The Tree of Life

Fiction Week

By Mike Barretta

It seemed as if we were always waiting. My mother, sister, and I would wait on crowded piers or on endless acres of tarmac waiting for the assault ships to shift colors or the auxiliary power units on the C-17s to wind down. Off the brow or down the ramp, they would come and the crowd would cheer. Flags would wave. They all looked the same, weary and whip-cord thin, weighted down with monstrous packs and mixed emotions. They were just as frightened as we were.

            At home, my mother kept him safe, giving him time to adjust away from the punctuated terror, crushing discomfort, and camaraderie of war. His eyes searched for things that were new or out of place. He would sit on the back deck that overlooked the saltmarsh. His face would crease with worry and anticipation – visibly uncomfortable in the stillness of his alien home. My mother would play Johnny Mathis, his favorite, and he would smile and lean back into the chair.

            War has a way of focusing the mind. There are no bills to pay, report cards to worry about, or lawns to mow. There is just the war, a singular consuming imperative, and it takes a long while to adjust to the trivialities of real life. His last homecoming was different than the rest. Of course, this war was different than the ones before. My mother knew this and gave him space. When she thought him ready, she would let us go to him.

            “Are you okay, dad?”

            He would nod. “Yea, yea, of course, get up here,” he would say.

            I would crawl up, competing for space with my older sister.

            “Ah, good thing. This dumb Marine was just about to float away. Thanks for holding me down.”

            I grabbed his hand and held it up, splaying his fingers, segregating the nub of his pinky finger from the rest. It was a point of embarrassment to him to receive a medal for so small a thing as a pinky finger, but he more than made up for it with the broken ribs, burst lung, and fractured skull from the overpressure of an IED explosion that accompanied it. His tattooed  dosimeter, a half-inch dot on the underside of his wrist, displayed a cautious yellow.

            I ran my hand across the nub of his finger. The scar tissue was oddly smooth. “Gross,” I said. “Did it hurt?”

            “You bet it hurt,” he replied.

            My sister and I would lean back into his warmth and count the dragonflies. Hundreds of them crossed the evening light, capturing mosquitos on-the-wing over ribbons of silver water. He propped his feet on the railing, offering his toes as resting spots for the dragonflies. When they landed, we called them by name. Banded Demoiselle, Brown Hawker, Ruddy Darter, Four-Spotted Chaser, Globe-Skimmer.

He knew them all.

*****************

            My older sister joined the Marine Corps against his wishes. He never said what he wanted, but I imagine he desired what every father hopes for his daughter – to marry a man that would love her as he did. Still, he was never so proud of anything as to when he pinned her Naval Aviator wings on her at NAS Whiting Field. In that moment, I wished I was her, a brand new Second Lieutenant on stage with her father, a First Sergeant with a Navy Cross. She took up the family business as if there was no real choice in the matter. Some families just serve.  

            She flew Ospreys, the ones armed with Hellfires and 20mm guns. While executing a fire support mission, her ship and another had collided, meshing blades and shattering the rotors. Both tiltrotors had gone down in a fifth-generation war that pitted formless brutality against hyper-technology. The investigation was lost to the expediencies of war. Who cares whether it was her or the other that had turned the wrong way. For the dead, there were no more lessons to be learned.

            My mother couldn’t accept the flag…couldn’t touch it. The honor guard handed it to my father and he clutched it to his chest in a raptor’s claw, whitening his knuckles, holding so hard that he pierced his palm with a thumbnail and blood ran down his wrist as if he was squeezing it from the national ensign.

            I was nineteen when Meghan died. I don’t remember exactly how I felt. It seems so distant and remote. I do remember my parents fighting after Meghan’s funeral. My father’s need for solitude clashed violently with my mother’s need for contact. Ugly silence gave way to pointless accusations.

            “You’re not the only one!” My mother screamed. “You’re not the only one. You don’t get to be special in how you feel. If it wasn’t for you and the damn Marines, we would….we would still have her.”

            “She was my daughter,” said my father.

            “My daughter too. She was mine. All your damn oohrah.”

            My mother retreated to the bedroom and left him to lean on the deck railing 

            “Dad?  You okay?”

            “Hey,” he said. He wiped his eyes. “Yea, I’m okay.”

            “Are you sure?”

            He looked to the ground. “No,” his voice cracked

            I hugged him, pulling him close. Dangling medals and the gold buttons pressed into my chest. Meghan’s death did to him what no war could. It made him smaller. No grief can compare to a mother who has lost a son to a war, except perhaps, for a father that has lost a daughter.

            My mother joined us and we held on to each other, afraid to let go lest we all float away.

            Whippoorwills called and fireflies merged with the stars. My father was home. My sister was not. Soon, I would leave.

*****************

            Days after my sister’s funeral, my father came to me in the early morning. “I have something for you.” 

            I followed him to the shop behind the house. The shop was his retreat. He made flag display cases and presentation displays to honor careers. He also made wooden boxes, some so small that only a single engagement ring could fit inside, some large enough to be considered furniture. He called all his boxes hope chests and he gave them away to friends and family. I remember one Christmas all of our presents were in boxes he had made. I loved the smell of freshly cut wood and carefully oiled tools.   

            “Up there. Pull it down,” he said.

            From the rafters, above lengths of oak and cedar, I pulled down a rolled carpet wrapped in heavy brown paper. I set it on the floor. My father knelt and untied the twine that bound the carpet. He unrolled the carpet across the shop’s wood floor and smoothed out the wrinkles. Morning light caressed the carpet’s silk threads. It was beautiful and I wondered why he kept it wrapped in paper, hidden from everyone.

            “In Iran, I bought a carpet,” he said. “We were in a mountain village, far enough away that we could relax our radiological gear. I had tea with the owner. He needed money to escape into Turkey before the wind carried fallout to his village.”  He sank to his knees and bent over, supporting himself with his hands. He placed his face against the carpet and breathed deep. “It smells like Iran.” He swept his hand across the carpet and a shimmering silken wave of light flowed across the threads. “The carpet is done in the tree of life pattern.” he said softly. “Come here.”  He lifted a hand and grabbed my sleeve, pulling me down. “Just watch.”

            The carpet was hypnotic in its beauty.

            “Dad, I…”

            “No. Just watch a little bit,” he said.

            The magnificent tree swayed in a spring-perfumed breeze. Jeweled birds darted amongst the myriad delicate branches, nesting and feeding. Animals crowded the base of the tree. Glorious flowers budded and bloomed. Insect buzz, amphibian croak, and bird song filled the shop. The flowers faded and the tree bore fruit that ripened and fell to the ground. Striped tigers, fierce lions, and immense bears dragged down leaping deer and sprinting antelope. A pair of lovers danced into view. The leaves fell and nourished the soil for the cycle to start over.

            “Sometimes, when I dream, I see the burned woman,” said my father. “She has no hair. She turns her head back and forth to see because her eyes are flash-blinded from the detonations. She carries something that looks like a burned doll. She asks for help and I do so. I shoot her. But there are more like her, and we can’t help everyone. There aren’t enough bullets. We don’t have enough bullets to help everyone.”

            “I’m sorry, dad,” I said.

            “Can you see it?” he asked.

            I leaned forward and studied the carpet, trying to see what my father saw.

            “That leaf is wrong. All of the leaves have five points except that one.”  I pointed at a leaf on lower branch. “It has four, someone made a mistake.” 

            “No, what you see as a mistake is wisdom,” said my father. “Perfection is the province of God and therefore unattainable. That’s what the rug means. Nothing is perfect.” He teased the threads of the four-pointed leaf with his maimed hand. He spread his hand over the different leaf. “It’s just like me,” he said. “All you can do is try.”      

            “Who made it?”

            “The owner’s wife started the rug. His daughter finished it for her dowry. The groom’s family demanded more and when it couldn’t be paid, her in-laws burned her to death with cooking oil. The mother died from grief. The father murdered the groom’s family and reclaimed the carpet.” 

            “Damn, dad, that’s a terrible story.”

            “I know. It makes me wonder how something so beautiful can be connected to something so terrible. I come out here sometimes after I dream of the burned woman and I just unroll it and…I don’t know, just look at it. Sometimes, I just need to. Do you understand?”

            “I think so.”

*****************

            I come from a family of service and sacrifice, but I did not join the Marine Corps like my father and sister. I joined the U.S. Navy and deployed on board the USNS Samaritan, the world’s largest hospital ship and the U.S Navy’s contribution to the Multi-National Humanitarian Expeditionary Force. Once construction is finished, her sister ships, the Savior and Salvation will fill out the rotation. There are parts of the world that are horrifying for their level of human suffering. For the disaffected and disenfranchised, misery is a powerful recruiting tool and that is what we seek to undermine. For my part, I fly logistics and medical evacuations in a MH-70 helicopter. I fight on a different front than my father and sister.

When I had finished flight training, my father pinned Meghan’s wings on my chest.    

            On the side of my ship, an artistically inclined mechanic painted an image of my sister dressed out in one of the old-style green flight suits. Behind her, an Osprey soars amongst sunlit clouds. The whole image blends into the tactical gray paint. The pin up is a bit sexier than the reference photo I gave the mech. Her smile is edged with seduction and a bit inappropriate for a helicopter deployed to a hospital ship, but the mechanic captured something in her eyes that is all her, so the painting stays.

*****************

            I have a daughter, her name is Meghan, and she told me she wants to be a Marine like her grandfather.

            “Don’t ask me where she got that idea from. I didn’t fill her head with such nonsense,” said my father. Softer, he added, “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

            He spent a lot of time with her, practically living in my house while I deployed. He said it was to help my wife out, but it was really because he was lonely since mom died and the chemotherapy treatments from the war cancers were wearing him down. He was still lean and Marine, but a lot slower than he used to be. Sometimes he forgets things, but never the things he wanted, or needed, to forget. When he visits, he unpacks a photo of himself and mom standing at the top of Oahu’s famous Haiku stairs trail. He proposed to her at the summit, and another hiker took the picture. Their arms are wrapped around each other. Her left hand with her engagement ring rests on his chest. Hawaiian rain forest, softened by cloud frame them. He would place it so he could see it while lying down. At night he would press his fingertips to his lips and touch mom’s photo.

            He did the same with Meghan’s photo. She is standing in front of her Osprey, her blue eyes visible above the dark aviator glasses held at the end of her nose with fingertips. Her hair is a windblown tangle behind her. She looks fierce and feminine and all Marine.

*****************

            When my father last visited, my daughter took him by the hand and led him down to the end of the boat dock to watch the mullet jump in the evening light.     

            “Do you know why you love me so much?” she asked.

            “You tell me,” he said.

            “Because we are so much alike,” said my daughter.

            “Yes, we are,” he replied.

            I fear the day when I find out exactly how much alike they are.

            My wife set the outside table. The air was soft and cool and a breeze kept the mosquitos at bay. Dragons and damsels coursed across the sky on blurred wings. The outside thermometer read 68 degrees Fahrenheit and the dosimeter showed green. When my father and daughter returned from their adventure at the end of the pier, we sat and ate.

            “I have some news for all of you,” said my wife.

*****************

            I named my son William Victor, after my father. One halcyon morning, I saw that he had taken the small flat-bottomed skiff we used for fishing. He never came back. Deep in the salt marsh at the end of a labyrinth of narrow waterways, there is a small island. Upon that island is a giant oak. The tree of life spans the 100-foot long island with its immense branches. He left a note and all it said was, “I’m sorry. I love you.” 

            Twenty veterans a day commit suicide in the United States and that rate has been consistent since 2017. The only answer I can offer is that sometimes the war kills you years later. War is like the ocean. If steeped in it long enough, it becomes part of you.

            When I need to, I stand barefoot upon the tree of life and cry for my father who came home broken, my mother who held him together as long as she could, and my sister who never returned. I think of the mother and bride toiling for years to craft something pointlessly beautiful. I think of the blind burned woman who haunted my father’s dreams. I pray they are in each other’s good company.

            In my study, the morning light slants through the windowpanes and illuminates the carpet, and I can hear the rustle of leaves and the flutter of wings. I can feel the soft grass beneath my feet. The lovers embrace beneath the tree of life, and I feel better.

Mike Barretta is a retired naval aviator who works for a major defense contractor. He holds a masters degree from the Naval Postgraduate School in Strategic Planning and International Negotiations and a Masters degree in English (creative writing) from the University of West Florida. His stories have appeared in Apex, Redstone, New Scientist, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and various anthologies including the Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide, War Stories, and The Year’s Best Military Sci-fi and Space Opera.

Featured Image: “Bounty Hunters Chase” by Etienne Beaulieu via Artstation

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