“Higher,” my brother said, “higher.”
I kept climbing the tree until his head was like a black dot of punctuation. I turned it into a question mark. Why am I up here?
This is my first memory of my fear of heights.
This is my first memory full stop.
My mother had an aversion to the natural world from the beginning. We lived a life of keeping things out. The obvious things, of course—ants, neighborhood cats, robbers—and other things too: daylight, fresh air, relatives visiting from China.
“Did you know that trees talk to each other?” I ask my brother.
I read this in a book and it’s got me wondering. I’m wondering who decides what things mean. Or, rather, what decides.
“What do they say, then?” Mom asks. “Watch out for that bird?”
“Exactly,” I say.
My brother and I are helping my mother move into a leafy retirement village. The trees here are coiffed. The Monstera deliciosa in the foyer is thriving. Every time we walk by that fruit salad plant, I keep my mouth shut tight.
In her new apartment, I draw the curtains and flick on a small lamp. We move more certainly in this yellow light. Still I can’t shake the image that we are characters on parchment painted by the unsteady hand of childhood, with black hair and black eyes made in wobbly brushstrokes. My grandfather tried to teach me calligraphy when I was young. I said, I don’t know what these characters mean.
“It’s a nice place, Mom,” I say now.
My brother is quiet. He’s thinking about the trees.
My brother was ten to my five. He was in charge of my education in the outside world; he was lead investigator in our observations of Ron the gray squirrel. In our living room, there was a window that ran the length of the house. We would sneak behind the heavy curtain that was always drawn and marvel at Ron.
How happy he was nibbling on a nut!
Ron the gray squirrel lived in the tree in our yard. It was the only tree of note we had, so we called it the tree. In my adult life, I have tried to find the name for it. I think it was a Platanus racemosa, more commonly known as a California sycamore.
Scientists say a tree is not a forest. This is true in definition and in fact. The tree, how lonely it must have been!
See, I was alone too—vulnerable to mother nature.
“You’re going to ruin the curtains playing like that,” Mom would say.
We knew then to go to our rooms and play silently. I would draw Ron in the tree. In these pictures, he was almost unrecognizable, his face oddly rectangular and the color of a purple permanent marker.
“Will the couch fit in here?” Mom asks.
Though on the page this appears as a question, it is not. My mind races with all the ways you can make something smaller when that something is a couch.
“The couch will fit,” my brother says. “But Ellie is right.”
“The trees,” he says. “They talk.” “In a way,” she says.
I can’t help but resent that he’s always been better at this than me.
Lists are a device people use to organize thoughts.
The ways my brother was kind:
1. He played Monopoly with me even though I was a bad sport.
2. He made up a game for me called dodo bird. This game involved me finding the dodo bird, an exotic creature on the verge of extinction, somewhere in the house. The dodo bird was his old sock, a tennis ball and duct tape.
3. He taught me how to climb the tree. He taught me how to jump out of the tree.
4. He told me I was a bad singer so I wouldn’t embarrass myself.
5. He never did anything unkind.
Did you know that trees can count? They wait for the right number of warm days to pass before they’re certain it’s spring.
My mother counts too: all the ways I’ve been a disappointment as a daughter. Though she has no use for numbers. Her reasons are infinite.
Currently, I am being difficult about where we should eat lunch.
I say, “I don’t care, Mom. I really don’t.”
“You’re such a picky eater. You’ll complain.”
“I’m not,” I say. “I’m not a picky eater anymore.”
“Your brother,” she says, “he eats everything!”
My brother and I have the same death row meal. We call it Tomato Beef, but that’s not the real name for it. It’s a Cantonese stew of slowly cooked tomatoes, steak, ginger and celery. As kids, my brother and I liked to eat it upside down, putting the stew in the bowl first and then covering it with mounds of white rice. We pretended our bowls were two miniature mountains covered with snow and filled with lava. We ate as much as we could and then sat on the couch and puffed our bellies out, measuring who’d eaten the most. My mother enjoyed this performance, though she scolded us afterward, warning us we’d stretch our stomachs or worse.
“No plants,” she says. “Bad feng shui.”
This isn’t true. But my mother pretends she’s an expert in all aspects of popular Chinese culture. She’s seen every film starring Lucy Liu. She buys gaudy satin tops with mandarin collars.
My mother brings up a Japanese Zen garden and places it on the coffee table. Her hand drags the tiny rake through the bed of sand. She makes three perfect circles.
“Don’t these have bad feng shui?” I ask. “They’re not even Chinese.”
“The Chinese invented everything,” she says.
My brother is staring at the sand. Without meaning to, my mother has drawn three dead trees. I count the inner rings to find out how old they are—how old they were.
A stump can be protected by other trees. They can feed it nutrients and keep it alive for centuries, but they only do this for some.
Science doesn’t know why. But I think maybe these stumps are the parents. Their roots so entangled they don’t know how to let go.
And maybe in this language, we are the same.
The question on everyone’s lips—what do they say? But I’m sick of this question. What I want to know is what do they mean.
When I was ten, my brother wanted nothing to do with me. He spent as much time as he could away from the house, smoking weed with his buddies. I had a neighborhood friend and two hamsters, Little Rascal and Pepsi Cola, a reward for good grades. They lived in a cage in the garage. I visited them infrequently. The garage was my father’s domain and it seemed a dark, man’s world.
“Did you know hamsters can fly?”
The neighbor had me convinced and I was determined to test her hypothesis. I climbed up the tree, a hamster in each chubby hand. During the ascent, I squeezed Pepsi Cola too tightly and watched as his eyes bulged. I settled myself on my branch and went about testing this theory.
The sound they make is not splat! But splat! is what the sound looks like on the page.
“Well,” I say, “let’s have Chinese food then.”
“I can’t believe,” my mom says. “I can’t believe you always get your way.”
“I’m hungry,” my brother says.
“Did you know trees can smell?” I say. “They can taste.”
In Africa, acacias release a chemical to warn other trees of predators. When the trees smell this, they start producing toxins.
But do they feel? If there is danger, then it follows that there should be fear.
To pay for the retirement village, my mother sold our childhood home to developers. Prime location, they said. They had detailed plans to remodel the house and to cut down the tree to make way for the views of Los Angeles. I know that scene, the smog transforming the sky into a deeper shade of pink.
These days, sunsets remind me of those early drawings of Ron the squirrel, misshapen and too purple—the color of something made by man.
I fell out of the tree.
This was the year before my brother left for college. I was sitting on a branch and suddenly had no idea how to get down. The ground was too far away.
I decided I would grab onto the trunk of the tree and shimmy my way down. I didn’t shimmy, I scraped—my flesh sanded down to the bone by bark.
“Aitch-eee-elle-pee, help!” I said. What should have been a cry for help became a spell for help.
“Stupid girl,” Mom said.
Though she was a small woman, she carried me as if I were weightless.
To my mother, the words make the meaning. She has studied the English language. She forms every letter perfectly in her mouth, just as she does with her pen—neat lines of immaculate text.
But hear me! It makes no difference. Whether you are scooped up or whether you are carried, this feels the same.
“Believing in trees is like believing in God,” Mom says.
“You don’t believe in trees?” my brother asks.
“It’s Science,” I say.
We are eating at the Good China buffet. The food is not good, but it is pleasant, all sweet, sticky sauces and tenderized meats. I take a mouthful of beef and broccoli. I used to think that broccoli were tiny trees, and apologized with every bite. My brother is still this way, shy and trusting, wanting to do good by all things.
He believes in something, though I’m not sure what he’d call it.
“The food is cold,” Mom says.
Back at the retirement village, we keep unpacking my mother’s stuff, mostly things I don’t recognize bought through television shopping. Chinese people don’t like old stuff, she told me once. She’ll be fine in the village. The paint is fresh and the carpets are new and the lighting is almost flattering enough to disguise the cheap veneer of the furniture.
“You’ll stay with me tonight, Ellie,” she says.
“I can’t tonight, Mom.”
“If you don’t stay, I must have raised a bad daughter,” she says. “A good daughter would stay.”
“Yes,” she says, “no other word for it.”
I look to my brother, but he’s stuck his head around the curtain, his neck craned toward the sky.
The times I’ve missed my brother:
1. When I make dinner for myself and I forget to put the rice in the bowl until the end.
2. When he left for college and I found the dodo bird abandoned in his empty sock drawer.
3. When I call squirrels “Ron” underneath my breath.
4. When I embarrass myself at karaoke.
5. When someone beats me at Monopoly.
“Did you know,” I say to my brother, “did you know that trees have a brain?”
“Well,” he says, “they have chemical responses to stimuli and electrical pulses, if that’s what you mean.”
“I meant a brain.”
This is outside the retirement home. We’ve put our mother to bed, so to speak.
“Is she right, Go Go?” I ask.
“About what?” he says.
“What about you?”
“Am I no good?”
“No,” he says, “she’s not right about that.”
We part ways but when he gets to his car, he yells out to me. “I’m not sure though, Mui Mui,” he says. “I’m not sure if trees have a brain.”
Here is another fact. Trees that grow together are sometimes so intertwined at the roots that they die together.
I know the English word for this.
When my brother came home from college to visit, he was a stranger. He had dyed his hair blond and looked as if all the ink had drained from the pen that drew him. He smelled like a fraternity house and told us he was studying to be a climate scientist.
“There’s no money in climate,” Mom said.
My brother didn’t say anything. He just took her in his arms and held her, stinking of booze and big Science.
Go Go, will you translate for me? See, my mother was born in a foreign tongue. And though her English is perfect and her Chinese broken, I don’t understand her. I never learned.
She is of no language I know.
That summer was the last my brother spent at home. We stayed up late together and sat on the front porch. He smoked weed and I ate gummy bears, flippant with every bite. By now I knew they weren’t real bears. Ron was dead, but my brother and I still watched the tree, out of habit, I guess.
“Do you ever think about what trees say to each other?” he asked.
“You’re high,” I said.
When we drove away from my childhood home toward the retirement village, the tree was the last thing I saw, its leaves gone yellow.
Dear California Sycamore, I noticed today for the first time your trunk was slightly bowed as if in the middle of a formal greeting, but I’m not sure if you were saying hello or goodbye.
Either way, I waved back.
She Is Haunted can be pre-ordered from Two Dollar Radio here.