I don’t remember their canopies or the shape of their leaves, only their trunks. They were whorled and bulbous—disfigured like the trees painted into a fairytale’s haunted forest. But they didn’t appear in forests at all—they were out on the open savannah, and sometimes, by the roadside, an old man or woman, similarly disfigured with age, would sit in the shade of the gnarled trunk. Often, the women would be working with the baobab bark, pulling it into strips and weaving them into baskets and rugs. Before they could begin their weaving though, the women had to moisten the fibers to make them supple enough to shape. So they chewed on the bark until their mouths were dry and the bark was soft enough to be rolled into a rough thread that could be twisted into different forms, as I might twist a string of words.
After a while, I grew tired of seeing giraffes, zebras, and elephants outside the car window, but in the time that I lived in Zimbabwe, those baobab trees never faded into the background—each one had written on it a story of resilience. Baobabs weren’t simply wise, as all trees are supposed to be. Such a word would be a disservice. The baobab was hardened, like the skin of the people who sat beneath it, grown tough from so many years of sun.
I don’t remember my first word, but there is something in me that wants to say it was “peach,” a word that would come with a pronounced beginning, and linger beneath my tongue just long enough to shape the next sound before releasing it: fully formed, round. I cannot tell you why it would have been that fruit, and not another. I never had much of a fondness for peaches, probably because peach yogurt tasted a bit too much like medicine. I only ate the canned peaches, and then, only when they were poured over a bowl of cottage cheese, so that the cottage cheese kernels were laced with the sweet, sunlight-colored syrup. I didn’t like them any other way—eaten whole, like an apple, the velvet skin distracted my lips, and when I got past the skin, and my teeth scraped down to the peach pit, what was left looked like something a cat might cough up—irregularly shaped, and wrapped in slightly soggy fibers.
Even in peeled wedges, I didn’t like peaches; they were too slippery to hold. Besides, peaches bruised easily, and I found bruised fruit off-putting, no matter how many times my mother cut away the brown spots. It was something about knowing the susceptibility—seeing it, and so knowing that even if the rest of the fruit wasn’t brown, it could well be, might as well be.
I knew that such thoughts were foolish—foolish was a word that I learned from Laura Ingalls Wilder. My father read me her books before bed when I was five—I had the boxed set, each volume with a different colored border around the cover illustration. Little House on the Prairie, and Little House everywhere else, was probably intended to teach me about hardship, but I wished desperately for that life. Feeding chickens in the morning, building a homestead, and beating back forest fires with wet burlap bags. I romanticized the life of those pages—I wanted to be in a place where the days were long and the stakes were high, where my hands would grow tough as I cleared the land and created a home. In that life, I knew, I wouldn’t care about the too-soft flesh or the velvet skin; I’d be boiling and canning peaches it for the winter ahead.
Winter was a very different thing for Laura Ingalls—it was cold inside and out, and if you wanted a drink of water, you had to melt it over a wood stove. I knew what that was, because we had one in our house, and my father would build the fire when the days got chilly. But the only thing I really knew about cold was that it allowed for snowmen and the building of forts.
I remember one winter in particular: I’m not sure exactly how old I was that year, but I know how deep the snow was, or at least how deep it felt. It came up past my waist, and my dad had to shovel out a path from our back door to the garage. It wasn’t quite the same as unburying a woodpile to keep from freezing, I knew, but I still felt proud walking along that path, between the banks of snow. My gait was stiffened by snowsuit layers, and I swish-swished my snowpants through the silent cold. Between those banks of snow, I could transport myself. I could mold the snow with my mittens and with my mind, and I could see myself snowed into another sort of home.
The other thing I associated with peaches was pears, which seemed to be their paler counterpart. Pears grew in orchards, I knew, because my Opa grew them. I never visited the orchards when I was young, but they were there, because every year he would send us Ziploc bags filled with dried pear slices. They were brown, like the bruises on a peach, but they tasted faintly of honey, and so the color didn’t bother me. Whether or not the pears had been bruised before they were dried, it was impossible to tell, and I was okay with that. Often, Opa would send Chinese mushrooms as well, which were also dried and brown, but they didn’t have a honey-like taste, at least I didn’t imagine that they did—we never ate them. Whenever a vacuum-packed bag of mushrooms would arrive, my father would add them to the growing pile in the basement, bags upon bags of fungi sealed there in the dark.
Opa sent the mushrooms whenever he had been to China, where he did his research. I now know that his work there was studying ancient religions, but when he was sending mushrooms, the only part of his research that I knew was what he called expanding earth theory. He wrote a book about this theory, called Mother Earth Was Once a Girl—a book I never read, but whose title I adored. A girl at the time, I read myself into the title’s words. There was a whole world for me to grow into, a world to become.
In fact, the book had nothing to do with girls, and I knew that. Its title explained the idea that the earth began as a small crustal ball, and as it expanded, the crust was split into continents, and the oceans rose up in between. According to Opa’s theory, the earth is still expanding, but at a rate too slow to perceive. I liked that idea – that the ground beneath me was living and growing too; that every day, the world was a bigger place. I thought it must be like James and the Giant Peach, in the movie, where the small orange fruit keeps growing and growing until it’s larger even than the tree that bore it. Only it would happen in slow motion, of course, over millions of years, and instead of fuzzy peach skin, there would be oceans and continents.
In grade seven, I studied plate tectonics in science class, the theory of Earth’s continents that is widely considered to be fact. It says that the continents move and shear along the boundaries of massive, shifting plates that make up the Earth’s surface. Where the plates meet, mountains are built, volcanoes form, and earthquakes split the world apart. A keen student, I brought a book into class with my Opa’s alternate theory, and my teacher dutifully placed it at the back of the classroom, “on display” in a place where my classmates’ young minds were unlikely to be lured by alternate truths. I was surprised that our textbook, and our teacher, presented theory as though it were fact.
Theory, as I understood it, was closer related to idea. And ideas were where my preferences lay. I liked the idea of a planet growing, whether it was true or not. It made a good story. Like the stories my dad told me about his informal assistantships to my Opa—how he would inflate one balloon inside another, a mini model of the earth, so that Opa could pop the outer one, making note of where the latex tore. It made a sort of poetic sense—the continents being torn apart. A tear leaves a jagged edge, and that, to my young eye, was the defining feature of the world’s landmasses. When I drew maps, that was my strategy—if I couldn’t remember which direction Africa curved, I would make its edges so jagged that its orientation became ambiguous.
When I divided the continents into countries, I drew jagged edges too. It would have been easier for all concerned, I thought, if people had been willing to divide their lands along straight lines, but it seemed that even when an expanding earth hadn’t done the splitting, there was a sort of tearing that happened when countries divided themselves, leaving jagged edges and two different colors to be filled in on the map.
As ugly as that tearing apart seemed to me, I learned that sometimes, the results could be beautiful. Zimbabwe, where I spent a year at age seven, was shaped like a rough teapot, and at its spout was Victoria Falls, which I always drew larger-than-life, spilling back into the teapot’s body. By age seven, I knew that no authority would have shaped the country with such an image in mind; I knew that when Zimbabwe had been torn from Botswana and Mozambique and South Africa and Zambia, the shape of its remains had been happenstance. Sitting in a classroom in Harare, in my starched school uniform, I practiced outlining those accidental contours, and they took shape in my mind or beneath my hand as something more—not just a teapot, but a place I cared for, a place I knew.
In the year I spent living in that teapot country, I learned to love the acacia tree. It had sharp thorns and delicate leaves, and all of its branches stretched upwards until they reached a plane level with the sky, upon which they could spread. If continents and countries were torn, then acacias were stitched. With crochet hooks, they mended the skies, and when the sun was overhead, their shadow-stitches fell upon the ground and mended the earth as well.
When I first learned to sew, I didn’t mend things; I made new ones. Mostly pillows, for they were simple, and required no pattern. I liked to improvise: any scrap of fabric could be converted into a resting place for a doll’s head. My mother wasn’t much of a seamstress, but she had some quilt batting left over from an old project, which I repurposed as the stuffing for my pillows. When that ran out, I turned to cotton balls, which made admittedly lumpier cushions, but my dolls didn’t seem to mind. Besides, I didn’t play with dolls so much as I created for them: I made beds, chairs, tables, and clothes—whole worlds. There was a thrill in building worlds and homes. Perhaps it was the same thrill that would later drive me to antique malls and homeware stores, searching for worn picture frames, wingback chairs, and modern chandeliers, dreaming about other people’s houses and my own.
Perhaps it was that same thrill that turned me towards writing—once the cotton balls and batting were used up, I found that paper, too, could serve as a substitute. Not to fill the pillows, but to engineer new ones—pink satin, placed on a canopy bed with sheer curtains that filtered light in the same way as an acacia tree.
There were two more trees that I cared for: the birch, and the willow. The birch I loved because I could peel its bark away, because, unlike the baobab, its skin was whispery white and thin, supple without any addition of saliva. Some pieces of birch bark could be held up like screens to the sun, and the slightly sturdier strips, I could write on. Of course, paper was far more practical, but I liked the idea that, if stranded in the wilderness, I would still have the tools for the craft that I was beginning to covet. One time out in the woods, I collected a grocery bag full of birch bark—more strips than I had words to fill, and I kept them in a corner of my bedroom until I had filled the equivalent in ordinary notebooks, page by coil-bound page, at which point I finally cast the birch-skin away.
To the willow, I would commit no such stripping of skin. I liked simply to watch it, weeping, and to brush its tears gently with my fingertips as if I were the wind.
I liked drawing as well as writing when I was young. I loved to draw trees: their graceful swoops, their lattices of branches. I put trees together in entire landscapes, but I never drew people. I never learned how. I sketched eyes too far apart, noses too crooked, or necks too thin. No matter how long I studied each component, I couldn’t bring them together into a recognizable image. It seemed to me that there was always something my crayons couldn’t capture in a person’s face—something that I could see, but couldn’t create with colors on paper. So I turned to black and white instead. I wrote portraits of places and people and times, and all of my letters somehow wrapped back around themselves to write a part of me. With words, I could weave my world into a recognizable whole, like a baobab basket, or a girl-sized Earth.
And where the world didn’t provide a complete story, I could create one. I could write about a peach tree that I’ve never seen, one with shorter stature, and widespread branches that end in pink satin flowers with thin veins. I could write about the way that its long, full leaves wrap around those blossoms and shade them, shielding their tender petals as they shed each one to reveal the soft flesh of the peach. I could write about how the peaches grow, from green to yellow to orange, how they fill with sweet nectar that weighs them so heavily they can barely hold onto their branches. I could write about how the peaches fall, how it feels to hit the ground and roll, bruised, over hard earth, how the susceptibility of soft skin can also be a sort of strength. I could write about how the leaves will fall too, in their turn, leaving branches that hold on to nothing but the sky. And from the sky, I could write my way back down to the earth, where a single peach pit managed to survive—picked clean by birds and dried in the sun to reveal a pattern of fissures and peaks and valleys that could almost be a world of its own. I could write about what happens there, between those wooden ridges, about a little girl and her very first word, and you might believe that it was real.
Erika Luckert is a writer from Edmonton, Canada. She holds an MFA in Poetry from Columbia University, and was a nominee for the Canadian National Magazine Award in Poetry. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Room Magazine, Denver Quarterly, Indiana Review, Asymptote, The Belleville Park Pages, The Prairie Journal, and others. She lives in New York City, where she teaches creative and critical writing. www.erikaluckert.com
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative, the coming-into-language story. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.