Caring a fig

I finally cut back the fig tree New Year's Day. ''You have to prune,'' my neighbor pointed out. ''I hate to prune,'' I answered.

But it was time to plant the Christmas pine. My first live pine, a gift from Cousin Henry. The only tree on the lot with a double trunk, the nurseryman had claimed. Appropriate, for however separate and independent Cousin Henry and I pretend to be, we stem from the same roots and soils, and after years of shooting toward elusive stars apart, we still find ourselves bound at the base of everything.

But I had not mulled aloud to Cousin Henry, who might disparage my cheap philosophizing. I'd merely trimmed the tree on Christmas Eve, while he played a Haydn trio on his violin, then Christmas carols for everyone.

''We must plant it outside before it loses its immunity to cold,'' Cousin Henry announced on New Year's warm morn. After a dessert of dried figs, which have nothing to do with the ripe ones for which I yearn, he took the shovel to the bare strip of dirt between the sidewalk and the street. He had lived so much in distant cities, more interested in affairs of men and nations than in nature, I think this was his first experience in planting trees.

''You can't plant it there,'' my neighbor said. ''That's city property. Besides, it blocks my view.''

I filled in that hole with peony roots, which probably won't grow anyway, and dug a hole beside the house, beside my cherished fig.

Fig trees are more than mere trees - they are a botanical anomaly, don't do things according to regulations. Thousands of pinhead-size flowers bloom inside the fruit, and only the tiniest bees can slip in through an aperture at the base to pollinate them.

In Dubrovnik I taught Cousin Henry to eat figs. I must have grown up knowing how, but only in places like Cyprus and Yugoslavia have I ever eaten almost my fill.

Two springs ago I'd planted one foot-high plant from the nursery, and while little survives long in this rocky soil, the fig tree rose up and spread and bore two beautiful figs. Last winter's freezes seemed to kill it off (''Better dig it out and throw it in the trash,'' advised my neighbor), but by July new shoots were sprouting from the base and grew so fast and far, my neighbor complained they scratched her car in our common driveway.

So on New Year's Day, Cousin Henry planted the Christmas pine, smoothing its long soft needles and tamping it down with peat moss. I mulched the fig tree and cut a few offending switches. Of course I could not bear to throw them in the trash or even burn them on the hearth, a noble end of deadwood only.

''Bare branches hardly make bouquets,'' my neighbor said. (My neighbor is always saying, and sometimes not saying but merely infiltrating my consciousness.)

I stuck the fig sticks in an old juice jug and thrust it back behind the fancy plants in the bay window. ''Perhaps they'll root,'' I told my neighbor.

They haven't. Six weeks they've stuck to being sticks, as the water level in the jug lowers and the water dims.

''Why don't you throw them out,'' my neighbor says.

I don't. Not a positive act of independence, I just forgot about them there, hidden behind the schefflera, dwarf palm, rubber tree, and spider plants given me. Sometimes I forget about these, too. I don't make a point of talking about my plants, or to them. But the discussions around the dining table are often interesting, and they listen, drink the dregs of our cups and pots of herb tea, and flourish. This winter, I'm especially grateful for their green.

Today the blizzard is extraordinary. None of that gentle romantic white stuff. Sharp flakes whip my face with their star points, burn like road salt. Soon I can't see the road. I'd planned to go buy valentines, but the snow is piling too high. The Christmas pine is swaddled in snow - Cousin Henry phones to ask if it is all right.

The stiff twigs of the chopped-back fig tree stick up through the snow awhile , then disappear, along with rhododendrons, hollies, cars.

I knock the snow off branches, shovel till I ache, put on skis to deliver provisions to Great Aunt Emma, then retreat indoors to spread out my work on the dining table.

Suddenly I note: the tips of every fig stick have sprouted tiny leaves, like mittens for elves. And . . . miniature figs.

How could those barren sticks have harbored such secret harvests? Still no roots, except those deeper than eye can see, plunging into ancient Hittite sand of lost oases to sustain mystical trees bearing figs huger than melons.

Long after dark, Cousin Henry tramps through the storm and bangs on the door. I brush off his snowy coat, then light the fire.

In the middle of the table is my green valentine of sprouting sticks.

(''Why don't you throw away that stagnant water,'' sniffs my neighbor.)

Cousin Henry says, ''That's wonderful. Figs in February. But why don't you put them in the crystal vase?''

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