The Spirit Tree



Neighborhood: Jackson Heights

Rising, miraculous, precariously leaning in front of the attached one-family, red brick house in which I grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens,  and for years thereafter when my widowed mother was the sole remaining occupant, a towering fir tree loomed twice as tall as the roof and climbing. Having felled all extraneous timber and reduced their own allotted front yard space to a lifeless rectangle of cement, the neighbors to the right and left clamored for it to be cut down, complaining of the risk of it snapping in a storm, the nuisance of  fallen needles, and the racket made by the birds it attracted. But my mother wouldn’t have it. Living alone and fiercely independent, her attachment to the tree transcended insurance risk and real estate value.

A mere sapling when we first moved in, it experienced astounding  growth spurts, more than doubling every decade. I was in awe of its vitality. It grew tall as I stayed small, a magic beanstalk to my Jack.

For my parents, who had fled their native Vienna, the tree conjured up romantic strolls in the idyllic Wienerwald of their youth. And though Jewish tradition precluded a Christmas tree in the living room, come winter the sight of its green needles dusted white elicited an only partially ironic crooned chorus of “O, Tannenbaum!” from my wistful father and a smile from my grandmother, who lived with us until her death at age 91. Hard of hearing, vision failing, uprooted as she was, she liked to sit at the window looking out on that abbreviated forest.

Though definitely not the gardening kind, my parents took a benevolent attitude to nature, leaving weeds to grow wild, bushes to burgeon, and plants to proliferate front and rear. We had no pets, but among the vigorous green things that grew in our proximity was a stubborn shrub that my siblings and I dubbed “the jungle,” on account of its ever-thickening trunk, prickly branches and dangling tendrils on which we longed to swing, Tarzan-style. And dare I forget the runty little fig tree, stunted and rendered sterile by countless frosts, or so we thought, till one day it fulfilled its botanical destiny, drooping with sweet figs!

In 1960, when I was eight, the howling gusts of Hurricane Donna wrought havoc, toppling great elms and telephone poles up and down the block, scattering them helter-skelter like  giant pick-up sticks, forever dispelling for me any illusion of permanence. We feared for our fir, but though it swayed dangerously, branches snapping, needles shedding, the trunk held firm.

Once, in my travels, I happened upon two seemingly identical kapok trees standing side by side at the edge of a village in the Casamance, in southern Senegal, one lush, fluttering and twittering with birds, the other devoid of life. Were the leaves any larger, the worms any more succulent or the shade any cooler on the one tree than on the other? I pointed out the seeming enigma to a wizened old animist who’d shimmied up a nearby palm to tap its fermented sap for palm wine. The old man took a swig from his collecting bottle, before passing it to me, muttering matter-of-factly: “Spirit tree.”

Respectfully skeptical at the time, I have since come to wonder if he understood something that I did not.

Every morning for as long as she was able, my mother’s first public act of the day, after dressing and drinking her coffee, was to open the door and strew breadcrumbs saved from dinner the night before for the birds nesting in her beloved tree.

But following a bad bout of pneumonia that sapped all her strength, she grew listless and immobile, rooted to the couch, ever more vegetative in manner.

“What about the birds?” we tried to rouse her, to no avail.

Call me a fool, but I believe the tree had a hand in her convalescence. The long winter wound down with one last gust that whipped the mighty trunk about and made it rap with its wooden knuckles against the living room window. Roused out of her listless state, my mother remembered she had legs.

She was back at the door the next morning, strewing breadcrumbs for the birds, nodding at the tree whose tilt had come to resemble her own.

Seven years after my mother’s passing, my siblings and I finally decided to sell the house.

The new owners cut down the fir tree.

It’s gone for good. But in the cemetery where my parents lie buried, rising out of a bed of ivy, an obstinate weed with a sturdy trunk, a dead ringer for a tree, spreads its branches overhanging their graves. The birds don’t know the difference.


Peter Wortsman is the author, most recently, of Stimme und Atem/Out of Breath, Out of Mind, a bilingual book of stories, forthcoming from PalmArt Press in Berlin; The Caring Heirs of Doctor Samuel Bard, a work of nonfiction, forthcoming from Columbia University Press; and a second edition of his first book, A Modern Way to Die, forthcoming from Pelekinesis. His translations from the German of Intimate Ties, by Robert Musil, and Hinkemann, by Ernst Toller, are forthcoming, from Archipelago Books and Berlinica Books respectively. And Penguin Little Black Books in the UK will be bringing out a bilingual English-Chinese edition of his translation of the German Romantic classic The Sandman, by E.T.A. Hoffmann. 

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§ 4 Responses to “The Spirit Tree”

  • jason trask says:

    In anyone else’s hands, this would be a tale about a tree. In Wortsman’s hands, it’s a fairy tale.

  • bonny finberg says:

    Thank for this tale of spirit, human and otherwise. it’s good to be reminded that there is good and light among us. Especially at this dark time.

  • Lashon Allen-Owens says:

    I thought of my favorite Bedford-Stuyvesant street from childhood- Hancock Street as I read this story. I also wished to be one of the birds in the tree waiting for the breadcrumbs. Such a warm story.

  • Aurélie Bernard Wortsman says:

    Beautifully written.

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