By Flo Au
The sound was so deafeningly loud it woke up almost everyone from their sweet dreams in the estate nearby. Fleetingly, they looked out of their windows, seeing the sky torn into some kind of jigsaw puzzle by flashes of lightning from all directions. They cursed. They pulled up their sheets to cover their ears but most of them could not fall back to their dreams for their hearts were unreasonably tingled with waves of ominous feelings, which successively brought them back to the lightning sky when they were a second or two into slumber.
Like those residents, the janitor was awake because of the sound. Pushed by a hunch, perhaps more precisely, agitated by some sort of uneasiness, he went to the garden. Outside it was raining heavily, shooting arrows to the ground, the lightning forking down, the wind billowing, though retreating a bit, strong enough to soak one in and out and shut one’s eyes. His glasses kept his eyes open. Oh God! With the light from his torch, the janitor could clearly see that the school tree, the Fountain Tree, was split into two pieces!
The rain did not last long. When the sun was fully awake, the rain and wind died down and beams of light scattered the grayish clouds. A pale arch of rainbow broke through the far end of the sky, reaching somewhere, maybe a secondary school. Deplorably, not this one. Too far, far away. A school assembly would be held in the playground soon, where the Fountain Tree had stood for more than thirty years with them and was supposed to be there forever and ever.
Classes of students streamed to the playground. At the beginning, they cautiously avoided those puddles of muddy water on the ground for fear of getting wet. Their attention was diverted as soon as they tiptoed to the fallen tree, where some of them gasped in shock, jaws dropping to their chests, so wide and deep that anyone could put a fist into their cave-like mouths. Such a pause led to a little commotion: the students bumped into one another and all of them stepped into the filthy puddles, their ash gray socks drained, dirt splashed on their school uniforms, darkening the Prussian blue. It is dead! It is dead! Someone blurted out and the message passed on like tidal waves here and there, higher and higher in volume, then echoed by the formal announcement the principal made later on, we’ve lost our flame.
The Fountain Tree had its own history, much longer than the school’s. When the school was built, the school directors discussed if they should remove the tree, which was pathetically small at that time. Fortunately, its benign location and sparse reddish-orange flame bulbs saved its life as the major decoration of the school environment. All other trees, like those clumps outside, were uprooted because of the construction. In fact, development swallowed the overcrowded modern city, where population had been growing exponentially. The school had soon become the only one school which had its signature tree. The photo of the tree regularly occupied a corner of the school anniversary publication’s cover page. Plus, it was often visited by the educational officers and other guests, which the former principal was very proud of and boasted about.
Treasurable as it might seem, the tree was often reduced to a conversational topic of the former principal, who claimed over-enthusiastically that he dreamed of students climbing out of the windows to the tree, hanging onto its bark, swinging like monkeys or gliding from the tree trunk as if it was a slide. Both students and teachers laughed heartily when they first heard the joke. Yet, after days, they nearly could not hold their yawn but luckily managed to squeeze an awkward smile and instantly made an excuse to leave whenever the principal started to utter words like the tree and those windows, preparing to tell the same story. They knew he had nothing new about the tree to share since he left all the work to the janitors except dreaming and boasting. Years later, the topic even faded into obscurity starting from the moment when the new principal, who had other he-thought-to-be far more ambitious plans largely involving using cutting-edge digital gadgets only mistakenly, perhaps intentionally, to wear down the teachers more, received the crown of power and reigned over the school on his daily polished throne. After all, it was nothing compared with his unprecedented plan full of all the delicate details.
The next day, when the teachers came back to the office, they found that the vases and pots which were put on their desks every day were empty. The usual refreshing fragrance had vanished into death. What was left in the room was the pungent odor of stuffiness and mustiness that stung their nerves, which began their day with gloominess. They could not help but think of the tree. They thought of its flowers artfully arranged in the vases by the janitor. Some of the teachers and students routinely strolled to the garden early in the morning like those previous mornings, ready to sit at their old places in the huge shadow of leaves. Woken by what they saw the second time, they frowned and lowered their heads on the way back. They thought of the tree. Some other students searched for the green and enjoyed their meals or snacks with the view during recess and lunchtime but the view was so bleak and desolate it burdened their hearts with shades of melancholy. They left dejectedly. They thought of the tree. In lessons, the students looked out of the windows, the only exit from the mechanical feeding and drilling, their minds following their gazes, wandering in the air, preparing to hang each of their dreams on a branch of the tree, the wishing tree, another name they gave to the Fountain Tree. Yet it was not there. Their dreams dissipated in curls of smoke with ash and dust. They were all roused back to the dull reality. Would there be any wishes? Would there be any dreams? The grim feeling they had for the tree was so strange that they could not ascertain its origin. Nor could they understand. Was it just a tree?
Shortly after, the news of the dead tree spread to alumni, departed colleagues, the retired ones and neighbors in the estate nearby. They came for a weekend worship by the pastor and took last pictures with the broken trunk. They brought their kids, parents and relatives to the school. It was the first time the playground was crowded with so many different people; the first time people sang the hymns so loudly that those outside the school could hear them; the first time most of the audience did not fall asleep when the pastor gave his sermon, of course, still few habitual sleepers dozing off, heads bobbing down and up like life buoys in the sea, and saliva dripping from the corners of their mouths like streams from water taps.
The pastor smiled though. At least they slept peacefully. He practised the sermon in front of the fallen tree as he had done before. One thing was different. The sermon was about the Fountain Tree. The audience was amazed at his speech. They had all heard of those biblical stories before. They had had no interest in them. But now the stories were all linked together, starting from a tree and its fountain. Their eyes opened. They understood more than ever. They surrounded the tree in a half circle as if they were holding a funeral for a shooting star. They finally bowed their heads, clasped their hands and whispered in prayers.
Because of the increasing concern on the dead tree, the school board held a special meeting on how to deal with it. Rarely were the members so proactive and expressive, several of whom broke the silence at the same time: a piece of furniture in the office, pencils, wooden key chains, window sills, door frames, an art piece, a cross, stacks of writing paper, toilet paper rolls, a stylish chair, a swing, brooms, toothpicks, chopsticks…numberless ideas were sprayed like bullets from their machine-gun mouths. They argued for hours to defend their own thoughts, veins popping out on their foreheads and necks, spittle spitting to each other’s faces. Each of them thought their ideas could bring more fame to the school. Hysterically yearning to be the master brain behind and further boost their statuses, they wanted their ideas to be voted for. After long hours, the meeting had to be adjourned. They all slumped into their chairs, voice terribly coarse, mouths twitching in fatigue and tongues sticking out like dogs. The same situation happened a few more times later with the last two meetings postponed too many times to count on one hand. In the end, no real decision had been made.
Months later, on a cloudless, sunny day, the sun appeared to feel extraordinarily excited, showering its golden powder everywhere. The school’s bluish-gray silhouette even glowed. As usual, the janitor took his tools to visit the stub again. With his glasses on, he squatted, ready to trim the weeds growing around. Suddenly, he saw it, a greenish sprout timidly showing its little pointed head emerging from the weed. In fact, a few more were budding in the other parts. A miracle!
After the principal’s announcement in the assembly, students sprinted to take photos of the sprouts. Never had it crossed their minds that the tree would resurrect from its death. The school board resumed the meeting to discuss how to keep the sprouts growing. Based on the last tiring experience, they unanimously agreed that they needed to take extra good care of the tree and the principal should set up a task force group to do so. Gladly, the pastor volunteered to lead the group. Everyone clapped their hands, showed their thumbs and the meeting ended. The pastor invited the janitor to be a key member. Under their supervision, classes took turns taking care of the tree. Lessons were arranged and taught by them to help students understand the tree more.
The students were all exhilarated about the change. They were truly amazed, which fired their curiosity about trees. They had never paid so much attention in lessons. Books about botany were all checked out from the school library as well. To meet the surging demand, piles and piles of new books flooded in. They knew the foxy smell produced by the tree to expel insects. They knew its flower buds could squirt water out. They knew its bark could be used as medicine to heal swollen cheeks and body rashes…the more they knew, the more they wanted to know.
The students fanned the flame, which finally reached the teachers’ hearts, changing from their what’s-the-fuss attitude to a why-not-try one. Then the teachers were in. They convinced the school board to do more. To create a better environment for the Fountain Tree to grow, they decided to rub off the dead darkish colors and repaint the school in the rainbow of rebirth; in its garden, they planted clusters and clusters of flowers of different kinds, coral pink, raspberry red, peach-orange, orchid violet, baby blue and fluorescent yellow so that out of the classroom’s windows, both teachers and students could catch a glimpse of those colors; they built a greenhouse too on the other side, where they could grow varieties of foreign plants, exotic colors again, some of whose names and origins they did not even know but they knew they could bring life and changes.
Gradually, they felt the tree was growing back and growing more, first taller than the basketball net, then the third floor, then the five-storey school building, aiming to the azure blue above, staining its satellite image with a fresh green dot, and colors of heaven raining down, moisturizing the place when the wind blew; its crown bigger and thicker, increasing in layers, up and down, front and back, forming a natural shelter for students to sit on its barks to listen to the rain pitter patter on the leaves during the rainy days while the sunny days, they lay with their backs on the barks to watch species of butterflies flutter their colored wings around its flames, compare the color, the size and the shape of the leaves ahead and taste the sweetness of dews rolling along the rim of the leaves dropping to their open mouths; more interestingly, no matter what kind of weather, during recess, lunchtime, lesson break, most students climbed out of their windows, swinging from one bark to another to relax their limbs, to have fun with all kinds of games, paper scissors and rock, hide and seek, their hearty laughter mingling with birds chirping and insects cooing, further injecting the juice of life into the tree, the branches of which stretched out and extended to the blocks of flats nearby, enveloping their residents in emerald green and enabling them to enjoy episodes and episodes of youth and vigor outside their windows, which were so alive and far better than those old and cheesy TV dramas, and chat leisurely with the students on the branches to tell their life stories which they had never heard before; its root longer, deeper, spreading its reddish-brown net first beneath the school, supporting its foundation and gradually reaching every corner of the whole district, running along the rusty railway, holding the pipes underlying the land, and at some points, breaking the cold cement to breathe in the oxygen and drinking water from the reclaimed river nearby to grow circles of moss around to attract more lives like snails and worms. With generations sliding along the branches through time and the story passing on, people just knew in the satellite map, the green dot continued to spread: the school, the estate nearby and then the district and eventually the whole city blended themselves one by one into its trunk and branches without walls, doors and windows. No one could recall the old name of the place from history but called it, yes, the Fountain Tree.