Bristlecone Pines

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.