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Lost Tree

They cut down my tree.

That’s not the truth, not really. It’s not my tree. Never has been. It grew in a park, where it could have belonged to anyone, or no one at all. I don’t know who cut it down. Maybe nobody did and it died in a storm and fell when no one was looking.

The tree isn’t there. And I missed it.

They cut down my tree.

I went for a long walk on Saturday. Going home from somewhere, sun beating down on me, trying to let go of everything. I’ve walked that route to the park a lot. I know the trees along the way like good friends. There’s the funny evergreen by the edge of the campus parking lot where someone left a little ceramic donkey that looked like it belonged in a Nativity set, the wise trees with holes in the trunk by the university garden, the tunnel of spindlier trees along the walk by the house with more cats than even I know, the huge oaks in the park itself.

And then there is my tree.

I think it’s a cypress. That’s probably why it’s gone. Cypress don’t do well here. They grow for a while, tall and strong and slightly wonky, trunk with rounded bumps where branches once grew that make it look as if the bark is boiling, and then they stop. They’re so tall they could crush everything if they fell, so they get cut down.

I met this particular tree when I was ten or twelve. It was perfect in every way, with branches extending right at the height of my small shoulders, begging to be climbed. I did once, because someone said I couldn’t. Just as high as the first branch. I was dressed up that day, didn’t want to go to class covered in sap and needles, so that was as far as I went.

I vowed I’d climb it all the way to the top someday.

Somehow, something always seemed to stand in my way. One day I tried and I was wearing shoes worn too smooth on the bottom and couldn’t scrabble up the trunk. I had people with me that day and I was sweating a little because they were watching me and laughing as I failed. So I didn’t climb. Even if I made it up, it wouldn’t have felt right. I’d have carried that bad laughter up with me, and that’s not how I wanted to see the top of the tree.

Other times I came and walked a circle around it, following the way up with my eyes, heart beating a little faster, knowing just what it would feel like when I found my way up, when the ground was so far away.

Some days, I don’t know why I put it off. Why I didn’t climb the tree. Maybe it was because I was still scared I couldn’t do it. Maybe it was because I knew I’d only get to do it once. You only ever get to do anything the first time once.

I greeted that tree every time I went around that corner in the path. It’s funny, I guess. Greeting trees. I was thinking about it Saturday, when I was greeting the others, looking for mine.

Sometimes I run my fingertips across the bark, feeling the coolness, the silence. The way they feel like home. Just as often, I don’t.

You know when you walk through a crowd and your path changes, gets more weaving, not because you don’t want to bump into somebody, but because you can feel their gravity, the space around them that you don’t want to enter, the pull of their orbit, pushing you away like the poles of a magnet.

It’s like that, the trees.

One time a friend took me to the art museum and there was a guest exhibit on modern sculpture. They’d torn out the usual carpet and put in some fluffy dark green stuff that didn’t make you feel like you were outside, but reminded you of it, like you were in a children’s play area and you knew you stood in The Yard. They were funny statues, blobby and ceramic and smoothly uneven, white with tiny bits of colored pottery that ranged in color like a sunset from orange to pink, blue to green to purple. Some of them were as tall as my shoulder, others were short as a low stool.

It made me feel like I was in a Studio Ghibli movie.

When I thought no one was around, I walked up to the tallest one and gave it a little bow, so I was almost the same height it was, a little greeting that sent my scarf end swinging cheerfully, no need for a breeze.

It’s like that too, greeting the trees. It makes sense because it doesn’t.

I couldn’t find my tree. Sometimes I look for it at the wrong point in the path, miss it and feel my heart kick up a beat until I relax, because there it is, waiting, like always.

That day it wasn’t. Wasn’t there to greet me.

I left the path and went to sit on a bench, thinking I’d just missed it. Thinking it had to be there somewhere. It’s become a habit of mine, at that park. Finding an empty bench and watching the world go by. Families taking their kids to the swings, Ye Healthy Ones jogging (what even is jogging?), people walking their dogs, old couples leaning close together, strolling arm in arm. Usually I sit near the entrance to the park, by the tree that blooms and buzzes with honeybees in spring, but Saturday is a busy day for the park and my hideaway was already taken. I kept walking until I found a bench the rest of the park seemed to have forgotten.

It must have been an uneven patch of ground, the space that drinks up all the water. The only grass was tiny little two-leafed sprouts poking up out of the soft earth. The dirt was still shaped into scalloped waves from some recent torrent of rain, soft enough to hold the print from my light step. It was so dark under those trees, even at three o’clock in the afternoon, that I couldn’t be quite sure there really was a bench until I was there. I wondered if that was how it looked everywhere in the park, if I was half hidden from the world when I sat there, watching all from the heavy shade like something you can only glimpse from the corner of your eye.

I sat there for a while, trying to think about nothing, ending up thinking about everything instead. There was a party going under the pavilion at the other end of the park, I think, with loud music and a good beat. I listened, half listened. Studied the graffiti on the bench proclaiming some young Romeo and Juliet’s affections in a silver-purple ink.

I went looking for my tree, to see if it really wasn’t there.

I think I found the spot where it once grew. A place where the grass was different, a little dip and a little hill. There was no stump. I stood looking for it, alone in that corner of the park, but it wasn’t there to be found. Nothing, nothing to whisper about the tree’s memory.

I read the other day about a possible scientific link between fairy rings and dead trees. How the mushrooms spring up where the rotted roots once were, even long after any human memory of the tree has been lost.

I like thinking about that. Thinking that even when the tree is gone, some ghost, some memory, some magic remains.

I’m kicking myself for never climbing that tree. I don’t really have a point to this, I just–don’t like living with regrets. Not one.

I remember reading Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle” and “On Fairy-Stories,” how he said it was all because of a tree that grew outside his window that one day wasn’t there. If I were as eloquent as he was, maybe I’d make something out of this, something more than a rambling CNF piece, something that captures the beauty of a tree when it’s alive, instead of the hollowness when not a single branch is left.

I hope a fairy ring grows there. I hope that patch of sweet earth remembers the lost tree.

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