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July 9, 2024

Wound Paint

WA Hawkins

“Why do we bury people in the ground?”

High-pitch, helium-like, it rises in the dark room. It’s the first question. The first time he’s spoken in weeks.

“Oh, uh. Hmm. You know. I actually don’t know.”

We look it up. I hold the screen above us, the light bright in our eyes, illuminating our bodies clumped together in the bed.

The top results say it’s to stop the smell. To keep the rotting flesh out of sight.

He can’t read them, but I scroll past.

The ones below talk about respecting and honoring the dead. In some cultures, it’s necessary. Part of the journey to the afterlife. Kevurah in Judaism. Dafn in Islam. Sky burials in Tibet — the body left on a mountaintop for the vultures. I don’t read this last one out loud.

“What’s the after-life?”

That’s two. Two things he’s said now.

“Um. So, for some people, it’s a place you go when you die.”

He thinks. His face scrunches, then relaxes.

“Are we one of those people?”

Kid is on a roll.


I’d prepared for a lot of questions. Skimmed some articles. Half-listened to advice. Waiting for this moment, these conversations.

I try to remember what my mom told me after my dad died. Something vague. A better place.

The preview of another search result says something about the cycle of life.

“It’s like, the cycle of life, you know?”

He scratches his leg. I recognize the lines in his forehead, the intensity of his brow. Just like her.

“Kind of like a seed.”

It’s not a question.

“Yeah. Okay. Yeah, like a seed.”

He’s five. He’s working through it. He’s talking. That’s all that matters.

He sits up and looks down at me.

“So it can grow into a tree? A mommy tree?”

Alright, here it is. Don’t fuck it up.

“So. Okay. Yeah. It could. She could.”

He stands up on the bed slow. Rising to mountain pose. His face is dark, beyond the glow of the screen.

“And she’ll grow up, up, up.”

His arms are outstretched goalposts.

“Yeah, buddy. Big and tall. And strong. And always there for you.”

This feels right, but sounds stupid. He would rather her be here now. I know I do.

He puts his hands on his hips. He’s not looking at me.

“And maybe she’ll have huge branches. And big giant leaves. With caterpillars on them. And they’ll turn into criss-ta-lists.”

He sounds it out slow, with a struggle.

“Chrysalis.” I say it slow.


“Good job, buddy.”

“And then they’ll turn into butterflies.”

I realize I’m smiling.

“Yes, beautiful butterflies.”

He sits down. I wrap my arm around him, pull him close.

“And she’ll grow apples. The sour green ones that you like. And you can lay down in the shade from the big leaves. And when you fall in love, you can carve a heart in her trunk.”

He’s not smiling. He looks down at me.

“Will it hurt her?”

This is maybe not the right way to go.

“Well, it could. Maybe. But sometimes love hurts a little. Like when you lose someone, you know?”

He thinks again.

“What if she gets chopped down?”

I got this.

“We can stop it. Me and you. We’ll chain ourselves to her. Protect her.”

He eases into the crook of my arm.

“What about a fire? Like a big wildfire.”

No problem. He loves firefighters.

“We’ll call the fire department.”

He nods.

“So, they’ll come and they’ll spray the fire with giant hoses and put it out before it burns her.”

He lies on my chest. I lock my phone and we’re back in the dark, together.

I feel him pick his head up.

“What’s up?”

He’s looking at me, but I can’t see him.

“Can trees get sick, too?”

Oh, that’s right. I remember my dad spraying a tree that lost a limb in our front yard when I was a kid. Wound paint, to help it heal, he told me.

“That’s a great question. You know, my dad told me about that once.”

He lies his head back down and I tell him the story. About how I thought it was spray paint. How it covered the damaged area to keep the tree from rotting.

I start to tell him that I later learned that wound paint can actually do more harm than good. I lean to the side and look down and see that he’s asleep.