My grandma died when I was quite young. Though I was in preschool when she passed, I still distinctly remember the summers spent at her home. When I was sick, she’d sit me on her lap and sing me a peaceful lullaby. When it got too hot, we’d make fresh lemonade. On cloudless nights, we’d sneak out of the house and sit by the creek that ran through the property, looking down at the Milky Way’s reflection in the water’s surface. We’d spend hours by the creek, day and night, dipping our feet and watching the fish swim by. Grandma loved that creek, as well as the forest beyond its south bank.
Visiting my grandparents’ home in the country was the highlight of my summer, which is why I was so upset the year my parents didn’t take me. I didn’t understand it back then: my parents, not wanting to traumatize me, simply told me my grandma had gone away. My first thought was that I had done something wrong to make grandma leave. Bawling my eyes out, I tugged on my mom’s shirt, promising I’d be a good little girl, and begged her to take me to grandma. She hugged me tightly, ran a hand through my hair, and told me it wasn’t my fault.
The next summer, I returned to my grandparents’ rural home for a memorial service. It was only when I saw the modest tombstone that I realized grandma wasn’t coming back. By then, I had somewhat grasped the concept of death, albeit in childlike fashion: grandma was in heaven, living in the clouds. I asked my mom if we could plant a tree in grandma’s memory. I pictured that tree growing and growing, bean stock-style, until it reached the sky itself. I would climb it, and reunite with her. My mother turned to grandpa.
“What do you think, dad?” she asked.
Grandma had always wanted to be buried on the very property where she grew up. After she died, it seemed only fitting to lay her to rest by the creek that she loved so dearly. We couldn’t exactly plant a tree in the yard without grandpa’s approval. Fortunately, my grandfather’s solemn frown turned into a broad smile. He knelt down in front of me, and placed a hand on my shoulder.
“I think that’s a wonderful idea, honey. What kind of tree should we plant?” grandpa asked.
I knew exactly what grandma would have wanted. Of all the trees lining the forest on the other side of the creek, there was one she loved most of all. Without missing a beat, I answered.
“A willow tree!” I excitedly chirped.
I’m not sure whether we went to the tree nursery that same day, or a few weeks later, but we eventually purchased a willow sprout. We made a big celebration out of it. Grandpa let me break ground with a tiny plastic shovel, while mom and dad prepared a picnic. We sat under – or rather, next to – the twig-sized tree, and shared stories about grandma all afternoon.
“You picked a good, strong willow. Grandma would be proud,” grandpa whispered to me, as we were packing up.
I was overjoyed that I had not only contributed something useful, but that I had planted the tree that would eventually let me see grandma again. I couldn’t wait for it to grow taller than the stars in the sky.
Year after year, I returned to the countryside to spend time with my grandpa. I watched as my willow tree grew bigger, never forgetting my secret plan. Now, I’m not sure how long a willow tree usually takes to grow, but I remember being impressed every time I visited: it always seemed much taller than when I had last seen it. In the span of about five years, it blossomed from a measly little sprout, to a glorious full-sized tree. On stormy nights, I could hear the wind blowing through its growing branches, producing an otherworldly howl. It was the sweetest sound I had ever heard, bringing pleasant chills to my core. It was the kind of “creepy” sound that one would normally be afraid of, but not me. No, I loved it. I wished for wind and storms so I could hear the haunting weeps of my willow tree.
A few years ago, my grandfather died of heart failure. His house and property went to my mother. My parents, being city folk themselves, didn’t fancy moving away to the countryside. When they offered me the home, I gleefully accepted. The commute to work was long, but the peace and tranquility made it well worth my time. I loved to sit on the patio to watch storms on the horizon, take walks in the valley, and sit under my willow tree that guarded grandma’s grave by the splendid creek.
My favorite time of year was Autumn, when the world turned burgundy and orange. My willow tree stood out from the rest of the landscape, its leaves turning into yellowish shades that reminded me of hay. The crisp October air felt refreshing after the long, humid summer, and Fall showers were a welcomed relief from hours of watering the plants outside my home. Autumn felt like a new beginning, like someone repainting an old canvas to breathe life into it.
One evening, I decided to bake a traditional apple pie in the rustic wood-burning oven. The sky had turned black in anticipation of another storm. Leaves were flying around all over the place and wind howled at my window like a siren call for weary sailors. A loose branch snapped against the side of the house, drawing my attention outside. I noticed a hooded man limping his way towards my home. Stumbling, he made his way to my front porch. I opened the door.
“Are you okay, sir?” I asked, in a concerned tone of voice.
“C-can I…c…come inside…?” he requested weakly.
I nodded and beckoned him in. The man, using the outer wall for support, slowly made his way towards me. He looked in very poor shape, and I decided I’d offer him a slice of pie and a place to sleep. It didn’t come to that, however. As soon as he walked through the threshold, the man’s hand shot up, and he grabbed my ponytail. I could see blood along his bony arms. I wasn’t sure whether it was his or someone else’s. With his other hand, he gripped my arm so tightly that it left finger-shaped bruises. He yanked me outside, into the cold night air. I started screaming like a banshee, but on such a windy night, there was no way anyone would hear me. Besides, I was miles away from another soul.
No matter how hard I fought, I couldn’t break free from the stranger. Adrenaline flooded my veins, and I hoped that it would be enough to shift the balance of power back in my favor. Alas, no matter how much I kicked and punched, the stranger was stronger than I was. He dragged me all the way to my willow tree, like a barbaric cave man. He pushed me against its trunk, pinning me to it.
“TAKE OFF YOUR CLOTHES!” he screamed at me.
Sobbing profusely, I defiantly shook my head. When I refused, he struck me hard on the cheek with one hand, and ripped my skirt with the other. A gust of wind blew his hood back, but my eyes were so full of tears that I could not make out his features. Fearing for my life, I shakily began undoing my shirt. My fingertips felt numb, and I could barely manage to undo the first button on my blouse. I must have taken too long, because the man growled angrily, and reared his arm up for another slap. My cheek was still stinging from the first blow. I winced, shut my eyes tightly, and braced myself for a second hit.
I shrieked as I heard the sound, and it took me a few moments to figure out that I had been spared. Opening my eyes, I found the man at my feet, with a large laceration along his temple. Blood gushed out of him at a sickeningly quick pace. I looked around, trying to get my bearings.
A heavy gust sent a large broken branch rolling towards me. There was something unnatural about its shape: it was thick on one end, ballooned in the middle, and narrowed back down at the other end. It looked like a snake that had just swallowed its prey. With the tip of my foot, I turned it over. There, I saw a fossilized skull encased under a layer of bark. My attacker’s blood could be seen along its rock-hard jawline.
The roots of the willow tree, seeking the nearest source of water, had eaten my grandma, which rested between it and the creek. In the end, I got the reunion I so desperately wanted. Wind howled once more through the branches, and I finally recognized the lullaby that grandma used to sing to me.