By Jessy Wallach, TIWP Student
Once upon a time, an oak tree was the world. Its roots decomposed into dirt and its leaves made air and the seeds from its flowers floated up and up and up and mapped out constellations. And somewhere along the way, probably by accident, it created life. And then opposable thumbs, and bipedalism, and the ability to cry and to speak and to believe in things that are impossible to see. And along the way, the world grew much, much, much, bigger than the tree that had birthed it. The wheel was invented, civilization exploded, the number zero was discovered. The Romans created cement and there technique was lost for thousands of years, only to bee rediscovered again and used the pave the gum-covered parking lot of the Subway on the hill above the riverbank where the oak tree grew. Stonehedge, the first successful cesarean section. At some point, humans gained the ability for self-hatred. Next the genocide of the Native Americans, the shot heard ‘round the world. The atom bomb.
That’s the first story. The second story is the children. They played down at the dried-up riverbed where the tree grew. It was covered in trashーplastic Subway bags and bottles of Gatorade and sandwich bags made from shiny brown wax paper that didn’t decompose. They skinned their knees and threw tantrums and dared each other to jump from the highest branches only to cut themselves on broken milk cartons. They didn’t know that the tree had once been the world. They didn’t remember when the riverbank had roared with water than could have easily carried them away from everything they’d ever known if they weren’t careful. They played in factory-made shorts and t-shirts and dresses that weren’t good for climbing. One of them talked with a stutter, and the others laughed at him. They grew older and separated themselves by gender and the color of their skin. Girls were made fun of for having short hair and boys were made fun of for speaking softly. The ability to learn through imitation has been observed in every mammal and many non-mammal species, in order to teach young how to hunt and hide, to identify which foods are safe to eat and which are poisonous, and to establish social hierarchies. The children know nothing about how when all the males were killed in a baboon community, the next generation grew up less aggressive and the violence within the tribe almost completely disappeared. They didn’t know that they were organisms made up of trillions of cells that formed organs and organelles which constantly sent signals around their bodies telling them when they were hungry or full, that there were microscopic hair inside their ears that told their brain when they were moving and when they were standing still, or that there were enough blood vessels in their bodies to completely circle the earth.
The last story is the flood. The rain turned the slope of the riverbank slippery and small, grasping hands fell again and again as they tried to get back to safety until at last they gave up and turned to the oak tree. They climbed high in its branches and perched there like large, featherless birds as the river returned and threw itself against the bank over and over, sending freezing spray so high the children could taste it like ice on their lips until at last the water won and poured into the half-empty parking lot as the children sat with their clothes soaked and clinging to their bodies like a second skin. And still the rain poured. It filled the air so thick they couldn’t make out the buildings above the bank, or the crashing gray water below them. The bark of the tree had turned slippery but the small hands that clung to its branches were so tired and cold and numb, they could barely release their grip if they tried.
At last, after hours, or day, the noise of the water receded and at last, the rain began to thin. Slowly, slowly, the water dropped until the children could stand in the mud below. They came down from the tree and stood shaking on the ground. Gone were the buildings, and the people, the parking lot and the trash that had littered the riverbank, and the riverbank itself. There was only the muddly water which slowly drained away, and below it dirt and rock and mud. And the oak tree, which stood wet and leafless, but otherwise unchanged.
The children turned towards the tree with eyes that weren’t children any longer. They knelt, traumatized, in the water before it, shaking, with cheeks streaked with mud and water and tears. They prayed to it with trembling lips, said Thank you, said, Why did you spare us? Said, Why did you wash the world away? They found food to leave at its roots. When its leaves grew back, they rejoiced. When a boy carved his initials into the trunk of the tree, they exiled him. They raised their children telling them the story of the flood, where only the worthy were spared.
The oak tree did not see the generations of children that knelt before it. It did not hear their prayers or offer explanations. Once, it had been the world, and now it was again, and always Life had been a mistake too small to be noticed.