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Tree of Life

Jane Harrington

A story rooted in “The Selfish Giant,” a fairy tale by Oscar Wilde, with leaves from “A Remonstrance” & “Ruins,” poems by Speranza.

Every afternoon, as they walked from school, the children stopped and played in the garden. It had been that way for the seven years since the gardener had first come. She had scattered seeds that grew into flowers that the children picked (though never all, for they knew innately how to coexist), the younger ones slipping stems behind their ears or tossing the flowers into the air, and the older children plucking at petals and singing You love me, you love me not, or making supple bouquets to give to their sweethearts.

The gardener had planted peach trees, too, twelve in all. She’d placed them far enough apart that they wouldn’t tangle with each other as they grew. But the trees extended their toes and fingers all the same, delicate roots curling into the dark loam, branch tips stretching on the breezes each year, until finally each tree could touch another. All except one, that is. It had grown tall rather than wide, unusual for the species. But then, its blossoms were different too—pearl instead of pink—and it didn’t produce any peaches, while the other trees had been bearing since their second or third autumns. All that dropped from this tree’s branches were spring petals and autumn leaves, now turning ochre for the season.

The tall tree lamented its barrenness, but it strived mightily to be philosophical. It was proud of its limbs, all the stronger and higher reaching for not being weighed down perennially by heavy fruits. Stand on the heights, O Poet! it often cried out (for it strived mightily to be poetical, as well). Its location in the garden, at a far edge, was a source of sadness at times, but the tree would never complain about that. Though isolated from the others, it stood closest to the stony road that brought the children their way. So no matter how droopy it might be feeling, when it spied the children racing from the schoolyard each afternoon, it perked right up and set its verses to the breeze: I bask in the light that suns the mountain peak, and sing from spirit altitudes!

Another aspect of the tall tree’s place in the garden that it didn’t mind so much—not at all, actually—was its proximity to the house, farthest from it than were any of the other trees. It wasn’t that the house was hideous to look at or even uncared for; it was a stately mansion and as perfectly tended as the garden, its roof repaired when a single slate blew off, its bricks painted meticulously each year. No, the reason the sight of it made the tall tree’s heartwood quiver was that it was unnaturally huge, and the windows were always dark because no one lived there. Well, someone lived there, but he hadn’t been home in the seven years since the gardener had planted the flowers and the trees.

The owner of the big house, you see, was a Giant who had been away visiting an Ogre across the sea. (It was not uncommon at the time of this tale for Giants to have sprawling estates such as these and then leave them quite empty for long periods. They were known as Absentee Giants by the working people.) How surprised the Giant was at the sight before him upon his return: a lovely garden with flowers like stars, trees with autumn fruits, birds tweeting sweetly, and children playing in the soft grass and singing to each other: “How happy we are!”

WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?” the Giant asked the children in his very gruff voice, which made them so frightened they all ran away. “MY OWN GARDEN IS MY OWN GARDEN,” he harrumphed after they’d disappeared down the road. “I WILL ALLOW NOBODY IN IT BUT MYSELF.” And he called out to the handy people who were ever working on the upkeep of his house and he had them build a high wall to keep trespassers off the property.

It was such a high wall that only the birds could come and go freely. The tall tree was the only one of the twelve peach trees that could see over it, and that just from the top of its crown. On windy afternoons, when the gusts pushed its branches past the wall, it was able to watch the children as they walked, heads down, on the dusty road, talking to each other about the garden inside: “How happy we were.”

When winter came, Snow covered the grass everywhere with her sparkling white cloak. Her friend Frost painted the trees silver. The flowers crawled into their beds, and the little birds flew south. When spring returned, so did the birds, and the flowers yawned and stretched their petioles up through earth warmed again by the vernal sun.

But not in the Giant’s garden. There, it was still winter. “Spring has forgotten this garden!” Snow and Frost cried merrily, “so we will live here all year round!” Then they invited the North Wind, and he came, wrapped in furs, roaring all day and blowing down the chimneypots. “We must invite Hail,” the North Wind said. And so Hail came, too, and he rattled on the roof of the big house till he broke most of the slates.

The din forced the Giant out of his armchair, where he normally sat by the window and looked out at the garden. He opened the door of his house and commanded, “THIS NOISE STOPS NOW!” which amused the North Wind so much that his laughter blew the door clear off its hinges. The Giant called out to his handy people to fix it, but it was all they could do to keep up with the chimneypots and roof slates. So, he tromped across the garden in a fit of pique, Snow and Frost turning his jacket white, the North Wind gleefully pushing him harder and harder until the Giant was up against the wall in the far corner of the garden, where the tall tree stood. “HOW DO I MAKE THIS GODFORSAKEN WINTER GO AWAY?” he gruffed to himself.

With great thoughts that fling o'er the tears of life the rainbow arch to save us from despair, the tree offered, trying to keep his voice steady despite his shivering. But the Giant could not have heard what the tree was saying in any case (not being one to innately know how to coexist), and so he tromped back across the garden and into the big house and returned to his armchair by the window. “I HEREBY PROCLAIM THAT SPRING RETURN NOW!” he bellowed, which made Hail so irate that he spit such a volley of ice-stones against the window that the glass cracked.

The spring did not return to the garden, nor the summer, nor the autumn. “That Giant is too selfish,” buzzed the bees that drank nectar from the flowers that grew outside the wall while the North Wind and his allies continued to swirl over the icy ground and batter the trees inside.

The long winter had been particularly hard on the tall tree, whose limbs had been bashed incessantly against the wall. It had bruises all over, and its outlook was becoming dire, no matter its attempts at optimism: Ah! the world has sadder ruins than these wrecks of things sublime, for the touch of man's misdoings leaves more blighted tracks than time.The pith at the tall tree’s core was frozen solid. The pain was nearly unbearable.

Then it happened: In one of the tree’s limbs—its highest and heaviest—a fissure began to form. It split the bark, the cambium, ruptured the icy sapwood, and with a great crack, the branch fell onto the wall, breaking in half over the top. The severed limb was so long that it nearly touched the ground on both sides, the thickest part of it a few feet above the snowy ground on the inside, and the branch tips within arms’ reach of the road, where the children were listlessly kicking stones on their way from school.

“How happy we’ll be again!” they sang, scrambling up the ladder of branches, then shimmying down the other side and sliding off merrily onto the snowfall. They raced to the trees to climb them—for that is what they missed the most—and their presence made the trees so warm inside that they burst into blossom. Birds flew over the wall again into the garden, tittering with delight, and wildflowers sprouted like stars again from green grass.

The Giant, witnessing from his armchair the sudden transformation, bolted outside with such force that the cracked pane of his window shattered entirely, spears of glass lodging in the once-again-soft soil beneath. But he was oblivious to that, so taken was he by the sight before him. “IT’S ABOUT TIME YOU SHOWED UP, SPRING,” he said from the porch. And though he spoke with his usual gruffness, his eyes shone as he looked out on his garden, so lovely again.

What he didn’t see was the loveliest part (oblivious to that, too), which was the children. They were tucked amidst the blossoms, now so abundant that it was as if the trees were holding in their branches dense clouds of pink. All but the tall tree, that is, who wasn’t covered in pink blossoms. It wasn’t covered in any blossoms. It was still shivering, still cloaked in ice, still dormant but for the rime that grew. The souls that walk in shadow still bend forward to its light, the tree chanted weakly.

At that very moment, the Giant spied above the profusion of peach blossoms the top of the tall tree. It still bore long icicles, and so he rightly surmised that winter remained in the far corner of his garden. His face contorted in rage. “I SAID…” he groused as he stepped off the porch, “I SAID…” he grumped as he clopped toward the corner. “I SAID…” he growled as he stormed through the pink mass. So determined was the Giant that he didn’t notice that as he passed each tree, the frightened children dropped down out of the branches and ran from the garden the way they’d come in. And as they did, the trees, one by one, became bare and frozen again.

“I SAID GO, WINTER,” he boomed when he reached the place where the tall tree stood, “OR ELSE I WILL BUILD A WALL AROUND THIS CORNER AND BLOCK YOU INSIDE.” The North Wind laughed so hard at the threat that his breath spun the Giant around, making him see that spring had again left the rest of his garden. He now saw, too, the tall tree’s branch that had fallen on the wall, and he peered over to the other side, where the children were all standing far below on the road, looking up at him sadly. “MY OWN GARDEN IS MY OWN GARDEN,” he said to them in his gruff voice (though it was not entirely as gruff as usual), and then he turned away and rubbed his chin. “HOW CAN I MAKE SPRING COME BACK?” he wondered aloud.

With hope's rainbow-woven trellis, and truth's glorious sunrise beams, the tree suggested. And though the Giant, of course, couldn’t hear that, he did hear something else: a child crying. And he noticed now that there was a little boy next to the trunk of the tall tree. The boy was very, very little—practically a baby—and he was sobbing between choked pleas of “Up! Up! Up!” He had been trying to climb the tree, but unlike the other children with the other trees, he had not been able to reach a branch, no matter how low the tall tree had tried to bend its boughs to him.

“WHY AREN’T YOU AFRAID OF ME?” the Giant asked the little boy, but the child didn’t answer, he was crying so hard. Truth is he would have been afraid of the Giant if he had seen him, but his eyes were too filled with tears to see anything clearly. Which is a good thing, because what the Giant did next would have surely terrified him. The Giant reached his enormous hand down to the child and scooped him up in it. Then he looked intently at the little boy, as if studying a scientific specimen or an unfamiliar food. After a minute or two, he placed him gently onto a gray branch.

Instantly, the tall tree erupted in pearl blossoms, and bees came to sip the sweet nectar. Birds circled in the balmy air that surrounded the tree and landed on its branches, singing blissfully. The little boy stopped crying, and he looked at the Giant, whose face was just about even with where he sat, and he wasn’t afraid, for the Giant’s expression had softened so. (He was not a heartless Giant, you see, just selfish.) The child reached out his chubby little arms and hugged the Giant’s neck.

“YOU’RE WELCOME,” the Giant said awkwardly, and though his social graces might still have been wanting, there was really no gruffness at all in his voice anymore.

When the children outside on the road saw what had happened, they scrambled back up and over, bringing with them spring again to the entire garden. The Giant called his handy people to open the wall and make it into a great arbor, and he called his gardener to plant around it red roses, orange trumpet vine, yellow jasmine, green ivy, blue morning glories, indigo clematis, and violet wisteria.

At the end of the day the children all came to say their goodbyes, but not the little boy he had put in the tree. He asked the others where he’d gone, and they said they didn’t know, that they hadn’t seen him before, that he was too young to go to school. The Giant hoped he would come back the next day to play in the garden, but he didn’t. Nor the next, nor the next, nor the next, though the Giant thought of him every day and wished that he could see him and know he was all right.

Years went by, and the colorful vines grew thick and fragrant around the arbor that was once a wall but now welcomed all passersby. The trees grew, too, their graceful limbs curling and locking together, creating great swaths of shade for playing tag and picnicking under on hot summer days. The tall tree grew so high that sometimes the top of its crown was lost to morning mist, and though it had never fruited, it had finally spread its branches enough that it could touch the tips of another when it needed a hand to hold.

The Giant grew, too, but he very old and feeble, and he could do little more than sit in his armchair and watch from the window. One winter day he was doing just that, admiring his sleeping garden, and he rubbed his eyes, unsure if he was seeing things. Because there, in the far corner, under the tall tree, stood the little boy, still just as little as he had been those long years before, his arms again raised to the branches.

With a heave, the Giant pushed himself from his chair and hobbled out to the garden, huffing and puffing as he made his way across the frozen grass. When he finally reached the boy, he scooped him up in his palm, set him in a branch, and cried with tears of joy, “YOU’VE COME BACK!”

The Poet's place is by the tree of life, the tall tree intoned, and the Giant gasped. Not because he could hear the tree’s voice now (though he could), and not because the little boy was rimmed in gold (though he was), and not because the bare limbs of the tree were all of a sudden bursting with fruit (though they were). It was just time for the Giant’s last gasp. And so, when the children ran to the garden from school that afternoon, they found him there, fallen, his cheeks still wet with tears, a joyous smile still on his lips. Above him, the tall tree gracefully waved its boughs, some so heavy with peaches that they swept the earth. And the children picked those first fruits, plump and perfect. Beautiful things.

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