Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Sense of Place: Naked Coral Trees

When you read a book, is the place where the story takes place important to you? Are you more likely to gravitate towards a story if the place is familiar to you--you have your own memories of it, perhaps--or if it sweeps you away to a distant place, a place you have never visited, or even envisioned before?
Here is an excerpt from Apart From Love, where the protagonist talks about coming back to town, and seeing San Vicente Street with fresh eyes--seeing it as it is and as it was then.
The reason I know this place, the reason it ignites such emotion, such passion in me, is not the sight of these homes—but the majestic trees, whispering in the night air. Planted at regular intervals along the median, as long as the eye can see, they are named Naked Coral Trees. Naked because—according to my father—they shed their leaves annually. 
During our walks that spring, dad would point out the tree: Its fiery red flowers, that looked like fat pinecones at the tips of irregular, twisting branches, and the seeds, which in certain species were used for medicinal purposes by indigenous peoples. The seeds were toxic, he warned, and could cause fatal poisoning. I learned that mature Coral trees should be watered frequently—but not during the summer months. In fact, he said, the less water in summer, the more flowers you can expect the following spring.
I cross two lanes of traffic, come closer to one of those Naked Coral Trees, and  with great awe, brush my fingers across the trunk. It is a contorted, elephantine thing, with a roughly textured bark, and thick roots clinging fiercely to the earth. This being early October there are no flowers, no leaves, even. The tree seems to take on a humanoid appearance, as if it were the body of a character, or even several characters, mangled beyond recognition. 
It is a stunning sight, which has fascinated me since childhood. Above me, the bare limbs—some of which have been pruned recently—are branching apart, and looking at them you can imagine a knee here, an elbow there, someone wrestling, someone in embrace. 
As you walk past them, the trees seem to tell you a story line by line, scene by scene. In one tree I could see a man and a woman, kissing; in another, a father and son.


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