While Peschecat soaked up every last bit of warmth from the laptop (it HAD been a cool Spring, but Gemmy refused to turn the heat back on; instead, she bundled up in sweatshirts and socks, but Peschecat simply didn’t look like the kind of cat who’d take kindly to being “dressed”), Gemmy wandered into the kitchen and began to pack tomorrow’s lunch. As she cut the brown spots off an apple and chopped it up to go into her yogurt, she remembered wandering into the Bonsai House at the arboretum.
Now Gemmy, my dears, had spent her life studying, working with, and getting to know many kinds of trees: trees in forests, trees suitable for suburban yards, trees that could thrive in the heat and pollution of an urban neighborhood. And she knew, of course, the basics of bonsai: how the art form had started in China and moved to Japan many hundreds of years ago, how bonsai masters pruned leaves, branches, and roots to keep the trees small even as they encouraged the trees to look aged and wind-blown, how small ceramic pots and special clay-containing soils were used to control the size of the trees. She’d just never been that interested; the whole thing had, as Gemmy’d once sniffed to a friend of hers who ran a nursery, “more than a faint whiff of foot-binding about it.”
And, yet, when a sudden thundershower drove her from the outdoor herb garden into the small building that housed the arboretum’s bonsai collection, Gemmy found herself entranced by the tiny trees. The building was silent; Gemmy had the place almost entirely to herself. She moved slowly into a meditative state, often stopping for more than a few minutes in front of one tree or another, or, in a few cases, groupings of trees that had been growing together for decades. She walked to a small bench and sat down, content to simply breathe, be, and open herself to the trees.
And, then, she saw it.
Even in its miniature state, Gemmy recognized it as a white pine. “You’re old,” she thought to the tree, which, off dreaming of something else, was slow to notice Gemmy.
“And you’re young. Yet you’ve come here because you’ve lived through a blast, just as I did,” the tree emanated to her.
Gemmy sat with that for a long minute. She got up slowly and walked over to stand next to the tree, well, as next-to as the rope barrier allowed.
A small plaque explained that the tree had been cultivated since 1625, originally just outside the city of Hiroshima. The atomic bomb blast at the end of Word War II somehow spared the ancient pine and, in the 1970s, the family that had tended the tree for centuries donated it to the arboretum. Somehow, all that Gemmy could think of was The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, a play she’d seen years ago on a trip to Philadelphia.
“The radiation didn’t change you,” she thought to the tree. “Being made bonsai changed you, but the radiation didn’t.”
“And yet,” the tree emanated, “none of us come through a blast unchanged. As you have reason to know.”
Gemmy wanted to cry. She’d been working so hard to hold it all together, to make a new start, to not dwell on the past. It had always been like this, ever since she could remember, ever since her mom had passed away and it’d been just her and Dad. She was fine until someone showed her a little bit of sympathy and then everything came flooding to the surface.
Gemmy sat back down, swallowed her tears, and thought, “Yeah, well, not exactly a nuclear bomb, in my case, but, yeah, I know what you mean. It felt like a slow-motion blast: first my job, then our home, then my marriage, then moving away from my coven, then moving to this new place in winter, this living paycheck-to-paycheck, then Deena selling “my” tree . . . . It’s been rough and I don’t spend much time thinking how rough; I just keep trying to keep trying. I haven’t had much time to think about how it’s changed me.”
“You have time now,” the tree emanated, and slipped back into its dream.
Gemmy sat a while longer, took a picture of the tree with her cell phone, and said, “I’ll come back to visit soon, if I may,” but the tree was silent. As she got up to walk back outside, something inside of her shifted; she felt as though her soul had been aired out.
Gemmy washed and dried the piece of aluminum foil that she’d been using for several days and wrapped it tightly around her peanut butter and pickle sandwich. “There,” she said to Peschecat. “I can sleep an extra five minutes in the morning — if you don’t wake me up.”
A chime sounded from inside Gemmy’s purse. Her friends knew not to text her unless it was important — texts cost money. “Who could that be, at this hour?” Gemmy wondered.
Peschecat got up from the now-cool laptop and walked soundlessly from the room.
Picture found here.