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Copyright © 2011

Maria Deira

Notes on Cork Tree Babies




  • In my father’s village, certain babies come from the old cork tree between Señora Alicia’s house and the church. At any given time, only five people should know how to extract the newborns from the thick bark of the tree.
  • Each family can have one child from the tree, but only if they already have a biological child.
  • Cork tree children live with their parents until both parents have passed away. This is the purpose of cork tree babies—to sacrifice their freedom for the care of their aging parents.
  • One of my uncles is a cork tree baby. He’s a big man who really doesn’t know his own strength. He cuts grass and kills chickens and chops wood. He carries my grandmother upstairs and downstairs and balances her above her bed pan.
  • My uncle and grandmother are both growing old. My parents send me to live with them the summer I turn 17. I’m not doing well in school, my heart and mind are broken, and watching over my elderly relatives will make me stronger, my father says.
  • When I sleep at my grandmother’s house, I dream of boys I haven’t met. I dream of dancing and singing and fingers searching my face. In the morning, my uncle looks at me and laughs and then hands me a bowl full of fresh milk and dried crusts of bread for breakfast.
  • When my uncle sleeps, he sighs with every breath. My grandmother hardly sleeps. She moans softly in the room next to mine, whispering words no one has ever heard of.
  • My uncle could never learn to read or write. Now that I’m there, my grandmother allows him to take night classes. He comes home with sheets of crooked letters and backward words. A B C D, mohtre, fthaer, loev.
  • I try to write about my life, old and new. I write about my grandmother and her fear of death. I write a poem about my uncle, even though I’ve only begun to learn about poetry:
I watch the overflow
as yellow tears leak
from the secret corners of his eyes,
he is so full of our love
for him
  • My uncle tries to dance with my grandmother when I read him my poem. My grandmother cries out in pain.
  • Cork tree children are sensitive. If you hurt, they will weep with you; if you’re overcome with happiness, they will laugh and sing with you.
  • Cork tree children are full of love. They are tremendous huggers. Grown-up cork tree children could kill a person with the power of their embrace.
  • Cork tree children can’t fall in love. They can have sex, they will want to have sex, but they’ll never have the desire to share their lives with another human being.
  • You can fall in love with a cork tree child. This is similar to falling in love with a movie star. Someone who will never see you or know you. You do not exist to a cork tree child—not any more than a tree or a rock or a squirrel does.

  • Women come through our village, unaware of our cork tree babies. They wink and smile too much at my uncle, but he just rubs his eyes and laughs. He is always laughing, my special uncle, laughing and singing even when no one else is around.
  • Cork tree children are never lonely.
  • Cork tree children will know you are lonely. This they will feel, but they won’t understand what this sadness is. They might cry for you. You’ll think they care about you but they do not—not any more than they care for a tree or a rock or a wounded squirrel.
  • But I’m not a tree or a rock, not even a squirrel.
  • Cork tree children age differently than you or I. First, their hands and feet harden. Next, their limbs and joints stiffen. They become immobile. Eventually, their muscles and organs petrify and they choke to death. This process begins when both parents have passed away.
  • There is a special cottage in the village next to the cork tree where they are taken once both parents are gone.
  • When cork tree children die, their fossilized bodies are burned to ash, which is then scattered around the cork tree.
  • When my uncle begins to die, I will visit him at the cottage. I will read to him what I write. I’ll feed him chicken broth and massage his hands with rosemary oil. His laughs will be silent. He won’t be able to talk, but I’ll see the gratitude in his watery eyes.
  • The death of cork tree children may seem cruel, but this is the only way they can return to their beginnings.
  • Cork tree children are happy throughout their lives; even when you hurt and they hurt, they still retain a sense of inner peace and joy. This is because they have always known their purpose in life.
  • You and I, we’re thrown into this world never knowing whether we’re truly wanted or needed or even why we are here. You and I can write a thousand poems and stories about love and life but they will never touch the truth of a cork tree baby’s first smile or my uncle’s last laugh.