Education

  • Issue 95 / September - October 2013



    My Brother's Plum Tree

    Justin Pahl

    I often think of my brother during the early summer. When we moved to our home in Philadelphia, my brother, who was always more ethereal, thought we should plant a tree, so that we could watch it grow. We spent a month deciding what kind of tree to plant, going to nurseries and studying saplings. My brother wasn't pleased with any of them. He wanted to plant a seed, and watch the tree grow from nothingness. "There's a whole tree in this little seed," he liked to say, as he planted plum seeds and mulberry seeds in cups of dirt. These little geraniums filled our house for a month, sitting on windowsills, capturing stray sunshine. He watered them diligently, studying each cup for signs of life. My father, meanwhile, tried to gently convince him to buy a sapling from a nursery.

    "It's very hard to grow a tree," he said. "Just like it's very hard to grow a person."

    "Well" my brother said, "if you and mom could grow me, I can grow a tree." He was eleven at the time.

    By the end of the summer, only one of his sprouts was still alive. He'd forgotten what kind of tree it was ÔÇô in his enthusiasm, he hadn't time for labels. On a Sunday in early September, after church, my family went out to our backyard with hand shovels and a rake. On our hands and knees, we took turns digging in the soft, wet earth. It was a warm day, and the late-season sun spilled like gold filigree through the leaves of our large oak tree. My brother and father, rich earth worked into the fissures of their hands, tenderly planted the sapling. I could tell, by my father's face, that he didn't give the tree a chance. But my brother believed completely, and when the planting was finished to his satisfaction, he stood and said a prayer, a brief benediction and blessing for our house.

    He spent that autumn tending to the sapling. He would water it daily, and measure its progress with a ruler. Against all odds, it continued to grow.

    So, too, did my brother. As the years passed, and the tree grew thicker, my brother grew taller. He fell in love, had his heart broken, lost his way. By the time he left home, seven years later, the tree had grown into a healthy, albeit small, tree. It had claimed its unceremonious space in our backyard. But it hadn't borne fruit, and we had mostly forgotten to notice that the tree was there. We still had no idea what kind of tree it was.

    "A defective tree," my father said one night, bitterly. "A tree incapable of growing fruit." My brother had been gone a year then, and we heard word of him sparingly ÔÇô a postcard from Louisiana, or a phone call from a hotel in Oklahoma. I left home the next year. I took my first trip to Paris, where I fell in love with the city, and a woman, my future wife. Another year passed, and my brother and I did not speak.

    When I received word that my brother had died in a car crash in Texas, I was living in the south of Spain with my wife. She was pregnant by then, a small sapling growing inside her, and when I hung up the phone on my father, the first thing I thought of was what my brother had said all those years before: There's a whole tree in this little seed. I looked at her and thought: There's a whole person in this little seed. Then, naturally, I cried.

    It was late June. We arrived in Philadelphia just in time for the funeral. It was a small affair at a church outside the city, on a small plot of land overlooking a creek. The grave had already been dug, the fresh earth piled high beside it. I remembered my brother's small hands, their crevices grooved with dirt. Afterwards we returned to our house. It had grown quiet in the years since my brother and I had left, and my parents would soon sell it.

    That night at dusk, my father took me out to the backyard. "I have something to show you," he said. We walked barefoot through the grass, the cicadas murmuring in the dense, sultry summer air. When we got to my brother's tree, I noticed something moist and wet beneath my foot. I knelt down. It was a plum. There were plums all over the ground, and more on the tree.

    "It's the first year it blossomed," my father said. "I couldn't believe it."

    We roamed through the gloaming, prospecting the luscious, purple globes from the low branches, biting into the soft flesh, the juices spilling down our chins. They tasted good. As I ate, I picked out the seeds, put a few of them in my pocket. They came with me on the plane back to Spain. I planted them in cups all over our house, much to my wife's amusement. I watered them diligently, checked them daily for growth. When we planted one of the seedlings at the end of the summer, my wife's stomach was already large, and while I worked in the earth, she sat on our porch and watched. "It will never grow," she called out to me. "Seedlings never grow."

    As I write this, our son is playing in our backyard, his small, growing body shaded by the small, growing branches of a plum sapling.

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