When young Emma's father is diagnosed with a degenerative and terminal disease, the family move in with her Aunt Kathryn and Emma falls in love with a tree; by Margaret Karmazin.
Probably the real story was that she didn't understand it herself. It was dawning on me and would later become clear that my beautiful mother was a bit like a child. It was my father's sister, Aunt Kathryn, who explained his illness to me.
"It's a very serious disease of the nervous system that slowly takes away pretty much everything a person can do except think. I just can't believe this is happening to my baby brother."
She said this bitterly while smashing out a cigarette in one of her large crystal ashtrays. Aunt Kathryn was rich and had taken us in. She was divorced with a generous settlement from Uncle Bill who was a screenwriter in Hollywood, while she herself wrote articles for magazines. She often traveled for her work and told us, "I'm glad to have you all here to keep an eye on the house."
I loved her house. It was nothing like the small brick ranch we'd rented in a nearby town. Since my dad's diagnosis in early April, I was allowed to finish the school year at my old school, but would attend a new one in the fall. For now, Aunt Kathryn's gardener George drove me to and from school.
A few days after we moved in, Aunt Kathryn said, "Let's take a walk, shall we?" We clambered down what used to be servants' stairs to the former kitchen, out the back onto a wide stone patio and from there onto a brick path that meandered through the long yard to the back of the property. This was where the gardening shed stood. The little building was painted dark green with cream trim and its door hung slightly ajar.
"George needs to fix this so it stays shut," said my aunt as she gently closed it. "He has some health worries, so I don't want to nag him." She glanced around at the bushes bordering the edge of the yard - forsythias, azaleas, and rhododendrons. "The forsythias need to be cut back. And that beech tree had some damage last year from tent worms."
A stunning oak stood at the back of the shed, indeed almost against it.
"What a beautiful tree," I remarked.
"Isn't it? It's a Red Oak. It doesn't belong to us though. That's the property line; the shed is right at the edge and the oak is in Dr. Singh's yard."
"Does he have kids?" I asked.
"They're grown up and moved out. His wife passed away and he works long hours, so I don't see him often. He hires someone to takes care of the grounds."
"I love that oak tree," I said.
"It is magnificent," said my aunt. And then she explained to me about my father's illness and how I would need to be very grown up and help him and my mother.
I saw him in my mind then, sitting in his wheelchair in the master bedroom in what Aunt Kathryn called the "West Wing." This used to be her and Uncle Bill's room when they were married, but after he left she moved to another bedroom upstairs. So my parents now had the best bedroom in the house, a large and very pretty square room with dove gray walls, a row of white trimmed windows over a cushioned window seat and plush silvery blue carpeting.
"Things are going to get harder, Emma," said my aunt, "but we'll do our best to make whatever time your dad has left as pleasant as possible."
For a reason I couldn't explain, I felt compelled to touch the rough bark of the oak, and to do so, needed to squeeze my way between bushes to get behind the shed, while gaining a few scratches on arms and legs.
"You really like that tree," commented my aunt.
Dad parked his wheelchair in front of the bedroom windows and wrote stories by hand on a legal pad. Later my mother typed them up. He still had the use of his hands, though his legs had become unpredictable. Before he became ill, he was a college literature and creative writing instructor. We were a family of writers.
"I plan on publishing a book of short stories," he said to anyone who came into the room, "if it's the last thing I do."
No one ever knew quite how to respond to that. You simply could not say, "Oh, Jerry, don't talk like that," or "You'll be around for a long time yet," because no, he probably wouldn't be. My mother stood close by when anyone visited, her hands fluttering, but she rarely said a word unless someone directly addressed her and they rarely did besides the usual enquiry into how she was. While my mother was a pleasure to look at, she was very subdued when it came to personality, and though I loved her, even at my young age, I wondered what my father saw in her. But there was no question that he adored her. He wanted her near him as much as possible and never tired of complimenting her.
"Cynthia, kiss me," he'd say, or, "Cin, rub my arm, will you?" He wanted physical contact and though I was too young to understand the entirety of his pain in this regard, I did sense it.
He could still speak relatively well, though sometimes he mumbled. One time he said to me happily, "You're as sweet as your mother, such a blessing."
I never considered myself sweet, so it was as if he were describing someone I didn't know. Sweet applied to babies and kittens, not to how I saw myself, an adventurer inside, someone climbing up a vine with a dagger in her teeth. But I loved him so much that I could allow him to see me however he pleased.
Aunt Kathryn flew to Toronto to interview a famous woman scientist for a feminist magazine. George drove her to the airport, though the complications of airports upset him. The next day he called to say, "I feel like death warmed over," and stayed home in bed. Since it was Saturday, it didn't matter, though Aunt Kathryn might have hoped he would tackle the yard. I finally got to go where I'd wanted all along, to the garden shed.
I creaked open the door and stepped inside onto the soft dirt floor. Unseasonably warm outside, the interior was slightly chilly and I shivered. A small window let in a dust mote filled beam of light and I stood still while my eyes adjusted.
Gardening tools covered one wall and along the window side were shelves and a rough wood table. Stacked clay pots and bags of soil sat under the table and on its top lay an old Life Magazine, can opener, tablet of lined paper and a pencil sharpened with a knife. I walked to the back of the shed and almost fell on my face. My foot had caught in a tree root! I knelt down for a closer look.
Sure enough, the floor there held a spread of roots and I realized they belonged to my friend, the beautiful oak in Dr. Singh's yard. The thought entered my head that since the roots were inside this enclosure, I was seeing intimate parts of the tree, though one could see tree roots just like them all the time outside. I sat down on a small, three-legged stool and felt at peace.
Because his throat wasn't working well, Dad choked on his food and inhaled some into his lungs, which caused pneumonia. This had happened once before. Aunt Kathryn cut her Canadian trip short, though she said as she stepped in the door and dropped her suitcase, "At least I got the interview finished."
We rushed to the hospital. Mom was already there; she'd stayed overnight in the chair by his bed. I'd done all right staying home by myself.
"He's getting worse," Mom whispered to my aunt. Her eyes glittered with tears.
"I know, I know," said Aunt Kathryn. "Let's go down to the cafeteria and have lunch." She turned to me. "Stay with your dad, Emma. We'll bring you a sandwich."
We all could tell that he was probably going to die sooner than the doctors originally predicted. Did he know it too?
"Come here," he said to me. He could still hold hands, though not lift his arms, so I moved close to the bed and took his hand.
"I'm very proud of you," he said. "I know I can depend on you. Please help Kathryn take care of your mother. She's not strong like you two. I can go peacefully if I know you'll help with this."
My eyes filled with tears but at the same time I felt angry. Why was he giving up so easily? Or so it seemed to me who had no real understanding of how much he suffered. I nodded, but reluctantly.
My science teacher that year, Mrs. Riley, was originally from Taiwan. She had married an American. We considered her very hip. She had a neat little figure and dressed in chic, brightly colored outfits. Like most science teachers, she was adamant about facts and the scientific method. "Always look at things rationally and from all angles before you leap to conclusions," she pounded into our heads.
One time she startled us by going in the opposite direction. "Science is wonderful but it can't explain everything. Sometimes bizarre things happen in the world." She proceeded to tell us about a lady in her neighborhood in Taiwan who had, as Mrs. Riley put it, "strange powers."
"There were many witnesses to this woman's psychic and healing abilities. No scientist could explain them away."
I always kept this in mind and wished fervently that I could meet such a person to help my dad.
School was finally out, just in time for George to go into the hospital for a hip replacement. Dad was back home, the garden was gorgeous with pink, yellow, and purple blooms and Aunt Kathryn flew off to Atlanta for a conference. My oak tree was full of new leaves and when near it, I sensed a strong masculine presence. It came across as father-like but with magician energy and an ancient quality, hard to describe. Every time I touched its trunk, which I often did after squeezing through the bushes into Dr. Singh's yard, the tree infused me with energy.
"Aunt Kathryn," I said before she left on her trip, "that oak tree is magical."
She laughed. "All oak trees are magical," she said. But she wasn't taking me seriously.
Inside the shed was cool and dim. I pulled George's stool to the back and sat near the exposed root. If anyone had seen me, it would have been embarrassing, but I felt an urge to talk to the root.
"Dad's going to die," I said. I described his illness and started to cry. "The doctors can't say how long, but he's getting worse faster then expected. He's only forty-one. I mean, that's pretty old, but not old enough to die, Root." I thought a moment. "I really don't like calling you 'Root" but what else can I call you?"
This next part was like a dream. When it was over, I wasn't sure it had really happened. Even now, it seems surreal and blurry, though later experiences with "Root" would be clearer.
Right in front of my eyes, the larger of the roots grew upward into the form of a little man. He was about two and a half feet tall, not fat nor skinny, though his tummy was rounded. His "skin" was golden brown and like wood, his hair darker brown and his eyes black. His hands were larger than normal for his overall size and he had no feet since he was growing out of the root. He gave the vague appearance of wearing clothing but it sort of blended into his skin and was of different shades of brown. When he moved, it looked to me slightly out of focus and this frightened me more than his actual existence.
"Call me Drunlowry," he said. His voice, for such a small creature, was deep and mellow.
"You called me."
"You and I are friends," he said. "You know it and I know it. Rare for beings from my kingdom to form friendships with those from yours, but here we are." He smiled.
I felt disoriented and a bit sick to my stomach.
"Are you a spirit?" I whispered.
"Well, I suppose," he said. "As are you. But this?" He motioned down his little body. "This is quite physical. But do allow us to get to business."
It was all I could do to keep from losing consciousness.
He waved a hand in my direction. "You've been telling me how your parent is ill. Would you like me to help you? You know that my kingdom contains a vast multitude of healing properties."
Was he implying he could cure my father?
"Of course I would not be giving this to you for free," he said. "In life, no matter what kingdom you belong to, there is an equal exchange. I need something from you in return."
Since this whole scenario was behaving like a fairytale, what did he want - my hand in marriage? I was terrified. Would he somehow pull me into the ground and I would never see anyone I loved again?
"Your world," he said, "is killing my world. Humans do not understand how the worlds connect. The human who lives in my section is planning to cut down the beech and maple. He was heard discussing with the grounds keeper that he wants to landscape to make his home more attractive and then sell it. The beech and the maple are important to this area - underground we meet, we communicate, we govern the health of the section, do you understand?"
His little brown face was terribly earnest and I understood that as desperate as I was, so was he to the same degree. "What do you think I could do about it?" I asked.
"Perhaps you could make friends with the man and change his mind? Come back when you do and I will help you with your problem."
Instantly, he sank back into the root. I bent down to examine it but it was as if nothing had happened. Drunlowry - was he real? Was I crazy?
At lunch, Dad had a hard time eating. Only applesauce went down easily. Afterwards, I stood at the back of the yard and studied Dr. Singh's house. It was a Sunday; was he home? There didn't seem to be anything stirring that I could see. I shot a nervous glance at the oak tree before creeping the length of his yard, past the two trees Drunlowry had mentioned and onto his patio. Nervously, I peered through the French doors. A lamp was on inside.
"Can I help you?" someone said behind my back, startling me badly.
I whirled to face the doctor. He was a small man, delicate of feature, with medium brown skin and carefully combed gray hair. His large brown eyes seemed made of liquid chocolate.
I stuttered inanely.
"It's about time I met you," he said. "Would you like a cup of tea?"
The tea turned into spice cake and fancy petit fours, the likes of which I'd never seen. "Wow," I mumbled, mouth already full.
"Sweets are my downfall," said the doctor. "I have to limit myself to once a day, so this is it."
He sipped his tea while I looked around. His living room was decorated in a mix of Indian and American furnishings and included a couple of large, abstract paintings. The floors were covered in thick, colorful oriental rugs. His house appeared to be loved. Why was he planning to move?
As if he'd read my mind, he said, "This place has gotten to be too big for just me. I'm thinking of getting myself a condo."
I choked a little on the cake and he gave me a doctor look. "Do you need the Heimlich maneuver?" he asked cheerfully. I knew what that was because of my father. "No," I said, coughing and laughing at the same time.
After I settled down, I said, "I need to ask you a big favor. Please don't cut down the maple and beech trees."
He gave me a curious look. "How did you know I was considering that? The only person I discussed that with was my landscaper. Do you know him?"
"No, I don't and you wouldn't believe me if I told you how I knew about it." My face felt as hot as if I had fever.
"Did he tell someone else in the neighborhood? I've known him for years and he rarely says a word to anyone. He doesn't like people. His dog is the only person he likes, he says."
I looked at the floor.
He tilted his head and gave me an amused look. "You can't tell me, huh?"
I shook my head.
He sighed good-naturedly and topped off our cups of tea. "I've heard that your dad is ill."
"Occasionally, your aunt and I talk. She's a very nice women."
"Yes, she is," I said. How was I ever going to convince him to not cut down those trees? He'd never believe my story and might even urge my aunt to have my head examined.
Suddenly an idea came to me. "Aunt Kathryn is very pretty," I said.
"Yes, she is. Too bad she's so much younger than me." He laughed. "It wouldn't do to rob the cradle."
"What does that mean?"
"It's an expression. It refers to when someone marries or has a romantic relationship with someone much younger than they are."
I studied him. He was quite good looking for his age, whatever that was. "Aunt Kathryn is forty-seven."
"Really?" he said. "I was of the impression that she was still in her thirties."
"No," I said. I dared to ask, "Do you go out on dates, Dr. Singh?"
"Are you asking me out?" he joked and passed me the cake plate.
"Thanks, but I'm full. Well, I wasn't thinking of myself."
He chuckled and stood up.
I took the hint and followed suit. "Thank you for the tea."
"Any time on a Sunday," he said. "It is the only day I don't work anymore, though I do need to do a bit of paperwork."
It didn't seem a good idea to bring up the trees again, not just yet.
When Aunt Kathryn got home, I asked her, "Is Dr. Singh moving because he's lonely?"
"I imagine that has something to do with it. It's been three years since his poor wife died and before that she was sick for a long time."
"Why don't his kids come to visit?"
"I don't know, sweetie. I think one is a photographer for National Geographic and is all over the world and the other lives in Oregon. They're too busy, I guess."
"How old is Dr. Singh?"
She shook her head. "I don't really know, in his fifties, I guess."
"Why don't we ask him over for dinner?"
"I never thought of that." She hesitated. "I suppose we could. All right. You said he's off on Sundays, right?"
Dad did not join us for dinner. He said at this point it was too embarrassing to eat in front of company and he didn't want to make them feel uncomfortable. Mom ate her meal with us but went back to their room as soon as she finished. That left the three of us.
"Would you like me to take a look at your brother?" Dr. Singh asked my aunt.
"No, though it's kind of you to ask. He has good doctors; they do whatever they can. We didn't invite you over for that." She smiled.
I observed the two of them, she with her long hazel eyes and Dr. Singh with his lovely big brown ones. If only they would fall in love. I had to make it happen to keep the doctor from cutting down those trees.
But time passed, my father was now choking on liquids, and nothing was happening in the romance department. Dr. Singh invited Aunt Kathryn to write an article about the women's issues department at his hospital and as far as I knew, that was the end of it.
"Dr. Singh is handsome," I prompted once as she was putting on her makeup and her response was, "He is indeed," and she changed the subject.
In desperation, I ran to the shed and knelt next to the root. Because I was scared, I hadn't been in there since the little man first appeared. My heart thudded.
"Drunlowry," I whispered and when nothing happened, said it louder. My mouth made funny little clicks as I talked because everything inside it was so dry.
The root did not change, but I heard his voice. "I am here."
"I-I'm doing everything I can!" I cried. "I tried to get Dr. Singh not to cut down the trees, but as far as I know, he's still selling the house. Oh please, Drunlowry, please help me. I don't know what else to do."
Time seemed to stand still. The root again formed into the little brown man and involuntarily, I jumped back.
The expression on his little wooden face was sorrowful. "All right, all right, I will help you... simply because it is the right thing to do for living things to aid each other. Perhaps when you are grown, you will do something in return for my world. If I lose my friends, I may die from sorrow myself."
I started to cry, but he ignored it. "The field at the end of the street before the woods begin - you know it?"
I had taken a few walks that way but had not explored it. "Not very well."
"You will go there and into the woods beyond the field and you will look for certain plants, which I will describe for you in detail. You must remember everything I tell you."
I scrambled to retrieve the tablet and pencil from George's table and held the pencil poised.
Drunlowry's face grew scholarly. He waved his hands about as he spoke. "The first plant has tiny white flowers with yellow-orange centers. It will be scattered about the field, more in the center than at the edges. The leaves will look like..." He went on and on and as he spoke, I scribbled and drew pictures. It took a long time and when he was finished, I'd drawn nine different plants. He told me exactly where to search for each one, how tall each would be, how near another type of plant, and many more details.
"Gather these and store them in bags," he said. "Bring them to me and I will tell you what to do."
It took hours. Fortunately, my parents and aunt had enough issues of their own to deal with and left me alone almost every day. I combed the field and woods and while searching at the bases of trees, feared running into a bear, not that bears were common there, but there'd been occasional sightings. But other than an angry bee, nothing bothered me.
"Here are the plants," I said to Drunlowry as I sat a large tote bag on the floor next to his root. He had appeared as soon as I entered the shed and dropped the old wooden bar down on the door behind me, not that anyone ever bothered us.
"Show me each one," he said.
Two were not correct and he sent me back to the field though it was going on towards dinnertime.
"This one and this one, you need let dry," he said after I had returned with the correct plants. "That one, you need to make an extract. I will explain all tomorrow. Store them here for now."
It was going to be difficult doing everything Drunlowry would tell me to do but luckily for me, the next morning Aunt Kathryn took the train to New York for a few days. The cleaning woman was not expected that day and my mother had a migraine and slept when she wasn't aiding Dad. I had the kitchen to myself.
"You have a lot to do this day," Drunlowry told me.
I worked from morning till late afternoon, boiling, draining, straining, pressing, drying. For several hours, I was not a thirteen-year-old girl but a serious, focused scientist. Mrs. Riley would have been proud of me. When I was done, I let everything cool, stored what was liquid in whatever small containers I could find and what was solid in sandwich bags, then carried everything to the shed.
Drunlowry instantly appeared. When I showed him my work, he said, "These you will make into a tea together, and then you add the liquids to it. The key to this medicine is the particular combination. I doubt that any of your kind have ever discovered it."
"He's having trouble swallowing liquid," I said.
"Do what you must. Mix it with food. Force him to consume it twice a day until none remains."
How would I make my father do anything and why should he obey me? But I determinedly walked to my parents' bedroom with the concoction of herbs mixed with applesauce.
"Will you do something for me, Dad?"
He'd been staring out the window but turned to look at me and I felt so much love for him, I thought I might die. "I made something to help you, but you have to eat it. It probably won't taste very good and you'll have to eat it two times a day till it's all gone. Will you do this for me?"
All kinds of things passed across this face and then he simply said yes. For all he knew, I might be trying to put him out of his misery, but he never questioned it. He got the bitter applesauce down and for several days ate the stuff and then it was finished.
The changes in him were subtle at first. He was able to swallow water and then he asked for a bottle of a particular kind of beer, which Mom had to drive to another town to buy. His right hand could suddenly hold a pen again and he wrote his name and then he asked to brush his teeth. He sat straight up and then the day came when he could, with help, rise out of bed and move to a chair. A week later, he stood up on his own.
When he walked into his doctor's office, the staff was speechless. He explained that his daughter had given him an herbal mixture, but they didn't believe him. They were not interested in knowing about it to help other patients. Aunt Kathryn, Mom and I were all with him and no one would listen.
"How did you do it, Emma?" my aunt asked.
She would never believe me. I thought about lying and saying that I'd read about it, but then she would ask to see the source. My mother was not curious, just happy.
"Was it Dr. Singh?" said Aunt Kathryn. "Some Indian medicine?"
"Did you meet someone who told you?"
Now she was too close. "Not exactly," I lied.
I was not only protecting their view of my sanity, but Drunlowry.
"I can never tell," I said. "And that is that."
"I love you, Drunlowry," I told him. But he looked wretched.
"The owner of my area put up notice to sell. It is surely over for my family."
"Will they cut you down too?"
"I do not believe so since I am in good condition and not in the way of their plans."
We cried together.
But something interesting occurred. Dr. Singh's daughter came home from Oregon and moved in. He told us about it over dinner at our house. "It's about time," he said. "She's been unhappy for years but suddenly my son-in-law was arrested. Apparently, he's been conning people out of their money. He is going to prison and she is penniless."
Instead of sounding unhappy about this, Dr. Singh was elated and I understood how lonely he'd been. "I never approved of the man," he said.
"So now you won't sell the house?" I blurted.
"Oh no," he said happily. "Not a chance. Riya and the children will live with me. They're already settled in. Raj and Geena are crazy about the tire swing I hung from the maple tree."
Drunlowry made no more appearances and sometimes I wondered if I'd dreamt the whole thing, though the fact remained that my father was well. He is sixty-five years old now and works out at a gym every other day when he's not working on his fourth book of short stories. My mother has learned how to make pottery and is very good at it. She sells her stuff at local galleries. Aunt Kathryn married a famous editor and lives in New York City while my parents take care of the house. I am now an environmental protection specialist for the Department of Energy and Environment. My main concern is northeastern forests. I will always feel an intense need to give back.