There was once a tree that lived amongst its own kind in a forest of aspen. The colour of their leaves changed according to season: green as the temperatures warm, and the orange hues in the autumn. For it – her – fall was her favourite. She loved it when her leaves changed together with her family’s, watched them fall as they got ready for something inherently new. It was as if the beginning of something, a second chance at life and all things beautiful, was about to approach. She was young still, and dreamed. Her aunts and uncles only laughed whenever she whispered of such nonsense into the wind. When the realisation struck that no one was ever going to understand her, loneliness pierced her soul.
And yet she lived on, continuing to offer her mind to the clouds. The clouds. So high up and impossible to reach while she remained stuck to the earth. But she did not falter once, for there were wonders that roamed down here just as they did up there.
The first such example were the birds. Bluebirds. They fluttered about in their enchanting blue feathers, sang their exquisite songs. They built nests from twigs she and her family no longer needed, and helped their young ones grow. The birds never vanished. The tree found delight in watching them gobble down dogwood berries of a distant tree, and it was lucky enough for her that dwarf dogwood plants inhabited down where her roots were. She could see them closely then, listen to their songs, almost imagined herself dancing as the slightest zephyr picked up her leaves.
Then there were the humans. They often went to the forest for a hike, bringing with them bizarre things. They would stay silent, their eyes glazed as they drank in whatever they saw. Sometimes, the tree wondered what they thought about her. Was she a fine tree? Was she sturdy? How did her foliage look compared to her aunt over there, or that uncle there? Whenever one of them pointed a camera in her direction, she would glow with pride. But then there were bad ones too, among the crowd. They left things they shouldn’t have behind, dirtied the forest, dirtied her home. When their appearances were made known, the other trees would hurl curses into the wind and prayed they meet the retribution that Mother Earth had in store for them. The tree? She condemned them too, but only for a moment, because she had seen the goodness in the hearts of humans. She remembered the dreams behind unseeing eyes.
The first time she met a cat that belonged to one of the hikers, the tree was curious, as she had never seen such an animal before. Tintalle was what one of the humans called it. It was small with inquisitive eyes that seemed to see something others could not. The tree did not quite like it. The birds would disappear when it came prowling, and the tree had seen the cat eat one of the innocent beings before. It scratched against her trunks too, clawing deep. The tree only felt a little pain, but she did not like it any better, for she felt as if she was providing it a tool to sharpen its claws with while it readied itself for another catch. However, she could not help but admire its lithe form. How it was able to jump from branch to branch effortlessly – it was beyond her comprehension. There was elegance in it, just like the deer that passed through occasionally.
And then, there were creatures that were there, but not. They had no ears or mouth; they all looked different. Elements of nature were part of them. Once, she even saw a tree growing out from its back. She had been filled with wonder, yes, but there was envy as well. It was easy to imagine herself latching on to one of them, if only to explore, to widen the depths of her daydreams.
Oh, it was easy to dream… but she would never have dreamed that danger was just around the corner.
The scent of death crept up on them gradually. Whispers of pain, confusion and fear reached the tree and her family with the wind. The tree could not understand. None of them could. But the older ones did: death was coming upon them. It would be merciless in its killings; the young ones would have no chance.
It pained the tree to think of it. It was autumn, a season meant for something new. Surely death was not it? She was not ready for death. Her daydreams were still fresh and many, too soon to give up on.
But then she saw her family succumb to the disease one by one. Their leaves fell quickly even if it was not yet time. They grew bald even when winter was not yet upon them. Their trunks and branches grew to become black, poisoned by the forces they could not fight. Birdsong ceased to exist; hikers avoided the place; the cat – Tintalle – no longer came to rub against her. The whispers slowly quiet in the winds as well, and she knew that more of her kin were dead.
As much as she wished that disease would not find her, it did. The pain was worse than what Tintalle would ever inflict upon her with its claws. It began deep in her roots, slowly reaching up into her branches. Her leaves shrivelled into less than nothing when they fell and left none of her warm hues on the earth. Her constant companion – the dwarf dogwood – died.
The tree cried into the wind most of the time, wishing for some respite from this pain – from the loneliness that came with the quiet deaths of her family. But she did not wish to die either, for she had dreams, and dreams were beautiful to hold on to. She did not want them to disappear. If she died, they would no longer exist.
One day, she saw a wraith approach her, an animal that was not there. Realising she could barely focus on what it was doing, the tree knew she was about to die. She had held on for so long that sleep felt like the only option now. Her only consolation was that she would meet her family on the other side eventually. She felt herself let go. There was darkness…