Of Trees

Part II
Despite their silence the others were annoyed with Attalea for her proud words. Only one little grass plant was not angry with the palm and not offended by what she had said. It was the most wretched and despised of all the plants in the house: coarse and pallid, a creeper with thick limp leaves, there was nothing remarkable about it and its only use in the palm-house was to cover the bare ground. It wound round the foot of the great palm as it listened and it thought that Attalea was right.

It did not know the south, but it too loved the open air and freedom. It too found the palm-house a prison. "If I, a dull little grass plant, suffer so badly without my grey skies, pale sun, and cold rain, what must this fine and mighty tree be going through in captivity?" So thought the grass plant as it tenderly wound itself round the palm and pressed caressingly against her. "Why am I not a big tree? I would follow the palm's lead. We should grow together and reach freedom together. Then the others would see that Attalea was right."

But it was just a dull little grass plant, not a big tree. All it could do was wind itself round Attalea's trunk still more tenderly and whisper its love and its wish for Attalea's attempt to succeed.

"Of course, our weather isn't nearly as warm, the sky isn't as clear, the rain isn't as soft and plentiful as in your country, but we still do have the sky, the sun, and the wind. We don't have any gorgeous plants like you and your comrades with those huge leaves and beautiful flowers, but some very fine trees do grow in our country --- pines, firs, and birches. I'm just a little grass plant and I'll never gain my freedom, but you are so great and strong. Your trunk is hard and you don't have far to grow before you reach the glass roof. You will break through it and get into the wide world. Then you can tell me if it is still as beautiful there as it used to be. That will be enough for me."

"Little grass plant, why don't you want to come with me? My trunk is hard and strong: lean against it and climb up on me. It's no trouble for me to carry you."

"No, how could I? Look how floppy and weak I am: I couldn't lift even a single little twig. No, I'm no match for you. Grow, and good luck to you. I only ask you --- when you reach freedom, remember your little friend sometimes."

Then the palm set about growing. Even before, visitors to the palm-house had been amazed by its enormous height; now it was getting taller and taller every month. The director of the botanical garden attributed such fast growth to good management and was proud of the skill with which he had planted out the palm-house and was doing his job.

"Yes indeed, you should look at Attalea princeps," he would say. "It's not often you find a specimen as well grown as that even in Brazil. We've put everything we know into ensuring that the plants develop just as freely in the glasshouse as they would in their natural state, and I think we have had some success in this."

At this point, looking pleased with himself, he would wack his stick against the solid tree-trunk and the blows would echo through the palm-house. The blows made the leaves of the palm quiver. Oh, if only she could have groaned, what a roar of wrath the director would have heard! "He thinks I am growing just to please him," Attalea thought. "Let him think so."

And she went on growing, depriving her roots and leaves of every drop of sap just to stretch upwards. Sometimes she felt that the distance to the vault was getting no smaller, and then she would harness all her strength. The framework drew nearer and nearer; at last a new leaf touched the cold glass and iron.

"Look, look," said the plants. "Look where she's got to! Will she really dare?"

"How frightfully tall she has grown," said the tree fern.

"Growing tall is nothing! What's new about that? Now, if she could only get as fat as I am," said the stout cyclad with a trunk like a barrel. "Why stretch upwards? She won't get anywhere. The grids are solid and the glass panes are thick."

Another month passed. Attalea rose higher and higher. Finally, she pushed right up against the framework. There was nowhere left to grow. Then her trunk began to bend. Her leafy crown was crumpled, the cold bars of the framework bit into the tender young leaves, cut through them and disfigured them, but the palm was stubborn and would not spare her leaves, no matter what; she pushed against the grids and grids began to give, even though they were made of strong iron.

The little grass plant watched the struggle and was faint with emotion.

"Tell me, doesn't it hurt you? If the frames are so solid wouldn't it be better to retreat?" it asked the palm.

"Hurt? What does being hurt mean when I am seeking freedom? Wasn't it you who were encouraging me?" replied the palm.

"Yes, I did, but I didn't know it would be so hard. I'm sorry for you --- you are suffering so much."

"Be quiet, weak little plant. Don't pity me. I shall die or free myself."

At that moment a metallic bang rang out. A stout iron band had snapped. Glass splinters rained down with a ringing noise. One of them hit the director's hat as he was leaving the palm-house.

"What is this?" he cried with a shudder as he saw pieces of glass flying through the air. He ran a few yards out of the palm-house and looked at the roof. Above the glass vault the palm's green crown, now straightened, towered proudly.

"Is this all?" she thought. "Is this all I was longing and suffering for all that time? Was achieving this my highest goal?"

It was well into autumn when Attalea straightened her crown through the opening she had made. Sleet was coming down in a fine drizzle; the wind drove grey clumps of cloud low over the ground and Attalea felt they were trying to wrap themselves around her. The outside trees were bare and looked like hideous corpses; only the pines and firs had their needles of dark green. The trees stared sullenly at the palm. "You'll freeze to death," they seemed to be telling her. "You don't know what frost is. You won't be able to bear it. Why did you leave your hothouse?"

And Attalea realized that it was all over for her. It was beginning to freeze. Should she go back under the roof? But she could not go back now. Attalea had to stand there in the cold wind, feel its buffets and the sharp touch of the snowflakes, look at the grimy sky and the pitiful countryside, the filthy back-yard of the botanical garden, the huge dreary city which she could see through the mist, and wait for people down below in the hothouse to decide what to do with her. The director ordered the tree to be sawn down. "We could build a special hood over it," he said, "but how long would that last? It'll grow again and smash it all. Anyway, it would cost far too much. Take it down." The palm was tied with ropes to stop it smashing the palm-house when it fell, and they sawed it through, low-down, right at the roots. The little grass plant wrapped around the tree-trunk was reluctant to leave its friend, and also fell victim to the saw. When the palm was dragged out of the palm-house, there were little stalks and leaves, bruised and lacerated by the saw, sprawling over the stump that was left.

"Tear that rubbish out and throw it away," said the director. "It's gone yellow and the saw's ruined it. Plant something else there."

With a deft stroke of the spade one of the gardeners tore up the grass plant in one clump. He threw it into a basket, carried it outside, and flung it into the back yard straight on top of the dead palm tree which was lying in the mud, already half-buried in snow.

--- Attalea Princeps,
From "The Reminiscences of Private Ivanov
and other stories"
by Vsevolod Garshin (1855-1888)
(Angel Books, London)
First published in 1879 in Russian.
Translated by Donald Rayfield.


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