Walking humans are walking around, as if they were somnambulant sleepers walking out their sleep. Walking around a vacant parking lot. Tracing the perimeter of the parking lot. You pay very little attention, generally speaking, to parking lots—they simply exist as backdrops, as peripheries to the fields of your perception; they constitute the horizons of what you see and hear but are themselves neither seen nor heard.
And there you see. What you see is something that is quite different from what you were expecting to see. What you see—is an immense tree. A mighty upside-down tree, surrounded by a swarming crowd of humans. A tree with roots in a hole from which a milk-cataract flows.
In a shocked silence, the humans watch the tree tower into the sky.
You walk on to the parking lot.
You circumambulate the crowd.
Through the mass of electric bodies, you see a flutter of activity. Residents of Chicago have dug open the giant tree, hollowing out a hollow. They are peeling off the rough bark. Children and their mothers have climbed into the opening. They have decorated the cave, the hollow of the hallowed life-tree, with talismans and totems: television sets, Wiis, video-game consoles, smartphones, iPhones, iPads, iPods, and computers. The crowd is clapping, applauding the invaders of the tree.
What kind of a tree is the tree?
To all appearances, incredibly, it looks for all the world like a baobab tree. A towering baobab tree, forty-one feet tall. A stretching baobab tree, a tree with stretching branches, branches that are stretching upward. Some wayward political dissident must have transplanted a baobab tree from Sub-Saharan Africa to the North Side of Chicago. (Or perhaps from Madagascar, Australia—perhaps even from India.) And not just any baobab tree, but a full-leaved baobab tree, a baobab with shivery green leaves.
It, the tree, has a fat braided trunk, and that is the most remarkable thing about the tree: the braided fatness of the trunk.
The brown trunk resembles, from where you are standing, a cluster of fat tubes braided together. The trunk is tremendous, a vast reservoir of liquid.
And then there is a ragged tangle of branches, extending upward, like some insane hat of antlers. More precisely: the branches look exactly like roots. This is an upside-down tree. It looks as if God hurled the tree from heaven and the top of the tree sunk into the ground. A bolt impaling the earth.
In the shadow of the spreading baobab tree, pandas and flamingos are playing with one another.
Overnight, you hear someone say, the tree has grown five times its original size.
An old man is climbing the baobab tree, his hands grabbing interlocking branches, his legs grappling the trunk. His son is below, gripping a digital-video camera, filming his grandfather as he ascends the tree.
The scraggly branches of the baobab tree, distended fruit dangling from their tendrils, sightlessly watch it all.
Through the hazy mist spread the boughs of the life-nurturing and nutritive baobab tree.
Swooning with joy, you look over the vast baobab tree.
Two myths spring to mind. In one myth, at the dawn of creation, the hyena was given the baobab as its vegetative likeness.
So revolting was the tree to the hyena that the animal uprooted the tree and stuck its branches into the earth, its roots dangling upward like helpless legs. The hyena sniggered and cackled.
The second myth: The first of the baobab trees was so lovely that it swiftly fell in love with its own loveliness. The divinities, surmising that the tree admired itself only as gods may admire themselves, decided to limit the baobab’s celestial ambitions. To punish the tree for its vanity, the gods buried the head of the tree in the deep earth.
There are at least one hundred city-dwellers and tourists in the crowd. You can hear the crowd sigh, the heaving crowd, the collective sigh carrying over the parking lot, the sigh. Of what? Of amazement.
Deserved amazement. Vaulting into the sky, the tree is as vain as its legend suggests. Vain and solitary. You recall that there was a time when names meant what they were supposed to have meant, a time when names and things joined hands. And this gorgeous baobab is everything that a tree should be and more. It shades the crowd below it, it refreshes life.
You are too absorbed in the tree to pay much attention to the gawkers and gapers in the crowd, but you feel their corporate smile. You imagine that they are feeling the same thing that you are feeling—the delight that comes with self-renovation—and you are a little saddened by this imagining. You are jealously protective of your feelings, proprietary toward your feelings. Why should your feelings belong to a stranger in the gathering mob? Gaping gawkers and gawking gapers.
The crowd is alarmingly silent. No one can understand how a tree of this immensity could have grown overnight, could have germinated from the milky water that is mysteriously bubbling up from the recesses of the city and around the tree in a spreading puddle. Baobab trees are not slow-growing trees, it is true, but who ever heard of a tree growing overnight?
You see old women kissing the rough bark of the baobab tree. The tree is suffusing them with a new youth. It has a rejuvenative effect on their withered skin. The baobab tree is a brightener, a bliss-maker, a happiness-inducing tree.
Leeching on the tree, sucking its sap, the humans are draining milk in long draughts. Their clothing is heavily damp, moist with milk, wet with shiny milkiness.
Before you, two men in their forties. One is wearing a yellow T-shirt, white shorts, sunglasses, and brown sandals. His hair is a mass of red tendrils. It looks as if a Red Devil Squid is squatting on his head and wiggling its red tentacles. The other is wearing a lavender T-shirt that reads Your Mom’s New Boyfriend, beige shorts, sunglasses, and black sandals. He is bald and swings his arms as he talks.
The man with the squid-like hair says:
—Two trees—I mean, really beautiful trees—were cut down. And now there’s this big thing right in the middle of the parking lot. The city will cut it down, too. But I don’t get how it got here.
Conversation is a way of passing time before you die.
You glance furtively at the scraggly head of the tree, its cragged outline mottling the beclouded blue sky. Its branches are rowing back and forth.
To your right is a girl on a bicycle. She is wearing a Schwinn Adult Women’s Flower Bicycle Helmet, rhinestone tortoise-shell sunglasses, and a shiny white tracksuit. She is not looking at the tree, but the tree is looking at her. She is daydreaming about somethingorother.
Daydreaming is the fruit that grows on the tree of boredom.
Look at the man to your left. Corpulent, mid-twenties. He has a brush cut and is wearing an orange Cougar Hunter T-shirt, white shorts, brown sandals, and a Military Quartz Sports Watch. His hands are hammy, grasping a Coleman Inflatable Ice Chest (red) and a Stainless Steel Thermos (blue). There are sweat droplets on his neck.
His girlfriend or friend-girl—you presume that it is his girlfriend but have no immediate evidence—is wearing a Tell Your Dad to Stop Sexting Me T-shirt and is viewing the tree through the viewfinder of her digital camera.
And at this moment you acknowledge what you did not perceive before: that nearly everyone in the crowd is framing the radiant baobab tree with digital cameras and mobile telephones, photographing the tree, and relaying images of the tree to social-networking sites and video archives.
As you observe the crowd, it strikes you that, far from feeling rejuvenated, the crowd now regards the miracle as something that is almost routine. Yes, there was amazement at first, but now the crowd has ceased to marvel at the baobab tree that blossomed to fullness at night, the inexplicable presence of a tree in a city where no such trees have ever before grown.
What was once incomprehensibly exotic has quickly become familiar, has sunk into the everyday. The members of the crowd, having snapped their snapshots, take their leave. New members supplant them.
You feel a certain depression as the crowd dissipates and the human beings return their ears to their mobile telephones and their fingers to their keypads, twittering and chatting about what they had witnessed.
Dispirited, you leave the scene. Dispirited: How could so many regard a miracle as routine, as something ordinary, as a banality? A baobab tree sprouts at the joining of two streets, and no one cares.
You remember what you have read about the baobab tree. It is a tree that, according to most accounts, gives life. Fruit bats descend at night to suck the nectar of the baobab tree. Genuflecting elephants furrow the trunk with their tusks, the tree-grooves bleeding water, water that is stored away in the hollow of the tree—the sheltering, life-nourishing, life-generating baobab tree.
The baobab tree flowers only at midnight. It is a quick-birthing tree. And in the night, the baobab tree fruits its fruitage, white fruit that dangles from long green stems. Last night, this baobab, your baobab, sprouted its fruit—foot-long, gourd-shaped fruit that now hangs from the branches like so many blood-bloated sleeping bats.
What will become of the tree in the winter? It is a hardy tree, a tree that can endure one thousand years of abuse. Will the tree be uprooted, and will the parking lot be restored? Yes, perhaps. Until that day, the baobab tree will offer refreshment to those passers-by who seek refreshment.
Was the tree transplanted from somewhere else? Did the tree grow from the milk that suppurates below it? These are the whispered questions that you can hear your mouth whispering, whispered not out of discretion, but out of wonderment. You nod your head silently: Yes. Yes, it is likely that the roots of the baobab tree are suctioning milk from the milk-gorged hole.
But these are all academic questions, really. There is only one real question to pose:
Is the sea-child buried in the baobab tree? Is this the burial mound of the sea-boy?
You recall reading about an African burial ritual in which corpses are interred in the hollows of baobab trees.
In the night, the fruit blossomed and dropped from the vine. They fell, plopping on the tar. The watchman watched, surveying the immense tree. The fruit hailed down. The thick husks of the fruit burst, exposing their seeds, seeds that were ensheathed in a sheath of pulpy white goo.
There was a dog in the parking lot. The dog bounded. The dog inclined its head toward the seeds, the seeds that were encreamed in the white pulp. The dog licked the pulp, pulverized, from the seeds. The dog devoured the seeds. The dog absconded, the seeds in its body.
Copyright 2014 by Joseph Suglia