Old Trees by Mei Lin, Shanghai

I don’t remember all the details, but my roommate in college, Liaoyang, who comes from the city next to mine, once told me about a strange occurrence in her high school.

At this high school, because of increasing enrollment, the administration decided to build a new building in an empty part of the school grounds. There was one big problem, however. A thousand-year-old tree stood in the way. Students quickly heard about the plan for the new building and also that administration was discussing whether to cut down this old tree. Because many students felt loyal to the tree, they demonstrated on behalf of its life. Unfortunately, after several meetings over the course of a month, the administration decided the tree would have to go. Angry, the students skipped classes to stand under the tree and keep vigil. But eventually, as they almost always do, the institution won nearly every protestor over or tired them out. Thus, one day three workers came to cut down the tree.

However, as soon as the blade of the electric saw cut into the tree, blood spurted out and the workers stopped the saw.  Not just because the blood shocked them but also because they suddenly felt violently ill – nauseous, shaky, and dizzy. One of them even fainted.

Someone went for the principle then, but he wasn’t much help. He fell uncharacteristically quiet and, looking scared, tried to yell the men into continuing their work, while students ran down to see what had happened. When some of the students did see, despite the gruesome scene, they cheered in delight that the tree’s spirit was so powerful. It was decided later that day to temporarily halt the work while an investigation was made into both the workers’ illnesses and the red liquid coming from the tree. That night was filled with rustling sounds as the tree started to shed leaves even though it was summer.

Unfortunately, after half a month, despite not making sense of what happened with the tree or the three workers, the school decided to finish off the tree anyway. Because so many city officials had been involved in signing the papers to construct the new building, its launch day could not be moved without endangering its construction entirely.

Five workers showed up on the new demolition day, and they managed to take the tree down completely within three hours. This time, the sap that oozed out in the cutting was a perfectly normal amber color and the principle explained that what had looked like blood before was a simple fungal infection that would have brought the tree down sooner than later anyway – even without human intervention.

But then, within months, news came that two of the five workers died mysteriously. Shortly thereafter, the principle announced to the school one morning that he was forbidding anymore fanciful rumor-mongering about the tree or any implied criticism of the school’s glorious new building. Students who ignored this directive would be severely punished.

Xiaoyan told me that after the tree was cut down, and the last of its branches fell, the sky looked empty like a house where your mother died.

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