The sky was dark and quiet. The rumbling of the volcano was the only sound in the valley, and Tenzin felt at peace. He looked forward to sleep, these days—old age had made his bones weak, and only dreams brought him back to the places he had once known. The soft earth hugged his body as he became still.
He remembered many things. He remembered the time he saved the cow with the broken leg. He remembered the time the moon was brighter than the sun. He remembered when he first saw the deep, red glow of lava. But those things were a long time ago. Nowadays, all he knew was the wet grass under his feet and the warm feeling of sun on his skin. Maybe it was always that way with old people; noticing what you had always ignored and remembering what you had always forgotten.
When his eyes opened, he saw the fir tree in front of him. He saw the thickness of its leaves and the smoothness of its bark. The subtleness of its veins and the power of its roots. It too had always been there, and it too he had always ignored. Now, he felt its presence. Now, he was aware if its wisdom, its knowledge, its truth. Now, he realized his special connection to it. But why had he ignored it? It was there when he first came here, and it had guarded him ever since—why hadn’t he acknowledged it before? Maybe he knew, deep in his subconscious. Or maybe he did not. It didn’t matter now whether or not he uncovered the dormant trauma buried deep within himself. He was already so close to death. Why remember the violence that that tree had witnessed? Why remember the oppression it had endured?
They had come in September, when the orange hue of the sky was brighter than magma. Tenzin knew the moment he saw them, but there was nothing he could do. Even he understood that one farmer could not fight an army of bulldozers and cement trucks. It happened quickly; the green fields were ripped apart and covered with concrete, the streams were surrounded by plastic and filled with fluoride, and all the plants were killed by airplanes that dropped chemicals. But they could not take his land. They threatened him, they bribed him, and then they just begged him. But he would not budge. His family had lived there for four centuries and he knew the plot of earth like it was his own body.
But the city spread like a virus. They called it Kai-Shek, and in five years it had forty thousand people. Tenzin felt the land’s pain; he felt the weight of the skyscrapers and the ingratitude of the workers, he felt the weariness of the clouds and the anger of the volcano. Nothing he could do would stop the spread of the disease. He prayed for an eruption. He prayed for an earthquake. He lay his body on the road to stop the trucks from going further east. But there was no natural disaster and no change of heart in his oppressors, and in ten years Kai-Shek housed a hundred thousand.
The fir tree saw everything. It saw the city expand endlessly, it saw the life seep out of its own leaves, it saw the wrinkles and grey hairs grow on Tenzin’s face. It saw Tenzin become like the city dwellers, oblivious to the earth and oblivious to himself. It was there when Tenzin and the government official exchanged papers, it was there when he commuted to the city every day. But its memory did not fade like Tenzin’s did. Years passed, but it did not forget the ancient chirping of the birds or the feeling of pure, cold rain. Years passed, but it still clung to the primal energy that left the city long ago.
The volcano’s rumbling grew deeper after Tenzin went to the city. Soon, he knew, it would erupt. He was not prepared for death; he hadn’t given it any thought since he was young. But he did not leave the city. His life had runs its full course, and he of all people would die in the place he was born. There was something natural in knowing how he would leave his body; there was something natural in knowing he would be extinguished along with the city that corrupted him. So when the volcano finally exploded and lava spewed forth into the valley, he did not move an inch. He did not avert his gaze or tremble in fear. He sat next to the fir tree, bough in hand, knowing that his land was finally free.
– Grant Yu, The Haverford School, Class of 2016