The cherry tree was six years old when the bodies were buried beneath it in the warm, fiery shade of its deep pink blossoms. It was an Okame cherry tree, not glamorous but resilient enough, the arborist’s pitch had run, for the region’s unreliable weather; an early bloomer too. The students would have its flowers to look at through the windows, a consolation for when they tired of writing essays.
Okame cherry trees reach their full height quickly—this kind of family history had been another part of the pitch. Soon the cherry tree was a gawky adolescent, tall but unsure of itself, only sometimes proud of the colors it shook out into the world.
The arborist did not tell the school that most cherry trees have short life spans, generally only twelve to fifteen years. He didn’t say that it was strange to think of trees dying young. He was from California and his love of the redwoods, their wide trunks and their impossible peaks, might have prejudiced him. He patted the wrinkled trunk of the cherry tree as if he had done it some injury and needed to apologize. But he did not. The cherry tree knew it had found good soil.
The students would pluck the cherry tree’s flowers, sail them across the lake, put them in each other’s hair, press them between their notebook pages. This wrenching-apart did not hurt the tree and instead felt like having a sunburn scratched off. It listened to how the students talked of the softness of its petals, so delicate they could bruise, so white the faintest pink in them showed like a demure blush. The tree was beautiful.
The students used the cherry tree for their games. They climbed its branches; they made the uneven circle of its shadows the jail in their games of police and thief. The tree was loved.
Then, one summer night, the man came with the bodies wrapped in tarps. He dug beneath the cherry tree and there he laid them down.
The cherries of the tree turned sour.
The tree was not made to understand what had happened. It knew death and decomposition, but not agony. The memories of the dead shrieked and frightened away the worms. Their pain bleached the color from the cherry tree’s blossoms. The dead horded the color red, because it was the color of life, so soon there was no pink left for the tree.
The students speculated that the tree was dying. It looked sick. Pallid.
The cherry tree, with no one else to care for it, became a companion to the dead and entered into their plans. It stopped fighting to hold onto its color. And in return, the dead said, “Beautiful, beautiful.”
The dead took the red of the tree and painted their hands with it. They pressed their blood on the windows of the school, never smearing, never spilling a drop. They were far neater than any children with any finger-paints, but what they made looked like a grade school banner, only one formed of blood on glass. The dead shaped the cherry tree on the windows with their perfect palm-prints and their perfect fingerprints: a map made of its population.
Someone thought to check the loops and whorls.
People came and took the dead out from beneath the cherry tree. They washed the dirt from the bodies and returned them to their families.
And then the cherry tree was alone, but at least the sweetness returned to its cherries, at least the color returned to its blossoms. It waited for the students to come back again now that all was well.
But the students, in hushed voices, said, “It’s cursed.” From a distance, they threw rocks at the cherry tree. The bravest would cut into it with knives and keys. No one was brave enough to eat a cherry. No one was brave enough to put a flower in their hair. When the wind carried a blossom close to them, the students grimaced and crushed the petals beneath the soles of their shoes.
The cherry tree did not know what was wrong with it now that everything was right again. But it had no hands to reach out to beg for help.
When anyone came near it, they talked about death, though the cherry tree still had half its life to live. When the wind blew through its leaves, the tree tried to ask it to bear the only message it had—alive-alive-alive, please-please-please. If the wind did, no one noticed.
The arborist returned.
“It’s become a morbid fixation,” the principal said. “The students spend more time looking at it than they do studying.”
“Yes,” the arborist said. “I suppose I understand. But it’s a shame. It’s a healthy tree. You’ll want a replacement?”
The principal nodded. “But not a cherry tree of any type. They’re beautiful, of course, but I think the whole idea of them is spoiled for the time being. But some other tree, yes.”
“All right,” the arborist said. He touched the cherry tree’s trunk once more, in between the places where it had been gouged. Again, he felt the need to apologize. But what else was there to do? “I’ll have a team come out tomorrow to remove it.”