The first thing I remember is the fragrance of fresh, moist earth and the touch of a soft, light hand. Her feet were planted in the same soil as mine. And it had found its way to her knees and elbows. As the breeze swayed my tiny leaves, she raised a little hand and waved in answer. Two dark eyes stared at me, curiosity blending into affection. Eyes like those of a bird – deep, sharp, mischievous and restless. But all my long life, in my mind, it has always been the other way round. Whenever I have looked at a bird, I have thought that it has eyes like hers.
I had been gifted to her. She had tucked the seed into the bed, under plenty of warm cover, with her own little hands on her fifth birthday. I think the feel of the warm soil pleased her as much as it did me. I was to be the beginning of the garden of the new home. During my first days in this world, she explained to me why I was special: unlike the cloud that looked like an elephant, I would not get lost; unlike last year’s birthday dress, I would not grow less. I did not know what an elephant was, or a birthday dress. Clouds I had met.
In a few more birthdays, I had caught up with her. But I was the only thing in the garden that grew. An occasional visitor said I was hogging everything the soil had to offer; it may not be too late to get rid of me. Somehow, that never came to pass. Personally, I was not threatened by the mention of an axe; I had never seen one. Life began every sunrise. I felt the green run through my veins and was proud of every leaf that sprouted. Birds were beginning to come. With some of them, it could go as far as moving in. The party was in full swing.
She, meanwhile, had grown into a restless little imp. Her talks with me were carried out not sitting in my shade, leaning against me, but pacing to and fro nearby, circling me, or, in moments of exclamation, giving one of my arms a little shake. I wasn’t yet big or strong enough to carry her in them.
One day, there was an accident. It was beyond my field of vision, but I gathered that her romping had led to a fall and a minor fracture. Poor thing. It was strange and uncomfortable to see someone made for movement to be stationed in a room, even if temporarily. Her window framed me, so that we saw a lot of each other in those days, even though we weren’t near enough for chats. The distance notwithstanding, I could see that the pause wrought a change in her. One night, drifting out of and into sleep, I automatically glanced at her window, and saw her staring at me. I was startled, wondering if she was in pain or too ill, and if yes, why wasn’t she calling for help. But she seemed to be fine, only awake, so I waved an arm, she waved back, and I went back to sleep. It was not the last time. Another night, it rained, and as I was enjoying the warm shower, I saw her looking at me with some concern. I was glad when she closed the window. Not out of a sense of outraged modesty, but because it wouldn’t do to let the rain into her room.
Rain was fine; it was welcome. Storms, however, were a tad more difficult. I was yet to reach the age where the strongest gale would only be play. At that time, I had to clutch the ground as firmly as I could; sometimes, I lost not only leaves, but also a few of the lighter arms. The morning after a storm, during which I had been too preoccupied to check her window – anyway, it had been closed – she surprised me delightfully by coming up to me. I hadn’t even known she could get out of the room. Up close and in the daylight, I could see even more clearly the change in her – a change more lasting than the illness. It was a new and very becoming quietness. She looked around at the broken arms, the heap of leaves. I may have been standing slightly crooked. It was nothing to worry about, but she put her arm around me and said, “Poor thing.” She was the convalescent, so I stroked her head lightly, and she grinned and winked as of old.
Since then, I became an extension of her room. She read or sat with me more than earlier. There was in her mind questions she was too embarrassed to ask. I wished I could have assured her. Yes, I was tired sometimes, but who isn’t? It passes. I didn’t understand what she meant by impatience. Most importantly, I needed to tell her that no, I was not lonely. Loneliness presented a different face to me than it did to her. Sometimes I wonder whether my confidence was the wisdom of a sage, after all, or the immaturity of youth.
Through my teenage and the twenties, more houses had mushroomed around us. Eventually, it turned out that I was in the way for new buildings. When the seed had been planted, there had been no walls, and boundaries but vague. Now, I prevented gardens – useful or ornamental; I confused demarcations; I drained the soil; I even blocked the view. My fruit was useless; I paid no rent, and was not eye candy. Most offensively, I looked like I was here to stay. Discontent murmured for a few years before growing into a protest. The gentle family, who had brought me into the world and considered me a part of their home, gave in to the local demand of introducing me to that axe. Given the obviousness of the choice, they were unduly upset by it.
The neighbours were considerate enough to offer to share the firewood. That’s the only use I’ll ever be of, they pointed out. Till then, I had been someone’s sorry idea of a garden. Now, I was a communal weed. On their way out, someone gave a careless pull at one of my arms, as if to get it out of his way. He had chosen a wrong ’un. Instead of neatly snapping off, it cracked but kept hanging loosely and awkwardly, leaves and all, even more irritating. I would have shrugged off the stupid gesture, but just then, I saw her standing at her window and wished that she had not seen it.
Nature is given to melodrama. The clouds that day – shaped not just like elephants but ice-age mammoths – were dark and growling. I heard someone observe that they may not need the axe after all. A sufficiently vehement storm or a single fork of lightning could save them the trouble. She heard them too. Oh mulch.
The night and the storm both grew darker, but her window did not close. I had no grudge with the skies, but it seemed like they were going to save the neighbours some trouble after all. It was one of the worst storms I had lived through so far. I broke in places. The earth felt thinner at my feet. The leaves had all turned grey with dust. According to my bend-but-don’t-snap policy, I swayed this way and that, dodging the lashings of the wind. I had no idea when she had come out and stood near me, watching the fight, fascinated. I shook my head and nodded severely towards the house, but I’m not sure she even got my message. I knew that the sound of the wind through my leaves intrigued her, and tonight it was playing loudly and continuously, but surely it was best enjoyed from the warm comfort of the room? How could I keep her away – push her away? The storm could turn my gentlest gesture into a violent blow.
I heard a crack of lightning and was almost relieved. Finally, she would go back inside. I wished someone else had been awake and come to check on her and took her away long ago. At any rate, I thought, bending away from her to avoid a gust, if this had been a sort of goodbye – that’s what must have been on her mind – I appreciated it. Here came the clap of thunder.
I never saw that axe. The night paled, the downpour came, but both the rain and the sunrise had changed forever. Before the neighbours could come to confirm that the storm had done their job, the family found her beside me, as if she had fallen asleep with her head on my shoulders. By morning, the word had spread: I was cursed. I had fought the storm and diverted it upon her. I had taken her life to preserve mine. People came hurrying, but stopped at a distance, horrified at my vengeance. No one tried to break off an arm; they seemed loath to even kick at the fallen ones.
The family left. The home emptied. This should have made things easier for the others; on the contrary, it made them very angry. They said that the family had put a curse on the place. That she was now haunting me. Everyone blamed everyone else for being a superstitious coward and for refusing to go near me. The years crumbled the little house down into dust.
I remained standing.
A new bird has come to make home with me. They haven’t seen the likes of her before, the people around here, and they are a bit puzzled and a bit fascinated by her strange loveliness. I could tell them her name, but I won’t. I feel as excited as a sapling.
It was the misty, unearthly time: neither dark nor light; too late to be night, too early to be dawn. No one witnessed the meeting but the other trees – babies, the oldest of them – and the early birds, who glanced at my guest with interest but no suspicion. Here there are many, but none like her.
When she came and sat down quietly, deep among the leaves, I woke from my slumber as if someone had laid a gentle hand on my old, weary heart. Then she flapped her soft wings, flew up and circled me, hopped from one branch to another, and I waved all my arms and danced all my leaves in incredulous rapture. Have you really come at last?
After we both had calmed down a little, and she had called me her dear old one about a dozen times, she said, “What do you mean have I come at last? Haven’t I been coming here every time?”
“Not knowingly, you haven’t.”
“Don’t try to be clever. How was I to know? And yet, I did, and you know that.”
We were silent for a while, rather overwhelmed; blissful; lost in our thoughts, but finally, once more, together. Then she said, “But you know that this time, it’s different, don’t you?”
“I knew it at once.”
“Age has made you very complacent, I see. Age, and all that myth about having special powers. Haha. You old rogue, to think people think that you grant their wishes!”
“I do, too.”
“What inelegant expressions you have picked up.”
At this, she burst into laughter. We were in the mood to laugh at silly jokes. Birds put up a fantastic show of being grave and earnest, but here’s a small tip from one who has seen them from close quarters: they have a sense of humour like none other. Some of the jokes an owl (a lodger) has told me can make me crack up on a bad day. I told her this and she said she had no doubt, and called me an old rogue again.
“What’s with the ‘old’? I am actually five years younger than you,” I said, feigning exasperation. I felt nothing but an all-enveloping happiness.
“Well, you must be at least a hundred. Or is it two? Oh dear, dear! How many times I must have come and gone while you simply stood here!”
“Waiting for you.”
She paused a quiet moment between her mirth. “All the time?”
“From the beginning. You brought me here. You had to come and take me away.”
She whistled softly. “Was it terrible? The wait?”
“Quite entertaining, more often than not.”
Again, she laughed her silvery laugh. It’s a little like the sound of brooks.
“How do you know that it’s different this time?” I asked.
“Because I remember everything now,” she said. I nodded. Once again, we fell into silent reminiscing.
And so the rest of the day, and a few more days after that, passed in a haze of wonder and gladness, curiosity and confirmation. She wanted to stay for a while. For one thing, she said, she wanted to give me time to say goodbyes. I suspect she wanted to do the same. Although, she must have left her home and her kin already, for she never flew outside the garden. But within it, she spent a lot of time flying around, meeting other birds, other trees, and sometimes perching on one of my higher arms to gaze at the view of the city as it appeared now. Sometimes, we talked about what seemed to have changed, but mostly, we talked of her journey.
“Do you remember the student?” she asked one day.
“The one who was going to be a monk?”
“Yes! But then he thought he should be a freedom fighter, became one, and was killed!”
“Don’t worry; it wasn’t painful, but quick.”
“I’m glad to hear that.”
“How about the rich young lady?”
“She was the one who got this garden built, of course.”
“Right. The land was on the fringes of their property. Supposed to be cursed, you were, poor thing.”
“Thanks to you.”
“You’re very welcome! I gave my life for you, you ungrateful old trunk!”
“You did, did you?”
“Of course I did! Had I not died, and took the disrepute of being a ghost on my shoulders, who could have saved you from the axe, I’d like to know?”
“I cannot believe how desperate you are to hog all the credit. I doubt if any axe on earth could have felled me.”
“Oh, is that because of the special powers you have always had?”
“I see. I understand. The senility must have set in ages ago. Maybe in the last century. That’s all right. And then, when one is lonely for years and years and years, one tends to lose it rather.”
“You should know. You were the one who always lost sleep over it.”
“Over your loneliness, I did. Clearly, I was wasting my sympathy.”
“Oh, all right, all right! We were talking about the rich lady.”
“Hm. She died in a car accident.”
“Quite young, she had been.”
“All of them died more or less young, don’t you remember?”
“Yes, I suppose so. And all of them could also see it?”
“What, their deaths?”
“That may be putting it too strongly. But I think all of them had an idea. Especially the would-be monk.”
“Also the botanist.”
“The one after the rich lady, of course. She set up this garden, and in her lifetime, it was taken care of, but after she died, it fell to neglect. It was the young student who, after discovering me, decided to study botany and then devoted so much time and energy – almost his entire life – into reviving this old place, bringing others here, making it a welcome home for the birds…”
“I like how you quietly put in that it was you who showed him the way to botany. How humble you are.”
“Haha. But that has been more than once, isn’t it, that you had to suffer much neglect? Poor dear.”
“Here is the advantage of being big and wise, my girl, that a bit of neglect cannot really make you suffer. Sometimes, it is almost welcome. Definitely more than unwanted attention.”
“Is that so?”
“It is so. Why, after you departed, and then your family left, people thought I was cursed, haunted and what not, and gave me a wide berth. It was a great relief, you know.”
“And here I was, thinking that you had been grieving my loss.”
“You know what I mean. I knew you would come back, of course. And I must say, you haven’t changed a bit.”
Again the wood filled with her laughter. Countless years fell away from me. Through the days, as we talked and laughed, quite a large and mixed flock would perch on my arms and fingers, listening in to our gossip. The neighbours leaned in too.
“Go on about the botanist,” she said.
“People thought him half-mad.”
“That was probably another recurring motif!”
“Probably. But when his ladylove thought so too, he lay down to the deep sleep.”
“Oh. But I really like how he shaped this place. Spent hours and hours watching the birds here, didn’t he?”
“Yes, and mostly resting in my shade. I knew then, that it was you. But you didn’t.”
“Don’t try that line. It won’t work. Why do you think I ‘mostly rested in your shade’?”
“Yet you talk of them as them and not yourself.”
“That’s to ensure that you don’t get confused. I do remember now, but not all the details. It is also interesting to hear what you saw and how you saw it. And above all, it’s good to reminisce together, isn’t it?”
“Oh, yes. I have been very quiet very long.”
On the last day, she wanted to talk about the last time.
“I granted two of your wishes,” I reminded her. “So please stop pretending that I have no magic or that you don’t remember.”
“Two. Or no, wait, three. It’s always three wishes, isn’t it?”
“Oh, go on. Why stop at three?”
“You cannot be serious. The first was when you were a child. You wanted to be a bird. Well.”
“Oh! I did, didn’t I?”
“Yes. And then…”
“But are you going to take the credit for turning me into a bird? That’s quite a claim.”
I would have given her a cold look if I didn’t know that it would be wasted. So I merely dropped the branch where she was perched, and she was immediately all aflutter. Ignoring her indignant flapping, I continued, “Then there was the time you wished that your trees wouldn’t damage the house.”
“Neem and Jack!” she cried, forgetting to row.
“Yes. None of them did any damage. So none of them were felled. Happy?”
I stroked her head with a baby leaf.
“You old softy,” she said.
“Yes. That was the second wish granted. And the third was a painless death. Also delivered.”
“I died in my sleep.”
“And quite a few pair of wings arrived next morning, surprisingly uninterested in crumbs.”
“Did they? Not to boast, but birds are wonderful.”
I didn’t argue with that one. We both glanced around. Our friends and neighbours had retired. All of them had lingered longer today, knowing that tomorrow the two of us will have been gone. The cries of a few late crows could be heard in the distance, over the old city. Perhaps there was not much long to wait now.
“No, there isn’t,” she said.
When the last red in the sky began to fade and the clouds gathered and cleared their throat to announce an untimely shower, she touched my hand with her wing. “Are you ready?” she asked, softly. “Have you said your goodbyes?”
I smiled. “I’ve had a lot of time to do that, yes.”
And then I paused. I had almost forgotten. “Wait. There is something I don’t know.”
“Oh fancy! And what is that?”
“What about your family? Where and how are they?”
She smiled a smile from outside this world. “Let’s find out, shall we?”