Iowa Writes

BERNICE SANTIAGO
Banyan Tree


        The dead live in the banyan trees.  This, we were told when we were very young.  They are not the recent dead, but the ancient dead, the taotaomo'na of the Mariana Islands. Thousands of years have passed for these ancient dead, and for them there exists no heaven or hell, only the land, only the trees, only the surging life they bear witness to from behind the banyans' gray roots.  They were already old when the new God came. 
        It was easy to believe in them, because everyone believed and because they had taken residence in those trees.  The banyans haunt their surroundings even when they stand alone in the sunlight.  A banyan tree is already a grave, or on its way to becoming one.  It does not grow the way that you expect a tree to grow: its life begins not in the soil but as a seed sprouting on top of another tree.  Its roots hang in the open air, inching slowly toward the ground.  More roots grow, snaking downward, laying atop one another and fusing together, encircling and smothering the original tree.  The banyan brings death, and as the trunk of the buried tree decomposes behind the banyan's living roots, it leaves a hollow for the ancient dead to fill.

        The dead live in the banyan trees.  This, we were told when we were very young.  They are not the recent dead, but the ancient dead, the taotaomo'na of the Mariana Islands. Thousands of years have passed for these ancient dead, and for them there exists no heaven or hell, only the land, only the trees, only the surging life they bear witness to from behind the banyans' gray roots.  They were already old when the new God came. 
        It was easy to believe in them, because everyone believed and because they had taken residence in those trees.  The banyans haunt their surroundings even when they stand alone in the sunlight.  A banyan tree is already a grave, or on its way to becoming one.  It does not grow the way that you expect a tree to grow: its life begins not in the soil but as a seed sprouting on top of another tree.  Its roots hang in the open air, inching slowly toward the ground.  More roots grow, snaking downward, laying atop one another and fusing together, encircling and smothering the original tree.  The banyan brings death, and as the trunk of the buried tree decomposes behind the banyan's living roots, it leaves a hollow for the ancient dead to fill.
        Children avoid the trees.  Adults avoid the trees.  Newly built fences wind around them, establishing a perimeter that allows them to remain untouched.  Nothing is built where they stand.  To talk to a banyan tree is to talk to the dead, to ask permission or forgiveness for straying too near.  We were told when we were young that we must always ask.  If we did not ask, if we failed to respect the dead and where they linger, if we failed to acknowledge the past, then the past would respond in kind.  The past would deposit a heaviness in our chests or leave red marks upon our skin, and we would find ourselves lost and disoriented in the jungle, the trees moved and the rocks moved and the paths remade around us.
        When I was younger, the ancient dead filled me with dread and wonder.  I would imagine their old eyes, their thousands of years of watching, the generations spreading far and spilling forward and brimming over, the mad dash of life away from its past and into its grave.  I wanted to ask them what it was like to see such things.  I wanted to ask them why they were filled with so much anger and pain.  I did not know then, the pain of being forgotten.  I did not know then how anxiously the past craves to assert itself, to make the living hear and see and know what once was—even as the days and the months and the years lay themselves over older days and months and years, dulling what was once sharp and burying what was once beautiful.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

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BERNICE SANTIAGO

Bernice Santiago is an MFA candidate in the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program.

This page was first displayed
on May 28, 2014

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