by Carmen Firan (USA)
Translation from Romanian by Pat Earnshaw & Dorina Burcea
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The night before, we were sitting on the porch, drinking wine and debating about souls and spirits. Animals have souls but have no spirit, was Adrian’s argument; otherwise they would be sitting here with us in armchairs, drinking wine or checking their emails. This kind of discussion always reaches a dead end. I raised the stakes: even objects have souls. If one ignores or abandons them they start to deteriorate; the chairs no one uses squeak, the carpets rip away, the unused cars rust, and abandoned houses collapse. They too feel and suffer. If they’re no longer useful or admired, things die which means we transfer some of our energy to them and they are alive as long as they are surrounded by life. That is why we build museums, so we can save precious objects and prolong their life. In this way they are still important and admired, valued. After all, objects too are a little vain.
A metallic sound was coming from the huge fir tree, more than 100 years old. It was the last grasshoppers of the summer, tiredly rubbing their wings together. The La Guardia airport was nearby and the planes flying low seemed to come out of the tree’s branches that reached almost to the porch. Out of the first floor window all one could see were branches thick with needles and cones that in the fall dripped resin. On the ground floor this was a residential neighbourhood in Queens. On the first floor was Sinaia. The gardener complains, Yes, it’s a great tree but it gives him a run for his money. In the fall cones cover the courtyard, in the spring buds and thin needles. Adrian wanted to cut down two branches that stretched out over the driveway where he parked his car because the drops of resin dripping on the hood and windscreen were impossible to remove. In the end he took pity on me and gave up the idea. I proclaimed it the most beautiful fir tree on the street and I intended to let no one harm it. Not to mention that trees too have souls. There is also a tree spirit and it is never a good idea to mess with it.
We were born into a world full of superstitions and we carried them all the way here with us. Then there are the hunches which, when you’ve grown up in a culture as fatalistic as ours, you know never to ignore. But then, our Armenian neighbour is just as superstitious. One day he showed us the trees the city authorities had planted all in the same year – growing in line on each side of the road, the same height and identical, as all things are in America – and he asked us if we had noticed anything unusual. Twenty years after, all the trees were the same height just as they had been programmed to be, only the one in front of our house refused to submit to standardization and stopped growing. My neighbour poetically named it the immigration tree. And he predicted this tree would be stronger than all the others.
We were glad that above the branches that had stopped growing we could see the sky and sometimes a falling star. We would make a wish straight away, just as we used to do as children. Now when I happen to see a falling star, I make two or three wishes just in case, as stars do not fall so often in America, or maybe the sky is farther away.
We drank wine well into the night and came to an agreement about souls and trees. The weather was no longer hot and damp and the Indian summer was about to begin. There was a full moon high in the sky, the scent of fresh apples was in the air and the chirping of the crickets accompanied the distant noise of cars coming from the Long Island Expressway. We were within a stone’s throw of the city but still not far from nature. Two squirrels were chasing each other up the trunk of the fir tree, and a racoon would knock over the dumpster. It was nice and quiet. A strange quietness as our neighbour specialized in small but resounding catastrophic predictions would have called it. He predicted the government monitoring us through Google maps, the disappearance of the quarter and of humankind due to the conspiracy of the banks. The only disappearances he would not predict were the imminent ones.
The next day was clear. There was no wind and the light seemed to come down from the sky like honey. A perfect day. Just like the morning of September 11th had been, nine years ago…I heard Adrian thinking and I discreetly knocked on wood before going out. Just like everyone else, we too follow the slogan business as usual.
We tried so hard to escape slogans in the country we came from only to find some new ones here. Another kind of discourse, another type of triumphalism and we, rebelling in a different way. We now mumble helplessly against globalization, against corporate greed, standardization, and the alienation of the new generations – sad lonely robots with their minds and fingers blunt from pressing buttons, with their religion disguised as Facebook and text messages. And since we adapted very well from the beginning we soon started to share the natives’ fears of old age and the future. These fears were in no way triggered by some metaphysical thought but inevitably by the faith of the economy, retirement and the lifetime loans that allow us to spend our evenings sitting on the porch, drinking wine and talking about the spirits of trees. And if we cannot manage it, if we feel we cannot go on like this any more, the veterans of the place advise us to take a Prozac during the day and a sleeping pill at night. An entire industry of painkillers and antidepressants helps keep the nation happy. Business as usual must go on.
Adrian got home at five. From the window I saw him thinking about parking the car on the driveway then changing his mind and parking it on the street, though the branches of the fir tree had not yet started dripping resin. I don’t know, I had no reason, I just felt like parking on the street this time, he told me. I was usually the one who had hunches so I didn’t give it much thought, although they say that after living together for many years, partners tend to share habits, to pick up passions or vices from one another. Or give them up. Some start writing, others stop smoking. They start resembling each other so much that not even a dog could tell them apart. And if the dog in question is theirs, it too would resemble them. Or maybe they would resemble the dog. Something like this happened to some friends of ours: they both got depressed and they noticed that their dog was howling gloomily and growing more melancholy by the day. It would look at both of them then tip back its head and let out a heartbreaking howl. The vet’s diagnosis was anxiety and the dog was prescribed Xanax just like his masters.
The light started to flicker. Outside the window there was suddenly darkness; the sky, heavy with electricity, seemed to get closer and the image on the TV disappeared. A thick, material cloud like the underbelly of a dragon was rapidly getting closer to the ground with a threatening roar. We did not realize what was happening but I instinctively hurried to turn off the stove – as in that instant I remembered that was what my mother had done during the 1977 earthquake – and Adrian ran to the door. When he opened it, it seemed that a dragon’s mouth full of smoke and flames would suck him out. The night got even darker and I saw a huge body flying outside the window. The house shook and I heard Adrian barely whispering, voiceless with terror and surprise: “They brought down our fir tree.” I started to repeat mechanically: “They brought down our fir tree. They brought down our fir tree,” without really understanding what I was saying. I ran up the stairs to the first floor window. Who? The ones in the sky? “They brought down our fir tree!” The dragons?
When I got upstairs the sky was clear again. Light was filling the room. The smell of incense was rising from the damp earth and the quietness that comes after the storm was setting in. Out of the corner of my eye I glanced at the window. Sinaia had gone. There was only a stump where the fir tree had been. In an instant my head emptied and my heart filled. Only then did panic start to take over, mixed with anger and helplessness. The TV started working again and a calm newswoman announced that for the first time ever New York had been hit by two tornadoes, one in Brooklyn and the other in Queens. They had lasted only 40 seconds. That’s how long a well-organised end might last. That was all for now, just a small taste of how it might be. The end had come and gone.
In moments like this time is powerless, it stops flowing, it freezes. There is no past, no future, just a continuous present, an endless period of time that we have somehow to confine ourselves to lest we get lost in it. We have somehow to divide it into moments of carelessness, lucky days, lost generations, good years or evil hours. We pull at it as much as possible, we turn it around and look at it in reverse, hoping to stretch our limits and buy ourselves “some time”. But time has no beginning and no end, it keeps on going, equal to itself and endlessly wrapping around itself. The measurement of time is just a perception-convention through which we neither lose eternity nor do we gain one second. It is similar to when you fly to Europe and “lose” seven hours and then you “gain” them back when you return to New York. In fact we only sweat, get tired, get old, pedalling on the spot in our continuous present as if on an exercise bike.
We went out on the street and for the first time in many years we got to know all our neighbours who were usually so quiet and discrete they seemed almost mysterious, invisible even. This solidarity in the face of a catastrophe – or maybe the fascination of disaster – had gathered them all in front of our house. They were looking silently at the driveway where Adrian’s car should have been, maybe even Adrian behind the wheel if he had not had time to get into the house before the storm started. Now heaps of split branches, pieces of trunk from the flying fir tree, logs, strip boards from the roof and broken chairs from the porch were all that was left. The trees on the sides of the road had also been uprooted and carried away by the storm, taking with them pieces of concrete and sidewalk. In the backyard, three oaks had been ripped apart. The scenery was bleak, “Like a war zone”, said our neighbour from across the street, an energetic Israeli woman with a very strong community spirit who was a member of various administrative committees in the neighbourhood. She once said our street should be called UN Street. She knew everybody. And everything there was to know about everybody.
The two Indonesian girls living next door ran into my arms – a rare thing for an Asian person as they tend to avoid touching strangers. They didn’t speak English but emotion had brought tears to their eyes. The Japanese woman who owned a silk shop on Broadway asked us if we were ok, while her husband was photographing the trees that seemed crippled by a blast wave. The Chinese woman living in the house to the right came holding an open umbrella in one hand while covering her mouth with the other. The Czech woman across the street was holding her little trembling dog in her arms. Only the men came out of the orthodox Jews’ house, wearing undershirts and their kippas. It was the eve of Yom Kippur and they were getting ready to mourn their dead. The Russians living next door to them lighted their cigarettes and started going round the house checking the damage to the roof. The husband assured us there was not much damage but the wife muttered a reminder that the year 2012 was close… Bad omen, confirmed the wife of the Cuban teacher living round the corner – a stout German woman who had already started cleaning while talking to herself: It takes a tree decades to grow so big and only seconds to be blown away. It is the same with people. It was like hearing my maternal grandmother speak.
The Armenian neighbour appeared, grinning. Signalling with his head towards the only tree left standing he said: What did I tell you? The immigration tree escaped this one too.
Starting with that night the sky got even closer. Or maybe we were watching it differently.
The following morning even the way the light fell had changed. From the nearby streets you could hear the noise made by the chainsaws, the rumbling of the bulldozers or the barking of a dog that no longer recognized the place. The only thing left to do was to clean up after nature’s revelry so we called a specialized company, Evergreen Trees, which the Israeli neighbour had recommended to us. The owner, Carlos, immediately sent two small hard-working Latin-Americans who sliced up the trunk and thick branches of the fir tree, freed up the driveway, loaded everything, swept the ground and left. Very efficient and serious. Thank God for the immigrants because these Americans don’t raise a finger, was our Armenian neighbour’s comment after supervising the whole operation just out of curiosity.
All that was left from the four-storeys-tall tree was a piece of the lower trunk, like a small table of silence which I thought I could use for a flowerpot. When I went close to it and touched it, trying to count its growth rings as I knew was done in order to determine the age of a tree, my hand stuck to its white wood. Only then did I notice that big resin drops made it look as though it was bleeding or weeping. It was a strange feeling, like touching a fresh wound. A bird dashed over the power lines. It flew in circles for a while then made off towards the roof of the house, confused by the lack of branches between which it probably used to hide. Or maybe it was the soul of the tree flying away. I would like to hear what Adrian would have to say about this!
Two weeks had passed. The wounds were healing though we could still hear chain-saws in the morning cutting through wood, a mournful sound we seemed to feel deep inside ourselves. Even those who had not been affected by the storm were now cutting down their tall trees in case another storm brought them down onto their houses. The Evergreen Trees had offered prompt services but the two Hispanics had left without asking for their payment. In America everything is based on trust and on one’s word, but here we were talking about more than a thousand dollars that we owed to Carlos. We called him again and he apologized explaining that he had tons of orders these days and he promised he will soon come to take his money.
After the tornado we redid our garden using pieces from the trunk of the fir tree to prolong its existence and somehow keep its – or maybe our – memory alive. We had almost forgotten about Carlos.
That morning they were announcing on CNN that the Nobel Prize for Literature had been awarded to Mario Vargas Llosa. At last, an indisputable name that surprised no one, after many years during which this prize had led to malicious comments regarding the debatable criteria used in selecting the winner, or to perplexity and discontentment even in the winner’s home country. This time the general opinion seemed to be that Llosa fully deserved the award.
The bell rang and Carlos appeared in the doorway waving the contract. As often happens between immigrants in New York, while he was writing down our name on the receipt he asked where we were from. We’re from Romania, I said, and added spontaneously, We speak a Romance language related to Spanish. Then I politely asked him the same thing, while still keeping one eye on the TV where a short biography of Llosa was being presented. “From Peru,” Carlos answered. I jumped with joy: Peru? Did he know Llosa had won the Nobel Prize? Look, they were just announcing it on CNN! And where exactly in Peru was he from? We had visited Machu Picchu and Cuzco the previous year. We had gone on to the Andes and we had even reached Lake Titicaca. And while in Lima we had visited the Llosa Library. I had become quite talkative and Carlos, surprised by my enthusiasm, looked very happy. Of course he knew about Llosa, but he was sorry the writer had moved to Spain and rarely visited his native country where, as it seemed, there were some who did not like him because of his past political beliefs… We changed the subject and started talking about the fir tree so as not to go into details and find ourselves in the middle of that well-known discussion about prize winners disliked by some person or other, most of the time for reasons that had nothing to do with talent or literature.
Everything went smoothly, Carlos gave me the receipt, I counted the money. Before saying goodbye he glanced at the pelargonium I had placed on the stump of the fir tree. He smiled with sadness and said to me, It’s nice you thought about saving at least a part of it…There is less and less nature around us. I encouraged him to speak by saying nothing. I was born in a village at the edge of the Amazonian jungle, surrounded by animals and lush vegetation. I was able to recognize each leaf, each sound, the brightly coloured birds and lizards. Miss, I was one of them. I used to lie on the stones of the mountains around Machu Picchu and the sky was so close I could have thrown stones and hit it.. I knew how to read the sky and the earth. I knew when it would rain, from what direction the wind would blow; I believed I understood the language of animals and that I actually was a part of every leaf, every lizard and every bird.
The Nobel Prize was not important any more. There was something surreal about Carlos’ story; he seemed a go-between who had come to deliver a mysterious message the meaning of which I could not understand. In turn, I was looking at him oddly, but he did not seem to care. He continued: I came to America when I was 18 and I graduated from college majoring in environmental engineering. I thought in this way I could somehow still preserve a connection with the environment I grew up in. Then I opened this business. Did you know there was a time when New York was a land of forests and bogs, a time when wild ducks and deer were living here? Everything begins with an end. Like this tornado. But the end means something different for each of us. For the rich, losing their money is the end. Like Madoff, do you see what I mean? Now he is living his end. For me, the tornado was a sign that whatever I was supposed to do here has come to an end and now it is time to go back to the Amazon jungle. I have earned a lot in the two weeks after the tornado, he pointed to the stack of 100 dollar bills I had just given him. But I can’t take it anymore, cutting down trees, hearing the noise made by the chain-saw, the thud of the trunks hitting the ground, seeing the squirrels and the birds desperately going around unable to find their branches, their dens and nests. I used to dream about protecting trees and now I’m overwhelmed with requests to cut them to pieces. Every time it is like cutting a piece of myself; like cutting my arms or my legs.
Maybe it was just my imagination but his gentle olive face seemed to get covered by a white sweat like the wood of the tree. Had I touched him, my hand would have stuck to his skin just like it did when I touched the drops of resin coming out from the wound in the trunk of the fir tree.
I’ll use the money I’ve saved to return home. I feel I can still delay the end in the Amazon jungle. Thank you for your patience and have a nice day.
Take care, he said to me before getting into the mini-van on which a real-life tree had been painted under the company’s name: Evergreen Trees.
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