When I was young, we lived in a house in the outskirts of town. It was a part of the country where the trees grew higher than the buildings. The people spent their day outside and had respect for nature and treated them as if they were people.
Our house stood on top of a small hill that had a view of the town. I remember looking out the window at night and seeing hundreds of fireflies shimmer with the stars. And on particular windy days, you could even hear the grass sing and dance with the wind.
My room was a small part of the house but the windows were big enough to let the light come in during the day. It was a lovely house and we did so many things there. My favorite part was reading a book while sitting under the tree that lived outside my room. The tree started to grow as my father began to build our home.
"Go on, give it some water." My mother used to say as she handed my four-year-old self a bucket of water.
I watched it grow with me. Instead of growing limbs, it grew branches. Instead of growing hair, it grew leaves towards the sky. On cold days, it would knock on my window as if it wanted to tell me something while I slept. I'd open my window as a gust of wind brings in a handful of leaves.
When it was warm out, I'd spend my day with it reading books, playing games with my friends, and I even shared my deepest secrets with it when no one else was listening. It was a good listener and kept my secrets from the world.
One day, I woke up to find the tree dying. As I walked out of the house barefoot and in my pajamas, I noticed something different about it. It had turned yellow. My parents said it was normal for a tree to die even though we'd taken good care of it. They said that nature sometimes takes things even before they grow up to be something.
I sat next to the tree the entire day, crying. It wasn't just a tree, it was my tree. I'd grown fond of it's warmth. How could it leave me so soon? I had hundreds of secrets that I had not told it yet.
"My friend in school told me that plants can understand human words and if I talked to them, they'd grow." I said holding back tears. "See, you've always been there for me when people were mean. You've always played with me when I felt lonely. You're my best friend and I don't want you to go. So please, don't leave."
I looked up to see that the branches were almost bare. The sky was turning orange and my parents had called me to come in for dinner. The last leaf fell on my foot. I was about to pick it up when the wind blew it away towards the horizon. That was the last time I saw it standing.
Despite my incessant plea to just keep it there, my parents had already decided to cut it down. It was dangerous they said, for its roots had stopped growing and it might fall towards the house when a strong wind comes.
Years later when I was 17, we moved to the big city. Everything was different there. People had no time to look at the moon, or talk to what little trees were left. People were too busy turning them into paper, into money. The air smelled of smoke but I had gotten used to it as the day went by.
Surely, I would never have imagined how dying felt like until the accident happened. Three steps were all it took. Had I not looked at the barking dog, I would've been alive today. Three steps, and the world turned upside down. I remember hearing people talk as they gathered around me but I could not tell you the words they were uttering. It was increasingly getting harder to stay awake and I knew that was it.
When I opened my eyes, I saw our old house on top of that hill. In the absence of the tree that stood next to our house, a figure of a person took its place. I walked over to where he was. As I drew closer, he smiled. His green eyes almost hypnotizing.
"Lara's red pen fell in the lake while you were washing your hand. It slipped through your pocket as you were leaning down. You swore you tried your best to get it back but it was already gone." His words sounded familiar to me. And then I remembered that I told that secret to the tree when I was 8. I never told anyone about it. Just my tree.
"How did you..."
"I was the tree, Anna." He began to say. "I was the tree that you took care of and I watched you grow as I grew."
There was silence. I didn't know what to say. Is this heaven?
"We are in the spirit world, Anna. Here, anyone can take any shape they want. Even objects that die can become anything here."
"And you chose to be human?"
"I chose to be something that you can relate to."
"So I can be anything too?" I thought of what I wanted to be but there were so many things I could not decide. An eagle, a whale, a notebook, a flower, a kite.
"I think I'll stay human until I think of something." I wondered if the house that stood in front of me was also the spirit of our old house. It was destroyed by a storm while we were out and when we got back, we were homeless. My parents used every savings they had to move to the city where they thought it would be safer.
"Do you have a name?" I asked the green-eyed boy.
He gave a smile as if remembering something. "You once called me Timber."
Hah! I did call him Timber. I used to watch these cartoons where they cut the trees down and yell "Tiiiiiimmmmberrrr!"
"Tim then." It's weird talking to your tree but the spirit world looked far better than the real world that I came from. "So Tim, what can spirits do in this world?"
"Well, aside from turning into anything you want, you can also fly. But the best part is, you can go back to the natural world however you want to be."
"Will I remember?"
"Unfortunately no. Your memories in the spirit world will eventually be replaced with memories of your new world."
"Oh. Then can I stay here?"
"You can but only for a while. Spirits can't stay long here. We're supposed to go back to Earth. It's the cycle of life."
"I can't go back there. It's too painful. They didn't even let me grow old."
I looked down on my bare feet. The idea of going back seemed almost too sad.
"Here, come with me." He reached out his hand towards me gesturing for me to grab it so I took it and in no time we were rising. The pace started slow but accelerated as we reached the clouds. He showed me how the spirit world looked from the sky.
It was breathtaking. Everything looked peaceful and beautiful. I imagined the sky to be a person that once used to stare up to it. The river below us flowed towards the ocean and I could only think of lovers spending their afterlife here. It was beautiful and so exhilarating.
We arrived in a forest that stood on an island. We slowly hovered down until our feet touched the soft grass.
"Where are we?" I asked.
"This is where stories go after they are forgotten by people." He led me towards the forest. At first, I had thought the forest was made of trees but as we grew closer, I realized that the trees were made of letters that formed words...sentences...paragraphs. And they were in different characters and languages.
As we walked passed them, we heard whispers coming out of the trees. Some sounded pleasant, others seemed scary, and some felt mournful. A narrow path had formed in front of us and it led us to the largest tree I've seen in my life.
"This tree is where everything is created. Imagination, life, emotions, everything."
I stared at it in awe. It was breathing softly. We walked around it, observing the little holes that formed and disappeared like pores.
"This tree has experienced every pain and joy of everything that's been created. But despite all the pain it's felt, it has a purpose. It lives with a purpose." I stopped walking and look at the tree as it stood there breathing in and out.
"I've been here for years waiting for you to arrive. When I was on Earth, you gave me purpose. You allowed me to take care of you and listen to your secrets. I saw you cry, I saw you laugh. And though, I could not speak, I felt everything. I lived a short life but I fulfilled my purpose and that was enough." He placed his hands on my cheeks. They were warm and soft.
I was starting to understand everything. Here in the spirit world, you could be whoever you wanted to be but that's just what you're going to be. Just a thing in a world. You exist with everything else but you are merely existing. Going back means experiencing pain but also having a purpose. And that purpose is what makes life worth living.
We turned around and saw the trees part. They had been listening. Their whispers grew and soon we found ourselves in the middle of them.
"Shall we?" he turned towards me. I took his hand as he led me towards the light.
A tree, perhaps.