This is a true story from when I was a little girl. Although the details have blurred over the years, the feeling of regret that comes along with this recollection has not changed.
When I was just five years old, my family migrated from China to New Zealand. We lived in a unit house, because that was the best that my parents could afford. I thought of it as a quirky little place. It was like living in the middle of an evenly sliced chocolate-log-house, everything was so much fun! Thinking back, it must have been a difficult time for my parents, leaving their white-collar jobs behind to become a waitress and butcher in a country where they barely spoke the language. I was too young to understand all they went through, instead, I became enamoured by the orange tree in our backyard.
It was, admittedly, a rather ugly thing. Wrangled limbs reaching for, but not quite touching the sky as droopy leaves clung onto peeling bark. That didn’t matter though, because it bore fruit that tasted like drops of sunshine. I remember being upset during summer when there were far too many oranges to eat and stuffing myself full so they would not be wasted. I loved how my mother carefully peeled back the lumpy, freckled skin and a faint citrus perfume would fill the air. If you concentrated hard enough, you could still smell the remnants of happiness hours later, clinging to the space under her nail bed, my teeth, our hair as the summer fruit stained our hearts with joy. Ah the memory of tangy jewels of succulent juice bursting on our tongues before fading to a uniform sweetness…Some people enjoy the communal aspect of living in a unit house. My parents certainly didn’t. They picked our house specifically for the gates on either side of our garden, separating us from our neighbours. Unfortunately, they could do nothing about the lack of a physical barrier between our garden and the house directly on the other side of our back yard. I could easily walk a few steps too far before I found myself past the invisible dividing line.
One day, I was daydreaming in my backyard when I spotted a bird’s nest sitting on one of the higher branches of the orange tree. It was an exciting moment, I had never seen anything like it up close before so like a typical 5 year old, I immediately wanted it for myself. However, I was timid by nature and my mother has taught me well about the dangers of life including scaling trees so it was lucky that my neighbour (the one whose backyard was connected to mine) was also outside. He must have noticed how long I stood under that tree, wallowing in self pity, and so he walked over to our garden to find out what I wanted.
He was a man in his twenties or thirties. I don’t remember any of his physical feature except that he seemed kind, and I was not afraid of him. After a short talk, he was somehow convinced to climb the tree and retrieve the bird’s nest for me. Objectively, the nest was less than 2 meters off the ground and it was a relatively safe climb but he was clumsier in his movements than I expected, knocking half a dozen oranges off the tree on his way up. I remember watching his every move, filled with anticipation and fear. As he reached for the bird’s nest, my heart stopped, watching his whole body shaking from a phantom wind, closer…closer…and safely on the ground, prize in hand.
I immediately forgot about the danger I put him in when he handed the nest to me with a smile. I was filled with the joy only a 5 year old could feel at possessing this new and exotic object. I soon realised that I didn’t have anything to thank him with, except the oranges lying on the ground. Picking them up and handing them to him one by one, I hoped he understood a young girl’s gratitude in how she tried to bury him completely in something she loved with all her heart.
He thanked me profusely before leaving and two thoughts crossed my mind- nest, nest, nest and what a nice man, pity I’m never going to see him again.
I was so wrong. I genuinely don’t recall what she noticed or why. Maybe it was just a mother’s intuition, or maybe it was the curious incident of the disappearing oranges. More likely, it was my possession of the birds nest which she banned me from retrieving, knowing I wouldn’t dare disobey her and scale the tree. I don’t know for sure, all I know is that my mother was soon angrily demanding to know exactly what happened when she left me unattended.
I don’t remember what I said in my panicked state. What my mother understood from my incoherent ramblings was that this stranger, a creepy grown man, came into our garden and took some oranges from our tree because I was a 5 year old girl who was easily scared into silence. I did not refute this because she was right about one thing – I was a coward, easily scared into silence by her looming figure and growing anger.
I wanted to say something so badly but the words choked at my throat. By the time I finally worked up my courage, it was too late as I found myself being dragged by the wrist over to the nice man’s property. Knocking on the backdoor sharply, in short staccato beats, my mother stood up taller, all 5 foot 3 of her, and took a deep breath as she prepared to use her broken English to stand up for her daughter. All I could do was stare in horror and watch the scene unfold.
After what felt like a million years, a grumpy lady in her pyjamas (presumably the man’s wife) opened the door. Looking us up and down, she had every right to be wary of intruders to her home, especially from her garden. She stood silently, as my mother delivered her rant, interjecting ever so often to refute something she said or just to tell her that the man wasn’t to blame for this incident because he wasn’t right in the head.
Eventually, perhaps worn down by my mother’s persistence or just irritated by our presence, the lady called the man out, and scolded him in front of us. He didn’t manage to say anything to defend himself as the lady showered him with abuse, drowning his narrative in a torrent of words words words, he soon stopped trying to object and just hung his head in a mixture of confused shame and hurt. In the end, he was told to get all the oranges I gave him and give them back to us and was warned to never go on our property again. Appeased, my mother left with me in tow, as the woman dragged the man back into their house. I don’t even remember if we ate those oranges, or they were a part of the majority that rotted and wasted away.
This was more than a decade ago, and I am still haunted by this incident. I don’t blame my mother for what she did as she was just trying to be a good mother, defending her child. I blame myself for not defending a genuinely good man and putting my fears above someone else’s needs.
Ever since I’ve read Of Mice and Men, I can’t help but think about the similarities between this man and Lenny. He did a curious young child a favour out of the kindness of his heart and that is so rare and beautiful and I probably singlehandedly caused him to never want to do that again. In a society that encourages hyper-individualism there are few strangers that are willing to help someone else without wanting something in return. Thank you for teaching me kindness at such an early age and I’m so sorry for not repaying you with the same respect.
Some will argue that the ending of this story is not a happy one. The man didn’t get to keep the oranges, and my mother was not any happier with them back in her possession. I don’t know where that birds nest that I placed such high value on is now nor do I know what that man I need to apologise to is doing but at least, this story is out there.
I hope you are well. I honestly can’t say I am sorry enough times but somehow, I have a feeling that you don’t really need me to. I wonder if you even realised how significant of an impact you’ve had on me? I want you to know that I am not the same girl I was back then. I am still somewhat shy, but I am learning to speak up to protect the voiceless and people I love. Telling this story is part of that journey. Thank you for everything and I hope you did not lose your brightness and love.