- by Joe Ponce -
When it started it looked like a rash, and I only noticed because of the protests.
My nephew, Macho, and I were at the theatre for the opening of The Upholders 3: Time and Space Wars. He was dressed in his screen-printed neoprene Copper Hero costume, with its spongy foam muscles and plastic mask. We were standing in the heat waiting for the doors to open, the crowd across the street roiling, yelling obscenities, when one of the protestors threw something. A rock, a can, I don’t know. It skittered across the roadway and must have hit Macho in the shin—an accident, I thought. Nobody throws a rock at a six-year-old. It seemed absurd to me that these people would see us and just start throwing things. It had nothing to do with us, their anger or this protest, or the cops that swarmed in when bottles started getting thrown. None of it had anything to do with me.
I didn’t know he was hurt ’til he started howling. I peeled back the pant leg of his costume and there it was: a scab on his leg, deep green and hard with a waxy, smooth surface. Parts of the skin along its edges were a deep brown, furrowing into a cracked and rippled texture. The part where the rock had struck, almost milky, pulsed under my hand. As I looked at it, under the uneven peal of Macho’s outbursts, I heard another sound, like stone rubbed against stone, coming from his skin.
The emergency room was filled with kids with the same symptoms. They had scabbing on their shoulders and arms, horizontal lines that cracked into faults, thick plates creating ridges in their skin. They sat in the waiting room seats and fought their worried mothers and fathers, who tried to keep them from picking and pulling away at the fibrous tissue on themselves and each other. When they did, the brown peeled away like sunburned skin and crumbled in the hand like caked-on dirt. Their wounds leaked clear liquid when pressed, but if they were in pain they bore it quietly. The room smelled thick, like dense peat.
They had been here six weeks, my sister Lola and her son Macho, living with me in my place. She had asked that I get him out of the house and away from the television. They kept playing the same images of the detention centres: the spirals of razor wire and chain-link fences, and the children who sat behind them, their gaunt, distant faces staring out. It was too much for him. He hadn’t been eating. But the news was on in the waiting room.
I saw that those kids had the same dense scabbing on their skin as the ones around me. Symptoms had started simultaneously, crusting and cracking and browning overnight. But no doctors were brought in, citing safety and expense. Pundits argued the same things in point/counterpoint: the children were being kept in deplorable conditions and needed to be moved. Where they should go, nobody had any good ideas.
A commercial break and an ad for The Upholders 3: Time and Space Wars came on. In it, Copper Hero is repeatedly pummelled, bits of his armour crumpling under the impact, until his mask is knocked off, revealing a tanned face all battered and bloody. Macho watched without blinking from behind his mask.
“Can we turn this TV off, please?” I asked a passing nurse.
She looked at me strangely, like she didn’t understand what I was saying. “It’s a commercial.”
When the doctor finally appeared, he checked Macho’s skin using rubber gloves, his face protected behind a surgical mask, and a nurse sanitized everything he touched. He asked some questions but they were cursory. I tried to explain how it had started, but he didn’t care. He quickly scribbled something on his pad.
“The boy needs a topical steroid,” he said. “You should also make sure he’s bathing daily.”
“His skin is peeling off, and you’re saying it’s hygiene?”
He ignored what I said, continuing: “If you were so concerned about him maybe you shouldn’t have let him come here in the first place.” He wasn’t talking about the hospital. “Put the cream on it. Don’t let it get so bad again.”
I had not known that my sister existed before my father died. She was in Veracruz, where my father was from. He’d made the crossing several decades before but returned there often to visit family. Lola had emailed me pictures, when she’d first asked for my help. In them, my father looked shiny and happy, with a young Lola on his knee. Like a new penny, I thought. She could not live in Veracruz any longer, she wrote. Could I help her?
She and Macho made the crossing first. Macho’s father, David, was supposed to follow a week after. Weeks later, Lola received a phone call from a foundation that helped refugees in holding, those who weren’t guaranteed legal representation: he’d been picked up by Border Patrol. The lawyer knew nothing about their older son, Chucho, who had also crossed with him.
Now, Lola was afraid to go out for groceries, to even go to the hispanohablante iglesia two blocks away. At night, I heard her cries from the couch when she thought I was sleeping.
In the car on the way home, I turned to Macho, who was busy slathering his knees with the prescription.
“Don’t listen to that doctor, okay? You’re fine,” I said. “Me and your mom won’t let anything happen to you.”
Lola looked through the blinds of the front window of my place, watching me pull onto the drive.
“Dude, where have you been?” She’d learned her English from television, and it was full of slang and grammatical errors. “And don’t say the movies ’cause I checked the time and the movie ended an hour ago.”
The television yelled from the corner of the room behind her: a big white sheet of canvas had been set up over the entrance to the Office of Refugee Resettlement building.
“Yeah, they keep saying it a virus. Chingao, f-ing mandatory quarantine?” She pointed at the screen. “What is going on, Jerry?”
A reporter wearing a HAZMAT suit stood in front of the building: no updates.
“Oh, Spaceman!” Macho yelled.
That night, he refused to take off his costume until Lola scooped him up to give him a bath. She eventually saw the scab. It was now on both legs, having bloomed in the past few hours. Macho’s knees were ringed in the deep brown chestnut colour, small vertical striations forming in uneven segments, a thin keratin that came off in strips.
I waited for her to lose her mind, but she just pulled Macho into her lap, rubbing his back. He’d starting whining, the same grinding groan he’d made when the rock had hit him. I gave her the topical cream and tried to re-assure her: a heat rash caused by sun exposure, maybe.
“He’s had it for a couple of days,” she said. “Lots of kids have it. It doesn’t hurt him at all. I’m more worried porque los hospitales. Giving Macho’s name, Macho appearing on a list.”
We turned on a superhero movie for Macho in the bedroom while we argued in the kitchen.
“They said he shouldn’t have crossed,” I said, pointedly.
She frowned. “Of course they said that, estupido. They don’t want us here.”
“I think they want it done safely, Lola.”
“Come on, Jerry,” Lola said. “If they wanted that we wouldn’t be out in the pinche desert, you know?” They have vans now,” she added, “they show up lots of places. Hospitals, churches, schools.”
“You’re watching too much news,” I said. “It’s not like that.”
She looked at me strangely. “You’re the expert, now? You just don’t want to believe people can be like this.”
Her jaw tightened, and she didn’t answer. “He’s my son, Jerry. I have to protect him from all of those people, now and forever.”
It was hard not to think she was being foolish, that next she’d be talking about strange lights in the sky, phantasmas of my father at the foot of her bed. Macho’s virus was real: it wouldn’t stay hidden for long, and people would come looking. But I thought about my neighbour, Ron something. A former veteran, who wouldn’t even shake my hand when I introduced myself. Who called the cops on me the day I locked myself out of the house, after I’d asked him if I could possibly use his phone and he refused. Who, lately, had papered the sides of his car in strange, semi-religious slogans. Lola said men like that wander the desert with rifles, poking holes in water bottles and poisoning water tanks.
“So what do we do?” I asked. “That asshole next door? He’s watching the news, too. He already has lots of questions about where you’re from and how long you’ll be staying.”
“Well don’t answer him, Jerry.”
I kept imagining him at the door, with a growing forest behind me. I didn’t think it would be as easy as all that.
“When my family is together again, this will be fine.”
The way she said it, folding clothes from a hamper—more Upholders shirts for Macho—it sounded like a recitation, a prayer. Once we get David out, once we get Chucho out. Once my place was mine again, my kitchen table unadorned with dinosaur socks. The whole thing was irresponsible, a hope without a plan.
I’d give her to the end of the week. They had been throwing rocks at me, too.
Macho came out of his room. He still had not taken off his costume. From behind his mask, he spoke: “We will be okay, tio. I have to stay out of the sun.” We had heard him coming, because by then he’d started to creak.
They treated it like a contagion, though medical experts, virologists couldn’t explain what it was. For the safety of everyone, they said, anyone showing signs would be taken out of their home, and all recent border-crossers should turn themselves in for examination. Within a day, they were stopping children in the street. They were easy to spot. Children with bark growing from their fingernails, with overly green eyes or skin, who had been told not to talk to strangers, much less la migra. They were snatched out of their classrooms and taken to the principal’s office. Men in vests and wraparound sunglasses waited outside courtrooms, hospitals. They checked the immigrant status of pizza deliverymen. They caught permanent residents mowing their front lawns and expedited their return across the border because of twenty-year-old misdemeanors. They sent people back to countries they hadn’t been to in decades. They knocked on the doors of hotel rooms because of anonymous tips about the smell of tree sap. After they were detained, the detention sites were covered plastic-lined tents, with reporters and cops flocking the cordons.
The children were shipped southwards, sometimes quickly, with a concern about the thing spreading. Sometimes their parents were told they could help, but only if they signed something relinquishing their parental rights.
Meanwhile I closed the blinds, told Lola not to answer the door or the phone. Just like the detention centre, she said.
She was crying in front of the television one day when I returned home. A teenage boy had attacked a police officer the day before, the boy raking fingers that weren’t fingers across the cop’s face. The officer had appeared on television today, his eyes covered in white gauze. He will never see again, thanks to the boy. The ICE agents hypothesized it was a form of dendroviral rabies that caused carriers to revert to a feral state.
“They think we’re monsters,” Lola said.
When Macho ran to me at the door, tried to hug and kiss me, I flinched.
“They’ll have a hearing,” the lawyer explained, over the din of a coffee house’s frothing steam wand. Lola and I met with the pro bono lawyer in a half-empty cafe. Most public spaces now ghost towns, face masks and gloves abounded. I drove two miles under the speed limit, and we both crossed the street to avoid the group of young white men. Anyone with brown skin was now being looked at with suspicion. That morning an old man in San Diego had been beaten with a brick: didn’t matter that he’d been born and raised in the United States, a Vietnam vet.
“You have nothing to worry about,” Lola had said. “You don’t even look like us.”
I’d looked up at the rear-view mirror, listening to the grinding of the engine, and hating my passable complexion. “That’s not true at all.”
Two women in the coffee shop spoke loudly about why certain groups of people were in public if there was even the possibility of them carrying diseases. When they could become violent at any moment.
Our free lawyer was just a kid, badly paid and overworked, with greasy hair and sagging rings of black under his eyes. He glanced down at his phone again and again when it buzzed, not answering it and apologizing each time. Lola put her hand on mine as the lawyer explained: “We have to be thinking about how best to get David out. A hearing. Which we can possibly expedite, especially if they just picked him up. You, Jerry, might be able to say something as a character witness, but it all depends on—”
“I mean how can any of us know,” one woman said, louder, made brave by having carried on for so long, “if any of them are safe?”
“It depends on if the asylum application goes through.”
“It should, right?” Lola asked. “They burned his goddamned shop down.”
In Veracruz, Lola’s husband David had been approached by one of the paramilitaries: they wanted his help with some work. That meant drugs, though the word was never said. The next day, they came with equipment and told him they were going to work out of his shop. He was thankful when the cops appeared at his house on the third day, but then he realized: the cops were there to work. This was all in Lola’s email, her plea for help.
The thing is, there hadn’t been a lot of time. I offered my place without thinking, really. I had a draft of a skeptical email I hadn’t sent, and sent another that said simply that I hoped it all worked out for her and her family. When she emailed again, she said she was in the city, at a gas station with Macho, and needed to be picked up. She brought it all in with her, and then there was no keeping it out.
After Lola and Macho had arrived, they waited for David. Her plan was for him and Chucho to join them before moving on, but a week had gone by without him making any moves. After a week of them in my house, I went through her things and found his number.
The crossing was harder now than it had ever been, David said. He didn’t want to leave his father’s shop in Veracruz.
“¿Tengo raices, sabes? Tio, no puedo dejar todo mi vida por los Estados Unidos.”
“Lo entendido,” I said, using what remained of my high school Spanish. I was tired of trying to ignore Macho’s high-pitched screaming and the popping of blinds as Lola stared past them out the window. I didn’t want her shooting out of her seat whenever anyone knocked on the door. But she needed David to leave. “You have responsibilities here now,” I said, firmly. I had heard things. If they were pushing on David, I told him, los narcos would start on Chucho, too, until they pushed on everyone, until they ruined it all. “Leave for Macho, for my sister,” I said. “For Chucho’s future.”
But I was also thinking, come take this off my hands.
I had called an immigration lawyer: couldn’t he do this legally? Sure, but it would take twenty years, proof of our relationship, and maybe an employee sponsor. David said I was right: the gang in Veracruz had already started to hint that Chucho should come work for them; if he stayed it’d be a matter of time. David already knew about asylum, yes. He just needed to step foot into the United States. He said it was easier for me, for someone like me. I didn’t understand.
I was thinking about my father in that stupid Stetson and those cowboy boots with his one golden tooth, shiny like a penny. He had always kept so many secrets, so many dark rooms inside himself. I saw them in David, too, heard them in the voice that was—at least for a while—too proud to pull up stakes. I had secrets too now, nervousness to open my door and let the light in. Lola had asked me, in the past, why I’d never asked to go with him to Veracruz. Then I would have known, I guess, about his second family, and his second life. I told David to come for exactly the reason I hated sitting with the kid lawyer: I didn’t want to be involved, to be buried in it all.
“Lola, keep your voice down,” I said, glancing at the women.
Lola looked at me, hurt, and turned back quietly to the lawyer.
She took her hand from mine.
“The laws,” he said, “They’ve been changing pretty quickly. They could change tomorrow.” The lawyer explained: People used to cross in the cities, but they reinforced the border in the ’90s to keep the INS from hassling Mexican-Americans in border towns. Now everyone risks the desert. Prevention through deterrence, the government said, but everybody knew that meant “Let them kill themselves crossing and wash our hands of the whole thing.”
Back then, if they caught you, they’d hold you for twenty days, give you a court date, and hope you showed up. Now, they were detaining everybody until the court date. Kids and adults, court rulings be damned. Executive order from the president.
“But it’s for safety, right?” I asked.
“Whose? Theirs?” The lawyer shook his head.
The detention centres don’t have the resources. They’re disorganized and under-funded, intentionally so. And the decision to keep the kids separate had stretched them too thin. They’d lost the names of kids and the contact info of their parents. Rooms were so cold kids developed pneumonia, and sometimes so hot that they died of heat stroke. When they did come out, it was with horrific stories of sexual abuse. The private ones were worse: they bid on contracts to house the largest numbers for the smallest overhead. That meant no bedding, rotten food, one doctor for hundreds of people.
“A for-profit prison sounds made up,” I said.
He looked at me. “If I hadn’t just come from one, I’d agree with you.”
When we finished, a police car was waiting outside. The woman had called, the cop explained. The officer, a black man wearing wraparound sunglasses, was apologetic but firm. “Sorry about this. She said she saw . . . tree stuff. Under the table. Strange times, you know?” He joked, then sobered. “But I will need to see some identification.”
From the window the two women stared at us with their arms folded.
I tried to visit David at the centre. It was in a neighbourhood of warehouses and trainyards. There wasn’t any barbed wire anymore, just a giant tented-off section. The waiting room looked like the post office, the person behind the desk bored and suspicious.
“I’m trying to see David Bendiga? He’s supposed to be in here.”
She didn’t look up from her computer. “Is he sick?”
“I don’t know that.”
“We’re not allowing people to visit relatives infected with the virus.”
That morning more footage had been released: A rigid barrel of bark around a kid’s torso; small brown bony protrusions jutting from the shoulder carapaces of another boy, with large curves of green bouncing behind him; a boy walking on brown stumps like horse hooves, awkwardly falling forward with each step. Somewhere in the background of one of the detention centre’s holdings was a thing that might have been a person, with a mop head of green that swished as it walked.
“How would I know if he’s infected?”
“It would be easier if you waited until this virus thing was figured out.”
“What if I don’t want it to be easy?”
“Nothing.” I walked out.
Macho had gotten worse. In the mornings, I would find his bedsheets torn and ripped from the scratchy edges of his skin. Under his clothes, I heard the sound of him shifting, millimetre by millimetre. The tips of his fingers had grown into points. He wouldn’t take off his Copper Hero mask, because he didn’t want me to see his face. But I caught glimpses of the scarred and ridged and furrowed wrinkles around the corners of his bright, clean eyes. He watched television near constantly. I tried to put on old Upholders movies, from back when the villains were goofy and mundane: giant men made of metal. Before the heroes had started fighting each other, anchoring whole movies around signing government accords. But Macho screamed and fought me. If we moved him, he made that same groaning, grinding noise.
“Doesn’t it make you afraid? To see what’s happening to them?” I asked him.
“Don’t you want to be a Tree People, too, Uncle Jerry? We can be superheroes.”
The laws shifted like a deck of cards. The scientific experts had theories: the virus might be related to poor nutrition, lifestyle choices. It could be transferred to anyone, even Americans. They said that some people were carriers but did not show symptoms. Whole families were in the camps now, the hieleras, freezing together under space blankets while the government and the CDC looked for a cure. Macho watched the talking heads suggest block-by-block searches for holdouts, live ammunition to combat the riots. Someone mentioned special incendiary rounds, chemical herbicides.
“They’re just trees, right?” one asked.
“A tree can grow to be a couple hundreds of years old,” the other replied.
“They could outlive us.”
“Until Christmas, sure,” the pundit joked.
That night Macho took his first bath in several weeks. He’d refused to let anyone see him without his costume on, without his mask. The costume had starting to split in some places from where the chestnut bramble of his skin cut through. Later, when I went in to clean the tub after him, it was awash in brown sticks and leaves.
I ran into Ron spraying herbicide that evening outside his house, his arms sleeved with military insignias. “Crazy about this virus, huh?”
I wanted to avoid him. “Yeah.”
“I mean, that’s why we shouldn’t have open borders, you know? Shit like that.”
“Something wrong?” He gazed at me, then at the door. “I haven’t seen your sister in a bit, or her kid.”
“Yeah,” I said, lying. “Nightshift.”
“You know they just grow and grow right? It’s crazy.”
He showed me video then, the recording shaky—a body camera, one of the new models: a black cloud of paramilitary uniforms at a door. The door exploded inward as a battering ram unseated its hinges, throwing splinters. Beyond, the room was dark save for the white light of a television casting its flickering light on the thing in the centre of the living room: a tree growing right into the floor, the carpeting bunched along its roots.
The camera traced the branches shoving upwards into the ceiling, plaster and heavy humidity dripping down onto the dirty carpet. Bubble gum insulation hung down from the roof. Torn rags, maybe clothes, lay at the foot of the tree.
“Is this real?” I asked, imagining my own house, half destroyed by nature.
“Oh yeah,” he said, smugly.
From the back rooms, several people were taken away in handcuffs, including a mother who said her son wouldn’t get up, wouldn’t move. “No lo puede mover! No lo puede mover!”
“Dunno what the hell she’s screaming,” Ron said.
“You can’t move him.”
“Hell,” Ron said, laughing, “I got some hedge clippers and a chainsaw.”
The next day I told Lola we needed to leave. Move north, away from the border. I had read of parents who’d tried to move their children to other places, to hide them or prepare them to be sent off to live with relatives, but were too late: tiny tendrils had already set into their carpets and floorboards, down into the foundations of their houses.
If we waited too long, it became impossible, I said. The laugh Lola gave me and my suggestion was more resigned than critical. Escape. Hah.
“At least let me take him to a hospital.”
She stood above her son, standing between him and me. “He’s not sick, Jerry. Look! Me and Macho can’t leave,” Lola said. “We are here now. This is where we are.”
“But you have a choice,” I said.
“Yes, and I choose here.” Her head twisted in a silent no, shaking back and forth. “My mind is made, you know Jerry? Eventually, pues, the boy has to be from somewhere. And I choose here, Jerry. Here.”
That night when I cleaned the tub, after Macho’s wash, I used my bare hands, and let the leaves run through my fingers. After Lola went to bed, I watched the treeline shimmer in a way that made me think I would see someone emerge. I kept watching and waiting for something to happen, so I could run outside, because if there were people out there, I told myself, I’d be the kind of person that would help them. But the trees never moved.
I woke up Lola. “You and Macho have a place here,” I told her. “Nothing is going to change that for me.”
“I’m sleeping, idiot,” she said. “But thank you.” She was just a form, a bundle of black hair and fabric, smelling like earth. “Dad, he would have been proud.”
Two nights later, there was a knock on my door. Ron stood there, in his T-shirt, holding flyers.
“I’m trying to start a neighbourhood watch,” he said, “just to watch out for the greens.”
“Greens?” I asked.
“You know,” he said, filled with nervous intensity. “The fucking Tree People, man. It’s like the apocalypse.”
The flyer had some strange information on it: signs that you may be infected included green blood, a penchant for violence against police/authority figures. What to do if you suspected your neighbours had been infected. “We gotta burn them,” Ron said. “That’s the only way.”
I felt my whole body tighten, go rigid. “Get the hell away from my door, man.”
He grimaced. “What?” He was holding it open with his fingers. He tried to glance inside.
I took hold of my door. “Get away from my door, and go back to your house, before I beat your ass. They’re people, Ron, not monsters.”
I yanked on the door—hard—and felt it rip out of his hands. I slammed it shut. He banged on it once, yelled for me to go fuck myself, then went away.
I had always been strong, but this was different. I looked down at my hand. I’d cut myself somehow. The liquid came away a greyish green.
David’s hearing happened the next week. A janitor was busy sweeping leaves and branches from the courthouse’s marble hallway. We left Macho at home, in front of the television, the thick dark muscles of his neck holding his face turned toward the screen.
A neighbourhood de-treeing association had been fined for setting fire to a nature preserve, convinced that refugees had taken shelter there and hid among the trees. Ron was arrested there, but there were many Rons now. There were bonfires, burnings of Tree People effigies, and firebombed churches where people had gone to try and let their children grow in peace.
I left Lola watching the TV with Macho. She saw the SUVs everywhere now, but it didn’t matter. “You bring my husband back with you, okay?”
After almost a month in the hieleras, David was gaunt, circles under his deadened eyes. He jerked when his attorney placed a hand on his arm. He shivered, like even in the mild room he still could not get warm.
Asylum cases were heard in batches. Operation Streamline, the lawyer explained. Because David was detained at the border, he would get a single appearance to fight removal proceedings. Usually the respondent was given one four-hour block to present evidence. David was given seventeen minutes.
Like all courtrooms, this one smelled of industry HVAC freon, paper pulp, and heady, body-made ammonia. On the sides of the room were two men holding herbicide canisters on gun belts: I noticed the desk that David stood at was notched and scratched, the chair blooming with torn foam padding. Someone had put up a sign: Do not try to touch the detained, as contact spreads disease.
David’s English, which had always been piecemeal, broke under the unrelenting patter of the judge. Throughout the questioning I found myself hating the interpreter, a youngish Latino man, for his complicity in all of this. He translated near perfectly, but I hated him for the words he used, for subtly correcting David’s bad grammar.
We had been told this judge was harsh, not given to sentimentality. But we had a case. A fear for life because of persecution:
The defendant, David Bendiga, did cross over the border on February 15, to the best of his knowledge and recollection.
He paid for transport from a smuggler, a coyote, who introduced him to a guia who was supposed to take him the whole way but said he was “lost” and would need more money to find his way. He took all of David’s money and left David and Chucho and five others in the desert, in the mountains.
He would like to contest the apprehending officer’s claim that he fled. He says he thought the man was a coyote come to finish them off.
He has paper clippings of the cartel’s movements in the area, yes.
They hadn’t sought police assistance locally because the police were working with the cartels. Everybody knew that.
Late the night before I’d thought I saw the trees moving outside Lola’s house. We couldn’t sleep, and so we stayed up together, Lola telling stories about David and Chucho and Macho in Veracruz before all the bad business had happened: Chucho loading his little brother in a laundry basket and sliding him down the stairs, how once in the middle of the night Macho had gone looking to catch fireflies, rubbing himself in their phosphorescence. Chucho who only ate the sugar off of the pan dulce, leaving the bread marked with all these little crenellations. She’d hoped one day they could be that stupidly happy again.
The judge called for an immediate removal, a ruling that could not be appealed.
He glanced at David as if to say, thank you for coming.
Afterwards, David’s lawyer couldn’t catch his breath. He spoke of future actions, appeals to the no-appeal law, of representatives trying to pass bills to change the law, marches—fuck, a class action lawsuit. “This is not over,” he said. But it all seemed silly: even if he was saved, David would need to be saved again, and again. None of it was permanent. The rules changed too easily.
They brought David out through that door that led back to the holding cells. I don’t know why I did it. There was only a small banister between me and him, the bailiffs more concerned with branches and leaves, not people.
I kissed David, right on his lips.
“We’re the same now,” I said.
I was yanked down, handcuffed. The judge smacked me with a contempt charge, and a fine, but not much else. The immigration lawyer and I walked out together.
When I arrived outside an SUV was parked next to my car. A door somewhere slammed. Normal. A black eye hung from the corner of the courthouse—a camera, looking across the street to the park, where leaves flickered in the breeze and sunlight like fired glass. My phone buzzed furiously with messages and breaking emergency news. It was worse when there was trauma, they realized. It was, they said, some kind of defense reaction. A news clip cut to the holding pens, where the aluminum siding had buckled and folded, elm and ash and birch limbs jutting and stabbing through the sheet metal walls and burst through the detention centre’s roof. The ground was showered with leaves and branches. It was no longer possible to enter: a dense jumble of roots and a canopy of green shined behind the spiderwebbed safety glass.
They had to abandon it.
Another video: a demonstration where immigrants had brought their kids for the government to see. Forest Walks on the Detention Centre, the chyron said. Now, hours later, helicopters circled the roadway. Swaying drifts of green sagged heavily for several city blocks. A forest rooted in the street in front of the detention centre. Another, in front of a Texas courthouse. A third, in front of a New York City airport. The White House. Capitol Hill.
What could the police do in the face of a forest where it was not supposed to be? Already dump trucks had started to arrive with the herbicide, pickup trucks dragging trailer beds and men wearing facemasks and grass-stained goggles, but everywhere they cut into the trees with their buzzing machines the trees exploded in a powder coat of seeds, a blizzard of emerald blades and spirals and whorls and verticillate, covering everything.
At home, Macho was waiting. His iPad on the floor, running. A tangle of gnarled roots stretched from where his feet had been; they reached and buried themselves deeper into the carpet, in the floorboards, in the foundation of the house. Sunlight beamed in the front window, as Lola had opened the blinds. The carpet was soaked with water, seeping out from underneath her feet. She stood in the living room with a watering can, the shower and the sink plugged and running onto the floor. Her hair was pasted to her forehead and dirt covered her hands and face.
“He’s not sick!” She said. “It’s not a virus, hermano. Look how big he’s gotten, dio mio. He’s almost as big as the house!”
When he breathed—strange shallow croaks that sounded like the creaking of a docked ship—the galaxy of green spirals and spikes hanging from him him swayed and bounced. Green branches dropped from the ceiling. I could barely see what had once been his face, but I found the mask. His deep brown eyes just beyond the plastic, ringed with lines of age.
My own skin had started to groan, too, thickening into bark. There was a hose outside that I would get later. At that moment, I sat down on the ground next to Macho and watched as things began to grow and change.
Lola flew around the room, tending and watering her son as he broke through the windows and wrapped around the furniture: this was what she had wanted, for roots that could snap chains and fracture windows and bring down walls.
© 2019 by Joe Ponce
Joe Ponce is from Joliet, Illinois. He holds an MFA from Columbia University, and his work has been published in Blunderbuss Magazine and Apogee Journal. He has taught for the Fulbright Commission in eastern Turkey, and also in La Rioja, Spain. He is currently at work on a speculative novel about borders, immigrants, and consumerism in post-America. He lives in Denver, CO, volunteers with Casa De Paz, an immigrant assistance organization, and tweets sparingly from @AppearingMerely.