Tuesday, December 8, 2009


I came home late one Monday night to find a package at my front door. The package was pleasantly large and heavy; bigger than a box of shoes and heavier than a bag of groceries. It wasn’t Christmas, or my birthday, so I was taken aback. No matter the reason; I knew I wanted whatever unexpected contents lay within. I brought it indoors and quickly shut the door behind me, herding the cat back inside with my leg. In the kitchen I started at the top of the box, ripping back the packing tape and peering beyond the carton’s flaps. Inside, Styrofoam packing peanuts lie in waiting, and as I plunged both hands into the box they made their escape, scattering about the linoleum floor in a great static-charged flurry. Strewn in the minor explosion was a gift card, printed in cursive to replicate the hand of a person, which read:

Congrats on the house. Enjoy all the projects you will know have.

Before I even read the name, Dan’s face flashed in my head. The worst speller I knew. He was mid-way through a six-month assignment in Afghanistan. Dan, who I had known since adolescence, had volunteered to go as a civilian. And he was being paid a sum; so much, in fact, that he’d be nearly able to pay off the house he’d bought a few months before his departure. Before Dan left, I asked my Father, who had retired after 20 years in the army, whether he would jump at the opportunity like Dan had. I was surprised by his answer.
“No, I wouldn’t.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Battle is an admirable mission. I don’t see any other reason to go.”

I suppose I didn't fully understand. But Dan had placed himself in some degree of danger, and an even greater deal of discomfort. He’d vowed to stay on the Army base he was assigned to the entire time he was in Afghanistan so his options were few. “But how is the food?” I asked him the first time I spoke to him on the phone since he flew out of Baltimore. “It’s ok,” he said. “It’s a mess-hall, pretty take-it-or-leave-it.” Looking through the pictures he would send a month later I would realize the gravity of that understatement; the curves of Dan’s once youthfully rounded face had sharpened, and I’d later find out that he’d lost ten pounds. Ten pounds seems like nothing when someone else loses it. But if I lost ten pounds I’d be out celebrating and buying new pants.

Now, burrowing my fingers through the Styrofoam bits, my hands met something rough; asymmetrical. Spiny even. I poured some more of the peanuts out and saw… foliage. There was a tree inside. In miniature. The technical term, bonsai, doesn’t quite get across the full meaning of its embodiment. For the bonsai contained in that box was nothing like the bonsais I had seen for sale anywhere. Those impostors were houseplants carved down into the shape of trees in miniature. They were like pineapples fashioned into colada cups, or fruit baskets made of melons. Novelties.
I set the bonsai on the kitchen table and sat down, transfixed. The trunk had a serpentine twist to it, like the trees you might see on a safari in the African savannah. I wondered how long it had taken its trainer to cultivate such a shape. Green moss grew up one side of the tree’s trunk (ah, so this was the side that faced North), and sprouting from it grew gnarled branches, some thinner than bits of straw. Looking closely, I was startled to find a tiny white flower, no larger than a pinky fingernail, perched among glossy deciduous leaves.

The trunk’s base was surrounded by rice-sized grains of gravel. I narrowed my eyes and I could picture a tiny man walking among the rocks up to the tree for its shade. He was ancient, dressed in the clothes of a Chinese peasant, and he carried a wooden cane that perhaps he’d carved himself. I sat for a quarter of an hour, playing with perspective, when it dawned on me. The bonsai – it was here in front of me, a houseplant. Change the perspective – it was far away from me, a tree out on the horizon. Here. There. It was both, all at once.

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