As I rounded the last corner on my morning walk, I stopped to admire a flowering pink azalea. Dainty pink blossoms fluttered on graceful stems, lifted like ballerinas on the morning breeze. Winter was being nudged back into hibernation, and spring was doing one last dress rehearsal before taking center stage.
But my reverie was cut short.
The air was filled with the unmistakable whine of chainsaws, and the frantic chattering of displaced birds.
I raced toward my house, chased after the disembodied sounds until I found their source.
An army of gardeners surrounded the pepper trees in my neighbor’s yard, right behind my own. They stood sentry along our common fence, weapons raised, until my neighbor called out to them in broken Spanish. Chainsaws bit into bark–a steady, grinding noise–as one after another, amputated trees limbs crashed to the ground at the workmen’s feet.
My heart sank. Planted in the wrong spot, Brazilian pepper trees can be a bit unruly. Without pruning, they grow impossibly tall and unruly. They litter the ground with seedpods, and their gnarled trunks shed bark. They’re not indigenous to our area, and it shows. Even so, I love them. They provide shade during the hottest part of summer, and they offer sanctuary to the countless birds that, moments earlier, had taken to the sky, voicing their displeasure.
Hummingbirds patrolled the wooden fence, wings whirring as they dive-bombed the intruders. Mockingbirds hovered above emptied nests, and house finches fought in vain to protect their hatchlings. Homeless now, a pair of orioles took wing, a blur of sunshine that disappeared when they vanished.
I stared at a bald patch of sky, where leafy branches used to be, and I was overcome by a naked sense of vulnerability. My heart ached for the birds—their sanctuary was being destroyed! But when the hacked-off branches teetered on the fence, and then collapsed into my yard like fallen corpses, my fingers tightened around my phone.
Now what? I asked myself. My neighbor and I were strangers— the fence, the trees that divided our properties also separated us from one another. I wouldn’t recognize his face, were I to bump into him at our local market, and I didn’t have his phone number.
So I called my sister, who lives 1000 miles away. “He’s killing them,” I sobbed.
“Wha–” The panic in her voice was palpable. But as I related the situation, blubbered on and on about dismembered trees and murderous gardeners, the urgency in her voice dissolved into relieved laughter, followed by sighs of relief.
“What can you do?” she said. “His property, his trees…I’m sorry, but I don’t know what I can do to make you feel better.”
So I called my husband. “You should see this!” I wailed. My eyes were blurred by tears, but I tried valiantly to describe for him the massacre as it continued to unfold.
“I wish I could help you,” he eventually said, “but by the time I get home from work, the damage will already be done.”
We ended our conversation, and in that hollow space between knowing and not believing the situation in which I found myself, I heard a still, small voice. It called me out of my panic, whispered the answer I needed to hear.
Share your concerns with the right person, it said. Speak up, while you still can.
I washed my mascara-streaked face, squared my shoulders, and slid into a pair of flip-flops. Armed with refrigerated water bottles, I grabbed my car keys and drove to my neighbor’s house.
No one answered the doorbell, so I opened the back gate.
Three brown-skinned gardeners, dressed in wide-brimmed hats and chinos, were waging war against the trees. I must’ve had a crazed look in my eyes, because when the gate slammed shut, they lowered their chainsaws and cut the engines.
A middle-aged man approached me, brow furrowed. “I’m Tony,” he said. “Who are you, and what are you doing here?”
My eyes swept over his starched collar and pleated pants, took note of the salt and pepper hair, combed into neat ridges against his brown skin. I introduced myself, but when I tried to shake his outstretched hand, a water bottle dropped from my arms, rolled across the cement patio, and landed on my toes.
“It’s a hot day,” I mumbled. “I thought you might be thirsty.”
Tony’s face was guarded, but I saw a hint of a smile forming at the corners of his mouth. “Take a break,” he told the workers, again in halting Spanish.
I glanced in their direction. My moment of opportunity was slipping away, so I spoke the next words that came to mind.
“¿Quieres bottles de agua?”
The tree-cutters nodded. Despite my mangled Spanish, they seemed to understand what was saying. More so, their smiles suggested they knew why I was there. Water bottles in hand, they retreated to the remaining shade of the pepper trees.
Over the next several minutes, I tried to reason with my neighbor. “Please don’t chop them down,” I said, “I’ll reimburse you for whatever sum of money you’ve agreed to pay your workers!”
He took careful sips of water, eyes guarded as he listened.
I motioned toward the emptied nests, tears brimming in my eyes, and it was only then that a flicker of sadness crossed his face.
“Please…keep the trees,” I begged. “Do it for the birds, if not for me.”
His face softened, and then his shoulders relaxed. He turned down my monetary offer, but in the end, he granted those trees a stay of execution.
I thanked him repeatedly, and before heading home, I whispered a few words of gratitude to the compassionate gardeners. I dashed off a quick thank-you note the next day, sealed the envelope with a hummingbird sticker, and left it on Tony’s doorstep. And over the next year, I prayed that the damage would ultimately be undone.
The following spring, leaf buds appeared on the damaged trees. The moon played peek-a-boo along the length of our fence, spotlighting the new growth with its silvery sheen. The mockingbirds returned, followed by the finches. Seed pods dangled from leafy branches, and hummingbirds darted from tree to tree, iridescent in the early morning light. I celebrated each moment of regrowth, drank daily from the well of my neighbor’s kindness. Though they once faced an uncertain future, the birds and trees were thriving.
Sadly, one of the trees didn’t survive. But in its place, a friendship bloomed. We got better acquainted over iced lattes at our local coffee shop. My gym visits were temporarily suspended by a sports injury, but when I recovered, he invited me to walk with him. I delivered an orchid plant to his house, easy care, along with another greeting card. “Thank you for preserving the trees,” I wrote, “and for saving the birds’ (my!) playground.” I told him I was grateful for the shade that spilled over our fence on hot afternoons, and for the joy that came of watching young hatchlings grow and fledge–a living diorama, just outside my kitchen window. “For those gifts and your kindnesses,” I finished, “I’m forever grateful.”
When I came home from running errands the next day, the name ‘Ramish’ appeared on my answering machine, and the message light was blinking. I couldn’t place the name, but I recognized my neighbor’s voice right away.
I returned his phone call, and over the course of that conversation, I saw Tony in a new light. Voice trembling, he told me about the turmoil that forced him out of Iran, his country of origin.
I swallowed hard. Oh…I didn’t know.
He struggled for many years in low-wage jobs, I learned, and tried with limited success to erase his accent. He adopted our customs, as best he could, and at some point, he traded Ramish for an Americanized first name. A stranger in a strange land, Tony moved from one neighborhood to another, in search of a place that felt like home.
Little by little, it dawned on me: our stories were somewhat similar. That unsettled feeling that comes of being uprooted, time and again? As the daughter of an itinerant preacher, I knew it well. I also remembered the difficulties that come of being the new kid on the block, always struggling to fit in.
At the time of our first encounter, he told me he was chopping down the pepper trees in order to please his insurance broker, who had expressed concerned that they might topple over during a Santa Ana windstorm. But in hindsight, I’m wondering if I may have tapped into our shared experiences when I barged into his backyard, water bottles in tow. When Tony ordered the gardeners to lay down their chainsaws, when I offered him bottled water on a hot summer morning…those were gifts of communion. Our countries of origin are different, but we shared a common fence. We were kindred spirits, Tony and I, back-fence neighbors who, in those reciprocated moments of kindness, discovered our common ground.
Grace is all around us, available to all who listen for its sound. It’s a note that finds its resonance between tentative strangers, a harmony that arises out of chaos. And it’s the brazen mockingbird, perched atop the highest limb of a pepper tree on an early springtime morning, singing its little heart out.
An experienced public speaker with a storyteller’s sensibilities, Melodye has been quoted on a variety of subjects, in publications such as Time Magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times, Sports Illustrated, and USA Today.
Melodye writes to a wide audience. Her autobiographical essay, “Luz,” is included in the Young Adult anthology, Dear Bully: 70 Authors Tell Their Stories, and “Lessons I Learned from Nana” is featured in The Girl Guide: Finding Your Place in a Mixed-Up World. Her holiday piece, “Tidings of Comfort and Joy” was a Manifest-Station feature on Christmas Day, 2014.
Melodye’s current book project, Can I Get a Witness? Memoir of a Tent Evangelist’s Daughter, chronicles an itinerant childhood during which she and her family crisscrossed the country in a cramped sedan, setting up Pentecostal revival meetings wherever they landed. She is jointly represented by Mandy Hubbard and Bob DiForio, of D4EO Literary Agency.
Born with an adventuresome spirit and a vivid imagination, Melodye enjoys bringing her daydreams to life. In fact, she recently fulfilled one of her topmost bucket list items: to sing with the Harlem Gospel Choir. (Oh happy day!) She enjoys traveling, but she feels most at home in Southern California, where she lives with her husband Eric. It is there – inspired by hummingbirds, palm trees, and ocean breezes – that she keeps her interests in photography, gardening, and plotting new adventures very much alive. (For more information, please visit www.melodyeshore.com.)
Featured image courtesy of Veronica Roth.