The only safe place to hide through that long, frosty late-autumn night in 1965 was in a tree. I was an eight-year-old boy in northern China and had run away from the middle of a whipping and beating by my parents, who, even to this day, puzzled me whether I was actually adopted from my mother’s sister who had died young. In pain and fear, I climbed onto my shelter – a fifty-foot-tall walnut tree overlooking our small cottage.
The tree was at least a hundred years old. It was more than twice as large as our house and had a crown like a wide-spreading canopy supported by its coarse, grey-fissured trunk and thick branches. The drying leaves were composed of multiple leaflets, concealing me, a tall and thin boy, in the dark. Lying on my stomach, I strapped my legs around an unwavering branch, holding so tightly to prevent me from falling off that I felt the hard tree barks poking through the oversized, thin clothes that my father had passed down to me. Brushing my long hair, which had been overdue for a haircut, away from my eyes, I looked down through the windows and the half-open front door trying to hold back my tears. I hated myself because I could not stop them from trickling down to my face when I laid my eyes on the dinner table inside. Down there, a family of four, my family, was having a warm dinner under dim cozy lights. A trace of cold breeze sent the enticing aroma of my mother’s familiar cooking into my nostrils. I inhaled. I saw a complete family in spite of the fact that the oldest child was outside of the picture; nothing unusual seemed to have occurred to it. Mother was gently feeding my three-year-old sister while Father ruffled my five-year-old brother’s hair as if the boy had said something funny, probably about his new funky clothes or our sister’s reformed short sassy hairstyle. Suddenly something agitated Father who sprang up from his seat and started pacing back and forth on the dinning room floor, cursing. He looked furious. Then he noticed that the front door was open ajar, and as he walked over to close it, I heard his angry roar.
“I’ll break this little rascal’s leg when he comes back.”
“You’re so useless. Can’t even discipline a kid. Go find him if you want to teach him a real lesson,” Mother added fuel to his rage.
“Nope, no need. He’ll send himself back in when he’s starved enough.”
“What if he hops onto the train and runs away to somewhere else again? You know I just got him back from the countryside earlier today,” Mother cautioned.
“I’ve told you not to worry about it. He has no more places to go or hide,” Father assured her.
True, I had run out of places for rescue; I had exhausted friends’ parents or relatives to ask for help. Besides, I had always ended up being escorted home with their promise to have my parents agree not to beat me up again. With no exceptions, my parents would concur but never failed to imprint more bruises onto my skin afterward. Looking down into the dining room, how I longed to become my little sister who also got marks on her cheeks from not parents’ belts or palms but their lips. My brother, on the other hand, though he did not like such girly affection, as he had called it, would not refuse parents’ constantly placing his favorite dishes into his bowl in front of him. He never had to reach or ask for them. Our parents knew exactly what he wanted. My brother and sister gurgled, a habit they shared as they both inherited Mother’s chubby face while I, who was shivering in the ruthless whistling wind, resembled Father’s bony frame. I bit my upper lip and turned my head away from the poignant scene. I looked into the dark sky through the falling leaves and wondered why my siblings had all the parental love and why I had never been treated the same. I wanted to know why whenever parents were tired or upset, they dumped all their anger, frustration, or blame on me – the unfavored son or simply “the other child.” I had always tiptoed on eggshells at home – avoiding trading glances with either parent or, say, even clearing my throat that might draw their attention – in order not to cause their downfall of smacks and slaps since I could barely detect when they would fly into a rage and I, not understanding why, was punished. “But I am your kid too!” my heart screamed. Now, I had nowhere to go. I could not even take the train to go back to the countryside where Mother had just reclaimed her physical custody of me, her fugitive child.
I had sneaked onto the southbound train and hidden under a bench in the corner, for I had neither had a ticket nor money for one. My fifteen cents, mostly in nickels and pennies from my secret savings, had all been spent on a bowl of porridge that I slurp-finished within minutes before I tongue-cleaned its container leaving no single millet grain in it. The train had departed and stopped once, twice, and as soon as it pulled into the third station, I rolled out from under my hideout and jumped onto the platform. Off I went to the west, toward the setting sun, and onto the dirt road. “Two and a half kilometers away on the right side of the road, a bungalow surrounded by hawthorn trees is my grandma’s place. It is the only home in the area, so you won’t miss it,” I recited my classmate’s directions.
I saw Ming’s grandma from afar as she stood by the front gate regarding me, the slender third-grade city boy, dragging myself along in Father’s hand-me-down, heavy boat shoes all the way to her.
“Ming’s grandma? I mean, are you Ming’s grandma?” I asked eagerly. My mouth was dry and voice hoarse.
“And you must be the young, tough Shen from the city – my grandson’s best friend at school.” Ming’s grandma confirmed with a smile. “I’ve watched you marching on the road from a kilometer away. I figured you were going to arrive on the afternoon train. Ok, come in and have some water.”
While I was gulping a half scoop of water down into my throat, she told me that a relative of hers had brought her a message from Ming in which my friend had pleaded for her acceptance on my behalf.
“Yes, please take me as your own grandson. I can plow. I can pick ears of corn. I can water plants. I can do a lot of things. I just can’t go home because my parents will kill me,” I begged. “Please,” I continued as I pulled up my drenched shirt and showed her the red and purple bleeding map on my back, the real directions that had led me to her.
“You are my grandma too! Grandma!” I called out with a sniffle.
Grandma listened attentively and looked at me thoughtfully. “Shhh … calm down dear,” she comforted me. “Are you hungry? You must be starving. Wait here. Let me fix you some quick cornbread,” she patted me on the head before she turned around and walked into the kitchen. I stood there admiring the kindest grandma, as Ming had assured me. She did not appear to be as old as a grandma should in my imagination, although I had no grandmother of my own with whom I could have compared. She was a dark, short, yet sturdy older lady. There was something in her that made me calm though I tried to keep my guard up. She seemed to know everything about me and understood what I needed; however, there was something in her that made her somehow mysterious. Still, to my relief, I found myself a home and a substitute parent. I did not mind being a farmer as long as I could grow up not as a despised child, a second-class son.
Grandma treated me nicely. Her meals were not the most tasteful, but they were solidly filling and ample. She made the bedding on my portion of the kang, a heatable adobe sleeping platform, so soft and puffy that it wrapped me up. When I tugged up the heavy blanket she had put on me, I felt somewhat safe, like having that hug I had never had from Mother. I was not certain if I was homesick although I thought of home – my home. The next day I tried to help with farm work, which I knew nothing about, but ended up following grandma around in the field most of the time. She was fine with it, and I felt free without being vigilant or in fear. As I eased into a trouble-free country life by the third day, Mother walked into the gate I had passed through.
I did not have to plow or pick ears of corn, nor was I able to acquire myself a guardian grandma, who must have sent a messenger to Ming’s parents about me. In despair, I heard Ming’s grandma make Mother swear to treat me differently; Mother offered to give me a special welcome-home party; consequently, I no longer had to search for a home. I was yanked home, where I found out that the reception was not an empty promise, and there was no lack of excitement. Both parents presented; their clapping landed on both sides of my face, and the feast was in fists and flogs.
“Dare to run away again?” Father hollered.
“Make him beg for mercy. That’s how he’ll remember,” Mother instigated.
More blows came down on my fragile body as pain shot through my spine to my brain triggering sprays of flashing stars in my eyes. “Wanna pick ears of corn? Let me show you how to do it,” Father snarled as he grasped my left ear forcefully with his right hand and pulled it up and down while adding too many twists. The sharp burning pain was tearing and unbearable. However, I refused to beg. I did not answer, nor did I cry. Only two streams of unwanted tears rolled down cross my face to my neck and onto my skinny chest. I did not wipe them off. I could not because my hands were tied behind my back. But I was able to bit my lip again – my lower lip this time – to shut my eyes, to hold my breath, yet not to cry. I did not say a word, not even a single syllable; neither of them could escape my iron-welded month and steel-gritted teeth, for it was will forbidden. My will.
My exhausted father kicked me again, coincidently, toward that half opened door. Out I dashed, and away I ran for life, disappearing into the dark night.
It was getting darker and colder on the tree. I trembled. As the chilly breeze blazed through my cuts and bruises, I curled my body and pressed on my stomach to suppress hunger. I felt wronged and helplessly bullied. I wanted to be bigger, to grow up faster, and to be able to defend myself. One day, I knew that one day I would eventually be as tall and strong as they were. I vowed to take revenge.
But how could I endure through each and every agonizing minute tonight on this tree? I grasped firmly onto the branch in order to stay put. How I wished to become a self-reliant adult! With the indulging delusion, I felt asleep on the tree over my home and into a dream.
In my reverie, I became a tall, well-built man with muscles swelling out on my chest and arms. My voice was so loud and deafening that it could shatter Father’s windows and shake my gigantic walnut tree, and my fierce stare would make other grown-ups quiver. Then, I saw my aged eighty-eight-year-old parents who now had quaky voices and wobbly steps; their backs bent, and their eyes were dull. They caught a glimpse of my bruising glare and quickly ducked their heads. Gingerly trying not to affront me in anyway, they faltered toward me on their canes. “No canes,” I yelled out, remembering how those hard rods had stricken my achy bones. Mother was so startled that she fell, pulling Father with her onto the ground. Alas, she broke her wrist, and Father fractured his hip.
“Ouch!” I woke up. Slowly I opened my eyes, and all the fuzzy images gradually cleared up and formed into solid figures. Zooming in, I began to see that they were those in my family: Mother, Father, my brother, and my sister. Feeling frightened and confused, I asked, “Where am I? What happened?”
“Don’t move,” Mother’s stony warning made me shudder.
“You’re in the hospital,” explained my brother sympathetically. “You just had surgery because you had broken a leg. You fell off the big walnut tree in our yard.”
“Oh,” I uttered, and my heart sank, “Can I still walk?”
Mother looked at me scornfully as Father let out his frustration for all the troubles I had caused them, “Serves you right. The tree has broken your pathetic leg, so I don’t need to. You’ll be a cripple for the rest of your life. See if you can run away to embarrass us again.”
This time I cried my heart out. I burst into tears, sobbed, and sniveled. Heartbrokenly, I felt stranded since even the walnut tree – my symbol of protection and generosity – did not keep me shielded on its branch.
“Now, please go out, all of you!” ordered a nurse who was shocked to have observed our interactions. “Are you the poor boy’s real parents?”
My parents charged to the door as their reddened faces turned to purple, feeling insulted – all because of their troublemaker, me. They did not turn around to look at their lesser child even once. Only my brother and sister’s bewildered eyes never left me, while being pulled away, till the door was shut behind them. I was left alone lying on the bed, weeping.
Wearily, I closed my eyes. Mysteriously, there appeared my big old walnut tree, like a giant umbrella covering me as if to safeguard me. It extended its crude branch hands and rubbed my back to offer comfort, and the withering leaflets were falling like faded brown snowflakes onto my face, shedding its humane tears that mingled with mine. Then, I opened my eyes to make sure what I had seen was real. It sure was. Right before my eyes, standing tall, the tree was looking down at my home, that same small house I fixed my eyes on in that cold, dark night from its treetop. My heart tingled. At this point, it no longer mattered whether Mother and Father were my real parents. I still had my tree.
About the Author: Charles Lee is a Professor of English/ESL at De Anza College in California. Aside from being a recognized scholar, he translates and conducts consecutive as well as simultaneous English/Chinese interpretation. Charles came to America from China about thirty-two years ago and has been living in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife, Helena. They are proud parents of two talented and promising children: Steven and Tammy. He loves sports and coaches volleyball.