The Special Tree
One day, when Rakesh was six, we walked home from the Musoorie bazaar eating cherries. They were a little sweet, a little sour; small, bright red cherries, which had come all the way from the Kashmir valley. Here in the Himalayan foothills where Rakesh lived, there were not many fruit trees. The soil was stony, and the dry cold winds stunted the growth of most plants. But on the more sheltered slopes there were forests of oak and deodar.
Rakesh lived with his grandfather on the outskirts of Musoorie, just where the forest began. His father and mother lived in a small village, fifty miles away where they grew maize and rice and barley in narrow terraced fields on the lower slopes of the mountain. But there were no schools in the village, and Rakesh’s parents were keen that he should go to school. As soon as he was of school-going age, they sent him to stay with his grandfather in Musoorie. He had a little cottage outside the town.
Rakesh was on his way home from school when he bought the cherries. He paid a little more than one cent for the bunch. It took him half-an-hour to walk home and by the time he reached he cottage there were only three cherries left.
‘Have a cherry Grandfather,’ he said, as soon as he saw his grandfather in the garden.
Grandfather took one cherry and Rakesh promptly ate the other two. He kept the last seed in his mouth for some time, rolling it round and round on his tongue until all the tang had gone. Then he placed the seed on the palm of his hand and studied it.
‘Are cherry seeds lucky?’ asked Rakesh.
‘Then I’ll keep it.’
‘Nothing is lucky if you put it away. If you want luck, you must put it to some use.’
‘What can I do with a seed?’
So Rakesh found a small space and began to dig up a flowerbed.
‘Hey, not there,’ said Grandfather, ‘I’ve sown mustard in that bed. Plant it in that shady corner, where it won’t be disturbed.’
Rakesh went to a corner of the garden where the earth was soft and yielding. He did not have to dig. He pressed the seed into the soil with his thumb and it went right in. Then he had his lunch, and ran off to play football with his friends, and forgot all about the cherry seed.
When it was winter in the hills, a cold wind blew down from the snows and went whoo-whoo-whoo in the deodar trees, and the garden was dry and bare. In the evenings Grandfather and Rakesh sat over a charcoal fire, and Grandfather told Rakesh stories –stories about people who turned into animals, and ghosts who lived in trees, and beans that jumped and stones that wept – and in turn, Rakesh would read to him from the newspaper, Grandfather’s eyesight being rather weak. Rakesh found the newspaper very dull – especially after the stories – but Grandfather wanted all the news…
They knew it was spring when the wild duck flew north again, to Siberia. Early in the morning, when he got up to chop wood and light a fire, Rakesh saw the V-shaped formation streaming northward, the calls of the birds carrying clearly through the thin mountain air.
One morning, in the garden he bent to pick up what he thought was a small twig and found to his surprise that it was well rooted. He stared at it for a moment, and then ran to fetch Grandfather calling, ‘Dada, come and look, the cherry tree has come up!’
‘What cherry tree?’ asked Grandfather, who had forgotten about it. ‘The seed we planted last year – look, it’s come up!’
Rakesh went down on his haunches, while Grandfather bent almost double and peered down at the tiny tree. It was about four inches high.
‘Yes it’s a cherry tree,’ declared Grandfather. ‘You should water it now and then.’
Rakesh ran indoors and came back with a bucket of water.
‘Don’t drown it!’ cried Grandfather.
Rakesh gave it a sprinkling and circled it with pebbles.
‘What are the pebbles for?’ asked Grandfather.
‘For privacy,’ said Rakesh.
He looked at the tree every morning but it did not seem to be growing very fast, so he stopped looking at it except quickly, out of the corner of his eye. And after a week or two, when he allowed himself to look at it properly, he found that it had grown at least an inch!
That year the monsoon rains came early and Rakesh plodded to and from school in raincoat and rubber sandals. Ferns sprang from the trunks of trees, strange-looking lilies came up in the long grass, and even when it wasn’t raining the trees dripped and mist came curling up the valley. The cherry tree grew quickly in this season.
It was about two feet high when a goat entered the garden and ate all the leaves. Only the main stem and two thin branches remained.
‘Never mind,’ said Grandfather, seeing that Rakesh was upset. ‘It will grow again, cherry trees are tough.’
Towards the end of the rainy season new leaves appeared on the tree. Then a woman cutting grass scrambled down the hillside, her scythe swishing through the heavy monsoon foliage. She did not try to avoid the tree: one sweep, and the cherry tree was cut in two.
When Grandfather saw what had happened, he went after the woman and scolded her; but the damage could not be repaired.
‘Maybe it will die now,’ said Rakesh.
‘Maybe,’ said Grandfather.
But the cherry tree had no intention of dying.
By the time summer came round again, it had sent out several new shoots with tender green leaves. Rakesh had grown taller too. He was eight now, a sturdy boy with curly black hair and deep black eyes. ‘Blackberry eyes,’ Grandfather called them.
That monsoon, Rakesh went home to his village to help his father and mother with the planting and ploughing and sowing. He was thinner, but stronger when he came back to Grandfather’s house at the end of the rains to find that the cherry tree had grown another foot. It was now up to his chest.
Even when there was rain, Rakesh would sometimes water the tree. He wanted it to know that he was there.
One day he found a bright green praying-mantis perched on a branch, peering at him with bulging eyes. Rakesh let it remain there; it was the cherry tree’s first visitor.
The next visitor was a hairy caterpillar, who started making a meal of the leaves. Rakesh removed it quickly and dropped it on a heap of dry leaves.
‘Come back when you’re a butterfly,’ he said.
Winter came early. The cherry tree bent low with the weight of snow. Field-mice sought shelter in the roof of the cottage. The road from the valley was blocked, and for several days there was no newspaper, and this made Grandfather quite grumpy. His stories began to have unhappy endings.
In February it was Rakesh’s birthday. He was nine - and the tree was four, but almost as tall as Rakesh.
One morning, when the sun came out, Grandfather came into the garden to ‘let some warmth get into the bones,’ as he put it. He stopped in front of the cherry tree, stared at it for a few moments, and then called out, ‘Rakesh! Come and look! Come quickly before it falls!’
Rakesh and Grandfather gazed at the tree as though it had performed a miracle. There was a pale pink blossom at the end of a branch.
The following year there were more blossoms. And suddenly, the tree was taller than Rakesh, even though it was less than half his age. And then it was taller than Grandfather, who was older then some of the oak trees. But Rakesh had grown too. He could run and jump and climb trees as well as most boys, and he read a lot of books, although he still liked listening to Grandfather’s tales.
In the cherry tree, bees came to feed on the nectar in the blossoms, and tiny birds pecked at the blossoms and broke them off. But the tree kept blossoming right through the spring, and there were always more blossoms than birds.
That summer there were small cherries on the tree. Rakesh tasted one and spat it out.
‘It’s too sour,’ he said.
‘They’ll be better next year,’ said Grandfather.
But the birds liked them - especially the bigger birds, such as the bulbuls and scarlet minivets – and they flitted in and out of the foliage, feasting on the cherries.
On a warm, sunny afternoon, when even the bees looked sleepy, Rakesh was looking for Grandfather without finding him in any of his favourite places around the house. Then he looked out of the bedroom window and saw Grandfather reclining on a cane chair under the cherry tree.
‘There’s just the right amount of shade here,’ said Grandfather. ‘And I like looking at the leaves.’
‘They’re pretty leaves,’ said Rakesh. ‘And they are always ready to dance, if there’s a breeze.’
After Grandfather had come indoors, Rakesh went into the garden and lay down on the grass beneath the tree. He gazed up through the leaves at the great blue sky and turning on his side he could see the mountains striding away into the clouds. He was still lying beneath the tree when the evening shadows crept across the garden. Grandfather came back and sat down beside Rakesh, and they waited in silence until the stars came out and the nightjar began to call. In the forest below, the crickets and cicadas began tuning up; and suddenly the trees were full of the sound of insects.
‘There are so many trees in the forest,’ said Rakesh. ‘What’s so special about this tree? Why do we like it so much?’
‘We planted it ourselves,’ said Grandfather. ‘That’s why it’s so special.’
‘Just one small seed,’ said Rakesh, and he touched the smooth bark of the tree that he had grown. He ran his hand along the trunk of the tree and put his finger to the tip of a leaf. ‘I wonder,’ he whispered, ‘Is this how it feels to be God?’
ANUSHKA GUPTA is a teen writer of deeply meaningful, non-fiction short stories, who has been awarded a scholarship of 50,000 rupees (Indian currency) for her work by a national newspaper. Her pieces have also been published in newspapers. Anushka loves getting on her little sister's nerve and writing is the only thing, apart from playing football, that makes it possible for her to exist.