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The Cherry Tree – Short Story

THE CHERRY TREE

“Excuse me, but do you know this garden well?” The old man returned the clear, open, gaze of the brown-eyed girl.
“Yes, why do you ask?”
“I was curious about one of the trees.”
“Which one?”
“The cherry tree over there in the corner, by the wall.”
“What interests you about that tree in particular?”
“Why is it up against the wall away from the other cherry trees?”
“It’s just where that tree ended up.” A moment’s perplexity briefly clouded the girl’s eyes.
“But there’s something else, even more strange.”
“And what is that?” The man looked closely at the beautiful, animated face.
“Well….I was looking around behind the tree, by the wall. It’s very overgrown and prickly, but I managed to get to the other side. You can’t see it from here, but once inside, it is possible to see out.”
“And?” He was looking intently at her now.
“There’s a very odd branch reaching out and pressing against the wall.” The man waited silently for her to go on. “It looks perfectly healthy. Thick and strong. But although the rest of the tree is a mass of blossom, there is not one single shoot or flower on this one branch.”
“Perhaps that branch just flowered early and the blossom has already fallen.”
“No, that’s not it. There are no leaves coming through after the blossom.” The old man settled himself so that he was facing the girl.

“Sit down my dear. Let’s talk. Not many people find the branch you speak of. Fewer still find it interesting.” The girl flopped easily onto a nearby tree stump.
“What do you think of our cherry trees?” the man asked.
“Oh, they’re beautiful. It’s lovely to see such colour so early in April after the drabness of winter. It seems a shame that the blossom lasts such a little time. I want to stop it. I wish we could hold it back so that we didn’t lose its beauty so quickly.”
“I think you would soon tire of cherry blossom if your wish were granted.”
“What about my special tree?” she chirruped.
“So. It has become your special tree has it?” He teased.
“Oh, you know what I mean.” The old man thought for a few moments, then said.
“Why should we worry about some funny old branch without the wit to flower or the sense to die?”
“Don’t be so infuriating. You know the answer – I just feel it!” A slow, wrinkly smile spread across the old man’s face.
“I know the story of the tree, but you’ll have to judge for yourself whether that provides an answer.” Again he went off at a tangent, “are you on your own?”
“No mummy’s here somewhere, keeping an eye on my brother.”
“How old is your brother?”
“Seven. And he’s a pig!” That smile lit up the old man’s face again.
“Yes, well, I think 7 year-old brothers are supposed to be aren’t they? Where is your father?”
“Daddy’s at work today” she said briskly, eager to get the conversation back to her tree.
“What’s he like?” The girl frowned, a little startled. It seemed such an odd question coming from nowhere. She shrugged her shoulders, her head tilted quizzically to one side.
“I don’t know really. He’s kind. Sometimes gets angry with us, usually when he’s lost something…… Oh yes – and he’s silly.”
“Just a little bit silly, or very silly?” the man asked, oddly. She giggled.
“Oh, very, very, silly” she said with studied seriousness. What a strange man, she thought.
“It’s a good job he can’t hear you, going round telling complete strangers that he’s silly.”
“Oh that’s all right. He always says that when he’s popped his clogs, it’s OK if we forget what he looks like, or what he has done, as long as we always remember times when he was silly… pretty easy really,” she added, “he’s silly quite a lot.”
This time the old man laughed aloud. “I think I may have met your dad” he said.
“Probably. He’s been here before. Today was his idea. Come on, do tell me about my tree. Has that branch ever flowered?”
“Once.” The old man’s tone became thoughtful again. The girl shuffled slightly closer. An eager expression in her eyes. No impatience now. She settled comfortably on her log seat and waited for the old man to go on. Before he could begin, the girl noticed his gaze suddenly seemed distracted by something behind her. She turned to see a woman walking among the trees. The old man’s eyes followed the figure. Perhaps in her early forties, attractive, short brown hair, probably once worn long, the woman wore a cool, powder blue summer dress which flowed with her graceful movements as she browsed among the trees. The young girl watched with the old man as the woman reached up very gently to touch the blossom on one of the main group of cherry trees. At the instant she touched it, the blossom fell and she watched it flutter to the ground. The woman bent down by the fallen flower, reached out and put it into the palm of her open hand. Still looking intently at the tiny pink blossom, she rose, looked up, and her gaze now took in the whole tree beside her. After a few moments, she raised her hand to her lips and blew the flower from her hand, watching as it rejoined the sprinkling of other fallen petals beneath the tree. She walked around the cherry tree and paused for a moment, looking towards the corner of the garden. For what seemed to the young girl, a very long time, the woman stood motionless. Then with a sudden purposeful movement, she turned and continued her walk. She moved away from the two watchers, apparently unaware of their presence.

“She seems sad,” the girl whispered to the old man. He turned to fix her with his long, steady gaze.
“I see only thoughtfulness and contentment in her, why do you think she’s sad?” he asked softly. The girl blushed as if, thoughtlessly, she had said something foolish. “I don’t really know, I’m probably being silly, but I felt as if she was sad.”
The man smiled encouragingly, “we often feel more than we can see. Trust your instincts.” The girl’s face lightened and the man added: “but don’t always rely on them.” She looked serious again for a moment. The man chuckled infectiously to himself and the girl smiled and turned her alert face to him again expectantly.
“Come on,” she chided him, “what about my tree? You said it flowered once. When? And why hasn’t it flowered since?” The man turned so he could see both the tree and the girl.
“That branch last flowered long before you were born. The tree itself is strong and healthy and flowers normally every year.”
“Yes but what about that branch!” she interrupted impatiently. The man smiled indulgently.
“Are you always in such a hurry young lady?”
“Yes, oh yes – but go on with the story.” He sighed with mock seriousness, enjoying the teasing game.
“That particular tree was always set apart. As you discovered, it is far away from all the other cherry trees. It is really set too close to the wall to grow at its best. About two of your life-times ago, a young girl, rather older than you, came to live for a while in the area. A little like you I think, she was very independent and liked nothing better than to go off and explore on her own. She eventually discovered this garden and loved to walk here because it was far enough away from her house for her parents not to know where she was. She found all the secret nooks and crannies in the garden. But her favourite place was exactly the one you discovered, on the other side of the cherry tree by the wall. Like you, she found that once there, she could see, but not be seen. More than once she used her secret hiding place to avoid her parents and anyone else she didn’t want to find her. After a while, she decided it would be a good idea to fix a swing onto the tree, on the hidden side, by the wall.”
“And she used that branch didn’t she?” the girl chimed in excitedly.
“Yes. It was thick and strong enough, and quite straight. There was just enough room to swing gently to and fro as long as she didn’t try to go too high. She loved the place and spent hours swinging silently, reading and watching people go by. It was a secret world of her own. Separate from her day-to-day world. Hers alone. She had arrived in June when the tree was in leaf and used it constantly through a long Indian summer, on into a mild, glorious autumn. Even when winter came, she like to go to her tree. Though no longer hidden, it was still her secret, personal place. Her parents wondered where she went for hours on end, especially in the cold, but she kept her secret. Eventually of course, they did find out but there seemed no harm, so they said nothing at first. Sometimes though, when she wanted to go out in the freezing cold and rain, they told her she was being silly, getting cold and wet just to go and sit on a swing in the rain. Winter began to fade. The girl loved the sense of waiting winter gives. She felt the silent pulse of new life, as yet unseen, within the garden. Those wild days when winter’s power rules, reluctantly gave ground. There is a moment each year when one senses winter’s defeat. It is long before spring arrives, with much of winter’s bluster yet to come. But there is a day, every year, when you feel the inevitability of spring. At that moment, all the closed-in waiting of winter opens out in anticipation. There is something in the light, in the air, which clears the mind. Do you know what I mean?” he suddenly asked his avid listener.
“Well yes,” she said slowly, “but that’s when mummy insists I have to keep wearing heavy old coats and things, even if the sun is shining. She says I have to be sensible.”
“Not silly eh?” he laughed.
“Go on with the story,” she said severely.

“Well,” he smiled, “the previous owner of your tree, loved that winter. She shared it with, as it was then, her tree. As spring approached, the tree became a profusion of twigs and shoots. There were so many, she could not even see where her swing was attached to the branch. Eventually the cherry blossom burst out into a riot of pink and white. There were banks of blossom falling all around the rope of the swing. The branch itself was completely hidden. It looked almost as if the swing was attached to nothing but a pink and white cloud of flowers. Now truly was this a secret place! As she swung beneath the tree, the girl was completely invisible. The only sign of her presence, a gentle swaying of the whole tree as she moved backwards and forwards. It seemed as if that special part of her special tree simply took her up into itself and engulfed her with fragrant flowers. By this time, her parents were beginning to become uneasy at the time she spent at the tree. They tried to distract her with other interests. There seemed to them, something obsessive about her feeling for the tree. They couldn’t see what was important to her about it. And they were right. It was odd. As if for a while this was a separate world for her. An escape.”
“But from what?” the girl interjected.
“Who knows,” the man replied quietly. “Perhaps she was escaping not from something to something. But we will never know. Perhaps she didn’t know herself. For a while though, it fascinated her. A real world of her imagination. Then the blossom fell. An almost endless spring gave way to summer. The striking solitary colour of the cherry blossom gave way to the myriad sounds and scents of summer. The whisper of summer rain in the leaves of her tree was intoxication of another kind. As the shadows lengthened towards autumn, she was encouraged to spend more time away. Her parents were relieved to see her becoming more sensible, rational about the tree. She spent less and less time there.
“And then?” the girl was now leaning forward intently.
“She stopped.”
“Just like that?” she seemed incredulous.
“I only know the facts,” the man said briskly, “I said you would have to decide for yourself whether they provided an answer.”
“What happened to the tree?”
“Nothing. It just shed its leaves as usual that autumn.” The girl looked impatiently at him.
“But the branch with the swing!”
“It has never flowered since.”
“But why? What’s the explanation? Trees don’t…….grieve.”
The old man looked across to the tree with a distant, distracted look in his eyes. After a long pause he said, “we can’t feel another’s grief or sense of loss. We only see its effects. The facts are plain – that branch never flowered again. The tree is strong and healthy. It flowers every year.”
Deep in thought, the girl said, “but that’s silly.”
“If you say so,” he replied.
“But she surely didn’t just get fed up and tire of the tree?”
“Why not?” The girl was frowning now.
“Well that doesn’t sort of fit the way you described her. I don’t think that’s what you believe. Come on, tell me what you think.” The old man looked thoughtfully at her for a few moments.
“I don’t know the truth. I’ll tell you what I think. But remember, what you think is a road you must travel yourself.”

“Oh all right. Come on, you sound like my dad! Do explain. Your girl seemed to lose something so precious and important to her. She was either very shallow or just stopping like that must have been very painful.”
“Well, I don’t think she was shallow. But the tree was fixed in a certain place; the joy she shared with it, set in a given time. As to pain, you said you didn’t want the cherry blossom to fall. Its falling is a kind of pain. But, that it falls, is part of its beauty. Cherry trees in blossom every month of the year would be very pretty and probably give you pleasure, but I don’t think they would strike at your heart the way this falling blossom does.”
The girl opened her mouth to speak, but the man stopped her; “Yes, I know, what has that to do with the girl?” She coloured. He went on, “perhaps she knew her joy that spring had to pass, just as the cherry blossom has to die. There is a time to let go of all things. Pick a wild flower and though you put it in water, it dies before its time. Love has its time of waiting and its time of leaving. It is a gift. You cannot grasp it, trap it. It requires nothing less of you than that you are prepared to let it go. Perhaps the girl in our story, cherished her joy that spring and summer enough to let it pass.”
For some moments, the old man had seemed oblivious of the girl’s presence. He raised his head and looked again at her. “Does this rambling make any sense to you?” he said lightly.
The girl’s face had a grave expression in which one could see the beautiful woman she would one day, become. “I’m not sure I understand everything you say, but it still seems to me to be rather sad.” He reached out and took her hand very gently, touching her for the first time. Speaking very quietly and gently he said, “my dear, we human beings are a funny lot, we are touched by sadness and by joy. But remember this; not all sadness is pain; nor all joy, pleasure.”

“Do you think she ever came back?” the girl whispered.
“I don’t know. She took with her what was most precious to her. Coming back here, she would not find what she sought.”
“Was it just a memory then?”
“Some times we share are never just memories.” The young girl seemed not to notice this remark, her mind mulling over what she had heard. Something seemed to be troubling her. The old man waited for her to speak.
After a few moments he said gently, “what is it?”
She looked up at him, “but the branch of the tree is trapped in time. It has never flowered since that spring. It seems such a pity. Something’s sort of….oh I don’t know how to say it…….out of place.”
The man looked closely at her and said, “but the tree is healthy and strong, even that branch, though it doesn’t flower. The rest of the tree grows bigger, it does everything a tree should do. Why must something be missing?” He looked at her questioningly.
She shrugged “I don’t know the words. There seems no reason for it not to flower. It seems so pointless. It seems a sign of…oh dear…a sort of sign of…” her voice tailed off.
“Regret?” his voice was scarcely audible.
“Yes, something like that,” she nodded. “But trees can’t regret things – can they?”
He ignored her question but went on “whatever may be the explanation, that branch is no less part of that particular tree than any of its other branches. It is special to it, and don’t forget, it is precisely what interested you about the tree in the first place.” She still looked perplexed, “yes but it’s as if the tree isn’t quite complete without that branch in flower. Yes, that’s it: it’s not complete. The man sat silently looking at her. Meeting her eyes. Though silent, the pair were joined in thought.

Suddenly, another girl of about the same age came racing into sight. Breathlessly she came up to the silent pair and addressing the girl, said, “where on earth have you been? Your mum’s been looking for you.”
“Hi Jo, the girl replied. “We’ve been talking.”
Jo looked curiously at the old man, who smiled back at her. He turned to his companion, “you must go my dear, you mother will be getting anxious. Off you go and enjoy yourself. Thank you. I enjoyed our little chat.”
Jo was now impatiently motioning the girl to come away, pulling at her arm. A little awkwardly, the girl took the old man’s hand in hers and said, “goodbye. If we come here again, shall we see you?”
He smiled “perhaps my dear, perhaps.” With one last look at the man, the girl then ran off with her friend. They were jumping and giggling around one another like two young colts. Sudden, hurried whispers were followed by explosions of laughter and more bubbling giggles.

As the two girls ran down the slope away from the trees, they passed the woman in the pale blue dress going back in the direction from which they had just come. After a few more strides, Jo rushed ahead and her companion turned to look back. The woman had stopped some way from the seated old man. Behind him, still further on, the girl could see her tree. Suddenly she noticed that from that distance, she could just see the branch with no flowers. “Perhaps”, she thought, “it’s because I now know it’s there.” She looked again at the woman who was now motionless, and seemed to be, like the girl, staring intently towards the seated man.
Jo came running back to collect her friend. “Oh do come on. What on earth are you doing?”
The girl replied “I’m looking at that woman.”
Jo’s eyes followed her gaze, “but what on earth for? she gasped impatiently. What’s so interesting about some woman standing in a field?”
Still looking back, her friend said, “I’m trying to make up my mind whether she’s looking at the old man or at that cherry tree in the corner by the wall.”
Jo snorted, “what difference does that make?” she said tugging at her friend’s arm.
Still preoccupied, the girl said, “I matters what she sees.”
Jo shrugged impatiently, “Anna you are positively weird.” Then a moment later, “aren’t you?”.

Her friend finally turned to face her and a wide, generous smile lit up her face, “No…..….just a little silly perhaps.”

The two friends rushed off arm in arm, their shrieks of laughter filling the still evening air.

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