The Tree Fort


(Excepts from Chapter 6 of The Tree Fort On Carnation Lane, by Horace Ho, translated by Darryl Sterk)

The tree fort was Ilya’s idea. If I’m not remembering wrong, we built the fort the summer after sixth grade, when we were twelve.

In those days I always liked to go and hang out at Brand’s. His family operated a travelling extravaganza. He lived right on the main street of the nightmarket district, and the roll-up iron door on the first floor of the Huang household was higher than the corrugated plastic eaves on mine. It was so high that when we played badminton under the covered walkway out front, we would rarely have to replay a point because the shuttlecock had hit the ceiling. Just this was enough to impress Ilya, and me, who had both grown up on narrow, winding alleys; but there was more to Brand’s house than that. It had three storeys, with what we called an “ironskin” addition on the roof, a shack with metal siding. My mother said the Huangs lived in a townhouse, which meant it was all yours, floor to roof. In our neighbourhood, there weren’t many people with the means to own a townhouse. Brand must have been extremely lucky to live in a house like that, we thought. One time I said: “Well, our house’s got two storeys, and it’s all ours, bottom to top, just like Brand’s, so I guess our house is a townhouse too.” My mother said: “Silly boy, go take a good look at what kind of a place you’re living in.” She raised her voice, as if to make sure my father, who was sitting at the kitchen table shelling peanuts and drinking rice wine, would overhear. “We live in what people call a code violation, a house jerry-built out of scrap wood, metal, canvas and plastic. Understand? A townhouse is a Western-style domicile made of bricks. Don’t you be going round saying you live in a townhouse, or I’ll be the laughing stock of the whole neighbourhood.”

The manual roll-up iron door to Brand’s house always seemed to be up, and there were always people coming and going or sitting around that tree stump of a tea table and drinking tea. It was clearly a prime storefront location, but Brand’s dad had only put in that big tea table and some stools made of cypress wood, along with a metal desk with a matching cabinet, as well as two potted money trees covered in little red bows and fake ingots. The remaining space went unused, a complete waste. Brand said the furniture arrangement was on account of Fengshui geomancy and the Five Phases: fire, metal, wood, earth and water. According to Brand, his full name – 林鑫煌 – provided wood 木, metal 金, and fire 火. His father’s given name – 淼坤 – supplied the water 水 and the earth 土. Imagine that the son was called Brand Golden Grove, the father Muddy Waters Grove, and you get the idea. “A deficiency in any of the phases is detrimental,” Mr Lin would say. “Bad for health and bad for business. If you ensure the phases are balanced, you won’t get all paranoid when something doesn’t go your way, blaming it on a lack of this or a lack of that.”

Brand’s and his dad’s lives were still unbalanced somehow, because Brand lacked a mother, his father a wife.

Brand’s father would light two sticks of incense every day at dawn and dusk, sticking one in the censer on the altar and the other in the slot by the entryway. Several New Year’s Days in a row he would get up before dawn and secure a spot in the line at the temple gate, and one time he really did get to poke the first stick of incense of the year in the giant censer, in the hope of ensuring good luck for the coming year. Too bad the balance of the Five Phases and his pious beliefs couldn’t fill the void that Brand’s mother’s departure had left.

According to Brand, there was certainly no lack of women in his father’s life. His dad had so many lady visitors that Brand learned not to call any particular “Auntie” by name, to avoid a mix-up and a rolling of the eyes. Living in a place like this, finding a woman is the least of a man’s worries, as his father had said. What his father could not find so easily was a woman who would cook and clean for him. Even if such a woman appeared, Brand was not about to call her “Ma”. Brand said that if his father ever forced him to call an “Auntie” “Ma”, he would up and run away.

Ilya felt the same way. He, too, was missing someone. Before we started elementary school, in the days when we were still riding our tricycles up and down the alleyways, Ilya’s father went out one morning and never came back again. Someone found his motorcycle upstream on the levee, and his body turned up downstream in a mangrove swamp close to the mouth of the Tamsui River, crawling with bluebottle flies and a fiddler crab brandishing its gigantic propodus. Bodies washed up on the riverbank in our neighbourhood from time to time. A drowned person was nothing, but Ilya’s dad’s drowning caused a sensation, because he was a civil servant, a waterways inspector for the Environment Protection Agency. On one side of the levee on which he’d left his motorcycle was a chemical factory inside an ironskin warehouse that used to release effluent illegally into the river, while on the other side, a backhoe was scooping sand into the back of a truck. As for Mr Chiang’s corpse, which turned up miles downstream, no water had accumulated in his lungs, but there was a gaping hole in the back of his head, big enough for the crab to crawl in and out of. The grown-ups who drank tea and played go under the banyan tree in the temple courtyard played armchair detectives, coming up with various unlikely explanations of the clues. There was only one thing on which everyone agreed, which was that Ilya’s father was killed in the line of duty, which meant that Mrs Chiang was entitled to a large bereavement payout.

“Let’s build a tree fort,” Ilya blurted to me and Brand the summer of the sixth year after his father’s death.

His proposal met with our instant approval. The summer holidays were so long, and our parents placed so many restrictions on where we could play. Mrs Chiang wouldn’t let Ilya go through the watergate – the nearest gate in the levee – afraid the river that had taken her husband from her would also inflict some unforeseen fate upon her child. Brand’s house was three storeys high, and his dad let him scamper up and down, but he also kept the iron door at the top of the stairs bolted shut, refusing Brand access to the rooftop addition. And though my mother basically let me run wild, she often warned me, grim-faced and in a stern tone of voice, that I was never to cross the pailou road. She gave no reason, but everyone knew the winding lane off the nightmarket street was hiding something that us kids were not supposed to see, which was her main reason for wanting to move away from the neighbourhood. The levee to the west and the pailou road to the north slashed away at our stomping ground. All that was left to us was a skewed grid of noisy city streets parked with adult means of production and transportation: food stands and scooters, mostly. The narrow covered walkways afforded space for hole-in-the-wall fried rice noodles and squid stew eateries to set out tables and stools, for hardware supply shops to stack water buckets and folding ladders, for clothes shops to display discount items, and for motorcycle sales and repair shops to do oil changes or repair tyres. They also served as open-air inns where bums could stay the night or outdoor addiction clinics where drunks could go to dry out. So although the food stalls in the nightmarket appeared only at dusk and parked in their assigned spaces along the covered walkways, it felt like we were living in a vast market all day long. Our space to roam was so limited, the summer holidays so long as to seem endless. Ilya’s idea came at the right time. Building a tree fort would give us something to do.

“How do you build a tree fort?” me and Brand asked.

“All you need to build a tree fort is a tree and some wood, and we’ve got no lack of either,” Ilya said. In the yard behind Brand’s place, there was an uninhabited Japanese-style house and a mango tree. The tiled roof of the house had caved in, and the frame had collapsed, a long time since, while the luxuriant mango tree in the yard loomed over Brand’s three storey mansion. We had been too scared of ghosts to dare to climb the wall and explore, but one of the local building supply shops had begun storing lumber there sometime before the summer holidays began. After several truckloads of assorted boards and planks were unloaded and stacked up in the yard, we had ourselves a new playground. We didn’t have to scramble over the wall to get there, or to squeeze through the hole in the half-rotten red wooden gate. The woodpile in the yard was almost as high as the wall. We could waltz into Brand’s place, walk right past the adults steeping tea at the cypress wood table, go up to Brand’s room on the second floor at the back, open the window and jump, and we would land safely on our lumber playground.

Problem was, we were city kids, and none of us had ever seen a tree fort or knew what one was supposed to look like.

“That’s easy,” Ilya said. On the way back from a piano lesson, he came over to show us a children’s encyclopaedia he’d brought. “There are two kinds of tree forts, your lookout-type and your residence-type.” Ilya opened to a page with coloured illustrations and read the explanation. “A lookout-type tree fort is for defensive or security purposes, of simple construction, but built on relatively tall trees. A residence-type tree fort is for habitation, with walls and a roof to keep out wind and rain.” Intrigued by the little black people in the illustration, who were clad in grass skirts, armed with spears and climbing up and down the tree fort, me and Brand stopped following what Ilya was saying.

“So which type are we going to build?” Brand asked.

“We’re going to build a lookout, the higher the better,” Ilya said.

“But what are we supposed to be on the lookout for?” I asked.

“What are we supposed to be on the lookout for?” Ilya repeated, seemingly uncomprehendingly.

“Yeah, what are we supposed to be on the lookout for?”

“For your future. Moron.”

Excerpts from the book The Tree Fort on Carnation Lane  © Balestier Press 2017

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