By the time Li set out to find Chen, she had long since outstripped him. She knew Meimei would try to use her skills to trace her wandering, but under the spell of the child’s beauty, her husband had likely forgotten the wisdom of an ancient woman, the wisdom that is deeper than the beginning intuitions of a child, the superior ancient knowledge of a woman who has bent and swayed to the heaviness that is grief, that is life. He had forgotten this wisdom long ago. He had put out of his mind that when he proposed marriage to her she had predicted they would be banished from their country to live in a strange land among people they did not understand. He had laughed her away. He had called her superstitious, and for that moment, she had doubted herself. She had forgotten the powers of her mother and grandmother, powers to know what the future held. Li was a man of learning. He had been to university, and she was a simple country girl.
When Chen saw the woman in a box on the American television years later, she knew they were trying to bury the women in this strange country. They were trying to bury them alive and that was why she should have never come, why she should have never married Li, why she belonged with her mother and grandmother, bowing low to gather the wheat. In America they were preparing women’s bodies with embalming fluids and peels that reddened their skin and whitened her teeth and made them appear unnatural, like a corpse laid out for mourners.
On the night of her escape, she wandered through a dark neighborhood until her legs felt heavy as sodden logs. She lay upon a soft tuft of grass and put her cheek against the earth. It was the first time she had lain on the fresh ground since leaving her mother’s home, and she spread some dirt across her nose. It was cool and moist. She dug her toes into the earth as if they were roots of a tree. She closed her eyes and drifted into sleep. She slept the sleep of silent, heavy planets, of a rice field in winter, of baby calves at their mother’s teats. When she awoke the next morning, children were piling into a car in the driveway beside her. She shook her hands at them to see if they would notice, but there was only the sound of rustling as if her hands were made of long sheets of silk or delicate leaves. They did not see her. They did not wave. The children had black hair tied in ribbons. Their faces were the faces of the children of her country, of the child she had been. The mother of the children was the milk white of this country and she turned to watch the car’s backward progress out of the drive and she did not see Chen at all. Chen stood there, for the whole of the morning. She was changing, had already changed, she could feel it, something was happening. Her body had grown stiff and strong and rigid, her feet elongated into tendrils that snaked through the earth. Her hair stiffened into a thousand branches and sprouted thousands of red autumn leaves. Lizards and insects crawled through the ridges of her wrinkled, stiffened flesh, finches and sparrows perched on her outstretched arms and tendrils of her hair. She stood there and did not grow tired. The sun made her strong and straight, the sun of her country had come to warm her. She recognized what she had become, she knew because for all of her life, she had loved and nurtured what had grown from the earth. “I am a Chinese Pistache tree,” she said. And she marveled at this mystery.
The sparrows in her branches reminded her of the Christian man who had come to her village in China speaking of a heavenly Father who cared for sparrows. He had said a Son of this Father had died on a tree to show compassion. Many struggles would soon be upon them, but they were to pray. Around their dinners at night, villagers whispered about this god. They believed he must be a bodhisattva, one who helped others toward enlightenment and nirvana like the Bodhisattva Guan Yin who gave of her own body to save the life of her cruel father. Through Guan Yin’s compassion, her father’s heart was softened, and many sought to be like her. Many used to make a pilgrimage to Fragrant Mountain where it was said she appeared as a goddess with a thousand arms and a thousand eyes. When Chen worked in her garden on top of her husband’s grocery store, she remembered the Son of God and the goddess Guan Yi every time she made a cutting from a tree or plant. She remembered how they had given of themselves for those who had not loved them. She thought she would never have the compassion to do what they had done, but she lit sticks of incense and bowed to honor their memory.
One afternoon, the milk white mother and milk white father sat on the porch with their Chinese daughters. While they were sitting there they began to wonder about the new tree in their yard. No one knew where it came from. They decided it must be a gift. The girls decided it was an early gift from Santa. The colors of its leaves were bright red, like Christmas, like Jesus’ birthday.
The Bodhisattva! thought Chen.
When the sparrows landed in her branches she thought of the god of the man who came to their village. She thought of the God who took care of the sparrow. And when they cut the top of her branches to shape her to provide a cooling shade for the house, she thought of Guan Yin who had given her arms for her father. Her canopy of draping branches looked like a crown of green in spring and a bouquet of bright red in the fall and there was no one who passed who did not observe her beauty.
* First appeared in Best New Writing 2011.