Every day my Master and I awake before the sun comes up. He greets the day by practicing his martial arts. I feel the vibration of his stomps on the floor, and the swoosh of displaced air as he kicks and thrusts. I hear his low grunts and forced exhalations. This is how I greet the morning, a silent witness to his magnificent dance of life and death.
This morning the hard wooden floor of our room is silent, the air is still. There is no steady dancing, no grunts and loud breaths; the room waits in quiet expectation with me, for our Master to greet the day. But he is late, already the sun seeps in through the bamboo blinds, I can feel its heat upon me.
After he greets the day with activity, he sits in front of me, a steaming cup of green tea between us. Its sharp flavor mingles in the air with the pungent scent of incense as we both meditate. His low voice sends chills through my limbs, as he chants his mantras. He is teaching me the ancient wisdom of the Buddha, the path taken to transcend the bindings of this world, the path to illumination. He is taking time out of his busy schedule to teach me personally, and I am honored that it is so.
He is the Master of this school, a training school for young warriors. He is a very busy man, with many who seek his council, many who revere his words, and he shares all of this with me. I am so grateful, humble and content. In time I hope that I become as wise and at peace as my old Master.
But there is no scent of Green tea in the air, and the incense is faint and far away. He isn’t here to heat the water for the tea, or to put flame to the sticks. There are no wise words reverberating through me, no lessons for today.
Perhaps he has forgotten me?
Where is my Master?
Footsteps echo through the room. It is his other apprentice, and… his son? What is his son doing here? His son never comes in here. It is an old hurt, the Master whispers about it sometimes when there is no one here to listen but me. But I know that voice; it is my Master’s voice, only younger, much younger. His son is much the same as he is; even my Master admits it with a sad laugh.
“He isn’t doing well, sir?” the apprentice asks, and I feel as if my world were starting to drop away. Who is not doing well? My Master isn’t well?
“He hasn’t been well for years,” my Master’s son sighs. It is the old hurt again. The son wanted the Master to go home, to be with family in his old age. But the Master is wise; the Master knows that he is needed here. I need him, his other students need him. The apprentice needs him; the apprentice is not ready to take over the teaching. There is so much that neither of them knows, but I could tell them stories if they could hear me.
But what is this business with my Master not doing well? Where is he? Why didn’t he tell me that he wasn’t well enough to greet the day today? I would have watched over him until the coughing passed, I always do.
“What will you do?” the apprentice asks, as if it mattered. My Master would not want the son to do anything. Besides, it is none of his business. The Master will get better, and the son will go home. That’s what happened last time.
“There is nothing to do. If I may, I will collect his things.” The son starts to choke a bit. I feel his grief. What is going on! Where is my Master! Why would my Master’s son collect his things?
“He had no possessions that he considered his own except his writings, which are in that cupboard in the corner and that bonsai tree on his altar,” the apprentice said gently. I hear sadness in his voice for the unavoidable.
“Of course,” the son sighs, “he was never one to need much.”
That’s right, my Master was a man who had the whole world, what did he need to possess anything for when the whole world was his companion?
“Is there no hope?” the apprentice asks. He is sounding like a child, pleading, how my Master would have huffed at that one. Hope comes in many forms, my Master would say.
And then I realize it, before the son even confirms it. The Master is not well. The Master will never again greet the day with me. There will be no more cups of green tea and whispered wisdom. There will be stillness where once he danced his deadly dance.
“He can’t breathe. The doctors say he will not live out the night,” the son sobs.
Ahh, my limbs are cracking. I cannot breathe. My Master, Master! What can I do? Give him my needles, they will help him breathe, I do not need all of my needles. Or my roots, I could live without at least half of those.
But I am a tree, and my Master is a human. They don’t use needles to breathe or roots to drink. I want to scream, but I have no voice, I want to writhe in my pot, but I cannot move, I want the whole world to share in my grief, but I cannot share it. I cannot shed a tear; I ache with pain for the Master who taught me the best of human wisdom, and nothing of the frailness of the human body.
Let me wither, let me die; let me be set to rest with my Master. Let my death be the last testament to all of the gifts that he still had to share. For, I do not want to live without him, my best friend, my wise Master.
Suddenly my pot is shaken, and I feel a leap of bittersweet triumph. My pain has passed out of me, and into my pot! Surely it will break and my soil will scatter. I have done it, I have transcended myself!
“He loved this little tree,” the son whispers, and I feel his breath, he is holding me. My success was a ruse, my pot isn’t breaking; the son has picked me up. Drop me, I plead silently, drop me, and let me die. In my next life I will come back as a human because of the wisdom that your father has given me. And then I can share it with you.
Oh, the stories I could tell if I had a voice to give them sound.
I wrote this piece about ten years ago. The concept was one that I played with in a college writing class, where you pick an object (or a life form besides a mammal) in a room and write a story based on the experience of that object.
I chose a bonsai tree because it helped create a spiritual element to the story from the very beginning. In a later edit I took out the word “can” from as many places as I could without making the piece insufferable to read. My reasoning behind this was that there is no “can” for a tree. The tree grows, it sucks up nutrients and water, and it dies; that is all it “can” do. Therefore, it feels without will, it smells without will. These are things that happen to it, not things that it does. It really is, without its Master, powerless.