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The Orange

June 30, 1991|Karen Tei Yamashita | For Karen Tei Yamashita, 40, "The Orange" is an experiment: " 'The Orange,' a children's fable, is a seed for a work that I hope may become an adult novel." Yamashita, a Japanese-American who lived and studied in Brazil for nine years, has conceived and written performance-art pieces for the Japanese-American Museum and the Taper, Too in Los Angeles and is currently at work on "Burajiru," a novel about Japanese immigration to Brazil to be published next fall by Coffee House Press. Her first novel, "Through the Arc of the Rain Forest," published last year, won the 1991 American Book Award for fiction.

It was summer solstice at the Tropic of Cancer. To be more specific, it was June 22, and it was noon. The sun was a great ball of fire directly above the orange tree. To be more specific yet, the sun was in a direct line above an orange on an orange tree on the small farm of my cousin Gabriel. My cousin Gabriel lives not too far from the Mexican city of Mazatlan. It was he who told me about this orange, but it was I, living in the big American city of Los Angeles, who first noticed the consequences.

It wasn't much of an orange. In fact, it was an orange that should not have been. It was too early. The weather, they said, was changing. There had been untimely showers and a tropical breeze. Global warming, they said. The tree believed it, and little pimples of budding flowers began to burst through its branches. In the case of this orange, it was the first bud and the first flower. The others withered away or went back to sleep, but curiosity and luck made the first bud stay and flower and take fruit. So this was an aberrant orange. No one would think to pick it; it was not expected, and it could not be very sweet.

But from the very beginning, Gabriel said, this orange was special. Just there, where its tiny bud had broken through the tree's branch, an invisible and imaginary line was pulled with delicate tautness. This line, finer than the thread of a spider web and as supple and potent as a continuum of light through optic fiber, was the Tropic of Cancer itself. The soft petals of the orange blossom caressed the line with such a lovely perfume, and the Tropic of Cancer shuddered with delight when the African bee landed there, its furry feet dusted heavily in yellow pollen. And then, the Tropic did not complain when the baby orange appeared and grasped the imaginary line as its parent.

The orange did not grow to be very big or very succulent, but it did hang rather heavily. And when the wind blew east from the sea, it rocked back and forth like a small cradle, and the taut but imaginary line, the Tropic of Cancer--running through the growing orange--rocked back and forth with it like a lullaby.

All around the world along the Tropic of Cancer, people should have noticed something. Here in Los Angeles, there were scattered events like tiny tremors beneath the earth. One night, my mother, for no apparent reason, stir-fried vegetables in the big iron pot she usually makes beans in. They were delicious. No one said anything, and my mother forgot the recipe. Or I swear I understood Korean for a whole six minutes on Korean TV. It was uncanny. I kept going back to the Korean channel to see if it'd happen again, but everyone got mad. "What are you, nuts? This is the playoffs! The Lakers have six seconds to bag it!"

I figure everywhere in the world the consequences of the balancing orange reverberated down that imaginary line like sound down the string of a bass fiddle. But these things were momentary and ever so slight; no one paid much attention.

Then on June 22 at 12 noon, the orange had the irresistible urge to fall, and with a warm gust of summer wind, it dropped from a height of two meters and rolled south down a steep slope, pulling the Tropic of Cancer with it. The other lines of latitude that measure their distances from the Tropic hastily adjusted themselves. Everything stretched south.

That's when people began to notice something was different. My grandmother told me that Father Rodriguez did the Sunday Mass that morning in a strange language that turned out to be Hebrew. Somewhere in the city, a rabbi was praying in Latin. And suddenly, my neighbors who always spoke Spanish were speaking Armenian like the couple across the street. The Korean market was selling homemade tamales and the Mexican place had Afro bean pie. We all got used to this after a couple of days. After all, there are teriyaki tacos, and even McDonald's has Chinese chicken salad.

But about this time, a man pulling a cart of cactus leaves trudged past my cousin Gabriel's farm, heading south to the marketplace in Mazatlan. He saw the orange where it had rolled into a ditch at the side of the dirt road. He thought it must be out of season but that it still might be worth something. An orange on the side of the road can't belong to anybody, so he picked it up, threw it into the cart and continued down the road, dragging the Tropic of Cancer with him.

Then things really started to move. The first thing I noticed was that distances changed. Some things were a little farther than I remembered them and some things a little nearer. And some of the streets began to curve. More and more people who never spoke Spanish in their lives were suddenly talking like my relatives back in Mexico. My Chinese-American friend Ben was fluent in it, too, but stranger yet, so was his grandma who had survived the Cultural Revolution. On the other hand, I was speaking Chinese, and Mandarin at that!

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