When I was young, we lived in a house on the outskirts of town. It was a part of the country where the trees grew higher than the buildings. People idly spent their days outside. Nature was a big part of our lives, and we treated them as if they were people.
Our house stood on top of a small hill that had a sweeping view of the town. I remember looking out the window at night and seeing hundreds of fireflies glitter with the stars. And on particularly windy days, you’d 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 in during the day. It was a lovely house filled us with countless memories. My favorite part, however, was outside my room where a tree lived. I spent days reading books under it, appreciating the cool shade it provided me.
“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 spreading limbs, it spread branches. Instead of growing hair, it grew leaves.
On windy nights, it would knock on my window as if wanting to tell me something. I’d open my window, and a gust of wind brings in a handful of leaves.
When the weather was good, I spent my day with it reading books, playing games with my friends, and when we were alone, I’d share my deepest secrets with it. It was a good listener and kept secrets better than anyone I’d known.
One morning, I woke up to find the tree dying. As I walked out of the house barefoot and in pajamas, I noticed something different about it. Its leaves were yellow. My parents said it was normal for a tree to die despite all the care we’ve given it. They told me that nature sometimes takes things even before they grow up to become 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 its company. How could it leave me so soon? I had hundreds of secrets more to share.
“They said that plants can understand human words, and if I talked to them, they’d grow big,” I said holding back tears. “You were there for me when people were mean. You kept me company when I was lonely. I don’t want you to go. Please, don’t die.”
I looked up to see that the branches were almost bare. The sky was turning orange and my parents 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 keep it, my parents decided to cut it down. It was dangerous, they said, for its roots had stopped growing and might fall towards the house when a strong wind came.
Years later, when I turned 17, we moved to the big city. Everything was different. People had no time to look at the moon or talk to what few trees were left. Everyone was too busy turning them into paper, into money. The air smelled of smoke, but I’d gotten used to it as the day went by.
I would never have imagined what dying felt like until the day of the accident. 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 whisper as they gathered around me, but could not tell you the words that were said. It was increasingly getting harder to stay awake. 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. When he saw me, he smiled—his green eyes almost hypnotizing.
“Lara’s red pen fell in the lake while you were washing your hands. It slipped from your pocket as you leaned down. You swore you tried your best to get it back but it was already lost.” His words sounded familiar. 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, Ana.” He began to say. “I was the tree that you took care of. I watched you grow as I grew with you.”
There was silence. I didn’t know what to say. Is this heaven?
“We are in the spirit world. Here, anyone can take any shape they want. Even objects that die can become anything here.”
“And you chose to be a human?”
“I chose to be something that you can relate to.”
“So I can be anything too?” I thought about what shape I wanted, but there were so many things I wanted it was hard to decide: an eagle, a whale, a notebook, a flower, a kite.
“I think I’ll stay as a 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. 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.”
I did call it Timber. I used to watch cartoons where they cut trees down and yell “Tiiiiiimmmmberrrr!”
“Tim then.” It’s weird talking to a 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. Our place is back on Earth. It’s the cycle of life.”
“I can’t go back. 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 unbearable.
“Here, come with me.” He reached out his hand. 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 at it. The river below us flowed towards the ocean, and I could only think of lovers spending their afterlife here. It was beautiful and 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.” He led me towards the forest. At first, I thought the forest was made of trees, but as we got 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, I heard whispers coming out of the trees. Some sounded pleasant, others seemed scary, and some seemed mournful. A narrow path had formed in front of us leading us to the largest tree I’ve seen in my life.
“This 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 pores that formed and disappeared.
“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 and laugh. And though, I couldn’t 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. Here in the spirit world, you could be whoever you wanted to be, but that’s just what you’re going to be—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 surrounded by them.
“Shall we?” he turned towards me. I took his hand as he led me towards the light.
A tree, perhaps.