2021 Porch Prize Winner in Nonfiction
I was awestruck the first time I saw a plant move of its own volition. As though it had a brain, a body. As though we were not so different. I was deep in the jungle of Costa Rica, the first time visiting your reservation—what your ancient people have been left with after most ancestral lands were stolen by conquistadores old and new. Look, you said, gently brushing the back of your fingers across a small stringy plant hugging the hard-packed dirt it was growing from. It recoiled from your touch, drawing in upon itself, pulling its leaves flat and tight against the stem they sprouted from. In an instant it became a thin dark line instead of the greenery I had just seen bright against the dark earth.
What is it? I wondered.
La dormilona—Sleepyhead, you replied.
I crouched down, poked it again and again with childlike glee, looked around for more. This being upended my concept of what a plant is, can be, and I was delighted to make its acquaintance. You bent down toward my ear.
Enough, you snapped. People are going to think something is wrong with you.
I quickly straightened, tried to look nonchalant. Drew into myself, pretended none of it meant anything. Not the plant. Not your words, nor your tone.
It would be years before I realized your words were not truth. Your people pay great attention to the natural world, and would not have mocked my interest. When I walked through the jungle with one of your brothers or sisters, one of our nieces or nephews, they would often stop and point out an individual in what to my eyes was a mass of indistinguishable green. They would run their hand over a leaf, reach to bring a vine closer for my inspection. They knew the name of every living thing in their native tongue, and invited me to stop, take note, meet each one, understand whether it was beneficial or harmful. A skill I could have stood to learn much earlier.
The next trip, I brought a gift for my sister-in-law, or je mu as she told me to call her in Bribri. It was a specific Maglite she had requested, not sold in Costa Rica. She wanted something weighty, durable, substantial. Something metallic a woman alone in the jungle could defend herself with, not the plastic crap sold in local markets.
In the era before online ordering, I had taken the trouble to find a store that carried it, brought it home with big batteries, packed it carefully in my hiking backpack, and carted it on a taxi, two airplanes, another taxi, three buses, a dugout canoe, another bus, and a long dirt path over two days of traveling. I gave it to her, as happy about not having to haul it around as I was about her delighted smile. The instructions fell out of the package; I bent to pick them up, handed them to her, said In case you have any questions about how it works. Suddenly, your lips were in my ear again, hissing,
We. Don’t. Read. Now everyone thinks you are incredibly rude. You made such a fool of yourself, and embarrassed me. I can’t believe I brought you.
Je mu’s eyes narrowed, watching, wondering what you were saying in those sikwa words picked up in the States. I shrank under your scolding, sat down on the wooden bench, back against the rough wall, drew into myself once again. It made no sense because you were just as well-read as I, had wooed me quoting passages from The Canterbury Tales by heart. The subtext: you were reminding me you had a big family to align yourself with and I didn’t. You would choose them, and no one would choose me. You were warning that I was just an outsider, as I had been my entire life, looking in at those who could cast me aside for any misstep. You were making sure I knew I was other, that we might share a bed, a life, a business, but my acceptance was conditional. I was good enough to stepmother your daughter, to cook her meals and wash her clothes, give her rides and sing her lullabies, but my gifts could be rejected at any time.
It would be years before I realized those words weren’t truth either. One day, je mu pulled a box carefully out from under her homemade wooden sleeping platform.
These are my studies, she said proudly, tenderly lifting out sheaves of papers, notebooks full of deliberate script.
Her handwriting was nicer than your sloppy scrawl.
I always saw you writing and knew you would be interested, but couldn’t tell you when you didn’t speak Spanish.
She explained how she never got to finish school because of starting a family so young, and the lack of educational resources on the reservation. She was grateful things had changed, now listened to classes on the radio and attended them at church, as well as an adult class at night when her grandchildren weren’t using the school. She had learned to read and write not only her indigenous language, but Spanish as well. She was working on a culturally sensitive translation of the Bible into Bribri. She spoke of the written word with obvious reverence.
My goosebumps didn’t come from the tropical breeze blowing over my sweat-damp skin. This was the woman you had told me was illiterate. The sister you had claimed was horrified by my suggestion that she read a few sentences of simple instructions. The one you said was ignorant of book learning and had no desire to be otherwise. The one I tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to hide my love of words from so as to not offend, not to appear elitist. She deftly destroyed the barrier you had built with your lie, and it kept us from each other no longer.
Later, my other sister-in-law finished erasing the fears you had inscribed on me, the ones I had thought were permanently inked in hues of derision and scorn. Walking down the path to the bus that would carry me away, she took my hand, pulled me close. She spoke loud enough for you, walking in front, to hear.
You are always my mu. If you divorce, you are welcome in my home as often and as long as you want to stay.
Hey, you shouted indignantly. What about me!?
She shook her head, That depends. I’ll have to see.
You laughed and kept walking, assuming it was a joke. Always sure of your place. She stopped, her brown eyes boring fiercely into my blue ones, not letting go of my hand: I mean that. Don’t you ever forget it. I don’t want to lose you.
Now I wonder if she saw something in her brother long before I did. Or if she saw something in me—if she knew that after 40 years of shrinking into myself, protecting myself, making myself small, I would finally decide to flower.
The pandemic hasn’t allowed me to run to my sister-in-law the way I wish I could, but I have faith as tall and sturdy as the giant kapok tree that when I finally make it to her thatch-roofed rancho in the rainforest, her brazos will be open wide, welcoming me. Her sister will be nearby with her books, ready to teach her niece and nephew who were born among the sikwa but who hear the call of their land, their people, their language, and come ready to learn. I will bring the children and my love and an open heart, and none of it will be rejected. Because I will no longer be watering concrete, mistaking it for soil.
I felt even more akin to la dormilona when I learned that in English it is called the shame plant. Its movements are the ones I have made since being born to a cruel woman. That was my first drawing inward. I learned to hide my foliage, to keep myself from being trampled. I knew I wasn’t meant to be admired. That I didn’t deserve to take up space. That I belonged down low, pressed against the earth, not tripping anyone who dared step on me. That kind of tending was all I knew, so when I matured enough to leave that first plot fertilized by fear, I simply found another. Finally, when I had withered into a dry husk, unwatered by love, I saw that if I stayed there, I would never be able to unfurl. I would never flower. I would never reach my full height, or know what fruit I might bear. I decided I wanted my young son to see me flourish in the fertile loam of liberation. I put out a shoot, and when you reached out with the usual contempt, you were shocked to see that I didn’t flinch. I was no longer sleeping, nor ashamed.
When I hear that the motion of la dormilona’s leaves has something to do with ions, I immediately stop listening because I don’t want to know. This time, I prefer mystery. For once, I desire magic. I want something that defies logic, breaks the rules. May la dormilona inspire me, and may you be astounded when I don’t behave as you think a woman should.
I used to have a braided ficus tree inherited from a dear friend. People would admire the perfect plait, its malleability, its obedience to the domestic design imposed upon it. But I couldn’t bear to govern its growth, instead let it expand unrestrained for the next fifteen years. It became a rowdy bush perched upon a tamed tress, looking as if it were grafted onto something not itself. Eventually, a fungus got into the soil, slowly stole its ability to thrive, to even stay alive. The way depression ate at my friend’s soul. Neither of them able to survive their affliction.
The first time I saw a strangler fig in your homeland, we were strolling along the azure edge of the Caribbean. When I admired the intertwined pattern reaching up, up, up toward the tropical sun, you told me the beauty I was marveling at came at the expense of the tree originally underneath the lacy shell. That the fig had climbed up another living being, used it to get where it was going, and killed it off. I was torn about how to feel. I was writing my philosophy thesis about the intersection of aesthetics and ethics, arguing that one cannot enjoy beauty without considering its cost. I loved what I was looking at, but knew I should mourn what allowed it to be. You shrugged.
Why do you always overthink everything? That’s just the way things are.
Neither of us knew the 9-foot ficus back in our Minnesota home, gift of my friend, was kin to this massive arboreal structure towering above us. That we were in fact harboring a parasite aspiring toward the sky at any price, kept small only because it was confined to a pot in a foreign land.
Like you, the ficus spends the first part of its life not rooted to the ground. When it finds a host, it starts putting down roots, adheres to what has already been built, grows bigger, stronger, thicker, higher. Eventually, its roots encircle those of the host tree, cutting off water and nutrients. The very thing that gave the fig form, allowed it to thrive, cannot meet its own basic needs.
The host dies, and only the strangler remains: Beautiful. Intricate. Empty.
Some scientists suspect the ficus may strengthen the native tree, support it in a storm. That the extra scaffolding may help it survive hurricanes. This is an illusion of symbiosis—while the tree may feel supported, may imagine itself protected, may enjoy the closeness, it is ignorant of its own slow slaughter. To see any benefit, it must be blind to the gradual loss of freedom, of food, of photosynthesis. It must not realize it is being murdered by minutia.
You are not the type to help me survive a storm. You who saw my grandmother’s funeral as a chance to cheat, my mother’s long dying and death as an inconvenience distracting me from doting on you, the memorial of my cousin, whom you called “brother,” as an interruption in your work schedule. I could never collapse in your arms the way you did in mine at the morgue that held your brother’s body hostage. You have never held me up in any way.
It took me almost 20 years to realize that the matapalo of Costa Rica was what people call strangler fig in English, which is the same thing as the houseplant referred to as ficus, what scientists term ficus aureas, and that it can also be known as husband. It took me that long to realize how much I had been choked off from myself, how little I was rooted in the earth of my own life, how you blocked the sun that would sustain me. You thought I would remain rooted in place, slowly dying in your custom cage. But I am not almendra, toronja, guava, mango. I am not carambola, pejibaye, maracuya, guanabana. I bear fruit the likes of which you have never seen, and which will not be your harvest.