A story by YOSHIMI KATO.
The Magnolia tree was dead once, and then it was alive. I gazed up at the infinite branches, constantly winding up into the dark heavens. The lush leaves rustled, sighing in the nonexistent breeze. The sprawling blossoms overhead glowed as always, illuminating the bark in rose gold light. I breathed in the sweet air, then exhaled, calm washing over me. Little did I know that the sapling I received that cold evening twenty-three years ago would lead me to the life I love.
❦ ❦ ❦
The sun had just set, casting the streets of Camden in murky shadow, my boots click-clacking as I rushed to the bus station. I had only meant to stay inside CadGoddeau Bookshop for a few moments, just to run my fingers down the roughened spines along the shelves, turn the pages and breathe in the smell of faded ink on yellowed paper. Just to calm myself, intending to buy nothing. Buying and reading books had become an illusionary breakaway from the anxieties that plagued me since my adolescence. Ironically, I still used it to combat the growing worries as I approached the end of my English degree. Who hired literature majors these days, anyway? Yet the wares in the secondhand bookshop had seemed an innocent indulgence, a small price to pay for a few hours of imaginative escapism. Prompted by a nudge from a twisted branch of fate, I acquired an antiquarian novel for a mere five quid, feeling accomplished at such a find. Old leather-bound classics didn’t come by easily, often finding themselves in the hands of balding collectors in flatcaps and mothy sweaters somewhere in Kent. Like their collectors, books and words were fading—or already gone.
At the bus station, I sat down and quickly typed out a message. Sorry, still at the bus stat, be there in 5 min. I stowed my precious parcel in my poncho, safe from the light drizzle slowly patterning the pavement and protected from the wind whistling through the buildings. I closed my eyes and massaged my temples before the black spots took over my vision. I had only had time for a small sandwich that day, which hadn’t worked well with my fatigued mind. As I opened my eyes, a crooked old woman with a floral bandana and moss-green coat sidled next to me on the bench. The smell of freshly overturned earth wafted into my nostrils, reminding me of my late grandmother’s garden overgrown with forget-me-nots. Laughter lines mapped their way from her eyes until a smile bloomed upon her face. I realized with a start that she had an unexpectedly neat array of teeth.
“What have you got there?” Her gravelly voice was soothing. Every childhood warning flashed through my mind. Don’t talk to strangers! Especially strangers in eccentric clothes and terrifyingly realistic dentures.
“It’s a vintage edition of A Tale of Two Cities.” I reluctantly removed the novel from my poncho to show her. “I borrowed a copy from the library and finished it earlier this week, but I couldn’t resist buying it.”
The old woman peered closely at the cover, the dangling ends of her bandana brushing against my arm, sending a tingle down my spine. She tapped her gnarled fingers on the faded gold title. “1868, by Taliesin Publishers. That’s a Magnolia for you, my dear.”
As I stared, she rummaged through a large, coarsely woven sack I hadn’t noticed before, scrunching her face and cursing as if wrestling with creatures clawing to escape. I glanced around. No one else waiting for the bus seemed to sense my predicament. I had to act quickly. I leapt to my feet, clutching my book to my chest as the inside of my head did a lopsided pirouette. ‘I should go, I— mixed up the bus stop. So silly of me,” I stumbled, almost tripping over the old woman’s—shoes? No, they were wooden clogs. An iron grip closed upon my wrist.
“Not before you take this,” she hissed, shoving a clay pot into my arms. There was a fragile shoot coming out of the centre, trembling in the wind. Before I could ask one of the bewildered questions orbiting my every thought, she waddled away, brown sack out of sight again. I could only stare as my overexerted body foreshadowed the inevitable fall. The ground was tilting, like a trapdoor opening below my feet. The streetlights flickered as startled voices of bystanders rang through my ears, and black ink flooded my vision.
I woke up in a clearing, lying upon a cushion of dewy grass and looking up at a bright azure heaven. Birds chirped in the distance, and a waft of fresh air hit my nostrils. Glistening rays of sunshine, filtered by the towering branches overhead, caressed my skin. I pushed myself off of the ground slowly. I turned, taking in the idyllic space, so different from bustling London. Lilac and violet buttons of forget-me-not blossoms were scattered around the small clay pot. A Tale of Two Cities was nowhere to be seen.
A singsong voice cut through my daze. “You evidently needed some sleep.”
My gaze fell upon a striking young woman languidly lounging between two branches overhead. Flowing chestnut hair spilled over her shoulders and onto the moss-green gown draped around her body. She flipped the pages of my book with her long fingers, head cocked to the side with a small smile, strangely familiar, playing at her lips.
“Where am I?” My voice sounded muffled, a contrast to the clarity of her syllables.
“Checkout for the Taliesin Publishing Company,” she replied, gesturing vaguely around the clearing. “Don’t ask where am I, you aren’t am here. I am, but definitely not in that dreary place you call home.” Her face scrunched up in disgust.
“I already paid for that book,” I argued, but my voice wavered. “Look, I’m already running late. If you are who I think you are, you know I have a bus to catch.” I pinched myself, in case I was dreaming. I wasn’t. My throat tightened. Why hadn’t I been more careful? What had I gotten myself into?
“Plant that, wait a while for it to mature.” The woman slithered down the tree, crisply dusting off pollen from her gown, suddenly businesslike. “While your initial deposit is being processed, let me go through your contract. If you’re cooperative, this will be done in no time.”
I gingerly picked up the pot. Contract? Deposit? Paranoia crept further into my mind. What if this was a ruse to distract me from my possible kidnapping? Was I held for a ransom? If the woman was true to her word, I could escape this delirious garden with a small act of labour. No. I would not let my thoughts hinder me, not in this suspension of reality.
“Alright,” I conceded, “but I haven’t gardened in years.”
With the woman’s nod of acknowledgement, I formed a hollow in the damp soil, dirt immediately burrowing underneath my nails. I carefully lifted the organism and the surrounding dirt from the pot, placing it in the ground. As I smoothed the mound over the roots, a slow breath escaped me. Was I imagining the sapling wriggling upwards rapidly, more leaves unfurling like banners to turn their surfaces to the sun? The smooth green stem separating into lines of faded sienna? The cerulean blossoms putting up their shields, clustering closer to the base?
“Sometimes, you need time to consider the many branches of fate you could choose.” The woodland saleslady’s voice dipped with each melodic sigh of the spring wind. “Each tree here is a story of someone’s life. This grove feeds upon human reflections, thoughts, and feelings. As you grow, your tree grows with it.” The woman flipped A Tale of Two Cities around absentmindedly, a faraway look in her eyes. “I remember the origins of this edition. It was once alive, growing, a home for many a creature. The next time you finish this book, it will not be A Tale of Two Cities any longer. It will take on a new title, for you to read and reflect upon here. This is how the tree will live again. Grow again.
“It is, of course, your choice to read it or not,” she added, handing back the book to me. “Some people would rather not know themselves. You could cancel the contract anytime, just sell the book to someone else for the same price. That’s why it’s so ridiculously cheap; it’s been sold for five pounds for a century and a half.”
I nodded slowly. “So if I take this, I could return back home and continue as normal? But I also have the choice to come back here if I wish to?”
“You have your whole life to make decisions, my dear,” the ethereal creature smiled, and the shadow of the old woman flickered across my eyes. “Now, you better run along for now. You’ll miss your ride.”
I woke to shouts of concern, gravel digging into my neck and unfamiliar faces peering down at me. Multiple faceless hands extended towards me in an attempt to help me up. “I’m fine,” I repeated, calmly declining their offers to call an ambulance. “My blood pressure must’ve dropped too quickly or something… No, I really am fine, ma’am, please don’t worry about me… I really have to catch this bus, excuse me…”
As the bus careened through the twisting streets of London, I thumbed through the worn edition until there were no more pages to turn. In that deceptive moment of finality, I read the words that made me believe in infinite organic growth amidst a constancy of chaos and paralyzing restraint. The decision to believe is still the best thing I have ever done, and one which has given me life.
I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.
Featured image courtesy of Yoshimi Kato.