a short story by Teo Yu Sheng
“I once had a conversation with a tree, you know?” the girl said.
There was a moment of silence as the girl stared out of the window. From this angle she could see a field of purple lavenders swaying gently with the breeze, and from her seat she could imagine a mild scent that calmed her nerves and numbed her pain. But the air in the room remained sterile, because the wind was blowing the other way. That’s what she told herself anyway.
“Tell me about it,” the man said.
The girl inhaled deeply and smiled.
“The sky was pink, and the snow was white,” the girl said. “It was beautiful.
“I was on my way home when I saw the tree. It was bare, but it had a strange kind of tragic beauty that drew me in. D’you know what I mean?”
The man shook his head. He wasn’t really in the mood for thinking.
“It’s like a cockroach,” the girl offered after some thought.
“A cockroach?” the man said. What a beauty.
“Yeah,” the girl said, “a cockroach. There it is living its sad life, and nobody bothers to ask if it’s doing ok. All everyone cares about is finding ways to kill or avoid it. It’s tragic that such sad creatures should exist. In fact, it’s so tragic that there’s got to be a real good reason they survive, don’t you think?”
The man gave a half-nod.
“Anyway,” the girl continued, “one day when you do find out the true reason of the cockroach’s existence, you’ll understand the beauty of it all. It’ll hit you hard on the head, and maybe then you’ll understand what I mean by a tragic beauty.”
“Hmm, maybe,” the man said. “What about your conversation with the tree, then?”
“I was drawn towards the tree,” the girl started, “so I walked over and sorta patted it on its trunk. And I asked if everything’s ok.”
“Did it reply?” the man asked.
“Well, it wasn’t a monologue,” the girl said lightly. “The tree told me that it had just lost its last leaf. So I patted its trunk again, and told it not to get too upset over it. But it shook its head and insisted, rather ludicrously I’d say, that it wasn’t sad. It told me that, at the moment the leaf left its branch, it didn’t even move a twig.”
“Because it didn’t feel a thing?” the man asked.
“No, far from it,” the girl said. “At first I thought that it was putting on a strong front, but then I figured that it had to be something else.”
“Oh,” the man said. He paused for a while before asking, “Why did the tree choose to remain still then?”
“I wish I knew,” the girl sighed. She closed her eyes and let the memories of that cold, snowy day flood her mind again. “Perhaps the tree remained still because it knew that it couldn’t move without any wind,” the girl said. “And perhaps it knew that even the slightest wind would blow the leaf further away from its reach. So it chose to stand still and just watch the leaf fade into silence.”
The girl looked at the man, expecting another question. But he sat still in his seat, and just gazed out of the window. He was looking at the lavender field, so the girl leaned forward and gazed out too. From the movement of the flowers she could tell that there was a change in the wind’s direction. The girl inhaled deeply, but was at once disappointed.
“After a long conversation with the tree,” the girl continued, “I finally understood why it fought so hard to remain emotionless: the tree thought that it didn’t deserve to be sad.”
“Because at that moment, the tree knew that it missed the leaf sorely. But at that very same moment it also knew that this feeling of helplessness and grief would soon be warped into something vulgar. Soon, it knew, it would start missing the presence of the leaf, and not the leaf anymore. It’s different, don’t you see? It will start missing having the leaf around, and not the leaf itself. It will soon stop longing for the leaf, and before you know it another leaf will replace the old one at the exact same spot. You see, it was at that moment that the tree finally understood both that it loves the leaf, and that it really doesn’t. And when I understood that too,” the girl said, “I was lost for words.”
There was a long pause as the man took in what the girl had just said. He stared out of the window again, but didn’t seem to be looking at anything in particular this time. The girl stole a glimpse at the purple field, and saw that the wind had stopped blowing; the flowers, once alive and graceful, stood motionless like inanimate objects. It was as if the entire universe was holding its breath as it waited for the man to respond. And it was as if the lavenders would never dance again if the man couldn’t understand everything.
“What happened next?” the man asked.
“I hugged the tree for as long as I could, then looked at it for a few seconds,” the girl said. “I wanted to remember how it looked like, to memorise the smell of the air around it. I tried to imagine myself being the leaf, even if it were just for that brief moment. Then I turned and walked away without looking back.”
She stood up from her seat, walked towards the man, and hugged him. She held on for as long as she could, ignoring his calls to let him go. She let her warmth fill him up, and felt his warmth seep under her skin. The girl then let go and stared into the man’s eyes. And even though it lasted for only a few seconds, at that moment the man finally understood what the girl was talking about. He understood what she was trying to say about the conversation. He understood what she meant by a tragic beauty.
But it was all too late.
The girl turned and walked away without looking back.
Cover illustration and design by me.
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