Trees of Life

In New Hampshire, twelve sugar maples circle our lawn
so vast it takes Dad on the tractor and me and Mom with wide wooden rakes
to roll the carpet of leaves, knee deep, to the edge of the woods

at the foot of a stand of white birch,
pencil thin trunks, golden yellow leaves,
papery bark I write love notes on

to send to my favorite ever boyfriend
in Alabama, who throws magnolia cones
for his retriever Beau to chase

into the pond, to fetch amidst
the roots of the weeping willow,
though I never cry when we we’re together

under loblolly pines at Chewacla State Park,
midnight blue, we make love
on the splintery picnic table

before I drive south, past orchards
of waxy green orange trees, the car
filled with the scent of wedding blossoms

through a mangrove swamp turning water a tannic brown,
the sun turning me dark like a cup of tea,
the smell of iron primordial

on the coast, I stand on a beach, invisible
in the sun’s glare against sand white as bones,
and hear the palm tree whisper to me.


© 2011, Jane Harkins. All rights reserved.


This morning I wake up late and have to rush to class. I dodge clumps of chatty women and veer wide to avoid a spreading amoeba of prospective students – teenage girls and boys in sleeveless tank tops, shorts and flip-flops, paying varying degrees of attention to their guide. I dance, left-right-left, with one of the disengaged-looking fathers before I stop, meet his eyes, and say, “You lead.” He smiles and steps aside to give me right-of-way.

Ahead I recognize the woman holding open the heavy metal gate for me, and I scoot through onto the public street. Her clothes are summer colorful. Our arms are free to hug each other, to wave goodbye.

My day is filled with this freedom of movement and unhindered choices: if I want to speak up in class, eat lunch outside with the sun on my face.

After dinner I hurry to the auditorium in search of our guest speaker, Masha. She and I find a private hallway where she holds a five-foot square of milky blue cloth. She gathers it in her hands toward the center – shaped like a pill-box hat and sized to fit over a small woman’s head – and holds it up for me.

Islamic women of hot, arid Afghanistan wear such a garment over their clothing. I expect it to be light, made from cotton or linen. I expect material that breathes, but the burqa is thick, for modesty, and slippery as chiffon.

Masha snugs the soft, fitted cloth to my head and lets the gathers fall below my knees. There is a net, the same milky blue, to look through. It is barely the width of my eyes.

I’ve lost my peripheral vision. I barely have any vision at all.

She says, “Did you know Afghan burqas are one-size-fits-all? All of them are this color.”

I feel as if she has said this from far away as I struggle to grasp the enormity of this information: All women. One size. One color.

I move my head and the burqa shifts. I tug the eye mask back into place so I can see out the hole; regardless, my entire world of vision has become a blind spot.

Masha asks, “Are you okay?”

“I’m good.”

She leaves me to begin her speech.

I strain to see through the lace grill, focusing on the door into the auditorium. I can’t see to walk. I tilt forward to peer at the floor, but the flowy sheet billows out and obscures my sight from that angle.

I look straight down inside the cage and realize this is my only unobstructed view. I see my feet, clad in flat, black shoes, my bright red toenail polish hidden like a dirty secret.

I step – peer up – focus through the mask – check down – step forward. Instead of two quick strides I’m reduced to barely a shuffle for fear of bumping into a wall, of tripping and falling. I reach for the door handle, but the fabric slides off my hand, and I can’t grab through it. I finger pinch the material into a handful, peer out, and try again. I’m successful, but I have to stop and tug the eye-way back into place.

Masha is speaking to the audience – hundreds of women and men, in their personally selected attire of scarves and dresses, shirts and slacks, in prints as varied as their personalities – listening to her read the poetry of Afghan women.

I picture the looks on their faces – perhaps annoyed at the rudeness of a latecomer arriving in the middle of our guest’s talk. Perhaps they shift in their seats when they see a person in the foreign garb of a milky blue drape that covers her like the sheet of a ghost.

I stand for a moment to gain my bearings. I’m cautious because I recall stairs ahead, but I can’t see them. I piece together a visual puzzle before each move.

In this halting, awkward fashion I reach an empty seat between two women, friends of mine who don’t know who I am.


© 2012 Jane Harkins. All rights reserved.


Round as a smiling woman’s cheeks,
stacked and nesting
the colanders spoon in the cupboard.
Indifferent to differences
– the glossy yellow plastic mixing it up
with the gleaming metal –
they share their kitchen tales:

Red strawberries in May,
blue berries from Maine,
arugula and buttery Bibb
and spinach – like the best of men –
strong, yet tender.

The littlest sieve hangs by the sink,
bright and shiny as a child’s face,
freshly washed for Sunday school
of dirt and grit and bugs.
Shaped to hold the best in us,
letting go
of those things best not kept.

– Jane

© 2012 Jane Harkins. All rights reserved.

Why Not?

People say, “I’ll try anything once.” A few mean it – eating the hottest habañera pepper, jumping out of a helicopter to ski down a glacier – but most speak glibly. I try not to say it at all, in case someone is of a mind to dare me.

No one dared me to apply for a job at Target. In fact most people I told looked at me like, “What the heck were you thinking?” For a few the words fell right out of their mouths.
I was thinking I needed a job, and being a Human Resources manager didn’t sound so bad, what with the job being a mile from home and I’d get to wear khakis every day. Why the heck not?

So there I was on orientation day, being given the store tour by the bright and perky 22-year-old Chrissy. I’ve been shopping at this store longer than this girl has been alive – and she was going to be my boss.

She led her band of merry tagalongs past the freezer section, through electronics – I didn’t know Target sold iPads – around the toys section that ranged from pale pink baby dolls to green and black camouflaged ground pounders, and by the fitting rooms where Chrissy offhandedly said, “Jane, you’ll fill in here for breaks and lunch.”

My brain was processing this slowly: Jane – You’ll – Fill – In – What?! Did she say ‘Jane’? I’m covering the dressing room? I’m re-hanging women’s bras and re-boxing men’s jockey shorts and folding shirts the teenage girl dropped on the floor as I count hangers and hand out little plastic numbers?

This shock was just making an impression on me as we reached check-out, and this time I distinctly heard Chrissy mention, “Jane, you’ll cover here.”

I made it through class without babbling or breaking down in sobs. The next day I called and told Miss Not-Going-To-Be-My-Boss the job just wasn’t right for me…no matter how short the drive.

I’ve had a few more goofy job misses since then, such as the man who didn’t want to pay me. He liked my work – he just, really, didn’t want to pay me.

So there’s this job interview on Tuesday. In D.C. If I get the job either I’ll have to move or commute two hours each way.

I’ll try anything once.


© 2012 Jane Harkins. All rights reserved.