canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Roots of a Mulberry Tree

by Avital Gad-Cykman

In a summer blessed by rains, Bia was set free from high school’s mighty grasp. To celebrate the event, she bought a white dress that flowed softly along her body. Her school uniform had grown tighter since the beginning of the school year, but she refused to buy a larger size. The experience of growing into her clothing and then out of them delighted her.

She chose a few friends at school, those who had the scent of honest love: sweet and warm with a semi-bitter edge like a nut-chocolate cake on Saturday afternoons. Only her boyfriends, the ones she asked to escort her from school to the sandy hills, had scents of all kinds. She attracted boys in the same way her mother's magnet drew the needles that her young brother spilled on the carpet. Many days she came home with a layer of sand covering her skin.

“These boys are doomed to see Bia’s curves reflected in the softness of the dunes forever,” said her grandmother with a smile.

“Is there anyone who doesn’t dream of her eager face, her honey-brown eyes, or her golden skin?” Jonas, her classmate, asked the other boys.

“Maybe someone,” they said and laughed.

The MPB, the popular Brazilian music the radio played from morning until night, made Bia cry with sweet longing. Her days carried strong excitements. She would whirl around the room, holding the weekly letter from a faraway aunt. When one of the family’s babies fell down, she would take him in her arms to wipe his tears and kiss his nose. Each moment was pregnant with news. The children shared their secrets with her for a greater sense of mystery and drama. She conquered everyone who entered the circle of her enchantment.


At times, Bia spent hours in the guest room. Family diaries piled on top of family diaries. The growing pile conveyed bare substances of emotion, transmitted from mother to daughter in a varied intensity, since they had all emerged from the womb of nature itself.

The family believed that the women’s laughter was the cause of blessing rains. Their cries quivered in the air like a silver web.


During that year, her family sensed, without understanding, how Bia’s unique talent, the capacity to be drowned in her own feelings, rose like the high tide. Bia had already acquired some unique impressions. The family photo-album reminded her of the pairing-up for Noah's ark. She spent hours looking at pictures that breathed with desire.

The pages showed her parents wooing each other, surrounded by an ever-growing family. She grinned at the serious pose of her grandparents, looking up at her from a picture placed in the center of a flowery page. Grandfather’s white hand rested heavily on Grandma’s shoulder, his thumb hidden under her dress’ stripe.

They had become renowned for their display of love sounds at night. Bia turned the page and found the radiating picture of her cousin, Leticia, taken when Leticia had fallen in love with a dead poet. Beside it, her brothers’ happy, shameless loves vibrated in the air.


Bia’s choice to change her lovers every week or two provoked the family's amusement. It was not a traditional reaction, but it was a loving one.

Her mother tried, without success, to create a bond with Bia’s boyfriends. "We're having a Saint Joao's dinner," she told her on a Monday. "Why don't you bring Wilson?"

"Who?" Bia gazed up from the stool she set in front of her frenzied painting. It was dripping orange and scarlet paint onto the tiled floor of the veranda surrounding the terracotta painted house.

"Bia! You took him to the cinema on Wednesday!"

"Oh, him." Bia laughed. "When is dinner?"

She ended up bringing Edinaldo who had the sweetest kisses. The family could not hold back a friendly roar of laughter. Edinaldo looked surprised, but Bia squeezed his arm and laughed so playfully he had to laugh as well. Her laughter was contagious in those days.


Once, on a hot summer afternoon, Bia peered down at the cobblestone-street stretching from the house to the cinema. Jonas had been leaning against the house's bamboo fence for hours. When she came out an hour later, he was still there. He was her quiet classmate, the hotel owners' son. His parents had moved into town when the government workers started assisting the town in its growth. The government paid them to keep the hotel vacant. That way, when a government employee needed a room to pair off, he was assured of having one.

Jonas helped his parents on summer vacations. Most of the hotel guests, especially the flamboyant women who accompanied several different men in the same week, demanded his presence. He moved about pleasant and almost unnoticed while serving drinks or showing the guests to their rooms. When they called for room service, he entered with such delicacy the room felt emptier than it had been without him.

"Ola," he said to Bia, "Are you going somewhere?"

She looked at his expectant face. "To the field," she said. "My sister said the mulberry tree is loaded with fruit."

"Um, maybe I'll go there too," he murmured, mopping his hands on his khaki hotel uniform. "I don't have to work now.” He looked at her with imploring blue eyes, his blond moustache writhing.

Bia smiled at him. He had the refreshing scent of drying eucalyptus twigs. "Sure, let's go."


Clouds filtered though the gnarled branches and framed her face. Light and shadow played with her silken black hair. Bia's long white dress swayed in the breeze and clung to her body. At the top of her legs, her white underwear gleamed.

"Here it comes!" she warned Jonas. A fall of mulberries covered his face, his aching naked shoulders, his feet. She leaned on the branches, then, slid her feet from his shoulders to his back and down to the ground. When she finally stood upright, her head was at the height of his chest.

"Now feed me and I'll feed you," she told him. Through the thin fabric of her dress, he could see the lines of her belly and breasts.

"I can paint your lips with a berry," he suggested.

"I can paint your nose with a berry," she said, laughing.

"I will paint your toenails red." He kneeled in front of her, his knees squeezing berries. She filled her hands with fruit and passed it over the back of his neck. His shyness vanished as he painted his way up her ankles, her knees, her thighs.

By evening, their whole skin was red and they laughed in their sleep when small ants tickled their bodies.


Bia stopped dating other boys. A month later, her grandmother argued that if Bia had blossomed in the wilderness, then a danger of withering could be threatening her soul now.

"What's so wonderful about him?" her cousin asked in wonder.

"Oh, Leticia, I can feel him deep inside."

"Couldn't you feel the others?" Leticia wondered.

Bia held her hips, bent with laughter. "No, I just feel him."


They developed games of joy. In the slightest breath, in the finest movement, they felt each other. She smelled him to find where his cravings lay and then set him ablaze tasting his skin with her tongue. His trailing fingers responded to her desires. In their awakening, their bodies entangled. He looked at her delicate face, filling with demand, and let howls of lust escape. The essence of Jonas's receptive nature fit in the mold of Bia's passion. She could not tell if Jonas made her wishes bend to his measure or if he was an ideal lover.

But as the weeks moved by, Bia took her mother aside and cried in her arms. Gray circles formed under her eyes. The overwhelming force of Jonas’s desire for her had shaken his spirit. He had confessed he was condemned to see her in other women, and to lust for her in them.

In lonely mornings, he confronted "senhoras" whom government workers had brought to the hotel. They took him under their guidance, but he could only feel Bia in their adult body-love. In their arms he would touch her, and in her arms regret having loved them.

She smelled their heavy scent on him, but through her cutting ache she knew how he loved her. She loved him back.


Their days stretched into weeks and then into months. They spent the entire summer together, every day from noon until night, every month from November to February. Then, she learned he had planned to go to Bahia for the Carnival. His savings almost made his ceramic piggy bank explode. He had aspired to attend the Carnival celebrations for years.

"Come with me," he said.

But Bia could not imagine herself out of her land, away in a strange place without her family. "There are crowds there, filling the streets for days," she said. She danced for people she loved, but her body refused her that grace when strangers surrounded her.

"You'll be with me."

"You know I can't. My roots are here." A cloud of sorrow settled upon her face. Still, she was on the verge of acceptance. For him. But he didn't ask her again.

She listened to her grandfather, as he advised her to join Jonas. His wrinkled albino face reddened when he read to her from his diary: "The carnival leaves people with no identity, no barriers, no past. Fancy dress makes origins and differences indistinct. It balances loves and lights strong desires. Powerful drinks are poured into bodies that have already forgotten their own limits, bodies dressed with colorful clothes exposing dancing legs, round edges of buttocks, sculpted belly buttons, waving breasts or sweaty chests. What exists is the call: in the eyes, in the dance, in the voice. Go, or don't wait," he said.

Bia sensed Jonas's excitement and smelled his heat of adventure, sentiments she couldn’t share. She decided to stay.


When Jonas did not return, Bia’s eyes sunk back into her dreams. She took little interest in anything but his image. Dreamlike, she drifted to the garden and planted herself behind the house in the fertile soil. She stood there day and night, her mouth a red leaf swaying in the breeze. Her parents held her arms and tried to lead her home, but she would not move, only cry. She had grown roots into the ground. Her brothers and cousins watered her with fruit juices through her beautifully drawn lips and waited for a miracle to save her. She stood there, a tree in growth: quiet and passive, witnessing time.


A week stretched into a month that stretched into a year.

Rumors flew and found their way from Bahia to Bia's town. The popular roaming story-tellers went from town to town and chanted, accompanied by a crying guitar and a small drum: "On Jonas's ride towards his venture, His longings framed sweet Bia's picture. He reached Bahia-the Promised Land The sunset color cruel and rough Dancing Samba on the sand A pretty woman laughed."

In beat and rhythm: "The women danced seductively The men responded ardently They swung and teased desire With human flames of fire."

Telling while playing a crying guitar: "Warm breeze raised a soft red dress, stripping a dancer's long dark legs. Jonas was open-mouthed! Jonas was open-eyed! In her hair around her body, so silky and long, he saw an image of a graceful black stork. How the wind wrapped their bodies! How they danced! Jonas was a good dancer, and he had a blond moustache."

In a loud dramatic voice: "They danced to the music, caressed by the breeze, dazed by their heat. They danced on the beach, until a ray of sun appeared. Diana was her name. A name of a dream. It was in the power of the wind!"

Slowly, the family unveiled Jonas's story through the tales, gossip, and verses. Professional gossipers said that Diana had danced in eighteen carnivals before meeting Jonas. She and her mother used dreams to sew their dancing clothes.

Diana would tell: "I dreamt I saw a clown."

"What did he look like?" Her mother would ask.

"He had green legs like a frog, a big belly like a bear and a red butt like a baboon."

But usually she dreamed about fatal lover women.

Now, Diana would tell Jonas: "Your eyes are velvety dark blue like a night sky."

"Your nails are shaped like shells."

"Your skin is soft and tight and warm."

"Love me like a monkey," then, "love me like a dog," then, "love me, love me!"

Jonas would love her like a monkey, like a dog, like the lover he had become with Bia not that long ago. Diana always realized her dreams. Her father became richer by the year, and her mother sewed the family's fantasies.

Jonas surrendered.

She made him dream.

She made him forget.

Their son was named Daniel.


All that year Bia stood under the sunlight and in changing shadows. Her cousins, who had found her to be their favorite doll, brushed her black hair daily. Her beauty became so delicate it made lovers cry. In the afternoons, the family sat in the shadow of Bia’s long hair and gazed at the wavy line of the dunes. The youngest children would tell their parents if Bia moved a hand or gave a possible hint of a smile.

The entire family put their ears to the ground every Friday to hear if the bus from Bahia had arrived. It came to town only when there were passengers coming.

With time, Bia's roots absorbed the ground's fertility and grew their knots and ropes very deep and very far. They found their way to Bahia and then into Jonas's dreams. Soon, he had to make love with Diana only in the light or otherwise, he would touch Bia in her. Bia sensed how he could almost smell her. How he had to smell her.

In the beginning of March, on a Friday, the family heard sand cracking at a short distance from town under heavy wheels. Bia's mother left the house sobbing. She ran to Bia, kneeled in front of her, and wetting the ground with tears, she dug around the roots.

"He is here, Bia, he is here," she cried.

Bia fell off and closed her eyes when her roots gradually melted. Her warming body spread the sugared ginger scent of happiness and fear.


Jonas was sitting on the hotel's balcony overlooking the street, when Bia arrived. The angelic lightness of her features combined with her newly learnt walk, her baby steps. Her face glowed, and her body fit softly into her new blue dress. She stood near the balcony, on the pavement, and drank in his looks. He had changed. He wore a suit of fine white linen, the kind the idle rich wear in the films. His arms had turned paternal, stronger than before, and his hands grew golden curls on their back. Jonas's eyes met Bia's with dark blue alarm, as his moustache quivered.

"Bia!" he said in a voice that mixed appeal and wonder.

"Yes," she answered tenderly. "I am here."

She walked around the balcony to the door where he was clenching the doorknob with sweating fingers. When she entered the small lobby, her legs failed her, and she held on to Jonas' shoulder. "You smell so good," she said.


Bia had acquired the ability to remain still through all seasons and affairs. The hotel, bubbling with Jonas’ confusion like a champagne glass on New-Year’s Eve, served for that matter as any other place. For three days, Jonas wandered drunkenly around the hotel, and Bia sat on the brown leather sofa of the lobby.

Diana acknowledged Bia's presence on the third day. She cradled Daniel in her arms and sat to breastfeed him next to Bia.

"Sweet!" Bia observed when Diana leaned back, "He looks like Jonas."

"He does."

Bia put a finger in Daniel's hand and he closed his fist on it. For half an hour, Daniel sucked milk and held Bia's finger. They were quiet. Only the suckling sound could be heard and the ticking of the wall-clock.

"We will go back to Bahia," Diana told Bia, buttoning her purple blouse.

Bia sighed, thus hurling the grip of her sorrow.

"What do you want?" Diana asked Bia. Her eyes reddened.

"Nothing," Bia said.

"Just to sit here."

"Because of Jonas," Diana said.

"Because of Jonas."

Diana's gaze wandered around the room and caught a shade of Jonas.

"He can't stay," she said.

"He can," Bia said quietly. "He has to stay, you know."

"If he would," Diana's voice trembled, "then I would too."

Bia's presence had never been so concentrated as in that moment. Diana and Daniel huddled within a circle she could somehow penetrate. It bore the scent of honest love.


The mulberry tree gave much fruit that year. It was a fortunate thing, as Bia and Jonas never lost their taste for berries. At times, Diana dreamed Jonas in the dunes when he joined her under the soothing breeze. Breezes and berries marked the family days. Berries and Breezes. Nine months later Bia gave birth to Rafael.

"Sweet!" Diana observed. "He looks like Jonas."

"He does."

Avital Gad-Cykman's work has been published or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Prism International, Other Voices, Happy, Stand Magazine, AIM Quarterly, The Bridge, Gargoyle Magazine, The Binnacle and other publications. It has also appeared online in Salon, Zoetrope All-story Extra, Salt Hill Review, 3am, In-Posse Review and elsewhere. Her story collection was one of the six finalists for Iowa Fiction Award. 







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