The Singing Tree by Rati Mehrotra

The singing tree blooms once a year in May, for about forty seconds. We’d been trying – and failing – to catch it in the act for as long as I could remember. This year was no exception. We piled into the wagon and drove away from Ennismore, Dad singing loud, tuneless road songs that made me want to close my ears.

Mum twisted back and gave a big, fake, isn’t-this-fun smile. “We’re going to hear it bloom this year. I can feel it in my bones. I can smell it in the wind.”

I rolled my eyes. She said that every year. And every year we came back disappointed, while news channels gushed with breathless reports of lives transformed and wounds healed. All malarkey, as far as I was concerned.

Ria, my older sister, snorted. “Why can’t we do normal things on the long weekend like other families?” she said. “Go to the beach, stay in a hotel for a couple of nights. Something I can actually tell my friends about.”

Dad stopped singing and Mum’s mouth pressed in a thin line. “Hotels are dirty,” she said.

“And they cost money,” I added under my breath.

Mum frowned. “What did you say, Kitty?”

“The name’s Kitari,” I snapped. I hated it when she called me Kitty.

“I should know,” said Mum. “I named you, didn’t I?”

To my relief, June and Jade began to fight. I could always count on the twins to divert Mum’s attention. I looked out of the window, feeling the breeze on my face, smelling the bright freshness of spring. It was a sunny day, just perfect for being out, and if I hadn’t been feeling so rotten I would have appreciated it a bit more. All I could think was – here I was, stuck with my family on a stupid road trip, while Tanya and Mikkel made out on Cobourg beach. Their families had decided to go together this year, and Tanya had made no secret of her delight. Poor Mikkel, he didn’t stand a chance against her. Neither did I, with my flat chest and mousy hair.

Perhaps it was better this way. At least I didn’t have to see him kissing her. I sniffed and gulped back a sob.

“Getting a cold, ‘Kitty’?” said Ria.

I turned away from her. Rural Ontario whipped by in a blur of green fields dotted with horses. I concentrated on the scenery until I’d stopped wishing Ria deaf, dumb and mute. I had to remind myself that despite the fact that she was sixteen, two years older than me and way more beautiful, she had it harder than I did. Last summer she’d tried to kill herself.

Of course, Mum and Dad didn’t admit it, not even to themselves. They talked about Ria’s ‘accident’ as if the pills had walked up to the breakfast table and jumped into her cereal when she wasn’t looking. Her ‘troubles’ were whispered about as if they were something apart from her – the lank-haired boyfriend who turned out to be a small-time drug dealer, the eating sickness that turned her into a rake-thin shadow of her former self.

Ria had been clean for months now. She went to a counsellor every fortnight and I even saw her eat real food sometimes. But she’d dropped out of school and become all moody and withdrawn – not a bit like the sister I used to have. The Ria I’d known used to whisper secrets to me at night, play silly games with the twins, and bake cookies with Mum in the kitchen. Not mope around with a hangdog look on her face and a chip the size of a brick on her shoulder.

At least she was still alive.

Four hours and three restroom stops later, Dad brought the wagon to a stuttering halt. I jerked out of my daydream, annoyed – Mikkel had just begun to kiss me on the lips – and then I saw the jam of cars ahead.

“What the hell?” muttered Dad, sticking his head out of the window. “What’s going on?”

A trooper shouted instructions, diverting traffic away to the right. He neared our wagon and said, “Please keep moving, sir. You’re holding up the cars behind.”

“But we need to go straight ahead,” said Dad. “We’re camping at Singing Tree Park tonight. I have a permit.”

“Singing Tree Park has been closed,” said the trooper. “Someone vandalized the tree and it’s been fenced off for the season.”

“Who on earth would do that?” exclaimed Mum.

The trooper shrugged. “Some kids. They’re in custody, but the damage is done. Sir, I have to ask you to move now.”

Dad started the wagon. We sat in stunned silence as he turned right, following the line of cars leaving the area. People milled about the police roadblock, taking photographs of themselves.

“Bloody tourists with their stupid selfies,” said Dad.

“Language dear,” said Mum automatically. “Oh, this is bad news. They may never re-open Singing Tree Park. And there isn’t another singing tree in the entire province.”

“Thank God,” said Ria, rolling her shoulders with exaggerated relief. “Maybe we can go home and have a normal weekend now.”

Without any warning, Dad twisted the wheel of the wagon and we lurched onto a narrow county road to the left of the highway.

“Don’t be too sure of that,” I muttered. Ria gripped the sides of her seat and shot me a glare.

“This isn’t the way home, Dean,” said Mum.

“Want to show you something,” said Dad, and that was all we could get out of him. We bumped along the pot-holed road, teeth on edge. The twins fought and Ria and I bickered. Dad took another turn and the road degenerated into little more than a dirt track, cutting through dark green wood.

At last, when I was just about ready to scream from boredom, Dad brought the wagon to a halt. We got out, struck speechless by the sheer nowhereness of it all. Dirt track, tall trees that gathered thickly overhead, and the loud chittering of insects. That was it. Dad had really exceeded himself this time.

Ria, of course, was the first to find her voice. “Great. Just great. I need a restroom.”

Dad waved his hands expansively. “Left side or right? Take your pick.”

“Why are we here?” said Ria. Her voice had gone quiet and dangerous.

Dad didn’t seem to notice. “Want to show you something,” he repeated, and he grinned like he had something amazing hidden up his sleeve that would make us jump up and clap our hands. And maybe about ten years ago he would have, but he was old now, or maybe we were too old to fall for his tricks. Even June and Jade looked down and scuffed their shoes, like they were embarrassed for him.

“You’re crazy, you know that?” said Ria.

“Ria,” said Mum, “watch your mouth.”

Ria turned on her. “And you just encourage him in his craziness. Every year it’s the same. Like we’re stuck doing the same thing, over and over. Just because he heard it once half a century ago, he forces us to go on these stupid, pointless trips.”

“Ria…” began Dad.

“No!” she shouted. “Don’t say anything. If you tell us one more time what it was like, I swear I’ll scream. I don’t care what it was like for you, Dad. It’s not going to happen for me.” She began to cry, big hiccupping sobs racking her chest. Mum went up to her, and I drew the twins aside for a game of snap on the grass beside the path.

When the twins had won – they always cheated – I left them to squabble over the deck of cards and got up. Mum and Ria were nowhere to be seen. Maybe they’d gone to pee behind the trees. Dad stood by himself near the wagon, a lost look on his face. I felt sorry for him, even though it was his fault that Ria was having a meltdown.

I walked up to him. “Dad,” I said, “if we start now, we can be home before nightfall.”

Dad gave me a puzzled frown, like he couldn’t place who I was or what I was saying. I repeated myself, and he said, “I thought we could camp here tonight. There’s something special here, something I spotted a couple of years ago when I took the wrong turn for Roseneath. It was small then, but perhaps it’s big enough now.”

What’s big enough?” I said.

“The singing tree,” said Dad.

I stared at him. ‘Dad,” I said, with as much patience as I could muster, “you must have seen something else. It can’t be a singing tree. The Forest Department would have mapped it.”

“Not everything can be mapped,” said Dad. “How can you track the path of a song?”

It’s a fallacy that the singing tree reproduces through its songs. A single blossom from a dying tree carries the seed of the daughter tree. It’s why there are so few left in Canada – or in the rest of the world, for that matter. But I didn’t have the heart to correct him.

Mum and Ria emerged from the trees. My sister’s eyes were red, but at least she wasn’t crying or shouting any more.

“Dean, we’re going home,” said Mum in her no-nonsense, brook-no-argument voice.

I cleared my throat. “Dad says there’s a singing tree here.”

There was silence for a few moments while Ria and Mum digested this.

The twins, who had snuck up behind me, shouted in unison, “We want to see it!”

Dad beamed and stood up straighter. “Follow me. It’s a short walk from here.”

He strode down the path before Mum could stop him, the twins skipping behind. I ran after the twins – they needed someone sensible in case something happened – and Ria came after me, so of course Mum followed too.

Ria caught up with me as we entered the woods behind Dad. “Another wild goose chase,” she said, but I could see that she was curious, like me.

I pushed ahead through the undergrowth, cursing whenever something scratched my face or poked my skin, which was often. Ria laughed once when she fell– a high, crazy sound that made me wonder if she was taking her meds. Mum grunted with the effort of keeping up with us, calling out now and then to make sure we were all there.

A little later, I bumped into Dad. He stood at the edge of a small clearing, June and Jade on either side of him, clutching his arms.

In the middle of the clearing stood a small, black-limbed tree with silver-green leaves that caught the sun. A singing tree. I swear in that moment I forgave Dad everything. I even forgot about Mikkel.

“I don’t know if it’s old enough to sing,” said Dad. “But I thought I’d show you anyway.”

Mum stumbled up behind us and gasped. “It’s beautiful, Dean” she said, her voice all quivery.

“Our very own Queen of the Forest,” said Ria. “We could chop it down for firewood and no one would know.”

Dad rounded on her, eyes blazing, fists clenched. The twins shrank back and even Mum was paralysed. For a moment I thought he would hit Ria, and I prayed, don’t Dad, don’t. Can’t you see she doesn’t mean it?

Dad dropped his fists and said, “But you’d know. You’d go through life knowing you killed something beautiful. The way you tried to kill your own beautiful self.”

I closed my eyes, feeling sick. Ria made a gulping noise. Mum said faintly, “Dean, don’t…”

Dad ignored her. “What’s beautiful must be loved and cherished, the way we love and cherish you,” he said. “I’d give up my limbs to get back my girl, to take away her hurt. But I can’t. I can only tell her that I love her and I’m sorry I wasn’t there when she was hurting, when she was scared. And if there’s any way on earth to make up for it, by God, I will.”

Ria’s face crumpled. To my amazement, Dad held his arms out to her, and she stumbled into them.

We camped that night under the moonlight-dappled branches of the singing tree. It didn’t sing, after all. Like Dad said, it was still quite young. But we played an old recording of a song from Singing Tree Park. Maybe it wasn’t the same as actually being in the presence of a blossoming tree, but it was close.

The song was like nothing I can describe. I could say it was like spring: the trilling of birds and the pattering of rain and the smell of new life. But it was also like the crunch of autumn leaves and the feel of cool wind and damp grass underfoot. And that is also not true, for was it not something else entirely, something alien that I cannot put words to?

For as the song reached its crescendo, I saw, shining in the dark, the invisible cords that connected us. Silver cables ran like nerves between myself and the twins, the twins and my parents, my sister and the tree. The cords stretching from my sister to the rest of us were thin and frayed, almost completely unraveled. She was hanging on to us by mere threads. But the song was healing them, twisting the strands into thick cable, binding her back to us, until we were surrounded by a great silver web of light, so bright it hurt the eyes.

The recording finished and the light faded away. I found myself crying, and then Ria was crying too, and hugging me so hard I thought my ribs would break. I could no longer see the silver cords, but I knew they were there, just like the song was still there, echoing in the chambers of my heart.

All that night I lay awake, listening to the hum of wind and the whisper of leaves, and I wondered where it had come from, this lone tree that stood sentinel over us. How it had escaped the tourist hordes and the park officials.

I like to think of it as our tree, the tree that gave me back my sister. I like to think that no one else will ever find it, that it grows only for us, in those spaces where we overlap and belong to each other, and love and hate each other.

Just before dawn, I fell into a light sleep and then I dreamed that I ran through the forest, hand-in-hand with Ria. Every tree was a singing tree, and they were all in bloom.

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