The Songbird’s Tree
The tree stood in full bloom that midwinter, whispering soft messages in the silence evacuated by summer birdsong. Flowers twirled to the ground in arrhythmic patterns as wind whistled through the branches. They layered themselves in blankets of pink, of yellow, of orange, covering the thick roots when they momentarily emerged into clear air before burrowing ever deeper. The leaves fluttered flirtatiously like beckoning fingertips, but they clutched desperately at the safety of their stems. It might take one year or one-hundred, but one might imagine the tree completing its long exhale before it finally takes another breath.
“Sahib.” Raju’s train of thought was interrupted by Balbir, his translator and companion of the day. Balbir was a pleasant, stout man with dark skin, a bald head, and doe-like eyes that always seemed to be pleading for some unreceived kindness. He had greeted Raju at the airport with a wide, toothy smile and a handmade sign with Raju’s name, before driving him to the remote village where they now stood. “Sir, shall we go back into the house?”
Raju blinked and shook himself out of his reverie. “Balbir, how long has that tree been here?”
Balbir shrugged. “A long time. It is believed your great-grandmother planted it as a small girl. Or perhaps your great-great-grandmother. There is no one here who was alive then to say for certain.”
“Hm.” Raju took a deep breath, trying to mimic the slow breathing of the tree, before turning around to face his family house. It’s too small to cause so much frustration, he thought. It was built long ago only with the essentials—a bedroom, a small kitchen, and space enough to raise children, as long as they never grew too large or too many. Still, though, Raju admitted, it was built exceedingly well, withstanding the passage of time without degrading. “It’s a nice house,” he mused aloud.
“Very nice, sir.” Balbir nodded vigorously. “The nicest in the village, no question.”
“So why won’t anyone buy it?”
Balbir stopped nodding.
Raju walked through the doorway into the tiny living room, Balbir following close behind. “All of the inspections have shown that it’s in excellent shape. The price was low, and even then, I’ve lowered it three more times in the last year. I’ve bought all of the appliances, built a new fence, and replaced every inch of flooring. What else do I need to do?” His voice rose to an exasperated yell.
Balbir winced. “It’s difficult to explain, sahib, but none of that was ever the problem.”
“What, then? I’ll do anything. I just want to get rid of this goddamn house!”
“Don’t you feel it?” Balbir narrowed his eyes. “The eyes watching you from the walls, the chill that no amount of heat can drive out, your soul being sucked into the ground itself?”
“Stop joking around, Balbir. I’m serious.”
“I am serious, sir. And people in this village are superstitious. That feeling is enough to turn them away.”
Raju frowned. “You’re saying I can’t sell this house because of the way it feels? I don’t feel a thing!” He thumped the wall softly with a clenched fist, listening to the echo reverberate in the small space.
“Really?” Balbir’s eyes scanned the room nervously as if the echo might attract unwanted attention. “I am not a superstitious man, sir, but I too can feel what they whisper about in the village. I myself wouldn’t buy this house, even for a single rupee.”
A dry laugh escaped Raju’s lungs. “What, then? Should I hire an exorcist?”
“I don’t know any priest, but the villagers speak of a hermit who lives in the forest on the outskirts of the village. Many have gone to him in times of need and have spoken highly of the wisdom they’ve received.” Raju stared blankly at Balbir, unconvinced. “If nothing else, his approval might convince someone to buy the house.”
Raju sighed. “You want me to make this forest hermit my real-estate agent.” Balbir nodded, then walked out the door, making his way to the village center. Raju, without a more reasonable plan, followed.
Finding directions to the hermit was simpler than Raju might have expected. Balbir was correct in saying that many of the villagers had gone to him in the past, and he was able to get detailed directions through the forest from a shopkeeper in exchange for buying two mangoes. Raju paid for the fruits but declined to eat one, so Balbir pocketed one and opened the other for himself as they started walking to the forest entrance.
The two companions traversed the dirt path of the forest in silence, punctuated by the occasional snap of a twig or yelp of pain as a stray bush thorn dug into skin. Soon, a small rivulet of blood ran down Raju’s left arm, dripping softly on the dead leaves that littered the ground. Balbir opened and closed his mouth a few times, gearing up to ask a question, then thinking better of it. His hesitation didn’t escape Raju’s notice, though, and eventually, the discomfort of the silence was too much to bear. “What is it, Balbir?”
“Well, I was wondering,” Balbir began slowly, “why do you want to sell the house so badly, Raju sahib? Why now? It has been in your family for so long, ever since it was built.”
Raju shrugged. “It’s just sitting here empty, collecting dust. Why not sell it? Getting some money wouldn’t hurt either.”
Balbir furrowed his eyebrows, evidently unconvinced, but did not question him further.
The trees grew thicker on the edges of the path, shrouding the two travelers in darkness, before they finally emerged into a clearing. Just as described by the villagers, and translated by Balbir, the clearing was ringed by a circle of flower bushes, and a small makeshift hut sat at its center. Raju walked up to the hut’s entrance, noting the large banana leaves that hung down and covered the opening. He absentmindedly looked for a doorbell before shaking his head to himself, then bent down to walk through the doorway.
Raju coughed. Hazy smoke filled the air, diffusing the light of two bright-hot coals on a hookah. An elderly man with scraggly white hair and a lengthy patchwork beard lounged naked on the grassy floor, idly sucking on the pipe. He looked up at Raju, cataracts evident in his eyes. “Hello, little chidiya. Very nice of you to come see me, Raju,” he greeted in perfect English.
“How do you know who I am?” Raju asked. The old man just smiled. Raju frowned, then continued. “I came only to ask why the villagers refuse to buy the house I’m selling.”
“You are selling your ancestral home. Such a thing does not happen lightly.”
Raju rolled his eyes. “People leave their homes all the time. No one puts down roots forever!”
The old man’s smile was unwavering. “I can answer your question, for a price. Nothing more nor less than the mango in your friend’s pocket, and a taste of blood from your arm. Surely this is something you can afford.” Raju nodded, emerging from the hut to retrieve the mango from a confused Balbir in the clearing. He handed it to the hermit, who opened it and held it under Raju’s arm, letting three drops fall onto the flesh of the fruit. He took a bite and sighed, looking with blind eyes into Raju’s. “You so easily offer that which is yours, both of the earth and of your soul. You must understand that a home is of both.
“Let me tell you a story of a small songbird. She knew that she was soon to lay her eggs. She was proud of the motherly life she was about to begin and built a nest to stand as a testament to that pride. She chose a high branch in a friendly tree and began collecting twigs. Soon, her home was finished, and she finally laid her eggs and rested.
“Soon, however, she was warned by a passing dove of a nearby cuckoo bird looking for a nest to steal. She knew that the cuckoo egg would hatch before hers, and the newborn parasite would push her own eggs out of the nest, killing her unhatched children. This worried the songbird, who knew that she would starve if she didn’t leave the nest to hunt from time to time but didn’t want to leave her eggs vulnerable.
“So, she asked the tree for a favor. And when the cuckoo came one day while the songbird was away, and it left its egg in the corner of her nest, the tree grew a branch around the cuckoo egg and squeezed, cracking and crushing it before it had a chance to hatch. The thankful songbird and her children tended to the tree in return for many years, and the tree remained ever their defender.”
The old man shifted, sitting up tall with crossed legs. “There are those who would do anything to keep their home. Why do you hasten to rid yourself of yours?”
Raju scowled. “It’s not my home. I never lived there. Why keep something I’m not using?”
“But it is your home. You have lived there. I can taste it in your blood, your mother’s blood, your great-grandmother’s blood. You cannot sever these attachments by any means, except one.” The old man reached behind his back and pulled an axe from the shadows. He held his arms out, offering it to Raju. “You say you want to cut the ties that bind you to your home. This will allow you to do it. But know this.” He leaned in close, and Raju could taste the tobacco on his breath. “Your soul is, and always will be, of this place,” he whispered. “Whether you accept it or not.”
Raju stared into the man’s eyes, his expression unreadable. He reached out and grasped the axe with both hands and backed slowly out of the hut, never breaking eye contact with the still-pleasantly-smiling hermit, before turning around and returning to Balbir’s side at the edge of the clearing. He ignored the questions from his companion, marching down the dirt path back to the village.
Balbir jogged to catch up with him then settled to his determined pace, panting. “Sir, what did he tell you? Can you sell the house now?” Raju stayed silent, knuckles white as his grip tightened on the handle of the axe. Before long he emerged back onto the main road of the village. Quickly getting his bearings, he spotted his house and continued striding toward it. Finally, he stopped at the foot of the tree in its yard, standing upon layers of fallen flowers and roots that reached unknown depths in the cold winter ground. In the time since they had left, a singing bird had perched on a branch, calling in harmony with the wind. Raju paused, staring at the bird for a moment, before lifting the axe and swinging it with a mighty thwack into the thick trunk. Splinters of wood flew into the air as the songbird shrieked in pain. Balbir called out in shock and confusion. Raju did not relent, lifting the axe and torquing his body for another blow.
In three blows, the tree toppled. The secrets it whispered on the wind through its branches fell to silence. The bed of flowers resembled a well-decorated grave. The stump gazed with rings like irises into the heavens. The long exhale hitched thrice, then disappeared as the songbird flew away from the wreckage. Raju felt each cut, not just in the reverberation through his arms, but as though an invisible gash opened in his side. With the tree fallen, he crouched with his hands on his knees, panting. The winter air felt cooler now. He could not bring himself to smile.
Saahil Poonawala is an undergraduate student at New York University studying Politics. Saahil is a child of Indian immigrants. He lives in Chandler, Arizona, southeast of Phoenix.