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.
I remember one time, during our Saturday stroll, I asked my father for some details about his family. At first he seemed relaxed enough to tell me—at more length than usual—about my grandfather, whom I never met, because he had died long before I was born. I got a distinct sense that dad was, somehow, still afraid of the old man, who had pressed him hard to achieve that which he himself had failed to become: a lawyer.
“So,” I asked, “what did you do?”
A brief laughter erupted on his lips. “I told him that I had registered at the university, and would be majoring in Law, just as he had always wished—but somehow I neglected to mention that the closest I ever came to registering was flipping through an outdated course catalog, while sitting on the toilet, and dreaming about something else.”
“And,” I hesitated to ask, “did he ever find out?”
“Well,” said my father, and in a flash, his face turned red, “if it occurred to the old man that this might have been a nasty lie, he admirably concealed it.”
I listen to his voice, which is still here, echoing in my head, and all of a sudden I grasp that he grew embarrassed not only because of his obligation to his father—but to me as well. Perhaps a sudden sense of shame caught up to him, shame for falling short of becoming an acceptable role model. Or else he had a premonition—a fear, even—of how I would treat him, not too far in what was then the future.
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