Sand, one hill after another, strolling through the valley of the shadow of death, I came upon a tree, tall and endless. I first saw it a few hours ago, or it could have been longer. Time had ceased to mean anything to me, much like everything else. But I headed toward the tree as it was straight in my path anyway. Not that I knew exactly where I was going, but I knew where I had been, and I didn’t care much for it. Even wandering the desert with my skin beginning to peel, it still felt better than the pain I left behind.
You would think that a desert, especially this one, would be isolated. To my surprise, I met a man on an obnoxiously rude camel, either my first or second day of the journey. He was a tall man, with sandblasted wrinkles streaking his face. His age was indeterminable, either due to the clothes he was wearing or the climate he survived in. He must have thought me crazy, a white man in a Pink Floyd t-shirt walking around in the foreign desert with no provisions.
He gave me water from a jug and I drank deeply while his camel eyed me with curiosity and then spit on me. Though I couldn’t understand what the man was saying, his meaning was clear. I was going the wrong way. When he finally understood that I had no intention of going back the way I had come, he gave the universal shrug and shook his head. I gave him a somewhat wobbly bow and tried to give his jug of water back. He wouldn’t take it. Instead, he turned around, got on his camel and continued the way I had just come. I stood there and stared at him for a while, until the waves of heat coming from the sand finally claimed him from my sight.
The water in the jug was long gone now. I remember trying to drink from it when I first saw the tree. All I got was sand, and not even moist sand. I spit it out, coughing. At some point, while the tree was still shimmering on the far distant horizon, I remember falling and watching the jug roll down the hill I had just climbed.
I closed my eyes, and when I opened them again it was darker. The scalding heat from the day had mostly evaporated into what might have been a comfortable sauna temperature. I got up, shakily, and looked around. The tree was still there. Not as far off as it had looked before I took my little nap, but still miles away.
I’m sure I must have looked like some druid worshiping this ancient tree as I fell to my knees when I finally reached it. The tree was as wide as a billboard with branches that were bare. The only thing it seemed to advertise though was a refusal to submit to the heat of the desert. No other vegetation did I see, almost as if this makeshift valley were not strong enough to support a single blade of grass in addition to this tree. Or perhaps the tree refused to tolerate anything other than itself out here in the middle of nowhere.
I’m not sure how many days I had traveled or how far I had come, but I knew that I could not go much further without rest. I sat at the base, with my back against the rough bark, pondering life, and the lack thereof. That’s when I noticed a branch, not too high, that began to move. There, at the end of the branch was a bird, smaller than a crow, green in color. The bird was the most colorful thing in this valley of death. I managed to slowly stand and the bird stopped moving, as if it were afraid of being seen.
Through the bare branches I saw the clouding sky, no longer blue as it had been earlier in the day. The clouds were gray and angry-looking. They pushed at one another, each trying to take the lead. They were racing east, away from the prismatic rays of the setting sun, almost as if they feared the fading light. One of the rays sliced through the tangle of clouds and fell upon the bird.
The bird seemed to find new life, bathed in the spotlight that fell upon its green feathers. It stretched its wings for a bit, then cocked its head and looked in my direction, probably wondering what manner of creature would dare enter this barren valley on foot. I looked at my shoes, worn, dirty, and filled with sand, cushioning blistering feet.
When the bird spoke I nearly jumped out of my skin. This seemed to startle the bird as well. My quick movement was not quite as quick as the birds though. Before I had time to blink, it had jumped or flown to another branch, just a few feet higher than where it had been before.
I waited, silently, and very still. Yet, the bird did not repeat what it had spoken, nor did it make a further attempt at communication. It just stood there and waited. Waiting for me to respond? Should I…or would that would be paramount to admitting that I had lost my mind? But then, perhaps that’s why I was on this journey in the first place.
Years had been wasted talking to myself. Was it so different from talking to a bird? Shaking loose of my pride, I said, “Hello. Did you ask if I was lost?”
“The bird doesn’t talk,” said the tree. “And I didn’t ask if you were lost. I said, ‘You are lost’, which I am sure you see the difference.”
I can only presume that I fainted. When I awoke, the first thing I saw were the stars. The clouds, having long ago finished their race, were nowhere to be found. Turning my head slightly to the left I could see the moon, not full, but much easier to look at than its evil brother. Slowly I remembered where I was, though I managed to carefully forget the reason that I was there. The bird… no, the tree talked to me. Did I really have a conversation with a tree?
When I sat up and looked around, the huge tree was still there, the base of it nearly twenty feet away. I must have walked, no, ran away. I stood, shaking the warm sand loose from my clothes. And with bravery that even a knight of long ago realms would appreciate, I walked back toward the tree, albeit rather slowly.
The first thing that I noticed was that the bird had gone. At least he was not on any of the lower branches I could see. The other thing that struck me was that this tree did have a bit of color to it. In the moonlight I could see sap, the color of blood. I traced it to a hole about forty or fifty feet up, big enough for a tiger cub to climb into. It trailed down the tree, forking into several paths, but apparently the heat in the valley had congealed it quickly as it didn’t reach the bottom, only coming to within a few feet above my head.
Gathering my courage, I spoke to the tree. “Are you hurt?”
I’m not sure what would have been worse, the tree responding to my question, or its total silence. A response would mean that I was actually as insane as I was beginning to expect, while silence might keep me guessing for quite some time about my mental state.
As if sensing my mind were on a ledge, ready to jump into the abyss of insanity far below, the Tree said, “Does it really matter if I can talk? Perhaps it’s just that you are tired. You have traveled far and your mind is weary. This could all be a hallucination or a mirage; after all, you have been walking in the desert for three days. To answer your question though, no, I am not hurt. It is an old wound and I have grown accustomed to it.”
Yep, I had lost it. I slumped down, facing the tree, all pain behind me. If I were going insane, then this was as good a place as any to draw the line, or cross it.
“How do you know I’ve been walking for three days?” I asked, settling in for what might be the most interesting conversation of my life. Insane or not, I found talking to most people mindless and boring. At least the Tree had my full undivided attention.
When the tree didn’t respond, I became impatient and asked again. Minutes, or hours ticked by, it was hard to tell. The moon had moved higher, now firmly set between branches that could have reached to the stars themselves. Just as I was beginning to give up hope, a thought occurred to me and I tried a different approach.
“You said that I was lost. Why did you say that?”
The Tree didn’t miss a beat. “You know that you are lost. I was just stating the obvious.”
“I may be in the middle of nowhere, but I do know where I am. When I left Cairo, I headed west. You say that I’ve been walking for three days. That would put Alexandria and the Mediterranean Sea just north of here, probably thirty to forty miles,” I said, confident that my math was correct. “But that’s not where I was headed,” I added.
“Forty-six miles actually. That was not too bad for someone in your condition,” said the Tree. “However, we both know that I was speaking not of physical location but of the direction that your life has taken.”
“You’ll have to forgive me,” I said, not knowing where the conversation was headed, “This Twilight-Zone stuff is a bit new for me. Would you care to explain why you said that, or how you can talk, or why you’re in the middle of the Sahara Desert?”
Three days in the sun and I couldn’t remember sweating as much as I did waiting for an answer. None was forthcoming. I waited, and then waited some more. I thought about what the Tree had said about the direction in my life. True, I hadn’t been the same since she died, but that was to be expected. Part of me, the best part, died right along with her. All that was left was a shell of my former self. I had spent years trying to fill a hole, a void in my life that just couldn’t be filled. Drugs didn’t work. Even two failed marriages didn’t help. All I had managed to do was entangle my screwed up life with one person after another, until I couldn’t tell who had the worst end of it.
After the last divorce, and as a last resort, I had turned to prayer. My parents had taken me to church when I was younger, so I knew all about God, Jesus, forgiveness and salvation. At first I expected something awe-inspiring and spiritual would take place as I was on my knees, crying my eyes out, confessing my sins and asking for Jesus to come into my life and bring me hope. Nothing happened. I sank lower into a state of depression that I had not known since the funeral.
The Tree was right, I was lost. Even coming to the Holy Land had not helped much. I left the tour group after the first few days and headed west to Cairo. I didn’t know what I was going to do when I got there, but it didn’t take long to find myself in an American bar.
I sat at a corner table near the back, nursing a beer when I overheard a couple, British or South African by the sound of their accents, discussing Jesus. They had evidently spent the past week in Israel on a Holy Land tour of their own. At some point they brought up the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil. You know the one, out in the desert for forty days? I guess that’s where I got the idea from. In some strange warped part of my mind, I figured if the Devil found Jesus in the desert, then maybe I could too. If not, then the desert would surely claim my soul as nobody else seemed to want it.
When I finished the beer, I left a tip on the table, walked out the door and headed west into the largest desert in the world. Three days later and I find myself talking to a tree. I figure the end must be near, another day or two at the most. That’s when I hear, “Hope is eternal.”
Normally I’m a bit quicker than this, so I put my initial lack of understanding down to exhaustion. Then it finally occurred to me. The Tree was representing the Tree of Life, or God. Even the hole in the side of the tree was a symbol of Jesus, having being pierced in his side with a spear.
Well, I thought, I did come out here seeking God. If He can appear to Moses as a burning bush, I guess a tree is not so far-fetched. “Ok,” I said, “You’re supposed to be God, or the Tree of Life or something?”
“I Am.” The tree replied.
“Yeah, I’ve heard that before. So why finally come to me way out here? Why not months ago in my bedroom when I was crying and calling for help?”
“Some children, full of questions about life, are satisfied with answers given to them by their parents. As children grow older, some search again for the answers that they have already been given. They need to find the answers themselves before they will truly believe what their parents have already told them. You needed to find me for yourself,” said the Tree with compassion.
As I was trying to think of a response to that, the weight of exhaustion overwhelmed my senses. I closed my eyes and dizziness surrounded me. “Sleep,” said the disembodied voice. I slept.
In my dream, angels hovered about me, tending my wounds. I didn’t know how I knew that these were angels. They were not dressed in all white, and they certainly didn’t have wings, but angels they were. They looked like regular men and women, but they were much more. There was a confidence, a peaceful knowing, and a spiritual presence that just exuded from them. I was not only at ease, but had a complete feeling of peace and love. I remember thinking, ‘So this is what it’s like for the Jesus freaks.’
As I lay there watching, one of these heavenly beings lifted my right arm, and ever so gently, blew on it. The burnt and peeling skin tingled, turned pink, and became new skin, leaving no trace of scar behind. I tried to offer my thanks, but my lips would not move, and I was unable to make a sound. I felt the tears fall from my eyes, sliding down my face and puddle about my ears.
The scene changed and I found myself standing on a road looking down the hill at two kids fishing in a pond. One of them had gotten a fishing line tangled in the branches of the large tree they were fishing under. As the boy tugged on the line, several pinecones fell from the tree, one landing on his head. The girl who was with him fell to the ground, rolling with laughter. “You’re so funny! I love you,” she said between laughing fits.
I realized that this was a memory. I was the little boy. She was the little girl. But this was different from the way it actually happened. In reality, she never told me that she loved me. That would come many years later. I felt the tears flowing down my face again.
Raindrops were hitting my face. I opened my eyes and had to blink as a drop hit me square in the eye. I was soaked. The sun was overhead, somewhere hidden behind the thick branches and the leaves of the huge tree. Then I remembered, ‘The Tree.’
I sat up and looked around. For a hundred yards in every direction, green grass. There was grass, in the middle of the Sahara Desert. To my left there was a small pool of water, not much bigger than two or three bathtubs put together. The water looked fresh and clear. Having spent three days in the desert, at least one or two of those without water, I was quite surprised when I didn’t feel the need to even drink from it. It then occurred to me that this pool of water was in the shade. I looked up at the Tree, branches no longer bare, but sporting a full canopy of leaves.
As I sat there dripping, a gentle rain falling, I rubbed my arms the way people do when they get a cold chill. I noticed that my skin showed no sign of blistering from my time walking in the sun. I looked back at the pool, the grass, and finally at all the leaves that the Tree has sprouted. “That’s pretty impressive,” I said. “Am I still dreaming?”
Thunder, far in the distance was the only response. I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of the rain as it fell on, and around me, making a beautiful melody on the pool of water nearby. More thunder, this time closer. The rain picked up and began slapping my upturned face. The melody of water on the pool changed to whispering voices that grew louder with each passing second. My head hurt and I was soaking wet. From somewhere close by I heard the sound of my name being called.
When I opened my eyes, blinking the water away, I saw an old man with a silver beard standing over me. In his hand he held a small jug. He was just about to pour the remaining contents on my face when he saw my eyes open.
“Aw, there you are. Welcome back. I apologize for intruding, but you were shouting and some of our guests were becoming…concerned.”
The sky was gone, replaced by a dingy ceiling with a bare bulb. I recognized it; the hotel room. Looking around I saw my backpack on the chair beside the window as memories came flooding back. Had I been in the desert?
“You were quite drunk when your American friends dropped you off. Are you able to sit?”
My head felt like I had been kicked by a camel, but I managed to sit up, even though the room spun a bit in the process. Nausea came in slow, uneven waves, and for a moment I thought I might be sick.
So, it was all a dream, fueled by a drunken stupor. Depression took the place of nausea, and I felt the tears begging for release. It was time to go; where, I didn’t know.
The old innkeeper gave me room as I slipped off the bed and started to gather my things. I picked up my shoes off the floor and started to put them on, then stopped. They were full of sand.
I looked at the old man, still holding the jug of water, and he was watching me carefully. “You said that I was shouting? What exactly did I say?”
He smiled, a twinkle in his kind eyes. “You were shouting ‘thank you’, over and over.”