The Shade of the Willow Tree
by Mir Jalal
From the book "Dried Up In Meetings"
Azerbaijan International 1998, USA
Everyone has a passion or a habit. This was true of Uncle Salman, the gardener. If he felt sympathy for anyone, he had a habit of helping them in every way possible.
One day, he stood deep in thought in front of the garden next to the road. The sun had risen high in the sky and shone right on his bronzed, shiny brow. As he raised his hand to shade his face from the sun, a thought suddenly passed through his mind. He looked down at the earth, as if looking for something that was lost. He walked back and forth along the road, his boots furrowing into the earth.
The next morning before sunrise, Uncle Salman dug a ditch in the same place. Soon after, he brought a willow sapling and planted it there. He put some bushes with thistles around it to protect it from the cattle.
During the summer when Uncle Salman worked in the vegetable beds, he would become breathless from the heat and would go to his hut to rest. When he would be walking down the road and he felt that there was a need for shade, a quiet voice within him would say, "Plant a tree here."
About five miles from the village where the road divides to go to the gardens and orchards, there was a place called "Dashlija." Fields stretched out to the horizon from there, but there was no shaded place to rest.
Now near Uncle Salman's orchard, there was an underground spring called "Saz Bulaghi" (Singing Spring), and during the hot summer, no traveler would pass by without drinking from the stream and washing his hands and face. But as far as resting for a while, there was not even the shade of a stone. With this in mind, Uncle Salman planted a willow tree there where the road separates.
For five years, he did his utmost to take care of that tree. The young, lonely tree spread its branches. Its roots had already reached water. It drank the stream water and received light and warmth from the sun; it grew tall and spread its green foliage, like clusters of beautiful white jasmine, over the heads of the travelers. It cooled the dry desert-like air and its shade greeted the passers-by. Even people who didn't know about the stream would come and rest under the willow tree. Seeing this would gladden Uncle Salman's heart, making him feel very proud, like a father who had raised a wonderful son.
"I have to see," he thought, "if people appreciate the shade of this tree. I wonder what they are saying about it?"
Whenever there were people under the tree, he pretended to be passing by so that he could find out what they were saying. He would linger there, hoping to overhear their conversation.
One time two men on horses stopped there. From their appearance, they looked like teachers or physicians. They seemed somewhat intellectual. Holding a spade in his hand, on the pretext of getting water from the side of the stream, Uncle Salman moved closer to the riders and listened to them.
The men fastened their horses to a bush, and went down to the spring and drank from it. Then they went over to the green grass, to lie down.
Uncle Salman was very happy because he believed that they were the talkative type. One of the riders brought out a small box from his pocket and rolled a cigarette for himself. The other, a rather short, young man, continued a discussion which seemed to have been left unfinished from a while before.
"You're mistaken, you don't know people," the man who was smoking answered coldly.
"At a single glance, I know what kind of nest this bird comes from. I'm not going to be taken in by sweet talk."
It seemed that the riders were arguing about someone. One spoke and the other answered. One proposed an idea, the other rejected it. Giving up hope of getting anything out of their discussion, the gardener returned to his hut disappointed and dejected.
The second day, Uncle Salman listened to the remarks of a man from the city. The man, not accustomed to long walks, had become very tired and seemed to be lying there without moving or talking. After waiting a long time, Uncle Salman wanted to leave, but the man from the city started talking.
"What kind of thing is this, uncle?"
Uncle Salman turned to him.
"What did you, my son?"
The man from the city sat up.
"I mean the man who planted this tree. I say, you son of a cursed father, you spent time and money, why didn't you plant a fruit tree, like a mulberry or a pear tree. Would that have been too much to ask?"
Uncle Salman was hurt by the city man's words. He didn't answer at all, and he hung his head as he went back to his hut.
The third day, a strong, muscular cart driver came to the shade. Knife in hand, he climbed the tree. Uncle Salman came forward anxiously, but seeing that the carter was looking for a shaft for his cart, he became less anxious.
"My good man, if someone hadn't planted this tree, how would you find your shaft?" asked Uncle Salman.
The cart driver, with his head down, busy cutting the wood, said, "Damn the man who planted this. Couldn't he have planted something sturdier here, like an oak tree or an elm? How can you make a shaft out of this willow? I know it's useless, but what can I do? There's nothing else available."
Uncle Salman didn't answer him either.
On the fourth day, during the heat of the day when one could hardly breathe, a group of farmhands came to Saz Bulaghi. They were working in a farm nearby and had come to eat lunch under the shade of the willow tree. As soon as they arrived, a big lunch bag was opened. They brought out yogurt, and mixing it with the water from the stream, made "Ayran ." They cut bread, cucumbers and onions and prepared everything. Then, getting out their wooden spoons, they ate with great gusto.
At first, Uncle Salman wanted to invite them to have some fruits from his garden, but he decided to stand aside and listen to them. He said to himself, "First let's see if they appreciate good work."
The farmhands packed up what was left and putting their hands under their heads, lay down to rest.
"May you rest in peace, the man who planted this willow."
Uncle Salman looked carefully and noticed who it was who had spoken. He was a dark-haired, young man who was resting in the far corner.
"In the midst of this wilderness," another joined in, "the shade of a willow tree is better than anything in the world. Blessed be the hands that planted it!"
Uncle Salman could not contain himself any longer. Moving from his garden toward the willow tree, he said, "Thanks, all of you young men who appreciate my work." The harvesters recognized that it was the man who had planted the willow.
The young man with black hair sat up. "Uncle, please forgive me. A moment ago, thinking that you were dead, we asked for God's blessings upon your soul."
"My son, I don't mind. Blessings are necessary for the living as well. You know the value of my work and appreciate it. No blessing is better than this."
With one hand on his buckle, Uncle Salman pointed to the shade of the willow tree with the index finger of his other hand and poured out his heartfelt feelings.
"Many people have come here. Many people have sat here. Many have even cursed the man who planted this tree. I've heard them with my own ears; they were only thinking of themselves. My son, it takes all sorts of people to make the world. But I knew that people would come who would appreciate this shade and praise me for it. There are good people in the world. Now when I see you resting and talking about this place, I feel rewarded. I feel as if a new life has been given to me. It's as if I have paid my debt to the world."
A farmhand interrupted Uncle Salman, "The goldsmith knows the value of gold. We laborers appreciate your work."
"My son, I believe in good work. A dog also leads a life. We humans should leave something-a good work or a trace of ourselves."
Uncle Salman looked out and opened his arms, as if to embrace someone. He continued, "You see, down there as far as you can see, orchards and gardens extend to the horizon. Our forefathers planted them, they sweated and prepared all of this for us. We have to do the same for our children. If everyone thought only of eating and enjoying himself, the world would be left in ruins in a few years."
The farmhands all agreed with Uncle Salman. As they got up to leave, the willow tree waved its young, green, clean leaves, and as if whispering in the breeze, it seemed to be saying "yes, yes," to Uncle Salman's words
Ayran (pronounced I-rahn) is a refreshing beverage made from yogurt, water and salt. Dried mint and other herbs are added for flavor.
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