On the highway near where I live, overlooking the lake, there is a tree on a hilltop that is very hard to reach (or at least I’ve never gotten to it–the area is all sorts of canyons and cliffs and things). It is always perfectly outlined against the sky, utterly impossible to miss. I’ve always thought it should have a story, and maybe it does already, but since I don’t know it, I wrote one. And here it is!
The Lonely Tree
On a hill overlooking the shore of a long blue-green lake, there was a lonely tree.
There are other trees that stand on other hills, and people take shelter beneath their leaves, and climb in their boughs, and eat picnic lunches in their shade. But this tree was different. It was alone, and it had always been alone. It might have been the perfect ideal of a lonely tree on a lonely hill, and all the others only faint, imperfect echoes. Its hill was high and steep and wild; cliffs and gorges and brush as thick and sharp as broom-heads surrounded it in every direction. Atop the hill, the tree stood silhouetted against the sky so that it could be seen for miles when the sun was high, if anybody was there to see it.
Nobody was. It had been so for as long as the tree could remember—and trees have very long memories.
The tree didn’t know that it was lonely. It was alone, but trees know how to be alone, and although it had a very long memory, it could not remember a time when it wasn’t. For a very long time it had looked down over the blue-green lake and the valley around it, and it had seen nothing to make it feel any differently.
But trees live very long lives. Soon enough—for what seems a long time to a human seems very short to a tree—a man came paddling along the blue-green lake in a small boat. In the weeks that followed, he came back again, and as months passed others came after him, and then those others brought others still. They pitched tents, and as more came they cleared land, and planted fields, and built houses of straw and wood and stone. In what seemed no time at all, there was a village on the shore of the lake, and the tree looked down from its hilltop, and began to wonder.
The tree saw men and women walk along the lakeshore whispering to one another, and it wondered what it was to keep a secret, for it had never had anyone to keep a secret for or from. It saw the people of the village laugh and dance together, and it wondered what it was to have a friend, for it had never had anyone to laugh with, or to dance with. It saw grandmothers and grandfathers laid to rest beneath the earth, and it wondered what it was to weep for a loved one lost, for it had never had anyone to love or to lose. The tree watched the men and women of the village whisper and laugh and dance and love and grow and die, and for the first time it knew that it was lonely.
For a long time—and it seemed long now, even to the tree—nothing changed. It looked down on the village, and sometimes the people looked back, when the sun was high and the tree was a sharp shadow against a bright blue sky. But they never came up the hill. They never told it secrets, or laughed with it, or danced with it, or loved it, as they did with one another. For a long time, the tree was lonely. It had always been alone, and trees know how to be alone, but they also have very long memories. It could remember a time when it hadn’t felt so lonely, and it wished it could feel that way again.
And then, after a very long time, on a day when the sun was high in the sky and the tree could be seen for miles, a little girl climbed its hill.
Her hair was blonde, tangled and knotted as a sailor’s net; the rocks and thick brush on the hillside had scraped her elbows and her knees red. She wore a white dress—stained and torn, but light as a cirrus cloud—and she carried a polished white stone in her hand. She knelt in the shade beneath the tree, and wiped her brow with a dirty hand, and she said:
“My grandmother told me that if I bury this stone beneath a friendly tree and no one ever finds it, my life will be long and happy and blessed. I searched all through the village, and no tree there will keep my secret, but I have looked up at you many times and thought you must be a very friendly tree to watch over us like you do. Will you keep my secret for me?”
The little girl dug a hole in the earth at the foot of the tree, and she placed her smooth white stone inside, and filled it in again. “I think you will,” she said. “I think you will keep my secret forever.” And then she stood, and walked away singing, and as the tree watched her go, it shifted a root to pull the stone deeper still.
And so the tree knew what it was to have a secret.
From that day on, the tree watched the streets of the village for the little girl, and when it saw her, it wrapped its roots tighter around her stone, and it felt a little bit less lonely. But each day that the tree did not see her, it felt lonelier still. Because trees have very long memories, it worried that it would always remember the little girl and her secret, and feel lonely forever.
Not a week had passed before the girl returned. She still wore a white dress, but it was cleaner, and her hair was less tangled, her limbs less scraped. “I know the way now,” she said, “and it is not so hard a climb, if you know the way.” She leaned against the tree’s trunk for a moment, taking shelter from the sun. “You are a very friendly and a very beautiful tree, and I think I shall visit you often.” And then she laughed, and spun, and her white dress whirled around her like snow on the wind, and she danced beneath the tree until the sun was low in the sky. And when she left, she smiled a special smile and she said, “Thank you for keeping my secret. I will come back, when I can.”
And she did come back, when she could. Sometimes she came many days in a row, and other times a week or more passed between, but she always came back. And she always wore her white dress, and laughed and sang and danced beneath the boughs of the tree.
And so the tree knew what it was to have a friend.
Years passed, and the girl became a young woman, and though she still climbed the hill, she did so less often with every turn of the seasons. The tree sometimes saw her walking in the village with a young man, and laughing with him, and dancing with him, and it understood. It had always been alone, and trees know how to be alone, but humans were never meant to be. And sometimes the young woman brought her young man up the hill, carefully showing him the way, though he always climbed it a little bit less gracefully than she did. They danced and laughed with each other beneath the tree’s branches, and it was content. And whenever she left, she whispered, “Thank you for keeping my secret,” and smiled the special smile that she never smiled in the streets of the village below.
And so the tree knew what it was to love someone.
Still time went on, and the young woman was not young anymore, and the tree watched her and the man wed one another by the shore of the blue-green lake, and walk the village streets with their children. As her family grew larger, she had less and less time to visit the tree, but still she came, by herself or with her husband and her three little boys, who became young men and then were not young anymore themselves. When her boys were grown and gone away, she came without them, though now years sometimes passed by between, and her blonde hair was more grey each time. And always she wore her white dress, and though the climb left her too tired and weak to dance, she laid beneath the tree and laughed and smiled her special smile.
Finally, after a very long time, she came no more. The tree understood this, too—it knew how to be alone, and it had a long memory full of her smile, and though trees live very long lives, humans do not. She was too old now to climb over the gorges and through the brush and up the steep hill. But it felt lonely again, in a way it had not for many years.
And then one day, an old man climbed the hill, with three little boys who had grown into men, and their own little girls and boys behind, and they carried a long wooden box with them, and laid it before the tree. Inside was a very old woman in a white dress who would never laugh or dance again, and her eyes were closed, but still she smiled her special smile.
They buried her beneath the roots of the tree, and while they dug, it clutched a smooth white stone close and let no one see it, because it knew what it was to keep a secret. For a time, the old man and his sons and his sons’ children cried and laughed and told stories beneath the tree, and when they were done, the old man placed a hand on its trunk, and he said, “She told me to thank you for keeping her secret, though she never told me what it was,” and then he followed his sons away. And when they were gone, the tree’s leaves fell like tears to mark the spot where the old woman lay.
And so the tree knew what it was to weep over a loved one lost.
Decades more went by, and at first the old woman’s sons and grandchildren came to visit from time to time, and then less, and then they forgot and came no more. The village grew into a town, and then a city, and little girls stopped burying smooth white stones under friendly trees. The tree was alone once more.
But trees know how to be alone, and alone and lonely are not always the same thing.
Now it knew what it was to keep a little girl’s secret, and to have a young woman in a white dress dance under its boughs, and to love a woman grown and her three little boys, and to weep for an old woman with a special smile resting forever beneath its roots. While it held her secret stone and remembered those things, she would live in the memories, and it could never feel lonely.
And trees have very long memories.
It still stands there today, a lone tree atop a hill overlooking the city and the blue-green lake. And sometimes, even now, when it is silhouetted against a bright blue sky and the sun is falling behind it just so, someone in the city looks up, and just for an instant, sees a young woman in a white dress dancing in the shade.