You live against your will.
--Rabbi Elazar ha-Kappar
Every morning, Tarika wished to die; and at night, when the glare of the lamps was darkened, she prayed for death to take her. The endless hours between were a flood of beatings and interrogations; most of her body was scarred from lashings and blistered from burns.
She had long since lost track of the time she had been held captive. The drugs they gave her to loosen her tongue brought her near to madness, yet she never found even that refuge. Nights brought scarce comfort. She had the same dream again and again: a glowing road through the dusky woods, with a light shining at the end. She knew that the light shone from the Garden of Mercy, where one day she would find rest. Always she ran towards the light, but found the way blocked by a dark-cloaked angel who struck at her with a flashing sword. The blade of the sword burned her flesh like the electric prods her captors used during the day. She knew that the figure was the Angel of Night, and that once again her soul was being denied entry into the Garden of Mercy. Always she found herself falling back into the gaping mouth of her prison.
Never was she alone. During the few hours of sleep she was permitted nightly, guards stood by with carbines; by day, her tormentors worked in shifts, trying to confuse her, wear her down, break her. And this she feared most of all: for if she broke, if she told what she knew about Operation Phoenix, then it would all be for nothing.
After seven years of civil war, the ruthless Nationalists were gaining ground, and while the People’s Front fought bravely, the future looked grim. There remained one chance for the People’s Front to turn the tide: a daring raid on the capital city’s nerve center, code named Operation Phoenix. As long as she was being kept here -- wherever she was -- alive and in pain, it meant that the war was still being fought. But if she ever allowed her lips to breathe the secret of Phoenix, it would be over. So she told wild tales, recited folk songs and nonsense verses -- anything to keep her mouth from betraying the secret. And she prayed for death.
There was a tiny slot in the stone wall that passed for a window. There was not much to see through it -- only the bullet-pocked brick wall of another building, and a filthy alley, and a scraggly tree, with one single fruit hanging from it.
As the long days wore into weeks, she began to look on the tree as a friend, and to speak to it. She told it about her feelings, her memories, and her hope that her suffering was not in vain. She spoke to the tree, and, eventually, it began to speak to her. Listen, it said, when this fruit falls at last, you shall have your rest.
And so she watched the fruit. As she watched, day by day, it grew ripe and heavy, but it refused to fall. And every day she faced the pain again, and the fear that her will might weaken. By night she walked, ran, and crawled down that shining road, only to be driven back by the Angel of Night and her merciless sword.
At last, one morning, her waiting was at an end. The fruit no longer hung from the limb of the sickly tree -- but, marvelously, it had fallen and grown up overnight into a beautiful, flowering young tree! Its leaves and branches were so rich, so delicate, that they seemed to possess infinitely fine detail. This was a glorious sign that her longed-for rest was at hand. Giddy with excitement, she faced the day’s torments cheerfully, knowing that her soul was to be liberated from the prison of her body in a few short hours.
The lights finally dimmed and she lay down, bloodied and blistered as always, on the rough wooden plank that served as her bed. She thought how sweet it would be, to enter the Garden of Mercy at last. She closed her eyes, and listened as the old tree spoke to her for the last time.
The Garden of Mercy
The glowing path lay before her, and the forest did not seem so thick this time. Up ahead, the light was as bright as ever, and clearer than before: at its center stood a grove of flowering trees, like the new tree she had seen in her window. By the entrance to the grove, silhouetted in the light, the Angel of Night stood quietly, leaning on her sword like a weary soldier.
Tarika stood for a moment, her dream-eyes drinking in the beauty of the scene. Then the Angel of Night spoke to her softly. “It’s over now,” was all she said. “You may enter the Garden of Mercy.”
Tarika nodded graciously to the angel. Then she turned and walked away from the Garden, back into the mouth of the prison. There was a blinding flash, a sound like thunder, and everything went black.
“She’ll have a fine headache when she comes to,” the medic was saying. “But she’s been through a lot worse, the poor thing.” As her vision cleared, she could see the outline of the medic, and, standing beside him, a sergeant wearing People’s Front insignia.
The sergeant leaned down to look her in the eye. “Sorry about the concussion grenade, ma’am,” he said, “but it sure shook up those Nationalist goons. They were sitting ducks when our team moved in.”
Tarika found herself sobbing. “What happened?” she managed to ask. “Where am I?”
“Where are you?” the sergeant echoed. “Well, that’s a good one. They were keeping you in their most heavily-guarded compound -- the one place they were sure would be safe from us. But they were wrong.”
The sergeant was joined by a young captain, tired but managing a smile. “Let’s give credit where it’s due, sergeant. Without our best agent, here, keeping her wits about her, this mission -- Operation Phoenix -- would have failed.
“Of course,” the captain added, “we got some lucky breaks too. That nice big tree by the window -- it wasn’t on any of our reconnaissance photos, but it sure came in handy for our forward scout when we moved in last night. Without it, I couldn’t swear the operation would have run as smoothly as it did.”
The sound of gunfire died down, and out of the corner of her eye she could see a line of men in Nationalist uniforms marching slowly out of the building with their hands over their heads.
“I think she’s heard enough about tactics for now, sir,” the medic observed. “I believe we can move her now -- I guess she won’t be sorry to see the last of this wretched place.”
“Wait,” Tarika said, “that tree -- I have to tell you what the tree told me last night.”
The sergeant and the medic exchanged glances but said nothing. Tarika began to speak.
What the Tree Said
“Yes, I spoke to the tree from inside my cell; and after a time, the tree began to speak to me. And this is what it told me on the last night:
“ ‘Many’s the year I’ve watched you humans, in good times and bad. But these times are the worst. This civil war of yours -- seven rings I’ve grown since it began. I’ve seen my fellows cut down, burned, or blown apart. I’ve seen their tree-bones turned to clubs for you to beat one another with. War is hard on trees. Yet I was determined to weather, and not to wither, so long as sap still flowed beneath my bark.
“ ‘But blood is poor nourishment for my roots. My endurance was at its end. This year I decided I’d finally seen enough, and I resolved to turn quietly to dead wood.
“ ‘Then I saw you looking at me through your window. Now I had something to live for! I listened eagerly to your tales of life in the world of walking beings. Your suffering saddened me so, but you had no one else to talk to. I could not leave you.
“ ‘I had but one fruit left, not yet ripe. I knew -- in the manner that trees often know these things -- I knew it was decreed that your soul should not be set free until the fruit fell. So I held fast to the fruit with all my might, nurturing it with all my strength, until it grew so ripe that it could stay on the branch no longer.
“ ‘So much life was in that fruit, that when it fell last night, it sprang up right away. Now, though it has fallen, yet it has not fallen, for you see it again even now, in the flowering young tree it has become.’
“Those were the tree’s final words to me. I stayed alive for the tree’s sake, and it stayed alive for mine. And the tree lived to speak its great secret -- that great, blossoming, magical new tree that stands beside it now.
“As long as life is in the seed, the fruit will never fall.”