Willow Tree Fever
I had already been feverish for weeks when Husband came back from the neighborhood association meeting and said he had figured out what was wrong with me. There was a problem, he said. A big problem.
“That tree is poisoning you.” He pointed at the willow’s crown visible beyond our gate. “We have to cut it down.”
The tree was in the middle of the neighborhood park, and the only place I went beside visiting other women who lived on our street. It was a relief from my days which had been downy and unspoiled at the beginning of my marriage, but lately had taken on a rotting quality. I found my limbs drained of life. My saliva always tasted like ash. More and more it became difficult for me to let Husband touch me. I had taken to sneaking out to the park in the afternoons when he was at work and his parents were sleeping. I liked hiding behind the curtain of leaves, my back against the sturdy trunk, and pulling my shalwar up to feel the air lick the hair on my legs. Sometimes, when no one was looking, I pulled my shirt up and rubbed my stomach against the roots. I was doing this nearly every day by then, rushing through housework so I could escape outside.
What do you even do there, Husband would ask me, even though I knew he had followed me once or twice. Rest, I would say, and my face would burn in memory of the willow’s skin against it. The tree had become my excitement.
“A tree can’t be poison,” I said, not meeting his eyes. “It’s just a tree.”
I hated the idea of what my life would look like without the willow. Husband had already objected to the book club, morning tea at Fairweather hotel, and my once a month visits to my sister’s house. Association rules, he said. If we choose to live in a neighborhood like this, we had to follow the rules. It was just like him to try to take away the only thing I did without his permission. I thought to myself that I would rather he cut me down than the tree.
A lot of other men were worried, too, he said. Their women were going for walks in the morning, evening. They were lingering by the tree, clustering under its branches. Had I suggested the idea to them?
I had, of course. If we stayed inside our homes, we would wilt. Fresh air and exercise was necessary for us to grow, we told each other.
“I think … well …” Husband waited by the dining table so I could pull out the chair for him. “Do you hear any sounds when you sit under it, any whispers? Do you feel … unusual?”
“What kind of unusual?” I asked and heaped a spoonful of the cardamom rice I had just finished making on his plate. Husband’s mother had said it would help her son become tender, add fragrance to his skin, maybe help my body accept him easier. It concerned everyone that I did not want to have a child.
“Strange things have been happening,” he said.
First it was Fatgirl who worked at the bank and refused to get married when her father brought home the man from America, maybe a restaurant owner, maybe a businessman, something to do with food, but American. Then Babyface and her younger sister showed up without their hijabs on a billboard for Popstar idol down on Alam Road and all us neighbors stood in our yards to listen to their father shouting before we ran inside to turn the TV on. Then old Doctor Uncle’s young wife asked him for a divorce, saying he couldn’t function in the bedroom and she was not going to wait around for him to die. Lawyer’s wife refused to do anything she was told to do: the dishes sat on the table with chicken bones drying on them for hours, the laundry had started to pile up, she left the house whenever she wanted and she started wearing perfume that made her smell like roses at night time.
“I think … the men think … there are Jinns in the trees,” Husband said and looked very worried. “They’re stealing your thoughts. They are deforming your mind, making women think you don’t need your men to live.” He creased his brow, then turned his mouth into a pucker. “Even trees don’t grow without seeds,” he said.
“Eat something,” I said.
I thought the rice might distract him. Husband’s mother was always feeding him away from his anger. He picked a cardamom seed off the spoon and took a big bite. I tried not to think of the feel of his starchy mouth on mine, him trying to push himself into my body. This is what you want, he would say. You want a child, he would say.
One chew and a grunt and Husband opened his mouth wide again. His tongue rolled the rice back out. The grains glistened, and a single one hung on to a strand of his saliva.
“Too much salt,” he said and wiped the taste off on the back of his hand. The grain fell.
“In the tree?” I asked, thinking of running my tongue across the ragged willow bark, tasting the wood, sucking on a red, swollen catkin.
Husband pushed the plate away. “I hope you won’t talk nonsense once you’re a mother,” he said.
Husband was sad about cutting the tree. When he was young and the roots of the tree were beginning to run tracks in the dirt, he used to play by it. He and his friends hung on the slender limbs and carved their names on the trunk. They burned the tips of feather-veined leaves with cigarettes. They pissed on the roots under each other’s feet.
“The tree watched me grow into a man,” Husband said. “But it’s old now, I guess.”
I told him I would stop going to the park. I didn’t mean it, but I thought I had to do what I could to change his mind.
“You don’t have to cut it down,” I said. “Think of all your own memories.”
It saddened me to know the willow was out there, soaking in the sun, swaying gently in the breeze. It had no idea of what was coming for it.
“Don’t let your imagination ruin something you love,” I said.
Husband shook his head and dropped his shoulders till his chest was a hollow, and when he said “you have to cut down even your friends if they rot,” I knew he was feeling betrayed.
The next day Uglygirl’s father and Grandfather and uncle and brother gathered at the park with axes and swords.
“No machines,” Husband said, when he was leaving to join them. “It might scare the Jinns away.”
The line of men wearing determined faces stretched all the way past our house, round the roundabout and down into the mosque. They took turns at the axe. All morning, I could hear the grunts of the men and the thwack, thwack, thwack of the blade slicing the wood. Husband came home for lunch and said that behind the sweep of leaves, the trunk was a thing of horror. Hundreds of clusters of red sprout, the size of eyes. The middle was swollen, pregnant with ants that had poured out and bit his hand.
“The Jinns are fighting back,” he said. “Stay indoors.”
I was watching from my balcony when the tree buckled. All down the street, I could feel the women on their own balconies wince when they heard the big sigh. It fell, branches reaching across the grass. The crown covered the park gate straight across. The men wiped their brows; the day had been heavy. They were warriors, weary and filled with elation. They kneeled against the stump which was now small and naked, and turned their chests to the sun.
Praise Allah, I imagined them saying. We have saved our women.
Behind them, on the chopped stump, sap glistened. They rubbed it on their fingertips and brought the scent to their noses.
Fresh cut, they might have said. Now watch the butterflies die on it.
The next morning, I woke up early to Husband talking loudly on the phone.
“Your dead father,” he snapped, when I asked him who it was. Then he threw on a shirt and pants and ran down the stairs. From the balcony, I could see other men moving toward the park. The morning mist had not yet fully cleared and they looked like shadow bodies slowly coming into being. Next door Babyface was on her balcony, too.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“The sap,” she said, pouting in the same way she did in magazines and on billboards. “The tree is oozing something awful. Can’t you smell it? It’s like peppermint blood.”
I shook my head but my heart jumped then. That sounded nothing like how the willow smelled to me. I leaned over the railing as far as I could. The men were scattered near the roots, amidst remnants of branches. Dark amber bled from the stump and pooled around their feet. Some men stood at a distance and looked at it. Husband took a few steps closer to take a look and then said something to the others.
It’s the blood of the Jinns, I could imagine him saying. We were right. Look at the bastards bleeding. We cut their heads off.
He lifted his foot to look at the bottom of his shoe. I could see it took him an effort to lift the leg, like the earth was pulling at him, and I knew the sap was attaching to his soles. I knew then that the tree was angry; it knew what had happened to it. I was filled with sadness, and also with elation. It knew. It knew. My body celebrated. I swayed back and forth against the railing. I wanted to fall off and fly into the air. I wanted to lay myself on the sap, cover my arms with the amber, fill my mouth with the color. I wondered if it was warm or cold. I wondered if would make my jaw clench.
Then I heard a shout.
“I’m stuck,” Husband yelled. Next to him, Uglygirl’s father fell as if something had pulled him down. There was a commotion and then all the men were yelling and making noises. None of them moved.
“What’s happening?” I called out, but my voice was not loud enough to cut through the noise.
When the haze lifted some, I could see that the ooze from the willow stump was no longer a trickle. It poured thickly and came up around the men’s ankles. They were stuck, planted in the amber liquid. Their cries which at first had sounded surprised, were becoming angry and they tried to shovel the sap away with their hands. But there was no stopping the tree. It poured heavier and heavier and when the sap got a hold of the men’s knees and moved up their bodies, they became afraid. They called out to us.
“I can’t move,” husband said over and over. “Help,” he yelled. “Help.”
I looked down the street. All the balconies were filled with women. We called out to each other.
“They are getting swallowed,” Fatgirl said.
Lawyer’s wife asked if we should do something.
“Husband said to stay inside,” I said. “I don’t know.”
In the park, the sap kept rising and slowly burned the mist off. By the time the morning cleared, our men had become relics trapped in giant amber catkins, frozen inside with their fears and their anger. The willow had swallowed their cries.
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