ANSON, Texas -- A couple of weeks ago, Marce Suarez had just about had enough of a low-hanging limb. Every time he rode his tractor near a particular old mesquite tree, the branch would either whack the muffler or knock his cap off.
Suarez owns 50 acres along U.S. 180 about 3 1/2 miles west of Anson. In a good year -- or at least a normal year with rain -- he grows small crops of watermelon, cantaloupe and squash. He sells them on a roadside stand next to his house, which he estimates to be nearly 100 years old.
But this tree limb was really getting under his skin. It was time to do something about it.
"I was going to cut it off with my chain saw and it wouldn't start," he said.
Undeterred, he went for another tool. "I got a handsaw and the blade wouldn't go through the wood," he said.
There was only one option left -- brute force.
"I tied a chain to it and dragged it off with my tractor," he said.
The limb snapped off the 50-year-old tree with a tremendous cracking sound. He gunned the engine and dragged the flopping branch out to a pasture.
It was when he came back that he couldn't believe what he saw: an image of the Virgin Mary in the wood of the tree where the limb had come off.
"I started telling my friends and they started coming over here, and they all said they saw the same thing," he said.
Where the limb snapped off, the texture of the tree is revealed in concentric lines that suggest the profile of someone with his or her head bent.
A discoloration in the wood might resemble dark hair, and Suarez said a pattern in the grain depicts the Virgin Mary's hands closed in prayer.
Father Mike Melcher has been the priest at St. Michael Catholic Church in Anson for five years. He said this was his first experience with an apparition like this.
"It looks like an image of a woman, but is it an image of Mary? That's not for me to determine," he said. "I don't offer my opinion, each person has their own faith and each person knows what they believe in."
If something reminded a person of Mary, the mother of Jesus, he said, there was nothing wrong with that.
"If they see something that supports their faith, you know, I think it's a good thing," Melcher said.
Suarez said he isn't sure what to make of it
"I don't know, that's what I can't figure out," he said. "We just think about it. It kind of gives us a good feeling, it's a sign of something."
He built a small shrine before the tree. Plastic flowers wave beneath the exposed mesquite.
There is a place for the devoted to kneel and pray. Suarez said he uses the shrine himself.
"We've been praying for rain, we've been praying for our health," he said. "We're old people now, we're close to 70, both me and my wife, so we pray for our health, for our kids."
He said about 30 people have come by to see it -- they arrive after Sunday services or before and after work.
"Some ladies called this morning to ask if it was OK to come look at it," he said. "I said, 'Go ahead, it's an open house.' "
In the past, Suarez said he always felt protected by something. In wetter years, he would watch thunderstorms pile up in the southwest sky as they threatened his little farm.
Just when it seemed they would hit, the storm would dissipate mysteriously and produce only rain.
When asked whether maybe it's because of the tree, Suarez shrugged. Maybe it was the tree, maybe not.
"A lot of people say they can't figure out how it appeared there," he said. "And it's been there all this time because the minute I pulled the branch off, it came right out." It made him wonder what the future has in store.
"Something good might happen to us, something bad might be coming," he said. "If it brings a little peace to us, maybe it will help."