The tree I can’t stop looking at stands in the middle of the green, in the middle of a village whose name has too few vowels for my English tongue to properly pronounce.
We’re here for a wedding; Mike’s old school friend is marrying Agnieszka, at last. We’ve been promised three days straight of vodka and dancing, so we decided to rent a small house a little way from the venue, so that we can duck out if we need to.
The secret no-one but us knows yet is that I’m pregnant, so while the dancing will probably be okay, the vodka certainly will not. Mike will switch my shot glasses for water when no-one’s looking.
There is a plaque, brown and gold, in front of the tree, commemorating its success: it was recently named International Tree of the Year.
I never knew there was such a thing.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s a very nice tree. I imagine it was surrounded by others, once, others that were felled to make way for what they call the ‘new’ half of the village, built in the 1960s. But this tree was spared. It has a fine thick trunk, and branches that stretch like worshipful arms towards the heavens.
But its history is the reason it was commended.
In the early 1940s a Jewish family hid in this tree for two years and so avoided deportation to Auschwitz. The villagers brought meat and bread in the night, paper parcels laid as offerings next to a hole in the trunk from which a thin white arm would emerge in the darkness to gather them.
I imagine the curled bodies, matted hair, dirty skin, lying among the crawling creatures and rotting mulch. A life lived in silence and shade. I wonder how many they were, whether they held hands, prayed, dreamed. I think of them finally, finally, coming into the light, unfurling their limbs and blinking, spitting dust and leaves as their tongues rolled in their mouths, remembering at last how to form words.
The hole they came out of has been filled in, now, and I move closer to try to see or feel the difference in texture that belies the once secret doorway, but find no obvious clues. The deep ridges of its belly are as beautiful as wrinkles on the face of a lover. I lean into the bark, inhaling its scent. I reach my arms around the trunk and find that however hard I stretch, the tips of my fingers won’t meet around the other side. I imagine that the tree breathes and moves in my embrace. Turning my head, I press my ear against the wood and listen, the way you might hold up a conch in the hope of hearing the ocean. I am listening for voices, for heartbeats. There is a faint rustling, nothing more, and I wonder what lives this tree continues to contain, what beauty and hope now grow inside it.
When I step away, there are traces of bark, of damp moss, clinging to me, little slivers of brown and green on my clothes.
I place a hand on my still-flat tummy, fancying I can feel the shape of the life that we have already dared name in hushed conversations under covers, a tadpole, a bean, a tiny thing doing nothing but the business of becoming.
The tree stands, steadfast as a mother, yet ever changing, edging skyward in imperceptible shifts.
Its roots chart a course beyond anyone’s reach, whispering their secrets to the earth.