Two Oak Trees

by Callum B. Downes

Living without a heart is more akin to existing. But who can blame him, when his memories are tormented by the pains of war. It’s much safer to be numb to it all and pray it doesn’t seep too far into the seams of your children’s future. So before he left the tumultuous shores of his homeland, he boxed up his heart and buried it beneath an oak tree, which stood strong and tall amid the ruins of his family home. A relic of his past life.

This heartless man, now deeply connected to the soils of Aleppo, was given no option but to flee alongside his wife and infant son in search of safety. Not a year had passed since they’d bought their first home and bore their first child, tasting the sweetness of life. They’d chosen a quiet neighborhood, close to the school he taught at, to bring their boy up. Nice schools, nice churches, nice people. Now the only sweetness that remained was the oak tree. No schools, no churches, dead people, dead friends, dead family and endless tears. So he had no option but to leave his heart behind.

At least now they were safe. There’s now a chance his son could grow into a bright future with a full and foolhardy heart. Yet that day remained only a dream among the nightmares, as he comforted his malnourished son three days out from the next rationed meal. Falling asleep in a refugee camp posed further difficulties for him, due mostly to the beastly wailing of mothers loosing yet another child, but also because of his wife’s persistent night terrors. Laying together in a 4 X 4 metre tent with two other families necessitated curling up close to her and receiving numerous blows to the sternum whenever she flailed her limbs in fits of lucid despair. He never knew the substance of her ghastly episodes. Were they visions of her precious son, flesh and blood scattered across the road. Or did she see him ravishingly consume another mouthful of the putrid water at the camp, before becoming another statistic for rich foreigners to cry about before the weather reports of the weekday news. In any case, sleep was a chore here.

Perhaps it was these sleepless nights, which made it so hard for him to decipher dreams from reality that day. The day when he received a phone call, a life line, a second chance. He pinched himself on the plane to assure himself of realness. When he landed in the kind embrace of a peaceful land he begged his wife to elbow his sternum if it was another twisted nightmare. She remained still, crying tears of joy.

To this day, he pinches himself each morning as he awakens to the whistle of wind, rather than bombs. Cooking a hot breakfast for his son, who’s now learning English at the local school, before packing his bag every morning, sheds life through the numbness inside of him, like sunlight through a cracked ceiling. Sometimes he feeds the magpies that perch atop the oak tree he planted upon arrival to his new house. They remind him that this is a safe place. If they can eat peacefully, spread their wings and dance against the sky in freedom, than so might he. Other times, he digs furiously around the tree, searching for a box that doesn’t exist and curses his new found safety. Yet he had no option. His heart takes root within his son now. A young oak tree drinking in the light of a blessed future.