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The Day the Trees Cried


Editor’s note: Lois-Ann Yamanaka, author of Saturday Night at the Pahala Theatre and the trilogy Wild Meat and the Bully Burgers, Blu’s Hanging and Heads by Harry, and most recently, Behold the Many, is hard at work on a new novel, with a working title of The Mother Mary Stories. We’re thrilled to offer this excerpt from that work.

Nobody believes me when I tell them.

Everybody calls me a liar.

Or a fool.

Or Linus has a good imagination, they say.

They all don’t believe me.

The day I tell them I heard the trees cry.

My mother Mary talked to her plants all the time. She said that scientists in Belgium discovered that when you pick a cabbage, the plant screams. When you play Mozart for African violets, they turn their little flower faces toward the music. But geraniums don’t like Bach or classical Spanish guitar. That’s what the scientists said. She told me that when I grow up, maybe I could be a scientist who studies the effect of Hawaiian music on her houseplants.

She watered her houseplants every Wednesday. Every third Wednesday, she bathed their roots in Miracle-Gro. The big ficus tree and plump pepperoni plants in the living room. The English ivy and the Painted Girl near the big window. The burro’s tails and spider plants hanging from the l-anai. And the tall Ti trees in big pots in the sunny spot by the dining room table. When I came home from school on Wednesdays, I could see them all standing tall and happy. I could hear them all humming.

I liked their names. They liked their names.

I liked the way she sang to them. They liked the way she sang to them.

I liked the way she picked off their dead leaves. They liked looking neat and tidy.

I liked the way she made keiki, dipping them in Rootone. They liked their strong babies all in a row in her plant nursery on the far end of the lanai.

I thought she was the smartest person in the world. Smarter than Mozart himself. Even smarter than the plant scientists from Belgium. She could talk to her plants. Just like the way she could talk to her retarded son, my gigantic, retarded big brother Dominic.

I liked the way she loved beauty. She put fresh gardenia blossoms in the bathroom. And bowls of pua kenikeni on the kitchen table. Mama had healthy hoya vines in tall vases filled with clear water on the TV. And her favorite African violets, pinks, blues and purples, on the kitchen windowsill.

But when Mama got sad, she did not water her houseplants on Wednesdays nor bathe their roots in Miracle-Gro every third Wednesday. She did not talk to them, nor pick off their dead leaves. At first they said nothing, as though they were waiting patiently for the next Wednesday and the next.

We all waited patiently.

Maybe she would feel better.

She got better all of the other times.

But she did not.

Not this time.

Their throats got dry. They could not speak. They could not sing. They began to droop and sag. They could not lift themselves to greet me on Wednesdays. Their leaves turned brittle and brown.

Mama got sadder.

She did not play Mozart for them or sing their names. She said nothing for a long time. Her face looked gray. She wore the same clothes day after day. Then Dominic made her cry. Then I made her cry. And Father looked tired all the time, tired. I tried to cook. I tried to clean. I bathed my brother. I got him ready for school. I washed the whites with the whites and the color with the colors. I tried to water her plants, talk to them, sing for them each Wednesday that went by. But it was all too late.

“My sadness feels like music, so much music to hear in the world, Linus,” my mother Mary once told me, “but I cannot make the effort to ...” She sat on the couch all morning. “You choose,” she whispered.

She would be gone in two weeks.

“My sadness feels like this dusty ceiling fan going around and around and around. But for what? It doesn’t make the room any cooler,” she once said, before she pulled on the dirty cord to turn it off.

In a car late at night she would leave us.

“Like I want to talk to you, but when you get home, I don’t want to talk to you.”

I don’t know where she went.

“So shut up and sit down. Over there,” she pointed.

Or if she was ever coming back.

It had been days of:

No, I don’t know Jichan’s number.
Take in the laundry. Oh, never mind.
I need a cigarette. Go find me a cigarette butt.
Make Dominic’s lunch.
Fold the laundry. Oh, never mind.
Tie Dominic’s shoe.
Help Dominic put on his BVDs.
Wipe Dominic’s mouth.
Put in a load of whites. Oh, never mind.
Brush Dominic’s teeth.
Did you feed the dogs?
Sign Dominic’s permission form.
Did you feed the cat?
Call the teacher and ask about the bite marks on his arm.
Did you feed the fish?
Did the doctor call in his meds to the Longs at Kam Shopping Center?
Feed the rabbit?
Did Daddy pick up the meds?
The guinea pig?
Why did the social worker call?
The turtle?
What did she say?
Did you feed your father?
What did she say?
Your brother?
Who called CPS?

She lit candles when she was sad. I’d find her sitting in the living room after midnight. She’d be sitting there, her head pressed back against the sofa. I’d see her empty eyes watching the flames snap and jump on the dark walls.

“I feel it creeping up on me,” she said, the next afternoon when I came home from school. “Everything feels unsettled. Nightfall. It’s coming. It feels so empty to see the yellow lights in houses go on or worse, the white-blue of a TV set in the darkness.”

Her voice would trail off as she wandered into the kitchen.

“I don’t want to feel this way,” she said to Father. “This flatlining, this two-dimensional life. I see the two-dimensional people chatting. Talk, talk, talk. They’re saying nothing. I loathe their faces.” I stepped into the dark room. Dominic came up behind me. He put his big hand in mine. Mama looked at me. And then at Dominic. And then at me again. “I loathe your face,” she said.

And then she shut her bedroom door.

For days.

“She’s going to get better,” Father said. “Just let her rest for a little bit. She’ll just need a couple of days.”

I don’t believe him.

And then it’s weeks.

“Feed the dogs,” Father said. “Then make your brother a tuna sandwich for dinner.” He sat at the dining room table. Put his face in his hands. Then he opened a big box of pink wine. It was the first of many boxes I’d find empty in the morning. And Father splayed out on the floor or on the couch. I’d cover him with a blanket, crush the box and clean up the mess. “Throw in a load of whites, would you, Linus?” My father looked at me. “She’ll get better.”

I don’t believe him.

And he knows it.

I come home from school one afternoon. The small, yellow special-ed bus had already dropped Dominic off. Mama must have left the doors unlocked for him.

I heard him crying and I approached the end of the driveway. Howling that loud, animal way he cried. I ran inside the house. He was sitting with his back against Mama’s closed bedroom door.

He was tearing pages out of his Marble Composition book. He was writing letters to Mama, letters that he pushed under the door for her, letters that did not come back. He wrote in his jagged, huge, ugly handwriting:


Mama used to write in his Marble Composition journal everyday. Letters from mother back to Dominic that his special-ed teacher would read to him in school. He started leaving letters for her in her car or under the orange-wedge refrigerator magnet or under her ashtray on the coffee table, letters that she’d answer and leave on his pillow or in his underwear drawer or in his home lunch. It was from her letters that Dominic learned the word LOVE.

My brother sat there with his back against her bedroom door. He was crying his grown man cry, deep sobs, scrawling his letters that would never be answered, shoving them under the closed door until the Marble Composition tablet was empty.

I wiped his face when he let me with the bottom of my T-shirt like Mama did when Dominic cried every time she got to the part where Snow White bit the apple and fell to the floor in the Walt Disney 33 LP records that went ding! when it was time to turn the page. He never got to the part where the handsome prince kissed Snow White. She never woke up, because Dominic started crying with the seven dwarves kneeling around the glass coffin, sobbing his boo-hoo-hoo man sobs.

Still he’d ask her, bug her, pester her all afternoon, every day following Mama around the kitchen as she made dinner or outside as she picked up the laundry from the clothesline or in the garden as she picked okra.

“Se-ben du-wafs. Se-ben du-wafs.”

And she would always relent. Lower the flame under the pot of nishime, leave the washcloths and brassieres on the line, let the okra go for seed another day.


They were the last words he ever wrote. Ever.

Because he never got to the end of the movie. And he was all out of paper.

He never knew, sobbing his big boo-hoo-hoo man sobs.

Crying because he never knew if she ever woke up again.

When Mama left that house, she left us all behind. I heard nothing, my ear pressed to the closed bedroom door. So I opened the door, a small crack. Still, I heard not a word. So I peered out of the window:

See the shadow, slip of a woman, down the stairs and into a waiting car. Hear the engine start. Whose car? Mama leaves. She does not roll down her window to look back. Does she cry?

Father does. He sits alone in the dark dining room, his face in his hands. I hear him through a crack in the door.

“Oh, Mary, this trouble, Mary, this trouble.”

Mother, our cat, slips into the bedroom. She squeezes herself into Dominic’s bed. She rubs her face on his face then curls into the curl of his body.

Does he know?

Sad, sad Mama left because of him.

He traces the M on Mother’s forehead, over and over again. M for Mother Mary, the Madonna. M for Mama, our mother, Mary. She purrs, her heartbeat, breathing in and out, the purr of sleep’s rhythm. My brother closes his eyes. A tear falls. And then another. And another. But soon, he is asleep, mumbling, “Mama.”

I know.

My mother Mary will not come to me any more. We are trouble, Dominic and me, constantly troubling her. She can’t do it. She can’t do it all. All the little things. All the big things. Putting out fires at the school, at the doctor’s, at the church, at the store, in the bank, in the car, at home. All the time fires. A raging inferno. He’s burning. I’m burning. She’s burning. All the pain. Too much pain. Stupid, put out the fire. Stupid, he’s a retard. Don’t you get it? Make it stop. Make it stop.

And then.

It does.


She leaves.

One night, after my father had finished a whole big box of pink wine, he threw her plants out one by one out the front door. They were stunned. They were silent. They tried to stay inside their pots. But they were so dry, their pots rolled off and away in the wind.

Days and nights, days and nights, the big ficus tree, the pepperoni plants, the English Ivy, Painted Girl, African violets, burro’s tails, spider plants, ti trees and hoya vines lay quiet and still on the front lawn.

They did not want to draw attention to their needy selves.

One morning, Father got a machete from the garage. He started with the outdoor plants. He hacked the gardenia bushes, the white gingers, the honohono orchids, the pink lokelani rose that climbed the trellis outside her bedroom window. And then the banana, pua kenikeni and plumeria trees. They bled sap from their cut limbs, bleeding, bleeding all over themselves. All over each other. All over the lawn.

Then he hacked the dying houseplants until they were bits of branch and leaf all in a heap.

I quietly stepped out onto the lanai. He had gathered up all of the babies from the nursery on the far end and thrown them into the incinerator. That was when I heard the trees crying. The plants sobbing terrible boo-hoos. The little limbs and branches, every leaf, every bud wailing. Dominic followed me outside. He looked at what our father had done. He covered his ears. His lips withered. They were all screaming now.

Father turned to look at us. “Go inside,” he said. He wiped sweat from his forehead, wiped his glasses with the bottom of his T-shirt. Couldn’t he hear them? They were calling her name.

You don’t have to believe me.

Nobody does.

They call me a liar.

Or a fool.

Or Linus has a good imagination, they say.

But I tell you, the day I heard the trees cry, I listened closely to what they had to say. I took my brother’s hand in mine and together we saved pieces of limb and vine. They said they could be beautiful again, each in their own pot full of fertile soil. Give them time. Give them care. Each Wednesday. And one day, they said, what I already hoped, maybe we would all sing again.

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