A Pair of Blue-Gum Trees in Giza

short story by Sahar Tawfik
translated by Marilyn Booth

When we fell in love, we left the crowded city, and on that distant site along the small canal we built four walls.

That was in a year now distant, when the trees stood higher than the houses, before the buildings towered and blocked the eye of the sun, and before the trees turned to dwarves and grew strangely clumped beside the roads.
Two blue-gum trees sat at the entrance to the house, young and small as we were. On our first day of life there, I looked from the window in the morning to the empty expanse beyond it and I saw them: small, young, short. Like us, those two trees were living their first days there.

The earth around us exuded green and the trees spread thickly everywhere. But the two blue-gum trees erect before our house were small.

The tree-pair grew, and so did we; aged, and so did we. One tree rested an arm upon our house, embracing it.

Our street was empty, almost, of the clamor of cars and trucks and buses, especially in the evenings. And the two trees gazed on us, crowns lowered, through the western window of the house. Many conversations we shared with them. For we talked every evening, long into the night, and the trees conversed as we did. As summer breezes passed they talked gently, delicately, and there grew between them love and concord. When rainy winter winds gusted, they bore the spattering mud with staunch patience, until we could wash them in the early morning or until the spring rains cleansed them.

No one shared them with us but a pair of curlews homesteading in their abundant branches. It was not easy to catch sight of the birds but their voices were audible in the still night. I never did figure out whether they lived there year after year, or if a new pair, their children, came to inhabit one of the trees each year. The trees protected the curlew couple, treated them tenderly, hid them. They watched over us too. When we embraced and made love in the night, the trees whispered our secrets but no one could hear their murmurs.

Day after day, though, the space around us grew narrower, smaller. People found their way to the place we’d found. On both sides of the road buildings grew, stretching and lengthening until they acquired thick and abundant shadows denser than the tree shade. And so the newcomers in cut down most of the trees and began to throw their waste into the small canal. Then they destroyed the canal for it no longer suited the rebuilt road.

Many came to dwell in our street. In the beginning came that man who worked as a musician in one of the nightclubs on the main road. He would return home late at night; and as we slept his car horn shrieked, waking folks without a second thought: a voice grown familiar in our street, braided into the voices of the curlews and the rustling of the trees at night.

Then came others: merchants, workers, teachers. Each new resident constructed a voice, raised it on the street, until after a time it became a familiar voice, a sound belonging to the place.

There was a man who yelled at his sons: “I’m making you men, and I don’t want to hear a complaint from any of you!”

There was the woman who married a man from a distant part of the city who came to her only one day of the week. Her mother would leave the house to him; and when his wife gave birth, he no longer came at all.

And there was an officer in the habit of arriving in his military van. It delivered him to his front door and planted itself in the middle of the street, two soldiers bunking inside as they awaited the officer’s orders.

Residents pressed in now, profuse. Their voices came closer, grew angrier, and the more abundant they were, the fewer became the trees until they truly began to vanish. When our surroundings were empty of all other trees, inhabitants of the many houses clustered around us could see a pair of trees, the only ones left in the entire street, autumnal, tossing down their fading leaves to ready themselves for new growth.

When the military van blocked the street it seemed there was no pathway any longer except through the two trees; but they were still there.

The residents, tossing the waste from their homes out onto the sidewalk, said: “Those two trees must be cut down.”

The trees threw down their faded leaves and the wind was too weak to sweep them away. The people said: “The waste from these two trees has submerged us.”

We stood our ground, fending off the hands eager to sever the tree-pair. Angry, the people said: “The waste of these two trees is immense!” One of them—who worked in a nightclub and returned only very late every night—waved an angry hand toward the high branches, saying: “And they hide the birds that wake us up at night with their irritating voices.”

We tried every manner of convincing them that the trees had not transgressed or trampled on anyone’s rights, but they had no solution to offer except cutting down the pair of them. When we tried fiercely to prevent them, they used weapons that we were powerless to resist.

That man said to his sons: “Do you see those two trees? I see you are men, so do not let me hear your complaints!”

The boys were playing, throwing stones and fiddling with the bark on the trees. We woke up to find that one had lost its bark from where its roots met the earth to a meter’s height. It suffered for several slow weeks.

We tried to dress the naked trunk. We tried many treatments but our hands did not succeed in keeping it alive. Its leaves grew sparser each day and it worked to yield seeds. The ground all around was packed with faded, fallen leaves and the many seeds that no longer found a use on layers of wordless asphalt. The only one who might have told the way died slowly. And one of us died slowly too. When the tree died, its wood went dry and its branches bare. It stood naked to the sky. Whenever I looked at it in the cold nights I shivered. And then, a few more weeks, and its trunk began to lean, resigned to falling within the hours of a single night and day. Angry, the new dwellers shouted. “Are you leaving it to fall in the onrush of the autumn winds, to kill our children?”

We went out to cut it down with our hands, to lay it down softly, pillowed in the side of the road, so that day after day we could carve off logs to bring warmth to our chilly winter.

The next spring the other tree was alone, and sad, like me. The residents tried a swifter treatment, pouring poisonous liquid into its roots. In a single night it died, just a single night: in the evening it was still whispering and swaying, and by morning it had withered and its leaves were gone.

In our street remained nothing but the filthy waste from the houses, smells rising, floors rising, until they dwarfed every sort of tree.

And the winds did not carry them away.

Cairo, September 1998