“I didn’t make the rules of reincarnation. I just keep living my lives, hoping for the best.” A short story that ponders if change is the only lasting truth…
by: Phebe Jewell
This time, I come back as a tree. Not some venerable oak planted a hundred years ago, nor a sacred banyan under which a prince could sit for days and reach enlightenment, but a spindly street tree on Rainier Avenue South always in desperate need of water. Don’t assume my size and location had anything to do with my previous life. No one asked what I wanted to be. There was no form to fill out. Animal or human. Male or female. One second I was alive as whoever or whatever I was in my previous life. The next, a third of my body was rooted in earth, searching for water far below street level.
I don’t remember my past selves, but I sometimes get a shivery hint that never lasts more than a second. Just a few days ago a red bird perched on my upper branch and stared down my long body. The bird didn’t sing or look out on the street below. It just held on, its jet black eyes studying my thin trunk, my leaves just starting to uncurl. I’m convinced the red bird knew me, but maybe I’m just looking for answers.
If I was human in my last life, I’d like to think I helped others. Not someone famous for their good or important deeds, but one of those neighbor ladies who looks out for the kids on her street, making sure she’s got something for that one who always looks hollow around the eyes. I must have done something right not to have come back as a rattlesnake or a venture capitalist. Trees are good for the planet, so I must have been a reasonably decent human being.
Still, I wonder if The Powers That Be deemed my lot was to return as a slender sapling on a parking strip, then I must not have been a saint either. Why stick me on a street known for car crashes and drive-by shootings? Why not make me majestic, like a gingko, or plant me in a forest, surrounded by my kind? But what do I know? I didn’t make the rules of reincarnation. I just keep living my lives, hoping for the best.
I can’t tell how long I’ve been here on this block. A few changes of the seasons, long enough to recognize people on the street. There’s a bus stop right next to me, so there’s almost always someone around. Like the bald white guy who runs after the bus most mornings, one hand waving at the bus driver to stop. And the two teens always so busy staring at each other they don’t notice when the bus pulls up.
Yesterday, the girl tried to share a book with the boy. “This is the best book ever. It says everything that happens to us changes us. And we change other people too. All we are is change.”
“So?” He pulled her to him.
“So?” She repeated, pushing him off. “What do you think? Do you agree?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.” He reached for her again just as the bus arrived.
Walking toward the bus, she called out to him. “Well, I think it’s dope.”
All day I thought about their conversation. If change is the only lasting truth, then how do we know what is real? Does nothing last?
They’re sweet kids, but I’ve got my favorites, especially the old guy who walks my block every morning. I don’t know where he’s going, where he’s coming from, or why he carries a cane he never uses. A fast walker, what does he even need it for? Protection? It’s a rough block of a pretty tough neighborhood. What they call “in transition.” Code for “gentrification.” Making room for people with more money. More everything.
That’s why I like this guy. I can’t tell if his high-water pants started out green or brown but now they’re beige. His tennis shoes needed to be replaced a couple hundred miles ago. He wears the same ratty jacket every day, no matter if it’s raining, snowing, or sunny.
This morning my old guy has someone with him. A younger woman. I see them coming before they get to my block. They’re walking fast, leaning toward each other as they talk. The woman waves her hands around and grabs his arm as she points at the chained up lot that’s been empty ever since I’ve been here. My guy nods and says something. When they reach the bus stop, I can hear them talking.
“I’m telling you, Manny, we don’t have much time.” The woman digs into her purse, like she’s looking for bus fare.
“I know. Josiah told me the zoning commission met yesterday and already approved the plan. We’ve got to stop them.” Manny touches her arm. “We need to do something drastic, Carla. Radical even.”
Pulling out a pen and a notebook, she scribbles something. “I like where you’re going with this, Manny. We need to move fast.”
Tearing the page from her notebook, Carla hands it to Manny.
“Tell folks these are specific steps they can take. They can call me at this number. If we fill the streets with protesters the city will have to sit up and take notice.”
“Maybe we can organize a sit-in,” Manny adds.
“Brilliant.” Her smile would make anyone want to join the fight.
Manny takes the paper. “Thanks, Carla. We’ll show developers they can’t take over our neighborhood. We’re not a playground for out-of-state hipsters.”
A warm spring breeze wafts through my leaves and I can’t hear her reply. He seems satisfied, and presses Carla’s arm before she continues down the block. She strides with purpose and confidence, her halo of curls illuminated by the early morning sun.
Manny stands beneath me, watching her walk away. Squaring his shoulders, he studies the piece of paper.
“Yes,” he mutters, “we can do this. It’ll take a lot of work, but if we stick together…” His voice trails off as he realizes he’s speaking out loud in public.
I like people who talk to themselves. I’ve learned a lot about this neighborhood from them. You’d be surprised how many people talk out loud when no one else is listening, especially when they’re waiting for the eternally late Number 7 bus. I’ve heard about infidelities, fears for grandmothers’ health, dreams of making it big.
I never figured Manny for an activist. He seems content in his solitude. I like him for his routines, his down-to-earthness. I am intrigued by this plan of his and Carla’s. I’ve noticed the changes in the neighborhood. The sleek, shiny townhouses. New coffee shops and posh restaurants. Construction cranes overhead. More garage sales as families move away in search of someplace cheaper.
Manny tucks the cane under his arm and heads back the way he came. He scans the street as he walks, stopping now and then to look at the paper. I watch as he hesitates in front of the Ethiopian cafe on the corner before entering. If only I could follow him inside and hear him talk with the owner, a tall, thin man with rimless glasses I see most days opening and closing his shop. He looks like a scholar or a saint, not someone who stands aproned behind a counter all day serving coffee and muffins.
Alone on the block, all I can do is focus on the sensation of my roots, sending out tiny vibrations toward the roots of the street tree a few feet from me. It’s about my height, so it was probably planted around the same time I was. I can sense its roots moving slowly. I wonder how it will feel when we touch.
Something flutters above, then sharp claws curl around my highest branch. That red bird again. Shifting focus to my upper body, I wait for the bird’s next move.
At first I feel nothing. And then it begins. A sound. Like humming. But a hum with words. The bird is speaking to me.
“Yes, dear one, it’s me. At first I wasn’t sure it was you, but when I felt your thoughts, I knew. I’ve missed you so much. I’ve even figured out a way for us to be together again.”
Who is this? Were we lovers? Friends? How can we leave this life and return to the old? When one life ends, another begins.
The red bird settles on a lower branch.
“There’s no time to wait. Follow me now or you’ll lose me forever.” The hum is louder, more insistent.
I hesitate before answering. I have grown fond of my block, and Manny and the people who come and go on the Number 7 bus. I want to see them win their battle, but I also want to know my past.
“Now or never,” the red bird repeats.
Give me time. Come back later and I’ll let you know, I think, waiting for the right answer to come my way. And it does, as the tree next to me sends a shy shiver toward my deepest root.
“Sorry, I’m not ready,” I say to the bird who is already flying away, calling “Too late, too late,” as it rises above me.
I watch the bird disappear into the sky. If only I had more time. I focus on what lies beneath the concrete, where my neighbor inches toward me, and my root stirs in the damp, dark soil. I am pulled out of my reverie by a loud thrumming a block away. A bulldozer, heading toward the empty lot. What’s it doing? There’s nothing to tear down.
Manny hears it too. He steps out of the Ethiopian cafe, his face blank with shock as the bulldozer crashes through the chain link fence. The cafe owner joins Manny, both men watching in disbelief as the bulldozer rolls to the middle of the lot, panels of metal trailing behind.
Manny shakes himself. “I’ve got to call Carla,” he says, and the cafe owner nods Manny back inside the cafe.
The bulldozer flattens blackberry bushes, scoops up earth and broken concrete, dropping them in mounds. Then, as quickly as it arrived, the bulldozer swivels and turns, lumbering up a side street and idles before the driver turns it off. The block is quiet. Manny comes out of the cafe and heads down the street, his walk filled with brisk purpose. I try to sort out what happened when I feel new, stronger vibrations. My root continues its journey toward my neighbor. I don’t know how long until we touch. It doesn’t matter when, only that we connect.
A few days later when more trucks show up at the lot, a crowd gathers, holding up signs, chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!” as they move along the sidewalk. As they circle the block their chant gets louder. Some marchers wear bright green tee shirts with “Save Our Hood” emblazoned on the front. Carla is at the front, marching and talking with Manny.
She raises her hand and the protesters make their move. When the light changes, everyone breaks from the sidewalk and heads straight for the intersection. Cars heading north and south screech to a halt. A few drivers honk, in anger or agreement, I can’t tell. One woman gets out of her car and joins the protesters now sitting in the middle of Rainier Avenue. It doesn’t take long for the cops to show up, and the street flashes blue and red from the cruiser lights as the cops set up a barrier. People come out of their houses and apartments to see what the fuss is all about. Many nod as Carla addresses the sitting protesters.
“It’s time to take back our streets,” she urges them through a megaphone. Her voice is strong, slow, clear. “We’re tired of getting pushed out. This is our home. We’ve been here for a long time. Decades. How many of you have lived here for ten years?” All the protesters raise their hands, as do some of the people watching from the sidewalk and front porches.
“How many of you were raised here?” A few hands are lowered, but most hands remain high. Carla turns to the spectators lining the street.
“Come join us. It’s your time. Our time.”
At first the cops watch from the sidelines, but as people move from the sidewalk to the middle of the street, they form a tight knot around the protesters. Several police buses arrive, idling on a side street a block from the intersection.
“You are unlawfully disturbing the peace,” the police bullhorn squawks. “Step back to the sidewalk. Open up the street now or we will have no choice but to arrest anyone who interrupts the flow of traffic.”
No one moves. Manny looks at Carla and nods. She addresses the crowd, “We have more of a right to be here than the cops. They don’t even live in our neighborhood.”
“Again. Disperse. We don’t want trouble.”
A few scattered calls of “You’re the trouble,” and “Fuck the cops.” No one leaves the circle and more neighbors join the group sitting in the street.
“This is your final warning.”
Carla starts singing “We Shall Not Be Moved,” and Manny joins in. Soon the song fills the street as the seated protesters, arms locked, add their voices. A whistle, and then the cops start pulling people out of the circle. As the protesters go limp, the cops handcuff and drag them to the waiting buses. Manny stays seated by Carla’s side. Today he has left his cane at home. They are the last two protesters to be taken.
The buses fill with protesters, and more people take their place in the middle of the street. If only I could walk over and sit with them. Driving onto the sidewalk to avoid hitting the new protesters, one bus heads straight toward me. A tearing shriek of metal. Darkness.
This time, I come back as a young pup, wobbling on new legs. My brothers and sisters wrestle in the tall grass while I watch beneath a stand of quaking aspens. Sometimes when a breeze moves through their leaves, it feels like the trees are speaking to me.
Phebe Jewell’s work appears in various journals, including MoonPark Review, Spelk, XRAY, Monkeybicycle, and Milk Candy Review. A teacher at Seattle Central College, she also volunteers for the Freedom Education Project Puget Sound, a nonprofit providing college courses for incarcerated women, trans-identified and non-binary people in Washington State. Read her at https://phebejewellwrites.com.