Fiction / Annalise Burnett
:: Bristlecone Pines ::
Aaron’s father used to tell him the story of his birth, in the middle of a blizzard on the coldest day of the year. Five and a half weeks early, he was born blue and shriveled, struggling to breathe. His parents watched him from the other side of a glass wall as his weak lungs tried to cry, watching his chest fall, not sure if it would rise again. Over and over again, the collapse of tiny ribs followed by the unexpected, habitual inhale.
While his mother waited in the hospital, his father went home to care for his other two sons and continue the long family tradition of planting trees on the mountainside for each new member born. The land was cold and dark, but he hiked deep into the mountains, carrying a sapling, little more than a twig. When he arrived at the family grove, where the other trees stood waiting for him, white with snow, he dug. He dug through the ice until he found the rocky ground beneath, and planted Aaron’s tree there in the frozen ground.
“And when I came back to that place and the tree was still alive, I knew you’d be okay,” Aaron’s father used to say.
“Why those trees?” Aaron asked, because he liked listening to his father’s answer.
“Because they live in lifeless places,” he said. “Some of the oldest living things on earth are bristlecone pines.”
Fall burns deep in the Colorado mountains. The slopes turn amber with dead grass, and the ferns and shrubs follow in reds and browns. The only thing that does not change are the evergreens, which dot the sides of hills, waiting to bear snow.
Aaron drives home in his company car. He watches the mountains slowly rise above him, backlit by stars. The empty seat next to him is filled with fast food trash and empty energy drink cans. The back seat is filled with one over-packed suitcase and another case filled with pharmaceutical samples. In this car, he refuses to drive above the speed limit. He goes from place to place, selling medication to doctor’s offices without any rush. Living on the road suits him—he never has to be the same person for very long.
Since the last time he has been home, Aaron has had a year of low sales numbers and taking his own samples in half-rate hotel rooms, feeling dizzy as he watches reruns of ’90s sitcoms. He keeps waiting for a phone call or an email that says he’s just not cut for this. Find a new job, best of luck. Every morning he wakes up and doesn’t have to turn in his car, his sample case, and his move home is a relief.
As he enters his hometown, everything is remarkably different and uncomfortably the same. In his mind, the town and everyone in it exists as it did when he was a child. There are still the same stores and people working in them, the same eb and flow of travelers. At the house, his father is still coming through the door, kicking off his hiking boots, a hint of smoke on his breath. He smells like the wilderness; he looks like it too with his hair that’s gone white early and his sun-cracked cheeks. His mom is cooking dinner, healthy and hardy, and Emerson and Jack are arguing over who gets to watch the TV, who gets to drive to school the next morning. Some past version of himself is still waiting to be told that dinner is ready in his room, reading old comics and ski magazines. He used to sit on the floor, pressed into the far corner of the room, and wait for his father to open the door—he’d know him by his dark socks and faded jeans—and call him in. Come on son, how was your day?
As Aaron pulls into his mother’s driveway, he reminds himself. His father is cast across the mountains as ash; he has become gray snow. His sons have scattered with him.
A year ago, Aaron drove home without planning to after ignoring phone calls from his father. He remembers watching his father’s caller ID light up his phone as he sat in a meeting trying to sell an experimental treatment for nicotine addiction. When he finally answered, it was his mother crying on the other end, and then his brother’s voice cut in.
“Where the hell are you?”
He broke his rule. He drove as fast as he could, and still didn’t make it in time. Aaron remembers thinking that his father didn’t end as he should have. He thought the man would hike for another twenty years, and then one day hikers would find him three days frozen in a snow drift, finally defeated by the elements he faced so often.
Withering in the hospital, refusing any kind of life-lengthening treatment, when there was no lifesaving available, that is unimaginative, unfitting, boring. That is how other people die, not his father.
Aaron learned after his death that his father had been two men. There was the Emmitt he knew, the man built of tall tales, who knew the hills and valleys, who hated maps, who named every peak, pass, and star. And there was the Emmitt who came back from the mountains and smoked and drank until he was kicked out of one bar and then went to another, until he couldn’t remember his own name, much less his son’s.
Aaron learned that his father went to the doctor alone—received test results which were so definite they were shocking. He refused every treatment, remained himself, or the two versions of himself. He didn’t tell anyone, didn’t think it mattered.
When their mother found him coughing up blood, that’s when she found out. From a white-coated doctor, and by then she wouldn’t tell his sons for him.
Aaron received a call from his father, barely strong enough to speak, five hours before he passed.
He had let them all go to voicemail. One day he was huge, too huge to be real, the next day he was ashes in an urn. That is what the three Becker sons said goodbye to.
There is nothing like the drive home after a long absence, where you see everything for the first time, because the habit of ignoring it has gone away. The town looked smaller than he remembered, and so did the mountains, like it was all shrinking underneath his feet. The house was the same when he stepped inside. The only change was more space, fewer clothes, boxes of old flannels and worn-out hiking boots waiting by the door. How long had his mother known?
Emmitt hadn’t wanted the fuss of a funeral, but they gave him one anyway. There was an annoying number of people there, to say goodbye to a man that had told no one he was dying. But what did they want, for no one to come? Every guest said the same thing, about what a shock it all was. They give timid hugs and eat cheese off of toothpicks. Then they leave, and the house is just as empty as it was before, scattered cardboard boxes and empty bottles that their mother had stopped throwing away.
That afternoon, as a family, they hiked up the mountains to that place there deep in the hills that only the family knows where the family is planted. There is the Emerson tree, the Jackson Tree, the Aaron tree, and towering over them all, the Emmitt tree. The family has chosen bristlecone pines to plant in the name of each child for their hardiness. They exist in contradiction: to give them too much water, warm air, or lush soil would be to suffocate them. Here and only here, on the southern slope where wind cuts into stone, is where they have learned to endure. The Emmitt tree is its own inconsistency, taller than all the others. It looks like wisdom and growth. They spread his ashes at its base, and this is their only goodbye.
Home for the first time since the funeral, Aaron rings the doorbell of his old house. His mother answers, and she hugs him in the foyer. He catches the scent of floral perfume. That is new, not connected to any memory of her. He feels as though he is a dinner guest and that he should have brought a bottle of wine or side salad with him.
“How long has it been?” she asks, and neither of them answers. Even though it’s a Saturday, her eyes are lined with chocolate-colored liner. She’s wearing a pink sweater with a matching puffer vest over it. Warm but layered, that is the rule of this place. He tries to remember if her hair was that gray the last time, he saw her or if her face had so many lines. He thinks of how her skin looks like tissue paper, waiting to rip.
“I’m glad you’re home.” A single look past her tells him that the house has been gutted. All that is left of the place is blank white walls and empty rooms. “I’m moving, and I need you to figure out what to do with some stuff for me.”
Aaron doesn’t understand. For the second time, he has come home only to find that there is no home left. The place has moved out from under him. The white walls of their small mountain house have been scrubbed clean. Pictures of the family on skis, of scenic views, and family reunions have been loaded into unmarked boxes. The books have been stripped from the shelves, and all furniture is missing. Aaron has set his foot down into empty space. He shouldn’t be surprised, but he is.
He sits at the kitchen table, across from his two brothers who have already arrived. Emerson, a stiff pilot with red eyes, greets him with a loud “what’s up.” He gives Aaron a bone-crushing handshake, as if he wants Aaron to hire him for a job he’s not qualified for. The other, the climber, looks up at him from under his oversized beanie, nods. Jack, who wears drug rugs and lives out of a van, blogging and picking his way up sheer rock for a living. He is sporting a scraggly beard. His fingers are hardened and swat with thin chipping nails.
There is a moment before they eat when they look at each other and try to remember. Aaron imagines his mother without gray on her hair, Emerson smiling, Jack without a beard. He remembers following down the ski slopes in winter, clawing to catch up with them. Now they are strangers, meeting for the first time, supposed to know each other from somewhere else.
As he eats, Aaron looks at the last picture on the wall. It is a picture of his father Emmitt in full ski gear, with two poles in one hand, a cigarette in another. He isn’t smiling, he’s just looking forward through his mirrored snow goggles, about to throw the cigarette into the snow, pull a mask over his face, and plunge down the mountain. Skiing always feels like falling, like the world is slipping out from under you, he used to tell Aaron when they stood together at the top of a slope. The more you fight it, the more you’ll lose your balance, tumble into the snow.
“I’ve already bought a condo in southern California,” their mom says, smiling like she has practiced it in the mirror. “It’s right near the beach, sunny all year long, no snow blowers needed.”
“Mom, this is our only home,” Jack tells her.
“Look, here’s what you should do, Mom. You should take a little bit of money out of your retirement, just a little, and you should use that to buy a little condo in, and then rent it out half the year,” says Emerson, leaning over the table.
“Already bought it,” she mutters, rolls her eyes.
“And you live there in the winter. That way you can make nice new friends in a different place, you don’t have to worry about getting snowed in. And then in the summer, you come back here. Rent the other place out, make your money back.”
“What’s the point of that if tourists would always be here?” Aaron asks Emerson, accusing without meaning to. “We should just keep it.”
The three sons argue by nature of who they are like beta fish dropped in the same tank. Aaron cannot remember the last time they all wanted the same thing. They go back and forth, making grand plans for their mother, and talking of how they will either rent the place, or that she could give it to Jack, how he would pay her back. Aaron tries to imagine himself moving back only to pay rent to his younger brother. He bites the inside of his cheek and argues for something better. Just keep the house.
“Dad would have kept it,” says Aaron.
She purses her lips, exhales hard. This is the right thing to say. “Your father would also leave empty beer bottles and cigarette packages all over the house when he came home, and leave me to clean it all up, to stuff it in my purse so you boys wouldn’t see when you woke up.”
Aaron has never imagined this version of his mom, the exasperated wife she forced herself to become. He tries to make his breath quiet, so it doesn’t break the curtain of silence.
“Your father was like that, wasn’t he. A year dead, and it’s still all about what he wants.”
“The three of you don’t have anywhere else, I know that. But don’t blame me for it. I’m choosing my own place now.” Her painted on façade has melted, and now her back is stiff, and her hair pulls itself out of its pins. Emerson and Jack both lean onto their hunched arms, staring into their empty bowls of chili.
Aaron mutters, so quiet almost no one hears him, “What else will we have of him?”
“What else will we—” she echoes in a breath voice, looks up at the ceiling. “What can we still want from him? He didn’t exist in the first place.”
Aaron knows that you become the place you live. He imagines his mom every night calling bars and hospitals, worrying, relieved when he comes home, angry when he wakes up hungover. He imagines her waiting patiently by lamplight, reading a book she can’t focus on. These habits would not be part of her family, it would not be something that was acknowledged. To her sons, it was all vague and far away. They only knew it was something their dad did over there, like golf or playing cards with friends.
She has been in this family longer than her sons, and there is no tree planted for her, because she was not born into it.
She takes a deep breath. She has pushed her gray hair from her cheeks, and her voice returns to normal. “If you love this place so much, buy it yourselves. I’m not coming back.”
There is nothing they can say to that. This is the place they fall back on in the quiet of their minds. It has made and unmade them, and they have never really left.
She walks away without cleaning the table and goes into her bedroom and closes the door. She isn’t mad, she is final, and that is worse. There is nothing left for them to do but move on.
They go to visit their father in the morning, though there is nothing left of him. He is blown into the wind, dissolved into the ground. All the remains are the trees that grew him, the bristlecone pines. The tree planted for him is taller than the others. It looks ancient and tired, but in its whole lifespan it is still young. It will outlive all memory of Emmitt, the father, the drinker, the mountain man. When the town in the valley below is abandoned and the mountains sink into the earth, in by inch, sliced by wind and rain, these trees will be here, enduring.
Of the six trees in the grove, three are planted for people who are still living. They refuse to look like trees. They look like certainty, sitting squat and sturdy. They patiently inch their way toward heaven, one century at a time. They do not grow many needles because they do not need them. The bark wraps around itself in coils. As Aaron watches them, he thinks of the coldest day of the year on which his was planted, when rocks and frozen ground were enough.
Aaron packs what is left of his life into cardboard boxes. His room is stripped down only to the bedframe. Bookshelves, the chair, nightstand, have all been sold away to pay for new condo furniture. Aaron holds a black trash bag in one hand and piles Power Rangers figures and Legos into it.
“We could give those to someone,” his mother says, standing in the doorway.
“Who would want them?” He knots the top of the bag and puts it in the hallway.
“Have you sold it yet?”
There are some things which seem too hard to throw away. Old yearbooks and pictures of him on
the mountain, posters and old comic books. He buries his childhood self into these boxes, which he will put in the back of his car and not think about, not unload until he finds someplace to put them.
“You know you’re welcome whenever you want to come to California, right?”
He smiles and thanks her, he gives her a hug as he looks at the naked walls of the room. It has become just another place he once lived. It looks like every hotel he has ever stayed in. He places each box in his car over the case of samples. He lets them go unmarked, and the rest he places on the curb. He purges himself of history and feels guilty as he does it. Just before Aaron leaves, he says goodbye to his brothers. They nod at each other, and they take one last long look at the house. Aaron loves the place and resents it.
“For Christmas this year, we’ll have to all meet at Mom’s,” says Emerson.
“I’m busy Christmas,” says Jack.
“New Year’s then,” says Aaron.
“I can make that work,” Emerson agrees.
Aaron gets into his car and drives out to his next sales pitch. He cannot endure any longer, but he is given no other choice.
From the writer
:: Account ::
The idea for this short story came about when my good friend told me about how in her family, they plant a tree for each new family member. She also told me that she had just learned about bristlecone pine trees, which are some of the longest living trees on earth. I was fascinated both by the idea of the endurance of the pine trees and the tradition of planting a tree in the honor of each new family member. As I combined these two ideas in the story, I realized that it became a space to process the feeling of what it means to leave home and come back, as I have moved recently from one place to another. I wanted to explore a person’s complicated relationship with their family after becoming an adult, seeing how parents aren’t perfect, and how your childhood might be nostalgic, but you can never return to it. I also wanted to explore the anxiety of not knowing what’s next in your life and the rootless feeling of early adulthood.
In earlier drafts of this story, I thought that the pine trees were a sort of representation of the family, which endures in spite of every difficulty. Then I realized that the pine trees are not reflective of the family members at all; rather, the pine trees function as a sort of promise—that endurance and life can be found in all places.
Annalise Burnett is a writer and student currently living in the Atlanta area. She works with a small nonprofit publishing house.