There is a tree. Its leaves are gold.
It grows, a short, stumpy little thing, in a courtyard of stone, the only living thing around. It grows within walls of marble, walls the height of three grown men standing on each other’s shoulders.
But the stone is cracked, ripped apart by dark shrubs and weeds panting for air. The walls are ruined, torn to rubble in some forgotten war. The palace that stands behind the tree echoes empty. Its marble corridors are the audience halls of rats, fat as a man’s arm, tails twice as long. Its chambers are the nests of birds. Its magnificent wooden doors have crumbled from their hinges, eaten from the inside out by wood lice, crawling like snow over the polished oak.
It is a forgotten place.
It is forgotten but for the tree. The tree with the leaves of gold.
No one knows the story, not the real story. Some people say that the tree was a gift from one king to another, a show of alliance more valuable than any daughter. Some say that it was stolen from a fairy, and that she rained war on the kingdom in vengeance for the theft. Some believe that the tree is a person, a princess with hair like gold, and that she turned herself into a tree to feed her starving people. They plucked her golden leaves and sold them for bread.
But all agree: There is a tree. Its leaves are gold. And if you can find it, you will be rich.
One such seeker was the tenth son of a peasant, with a wife and a daughter of his own. He was a dreamer, and although he worked as hard as his other nine brothers on the land, he spent his nights dreaming not of normal comforts and feasts rich beyond belief, but of money. Money growing on a tree, golden and gleaming and phantom-like, always beyond his waking grasp.
As the years went by, his obsession with his dream deepened.
His obsession with his dream only grew as the years went by, intensified by the death of his wife in childbirth, the stillborn son he buried with her, the poor harvests that made his young daughter as thin as a skeleton and killed three nephews and his father. The dreams seeped into daylight, fed on daylight, became so bloated on daylight that he could see nothing else; just the promise of golden leaves.
Despairing of him, his older brothers sent him off on his quest, convinced that he would come back all the wiser, and work as hard as he had before. His daughter sent him off, hanging from the gate, her small, dark face, gazing uncomprehendingly upon his smiling one. She had been young when her mother died; she hadn’t seen her father smile like that before.
It was fleeting. He turned his back and walked up the dirt path and was gone.
The road was long and hard. He followed the twisting and turning paths of story and rumour, traversing the great, cold, bitter land of his home. His money was used up quickly. He took to working, and, when work was nowhere to be found, he stole.
His face grew haggard and sour and cruel. His eyes were those of a madman’s; glittering with his dream, glittering with imagined riches. The years passed, he forgot the way home; he forgot everything but a tree and its leaves of gold.
And then, when most had given up hope, when his daughter, eighteen now, laboured on bloodied sheets, her life seeping from her even as new life pushed its way out of her, squalling and kicking and desperate to live, he found it. He found the tree.
Its leaves were really gold.
He walked through the broken black gates, walked over the grasping dark shrubs and weeds, and gazed upon his dream. He reached up, and he touched his dream. The leaves came away so easily in his hand, heavy, solid gold.
Sinking to his knees, rubbing the smooth metal against his bearded cheek, he wept.
When he returned home, his granddaughter was two years old and his daughter was two years cold in the grave. He had a bag of gold leaves over one shoulder, and when his brothers told him the news, he only smiled.
There is a tree, he told them. Its leaves are really gold. And now that we are rich, we will never be sad again.
But the granddaughter, a curious child with hair the colour of the sun, crept closer to the strange, wild-looking man, and peered into his sack. She took one of the leaves into her small, thin hand, and rubbed at the pale, gleaming surface. She had never seen something shine so.
The shine came away in her hand.
The gold fell away, insubstantial as dust, and left behind a deep, dark green.
The man roared. He pushed her away. He dived into his sack and picked up the leaves in his hands. His hands were shiny. His hands glittered gold.
He cried. He cried like his son-in-law had cried at his daughter’s grave, nine months before he joined her, a broken body sent back from the cities, one of a thousand bled dry before the Winter Palace. His granddaughter cried too. She was scared of him.
That night, when she slept on her straw pallet, as far away from her grandfather as possible, she rubbed her cheek against the leaf. It was soft. It seemed to breathe, to sing. It had a voice like the gentle, rustling wind, and it sang her to sleep. When she dreamt, it was of a gleaming palace and people with kind eyes.
The dreamer, dreams crushed, decided to follow the ghost of his son-in-law, whom he’d never known, to the city. There were jobs there, money to be earned, a place to live free from the strangeness and the coldness of his long-forgotten family. He took the girl with him. She was his granddaughter after all. And she had her mother’s eyes.
Her mother’s dark, young, accusing eyes.
The girl did not like the city. It was brick and metal and smoke and grime, and despair hung thick in the air like the woollen furs she could covet from afar, but would never wear. Her only consolation was the whispering leaf. She told it all her secrets, and it was her friend.
Her grandfather, an old man now, but made hardy and wily by his travels, found a job in a factory after conning another man out of it. They paid him in coupons. It was a soap factory. The girl did not understand, they could not eat soap. When she asked the man about it, he cuffed her over the head, and when she started crying, he cried too.
The despair. It clung like dust to them, like false gold on green leaves.
Sometimes the girl hated her grandfather.
There was nothing else to hate.
And the years passed, and the old man grew older, hunched from his gruelling, endless work at the factory. He no longer looked ill, fevered from his dream. He was ill, body racked by a cough that wouldn’t go away. He did not have a dream.
And the girl, she turned fifteen and watched from the rickety window of her room as the Bolsheviks stormed the palace where her father had died. It was unguarded. It was cold. No one really cared.
Her grandfather died in the evening. She was dry-eyed. The neighbours helped her bury him, and she spent the night in her tiny little room, listening to the leaf, dark and green despite countless winters, sing her to sleep.
The next day, she packed what little she had into a small bag, and she went on an adventure of her own.
The railways were congested, broken under the weight of the war. There were no horses, they were dying, whinnying in fear and pain on the frontlines, crushing their new, unwanted masters beneath their bleeding flanks. She walked.
She walked past her old village, populated by women, fatherless and husbandless and sonless, haunted by children who were as hollow-eyed as her mother, who’d hung on the gate and watched her grandfather smile his way up the hill.
She walked the long, winding path that that grandfather had taken, so many years ago. There was no food. There was nothing to steal. She grew haggard and empty and sad. But everyone was haggard and empty and sad, and no one cared about one fifteen-year-old girl, not with the war.
And finally, she found the tree.
It was a tree. Its leaves were gold. It stood in a courtyard as devastated as any corner of the great, cold, bitter land of her home. But there was something untouched about it, something unspeakably sad about a place that time could not erode.
She stepped over the dark shrubs and weeds; she reached up and touched the golden leaves. They came away so easily in her hands.
But she could not hear the voice. The gentle, rustling voice of her friend.
She rubbed, she rubbed with her dirty, skeletal fingers, and the gold came away, turned her hands shiny. The leaves were dark and green; they breathed.
The tree breathed.
Its dark, solid trunk turned pale, turned soft as flesh. Its branches weakened, shrunk into the thin, fragile limbs of a boy. Its leaves tore free, fluttering in the wind, dust turned gold in the sun. The boy’s hair was dark as earth, as ash on her clothes and her grandfather’s nameless grave.
They stared at each other, these two survivors of different wars.
The girl was fifteen and hungry and alone. The boy had spent thousands of years trapped in desolation. In the world outside, people were dying and dying and would be dying for as long as day passed into night and night into day and there was such a thing as time.
The girl was still holding the leaf, now crushed in her hand. She dropped it. It was dead.
They walked out of the ruined courtyard, hand in hand.
And years later, when the girl married another man, a factory manager who had recently come the scrutiny of Russia’s security service, and the boy lifted her child into his arms and taught it to call him uncle, the two of them would tell a story.
It began like this:
There was a tree. Its leaves were gold. And the person who found it, she never became rich.
The child, a little boy with hair like gold, would look into their smiling face, and would not comprehend.
Feature image by Mardiana Sani for ISSUE Magazine
Tham Chui-Jun is in her last year of A-levels and wishes she could consign Maths to a fable.