The flowering dogwood is the state flower of both North Carolina and Virginia. The name is thought to have come from the English dog-tree, which itself was once dag-tree, as in dagger, as the thin, hard limbs were once used as butchers’ skewers. Dogwood fares poorly in variable environments, requiring steady water availability and nutrient levels. Indeed, it is affectionately likened to a small child: difficulty adjusting, noticeable stench. It is a deciduous tree that thrives in humidity; its roots are shallow and dry out easily. This is a lesson: survival is sometimes but not always a matter of surfacing.
The summer I realize what I have to do, the dogwood in my front yard dies. I had planted it myself, four years earlier, dug the hole in the afternoon, and I uproot it myself, too, the motion of me and the shovel an echo of that planting.
The dogwood is unique in its beauty. Its white flowers are not, in fact, “true” flowers; its velvety petals are actually modified leaves called bracts that surround a central yellow-green flower head. In addition, the flowers are bisexual, meaning they have both male and female reproductive organs, yet the tree is gametophytically self-incompatible, meaning it cannot pollinate itself. The tree instead relies on pollinators including bees, flies, and beetles. It is for this reason that the dogwood smells so famously terrible, releasing a scent people have likened to semen, as the musty odor is attractive to these insects and thus integral to the trees’ survival.
The summer I realize what I have to do I am sleeping with someone new. It is June in North Carolina so it is oppressively humid, and though we only fuck in my air-conditioned house or hers I always come up sweating, unsticking my limbs from hers. She has a tattoo that wraps around her upper arm, two hands meeting in agreement near her triceps, their wrists transformed into a string of flowers by her bicep. I am entranced by the blossoms, blue and bruise-like in their consistency against that soft spot of skin; every time we have sex I lower myself to kiss them. I am drunk most of the time. It is the only way I can take my clothes off, alcohol making my body alien to myself. In August I get a band of dogwood flowers tattooed around my own arm. The artist presses too hard at times and the lines of ink I bleed through will still be raised over a year later. This isn’t exactly the point, what I have to do, not yet; I just want a body I can survive and a wound that blooms.
What I have to do is begin again. What I have to do is admit I’ve been buried. What I have to do is convince a therapist that I’m a boy to convince an endocrinologist to write me a prescription that I have to convince myself to inject an inch and a half deep into my thigh twice a month. It never hurts at first; only hours after does it ache. The ache spreads, viscous in its migration, oily hormones slipping down the striations of skeletal muscle and into the bloodstream to be torn apart by enzymes and metabolized over two weeks. The wound is tiny, nearly imperceptible. Little more than a drop of blood follows the needle when I pull it out. After a few weeks I think my face is slightly fuzzier, downy hair blooming across my cheeks and above my lip. It is supposed to hurt to become and yet the ache always fades.
Legend holds that the cross on which Jesus died was fashioned from dogwood. Though there is no Biblical reference to this myth it is a compelling story: the dogwood then of “stately size and lovely hue,” condemned by Christ for its use at the crucifixion. As he promises in the poem, “never again shall the dogwood grow / large enough to be used so…cherished and protected, this tree shall be / a reminder to all of My agony.” The petals of the blossoms, two short and two long, represent the cross; their pure white is marred at the edges with a stain the rusty shade of old blood. Biblical scholars reject this legend, brush it off as a pretty poem, cite the fact that the dogwood does not grow naturally in Israel, and so the blossoms’ beauty is in some ways an echo of an imagined pain, unrecognized.