A story of roots
Deep in the flatlands of Diamond, Missouri, amid tangles of shingle oak and cypress, a little boy was born without a name. No one knows exactly when, because the little boy was not born free. He had dark skin and a fate written in the cotton fields, and when slave raiders arrived in the middle of the night, they kidnapped him, his sister, and their young mother and sold them in Arkansas. It cost the infant’s owner a broken-down racehorse, worth three hundred dollars, to bring him back, but his mother and sister were never heard from again.
The boy was called George Washington Carver, because he was honest to a fault, and his frail constitution meant that his time in the fields would not be spent doing manual labor. Instead, George roamed the land and assembled a family from its inhabitants. “Hello, little crocus,” he said to the blooms that peeked through springtime’s frozen sod. He invited canna lilies, sumacs, and maidenhair ferns into his heart. George cried if a root came loose as studied his friends, and because he listened so closely, the plants gave up their secrets. Even as a child, George became known as the plant doctor, and ailing species from all over the country were brought to him for treatment.
When he was eleven, he made his way, alone, across Missouri and Kansas in pursuit of knowledge, eventually landing in Alabama.
Deep in the rainforest of Belize, there was another man without a name. He had one, of course, but it was lost in the telling of three generations. Manny’s great-grandfather came on a ship from Angola, and after many years of backbreaking work in service of the British crown, he forgot what his village looked like, his thatch-roofed home, even the face of his mother. Sweat pooled in the crease of his neck as he sawed through the skin of another mahogany tree, and when it hit the ground with a clap that sent creatures scurrying, he winced. To him, the fallen trees were like dead bodies, and if he listened with his full attention, he could hear their spirits talk.
Manny’s great-grandfather lived with his sister and nephew in a logging encampment on the banks of a river. He counted the cycles of the moon to track the boy’s age and watched his string-bean arms bulge under increasingly heavy loads of timber. He vowed that his own son, whenever he had one, would be born free.
There was a passage to freedom: north, to the Yucatán, three days’ journey by foot.
Manny’s great-grandfather was a huntsman, the most skilled and respected role in the encampment that also came with the most autonomy. With the task of surveying the forest for mahogany trees, Manny’s great-grandfather could disappear on a mission and get at least a day’s head start before his owner noticed something awry. It was almost too easy. And yet:
He would go alone. His family, all that he had left of one, would live only in the hazy corners of his mind, the place of dreams that dissolve in the morning sun, to join the red roads of Africa and the ghosts of his bloodline that inhabited them.
As night fell, Manny’s great-grandfather slipped into a recently felled clearing, a bedlam of timber shards and broken saws. He crouched at the edge of a stump and ran his hand across rivulets of sap, lifeblood still warm and oozing. Give me a sign, he prayed. Speak to me through your Creation and tell me what to do.
The plants began to murmur, in the tongue of obeah Manny’s great-grandfather knew well. Leaves rustled in a sudden gust of wind, and a flash of red streaked across the full moon.
It was a scarlet macaw—one, two, three of them—soaring overhead in uncharacteristic silence. They seemed lost, out of sorts, looking for their home in the piles of timber. As they circled the clearing, one swiftly pulled away. He rose above the destruction to the perimeter canopy, and each gust carried him higher and higher until he was a speck in the sky, a being among stars. Manny’s great-grandfather turned his back to the encampment and vanished in the woods.
It is here that Manny’s family tree began to more resemble a vine, because a tree has roots and a vine just reaches; it reaches for daylight and for nourishment and it reaches upward, ever upward, because with such a tenuous connection to the earth it always fears it will be swept away. Somewhere in Mexico, Manny’s family vine picked up the surname of Castillo. It likely branched off into some other vines, but Manny’s grandfather was born in New Orleans, after the runaway crossed the Gulf on a fishing vessel and found love with a Creole woman who charged by the hour. Manny’s grandfather grew up with an auntie who wasn’t really an auntie in the Third Ward, where he collected vegetable scraps each night to plant in a little garden nestled in the three-foot patch of withered grass that separated their house from the road. He was the only Castillo in the Ward, a community member at arm’s length, and so, as soon as he was old enough to do so, he packed up his one good shirt and a beat-up trilby and hitched a ride north. In Baton Rouge, Manny’s grandfather taught himself to read in the broom closet of the courthouse that hired him as a janitor, and his son had a family until a brawl landed the elder Castillo in the courtroom and his wife bought a one-way bus ticket elsewhere. So Manny’s father headed north to Jackson with a Dominican migrant worker, where they stayed until unrest spread over the shortage of jobs and the pair quietly left for greener pastures.
And sixteen-year-old Manny, disillusioned and unmoored, made his way across the state, alone, eventually landing in Alabama.
Manny Castillo didn’t talk to plants. He ate them, reluctantly, when he forgot to tell the Subway clerk to leave them off his turkey club, and food more or less encompassed his relationship with animals, too. What Manny Castillo spoke to were chassis: steel frames and axle shafts, shock absorbers and suspension parts. He wielded the tools of the automotive trade like a conductor teasing a crescendo from his orchestra, and when he was absorbed in buffing out a stubborn dent, time stood still.
Manny ran a collision repair shop on Highway 82 in Eufaula, Alabama, where he had lived for the past twelve years. There wasn’t a particular reason for staying other than a lack of a reason to leave. He learned his craft in Montgomery before drifting north, and when he got to Eufaula and found a run-down storefront on offer for nine hundred dollars a month, he thought, why not. There’s a river in Eufaula. And a flag football league. Good enough, for a little while, at least.
People passed through Manny’s life, mostly because they wrecked their cars on the way to Dothan or Columbus. They didn’t have much to say, antsy as they were from their unexpected layover at the town’s Econo Lodge, and it was just as well, because what would Manny talk about? All that mattered to him was how he could heal a fender like a broken bone, and he didn’t figure many people cared about that.
One day, a man lingered. He pressed a line of thumbnail half-moons into the rim of his coffee cup and flicked the crumbs off the table until he broke the silence. “Listen,” he said. “About the car.”
“What about it?” Manny replied, eyeing the underbelly of a Cadillac hoisted on the lift.
“Well, there’s this thing about the insurance,” the man continued. “I was supposed to take care of the premium, but my ex-wife—”
“What you’re saying is you can’t pay.”
“What I’m saying is I can offer you something better,” the man rushed on, sloshing coffee from the mangled cup. “I want to offer you a trade. Something that will change your business and have people coming from all over just to see you. I have this bird—”
“A bird? What am I going to do with a bird?”
“—I have this bird, a parrot, a scarlet macaw, actually, bright red and blue and green, it’s a magnificent creature, I’m telling you. I deal in these birds, and I happen to have one right now that’s sixteen weeks old. Handsome little guy. Quite rare. They come from Belize.”
Belize. The name pricked a nerve in Manny’s spine, something buried in the hard drive of his body. There in his spine, he pictured, was the DNA of his ancestors. These primal codes were still attuned to the undulations of the jungle. They were still tied to his tribe. Entangled in these codes was the knowledge of bondage and freedom, belonging and exile. Manny set down his wrench and looked at the man.
“Why do you have this bird, anyway?”
“He was born tame, and so were his parents, if that’s what you want to know,” the man replied. “It’s been three generations. If he were in the rainforest, he’d be eaten in an hour. He’s worth five grand.”
Manny was quiet for a moment. Nothing about this made sense. “Fine,” he said at last. “Fine.”
The next evening, the man brought the bird into the shop in a cardboard box with holes cut in it.
“You don’t even have a cage?” Manny asked incredulously. “A manual? Anything?”
“There’s a forum online that’ll tell you everything you need to know. Feed him hourly. Give him lots of love. They bond strongly to their flock, and you’re his flock now.”
With that, the man left. Manny set the box down on the table and gingerly lifted a flap. Inside, two inquisitive black eyes stared up at him. The bird cocked his head and shook his downy feathers, a prism, a paintwell.
“We a flock now,” Manny told the bird. He folded up the box and headed home.
Manny’s basement apartment was dark and sparsely furnished, and its stove hadn’t been used for months. He flipped on the lights and cleared a pile of mail circulars from the kitchen table. He opened the cupboard to find something to eat. A box of stale taco shells, a can of refried beans, a bottle of rum, and a jar of maraschino cherries. He scraped some beans into one of the taco shells for himself and brought the jar of cherries over to the table, where he opened the box and picked up the bird. A wordless conversation passed through their gaze.
Manny placed the bird on the floor and joined him, cross-legged, with the jar of cherries. An alien could have just as likely landed in Manny’s living room the way the creature was bobbing along on ancient claw feet, peering into corners and shaking out feathers too colorful to exist on anything belonging to this planet. Manny bit a cherry in half and held it out to the bird, who took it in his beak and dropped it on the floor.
“What are we gonna call you?” Manny asked. “Look, we’ll do better tomorrow. I’ll go to the grocery store. We’ll get you some fruit, and we’ll find you a cage, and you can come hang out in the shop, and it’ll be good. You gonna be OK tonight? If I leave you out here, are you gonna shit on my La-Z-Boy?”
The bird toddled across the floor and took flight. He landed on Manny’s La-Z-Boy and shat.
“At least you ain’t a liar, George Washington,” Manny said. He wiped off the chair, rumpled the bird’s beak, and went to bed.
Sometimes love happens in an instant and sometimes it creeps in on little bird’s feet, gentle like fog. George Washington Castillo took to Manny and began to follow him around the apartment. His fledgling claws gripped Manny’s sweater as he watched him dice up broccoli, carrots, strawberries, bananas, papaya, sweet potatoes, and pears, and because produce overflowed the fridge, the pair ate dinner together, from a matching set of bowls. As George nestled into the crook of Manny’s arm, Manny held the soft bellows of the sleeping bird’s chest and realized he felt something he had never before experienced: home.
It is when all the energy of your soul, scattered for a lifetime in search of a safe place to land, pulls inward like filaments to a magnet.
It is wholeness in a vessel that always believed itself to be void.
Manny brought the bird into the shop early each day so he could fly through the metal canyons and perch on car doors before the first customer arrived. George Washington Castillo loved bolts and dowel pins. He collected the shiny toys and amassed a growing pile of them in the corner that Manny left untouched, not having the heart to rob George when he needed a spare part. Sometimes Manny cracked the garage door to let in some wandering pigeons, transplants from Montgomery via the town square. George squawked in delight at his gray cousins, but they took little notice as they dawdled around stacks of tires, on the lookout for discarded chicken bones. A new sign arrived for the shop: G&M’s Collision Center.
And people came, just as the man said they would. Some were town folks who stopped by to see Eufaula’s only macaw. They would rap on his cage and try to get him to talk, but Manny sent them on their way. People came, with their busted-up Fords, but they were different than before. Somehow, in the steady presence of George Washington Castillo, they felt compelled to share things they probably hadn’t told anyone else. Guilt about the wreck and the pint of whisky hidden under the seat that had been a constant companion since the affair. The estranged son living God knows where and the words between them left unsaid. The dream of something that will fill the emptiness, just further up the road.
Manny reconstructed steel frames and hammered out twisted hoods. He buffed out scratches and brushed on fresh paint. As he meticulously put each vehicle back together, he also mended its owner’s broken life. And when he returned it, better than new, he gave them a fresh start to go forward, unmarred by the scars of the past.
No one knows whether George Washington Carver, the great plant doctor of Tuskegee, ever thought about the past. There are records of the agricultural miracles he achieved that saved the South, a laboratory full of specimens, but no one knows what Dr. Carver thought about when he pulled the covers to his chin at night. Did he ever wonder what happened to his mother or feel an ache for Africa, the unnamable fissure left by something that was taken?
Were there cells in George Washington Castillo’s body that remembered the wild free wonder of his great-grandfather’s home, the limitless horizon reached for by unclipped wings?
A man’s inner world is his own, but according to the accounts of those who knew him, George the doctor and George the bird were one of the same. Dr. Carver lived in the realm of nature and spoke freely of grace, and when he conversed with the higher power that moved him, at four o’clock in the morning, every morning, he did so with this understanding: provenance is by design, and it places you exactly where you need to be.
On a bright December afternoon, eggshell sky suspended by the brittle chill, a tow truck arrived with a shattered Volvo. It was silver, and the driver’s side was a mass of crumpled-up tin foil. Manny knew instantly that it was totaled.
A woman slid out of the cab that followed. Her face was blank, her hair disheveled. She stood stiffly in the doorway of the repair shop until Manny guided her to a chair, and for a moment her mind rejoined her body.
“You have to fix it,” she told Manny. “It’s his car. You have to fix it.”
Manny was at a loss for words. “I’ll do what I can,” he said. “You don’t have to stay—”
But the woman was already gone. She sat in the metal chair until night fell and as Manny finished cleaning up his tools, he called her a cab.
“I’m sorry,” he told her. “It’s totaled. I’m so sorry.”
The next morning, the woman came back to the shop and sat in the chair.
A week would pass before Manny learned her name. After a second week, he had a vision of Loretta’s life. He imagined there were two dinner plates still sitting on the kitchen table, remnants crusted after a spontaneous decision to go out for ice cream. He imagined she slept in a ball on her side of the bed, placed the second head of the electric toothbrush back in the holder after she used it, let the newspapers pile up because without acknowledging the days their existence never happened. He imagined her heart was a vast chasm, a shaft lined with nails where every moment is falling falling falling.
George Washington Castillo liked Loretta. He trilled and clucked until she pulled up her chair and placed her hand flat against the cage for him to nudge with the crest of his beak. When no one else was in the shop, Manny would open the latch so George could fly free. After bursting out in a flurry, he would swoop low before landing on Loretta’s outstretched arm. And there he stayed while Loretta spoke to him.
Loretta started bringing George peanuts. She started washing her hair.
The woman’s voice jarred Manny when one day it was directed at him. “These creatures,” she said, “they’re the sages of the rainforest.”
“I believe you,” Manny said.
“I spent ten years there,” she continued. “In Toledo. Belize, not Ohio. Lived with the Maya. Documented things, wrote grants. Tried to keep them from razing the whole place. If you ever step foot there, you will believe in God, because it is the Garden of Eden. Right here, and we’re blasting through rocket fuel trying to get to Mars. Elsewhere, always elsewhere. I don’t understand people.”
“The thing with the jungle is, if you’re quiet, it will talk to you. I mean, the forests here will talk to you too, but you have to be centered, because it’s normal life, you know? There’s a plane flying overhead and what am I having for dinner and that client report, it’s not going to be ready for the meeting tomorrow. You have to be so completely centered in yourself to hear what the maple trees in Alabama have to say, and I’m sure they have lots to say, and there have been people many times wiser than me who have listened.
“But the jungle—” Loretta paused. “It's different. You’re no longer who you think you are when you’re out there alone, miles and miles away from the things you’ve cobbled together as an identity. Look at this human animal in her suit and heels, so orderly and smart! Look at this piece of paper that lists all the things she’s done that will impress you! Look, five thousand other human animals like her, it says so on this little box she keeps in her face all day long! You don’t realize what an absurd idea it is, that we think we know anything at all.”
“George tells me that all the time,” Manny said.
“The macaws showed me what freedom looks like. They aren’t proud birds, not at all, but they know who they are. They have their place in the world without clawing for it. That’s how it is with all the plants and animals. They’re at peace. And we need to listen to them.”
“But you came back.”
“My family lived here for six generations. We had a plantation,” she said, averting her eyes.
“Those are the roles that were given. We didn’t write the script.”
“Our script had drama,” she replied. “Eufaula was never home. So I went south. But chapters end, and I came back, and I met—” His name caught in her throat.
“I knew. It’s like a radio that’s finally tuned to the right frequency, and if you’ve never felt that before in your life, you just know. He was home. This place is not home, but him, he was home.”
Manny crouched on the cement floor next to Loretta and George Washington Castillo. He extended a grease-stained hand as George nibbled her shoulder. “You don’t have to work it out,” Manny said. “Just trust, because it will. Your flock comes to you, and when it does, it won’t ever leave you behind. You’re one of us, Loretta. Stay here for a while.”