My sister was the girl with the tree growing out of her head. You've probably heard of her. You might have seen her on TV. Her picture was plastered all over the place for a while. That shock of wheat ruffling around her face like a great golden mane, the weeping willow tree growing out of the top of her head, her skin white as chalk and smooth as porcelain, those tiny tiger lilies that grew between her eyelashes. And all of those geese she kept under her mossy cloak! A freak show, really. I understand why everyone thought she might be working with a foreign government, or that she'd been irradiated by the local nuclear power plant. But, really, she was just another ordinary teenager under all of that flora. I know because she was my older sister. A lot of people might find this hard to believe, but it's true.
Hester was a straight A student. Top of her class she was to be valedictorian. No one was really surprised. She'd had straight A's since grade school. She wore white stockings and old–fashioned sweaters with pearl buttons. The girls at school used to make fun of her because of how she dressed and because of how smart she was. Also maybe due to the fact that she had braces and bad acne, and her hair might have been styled better, and she had a habit of looking down at her feet shuffling through the hallways. She bumped into people a lot because of this. I was two years younger, in the tenth grade. I pretended not to know her. It was easy to do that because she never saw me in the hallways. Her head was always pointed towards the floor.
When the tree started growing out of her head, it was springtime. Only a few more months of school remained before she'd graduate and go off to college. At first, you could look right at her and not notice the tree, unless you got close and examined the part down the middle of her hair. After a few weeks, though, it was the size of a flower blooming, a little weeping willow. Kids started to call her Daisy Head Maisy, and they'd laugh and elbow each other when she walked by. Hester didn't pay them any attention, although I'd shrink back into the hollow of my locker whenever I saw her coming, those weeping willow branches swaying back and forth like a grass hula skirt.
Hester didn't seem to mind the tree. In fact, when she discovered it, I remember the strange grin on her face, like she'd found forgotten money in one of her pockets. She seemed so excited that she parted her hair down the middle instead of on the side, as if she wanted people to notice it. She walked with her head held high. She looked a bit like maybe she thought she was better than everyone. I remember asking, "Hester, why don't you get scissors and cut it off?" and she winced as if the very thought of cutting the tree was repulsive.
"I like it, Stephen," she said, tilting her head one way, then the other, while she looked at the tree from different angles in the mirror.
"It's gross, Hester," I said, and she narrowed her eyes and said, "I don't expect you to understand this. Maybe you're even a little jealous?"
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. She sounded slightly religious, flipping her hair over one shoulder, then the other, examining the tree growing out of her cranium as if it were a pair of earrings. I'd never seen Hester so concerned with a mirror.
My parents took Hester to a neurologist and then to a psychologist, to ease some of their worries. The neurologist said the tree couldn't be removed because its roots grew directly into her cerebrum. She'd suffer brain damage if we fiddled with it. "And anyway," he said, "it doesn't seem to be hurting her." The tree roots conducted electrical currents, just like the other nerves in her brain. The psychologist said Hester was remarkably sane, considering she had a tree growing out of her head. "She's coping quite well," he told my parents, and all my mother and father could do was raise their eyebrows and nod.
* * * * *
Our high school decided to graduate Hester early. The school board said they didn't want any problems. "Besides," said our principle, Mrs. Merriman. "Everyone knows Hester is the smartest student in her class. Graduation would have been inevitable, wouldn't it?" She shook hands with my parents briskly, then asked her secretary to see that all the forms were properly filled out.
Reporters and talk show hosts stalked the sidewalks and fast food restaurants of our formerly quiet town. Paparazzi flashed pictures at innocent young girls who happened to be wearing their hair in a ponytail. Ponytails soon became stylistic suicide due to the first–glance similarity they shared with a tree growing out of a girl's head. This frustrated and angered many female athletes who liked to put their hair up while they jogged or played softball. Now they had to brush their hair out of their eyes as they dribbled or leaped hurdles. My sister, of course, was the reason for all of these female athletes' troubles, and they petitioned for her to move out of town. The petition never made it through the court system, though. A judge threw it out on account that you can't petition people to leave town. They have to do something wrong first, he said, and Ada McGowen, our school's best volleyball player, said, "Oh yeah? Well what do you call someone who grows a tree out of her head? I'd say that's pretty wrong, wouldn't you?"
Hester seemed oblivious to the troubles her tree caused. She said, "Really, Stephen, my tree isn't the problem. Those people create their own messes. They'd just like to think my tree is the reason."
She seemed very wise and old when she spoke like this. In fact, Hester didn't seem like Hester after a while. I would search her face as she wandered through our tiny backyard, running her fingers through the water in the birdbath, cupping the water in her hands and releasing it, the sun glinting through the water as it ran back into the bath, and sometimes I couldn't even recognize her as my sister. She seemed larger than she used to. Majestic, even. This was when her skin turned pale and chalky, and overnight her hair changed from silky blonde to a shaggy, golden wheat. This was also when my mother stopped Hester as she passed by the hall where our parents measured us each year on our birthdays and placed a pencil mark where the top of our heads met the wall.
"Hester," my mother said, "come back here a minute."
My mother took a pencil from the mug that sat next to our telephone. She marked the wall with a thin line, even though she'd already done the same thing three months earlier, on Hester's seventeenth birthday. Hester stepped away from the wall this time and my mother shook her head, her eyes widening.
Within three months, my sister had grown nearly four inches.