I stuffed a Ziplock bag of bamboo spoons and forks into the corner of the box before unwinding a piece of packing tape the length of my arm span and sealing the cardboard flaps.
“Did you pack the seeds?” Mom called from the master bedroom.
“Yes,” I said as I grabbed the bag of orange tree seeds sitting on my desk and stuffed it into my backpack. I crouched down and wedged my fingers under the box, and then stood, stumbling on my right toe before regaining balance. Without anyone to assist in tasks requiring physical labor–it was just Mom and me, I lifted heavy things all the time and even though my arm muscles remained non-existent, I learned to ignore the pain of sharp-edged objects digging into my skin. As I exited the house, I stared at the tree.
The orange tree, if it could even be called that, cast its shadow over the lawn of neglected grass. Its leaves smothered its thick trunk and branches. Thinner branches sagged towards the floor, heavy with what should have been California navel oranges, but instead, barber shears dangled from the tree like twinkling ornaments.
I first discovered the scissors by chance. I had been mustering up the courage to free a twitching spider caught under the windowsill despite my fear of crawly critters when I spotted metal glinting from the ripening ovary on the tree, the pericarp morphing into blades. When I told Mom, she said just wait it out, there’ll be fruit. But the flowers only ever matured into scissors.
My routine adjusted to accommodate this new fascination: before entering the house, I dropped my backpack on the grass and plucked a pair of scissors off the tree. It snapped off, the stem falling to the ground as I looped my fingers through the ring and rested my thumb on the finger blade. I marveled at its utility and more so how, without needing to ask Mom for money or to remember when CVS opened or to initiate brief social interaction with the cashier, I’d acquired a tool to snip off split ends and cut open plastic bags knotted too tightly to unravel.
Mom didn’t like the tree. She wanted oranges. Everything she did furthered her goal towards self-sustenance: learning the most efficient ways to clean rust off pans, watching videos on how to jumpstart cars or repair cracked phone screens, studying finance textbooks from the library and scouring Yahoo Finance when she determined a savings account could not beat inflation. Self-sustenance also meant growing tomatoes and squash and oranges in the backyard, and eventually, raising chickens and harvesting eggs. I told her she’d need to quit her job if she wanted to start a farm and she said nonsense, only people bad at multitasking say that. I didn’t argue because raising chickens sounded like fun and she never let me raise a dog or cat, claiming I’d grow tired of the poor animal and leave all the poop-cleaning and litter-shoveling and fur-sweeping to her–all work, no reward, she never failed to remind me.
During those teenage years, I normally returned to a silent house after school–the air conditioning didn’t kick in until my mom came home so I’d sit under the sun-kissed spots of the dining table during the winter and retreat to the cool basement in the summer. Around seven pm, I listened for the garage’s squeak and groan and the halt of the humming car engine when Mom parked her Nissan Altima too close to the shoe rack. She’d slam the car door shut, toss her laptop case onto the ground beside the laundry machine, and start cooking while changing out of her blouse and dress pants. Sometimes I helped her with dinner, but often I figured I got in the way of her intricately time operations–heating soup and then tugging a sweater over her head and then pouring oil into a frying pan, so I sat at the kitchen table, finishing homework or reading fantasy novels while she chopped vegetables and stirred sauces. When we finished eating, I washed the dishes and she mopped the floor with a rag made from old cut-up t-shirts.
But that Friday, after a taxing calculus exam on applications of differentiation, I plucked a pair of scissors from the tree and cut through my study notes–the once blank backs of old forms and history readings now scribbled with solved practice problems and redone homework questions and memorized theorems written out word for word. I dumped the strips of paper into the recycle bin, L’Hospital’s rule ejected from my brain, and feeling refreshed, punched in the garage code and entered, where I found Mom’s Nissan Altima parked. I shimmied through the small space between the car and wall to arrive at the door leading into the house.
When I opened the door, dry, hot air from our underused central heating rushed past my face. Mom’s briefcase leaned against the laundry machine, still zippered shut. She was definitely home. I tugged off my sneakers, put on a pair of slippers, and headed towards Mom’s bedroom.
I pushed the door open and Mom looked up. Maybe she beckoned me to her side, maybe the half-closed curtains, the sliver of sunlight drawing stripes over the covers, Mom’s face and hands and the way she seemed to fold in on herself drew me towards her. I stood next to her bedside desk, where her jewelry box of pearl necklaces and jade bracelets sat and the photo of kindergarten me in a Mini Mouse costume stood. She wore her glasses like normal, precariously balanced on the flat bridge of her nose; she sat up in her bed with the same relaxed slouch as when we sat on the couch watching action movies and eating farmer’s market blueberries together; she laced her fingers together, the wrinkles and veins between her knuckles like roots I could trace by memory.
But in place of the whitening strands of hair dyed monthly in dark brown because Mom considered black dye too toxic, I saw the pale skin of Mom’s scalp, without a single hair to hide beneath, exposed to the world.
“I won’t be able to go to work for a while,” Mom told me. “I have several follow up appointments for the chemo.”
“Chemotherapy?” I asked.
“For breast cancer. Speaking of which, there are risk factors you should know about so you can avoid this kind of situation. For example, studies seem to show that girls who start menstruating early are at higher risk for breast cancer. I got my period early, but you got it in high school so I think you should be fine there. Our family doesn’t have a history of breast cancer and I tested negative for BRCA1 and BRCA2, so most of this is just on you and your health and lifestyle decisions.”
“When did you find out?” Why was I just finding out?
“A few months back. You were in the middle of preparing for the SAT. Those four-hour blocks of time that you locked yourself in your room to take practice tests left me plenty of time to attend appointments and pick up groceries. Crazy how you can sit for so long filling in bubbles. Although I suppose I had to do something similar back in my day. Multi-day standardized exams. What horror.”
“The exam went fine. Do you want anything to drink? I can make some tea.” The default thing to offer when I could think of nothing to offer.
“No, you go do your homework, Mom’s going to take a nap and then start dinner.”
I didn’t look back as I closed the door to her room, afraid to make eye contact. I wasn’t certain what I feared more: Mom’s facial expression, my own, or how it’d change if my eyes met hers.
From that day on, I continued to pick scissors from the tree and the scissors kept growing back in days. I wondered if this tree followed a different harvest season, if it’d be stripped of its leaves in the winter and bloom flowers again, or if the scissors would just keep coming back. I learned to cook dinner: I developed an infinite number of dishes by substituting different vegetables in soup, I baked salmon in foil so I had fewer dishes to wash, I wrote reminders on the whiteboard stuck to our fridge to defrost meat the night before. When Mom recovered some strength, she put on a short bob wig and we strolled around the neighborhood, talking about all the different crops she’d grow if the climate suited us better, all the things she’d learn–drawing, machine learning, violin–once she retired from her desk job. I spoke about my wishes, defended my stance against going to prom because I’d rather be home and read, and I couldn’t tell which of us secretly wanted it more: to have my hair braided and twisted into a fishtail updo, to twirl in a dress second only to a girl’s wedding dress in price, to exude the Cinderella glamour I read about as a guilty pleasure in those books that all tell the same story.
I remember Mom’s recovery through school assignments: I turned in my half-assed essay on the Cuban Missile crisis the day we managed to walk to the stop sign marking the end of our townhouse complexes and the start of big houses with front yards and picket fences and shaved bushes. I operated in a flurry of checking mental tick boxes–print three copies of a reading, warm the milk for Mom right before leaving to the school bus stop, stay awake in class, walk around the track during PE, far from the kids playing kickball, so my mind could focus on what I had surely forgotten to do, and so I failed to notice when Mom’s hair grew long enough to cover her scalp, when her appearance resembled one of those heroines who chops off her lengthy, beautiful hair, the in-your-face character development, before defeating the enemy. When the black-grey strands reached Mom’s ears, she decided we needed to move.
“That tree hasn’t yielded any oranges. There must be something wrong with the climate or the soil or the air. I can’t start a garden without a proper foundation.”
So we packed up all of our stuff. After I shoved the box into the car trunk, I snatched a few more scissors from the tree and stuffed them into my backpack. The orange seeds would take years to bear fruit and I hoped if I buried the scissors in soil, they’d quickly grow another scissor tree.
“Can you help lift the suitcase downstairs?” Mom called. “You know it’s too much for me nowadays, and my back is killing me from all this lifting.” I did know: the other day, I had watched her attempt to dig a hole in the backyard for our indoor plants that had outgrown their pots, but as she dug into densely packed dirt, her grip faltered and the trowel fell to the ground. Mom rarely did anything physically demanding now, the plants left to grow wild as she converted her gardening time to stock trend examination time.
I headed to her room and watched her bend down to examine the books and scarves and socks scattered on the ground, assessing each object’s value and whether it deserved to move with us. As she tilted her head downward, a strand of hair fell forward, covering the side of her face. She pushed it back behind her ear. She tossed a slightly transparent, distinctly feminine and glittery scarf into a box–whether it was the disposal box or the moving box, I wasn’t certain.
“I’m going to need a haircut soon. Would you mind trimming it once we’re at the new house? Don’t forget to bring scissors!”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Already packed.”
Lucy Zhang is a writer, software engineer, and anime fan. Her work has appeared in Crab Fat Magazine, Atlas & Alice, Okay Donkey, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere. She can be found at https://kowaretasekai.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.