a short story by Mawadda Abuhannoud
art by Fiza Mohsin @fizventures
She reached out a hand, grabbing onto the closest branch. The girl was smiling, she knew no one would find her there. The tree had been her discovery. A large, ancient oak thick enough for her to hide behind and remain unseen, with branches that stretched out overhead in every direction, the leaves, fresh green with the turn of seasons, fell around it like curtains, concealing the smaller branches and giving it the look of an oversized umbrella, like the one Tara’s mom had stowed away for days when the rain wouldn’t stop pouring. When she was walking back from school the previous week, she’d noticed it first. Her only thought was that it looked very lonely. Sure, it was surrounded by grass, and there were plenty of trees at the bottom of the hill, but none of them were quite like this tree. “You and me both, big fella,” she told it. A few days before she had come back to it, determined to keep it a secret, and had fallen asleep with its branches shielding her from the rays of sunlight. When their neighbor’s son Yusuf decided to play hide and seek with her, a game at which he usually excelled, she had decided this would be the perfect hiding spot. Her hand clamped onto another branch, and the girl felt her heart racing. She thought maybe this next branch would be just high enough. And that’s when she heard it. There were footsteps running towards her, making the girl gasp. She quickly crouched on the lower branch, hoping the leaves would conceal her. Her heart thumped loudly in her ears as she lowered her head. “Please hide me,” she whispered to the tree. It took a moment, but the footsteps became louder, and soon she could see the blond hair of her neighbor, Yusuf, as he appeared directly in front of the tree. She didn’t speak for a moment, thinking maybe he’d go away. But then his attention caught on the branch she was perched on, and he frowned, squinting. Then Yusuf shook his head and began running in the other direction, down the hill shouting her name. “Tara! I found something you might like!” Tara herself was frozen in place. He had looked right at her. She shook her head, rattling a branch, and a few leaves began to fall from the upper branches. Tara smiled, putting her hand out to catch one. She watched, in awe, as the leaf fell gently into the palm of her hand, and for just a second sat, the bright green color contrasted against her dark skin before the breeze picked it up and sent it away. Tara swallowed, feeling suddenly chilly, as she became aware of the approaching darkness. She slipped down from the branch, her legs hardly catching her fall. She took a step forward, one hand still on the tree as she steadied herself. Tara lifted her foot to take another step but found she could go no further. Her hand was glued to the tree. She frowned, turning back to it. She pulled harder, but to no avail. At this point, Tara became very aware of the empty place, and the impending shadows, she placed her second hand on the tree, forcing the first away. Her right hand came off, and she couldn’t help but let out a relieved laugh. When she tried to remove her left, it was stuck. Tara was tired and lonely. She did not have time to waste on a tree that wouldn’t let go. She sighed, then put her forehead gently against the tree. She closed her eyes, and thought she could feel the tree’s energy pusle through her hand. Tara slid down the tree, her head resting back along its trunk, and let her eyes slide shut. Tomorrow I will leave. Yusuf returned the next day, and it was his quiet sobs that awoke Tara. “Yusuf?” she said, but no one answered. She lifted herself off the ground, then used the tree’s trunk to help maneuver around it, to the opposite side. There, knees up to his chest, breathing heavily, sat Yusuf. "Yusuf, it's me, Tara!" She said, glad to no longer be alone. But Yusuf didn't look up at her. The sound of his hushed cries filled the space for a moment, and then he spoke. "I wanted to show her this place," he said quietly. Tara frowned "show who?" "But then she disappeared, and I think it's all my fault." Yusuf seemed genuinely distressed by this fact. "Yusuf who-" "Tara was my closest friend- I don't know what happened to her," he said sadly. She froze in place "I'm… I'm right here Yusuf" But Yusuf did not seem to hear her, or notice her as she leaned forward. She reached out a hand to place on his shaking shoulder, but it went straight through. Tara gasped, pulling back quickly. She looked at her hand as if it had betrayed her. What's going on? Tara's heart beat rapidly in her chest, she couldn't fathom what was happening around her. "I know I asked you to be my best friend,” he said, and she realized now that his words were directed at the tree, “and I know you listen when I talk. But Tara was once my best friend, and she always listened to me," Tara cocked her head to the side, wondering why those words struck her as odd. Hadn't she made a wish as well? Please hide me. Those were her words. Her wish. And this had been Yusuf's. The tree was large, and it was old. Ancient, in fact. But just like in all the stories she was once told, Tara found herself regretting making the wish. I take it back! She thought, unable to form the words. I want to go home! But there was often a limit when it came to wishes, and for this tree perhaps it was only one. Tara inched closer to Yusuf, sitting beside him the way they used to when one of them had gotten in trouble at school, or had been pushed off the swings by one of the older kids. She found a few tears making their way down her cheeks, as she rested her head back against the thick trunk of her tree. She waited for someone else to come, someone whose wish might undo this one. And Tara waited so very long for that to happen. Tara never changed, but Yusuf grew. He returned to the tree often, and she thought maybe he sensed her presence, even if he couldn't see her. He talked and she listened, beneath the shadows of the large tree. Tara could not leave the tree, but after some time she did not want to. This was her home now, the place she would stay. Yusuf named the tree after her, and when he spoke to it, she felt he was speaking to her. Beneath this tree, Yusuf was married, and beneath it he was buried. Until one day, many, many years later, one of his kin returned and whispered a plea, a desperate cry. A wish. Tara was watching him curiously as he begged for the return of his father. As he spoke, the leaves rustled, and swirled around, landing on the branch beside Tara. She watched, entranced, as they fell away to reveal Yusuf. Yusuf was the age he'd been when he'd first made a wish. He smiled at Tara, and reached out his hand. She took it, feeling surprised when her hand didn't go straight through his, and they sat there, looking down as the breeze picked up, blowing through the branches of their tree.