“The tree casts its shadow on everything, even upon the woodcutter.”Indian proverb
Aoi slipped into the cold winter night, whimpering and gasping for breath as her tiny footsteps quickly carried her out into her family’s field. She had to get out before another wave of crushing anguish took over. She needed to be alone.
From the horizon, the setting sun cast a deep red and purplish haze over her family’s fields, leaving tall silhouettes of trees that cast deep, black shadows across the farmland, further blurring the line between nightmare and reality. Black figures occasionally moved within floating spheres of golden light that they carried with them, trying to finish the day’s work before the night fully took hold.
Aoi’s dress caught on a wooden fence as she scrambled through it and she pulled away abruptly, freeing herself and ruining her gown at the same time. As if on cue, the chilled winter wind howled loudly and almost blew the little girl off her feet. She pressed on stubbornly, continuing to run through the shadows until the only sounds she could hear were her own footsteps and the wailing wind at her back.
There, she collapsed into the recently-trimmed grass and broke down, sobbing and heaving breathlessly until she had no tears left to cry.
* * *
Crumpled over with her face pressed to the earth, Aoi heard soft footsteps approaching from behind her. She scrambled to her feet and rushed into a nearby bush to watch a field worker lit by a dying lantern languidly approach.
The man looked too old to be working long days in the fields. A bulging satchel was swung over his shoulder and his straw amigasa hung on his back with a string pulled taught against his leathery throat.
He walked straight towards Aoi’s bush, stopping just feet away. Then, he set his lantern down carefully and rummaged through his satchel for a pair of hedge shears before also dropping his satchel to the ground and getting to work.
He trimmed deliberately yet quickly, shaping the bush into an organic form that resembled a neat rectangle, yet still honored its natural, curving state.
Eventually, his gaze caught Aoi’s through a bald patch in the shrubs, but he quickly averted his eyes and kept working, silently.
The two souls shared a silent secret for several minutes until Aoi finally broke the silence, shivering as she choked, “She’s gone. My mother’s gone.”
The man physically froze mid-cut, shears poised to take out a long, obtrusive branch, as if he had turned into a statue in the night. His lantern dimmed, threatening to go out entirely unless it got more fuel soon.
“She’s not gone,” the man said solemnly, still unmoving.
A sudden wave of rage filled Aoi, but just as quickly subsided. She was too tired to argue with anyone and instead said nothing, fresh tears freezing on her cheeks once again.
Aoi jumped as the man broke his perfect stillness and finished the cut he’d started almost a full minute prior, then watched through watery eyes as he resumed trimming and made quick work of the rest of the bush.
He slid the shears back into the satchel and slung it over his shoulder, then picked up the dim lantern and turned back toward Aoi in the bush.
“Her body may be gone,” he said soberly, “but her spirit lives on.”
He met Aoi’s gaze and stared deeply with sunken, wrinkled eyes, then held his lantern up high and pointed at a large tree on the horizon.
“Life is like that tree. We all start small in this world, a helpless seedling sprouting from the same ground we all eventually return to. Those seedlings need love to grow, even as a young sapling stretching toward the sun, and even as a tree as old as that one there.
“As that tree grows, branches split and intertwine. Do you think it’s random how and where each branch grows? Each branch is a conscious decision as that sapling matures through life, and yet the branches supporting those new branches continue to grow, too. The tree grows strong even as the branches grow thin, and those new branches continue to grow no differently than that first seedling did.”
The lantern went out with a small hiss, leaving the two souls in nothing but soft moonlight. The wind abated, whispering delicate apologies for its behavior earlier through the branches of the bush. Tenderly, the man continued.
“Like you and I, your mother started out as nothing more than a seedling in this cruel world. She needed love to survive, and she grew patient, hearty, and fostered that love, which she shared with you when you needed it.
“Every decision she made, she made purposefully. Every branch in her life, she chose deliberately. Her childhood, her homeschooling, her hobbies, her marriage, her child — every choice took her life to new heights, growing sturdy yet intricate with time. Those choices shaped your mother and they made her beautiful.
“You’re a seedling too, but you’re also a branch in your mother’s tree. Her love shaped you and will continue to shape you long after she’s gone. You are as much a part of your mother as she is of you.”
Aoi felt a wave of tears welling up in her eyes again, but this time she didn’t fight them. She mourned peacefully, softly weeping with grief.
“The firm tree does not fear the storm,” the man cooed smoothly. “All trees must weather winds, withstand droughts, and choose to survive each year. I’ve worked for your family long enough to see that tree shed its leaves for a flower crown, share its apples for the household, and offer its branches to swing from. Through its highs and lows, that tree is a part of us all — and as we, too, are all a part of it.”
The man looked back at the bushes and admired his handiwork. As he did, Aoi slowly crawled out from under its manicured branches and stood beside him.
“Th — thank you,” she stammered. “I’m sorry I don’t know your name, especially if you’ve worked for us for that long. What is it?”
A genuine smile crept over the man’s face and he looked up at the moon, ignoring the question.
“You know,” he said softly, “my mother used to tell me an old proverb when I was growing up — when I was going through something similar. Every time we got some fruit for the house, she would always say the same thing: ‘When eating the fruit, always think of the person who planted the tree.’
“You, too, are your mother’s fruit, little one. And one day, you’ll have fruit of your own. Your mother will always live on through you, and when your branches intertwine with another little tree, your mother will be there too: shaping, loving, and growing.
“It’s unfortunate, but the one who plants a tree is rarely the one who gets to enjoy its shade. Yet we continue to plant trees that will outlive us all, bearing and sharing as much love as we give them. Through them, not even death can take life from us. As long as we love those who loved us, they’re never really gone.”