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Authors: Sheri S. Tepper

The Family Tree

BOOK: The Family Tree
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The Family Tree
Sheri S. Tepper



Dora Henry and the Weed


Opalears Tells a Tale


Dora Henry’s New House


Opalears: Beginning the Journey


Dora Deals with a Body


Izakar, Prince of Palmia


Opalears: Nassif Continues




Several Saintly Ph.D.s


Opalears: The Journey North


Countess Elianne Receives an Unwelcome Visitor


A Certain Disposition of Garbage


Opalears: Meeting Them Trees


A Babe in the Woods


Opalears: Sorcerous Associations


Dora and the Family Tree


The Countess Elianne Welcomes Travelers


Opalears: Upon the Crawling Sea


Dora Meets a Dionne


The Emperor, Faros VII


Opalears: Account of an Audience


Incidents Leading to Liaisons


Opalears: From Seeresses to St. Weel


Opalears: Incidents Leading to Liaisons


Opalears: A Twist of Time


A Return of Music


Opalears: Explorations of a Previous Time


Criminal Connections


Opalears: The Disbelievers


Meeting Prince Sahir


At Randall Pharmaceuticals


Opalears: Korè Speaks


The Roots of the Tree


Opalears: Nassif Reflects


Saving Sahir, et al.


A Gathering of Tribes


Opalears: Rehearsals


The Pretender


Opalears: Among the Korèsans




Opalears: Sahir Sulks


Daddy Eddy’s Children


Opalears: A General Culmination


Opalears: On a Certain Future Day


Opalears: A Twig on the Tree


His Excellency, Faros VII


Dora Henry and the Weed

idmorning, a Tuesday in July, Dora Henry went out the front door of Jared’s place to get the paper that the paperboy had, as usual, dropped just over the picket fence. On her way back up the immaculately swept walk she glanced at the front stoop and stopped dead in her tracks. She quit breathing. The world became hot and still as she teetered dizzily like a tightrope walker, thinking it would be nice to faint, but as she’d never done that, she didn’t really know how.

Instead, she squeezed her eyes shut and made herself breathe, one long slow breath while she counted ten: Grandma’s prescription for fear or anger or anything unsettling, one long breath with eyes shut, not looking at whatever it was that was bothering. Sometimes it worked. When her eyes opened, however, it was still there: a sprig of green thrusting up from the hairline crack between the brick of the stoop and the wall of the house.

It’s just a
, she told herself, looking at her hands
with disbelief as they twitched and grasped toward the encroaching green. She heard her own voice yammering at her, “It can’t stay there. It has no right to be there. Jared will be so angry….”

Jared would be so angry.

She clasped her hands together and tightened them until the knuckles turned white, biting her tongue until it hurt, willing herself to stop all this foolishness. “Weed,” she said, invoking a label. It sounded right. Just a weed. Which, if Jared saw it, would bend him all out of shape, but that didn’t mean she had to have a breakdown. Even if Jared had a major hissy, my Lord, she didn’t need to go into some kind of hysterical spasm at the sight of a weed!

She cast a quick, almost furtive look around to see first if anyone had seen her having a cow on the sidewalk and then if any other strange growths might have sprouted during the night. Negative on both counts. The block was as vacant as a hatched egg, and Jared’s place was as usual: three meticulously trimmed rose bushes still marched up each side of the front walk; one geometrically sheared blue spruce still held down the corner opposite the driveway; six junipers bulged smoothly and uniformly across the front of the house, neatly carved into convex mounds; two flowering crab apple trees (fruitless) still stood at attention, each on a hanky of lawn that had been weeded and clipped and fertilized until it looked like a square of Astroturf.

She didn’t need to look at the rest of it; she knew it by heart. The fences on either side and across the front were as pristine as when freshly painted. The driveway to the garage was smooth, gray concrete, as unstained as when newly laid. Out behind the garage, the trash cans were doing close order drill, each one precisely helmeted. The arbor covering the patio was grown with tightly clipped Boston ivy, and the narrow strip between garage and patio was planted with a single row of absolutely uniform hostas, which, so Jared said, were the least troublesome of shade-tolerant ground covers.

The Tree that cast the shade belonged to the people next door south, or, since it was on the far property line, maybe the people beyond them. It was huge and old with limbs like buttresses. Each fall it turned flaming red and scattered the whole block with glittering confetti, an autumnal celebration that went on for weeks while Jared fumed and snarled. He couldn’t wait until the last leaves came down so he could vacuum them up, restoring his place to its usual purity. Once Jared had arranged things to his satisfaction, he did not tolerate alterations.

Dora hadn’t known that, not at first. Under the assumption—quite wrong, as it turned out—that Jared’s place was now “their” place, she had suggested some pansies by the back steps, a lavender plant, maybe, and some tulip bulbs under the hostas. Even some violets along the edges.

“They make a mess,” Jared told her. “Tulip foliage dies and turns an ugly yellow. Pansies aren’t hardy. The bloom stalks on lavender drop their buds. Violets seed themselves.” His tone of voice made it clear that seeding oneself was a perversion.

Still thinking she was allowed a voice in the matter, she had argued, “Hostas have bloom stalks.”

“Not for long,” he’d crowed. Which was true, of course. The minute one showed, he nipped it off. All Jared wanted to see was those nice, shiny, evenly spread green leaves. Every week, he used the carwasher gadget on them, floods of soapy water to get rid of the dust. Even the roses out front were allowed their rare blooms only for a day or two. First sign of blowsiness, first sign a petal might drop, off they came. Jared had always been neat, said his mother. No trouble bringing Jared up, not a bit.

Dora sometimes entertained brief visions of the baby Jared sitting in his crib, neatly organizing his Pampers, folding his blankets, plumping his little pillow. Or the schoolboy Jared, sharpening his pencils and laying his homework out with a ruler, even with the edge of his desk.

“I wasn’t at all like that,” Jared laughed, shaking his long, high-domed head in pretend modesty. Varnish-haired Jared, high-gloss Jared. “For heaven’s sake, Dora, what an idea!”

“I know.” She smiled her meaningless smile, one of several conciliatory expressions she had adopted during their two years together. “It’s just, your mother makes you sound like such a…perfect child.” She had been going to say, “unnatural,” but had caught herself in time.

“Oh, no,” he said comfortably. “I had my share of scrapes. I had friends down the street, the Dionne boys. We used to get into trouble regularly. I don’t think Momma ever knew. At least,
never told her.” And he laughed again, just one of the boys, patting Dora’s shoulder. He often patted Dora’s shoulder in an understanding way, though that was all he patted. Lately she caught herself flinching even from that casual touch.

“Jared did hang around those Dionne boys,” Jared’s momma sniffed, when queried. “Ragamuffins. No more civilized than young billy goats! And that slut of a girl. And that mother! No better than she should be. Well, I soon put an end to that!”

Jared’s momma, rigid with rectitude, whose very clothes seemed carved from some durable material, ran the boardinghouse two blocks down, on the corner facing the avenue. It was a huge, vaguely Queen Anne hulk that had started as a hotel in the twenties. When Dora had sold the farm after Grandma’s death, she had taken a room in the boardinghouse, meaning it to be only temporary, while she sorted things out. She’d met Jared, instead, and things never had gotten sorted out.

“Where are they now?” Dora asked Jared’s mother. “The Dionnes?”

“Who knows,” said Momma, mouth shutting like a trap. “Who cares.”

“Where did they live?” Dora asked Jared.

“The Dionnes? Oh, a couple of houses down from here. They weren’t here long.” He laughed. “We have
a certain standard in this neighborhood, and Vorn Dionne wasn’t interested in living up to it.”

“Standard?” she asked, doubtfully.

“You know. Keep your car put away and the garage door shut, keep your lawn mowed, no weeds, no burning trash, garbage in containers with tops. Just good neighborly behavior. Old Vorn came from a more individualistic time.”

“It’s an odd name. He sounds like a character.”

“Probably a family name. But the real character was the mother. I’m afraid she and Momma got into it a time or two.”

“Mother? Not wife?”

Jared’s face went blank. “Wife? Vorn didn’t have a wife, at least not when I knew them. I suppose he had had a wife, at one time. He had four boys. No, I mean the girl’s mother.” His tone said, “This is my last word on this subject.”

Dora persisted. “Two doors down doesn’t look big enough for that size family.”

Jared turned away, busying himself. Complacent as a cockroach, Jared. Ubiquitous about the house, but hard to pin down. He said stiffly, “That house is new. The Dionne house was a big old thing. It burned down.”

“That’s why they moved?”

He spoke in the oh-so-patient tone he used when he lost all patience with her. “I think it burned around the time they moved. They moved because they didn’t like the neighborhood. They were only here long enough for everyone concerned to know they’d be better off somewhere else. And that’s enough about them, Dora!” And off he scuttled, avoiding any further discussion.

It hardly seemed the Dionnes had been around long enough for Jared to get into scrapes with them, but what did she know. Dora came to herself with a start, surprised to find herself still out in front of the house, still lollygagging, still staring at the weed. It looked very determined for such a feathery little thing, almost as though it knew it had a fight on its hands. She thought
maybe she should pull it up herself, so Jared wouldn’t see it, but as she moved onto the stoop, she heard the phone ringing, and she forgot about the weed in favor of getting herself into the house before it stopped. Then, after all that hurry, it was a wrong number.

She forgot about the weed, but when Jared’s car pool dropped him off that evening, he came up the front walk and saw the weed the minute he wiped his feet on the mat. He had it out in an instant, before he even opened the door.

“Little devil had quite a root on it,” he snarled, displaying his triumph.

Dora took it from him, laying it across the palm of her hand. Poor pathetic thing. One feathery sprig of green, and then that long, pale shoot, much like the pallid shoots that bindweeds spring from. Pull them up by the quarter mile, and all you’d get is a long white link with a smooth end where it had broken cleanly from the real root, the way-down root, the root from hell. Then, when you turned your back, up it would come again, squirming and proliferating, covering itself with those innocent little blooms while it strangled everything but itself. She opened her mouth to tell Jared, but then decided not to. Root or not, the thing was out and he wouldn’t care in the least about Dora’s experience with bindweed.

Time was she’d spent hours and hours on her hands and knees, pulling out mallow and bull heads and bindweed from Grandma’s garden because Grandma wouldn’t use spray.

“You can’t kill bindweed this way, Grandma!” That’d been her plea from the time she was thirteen until she was almost grown.

“Not tryin’ to kill it,” the old woman said, grinning on one side, the way she did (like a fox, said Grandpa). “Just tryin’ to keep it in its place, teach it some manners.”

Dora doubted very much that the bindweed learned anything, including manners. Grandma should have seen
Jared’s place. Jared’s place was so mannerly it almost begged your pardon. Jared’s place was cowed.

“How come you always say ‘Jared’s place,’” her friend Loulee asked her. “You never say ‘home.’ You always say ‘Jared’s place.’”

“Well, because it is,” Dora answered. “He had it before he ever met me, and he decides what goes in it, and I sort of…just live there.” As in another boardinghouse, sort of, except in this one she cooked and did laundry for her keep.

“How come you two don’t have kids?”

“I don’t know,” Dora had answered in a genial voice, lying through her teeth. “Not everybody has children, you know. With all this overpopulation, not having is probably better anyhow.”

“Oh, so it’s ethical with you.”

“No.” She laughed, showing how unimportant the subject was. “I just pretend it is when people get nosy. Children just never happened.”

Loulee didn’t take offense, unfortunately. “Dora, there are such things as doctors.”

“I know.” She frowned, then, distinctly uncomfortable, making herself say lightly, “I’ve got plenty of time, Loulee. Give it a rest.”

Loulee never knew when to quit. “Jared got plenty of time, too?”

Jared was somewhat older than Dora, and though his age might be a factor, the real reason they didn’t have children was that they had never had sex. Dora admitted to being an innocent in such matters, from an experiential point of view, but after eight brothers and sisters, she certainly knew where babies came from. On their wedding night, Jared had indicated that the front upstairs bedroom was to be hers, saying casually that he didn’t care for physical sorts of things, and at his age, those sorts of things weren’t necessary. Which was one way of putting it.

The real question in Dora’s mind had less to do with children than with why she had stayed married to Jared
when it would have been perfectly simple at that point, or at any time since, to get an annulment. Was she, herself, interested in that sort of thing? Had she realized subconsciously that Jared wasn’t? Had she married him for that reason? She honestly couldn’t say. During the first thirty-three years of her life she couldn’t recall that she had ever had time to worry about it. There had been some men she’d thought were pleasant enough, but never any trumpets blowing. It might have been different if she’d been hungry for children, but being the eldest of nine almost guarantees a person won’t be hungry for children. Especially remembering a mama like Dora’s mama, who actively loved getting pregnant, who indolently loved being pregnant, who had no trouble producing them one right after the other, but wasn’t up to taking care of them once they were born.

From the time Dora was five she’d been changing didies and warming bottles and dandling little howlers so they’d stop howling. She could handle it without breaking a sweat, if and when, but it wasn’t something she was exactly pining for. She figured she’d already done her duty by the human race.

“Why did you marry Jared?” Loulee had asked. “Forgive me being real blunt, but you don’t seem to care that much for him.”

Why had she married Jared? “I grew up in a big family, and when my grandmother died and the last of the kids left home, I missed having people around….”

That sounded logical enough. It might even be true. Or, she might have married him on the presumption that marriage would let her escape from herself. On the farm, she’d been too busy to worry about herself, but once the farm was gone, there was too much time alone, time to replay her life. The chances she’d missed, or muffed. The mistakes she’d made. The college she’d had a chance to go to if she’d been able to leave the kids dependent entirely on Grandma and Grandpa, which she felt wouldn’t have been right. The plum of a job she’d turned down because she’d have had to move away. So,
instead, when Michael graduated high school back in 1984, when it was clear all the brothers and sisters were going to grow up and have lives of their own, she’d gone to the police academy, right here in town, where she could work but still live on the farm and help out.

BOOK: The Family Tree
9.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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