The courtyard was still quiet so early in the morning, the neighborhood just waking as Neighbor Lau’s rooster began to crow. The air was already warm, a taste of the heat and humidity that would be unbearable by midday. Seven-year-old Tao knew he had little time to climb the kapok tree before he’d be discovered. He glanced down at the gnarled roots of the tree and felt strangely comforted, a reminder of the crooked ginger roots his ma ma sliced and boiled into strong teas for her headaches, or when his ba ba complained of indigestion.
Tao wasn’t afraid as he shimmied up the kapok tree’s slender trunk toward the broad branches, avoiding thorns on the spiny offshoots of the same tree his father had climbed as a boy, his heart thumping in excitement at the idea of seeing White Cloud Mountain from up so high. From the time he was two, his father would lift him up to look out his bedroom window, or from the second-floor balcony, as they searched for the mountain in the far distance. His ba ba always told him that if he looked hard enough, he could see all of Guangzhou and as far away as White Cloud Mountain on a clear day. With its thirty peaks, the mountain was a magical place for him, and his eyes watered with an effort to glimpse just a shadow of an elusive peak.
Tao could still feel the rough stubble of his father’s cheek against his, like the scratchy military blankets they used at school during naptime when he was younger. But last July, just before his sixth birthday, everything changed. Angry voices filled the courtyard early one morning, his father’s voice rising above them all, followed by the sound of scuffling. He looked out the window to see his ba ba’s hands bound behind his back as he was dragged away by two unsmiling policemen in drab green uniforms. He saw his grandfather trying to push closer to his father, only to be roughly shoved back by one of the policemen. “Where are you taking him?” his mother’s lone voice cried out from the gate. But all he heard was a roar of the Jeep, and then they were gone.
After his father was taken away, when his mother and grandfather thought he was still asleep, Tao heard their low whispers, but when he made his way downstairs, the whispering had stopped. He saw his mother crying and his grandfather sitting in the shadows as still as stone. He wanted them to answer all his questions. “Where did ba ba go? Why did those men take him away? When will he come home again?”
Before he could say a word, his mother pulled him toward her and hugged him. “Ba ba had to go away for a little while,” she told him. He smelled the mix of sweat and the scent of boiled herbs in her hair and on her clothes and he blurted out, “Why didn’t ba ba tell me he had to go away?” But she held tightly on to him and a strange sound came from her throat. Only then did he understand his father was really gone and his questions would remain unanswered. He squeezed his eyes shut so he couldn’t see her crying.
From that day on, his father was no longer there to tell him about White Cloud Mountain. At first Tao was scared and confused, wanting only to feel his ba ba’s warmth beside him and to hear his laughter coming from the courtyard. Tao searched for his father in all the places they had gone together: down by the tree-lined canal, through the alleyways that separated the redbrick apartment buildings, in and out of the crowded, narrow streets lined with restaurants, and in the small shop where his father always bought him sweets filled with red bean and rolled in sesame seeds on their way to Dongshan Park. It was as if they were playing a game of hide-and-seek; he thought his ba ba would have to come out of hiding sooner or later. But he never did.
Mr. Lam, the shopkeeper, brought Tao safely back home, but not before he reached up to the shelves and took down a glass jar and slipped him a piece of candy, the same sugar candy that his mother’s patients often sucked on after drinking an especially bitter tea.
“Don’t worry, your ba ba will be back soon,” he said reassuringly.
Tao nodded, but all he tasted as he sucked on the hard candy was grief.
* * *
For a whole year, his ba ba returned to him only in dreams. Tao felt his presence in the shadows, the calm of his voice, the safe, solid grasp as he lifted him up and into the air, and the sweet scent of his cologne. The idea of climbing the tree had come to him in a dream just that morning: he was perched at the top of the kapok tree and could finally see all the way to White Cloud Mountain and there on one of the peaks stood his father waiting for him.
Tao suddenly heard the slow whine of a door opening and peered anxiously at the balcony. He held his breath and waited, but no one emerged as the air seeped slowly back out from between his lips. Sometimes his mother stepped out in the mornings to check the weather, or to see if she had any patients waiting. On this particular morning, he was relieved to see that the neighborhood was slow to wake.
His mother, Kai Ying, was something of a well-known herbalist and healer in their Dongshan neighborhood, where the quiet streets were lined with once-stately red and gray brick villas that surrounded their courtyard. She was known for her restorative teas and soups that cured many of the neighbors’ ailments. People came and went through the courtyard all day long, wanting her advice to treat some pressing malady. On any given morning there would likely be a patient or two already waiting anxiously at the gate to see her. But only after his mother fed him and his grandfather breakfast did she walk out to unlock the gate and let the first patient in. And it wasn’t until she ministered to the last person waiting that she locked the gate again at night.
According to Tao’s grandfather, it was his great-grandfather, a wealthy businessman, who built one of the first villas in the Dongshan area, once a remote and isolated part of Guangzhou where mostly military families lived. By the 1920s, there were hundreds of villas in the area. Most were two or three stories, designed in the European style with high ceilings and columned balconies. Tao’s family still lived in the same brick villa that was built by his great-grandfather, whose portrait hung on their living room wall. And though his great-grandfather had died long before Tao was born, he felt as if he knew the white-haired, stern-looking man wearing a dark blue silk changshan, standing tall in his long mandarin gown as he gazed down at him. He always thought of his great-grandfather as an intrinsic part of the house, just like the faded redbrick walls, the sweeping stairway and square-paned windows, the second-story balcony, and the wide-open courtyard that was specifically built around the kapok tree. Dongshan was the only district in Guangzhou that had houses with large, open courtyards.
After the Communists came into power in 1949, the two-story redbrick villa had been divided among three families. Tao’s now lived on the top floor that opened up to the second-floor balcony. Auntie Song lived in a smaller apartment facing the backyard, and Mr. and Mrs. Chang, an older couple who were currently away visiting their daughter in Nanjing, lived in the rooms downstairs. They all shared the kitchen, though the Changs kept to themselves and usually took their meals in their room. Auntie Song occasionally ate with them, but preferred to cook the vegetables she grew in her backyard garden on a small hot plate in her apartment. Tao’s grandfather often told him that when he was a boy, the entire house belonged exclusively to his family. Tao couldn’t imagine what it must be like to have so many rooms to run through.
Lately, he noticed his grandfather was repeating the same old boyhood stories, many of which took place in the courtyard, where the tall, spiny-armed kapok tree stood guard. He knew his grandfather was an only son, though he had five much older half sisters. Tao imagined the kapok tree had provided his grandfather with company, just as it did for him. “The tree has been here for a very long time,” his ye ye repeated, just yesterday. “Think of all it has seen over the years, all that it has heard,” he added. His grandfather gazed up at the tree as if he could see the past in each of its limbs.
“A tree can’t see or hear,” Tao said.
His grandfather looked down at him and smiled. “How do you know? It’s a living thing. Just because it doesn’t have eyes and ears the way we do, how can we know it doesn’t feel things in other ways?”
Tao thought about it for a moment. “Just like we can’t see how water and sunlight make it grow?” he asked. His grandfather, Wei, and his father, Sheng, were both teachers. Ever since Tao was a very little boy, he felt their joy every time he asked questions and was eager to learn something new.
“Yes,” his grandfather said, and clapped his hands once. “Exactly like that! So many things happen around us without our seeing or knowing.”
“How old is the tree?”
His ye ye stroked the gray hairs on his chin. “Let’s see,” he said, “I would say it was planted during the Ch’ing Dynasty, the last great Chinese dynasty, so well over a hundred years ago.”
Tao nodded and counted in his head. His grandfather was seventy-one and he was going to be seven. The tree was older than both of their ages combined.
His ye ye and his parents constantly reminded him of how thankful he should be to be surrounded by nature, and how lucky they were to share it with their neighbors. Just four months earlier in the heart of March, his grandfather had marveled at the kapok’s red blossoms that were in full bloom, bold and unafraid. Known as Guangzhou’s city flower, it was a splendid sight. Now its branches looked like a completely different tree, the nut-size pods replaced by lance-shaped green leaves that wavered and blurred in the heat of summer.
* * *
Tao climbed upward now, quick and agile, careful not to look down at the stone pavement below. He grabbed hold of another branch and pulled himself up and onto it, then paused for a moment to look over the concrete wall of their courtyard, which was topped with the same weather-beaten red tiles as many of the other old villas in their neighborhood. His grandfather had told him that each villa’s design was based on the courtyard and garden it contained. Theirs was a remnant of the old Ming Garden architecture, with tiles lining the top of their stone wall. Other gardens in the neighborhood, those without tiles, followed different designs called the Chun or Kui or Jian. Mostly, Tao thought they looked all the same once you were through the gates.
Looking down, the tiles reminded him of his grandfather’s worn mah-jongg tiles all lined up in a row. He heard the rooster crow again and smiled, thinking of Auntie Song, who constantly threatened to quiet the bird once and for all by wringing its neck. “Too tough to eat,” she told his mother. “But boil it long enough and you might have a decent soup!”
Tao climbed higher. His mother and grandfather would be up soon and he knew the scolding he’d get if he were caught. He could hear his ma ma’s raised voice, and see her no-nonsense glare, which stole away all her beauty and made her forehead wrinkle and her dark eyes narrow. He always looked away from her eyes when she was angry at him, and focused on her hands instead, her fingers dancing in front of him. And he could already feel the warmth of his grandfather standing quietly behind him. Then finally, after his tears and apologies, would come the comfort and forgiveness he’d feel when his ye ye’s large, wrinkled hands rested lightly on his shoulders.
Tao looked up through the branches to see an immense hazy sky. The morning air was already growing heavier, the warm humidity filtering through the leaves. His shirt clung to his back and he knew the clouds and rain would return by afternoon. He heard the creaks and yawns of the awakening street rise up to where he was perched. His arms and legs were getting tired. He had almost reached the top of the tree and he couldn’t wait to see all thirty peaks of White Cloud Mountain, regardless of his punishment. Tao grabbed hold of another branch, but quickly let go when the sharp sting of a thorn caught the fleshy part of his palm. He cried out once just as his foot slipped into air. He felt the strange sensation of floating just above his falling body, watching the branches snap and scrape against his skin, followed by the dull thud of hitting the hard surface thirty feet below. Only then did he reenter his body, consumed by an excruciating pain that traveled from his leg all the way up to his head before everything went dark.
Copyright © 2012 by Gail Tsukiyama