Jeffrey Lee | Art by Livia Zhu
There was a strange tree that grew in Father’s backyard. To be more accurate, it grew right between the backyard and the neighbor’s backyard. I’m not sure how or when it appeared, but as soon as I noticed it, I made sure to notify Father and Father went to go take a look.
The tree appeared to have grown out of nowhere. It stood at the very back of the backyard where there once was wooden fencing. Most of the fence was still there, but at the very back, where the tree stood, it was as if something tore out a large gap. Even with the tree being there, the gap created a connection between the two backyards so that one could easily traverse from one side to the other.
After trying various ways to cut down the tree, Father eventually gave up and ordered me to stay away from it. The tree intrigued me in its ability to resist Father’s will, but I could not think much about it anyway. Father tells me that if I don’t listen to what he says, I cannot become human. And it is the wish of every android to become a human, a human like Father.
1 year, 3 months, and 17 days had gone by and the tree remained resilient and immovable. Although Father despised how the tree took up space, Father no longer paid attention to it. It was just there. And because Father didn’t pay it any attention, I wasn’t to do so either. A proper human would not bother themselves with such trivial matters, especially when there is work to be done. So I went into my room and busied myself with standing still and waiting for Father.
On this particular day, however, I noticed something different about the tree as I glanced at it from the window facing the backyard: some of the branches were bending down as if weighed down by something. After further inspection, I concluded that these bulbous objects were the cause of this and that these objects were, in fact, the fruit of the tree. What caught my eye, however, was the appearance of a hand below the branches of the tree. The hand was aimed upwards, its fingers tightening and curving towards the palm before relaxing and opening—the hand repeated this action. The hand was also attached to an arm, and occasionally, the owner of the arm would straighten and stretch this arm before relaxing and letting it drop.
Seeing the hand grasping desperately at nothing, I was reminded of Father’s hands. I have mostly ever seen Father’s hands. They were always rough and worn and cut and coarse and always covered in dust. I remember asking him about how I was made, and he would tell me that he made me from nothing but dust. He said that one day he wished for a boy and blew at the dust from his hands and then I suddenly appeared before him. So Father tells me that I have to be grateful to him for giving me life and strive to become a real boy like he always wanted.
Having reminded myself of Father’s hands, I felt a faint, rhythmic throb advance to my temples. It was pain wanting to reveal itself—to free itself—from the confines of my skull. But it didn’t hurt all that much. It was just an annoyance, that’s all. For something so small and trivial, it would only cause more problems for Father. So I tried to let my mind concentrate on something else, and reminded myself of the hand under the tree outside the window. Wanting to find a distraction from the throbbing at my skull, I inspected the hand carefully and focused on every detail, curve, and movement.
The hand under the tree was different from Father’s hands: it was softer, gentler, and unblemished—a fairly plain hand. Yet somehow, the sight of it tugged at my chest. Peering curiously from behind the window, I wondered at how the hand, in its simplicity and purity, was so strangely beautiful. I became curious and longed to identify the owner of the beautiful hand. Drawn by this bizarre curiosity, and pulled by an unfamiliar sense of determination, I opened the door to the backyard and stepped outside.
The first thing that I noticed was the heat and the humidity. Upon opening the door, I was met with an immense wave of heat as the sultry summer air rushed into the chilled house, which was kept cool with air-conditioning. The outside was hot and stifling, and I could feel the droplets of water forming on the surface of my skin. After observing the surroundings, I noticed the light. The sun felt especially bright today, the sky was clear, and the backyard revelled in the glory of the sun’s light such that there was no longer any room for the shadows. The only darkness that remained in the backyard was from the shade of the strange tree.
I began to walk towards the tree where I had last seen the hand. But as I walked, my legs began to quiver and I felt a little sick and lightheaded. Perhaps it was the heat that was pressing at my temples or the light that was glaring at me or the humid air squeezing against my throat or all of them combined; gradually, as I slowly made my way towards the tree, the throbbing sensation in my temples returned and made a point to reveal itself with greater intensity and force. I wasn’t sure what to do. It hurt and I didn’t know why. I didn’t know what to do. My chest began to ache. What was I supposed to do in this situation? My hands felt numb. How was I supposed to feel? I wanted to ask Father if it was okay to feel like this. I wanted to run back into the safety and comfort of the house where I didn’t have to feel this heat or this air or this light.
A voice interrupted my thoughts and, for a brief moment, the throbbing and aching hesitated as if shaken by the presence of the voice. And I stood there in a daze.
“Are you okay?”
I looked towards the direction of the voice. Someone was peering at me from the other side of the fence where the tree was. He was another android boy and was staring at me curiously from the neighbor’s backyard where the fencing stopped in front of the tree.
Suddenly, the android ran from his side of the fence and grabbed my hands with his own—they were the plain and gentle hands—and pulled me into the shade of the tree where I was welcomed with the cold yet comforting embrace of the lonely shadow. And as the darkness caressed my skin and lay gently against my eyelids, the incessant pulse that tormented me dispersed, and everything was alright.
The android propped my back against the trunk of the tree and gazed at my face searchingly. I was still somewhat in a daze and was staring straight ahead with what must have been a blank and unresponsive expression as I watched him step back and look upwards at the tree. After I regained my senses, I sat up and squinted at the android boy, observing, and coming to the conclusion that we were roughly of the same age. I stood up and requested that he state his identification.
He turned to look at me with a startled look on his face, an excited expression appearing to be a mixture of elation and perturbation. He hesitated for a moment and stumbled on his first few words as he attempted to introduce himself.
“I-Identification? Oh! Um… They call me E-053. But you can just call me E.”
There was something strange about the way he talked.
He waited for a moment. “Well… How about you?” he asked nervously.
“I am identified as C-928,” I stated.
He perked up a little as if my response had bestowed upon him with renewed comfort and put him at ease. “I’ll just call you C then,” he exclaimed as he grasped my hand once more. “Is that alright with you?”
I began to feel uncomfortable, being suddenly thrust into a situation that left me completely vulnerable and decided to just nod in response, uncertain as to what should be done about this android’s bizarre behavior. “What are you doing here?” I finally asked.
Upon hearing this, E looked up again at the tree. “I had one of the apples from this tree the other day,” he murmured somewhat absentmindedly, “I just couldn’t forget its taste.”
I pressed my lips together, remembering only the stale taste of water.
“Do you want to try one?” he asked, turning back in my direction.
At this moment, I was suddenly reminded of Father’s warning to stay away from the tree. The single command resounded in my ears, curling and coiling itself around my head. Yet despite this, I somehow managed to give the boy another nod. I could not understand it myself. Perhaps it was the way the sun had been so unforgiving or the way the shade of the tree was so soothing or the way the android boy looked in my direction with such tenderness that seemed to be so accepting. I could not identify it but only knew that I became weak. Yet at the same time, I felt so incredibly safe.
“Great!” E exclaimed, “I was just wondering how I could climb this tree. Do you think you could help me up to that branch over there?”
I did as he asked and hoisted him up to one of the higher branches. And as he clambered up the sturdy branch, I asked if he would be safe all the way up there.
“I’ll be fine,” he reassured me, “as long as you catch me when I fall.”
I felt uneasy, I am not sure if I can, I thought to myself. Nevertheless, he safely made his way down the tree and approached me with a couple of the apples in his hand. He reached out his arm towards me, suggesting that I take one.
I accepted his offer, taking one of the apples before closely inspecting it. I felt the strange fruit in my hand, gently applying pressure with the tips of my fingers as I admired its firm and unyielding flesh. Yet at the same time, there was something that was distinctly irregular about the fruit: a slight give to the apple’s exterior, a subtle suppleness that left me thoroughly perplexed. It’s skin was smooth, polished, and a deep crimson—which was unsettling as it reminded me of the time Father reprimanded me for crying after I had scraped my knee. Feeling somewhat restless, I finished my examination of the fruit and looked up towards E to observe his reaction.
I watched as E eagerly bit into the apple. And upon taking that first bite, he tilted his head up towards the sky and, with eyes closed, he smiled. His smile was so faint and gentle and timid, it was as if it was afraid to reveal itself to the sky. But with his eyes closed carelessly, his inoffensive smile, and his cheeks filled with contentment; I was washed over with such wonder and amazement, that I instinctively brought the apple closer to my lips. He turned to look at me and giggled softly to himself having seen that I was watching him. I hesitated for a moment. Pressing the apple against my lips, I felt my heart beating in my chest. I parted my lips. And I bit into the flesh.
My vision blurred and my face suddenly felt hot again. A warm fluid began to spill from my eyes. They were tears. I was crying. I cried. I cried. I cried. I felt everything—the aching, the throbbing, the pain—spill out of my chest. I told myself that I was being too emotional. It was just a fruit. It was just an apple. I told myself that I was weak. I told myself I didn’t know why. But I knew why I cried, and I knew why it hurt. I cried because the sun was setting to the west, and the lingering light left behind the crisp summer air. I cried because the dusk suffused the world in the twilight, and this part of the backyard was more beautiful than ever. I cried because the shadow of the tree coalesced with the darkness, and the stars had not yet revealed themselves. I cried because the apple was sweet—and perhaps a little too sour—and I knew that I would never forget the taste. And I cried because the boy embraced me, and I was no longer alone in the backyard.
I didn’t know how many weeks went by. I no longer found a reason to keep track. Every day, from noon to nightfall, I would meet with E under the shade of the tree. And amidst that remote darkness, we could do whatever we wanted to do and be whoever we wanted to be. It was our refuge—our secluded sanctuary—where we could escape from the sun’s disdainful eye. In our small world, the stray souls could seek solace from the austere judgement of the heavens. Under this tree, the hidden corner of the world, there was no longer any need to hide.
At first, I only met with E out of curiosity. I was intrigued by his behavior and the way he perceived the world. Androids like us were to behave as proper humans in order to become one, yet everything he did and said felt so unfamiliar and inhuman, I could not help but be perplexed and mystified by him. I wanted to know more about him, and began to feel a growing sense of curiosity towards this peculiar android who I had met under the tree. One day, as I was unable to suppress the urge, I asked him if he really wanted to be a human.
He looked at me, tilting his head to the side before laughing and turning towards the tree. “This tree doesn’t have to worry about whether or not they’re being a proper tree,” he stated simply, “they just want to survive.”
Despite having laughed at my question, the way he stated his response was strangely melancholic. Nevertheless, I thought that his response was unfair since there was no other tree in the two backyards of which the tree could compare itself to, but I decided not to press him on this as he had already moved on and was beginning to tell me about a book he had read.
The Summer season passed by and was beginning to reach its end. And with the vicissitude of the seasons, the wind suddenly carried with it the bitter smell of the impending Autumn. Yet it was as if the threat of the Autumn winds only exacerbated the Summer heat, making the heat more unbearable than it had been before. Nevertheless, I continued to meet with E under the tree. However, rather than going to meet him out of curiosity, it was out of an abnormal sense of longing.
On a particular evening, during which the heat was especially oppressive, I retired to my room after visiting the tree and finding that, for the first time, E was not there. I was somewhat hurt by the fact that he didn’t tell me beforehand, so I tried not to think too much about it and convinced myself that he couldn’t come because of the heat. Bothered by his unexpected absence, I stood in my room waiting for Father, feigning contentment in the simulated chill of the air-conditioning.
Suddenly, a sharp sound pierced through night, penetrating the dull hum that vibrated throughout the house. It was a loud crack that reverberated throughout the entire city, and I could feel the heavens shake as it lamented over its shattered tranquility. The sound, after a moment of hesitation, was followed by three more in rapid succession. And, at that moment, I realized that the sounds were coming from my left, in the direction of the neighbor’s house. My eyes widened with fear, and I sprinted out of the house from the front door before hastily making my way to E’s house and shoving the door open.
Immediately, as I opened the door, I found E standing rigidly in the dimly lit foyer. Although it was difficult to discern in the pale darkness, I could barely make out, through the feeble halo of light, the fresh gashes and bruises that were scattered all over his face and arms and hands. The hands that had once been so gentle and pure were now stained scarlet. And in the dull light that permeated throughout the room, I noticed the faint glisten of the blood splattered against his cheek. As I stepped into the foyer, I caught a glimpse of E’s eyes as he stared at the floor. He was trembling. I began to walk towards him, thinking about how I could get him to explain what happened when I looked down and saw the body.
E looked up at me. Tears were sliding down his cheek, mixing with the blood, and dripping onto the floor. His lips quivered as he hastily attempted to explain himself. “C! T-This was… I am so scared! I-I didn’t know!”
I looked down at the imposing corpse. It could only have been E’s Father. Blood continued to pool from underneath the body as it soaked through the clothes. Until this moment, I didn’t even know that humans could bleed. I didn’t even know that humans could die. I didn’t know that E would do this!
I began to feel a searing heat on my forward. My chest began to ache and my head was throbbing. I couldn’t breathe! I gasped for air as I took in the sight of the body strewn across the floor, with E standing right above it. This pain! This unrelenting heat! I couldn’t maintain my composure and my legs shook as I felt my knees beginning to buckle.
“C! I-I just wanted to—” he desperately called out to me as he reached out his hand.
I grimaced at the sight of that hand—that bloodstained, ugly hand—and reflexively backed away. At that moment, the red reminded me of the taste of the apple, and that only made me feel more disoriented.
E looked at me, his eyes were pleading and anguished. He dropped his arm, and looked down.
I looked at him and felt a pang of guilt. I didn’t want to hurt him. I didn’t mean to hurt him. But the pain was becoming more and more unbearable, and I didn’t know what to do. How was I supposed to feel? Who was I supposed to be at this moment? I needed to go back. I needed to go back home and return to Father. I glanced one last time in E’s direction, turned around, and ran out the door.
I paced around my room, letting the throbbing and aching subside as I anxiously waited for Father. After a period of time, the sound of police sirens could be heard and was gradually becoming louder and louder. I laid down in my bed, still waiting for Father, and fell asleep to the sounds of the city.
I woke up to the thud of the front door slamming shut and sat up on my bed before looking out the window; it was still dark outside. I quickly got out of bed, having heard the sound of approaching footsteps, and stood up at the moment the door to my room swung open. Father was here. And I straightened my back and stood before him nervously as he inspected me.
“There was an incident at the neighbor’s house” he declared, “do you know anything about it?”
I cautiously shook my head.
“Give me a proper answer.”
I told him that I didn’t know anything about what happened, adding that I did, however, hear a strange sound coming from that direction. I wanted to ask him something else and hesitated for a moment.
He analyzed me closely. “Do you have anything else to say?”
I looked down, afraid of the question that lingered on my mind, then asked if he knew anything about what happened to the boy.
Father looked at me reproachfully. “The android from the neighbor’s house, Android E-053, was broken and needed to be fixed.” He stopped and thought carefully about what to say. “It self-destructed.”
I closed my eyes.
“I would expect that you are not broken the way E-053 was.” Father’s voice was stern. “Remember the human you are supposed to be.”
Shortly after, Father ordered that I go back to sleep and then retired to his bedchamber.
I looked through the window facing the backyard, seeing the distinct shape of the tree in the distance. I waited until I was certain that Father was asleep and slowly crept out of my room and wandered into the backyard where the tree stood. The tree was dying. It was withering away, dissipating into the Autumn wind, and dissolving into the night sky where the stars—the city of lights—waited expectantly from the heavens. I kneeled at the tree’s base, reminiscing over the summer days I had spent with E, and wondered if I could stay like this. I looked up at the leaves, which were beginning to scatter and disintegrate, and thought about what I could have done differently. I thought about how I should have taken his hand. I thought about how I should have embraced him, told him that he would be safe, and told him that everything would be alright. I knew that those would have been lies, and I knew that it would have just ended the way it just did. But perhaps if I had just taken his hand and told him that we could run away from this place then maybe it wouldn’t have ended that way. We could have escaped this city and hid away in the shadows. And for a world that despised us so much, we could have created our own stories, stories of a villain and a nobody, traveling and facing the world alone.
I kneeled in front of a pile of nothing, and thought about the tree that had once stood there. I thought about the apple that I ate under the tree and the strange boy who gave it to me. I thought about the sun and the stars, and thought about how much I hated thinking about them. I thought about Father. I thought about myself. I thought about E. And I thought about androids and humans. Then I cried, because being human was more tiring than I had been told it would be, and I no longer knew where I belonged.