing he’d disappear, fearing that I’d destroy him, or that if I touched him I’d be bound to him forever. His embrace would be unrelenting; I would live a life of slow strangulation. Yet the alternative would be an eternity of feeling nothing at all. There could be no one else, no in between. He reached out in invitation, waiting, and I didn’t hesitate. After my flesh hardened into bark, I woke, choking on my own tears. Thankfully, my husband was on a business trip at the time.
Further sleep out of the question, I sat in front of a photo of Madonna taken in 1904, shortly before Carl left his wife and three children to reunite with her in
. The photograph had always disturbed me; her expression was sullen, her stare penetrating, accusatory, a woman captured in a moment of profound, yet private, suffering. Had she sent this photograph to him he would have seen the question in her eyes – Why have you not come for me? – and been on the next train. Perhaps that is why the photo was saved. Or perhaps it was because she had a second question, this one directed at me. Why have you written our story as though he was the only one who struggled? New York
She had a point. Early drafts show a man tormented by desire and an admiring young girl too innocent to realize the object of her childish infatuation adores her. Their flirtations are restrained, chaste, except for a stray thought or two on his part. It didn’t work because she wasn't free to behave as a girl in love would. In giving Madonna her decidedly unchaste dream back, as I felt I must, I had to rewrite a good fifty pages to keep the tone consistent. (That’s what was damn inconvenient!) The effort was well worth it, though. The emotional stakes are much higher now that Madonna openly gazes at Carl, brushes against him at every opportunity, and becomes territorial if anything infringes on their time together. It is far more dangerous for a man to toe the line between flirtation and seduction with a girl whom he knows could not find it in herself to refuse.
Throughout the re-writes, the painting from my dream continued to haunt me. Surely I had seen it; the details were too clear to have imagined. I rifled through old auction records, newspaper articles, magazine articles, stopping short when I found it. The composition was a perfect match, though the black and white photocopy was of such poor quality I couldn’t imagine having given it more than a glance before. The Coming Storm, it was called, and it was featured in an article from 1904. Perhaps I should have been shocked by the date, or by the fact that it was displayed at the Macbeth Galleries in
, a place Madonna would surely have gone to see it during their separation. Instead I simply whispered, “Thank you.” New York
Note: All art shown in this post is Carl’s, though it is cropped to show his oak lovers. To see more, please visit my website.