Killing Trees Softly

They were killing us 
softly it hurt so bad. 

Softly, slowly, exceedingly painful. Think of an open wound left to rot under the sun. Dust and dirt, soil and sand blowing over, exacerbating, not reducing the pain.  

  The killers, with neither heart nor mercy, came early in the morning, just when the sun had started smiling on me. They were dressed in faded blue shirts and dirty denims, armed with saws, ordinary bolos, axes, and a ruthless attitude. Was that also a machete I saw hanging from the sleeves of a black backpack on this man’s shoulder? 

    I shuddered at the thought we were going to be attacked again in the guise of beautification.

    I looked at myself. My narrow trunk and slim frame had grown new branches dotted with fresh, beautiful, green leaves and tiny yellow-orange flowers. I thought I looked good enough as a tall and slender Miss Green Revolution. I thought I served my purpose well enough, the fairest of the fair among all narras.

    Birds and bees, butterflies and dragonflies perched on my branches, making beautiful music, multiplying among themselves. The same cutters, who double as street sweepers, rest under my shade at high noon.

    On my trunk, this one worker had pinned a giant nail last summer on which he usually hung his home-cooked lunch. It hurt so badly when he buried the nail on my tender flesh. Blood, I mean, sap, burst, flowed, gushed freely like tears on Maria Cristina Falls the moment he missed a beat. 

    I cried. I bled, but he ignored all my pleas for help.

     “Please stop,” I said in prayer.

     He neither heard nor felt it. Please, please. I whispered hopelessly in his ear that had gathered too much wax from dust and grime after having lived on and off streets for years.

    He and his friends continued taking their sweet lunches under my shade and protection, unmindful of the pain I was going through.

     His name was Exequiel, sounds like executioner. He grew up in a mountain farm in Iligan but is surprisingly against the likes of us. 

     He could have been a hair cutter or a barber, an embalmer of dead people if he so wished to cut and cut without let-up. Or a surgeon, if he so loved seeing so much blood and gore.

     Yet, he was uneducated, and therefore, unenlightened, like his friends, who don’t have the slightest idea trees have feelings, too.

     I’ve listened to and known his life story and all its secrets well enough. 

     Broken home. Jobless parents remarried. Half-siblings left and right.

     Home alone. Battered childhood. Deprived. Anger issues. I’ve heard them all after having sheltered him for such a long time.     

    One day, his stepfather, Venancio, caught him, hungry as a cow, pilfering chunks of carabao adobo from the old man’s side of the table.

    He was thrown into a corner. Brandishing a thick narra paddle, he was beaten black and blue. His mother, Pacencia, didn’t even bother to look his way. 

    Another time, when he failed to water the young mahogany trees that Venancio sold as a side-hustle, stepfather tied him to a coconut tree. He stripped him naked, and he cried in front of the entire barangay. He was 14 then.

     Next day, Exequiel tried to kill the evil man. He gathered leaves and stems of poison ivy, mashed and smashed them, squeezed the juice out of them.   

     Then, he poured the solution into a boiling cauldron that was to be the extended family’s lunch of bulanglang.

       “What have you done with all these remains of poison ivy scattered around here?” his half-sister, Orang, asked.

        Hearing this, stepfather stepped in with a bolo in hand, swinging it up in the air in his direction. The old man’s eyes glared like lightning. His voice roared like the sound of a thousand thunders.

     That was the last straw. Cowering in fear, Quiel dashed off, flew out the wooden door. He ran away from home, lived on roadsides, counted on the kindness and suffered the evil ways of strangers.

     He never forgot or forgave his stepfather. He never forgot the memory of a giant bolo hovering high above his head, ready to chop his head off. He also never looked back.

     When the cutters, led by Exequiel, came that early morning in our line of young and old trees, serving Quezon Avenue, we shivered and wondered why it was happening again. Many of us had not been warned that we were due for another trim, an unwanted haircut. 

Perhaps, the city has elected a new mayor, who wanted to get a high grade from high above. Perhaps he wanted to launch another project that could add up to his confidential funds. 

We could have delayed the small flowers from blooming, halted more young twigs from sprouting.

Exequiel came in first. He looked at me from top to bottom, like he was sizing me up.

Some kind of merchandise in a beauty pageant. He held up his lunch box and placed it on the nail stuck on my upper torso.

He called in his companion, Candido, a fat, burly man not quite 40. He signaled the latter to bring out the gadgets.

“This one’s right enough to impress our boss,” Candido said.

Candido and Exequiel took turns in hacking, whacking my body alternately with saw and bolo. At some point, I thought I was going to faint and fall completely.

Wasn’t it only a few months ago when some councilor mercifully cut us up, from the waist up, all the way to our branches and twigs, leaving us only with a few little branches, usually just two, in the uppermost areas?

All that merciless, mindless, non-stop cutting without let-up made us look like a row of erected, armless skeletons on the highway.

With only a bare trunk on the ground, we felt and looked pathetic, pitiful, hopelessly ugly, robbed of our pride and dignity, our crown of leaves and flowers.

They cut us up when we grow branches within their reach. When we grow our branches taller towards the sky that is our only protector in this smoke-filled, highly polluted city that we didn’t choose, they also mangle us. They claim we are a threat to some view that we obstruct, to electricity from flowing freely in the city.

Escarlata, the cadena de amor growing lush and wild on my feet, cried to me moments before she was wiped off from the chicken fence that served as an island in the middle of the street.

“Help me, please,” she whimpered. To this day, I still can’t get over that little-girl cry of hers, like that of a child muffled at infancy, never to breathe again. 

   For no reason, Escarlata was crushed and murdered, by Quiel himself, whose eyes glared like lightning as he swung that bolo here, there and everywhere, like he was on a rampage, venting out cramped emotion emerging from his gut of guts.

   I thought I also heard him shout out loud, like thunder, with every hack at every tree and every shrub in the neighborhood. If he were in the military, they’d say he had gone amuck.

Trees2

All these, just when Little Miss Cadena de Amor had grown lots of roots and crawling branches, twigs, and flowers all over the place. I thought she, with that thick foliage of green leaves and pink flowers, was a beautiful, dainty sight. How could anyone not see all that basic beauty amidst a smoke-filled, filthy city?

    What are we to do? It baffles us how Exequiel, Candido, and all these people can treat us this shabbily when we do nothing but enhance their way of life. When we don’t prettify the scenery, we protect their environment.

Underground, we hold unquantified gallons of water that prevent or reduce flooding. Above ground, we offer shelter, fruits, and flowers. When will they realize thattall, big, shadowy trees make a city greener, more beautiful? That we help a city breathe more freely?

   My relatives, Mei-lin Dee, Park Gong Ho, and Patrick Anderson, in other parts of the world such as in Singapore and Vancouver chat to me that they’re allowed to grow and glow in the middle of thick pavements, amid fast cars that line the streets of those cities. It isn’t that way in this God-forsaken city.

     They hate it when we grow big, when we spread our wings on their cemented roads, with lots of shade on the side. If only those humans could turn us into bonzais, we’d probably be out of here.

     My neighbor, Lolita, the able-bodied Eucalyptus next to me, however, tells me the regular trims should make us feel somewhat lucky. Those people could have simply uprooted us without rhyme or reason and no one would have cared or raised hell.

     They could say we were going to be balled, relocated to another destination, perhaps in faraway Tanay or Marinduque. But, many of us die even before we could get balled. 

      Look at Magnolia, the 50-year old mango tree who expired as she was being balled. She suffered a stroke when she couldn’t stand all that digging and bulldozing around her that ruffled her roots and shook up her entire system. 

   Our fate isn’t important to anyone. A series of uprooted, healthy old trees, some as old as 100 years, never merit government inquiry, unlike sex videos or road rage.

   I look down on the heap of chopped branches, twigs, leaves and flowers gathered around my feet. I could see them withering, lifeless, and in sorrow. I die with them.

    Christopher, our handsome Mister Caballero, weeping, standing a few meters away, tells me, “My branches are my children. Humans should know and respect that. They got their inspiration to draw their so-called family trees from us.”

    “Branches emanate from various sides of my trunk. Each branch, like a son or daughter, is nurtured to fruition. What would humans feel if any of their children is cut off, not allowed to groom and bloom?”

I die slowly each time Exequiel, Candido, and their gang of power-hungy cutters come and aim at me and the rest of us their heartless, glistening war tools. Now I come to you pleading on bended knees. 

    Help me, I’m ready for a stroke, perhaps an attack. 

The axe forgets, but the tree remembers. – old African proverb.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nestor Cuartero
Nestor Cuartero
Nestor Cuartero is a veteran journalist, author of three books, and several other books in tandem with other writers. Holder of a degree in Journalism from the University of Santo Tomas, he is a husband and father, university lecturer, and weekend farmer.

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