The Ancestor Plant
As oldest daughter I knew I would eventually have to care for our ancestor plant, but time burst open when Mother said, "I have perhaps a decade left," and handed me the ceramic pot, swaddled in terrycloth, the leaf-faces peering up at me from their spindly branches.
"You are healthy," I said. But she waved my protests away. I called her every day, but some days she would not answer. You watched me try the plant in each corner, searching for the light. The ancestors held their eyes wide in surprise as the sun began drying out their faces, bit by bit turning the smooth green to wrinkled tan. I called my sick brother, but he said calling him every day would not make him well. He hung up.
You tried to comfort me. "What can I do?" But I hugged the ceramic pot and shook my head. Each corner of the room had rejected the ancestors, and now the confetti-like leaves were dried and curling. A few had already dropped, and a few stuck to my dress. I called my mother for the second time that day. "Is it safe to go out, yet?" Mother asked. I didn't know, but I would have to. The branches were beginning to look like bare spider arms. I was failing. I broke down and asked you to come with me to consult an elder.
The red wagon's wheels rattled on the sidewalk, jumping and bolting over camphor tree roots pushing up from below. A curtain moved and fell as we reached the elder's house. The door opened. The elder eyed the plant and spoke from the door.
"Every day," I called from the walkway.
"Too much. A tablespoon," said the elder. She closed the door.
We stared after her and looked at each other. You scratched your neck.
The door opened again. "Space to breathe," said the elder.
I bent over the plant and untangled a branch. The leaves had wrinkled foreheads and frowny faces. More dried leaves dropped. I asked you if you would try caring for it when we got home.
"It's your family," you said. "The faces on the leaves are part of you."
At home I wrapped myself in rag-tag blankets and asked you again for help.
"But I'm an orphan," you said. "It can't work."
"You're part of my family."
You thought about this.
I stopped watering the ancestor plant. The room spun. I only got out of bed to fix meals. I worked from under the covers. You stepped in and placed the plant on the tiles in the bathroom, waited a few days, then gave it only a tablespoon of water. You tended the plant for several months. It began to grow out green, and I could make out blurry features of my parents, brother, lost child, and ancestors again. I showered.
I tried calling my father, a habit, but he didn't pick up. He never did. Mother called. "You never call me anymore. Your brother is worried. He thinks you were eaten by snakes."
"That's not a thing," I told her.
"I'd cry crocodile tears if you were," said Mother.
I related the conversation to you.
"So many reptiles," you said.
"I'll take over now," I said.
"Breathing room," you said. "Give and take," you said. "Like the elder said," you said. "Step back, but don't run away completely."
I began touching the soil every morning to determine if it needed water, trusting one fingertip to tell me. I checked the angle of the sun throughout the day and moved it out of hot and slanted sun rays. And from each family conversation I determined by tone how long to wait before I should call again. The ancestor plant settled in and grew back; all her rounded green leaves with the lush familial faces smiled good morning. My brother's health improved. A package arrived on the doorstep. I removed the bobblehead doll from the box and set it beside the plant. It looked just like Mother, nodding at me. Finally. But I forgot to thank you.
writes and makes art in a one-square-mile, California city. She is editor of Star 82 Review
, author of "Making Handmade Books," and her stories and poems have been published in Blink-Ink, Gone Lawn
(GL22) and Nanoism
, among others.