The Tree with the Vermilion Leaves
He was 87. He had told me many times the night before. He told me how he had travelled with the cattle trains across the delta straights, ridden the post barge up river to the city, how fever had taken him at the Tiger Foot Inn during the monsoon. His convalescence caused a great commotion amongst the missionaries, happy to have a new soul the save. He stayed through the winter and worked in the kitchens to repay their kindness but would not be swayed by their stories of Jesus.
When the spring returned and the rice fields were being prepared, he took a job as the cook with one of the local militia captains who was travelling to the edge of the province to give notice of new taxes. Once he reached the foothills, as agreed, the militia left him at the trading post where uncle Jag worked. That is where I found him last night, nursing a bowl of uncle Jag’s stew. As he chewed on the tough meat and half cooked vegetables my uncle cooked especially for those with news of higher taxes, he told me of his life by the ocean. I ate and listened as his life came tumbling out.
For many, many years he had been a fisherman. In his youth he was successful, strong and handsome. His mother had joked that he could have been with any woman he wanted, (this he constantly told me.) There was, however only one lady for him. She was the only woman in his village who showed no interest in him. She had moved to the coast with her father to be near a sick relative. They had money and connections with the royal court. For years he tried to gain her affection but she noticed him less the more he tried.
She had married a money lender. It was a union arranged by the families and he had despaired of ever being happy. He was succesful and his mother tried her hardest to match him with girls but there was never anyone to rival his first love. His mother died without grandchildren, something he felt had broken her heart. Several years went by until the money lender ran away leaving his love with nothing but disgrace. He took her in and cared for her, but she could never love him. The day she took her own life, she told him of a tree with Vermilion leaves that grew in the top of the mountain pass where she had grown up and that one day he should see it.
For years he had hidden away, now paying others to fish for him. He sat in a darkened room, mourning his mother, mourning his love, mourning his own hapiness wishing that the sun would fade and the sea swallow him up. He aged quickly in his half life, never venturing outside of his house. Only a young girl would visit and cook for him. One day while they were talking, he mentioned his love’s last words and how he was now too old to travel. She replied that maybe his love was waiting for him by the tree with vermilion leaves. Without even thinking, he rose from his bed, walked out onto the road and started to travel.
Now he was sitting in the sun, shrivelling to nothing and with very little chance of ever reaching his goal. I offered him water one more time. Explaining that he would need to keep cool to make it to the top. This time he took the drink and smiled that same smile at me. I looked into his eyes and then away. I walked up the trail a little to get away from him. Uncle Jag had laughed out loud at the old man when I offered to be his guide, telling him that I was still wet behind my ears and he should wait until the goat herds came down in the late summer. I knew he wanted to delay him so he could make more money out of him.
I had felt something for the old man. If nothing else he retained his faith and that had to be worth something. Uncle Jag had no faith in anything. I spat on the path and swore an oath, I would get this old man to the high mountain pass if it was the last thing I did for him. I would at least try. When I returned, he was already puttig his sandals back on. He smiled again as he returned my drinking flask.
Soon we would be travelling again and I would guide him to the high mountain pass to the tree with the vermilion leaves. A tree that I knew all too well did not exist.