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by Ajay Vishwanathan

I saw Maya smiling, her hands soiled with dark red Georgia clay. The shovel she held glistened in the morning sunshine as she raised her arms triumphantly. The blue T-shirt, her hair nonchalantly flicked over the side of her face, the attractive patterns of henna from our wedding day still adorning her bare feet. I had chided her lightly for not wearing her garden slippers. “There are fire ants.” I had said. Maya went barefoot anyway. She was excited. She was finally going to finish a project that she had been putting off for days: planting her young Tulip Poplar tree.

Over the next few years, the tree grew rapidly handsome, soaring majestically over the tarred road and mesmerizing the neighborhood. It generously sprinkled its unique yellow flowers around itself in an exquisite circle, dotting the gray road and layering the yard and the sidewalk. It always filled us with joy when we saw little boys cavort gleefully in its lavish shade, when morning joggers paused for a moment to regard its aura, and when jaunty squirrels frolicked on the flower-strewn circle, often scurrying away to avoid falling leaves and petals. The tree had created a small dream-like sphere around itself, drawing everyone around into its charm.

Maya is no more; she left me a couple of years ago. But whenever I look at the giant tree in my front yard, images of my pretty wife come to mind. It is usually snippets of the same scene, her beatific smile, I-did-it posture, and the little sapling trembling in the wind. “You know, George Washington had planted this tree in his grounds,” she had proudly proclaimed.

Maya had insisted on buying a five-year old tree because she didn’t want to wait too long for the tree to burgeon into its glory; she wanted to watch her toddlers play in the shade of an adult Tulip. The tree didn’t grow quickly enough to furnish our two daughters with the needed shade but it was large enough for our grandchildren who, many years later, executed Maya’s dream sequence. The scientific name for the tree was Liriodendron tulipifera, which seemed impenetrable for months. I gave up on the first part, but finally mastered the second when Maya smartly suggested one day that I remember the word by thinking of our neighbor’s dog, Farrah. It did bother me initially that to memorize the name of a delightful piece of nature, I had to seek remedy in Farrah, a mean-looking beast who took pleasure in snarling at guests and chasing feeble animals away, whose face seemed to relax only while ravaging a titanic meat loaf that sat surrendered in its bowl.

The tree was at its glorious best in peak autumn. It was like our baby taking center stage while the world watched; people often took pictures on a bed of yellow against the brilliant background of our Tulipifera. After our children went to college, we put a bench under the tree and spent hours in its shady confines going adrift in waves of nostalgia. The journey together had been long and eventful, with its typical share of crests, stress and busts, from our early years of marriage to the birth of our two daughters, their childhood and success to the arrival of their own children; the Tulip tree, with its consistent grace and splendor, was an unflappable witness to all.

Before Maya died, she had told me to sprinkle some of her ashes at the foot of the tree. As I sat alone on the bench with her remains in my old trembling hands, images of her young beaming face and soiled hands came to mind again. My heart was brimming with emotions as I bent down to scatter parts of Maya at the very spot where a five-year old sapling had flourished and expanded into a fifty-year old stately spectacle.      

It was a wet morning. A red truck that pulled over near my driveway interrupted my reverie; a heftily built man stepped out. He nodded at me as he walked towards where I was standing.

“This is the Tulip Poplar tree, sir?” he asked.

I nodded yes.

“Very pretty,” he remarked as he walked towards the tree. “I feel sorry...the storm last night was a bitch. A real shame that these trees are made gorgeous but brittle.”

A few days ago, a friendly young couple from South India had decided to buy our house. They were newly married and excited about their huge purchase. With my illnesses, I knew I did not have very long. As the man and his workers hauled our fallen Tulipifera away, the front yard seemed suddenly very empty, desolate.

I took a deep breath and walked inside. It was apt, I told myself, for the couple to start with a new tree in their first house; a tree that would not be loaded with so many memories from someone else’s lives.

*story first published on Static Movement*

The author is a virologist at the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), Atlanta. Ajay, who started writing at the age of 7, has won several awards for his writing from organizations like the Times of India, Mid-Day, and many more. In India, he enjoyed freelancing for a Mumbai daily, The Afternoon Despatch & Courier, and writing short stories, one of which got selected for publication in a school-level textbook anthology. He frequently writes commentaries and cover stories for well-known Indian American monthlies, including Khabar and Little India. Contact Ajay.