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In the Shadow of the Tamarind Tree

March 6, 2014

By Matthew S. Friedman

Vijitha Yapa Publications

Part 1: Serendipity lost

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As a gentle burst of wind from the western shore passed through the majestic tamarind tree above, the multitude of tiny leaves and sweet fruit pods swung and danced about effortlessly.  For nearly a hundred years this lone tree had managed to occupy this special place on Sri Lanka Island, between the wide sandy beach that lined the ocean’s edge and the village green on the adjacent side.  While there had been others like it; none were ever able to hold on without eventually succumbing to the elements of nature and man alike — their “will” to “be” was never enough to win out life’s perpetual onslaught.

Below the great tree, Tore sat alone on his familiar bench, in his familiar spot, wearing his familiar pair of black shorts, sandals, with a blue-green button-down shirt.  Beside him rested a copy of his favorite book of Tagore poetry, a bag of assorted baked nuts and a bottle of fresh water from the family well.  While the tattered book had been brought along with him nearly every day for the past two years; not once had it ever been opened.  It was there, just in case.

Having retired ten years before at the age of 62 from his job as a government administrator’s assistant, the days of the week no longer held any real meaning — by now, they had all become different shades and hues of grey.

Tore took in a deep breath of the warm fresh sea air.  He could taste the salt and the sea on his parched lips.  This familiar sensation had always represented a constant in his life – something that was ever-present.  He took off his glasses and used a thin yellow silk cloth from his pocket to clean the extra thick lens – a ritual that he probably performed a hundred times each day.  Far off in the distance, like a heartbeat, with its persistent, never ending rhythm, the sound of waves attempting to reach for the shore could be heard.

With the setting sun just beyond the horizon, he watched patiently as his shadow gradually lengthened – seeming to reach in the direction of his village home which stood less than a stone throw away.

He summoned his thin body to stand, but his “will” to fulfill this wish did not prevail.  ‘What difference does it make if I stay another ten minutes,’ he thought to himself, in an indifferent manner.  ‘I have no place to go – nothing else to do.  I will leave when it is time to leave; not a moment sooner.’

His hand reached down to scratch a fresh mosquito bite.  At dusk they always began feeding on the exposed skin of the old man’s leg.  With a brisk swat of his hand, one was instantly slain.  A second swipe took out yet another victim.  But with his shadow desperately urging him to leave and the mosquitoes regrouping all around him, Tore finally stood up, stretched his small stiff body as he reached upward toward the sky and turned to head home.  His book fell to the ground and opened at page 56.  As he picked it up, he read some familiar words at the end of the page — ‘let your storm rage in my flower garden, let the dry leaves, the withered flowers fall to the ground.’  He, himself felt this way at that moment.  The book was closed quickly – there were too many memories in those words.

Before taking his first complete step, he stopped fast in his tracks.  There, on the opposite side of the stream that separated the village into two, a solemn procession of villagers slowly passed by along the main pathway to the bazaar.  Tore noticed the tiny body of a deceased child wrapped in a white shroud lying on the bamboo stretcher.  On either side, two men carried the lifeless body – both their shoulders and heads hung down with the heavy burden of grief. 

Scattered in small groups along the pathway were the family, friends and neighbors of the deceased following close behind.  Not a single eye was without tears or that familiar facial twitch that couldn’t be controlled when overwhelming sorrow from the loss of a cherished one took hold of a person’s body and soul.  The black shadow of death hung over all of them; like a thick slate cloud suspended in the air above.

Tore shook his head.  ‘Why a child?’ he thought to himself.  ‘Why not me instead?  I am ready for my turn.’  A buried memory resurfaced for a split second before being forced below again.  This was not the time to allow the past to make friends with the present.   He had become very good at keeping what “had been,” at bay.

With his own head lowered to show his deep respect for the deceased, Tore turned to set off home.  But once again, his eye caught a glimpse of something that forced him to stop.  This time it was the sight of a young girl – no more than eight or nine years of age — who trailed several yards behind all the others.  With the sun fading fast, she appeared to be almost shadow-like – he squinted his eyes to focus on her petite figure.  She was thin with short black hair.  Her dress, blue with a yellow flower pattern, appeared at least one size too big for her tiny body.  The extra cloth haphazardly drooped and hung over her shoulders with plenty of room to spare.

As Tore watched her pass by, without knowing how or why, he suddenly experienced a fleeting connection with her – as if for a solitary instant, her heart-felt grief became his own.  He could feel it as if he was inside her body or as if she was in his.  The sensation struck him suddenly, like an invisible wave had just passed directly through him from behind.  This unexpected incident caused his heart to race as he gasped for air.  Shocked and intrigued by this novel experience, he continued to track her progress – unable to explain what had just occurred.

Before rounding the bend in the road that led in the direction of the communal cremation site, she turned toward Tore.  Despite the imminent darkness, their eyes connected as the two exchanged a shared moment of silence and presence.  The moment had a timeless feel – as if the difference between a second or a minute or an hour had no meaning – time stood still.  All the wind and sound and waves at that moment stopped.  After it passed, she slowly turned and walked away into the darkness.

Tore instinctively reached for his chest – his heart was still pounding with a vengeance.

With nearly every day being like every other day, he realized that something extraordinarily different had just occurred — something strange and new and totally unexplainable.  A portion of the life force he had allowed to slip away with the passage of time returned.  He could feel it filling some of the emptiness that had become so much a part of his being.

For the third time in as many minutes, Tore turned and this time walked away, but with the memory of what had just occurred deeply and forever etched in his mind.

© Matthew S. Friedman 2005
ISBN: 955-8095-93-1

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