The Pine Tree
The Pine Tree12 mins 626 12 mins 626
The pine tree stood tall and sturdy, waving at the valley down below in the evening breeze as dusk gradually pervaded upon the sleepy valley. Someone gazed at it from an attic among the houses clustered several feet below the mound housing the tree. It was more than twenty years since he started watching the tree. It was a tiny plant struggling to grow braving a wild bush when he first saw it. The old man recollected as though it was very recently he removed the bush in order to enable the plant grow, even though he never expected that it would grow this big one day. He tripped down memory lane and started jotting down in his diary.
He looked at the youth holding the tea tray, who has been running errands for him for the past few months, as though he was seeing him for the first time.
Without waiting for the master's reply, the youth placed the tea cup on the table and proceeded back.
"Look at the tree," he showed him the pine tree through the window. The tree danced to the tune of the breeze that was gradually maturing into a wind. However, the young man did not show any enthusiasm in viewing through the opening. Also, he knew his master did not always mean what he said because he mostly used to be in a different world, fantasizing for his stories.
"There is no sugar for tea in the morning," the youth looked at the apparently disturbed face of the man before resuming his steps towards the staircase.
Stopping for a while at the landing the young man looked up, hoping to get a response to his apprehension because he was left with no money to buy sugar for tea. On realizing that his master was in a pensive mood, he slowly walked down watching his steps on the wooden steps, lest his master would get distracted.
The old man's earlier advice never to wander around in the darkness cautioned him against attempting anything to ensure his morning tea was served with sugar.
Later, while having supper together in the dim light of a kerosene lantern the writer asked: "Don't' you like wheat roti?"
"I prefer rice to wheat," he said.
"But you prepare excellent roti," said the man, prideful of his training if not as appreciation, to the youth who was clever in learning. He also remembered someone he knew years ago whose zeal compared with that of the youth sitting before him.
"Did you get any clue about your father?"
"Not yet, but I will not go back without finding him."
"Doesn't your mother miss you?" the old man said empathetically.
"My mother is remarried."
With that, the conversation ended. Somehow, the master neither asked the boy if his mother believed her former husband was dead nor did he wish to embarrass the boy by being inquisitive to understand if his father and mother were living separately when the man was believed to be missing somewhere in the neighborhoods many years ago.
His earlier conversations with the youth made him understand that as a toddler he had heard his father narrating him stories about the neighborhoods known as Apple Valley for it was believed to be the place where the legendary biblical Adam's half-eaten apple fell from the paradise when God found him eating the forbidden fruit. "Papa told me that he met a great man who told him how that valley that never grew one apple tree came to be known as the Apple Valley." The boy had told him without knowing that he was talking to the man himself.
That night after the boy retired for the night in the hall downstairs, the old man stayed awake for a long time, staring at the tree that danced to the tune of the wind, silhouetted against the full-moon. It was as though the treasure the youth was currently after was hidden in him. But how would he reveal the truth that was sour like most other truths of this world found hidden in high mountains and deep valleys? He stayed awake on bed listening to the youth snoring in the downstairs that conquered his ears in the silent night.
The old man first came upon this valley, a paradise for loners like him, more than five decades ago after the death of his wife during child birth barely a year after the two got married. His relatives believed that he would be all right after he spent some time in the serene valley that would calm his disturbed mind and strengthen his spirit. It was in the valley he discovered the writer in him and started living alone, forgetting the past.
Even though he was not a gregarious person, he loved to listen to loners like him, possibly to develop characters for his fictions. It was how he came to know the person to whom he shared a myth about the valley some years ago. Apple Valley attracted a lot of tourists from different parts of the country and the world. The man who came to the valley in search of greener pastures, upon getting married, did a variety of jobs, including gardening, cutting wood, helping in construction work and real estate brokering.
Shortly after the writer got introduced to the man, he came to stay with him. Even though he was not much educated, he inspired the writer a lot by sharing a lot of wisdom from the countryside that he claimed to have acquired from his grandmother as a little boy. He called the writer a teacher, who taught him about modernity and social etiquette that made him a popular tourist guide in the valley.
He remembered the man telling him he had a son, a cute little one who listened with keenness his narration about the valley.
He did not know when he fell asleep as he felt sleep deprivation in his eyes long after the day had broken. The youth had prepared steamed rice cakes and tea, of course without sugar.
While sitting with him to eat breakfast, he asked him: "Have you ever seen the Apple Valley?"
"Shall I take you today?"
They proceeded to Apple Valley that bordered the mountainous landmass and into which the entire terrain drained at the southern end of the region. On reaching the mound that housed the solitary pine tree, the old man sat under the tree, reclined his back against the trunk and signaled the boy to sit for a while. He removed his spectacles as tear drops escaped his eyes and streamed through his cheeks.
"Why you are attached to this tree?" asked the boy seemingly disturbed at his master's emotion.
"This tree was planted by someone who went away from my life a few days after planting it," he told the youngster.
The youth too wept for the dead person.
The duo walked silently for a while. Suddenly, the youth broke the ice, "how did my father die?"
"Your father," the old man stammered.
"Yes, I know my father died in the valley," he wept uncontrollably and added, "My father lived for me, and I wanted to stay closer to my father, breathing the very air he breathed."
"How about your mother?" the old man asked hugging him closely.
"Sure, she had come to terms with life long ago as she had chosen her subsequent path."
The old man was silent for a while till they reached the ledge from where they viewed the deep gorge, the mouth of the Apple Valley. "The valley of death would have been a most befitting name." commented the youth.
While coming back, the youngster asked him: "How did it happen?"
"It was a no moon evening, and," the man-made a deep breath.
"My father is alive. I feel him everywhere. In the air I breathe, the flowing streams, the cheering trees, especially the pine tree overlooking your house," he jumped in joy.
The duo walked home, the old man with an unburdened feeling, and the youngster with a light heart.
They didn't talk much while walking back.
On reaching the mound where the solitary pine tree stood, the old man said: "let's sit for a while."
The young one touched the trunk fondly as someone would touch a dear one, and surveyed the tree by craning his neck upwards, as the old man sat down reclining against the trunk. A pair of sparrows sitting on a branch attracted his attention. One sparrow, he presumed to be the female, was sitting on the branch whereas the other one, he imagined to be the male, flew around the tree for some time before sitting by its partner. He watched the birds closely as they took turns to fly around and sit on the branch. Occasionally, the birds chirruped, proclaiming something to the world. After sometime, the twosome, seemingly bored, flew away and vanished into the thickets.
"What do you think about the birds?" the writer asked.
Before the young man responded to his question, he went ahead. "Sparrows are the most joyful creatures on earth; they symbolize love and simplicity, and they are mostly ignored by human beings."
"Sparrows are also hard-working and concerned about their groups. They often go miles to explore new places and provide for their dear ones" he said, watching the boy who was eagerly focusing his attention at the tree top, hoping to see another pair emerge from the canopy.
"My father was like a sparrow, who once flew all over this valley to provide for us, living faraway," he concluded.
The old man saw in the eyes of the young man a longing to know more about his father. He wondered if the boy could recollect his father's face now.
"Where did my father stay?" he asked suddenly.
"He did not have a permanent place to stay as far as I remember, but mostly he stayed with the tourists in the jungle camps. He made a hut for himself by the riverside that he hardly used," the old man answered enthusiastically, fully aware of his responsibility to provide as much information as he could to a son who hardly knew his father and relied badly on him for more information.
Suddenly, a curiosity to see his father's hut conquered him. "Have you ever been to the hut?"
"Yes, a few times. One evening a woman who was coming from the jungle with a head-load of firewood was trampled to death by a wild elephant near the hut," the old man sat aright with a renewed vigor.
"In fact, your father was on a safari with a team of foreign tourists at that time and he came to know about the incident later from the villagers."
"What happened afterwards?" the young man asked curiously like a child listening to a mother's bedtime story.
"He only used the hut for sleeping in the nights occasionally, I guess," he stated stroking his grey beard.
"Did he sleep alone?"
"Yes, very rarely he accommodated the tourists."
"It was rumored that the young woman who was killed by the elephant was pregnant and one of the tourists who lived in the hut was responsible for that."
The old man detected distastefulness on the face of his listener.
"One of his friends from the village of the woman warned him never to sleep in the hut for the woman would come in search of her paramour as a ghost."
"Did father sleep there after he was warned?" he asked like a detective.
The old man stretched his hand seeking the young man's hand in turn to help him rise up. A sparrow flew in from nowhere and stayed on a branch and tweeted for its partner, as though it had been impatiently waiting for the two men to decamp.
While walking down the mound, the old man revealed an interesting thing. It was a common belief among the indigenous communities of Apple Valley that the woman was punished by the elephant for her infidelity. Disloyal women were bound to be punished by nature for their evil acts, according to the village tradition. Moreover, the dead woman's husband, who never suspected the chastity of his wife, seemingly believed that his wife, after all, had not been faithful to him. He went insane thereafter. "On a no moon night, he jumped to death into the deep gorge, this time he himself was his victim," he stopped for a while before hugging his listener and continuing. The woman's partner in the unfaithful act was also sure to be punished shortly, as believed by the community.
"Did the foreigner too face a similar fate at the hands of the elephant?" the young man asked.
"Some tourists fell to death while chased by an elephant a few days after the incident, and it came conveniently to corroborate the popular belief of the community," the old man said sarcastically.
"Strange beliefs and customs," murmured the writer, stepping carefully on the mud steps that connected the settlement with the elevated parcel.
"The poor man had to intermittently abandon his lucrative job as a tourist guide, fearing the wrath of the villagers for helping the foreigners," the old man abruptly ended the story.
The youth could not sleep that night. He tossed on the mat long after the light in the attic had gone out. An owl hooted somewhere nearby, seemingly in response to a wolf's howl at someplace in the deep thickets. "On a no moon evening, a man victimized by foolish beliefs had pushed to death an innocent man who had been earning his livelihood in the valley." "Rest in peace father," he murmured under his breath. Suddenly, a curiosity to know more about his unknown father engulfed him. He woke up late in the morning only to find the old man leaving for the village post office to post a story to a weekly magazine.
The hut by the riverside which wasn't lived in for decades stood on a narrow strip of land where the river meandered, owing to a rock formation. The mud walls were cracked and the rickety thatched roof was gently swinging in the wind. The door to the hut had been removed and sunlight beams through the cracks in the walls were generously lighting up the interior. The inside of the hut could hardly hold two persons. A mongoose was sleeping on a raised platform holding what appeared to be the remains of a hearth.
The young explorer who was trying to get to know more about his father remembered how his father, like a simple and loving sparrow, had flown all the way from their village, that was subject to frequent drought spells, to provide for them. Like the beautiful and hardworking sparrow that was hardly noticed by anyone, his father had vanished from their lives without anyone seriously feeling his absence. His gesture of coming all the way to the valley with the sole purpose of knowing more about his father was the only way before him to recognize his love and hard work, the son thought. Tears welled up in his eyes as he left the place where his father once breathed.
Sitting on a rock amid the flowing river he felt his father's presence. He felt as though his father were cooking his favorite steamed rice cakes inside the hut and would call him anytime to join him for the meal.
He jumped into the river for a swim and fight against the heat that renewed his spirits.