The willow

  • 17 November, 2018

I don’t know how I got here. It feels like I just appeared; saw myself, already in motion, heading towards some destination I had yet to discover.

I wandered about, propelled by whatever happened around me, eating when hungry, sleeping when tired.

The wind was my only companion – faithful, and invisible. Some days going against it, some other days resisting it by merely sitting still, the only time I didn’t feel its presence at all was when I was fully with it. When I let myself be blown to and fro, fall, or be borne aloft as it willed.

This way I discovered many curious places – some breathtakingly beautiful, some scary and appalling. Always alert, I was ever ready to be on the move again.

All the while, I was garnering my days gone by, and polishing them with precious memories until they turned into shiny jewels. I carried all of them with me, and used some to kindle fire when nights grew cold.

With time, my treasure load grew heavier and heavier and it became increasingly harder for me to fly with the wind again.

 

***

One day I came by a river cutting through a grassy plateau, weaved into the overgrown banks at the edge of a small forest. I actually heard it more than saw it, hissing invitingly, as invisible as the birds singing in the thicket surrounding it.

I made my way down the steep edge near a large willow tree, gnarled like some ancient creature leaning above the water as if to drink from it. Its tender twigs formed a canopy brushing the glassy surface, sheltering the turmoil of insects and countless forms of river life moving about in its shadow.

Something glittered among the shivering ripples, and I saw there, not too far from the bank, a patch of colourful jewels, smooth and shiny as the rarest of crystals. So various and rich they appeared that my collection suddenly felt so incomplete without them. I stepped into the water and grabbed a handful raising it to my eyes. The water quickly dripped away, and as soon as it did, the gems lost their lustre and colour. In an instant, they turned into common pebbles – just like the ones I felt gritting and slippery under my feet.

My momentary disappointment quickly gave way to real excitement, as I saw there, even further into the river, a large pile of golden coins. It was hidden between the stones, and masked by weeds beckoning seductively, revealing its presence in short glimpses. I reckoned the water could be about waist-deep there, rather calm and smooth on the surface, although I could clearly see transparent braids of the undercurrent enlivening, and somewhat obscuring the real size of my treasure.

I decided to recover it before the sun set, or the water got murky.

The current proved stronger than I had thought. It violently pulled me in as I slipped on the muddy pebbles, and it carried me away, ripping my bag of jewels open. Choking on the water I struggled towards the shore desperately grabbing the nearest bunch of willow twigs right above the surface. They came to my rescue just in time – supple, but strong enough to support my weight. Slender leaves pointed me upwards like arrows as I climbed up to the lowest branch suspended horizontally above the water.

 

***

Laying there flat on the overgrown bough, shaking off the water and rushing emotions, I soon began looking down for my lost possessions. And I thought I saw some of my jewels lay there mixed with mud and sandy stones, which indeed looked like golden coins. All of them deeper than I had thought – or perhaps mocking my senses once again.

I thought I’d recover what was left of it later. Exhausted both with my travels and the recent struggle, I decided to rest for a while there in the tree.

The trunk felt surprisingly soft despite its rough appearance. The twigs, fluffy with catkins, and tender leaves, were swinging like silky curtains. I lay there lulled by the whispering of the wind above, the river below, and bird cries surrounded me like a mist.

There were other voices there too – the mouth-shaped leaves singing their hardly audible song. “Stay with us. We missed you”.

Some time must have passed before I got up and decided to explore my unexpected shelter. Broad branches felt so easy to tread on, and extended far in every direction. A perfect vantage point, even though the willow grew at a river bend, so even from up there it was hard to see what was beyond it.

I could see other trees along both banks, some of them tall and straight, some leaning over the water, like mine, some fallen and partially submerged.

I looked down near the sunny patch where my treasures should have been, and I became startled by what I saw there in the reflection.

Or rather by what I did not see.

It was only a willow tree there. Thick, rugged trunk, tender branches, leaves, catkins, and no one between them. I moved around, waved my hand, but all I could see was the swinging of twigs hanging down like hair of that giant, thirsty creature. In a moment of desperation I let go of the branch, and let myself fall down, but nothing happened. Only a few leaves dropped carrying their hushed song down the current, getting quieter and quieter, as they floated away.

And I looked at my hands, to see if I was still clinging to the branch, but I saw no hands there. No arms, no legs, no feet – just a willow tree covered in ivy.

 

***

Somehow, I got used to this new situation very quickly. Indeed, I relished it and thought it may be the destination I had been always looking for. It truly felt like returning, rather than arriving anywhere.

I stopped caring for my jewels lost there to the river, and they got smaller and smaller, gradually reduced to sand by the tireless current.

The willow crown was teeming with life. There were birds there and other small animals weaving their nests among the fresh sprouts, and all the river folk down below, and myriads of tiny insects hovering and humming in between.

There was a large hollow close to the ground masked with an ivy curtain, where a small fox found its shelter one day. We watched it grow and fell in love with it – me and the ivy. Sometimes we would get worried when it wasn’t coming back, but it always eventually did, while we were reassuring ourselves that love is about letting it roam free and remaining a safe home it can always return to.

And I remember people saying that the ivy smothers the tree and thus should be gotten rid of, but I’ve always seen such union as beautiful, and I really felt it now. Tied closely together, we grew around and into each other, became literally one, and shared our common figure with all the life and beauty around us.

Sometimes children would come to play, sliding down the branches into the river. Men would come to collect firewood and bark for healing. Lovers would leave with bunches of catkins and I can only guess how many different baskets, cradles and coffins were made out of our twigs.

Relentlessly growing back, there was always more and more of them – enough for everything.

 

***

Thus, I found my destination.

I’m a willow tree at the river bend.

My roots spread wider than my branches.

I drink from the water, and brush its surface, but I stand firm on the bank and my reflection remains still.

You’ll see me billow out like a sail on a windy day, but I’m not really going anywhere. Not anymore.

We’re one – me and the ivy. And when we finally succumb to age and collapse over the hollow, we know that the fox will make it out on time. And whatever’s left of us will remain its home forever.

Perhaps we’ll fall into the river, and float away to learn what’s beyond the bend. Or perhaps we’ll stay anchored to our place forming a safe pool here, shielded from the treacherous current. Whatever happens next, we’ll stay ever bound this way. And even time rushing past and through us, trying to unravel our knots, can only tie them stronger.