This short story was originally written by me for a guest post on emilyreadseverything.com.
The only beautiful thing in Harktok was the willow tree. None of us knew how it managed to survive and grow when every other sign of greenery perished. In a small circumference around the base of its trunk, hardly two feet, grass grows. That was the sign of seasonal change for residents in the town for residents in the town. When you live near a mining area, and a little distance from metal factories, your day is filled with fog, smoke and dust. We hardly ever have a clear day, I’ve never seen a clear sky once in all the 26 years I’ve lived there. The small grass patch turning brown indicated the oncoming winter; Lush green reappearing announced the beggining of summer and thats how we spent our years – only noticing change in time with those few bits of grass.
The tree periodically changes too, but for the elderly in this town two seasons are enough, more complications and details would ruin the monotony of their lives, God forbid. All children are raised to have the same mindset. If adults lived long enough to witness their grandchildren growing, the same preconceptions are passed on.
The children go to school which is a decaying building on one end of town. Every time someone runs, you could almost feel the whole building tremor. Day-after-day, week-after week, the first thought that used to pass through my mind when I entered the school was, “I hope the roof doesn’t crumble on my head today.” I didn’t get much studying done when I was constantly staring at the ceiling cracks, waiting for the plastering to give.
When I managed to concentrate, I liked school. I didn’t mind the weary teacher dressed in slightly dirty clothes, who droned on, not caring if the students listened or not. But I did. I find facts fascinating-how each of them mean something, which fact they evolved from and what conclusions are formed from it. Most students, when they bothered attending classes, chattered or dreamt. I carefully noted down interesting information onto the few sheets of paper I owned with the one pencil we could afford.
Once, when I was seven, I borrowed a book about plants from my teacher. For several evenings I’d pore over the pages, reading as much as I could before sundown. My mother noticed and burst into tears. Even though my father said that I was wasting my time reading useless facts when my future is to continue their legacy in either mining or metal factory, my mother encouraged me. From then on, discovering that I genuinely wanted to know, she told me everything she knew and heard from others. She said she was glad that I wanted to learn, that it was rare for someone from here to dream of more. At the time I did not know what more was. I accepted her help, though.
Soon I had read and memorised all my teacher’s books, formulated ideas and pictures into my head. My father continued to voice his displeasure; my mother loathed feeling helpless to make my knowledge grow.
Days when I had nothing to do, nights when I was restless on the ruddy mat, I wandered to the willow tree. I would sit down on the road in front of it and take in every inch of the tree, never ceasing to be fascinated by how it had survived. I knew I was different, would I survive?
By the time I turned fifteen, I stopped attending school as there was nothing new for me to learn, and spent time doing chores at home. The day I turned eighteen, my father accompanied my mother and I to the factory where I would work. In the first few days, I took in everything I could about the factory, looking in awe at the machines and how they molded metal. A few times I managed to observe the metal refining section of the factory during breaks. Soon my life turned as monotonous as those around me-never changing, always the same routine.
My mother grew sadder and sadder every day I spent in the factory, losing the interest and curiosity I always had about everything. My father was only slightly happier because I now contributed a salary. Trying to bring back my old self, my mother saved up money and took me to a nearby town one Sunday. We hailed a ride on a goods truck in the morning and head off. This neighbouring town was only slightly better than ours, but it made all the difference to me. While our town residents occasionally wandered to nearby places and bought everything in bulk on behalf of a number of families, there were markets in that town. Stalls and shops in ruins and old buildings sold a variety of items; they even grew some of their own vegetables. Briefly, the old me surfaced and I jumped around like a ten year old in a nineteen year old’s body. That was the best day I ever had, but as all things, it ended. We caught a ride with the town dealer on his cattle-driven cart, sitting amongst boxes of misshaped fruits that we could never grew ourselves. With every mile the light in my eyes dimmed and shoulders sunk, along with the hope in my mother’s eyes.
That day, I realized that there was so much more to see in the world. Every day, I dreamt of going elsewhere, explore places outside my tiny town. I saved up as much money as I could without being noticed. I think my mother did, but I could tell she supported me.
I was twenty years old when I saw my chance. At home, my father was now half-pushing me to get married, as it was common knowledge that people didn’t have long lives here. But he also commented on how, if I did marry, my monthly contribution would be lost.
I was working at the factory when I spotted a man being shown around by the factory manager. He looked to be in his forties. I could tell he wasn’t from around here by looking at his clothing and posture. I hesitated on approaching him and asking for help. What if he views me as a nuisance or an opportunist? I’d also heard, from some people in my town, horrifying tales of girls being taken advantage of. In the end, I talked myself out of it and I missed my chance. I’d began regretting it immediately.
Later, when I was leaving for home, I noticed a well dressed woman standing in from of a huge black metal thing outside the factory. A car, I remembered from what I’d read. I was so astonished at seeing one, and clearly I wasn’t the only one. Many other workers stared too.
I steeled myself and walked towards her before I could change my mind. I was so nervous. What if she’s rude? What if she doesn’t even bother to listen to me?
“H..Hello” I stammered. She jerked back in surprise and I recoiled. “Um, I’m Molly White.” Without waiting for her to send me back or leave, I started explaining how I wanted to get out of this small town and I begged her for help, saying that I would be willing to work for her if she gave me a chance to see the outside world. All the while she stood there, astonishment in the expression growing the more I spoke. When I was finished, I waited for her to say something. After almost a minute of silence, my shoulders had slumped with dejection. I apologised for being so forward and turned to leave.
She called my name and I turned back to face her in shock, and a glimmer of hope. She said a few sentences on how she wished she could help me but she doesn’t have any job opening now. She said that she was glad I braved to ask. I murmured a thank you and a sorry and briskly walked away in search of my mother. I didn’t tell anyone what had happened, even though news spread about me talking to the posh lady.
A year later I married David Lamnt, a miner who is a couple years older to me. In Harktok, you go to the one legal building in our town, sign a couple papers and you’re announced as man and wife. I still kept my saved cash and continued setting aside money. In case of emergencies, I said to myself. I didn’t let David know, I didn’t particularly care for him either.
A few months into wedlock I became pregnant and I was over the moon, as they say. It was the one thing I was happy about. David started having affairs with other women; I didn’t care, and I think he knew that. Otherwise he wouldn’t have dared to in a town like Harktok where a mother yelling at her children is news.
When little Clark was born I took a leave of absence from the factory and doted upon him. David looked into the crib once in a while. He didn’t offer, I didn’t ask. By then my mother stopped working at the factory, too weak to continue. I left Clark in her care while I worked. Even though my father’s vision started deteriorating, he refused to quit working. No one said anything, the money was required.
It was almost Clark’s first birthday when I got called into the head office at the factory. I remember quite well how I walked slowly, shaking out of fear.
Instead of the manager, I found the good lady from before behind the door, whom I’d begged for help. She introduced herself as Mrs. Whitaker and proceeded to explain how she needed a maid for her home in the city and she’d thought of me. I was stunned. With tears in my eyes, I asked her the particulars of the job, and that yes, I was still interested. I’d heard of Conhone in whispers around town, how the city was very different and strange even though no one from Harktok had been there. Mrs. Whitaker said that I would be given a room to stay in and some money every month-more than my current salary, I noticed. I explained to her that I had a son whom I could not leave behind, and that I was married and my husband might not want to leave with me.
Did I care if my husband stayed behind, she asked, perhaps noting the tone of my voice. I replied, “No, I would rather he not.”
That day I went home and surreptiously packed a few clothes and small trinkets. David didn’t notice, I didn’t say. While picking up Clark, I told my mother everything. She handed me some bit of money, said to take them as her blessing and not refuse. I promised I would send for her. I admired the willow tree for the last time, vowing that I will stand out too. I will not be brought down by my surroundings.
The next morning, the whole town heard the guttural sound of a car arriving, could hear gravel crunching under the tires. Everyone was astonished when it stopped in front of our house. David was about to go and investigate when I stopped him. A cloth bag hung over my shoulder and Clark cradled in my arms, I announced that I was leaving and walked out the doorway. I honestly did not expect him to argue about it. He followed me on the small uneven path and yelled in front of the crowd gathered that I could not take his son away. I replied that he didn’t care about Clark, or me. He spit back words about me running away and leaving him behind with hardly any compensation for everything he’s done, and demanded that I give him all the money I have. If I didn’t, he threatened to take Clark away from me as, after all, he is Clark’s father.
A well dressed man got out of the metal machine and wordlessly handed a couple of costly bills to David as if they were nothing. David, in his shock of holding so much money, did not try to stop me from getting into the car when I was ushered in. The man got himself into the front seat and started the car. Soon, David, my mother and the crowd faded into dark fog behind me.
In the years I worked for Mrs. Whitaker, Tomas, the driver, and I became like siblings. He patiently cleared all my doubts and showed me the ropes of the city. I saved up as much money as I could to enrol Clark in a good school.
Today, my son is eight years old and at the top of his class. Every day I learn through him and I feel so much joy at seeing his enthusiasm to learn. I brought out my mother to the city with us after my father died three years back. I still work at the Whitakers’ but lease a small two-bedroom flat.
The story of the willow tree, surviving against all the odds when everything else perished, is one that I often tell Clark. I say that if you try, no matter what, you will bloom in contrast to your surroundings. My mother told him one day of my little story, and also how I loved that tree and was inspired by it. That night, he tells me in his innocent voice, “Mom, you’re my willow tree.”