by Zett Aguado

I named the tree Crooked Old Man because its branches reminded me of arthritic fingers. The tree was rooted in sand. Nobody tended its leaves, which dragged like a dirty beard. Rain had fallen twice that year.

“Why do you think it’s still alive?” I asked my husband one day.

He shrugged, saying, “Who knows? Everything’s crazy in Dubai. Why should a tree be any different?”

We kept to ourselves; busy grieving for dead relatives. We could not afford to go home for the funerals. Every day, I looked out my bedroom window. A mosque stood about two hundred yards behind Crooked Old Man. Five times a day, the muezzin called out for prayer. The calls resounded, filling the air. At times it seemed as if they shook the tree’s leaves, which grew oilier and larger with time. They shone; defying drought, abandon, the yellow sand. I cursed it. “If you died, it would be acceptable at your age,” I said, thinking of my aunt who had died at forty-three.

My husband did not know the night she died, I snuck out with a kitchen knife. I walked to the tree and stabbed its trunk, but the blade curved. Angry, I yanked its leaves, surprised milky discharge did not leak from its veins. Sweaty from the heat, I returned to our flat and flung the knife in the bin.

The next morning, I rescued the knife and tried to straighten the tip with a hammer. The noise ricocheted off the ceramic walls. I kept at it all morning, but dents pockmarked the blade. My ears hummed. I hated the tree for ruining my good knife.

When the midday call for prayer sounded, I squinted, trying to catch a glimpse of the muezzin, but Crooked Old Man got in the way, blocking the minaret. I only saw the mosque’s dome, looking white and blurred, like a mirage.

Yet from the corner of my eye, I saw a herd of goats approaching. Rhythmic, pounding the sand into clouds, they surrounded the tree. Some jumped on branches and grazed on the leaves. I laughed. Stupid tree, I thought, let’s see how you survive this. The tree answered, waving its branches like a complaint.

I watched the goats eat the tree. By late afternoon, little was left. Shredded bark. Yellow sapless wounds. Branches like twigs. Leaves like feathers.

The evening call for prayer began, bottomless, solemn, rumbling in the sky. I don’t know why I ran to save the tree then. Panicked, I rushed through a crowd of men traveling to the mosque. I tripped over their robes but carried on, hearing their laughter follow me to the sand plot. Screaming and flailing my arms, I bounded into the herd, but the goats only jumped a bit. Their mouths stuffed, they seemed to mock me as the men had. I embraced the tree’s trunk, feeling its torn bark scratch my cheek. Realizing it was too late; I held on tightly and wept.

Trained in Fine Arts and Education, Zett Aguado found her true calling four years ago when she wrote her first short story. Her short fiction has been published in Snow Monkey, Vestal Review, The Paumanok Review, Eclectica, Small Spiral Notebook, Literary Potpourri, Painted Moon Review, Vallarta Voice and In & Out Magazine, where her work was translated into Spanish. She is the 2001 Short Story Winner for Mad Dog Publishing. Her short story, ‘Eclipses’ will be included in Eclectica’s Best Fiction Anthology, Volume One. For the past twenty years, she has lived as an expatriate in one country or another. She currently resides with her husband in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.