In the centre of the park stood an ancient tree, its branches spreading out over the grass and stretching high into the sky. For many years, families had come to share the shade from the tree, to sit around on blankets and watch the clouds or the ducks in the pond down the hill – but one family, in particular, would come each year for one week, and spend as many moments beneath the tree as they had to spare.
The members may have changed from the trees first planting, but she knew the family regardless. She knew their names, their dreams, their fears – they told her, during those fleeting moments each summer, in the warmth of the sun, blanketed by dappled light through her branches. There was no question of who it was, who spoke to her, who placed their hands on her bark and caressed her as if she were an old friend.
Christine, the youngest daughter of the current family incarnation, was a spirited child – she was lighthearted and an incredibly positive force, though she could be loud at times. The tree enjoyed it when the girl visited, for she would climb high into the branches and whisper secrets to the leaves and sing little songs from her heart to the clouds above her. The child would always offer the tree a drink, or a flower, or some other little gift before climbing into her branches. Many of the children had done the same thing, in years gone by, to show their love for the trees strength and silent acceptance of their murmured truths.
But Christine was different. She felt something, deep within the tree, in the centre of her heartwood – she felt the beating heart of a living creature. She heard the trees quiet voice, the whispers that everyone else mistook for the wind, and she understood what the her words. They shared a weakness, the two of them, and a sadness. They were both dying, slowly, and their bones were brittle and easily broken. She was the last of the matriarchal line, and the ancient tree knew that her survival was linked with the young girls.
Over the years, Christine grew weaker, and so did the tree. Her leaves were a little less green, her branches less sturdy, just as Christine’s bones grew more brittle. Her father, the doting man that he was, constructed a simple swing that hung from one of the highest branches. He would put Christine on the seat and strap her in, then hoist her into the canopy to spend time whispering to the leaves.
“I will never have children,” she whispered one day, under the warm summer sun. She was weak, tired, and the tree understood that it was nearing the young girls time. She wore a wig to cover the fact that she had lost her hair. Her eyes were a dull grey, and her lips were discoloured. “Will you be there, in heaven, when I die?”
She folded Christine in her branches and kissed her with her leaves.
I will never leave you.
Christine did not return the next day – her father arrived at dusk with a small urn and tears in his eyes. As the sun sank behind the treeline, he scattered the child’s ashes at the base of the tree and placed his hand on her bark.
“My little girl, I hope that you are running and climbing trees and have no worries of sickness or death,” he whispered into the trunk. With a final look into the high branches – he had hoped she was there, singing to the leaves, but he only saw the sky and only heard the soft titter of birds. The tree felt his pain, felt his anxiety and his anger and his sadness. She had her own rage, and she shook herself against the thoughts and feelings that filled her entire being.
But there, at her base where she met the ground, the tree felt a spark. Something trickled into her roots and seeped into her heartwood. There was laughter deep within her, and a surge of energy filled her limbs. Sitting in her branches was a fresh-faced little girl, without the ravages of disease that had transformed her so much in those final days.
“I knew you would be here,” Christine smiled, wrapping her arms around the tree. “We will be together forever, you and me.”
Yes. Forever. For generations to come, whether the family lived on or not, Christine and her tree would stand on the hill overlooking the park and the pond and the dozens of families that would enjoy their shade. And maybe, just maybe, one year a seedling would survive the freezes and Christine would tend to her child as any mother would – with patience and love and understanding, just as the tree had tended to generations of children that visited her each year.