Submissions open for Wingword Poetry Prize 2020

Jalo and the Tree

Saloni Panicker

In all truthfulness, I think I am greener in colour than I am in feeling. A thing of joy, I'd like to believe, really. Envy is not a good look on trees. You see, I get to be...so as long as I stay rooted to the ground. So as long as the ground keeps holding me up. A hundred years of being has brought me rings of knowledge, that would bloom much more often, if I wasn't so forgetful. The knowledge that sits and stays, and doesn't dance away, though, has reminded me time and again, that its best for trees to revel in uncertainty. The wind helps me achieve this, as do curtains of rain. I tend to not trust the rain, nor the wind. For their moods float like clouds, and clouds do float ever so often. This is the world I know.
Jalo, whose glasses sit at the edge of his nose, on the verge of falling, like a stone from a mountain, a leaf from a tree, looks at me suspiciously. His tea brews in the kitchen, and a little whiff tells me that it's a little too overdone, as are a lot of things Jalo does. He should rush towards it right about now. And so he does. I stand tall in his backyard, patiently. Yes, I am aware of that being my only choice, not that I'd do things any differently. This is the world I know.
Jalo hobbles his way through the backyard door, with a tangerine coloured cup of tea in his hand, slightly cracked at the handle. Still having his eyes fixed on me, he pulls out the wobbly chair in the backyard, takes a deep breath in, and lands with a thump on the chair. I wonder if my company makes him any less lonely. I wonder if he feels lonely at all. You see, whenever I get the unforeseen chance to catch a glimpse of him, which is without a doubt, always in the backyard, I see him, I see his eyes; one - open, the other - as if still stuck in a dream. A dream that never seems to take shape, waddles around him, talks to him till he tires of it, like a child tires of playing, leaves, comes back again but always in a different way, a different game.
The way in which these dreams left and returned was discomforting to him, their deliberate swinging from enraging him to confusing him to ensuring he didn't get out of his bed for days on end riddled him, revealing this part of himself to absolutely nobody but me when he would find his way out to the backyard, seeming to be troubled and even surprised like he was witness to firecrackers going off or a masked reality. He would sit at the table in the backyard and stare at the seeming nothingness that surrounded him. Sometimes, he would even murmur short words to himself, but these words were never coherent. Always faded off into the strangeness of the air.
There were never moments of clumsy silence, though. Of a silence that didn't make him tremble, that didn't startle him, didn't envelop him in its arms. The truth, however, is that even though him and I shared the same world, they seemed gigantically different to me. I know nothing about being human - the tears, the laughs, the dance, the puzzles, the guitars - their purpose, how to begin to say the right words, or play the right notes. I know less about the way things would make a person feel, since I only know how to be. I know how to stretch my barks, what I seem to have for limbs, to listen to the chirping of birds, to want to touch the soupy skies - red, and pink and blue oceans above me. I know the soil, and its strength, its ability to absorb and accord.
Jalo was rarely met with the presence of people, and that could have something to do with the fact that he made them uncomfortable, holding in his eyes a certainty that they knew a truth he didn't. Squinting his eyes at them, while he adjusted his glasses, and sniffed a sniff. People came, said their hellos, and soon after, their goodbyes. This never wore Jalo's excitement out. One such afternoon, he sat at his kitchen table, in the center was a vase which he filled with different fresh flowers every day - lilies, oleanders, and tulips and smiled at the generosity with which they seemed to bloom. He stared at the plate of food in front of him, ate a little, and then restlessly got up to fix another plate. While he fixed another plate of food, he began whispering short sentimental apologies for having been so unthinking, as a solitary tear rolled down his cheek, he continued going about, as if his moods had not shifted at all, undisturbed. Sitting back down at the table, he let out a sigh of relief, smiled to himself and said thank you. It was loud enough for it to be spoken to somebody else, but quiet enough only for a person sitting at a palm's length to hear it. After having said the thank you, he began gulping down the ready-made pasta he had cooked for two.
Jalo had his lazy days. Days that I would have to think hard to remember his face, and the wrinkles next to his eyes, his strut, that in spite of always being solitary never lost its strong hints of conviction. It was the contradiction in Jalo’s being; the doubtfulness with which his eyes roared, and the conviction with which he strutted, that rooted my beliefs in the contradictory nature with which humans breathe. It took some getting used to, but I held on just fine.
Jalo on the other hand, seemed to be struggling with it. His demeanor, his smiles, his cooking style, his waking time – all got too unpredictable. He would murmur more often, and loudly now. He would often forget to put his glasses on, forget the time he turned the stove on, and the fresh flowers were all now wilted. He wouldn’t spend time in the backyard, he stopped watering the garden, just lay there looking at the sky, turning about and whispering still, holding himself as if he would fall apart if he didn’t. I stood there, patient, yet worried, my barks crowning in wonderment – “what could it be?”
On one of these days, he stood up, walked towards me, laid down, looked straight at me, whispered “its alright, its alright,” and went off to sleep.

 

This work has been published in Beetle Magazine's June 2020 Issue. Read the full issue here: https://issuu.com/beetlemag/docs/june2020

Illustration by Dhanashree Pimputkar


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