Year of the Tree
Margo and I were twelve years old when Mama started turning into a tree. Nobody wanted it to happen, but Mama would be the first to say that life’s not about what you want. It’s about what you do with what you’re given. And then, how you protect it.
It’s easy to look back and think, of course, she was meant to be a tree all along. Could be something went haywire when the universe first made her: fingers instead of leaves, lips instead of fruit. The earth had all the ingredients and simply mixed them wrong. She was six feet tall with flaxen skin and hair like a willow’s. Margo and I clung to her like shelf mushrooms siphoning nutrients from bark. My earliest memory is of looking out from the fortress of her paisley skirt, holding her legs like the wind might carry me clean off the earth if I dared let go.
She was a strong woman—tough and stubborn as an Osage orange. When Margo and I were just little shrimps forming eyes and fingers in her tummy, she murdered our father—puffed out his lights like you’d puff the downy soul from a dandelion. She said she did it for us, her daughters, so that we would not have to share the earth with him. She said she did it with a vial of purple liquid made from Octopus ink and cow spit, a drop of water extracted from the hump of a Bactrian camel. She wrote a note in his handwriting and told the authorities it was suicide.
When we were old enough, she fed us stories about our father: the time he pressed a hot iron into her spine as she slept in bed; the time he took scissors to her hair because he caught her chatting with the postman for too long in a skirt that was too short; the time he told her he’d kill Margo and me before we took our first breath of air because he had an idea that we belonged to another man. He was waiting to see our eyes.
“If it’s no good, kill it,” Mama told us. “If it’s hurting you, hurt it back.”
Sometimes I’d think about this when Margo squeezed honey sticks into my hair or stole my shoes, when she made fun of the way I walked or said I’d never learn how to read because when we were in Mama’s stomach she took all the nutrients and left me to starve. She’d sucked the smarts straight from my brain, like a milkshake through a straw.
It was true, Margo was brighter. Got good grades and could read at a 12th grade level. But Mama said smarts weren’t everything. She said I had a heart like a lighthouse and a smile like a sunrise—precious words I clutched each time Margo hurt my feelings. Which she did, often. If my soul were the night sky, each star was another tiny place where she’d hurt me.
The transformation started with Mama’s feet. It was early evening in winter, the moon a luminous mole head on the horizon. We were all in the living room, watching a nature show about animals that eat their own kind in times of famine. We were comfortable, all wool socks and blankets and mugs of mint tea. Margo and Mama shared a dark blue quilt. Our dog, Poppy, lay across my lap.
At commercial break, Margo looked over and said, “Mama, you’ve got roots showing!”
Mama frowned, touched her fingers to the dark part in her hair. “Can’t be. I just had a dye job.”
Margo shook her head, said, “Not there. There,” and pointed to Mama’s bare feet, where little leaves, no larger than postal stamps, broke forth from the skin between her toes.
A pained look on her face, Mama got up and retrieved a pair of toenail clippers. One by one, she snipped each sprout from her foot. Began to whistle something that sounded like the Hebrew prayer for the dead.
“Mama, how do you whistle?” I asked. I’d been trying to learn—the kids at school could all do it. One kid could even clasp his hands together and do a loon call. Seemed I was the only one who couldn’t figure it out, and I wondered constantly if there was something wrong with the shape of my mouth or if there was some secret trick that nobody would tell me.
“Just purse your lips like you’re about to give a kiss,” Mama said. She made a circle with her mouth and an invisible stream of music came through the little star of space—another sad song. Like something you’d sing to the darkness if you were lost in the woods.
I pursed my lips and blew as hard as I could. Nothing came out but air.
“Don’t bother,” Margo told me. “You’ll just blow out all the air in your head.”
Mama didn’t hear this. She was too busy whistling, clipping away the remaining roots. When she didn’t think we were looking, she wiped away a tear.
It had happened to our great-grandmother, decades ago, in Europe. We all knew the story. Mama told it every year, on Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish equivalent of Earth Day. It was really more like a birthday for the trees. On this day, no matter when they were planted, trees grew another year older.
Our great-grandmother’s story started when she went to a camp, but not the kind with swimming lessons and sloppy Joes. This camp had a name like sandpaper. It was cold and hard and sharp as a rose thorn. The days like fangs, chomping around her.
Our great-grandmother had a family, but now, in the camp, she was alone. The last time she saw her daughters—one of whom would grow up to be our mother’s mother, our grandmother Ida—had been as the two girls boarded a ship for the United States. The last time she saw her husband, he had been boarding a train car going North. She was forced into one going South.
For her, it also started with a root, a tiny tangle of brown and green. Day by day, she sprouted more limbs. More leaves. Tiny fruits that her bunkmates would pluck prematurely, too hungry to wait for the small, bitter buds to grow larger, sweeter, more nutritious. Still, she and her friends grew stronger than the women in the other bunks. They could hold their heads higher, sing louder. Work faster.
At night, our great-grandmother would pluck berries from the space between her breasts, her thighs—secret places where nobody else dared to reach. She would pop a berry into her mouth, suck on it until sunrise. A tiny point of pleasure dissolving on her tongue. This, our mother explained, was how our great-grandmother kept going.
For Mama, the birds came in the spring. They set twigs onto her shoulder, trying to build nests. Mama didn’t mind—she liked birds—although sometimes the ragweed made her sneeze. She liked seeing the variety, the combinations the earth had come up with. Green birds, black birds, white birds with skinny beaks and webbed feet the color of cantaloupe. A hawk tried to nest once, but it was too big. Frustrated, it flew onto the roof and took a big, white crap that dripped down onto the deck for hours.
“Not the most polite way to react,” Mama said, “but I can’t blame her. She’s just looking for somewhere to rest.”
Meanwhile, Margo put a stick into the hawk’s mess and was rubbing some of it onto the back of my shirt. “Quit it,” I said, trying to swat her away. I must have said it too loudly because a robin took off from Mama’s shoulder. It went fluttering away, accidentally kicking one of her perfect blue eggs to the ground.
“Look what you did,” Mama said, gesturing to the splattered egg. “That was a whole life. Gone to nothing.” Bits of blue confetti floated in a pool of clear liquid. There was something else too, rubbery and the color of flesh.
“I didn’t mean to,” I said, my voice cracking.
“It’s all right, Sugar,” Mama said. She took my hand and pulled me to her. A smell of rain and feathers. “I know you didn’t mean to.”
Meanwhile, Margo stood over the egg, calmly stirring the ooze with her stick.
In time, our great-grandmother grew a flower so lovely that at night, everyone in her bunkhouse would gather around to admire it, like it was a campfire or a newborn baby. The flower had pearlescent white petals inscribed with delicate pink swirls, streaks of violet like silken fleur-de-lis. Flowers within flowers within flowers. The tiny lines of color formed an illegible love note.
The flower grew from the skin on the back of her neck, where her dark curls had fallen before they shaved her head. Our great-grandmother had been vain about her hair. Now, she was vain about the flower. During the day, she tucked it into her smock and tied a scarf around her head, hoped that none of the guards would notice.
Every day, she worried it would break, that she would return to her bunk to find it crumpled or broken. And yet every day, it seemed to grow stronger, the glorious petals thickening to the size of artichoke leaves. It began to give off wonderful fragrances: in the morning it smelled like a garden, in the late afternoon, like a forest after a rainstorm. Her favorite time was the very middle of the night, when she would rouse from the dark navel of sleep and discover that the air was filled with the distinct scent of the rosewater lotion her daughters used to apply after their baths.
Summer afternoons, Mama liked to sit on the porch and read the local obituaries. Aside from the funnies, this was the only part of the paper she could tolerate. Occasionally, she’d look over the weather forecast, but most of the time she just looked up and read the clouds, her long freckled legs up on the table, cucumber water condensing in a glass.
One day, when we were all sitting around the porch, she read us the obituary of a little girl who had died from leukemia. She was ten years old. “Cancer’s a funny thing,” Mama said, running a finger along the little girl’s black and white photograph.
When we didn’t say anything, she made a small humming sound and kept on reading. Eventually she came across an even darker story, about a teenaged boy who died in a house fire. His older brother survived because his dad went back into the house, through walls of flames, and scooped the older boy from his bed.
“Can you believe that?” Mama said. “Knowing you saved one child and not the other?”
“Maybe his room was closer,” Margo said, and then picked a piece of bark from Mama’s knee. She then fed it to Poppy, who spat it back up onto the porch.
I did the same, but my piece was bigger. Shaped like Oklahoma.
“Don’t do that, honey bun,” Mama told me. “It hurts me.”
“You didn’t say anything when Margo did it.”
She looked at me, her brow furrowed. “Well, I didn’t feel it when Margo did it.”
One morning, our great-grandmother woke to discover that the beautiful flower had sprouted a fruit so lovely that nobody dared to touch it, despite everyone’s increasing hunger.
The fruit was the most beautiful thing anyone had ever seen—it was round and plump and heavy with juice. The size of an ostrich egg. More impressive was its color—a rich, lambent blue, the Jewish holy color. The color of hope itself. Nothing else in the world was like it: not sky or sea or the flash of a German eye.
Every day, our grandmother and her friends watched the fruit grow bigger, their hearts salivating more than their mouths. They were waiting. For what, they couldn’t be sure, but they could feel that something would happen. The fruit was a promise. It would bring them something wonderful, if only they were patient. Luckily, they had become very good at being patient.
One morning, at breakfast, we discovered a lemon growing from Mama’s shoulder. Just an ordinary lemon—nothing to fear.
“Would you look at that?” Mama said, and squeezed the yellow globe. It wasn’t ripe yet.
Margo gagged—she hated lemons. They made her tongue itch. “Why couldn’t you make something good, like strawberries?” Margo asked.
“Strawberries don’t grow on trees, dumb butt,” I said.
“Be nice to your sister,” Mama snapped. “She’s the only one you have.”
“I wish I could trade mine in for a better model,” Margo said. “This one’s so dumb she can’t even use a fork right.”
She’d caught me. I was holding my fork like a hammer, something the kids in school had started to tease me about. They said I ate like a hillbilly, but doing it any other way felt wrong. I tried other ways, but the food would fall off. Same with using a pencil. I just couldn’t seem to work it right—like my hand belonged to someone else. Like it was a foreign entity working against me.
I looked to Mama but she wasn’t paying attention. She was stroking the lemon, as if it were a songbird come to perch on her shoulder.
In time, other fruits began to grow: apples, bananas, figs. Mama baked anything she could think of: pies, cakes, tarts, taffies. A month passed in which she never removed her oven mitts, except to take a shower or scratch Margo’s back.
In time, mason jars of peach and blackberry jam filled the cupboards. Custards and puddings crowded the fridge. Mama wanted Margo and me to go around the neighborhood, giving these treats away. We agreed, even though we’d never liked the neighbors. One of them, a little girl named Elsa, once told us that our Mama was a liar. Her mom said that our father wasn’t really dead, but that he’d left us when Mama was pregnant. That he’d seen Mama coming out of a strange truck with her shirt on backwards, hair going a thousand directions. That he’d gathered his things that night and flown away, to another state.
Typical Margo, she punched Elsa in the gut and told her that her mother was a lying pig out to slander our family name. Eventually word got around the neighborhood that Margo and I were wild children who’d punch anyone who looked at us funny.
Margo and I pretended to go door to door, but we never knocked. Instead we took the treats for ourselves, gorging by the creek that ran outside the neighborhood. We licked jam from our fingers, picked crumbs from each other’s hair. Tried to ignore the fact that we were having fun together.
“You think Mama’s really turning into a tree?” I asked Margo. The creek was clear as ice. Above, you could hardly see the sky through the cottonwoods.
“Can’t be sure,” Margo said. “Didn’t happen to Grandma.”
“But it happened to Great-Grandma.”
“Maybe it skips a generation?”
When I realized what this could mean, something bubbled up inside me—a feeling between relief and disappointment. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to be a tree. To escape the world of people.
“What’ll we do if she does turn into a tree?” I asked. “Who’ll take care of us?”
Margo looked up, scratched the skin beneath her nose. “Who knows? Anything could happen. Maybe a tree will turn into Mama.”
“But if that doesn’t happen? If it’s just you and me?”
Margo dunked a finger into a jar of boysenberry custard, brought it to her lips. “We’ll have to take care of each other. That’s all.”
The termites came after Halloween. Mama was embarrassed. They made her head itch so bad that eventually her hair fell clean out, left her bald as the moon and twice as pretty.
“Do I still look like a woman?” she asked us.
“Of course,” Margo said.
“The prettiest one in the world,” I added.
Still, she cried thin rivers of sap, so that when she went outside the cottonwood fluff stuck to her cheeks.
Once, a butterfly landed right by her nose. It sat there so long that its little feet got caught in her tears. It was so beautiful all Mama could do was stare at it, cross-eyed, too afraid that touching it would kill it. Eventually it died right there, beneath her eyes, its orange wings pumping and then suddenly still.
This only made her cry harder, her sticky tears entombing the bug like amber.
For our great-grandmother, the end came quickly, without warning.
One night, a young guard pulled her from her bunk and took her outside into the winter night. Snow was falling. Their breath formed ghosts that waltzed together before drifting apart.
The soldier started kissing her neck and squeezing her legs, which had once been strong but were now thin, her skin pale and dry as aspen bark. Our great-grandmother prayed that he wouldn’t reach behind her head, but of course this is where his fingers soon travelled. His hand clamped around her throat.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“It’s nothing,” she told him. “It’s a growth, a sign of disease.” She explained that the women in her bunk were so malnourished that strange things were happening to everyone. One woman had lost all of her fingernails. Another had gone blind. But the soldier knew better. He tore the fruit from its stem and ate it in three gigantic bites, laughing all the while.
“It tastes like summer,” he said. “It tastes like G-d himself.”
Back in her bunk, our great-grandmother fell to the floor. She wept and wept, telling the other women what had happened, how the soldier had eaten her fruit.
Within minutes, she began to harden. Waxy vines shot forth from her fingers and coiled around whatever they could find: her bunk’s wooden railing, the arms and legs of other women. Roots emerged from the bottoms of her feet and found purchase in the dirty ground of the bunkhouse.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she kept repeating, tears in her eyes. “I don’t want to leave you. I want to stay. I should have killed him before he touched me.”
The others told her to hush. She had done nothing wrong.
By Shabbat, she was fastened to the ground, a permanent fixture of the earth. The other women wept, their tears watering our great-grandmother’s roots.
For Mama, the end came softly, in pastels.
After the first snowfall, clusters of clover and star-shaped flowers sprouted on her ankles, her neck, her hands. Spring flowers a season early—a glitch. A gift.
We would take her wrists and inhale as deeply as we could. Margo liked the pink flowers best, but I preferred the white ones. One night, while Mama was sleeping, Margo picked all the white ones and threw them onto my pillow. I said nothing, simply put them in a glass bowl of water.
The next morning, bees broke into the house and hovered around Mama’s throat like tiny, malicious blimps. Mama told us not to mind them. “They won’t sting unless they feel threatened,” she told us. “Like anything else.”
Still, we knew they were a sign of the end. We eyed them suspiciously, as if their tiny black stingers were pens that would sign her away to the earth.
“You girls remember your Grandma Ida?” she asked us one night. The bees were still orbiting her head.
Margo and I nodded. We’d met our grandmother just once, when we were seven years old. She drove down from her house in the mountains and gave us each a stack of books and a crocheted scarf. She looked nothing like our mother. She had short dark hair and eyes the color of a mud pie.
“When I’m gone, she’s going to come for you. Don’t let her take you. Make her come here. Understand? That way I’ll always be with you. I’ll always be close by.”
Margo and I nodded, tears in our eyes.
“But you’re not really going to leave us, are you?” Margo asked.
“We’ve all got to go eventually,” Mama said. “That’s just the way it works.”
I grabbed hold of her hand and squeezed. When I let go, there was dirt on my palm.
Our great-grandmother never knew the end of her own story.
In the morning, the other women woke to find that she was heavy with fruit. A different kind on each limb: oranges, apples, cherries, bananas, a handful of avocados plump as grenades. The women couldn’t believe it. They cried a new kind of tear. Then they ate and ate until their tongues burned with sugar and citrus, until their stomachs went quiet for the first time in months.
Only later did they hear the news: that same morning, a guard was found stiff as a board in his bunk. Eyes open. Fingers cold. Blue juice running from his lips.
Mama was in the ground by January, three days before Tu B’Shvat and a month before Margo and my thirteenth birthday. Cicadas clicked at her heels and citrus hung from her boughs like ornaments. If she could have talked, she would have told us to eat. “You’re growing girls,” she would have said. But she was without sound. This was what I missed most—her voice. I tried to hear her in my head, telling stories. Telling Margo and me to get along. That was all she ever wanted, for us to get along.
Some days we’d go sit at her feet and just talk to her. Every so often a breeze would come by, mess up her hair. Make her laugh. If the wind was strong enough, she’d cough up a curtain of leaves. They’d fall on top of us, like so many love letters. We’d collect the biggest ones and press them between the pages of books.
Now, when the thunderstorms come, Margo and I hold our breath. Pray the lightning away. During the day, we find ourselves eying the yard, talking to her through the window, shouting obscenities at the woodpeckers and squirrels.
We’ve taught ourselves to bake and take turns making each other sweets. Cookies and cupcakes and tartlets and pies. Sometimes we share them with the neighbors. They know that Mama is gone. They’ve told the authorities but every time they come by—men in suits with leather briefcases—we tell them that our mother has simply gone out to run an errand, or that she’s out in the city, visiting a friend. For some reason, they always believe us. There’s something about the way we look, the way we talk, that makes everybody believe what we say.
Like Mama said, Grandma Ida called us a few days after it happened—said she would come get us so we could live with her in the mountains. We told her no, that we wouldn’t leave Mama. We argued and cried and eventually she gave in, said she’d come to us as soon as she could. She needed time to get things in order. Time to say her good-byes.
For now, Margo and I wait. When we sleep, we sleep in the same bed. Margo takes my hand or I take hers. Poppy the dog curls at our feet. We stay this way through the night—holding onto each other. Pulling each other from the dark well of nightmares.
One night, not long ago, I thought I saw a caterpillar chewing on the curve of Margo’s ear. When I blinked, it was gone.
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