Several years later, concerned for his ageing mother, he returned to live in his village. But he still continued to eat stones as before. He held them up to the sunlight to tell if they were sweet or bitter, sour or salty, then bit into them just as if they were yams. — Pu Songling, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio
When I am six, I bring home a tree. The peach sapling sprouts six miles south of my hometown on a family-run farm in New Jersey where my first-grade class is gifted individually wrapped saplings by the farmhands, each tree tucked into a plastic green pot. My tree is a foot taller than me, even when I am standing. I surprise my mother on my return with the tree swaying from my arms, the boughs obscuring my head. She ushers me into the yard and digs a hole beside the garden to pack the tree. I sit while my mother returns to the kitchen, noticing buds nippling on a stem, lanky shoots hardening into leaves, a bird perched on the neck of a branch.
They scatter as soon as Gung Gung brings out his hose. He walks past the pigeons over to his gray sedan, lathering the hood of the car with a towel. He always carries a towel on warm days: one for his face, one for the kitchen table, one for the car. (If you’ve seen the rags underneath Nai Nai’s sink you would understand.) He speaks often about a new sedan, but I know he is too proud to replace the patchwork seats, the stapled ceiling, the felt and holes. He stands, unbending his six foot frame, and swats at the birds by his feet. As they scatter, he tells me he’ll catch them all someday. That he’ll tie their feet to the iron pole on the balcony, watch them fly in circles until they tangle into each other.
Inside the car, Gung Gung slides himself back so far that there is almost no room left to sit. I fit inside, though, the only person in our family who can, four inches making cozy space for my legs. I have sat here ever since I was driven back to Gung Gung’s house from the hospital where I was born. My mother says this is why I am short, because my siblings were never dwarfed by their seats.
I prefer to think that this is why Gung Gung and I are close. Not that we have ever talked, most of our exchanges terse and absurd. So much is lost in language, after all; his Chinese and my English. One exchange we do often have is our game of truth-telling. Cold or not cold? he asks me over a cup of tea. I glare at him once then turn away. While his expression is unreadable, my face contorts once I touch the cup. My eyes scrunching tight, my cheeks burning red. Gung Gung knows I cannot hold in a lie. In this way, we understand each other very well.
I visit the tree often. Most days I watch it from the safety of the living room, my head poking out from behind the curtains. When the weather is nice, I run out to the yard before the school bus arrives, pausing to stroke the puckered bark. I bring a pail to sprinkle the roots on sunny days. When a peach ripens, I pluck it from its stem, feel the velvet skin on my knuckles. I imagine an understanding between us, myself and this tree. In biology class, we learn that trees can communicate, that they express themselves through soil fungi. I too desire to spore my wishes into truths.
To Gung Gung, there are no secrets. There are only facts. Fact one: my mother is a loose-lipped woman. Fact two: plants grow best in the presence of minerals. Fact three: cars today are just not built the same. Many of his facts are from WeChat, sometimes forwarded by his mahjong friends. He sends me facts to help me stay informed. He also sends me stickers, Donald Trump with a thumbs up or a cat with giant eyes. He tells me about the attacks on Asian-Americans in New York, warns me to stay safe. I am grateful and somehow amused.
My mother is less amused. She doesn’t like having Gung Gung near the house, but he comes anyway with Nai Nai, driving twice a month from Queens to New Jersey. They bring bags of fruit, boxes of buns, fertilizer and seeds. He tends to our yard while Nai Nai cooks in our kitchen. In between, they pass by to tell us facts about cousins: Robert, who failed his bar exam; Tiffany, who is thirty-two and unmarried; Sunny, with the alcohol addiction.
When they are gone, my mother stands. She tells me to keep all my secrets close, to never reveal what I don’t wish to be stolen. It’s not cruel, she says, just practical. It is the same way with all the aunts and uncles, not just Gung Gung and Nai Nai. If word ever gets out about a divorce or an illness, gossip spreads like a spore to every adjacent household. To keep something close, you have to pretend it doesn’t exist.
When the peach tree speckles, I fear the worst. Something urgent emerging through the roots that I am lost to understand. My mother assures me that it is simply the fault of nature running its course, a bird drilling into the center of the bark or a bacterial infection. But I know better. It is a sign of blame. I check the Audubon guide for clues, thumb through thousands of drawings, names of birds, yet nothing surfaces. The condition worsens by the day.
The peaches have been ripening as they do every summer, pink shoots swelling into orbs. But now, they shrivel back into their buds. Even the birds have left. I see only the ghosts of the fruit, their fists pointed away from the sun. By the end of the summer, the harvest is done. My mother skins the pricks off her gourds and shakes her head when she passes by. I still visit the tree on my way to school, draping a sheet of plastic over its branches for warmth.
After Gung Gung is diagnosed with diabetes, my father reminds us to stay silent. As his counters clutter with orange pill bottles, no one outside of our family tells. Sometimes, I find him hunched over a sink, his nostrils covered with a paper towel smeared in blood. He still frequents mahjong parlors, wedding banquets, hotpot dinners. Distant friends visit from outside the city. Nobody says anything is wrong. Halfway through a hotpot, I leave to find Nai Nai in the bedroom, perched on a futon, her eyes puffy and red. I leave instantly, ashamed.
Gung Gung abides by his secrets as he abides by the law. That is, a thing that is meant to be broken. He is on the phone for hours after dinner, his voice bouncing from the stucco and light. It isn’t always clear who is on the other end—brothers, friends, colleagues. When I was smaller, I would have been happy to hear my name in his calls. I would tug on his legs, dance around his feet, beg for a word with the stranger on the other end. Now, I wish not to hear of myself at all.
I make up stories for the brittle leaves, the shrinking blossoms. I tell myself that touching the branches would turn them to dust. So I don’t. I don’t look. I cast my eyes away each time I pass the peach tree, ward away its impending fate. The bark grows ripe with cankers, the scars opening a softness inside. There is sap in every hole, termites burrowed into wounds. Insects swarm at the base, like crows awaiting carrion. I pick up the leaves only after they have all fallen.
Gung Gung wears a leg brace now. The doctors tell us he is strong, but we know he is just incorrigible. He still drives, against the doctors’ orders. We stay with him and Nai Nai for a few weeks, even after Nai Nai tells us to return home. I help Gung Gung out of his car and bring him towels. From the bathroom, I hear him soak the towels again and again. My mother says he can’t walk so well anymore. The vines too have shriveled on the balcony. So my mother brings gourds from our garden. I apologize for not bringing peaches.
Back in New Jersey, the frame of my once-tree slides into view from the driveway. My parents open their doors. They must catch me staring because they say, It was Gung Gung after all. Images flash before me. Blood. Trees. He was taking care of the tree, my mother says. The image shifts. Roots. Salt. Gung Gung coming into view. Caring or not caring? Gung Gung’s games. Killing or not killing? Birds on his balcony, vines and iron poles. Legs tied tight.
Gung Gung stopped catching pigeons when he got sick. I went onto the balcony sometime after and found a piece of red twine still tied to the iron pole. Imagined the last bird snipped free, taking off like a jetty to the wind. The night cloaks in its silence, the only sound coming from rustling oak branches and the yard crunching beneath my feet. Silhouetted trees fringe the edge of the sky, their branches caressing the stars. I linger while my parents bring the last of the luggage inside, letting my eyes turn upwards, squinting, searching for birds.
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