The Old Tree

by Steve Ullom

Illustration by Zia

It started, like most things do, with one step. One step into the park, to watch the birds sit on one tree, then fly to another, as they traded news like young parents in the park on the benches. One step into the park, to watch the dogs sniff a trail that moved from tree to hole or along a fence. One step to another to find a dry hummock of grass on which I could sit and smile at the clouds passing above without judgment.

I watched an older gentleman in black clothes, slow movements displayed in an obviously practiced form. He was precise, imitating a punch, then a bird spreading its wings, followed by a kick and then stillness. I guessed it was a form of T’ai Chi and it captivated my attention. An associate of mine had studied T’ai Chi and almost got my interest years ago. Like all things, it took time and I was unsure I had the time. Well, unsure I wanted my time to be further structured. As I watched, his steps planted a foot here, then twisted the body and turned there. After a few minutes, the man held out his arms in a horizontal circle in front of his body, facing a tree. There he stood, evidently meditating while standing. That was new for me to know.

The excitement gone from watching him, really, the interest in watching now seeming rude and intrusive, my attention went back to the people milling about the park by the swings. Overhead birds passed under clouds which passed under the sun. The summer day turned warm and I got up to leave, glancing once more at the man with his arms embracing air before the tree.

The next day I returned. Another step into the park and noticed the man was already there, at the tree, engaged in his meditation. I sat a step closer. Maybe three steps closer. He had on the same black clothes and if I didn’t know better would have assumed he had stood there all night.

A warm breeze ruffled my hair and made me daydream but my focus returned to the man, stillness in the midst of all the activity of the day and the park – the small children, large dogs, an empty breeze except for the scent of mown grass. How long did he stand there? Today I would find out, and checked my phone for the time.

An hour later he was still standing. Was it possible that he had died standing up? The thought, once made, dominated my mind and though I knew it was silly to think this – was it even possible to die standing up and stay standing? – I now couldn’t dislodge it. Closely watching the man for any movement, I only saw the wind ruffle a pant leg. Closer inspection was required.

Now only five feet away, my eyes searched the chest for signs of expanding with a breath, searched the face for a sign of any movement. Nothing was apparent, yet, a slight blur of something, like a ghost or shadow, seemed to be vibrating about him.

Another step closer. Now I could see there were quick circular movements of his arms, windshield wipers pushing away the rain of tree limbs pushing towards him, and the old man’s body rocking back and forth, an upright trunk swaying between his knees. His arms mingled with and grasped tree branches that probed and were rebuffed. They were wrestling, except that was not possible! The tree and the old man! Arms and limbs seemed to be locked into each other, moving in a clockwise circle, the tree and the man alternately pushing and pushed, forward and dodging but neither seemed to lose an inch of ground.

Memories of my associate describing push hands training came to mind. Was this what I witnessed? The old man planted his right foot next to the tree base and energy seemed to bloom from his arms into the tree and a great tearing noise started as the tree tipped backwards, but then spun its trunk and the man’s arms continued harmlessly to the side. The tree then seemed to lean in quickly and the old man slid his hips sideways, disappearing, as a tree limb pressed against the ground to keep the tree itself from toppling.

Again they went back and forth. Limbs moving in a circle and trying to push on an elbow, on a chest. Once again the tree nearly came down next to me, causing me to jump back, falling on my backside.

When I looked up, the old man was standing still and the tree lazily tossed leaves in the summer breeze. I blinked but the scene did not change. Pushing off the ground I walked up to the old man, leaning in. It was then he opened his eyes, but he was not startled, although I was quite startled by the clear movement.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

“I was worried about you, making sure you were okay. I think you’ve been standing here since yesterday.” I raised my eyebrows. “That sounds silly, though.”

“Ah.” The man lowered his arms. “Thank you.”

“Are you okay?” I pressed.

“I am fine.” He turned and began to walk away.

“Sir?” the question barely reached him before I did, following his path. “Please, may I ask you something?” It seemed warmer standing next to him and I frowned. “I thought I saw you and the tree fighting. Am I mistaken?”

A smile broke open the man’s face. “My master told me to always practice in front of a tree. I eventually found out why. Would you like to learn? Come back tomorrow. I may show you.”

I came back, many times. The man is gone now, but the tree isn’t.

Steve Ullom writes from the middle of the North American continent with his wife and two dogs. His writing can be found at Haiku Journal, Poetry Pea, Quail Bell Magazine, Allegro Poetry Magazine, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, The Ravens Perch, Light, Walloon Writer’s Review, Ascent, Humana Obscura, and Utopia.

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