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The Tree of Life
There is a place near bye that is completely free of water; where it doesn’t rain, and where the rivers don’t flow through or branch off into it. The air is drier there, and when we go we get terribly thirsty no matter how much we drink beforehand. Papa says that our dehydration is only in our heads; that we are only imagining that we are thirsty. But I think the land does something to us there, like it sucks up all the moisture and makes everything that comes near it shrivel up like the desert.
There is a tree there over 400 years old. Its branches are knobby and bent, and they reach out in all directions to soak up the abundant sunlight. The bark is dark and rigid, with wrinkles like that of an old man. Leaves sprout and make waterfalls of vivid green hues, a dot of color in the otherwise bleak landscape. The tree is famous, with pale travellers flocking to its ancient trunk like flies to a lantern. I don’t like them; they take pictures of me and ask prying questions when I go to see the tree, as if they think that since I live here I am an expert.
This tree—my tree, I sometimes call it—is magic. I can tell. It grows off of sunlight alone, because no one ever comes to water it. But these foreigners don’t know that, so to them my tree is just that—a old tree. They do not fully understand why I sit underneath the branches and dream when I can’t at home. All they know is that I am a strange boy sitting beneath an old tree, and I am not about to correct them. I don’t want them to sit with me.
I walk to my usual spot, on a bright day when papa is hidden away in his room with his books and calculations. I take a bucket of water, as always, for when I get too thirsty to bear. Water sloshes and spatters the dusty road, making tiny rivers of mud that run over anthills and make puddles. I stand and watch the tiny canals hydrate the cracked ground. They cut through an insect’s path, blocking its way home and making it turn and seek another route.
Upon reaching my tree, I find cavernous holes lifted from under it and dumped elsewhere. The spot where I sit, right underneath three big branches, is now a hollow in the ground. White and brown people alike congregate around the gargantuan yellow monsters that did this; they converse in a way that means business. They do not see me, too focused on the massacre in front of them.
“Hey. Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” I clamor, unable to repress the forthcoming words from rushing out into the air like rapids. I reach down to grab a rock at my bare feet, fingering the sharp edges that contrast with the smooth valleys. Without a second thought, I hurl the stone into the congregation. It slammed into one of the yellow vehicles, rebounding off and hitting the ground, sending a small dust cloud off.
They turn to glower at me, and make as if to catch me. But I am faster than them, with their rounded stomachs and uncomfortable shoes on. Before another shout can escape from anyone’s lip, another rock is hurling towards the men, having just left the security of my palm. They watch it land in one of the fissures, and try to run faster.
“what are you here for?” They call out to me, and I think they are more curious than offended. They yell more things, but I do not catch their words.
“What are you here for?” I retort back over my shoulder, as I turn left and try to reach the tree before they do.
It is a few seconds before I can feel the rough bark underneath my fingertips, comforting and familiar in a changing world. I rise up onto a huge root, the coarse fibers almost painful on the bottoms of my feet. I grip my tree as if my life depends upon it, though my arms cannot reach all the way around it. I do not realize until later that I am crying, because all that I can think of is how I will never let them ruin this magic tree.
“You’ll never get the tree.” I sob when they approach, “never, never.”
They fix me, all of them, with a rather funny-looking expression, forcing me to twist around to see more clearly.
“The tree? We’d never cut the tree. We can’t, see, it’s federally protected. We’re excavating the land around it, to see if we can find underwater springs or rivers that the tree is feeding off of. Why’d you throw rocks? You can get in trouble for--”
I don’t care if they’re not planning on killing my tree, they’re still hurting it. Destroying the land around it, ruining my spot is just as bad as murdering the tree itself. I have to make them stop, I know. After a second that lasts for hours, I kick over my bucket, which I had set at my feet, onto the root that supports me. The rivers and channels and streams that run down now are much larger than the ones that came from the spilled drops of earlier. They make round puddles of mud where they stop, and I swear I can hear the earth drink it up in one loud slurp. The dry land is turned moist.
“That’s how it gets its water.” I lie, before dashing off towards home and papa and his introverted calculations. The bucket I leave behind, forgotten in the hurry to escape those curious gazes. I imagine they don’t bother to pick it up and take it with them, that they let it stay where it is like I did. I imagine for the entire night, but when I return in the daybreak the bucket is no longer there.