• When a Tree Falls

    By Joanna Chen

    I land in Dulles Airport after a blizzard. A thick layer of snow covers the Lincoln Memorial; the Reflecting Pool glistens with ice. The driver of the shuttle bus notices me taking photos through the window with my iPhone and offers to stop for a minute so I can get a good shot. I start explaining that I’m not interested in the tourist sites; my best photos are the blurry ones in which trees, people, buildings, seem to move, when their outlines are smudged across the frame, when there is something suggestive, something left to the imagination, but the driver has already pulled up to the curb so I snap a couple of photos obediently and say thank you. He seems happy, nods and pulls out again into a road that is strangely empty. It’s President’s Day and the recent storm has kept people indoors. Everything is clean and bright.

    I last visited DC during the cherry blossom season. The streets were swarming with people back then; we walked down Capitol Hill to the tidal basin at 7 a.m and blossoms the color of silken ballet slippers greeted us. But now the roads are deserted and the shuttle bus makes its way up to the National Mall, sleet thrashing at the windscreen of the van.

    I get out at Union Station. This is almost the last leg of a journey that began 13 hours earlier in Oxford, UK, as I descended the creaking wooden stairs leading from the bedroom after parting from my daughter. She lay in bed, the fragrance of sleep hanging in the air. I leaned over her, kissed her forehead, smoothed a tendril of hair away from her brow and murmured in a low voice: See you in six weeks. That was it. As my cousin drove me early morning to Heathrow, the sun rose pinkly and I looked out at the bare trees that lined the country roads and tried to imagine we were headed north towards Yorkshire, to my brother’s grave in the Jewish cemetery that lies on the edge of the main burial grounds of Leeds. There had been no time to go there on this trip to England. It’s more important to be with the living than the dead, I had reasoned. There were cousins to catch up with, there was my Auntie Sheila’s 90th birthday to share. But I missed Yorkshire, I missed the rough diamond quality it has about it, the lack of varnish, the absence of fine tuning. What you see is what you get.

    VCCA Day 1

    I think about this as I settle down into my seat on the train whose final destination is New Orleans but that will stop for me at Lynchburg, Virginia. I peer out the window as the train moves off. The snow has stopped falling and pristine white illuminates the branches of the trees as we head out. I have been watching the trees closely and they are holding out their arms to me, stretching out their spindly fingers. About half an hour from Lynchburg, the train creaks to a halt. The electricity cuts and we sit in semi-darkness, illuminated only by flimsy, flickering emergency lights. An Amtrak worker with a peaked cap walks through the carriage, informing passengers that a tree has fallen onto the tracks. A baby begins crying and his frazzled mom tells him “night-night” in a sharp voice, over and over. His name is Damian and he won’t stop crying. I’m tired and cranky too. The woman next to me, her hefty body wedged into the seat, spilling over into mine, begins snoring loudly. I shift towards the window, peer out into the night but see nothing. The Amtrak worker moves slowly up the darkened carriage, head down, vacuuming the dingy floor carpeting.

    I try to imagine the tree, but I do not even know which trees grow here, whether they are tall and thin, or thick and gnarled, and I wonder how long the tree has been growing until the exact, precise moment of toppling.

    After an hour of sitting like this, jammed against the window, I make my way through to the dining carriage. It smells of pot noodles and stale coffee. There is no one behind the counter and I stand there, contemplating the candy bars and bags of popcorn on sale. A large woman with beehive hair dyed blonde, wearing a dark blue Amtrak apron, looks up at me from the next carriage, flashes a smile, and gets up heavily. She lumbers over to me and puts her head to one side. She has twinkly blue eyes and earrings that hang from her lobes like tinsel on a Christmas tree. Her nails are red.

    “What can I do for you, my love?” she says, and my heart misses a beat. Her accent with its rough edges and gruff tone is unmistakeably from Yorkshire. I would know it anywhere, even in the middle of the night on a train headed for New Orleans. She is one of mine. “Tea?” I say stupidly as if I am asking her if tea is the right choice, fumbling in my wallet for two dollars. “Tip it out, tip it out,” she says, pointing to the wallet. Her hand hovers closes over mine in a surprising gesture of intimacy, then pushes it away and begins shifting through the coins as though she were examining shells on a beach. There are shekels from Israel, pennies, and pounds from England, and two dimes my dad gave me the night before I left Israel. For luck, he had said, tossing them across the table at me. I remove a 10 dollar note and place it into her hand. “Ta very much, love,” she says. I drop the tea bag she hands me into the paper cup. “Not like that,” she says, and drops another tea bag into the cup, then zaps it in the microwave for a few seconds. “Nice and strong, the way we like it in Yorkshire,” she winks at me again and snaps the plastic cover on the cup. I consider telling her that I’ve lived away from England for more than 30 years and I like my tea weak nowadays, but I don’t want to break the magic between us and so say nothing.

    “What’s a Yorkshire lass doing on a train bound for New Orleans?” I ask her as she leans her weight against the counter top. She laughs throatily and tells me she’s been in the US for more than 30 years and doesn’t miss Yorkshire in the least. She tells me she can get anything she wants from England: vacuum-packed spotted dick, Marmite, Thornton’s fudge toffee. Suddenly, I don’t feel so bad anymore about not squeezing Yorkshire into my visit. I have it right here in the flesh.

    I return to my seat. I lean back and sip the ridiculously strong tea until the train lurches forward again. By now, it’s almost 3 a.m. The tree trunk has been removed. We continue on through the darkness, and at the next stop I get off. Cora and Charles, who run a taxi service and have been waiting for me in the freezing cold for the past three hours, take me to my final destination, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts. Cora holds out her hand to steady me as I get out the van. They lead me gently up the stairs to my room, open the door, place my luggage by the bed. Below my window, a deer moves across the snow-drenched yard, lifts her head to the night, listening.