He bought his daughter a bonsai tree from a man on the highway. Fifteen dollars for a tiny tree in a clay pot. He was headed back to the campground from a grocery trip; his wife would be gossiping with neighbor campers and his kids would be playing cowboys and Indians with the other children that roamed the campsite. His daughter always wanted to be an Indian because she preferred the suction cup bow and arrow to the plastic cap guns.
The tiny bonsai tree sat in the front seat, buckled for precaution, as he drove the expanse of highway from town to the RV park. Red rock hoodoos lined the purpling horizon as sunset wrapped around the sky. He had firewood clunking together in the bed of his truck that was destined to be set ablaze and treat his kids to s’mores. The marshmallows sat beside the cans of soup and the loaf of bread in the backseat. The steady rumble of the truck’s tires against black pavement roared into a dark night until he finally arrived at the campsite.
His camper was old and rundown but there was a light on inside and he could see his wife cutting vegetables and dancing to the Eagles through the tiny porthole window. The music echoed quietly through the walls of the camper and out into the starry night sky. There was nothing that could compare to viewing the outer disk of the Milky Way from red rocks and pines around the canyon. The father entered into the warmth of the camper bags in hand, and kissed his wife who was tearing up above the fumes of fresh onions.
“Bailey, come with me, I have a surprise for you,” he said, placing the bags on the table and reaching for a bottle of beer in the fridge.
They walked to the car through the dark, her hand holding his pinky, ring, and middle fingers. She used to have to reach her arm over her head to hold his hand. She used to not be able to ride a bike. She never used to talk about boys. But those things have changed. She now stands at eye level with his elbow, she learned how to ride a bike the first day of their camping trip, and she won’t stop gibbering about a boy in her class.
“He’s blonde, like me! And he’s tall, like you! He can also read and write at a fifth grade level. He said he wants to marry me but I told him I want to be in high school before I get married,” she said.
“You might even want to wait longer than that,” the father replied, unlocking the truck.
“You’re right, I’ll have to have a career before I get married.”
He laughed and opened the cabin door, reaching into the passenger seat for the delicate bonsai. It had small blossoms and a twisted trunk. When he handed her the tiny potted tree, her eyes grew wide and she held it with solid conviction, as if she had never held something so wonderful in her life. Her exasperated gasping mouth morphed into an all-consuming smile that displayed her missing teeth with pride. She looked up at her father and did a little hop.
“Thank you, Daddy!” She squealed, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
Skipping into the dark, she ran off ahead of him, yelling at her mom to have a look at what she got. Instead of joining his family inside, he stayed outside under the dim light of the Milky Way and built a fire to keep the kids warm when he told them ghost stories and taught them the best way to roast a marshmallow.
“Do we really have to leave tomorrow?”
“Yes, Bailey. But I’m gonna’ teach you how to catch a fish before we do.”
“But I’ve already learned so much this trip! How come Brian gets to go run around with his camp friends?” Bailey complained, sinking into her fishing chair with her arms crossed and bucket hat lowering over her eyes.
“That’s because your brother is older. When you’re older, you can go run around on your own too. But for right now, you’re going to sit here with your old man and catch a delicious fish for dinner.”
“This is boring.”
Bailey opened her junior chapter book and began finger reading while her pink fishing pole perched against a large rock. The bonsai tree’s pot had broken a few days ago during a game of Gold Rush with her older brother and now sat in a small sand bucket that they found at the dollar store. The tree had lost its flowers and a few leaves were beginning to brown. The blue sand bucket had a crack in it that would leak muddy soil all over Bailey’s hands whenever she would pet the tree. The father looked up at his daughter reading and saw that she had paused to open up the tiny plastic cell-phone lip-gloss holder and began applying the pink sludge sloppily onto her lips. She snapped the cell-phone closed, cleared her throat, and continued reading.
“You know, you’re growing up so quick,” he commented, recasting his line.
“That’s not true! I’m seven. There’s girls in my class who wear bras now,” she retorted, looking up from her book and over the mossy lake. The tacky pink gloss had gotten onto her cheek when she wiped hair from her face, making her skin sparkly and wet looking.
“Exactly my point.”
They sat in silence for a moment. Crickets hummed along cicadas who sang in melody with the slow current of the green lake wafting along the shore. Bailey kicked her feet back and forth in the chair and whispered the words she was reading to herself as if they were a secret. He smiled at his daughter and began to doze off, allowing his pole to rest alongside the tiny pink plastic one of his daughter’s.
A few minutes later, he was woken up to the gentle nudging of Bailey pushing on his shoulder.
“Daddy, the poles are moving, you know,” she said.
The father shot up and reached for his daughter’s pole first.
“Here,” he said, “Take this and do what I do.”
He picked up his own pole and whipped it back. Bailey followed suit, reeling at the same speed he was. Her eyes didn’t leave his hands for a moment.
“Good Bailey! Now give a little slack.”
She bit her lip and copied him as he stopped reeling and let loose slightly.
“Okay, now reel it in! Fast, then nice and slow. Listen to the fish.”
She nodded her head and turned to the lake. They both reeled the fish in with concentration. When he pulled in his reel, all that was on the end was a little bit of grass from the bottom of the lake. Bailey’s pole had a nice sized silver fish flapping around at the end of it. She let out a scream and threw the rod into the dirt, jumping around as the fish hopped over the rocks and gravel around it.
“Daddy, Daddy! What now?”
He reached down and grabbed the fish, removing the hook and throwing it in a deep bucket.
“What’d you catch?” Bailey asked.
“That’s silly,” Bailey laughed, kneeling over the bucket to look at her catch, “That means I’m better at fishing than you.”
“Yes ma’am it does,” the father stretched his back, yawned, and looked at the darkening sky, “we should probably get going.”
They gathered up their things and the bucket of the only fish that was big enough to be eaten that day. That fish was Bailey’s and she insisted on cooking it.
“Daddy, I broke the tree’s pot again,” Bailey said as her father folded his fishing chair.
“Again?” he gasped, walked over to the scene of the accident and placing his hands on his knees.
Bailey began crying, looking at the knocked over bonsai tree and its browning leaves. She picked it up and kissed its twisted trunk, cooing in babbles over the dying tree.
“We can get another pot, right Daddy?”
He scratched his chin and looked at Bailey’s red face as she hugged her bonsai.
“How about this,” he said to her, “why don’t we plant it in some nice soil by the bank here. Then it can grow and live for a lot longer than it would in a tiny pot.”
Bailey looked at the plant and whimpered.
“Will it be okay here?” she asked.
She kissed the trunk again and smiled, wiping a tear and handing the plant to her father. He rustled her hair, stood up with tree in hand, and scanned the lake for a sunny spot to plant it. He knew it was likely that the tree wouldn’t survive outside of a pot, but he also knew that she wouldn’t know that. Bailey would think that the tree would grow old in the sun by the fish and house the crickets and cicadas. The tree would be part of this lake’s ecosystem and be strong. And sometimes, no matter the fate, letting go is simply the right option.
“Let’s plant it there!” Bailey pointed to a bank a few feet down the beach where pines grew tall and the soil was browner than the dirt they stood on.
“That looks perfect.”
They walked together to the bank and began digging a hole in the soil with their hands. The sky was a blazing orange with sunset and the green lake had turned a deep purple. Their hands worked through the pebbles and into the damp soil until the hole was deep and wide enough to hold the small roots of the Bonsai. They planted the tiny tree together and covered the bottom in soil.
“You were a good tree,” Bailey said.
They walked away from the lake and the darkening sky and whispering birds. Bailey had only her pole in hand and was pretending to take a business call on her lip-gloss phone while her father walked slightly behind her, carrying all the gear and watching her trip lightly over rocks and skip over larger boulders. Quickly, she was gaining space between them. Quickly, she was growing taller and older and more mature. They walked away from that little bonsai tree together and slowly she was going to one day walk away from him too. Sprout her wings, take all she learned, and fly like the doves that fly over the lake where she learned to fish better than her father.
She fell asleep in the car on the drive back from the lake to the camp ground. When they arrived at the camper, he lifted her sleepy body from the back seat and carried her into her bunk bed. He tucked her into bed, kissing her blushed cheeks and removing the sticky lip gloss that was stuck all over her face.
“I love you, Daddy,” she whispered without opening her eyes.
He smiled at her and turned off the light.
“I love you too.”
Featured Image by Donna Tuten. Find more of her art here