Short Story

The Tree of Dreams

     It was a tree that came between them. Literally… And they almost came to blows.

     Antonio had grown up on the other side of the city in an Italian neighbourhood much like the one he had just bought a house in. His family was loud and boisterous and opinionated, but hard-working and very family orientated. When he had saved enough money to buy his first house, he laid awake at nights going over all of the plans he had for it in his head. He would build a nice deck in the backyard for barbeques and dinners. His two daughters would have a little monkey bar set on the small patch of grass and there would be a garden for vegetables. Being a plumber, he knew how to improve the kitchen and washrooms, and having cousins in construction meant that he’d have a lot of help for his ideas to landscape the front yard. But, there was that damn tree…

     Luiz bought the semi-detached house next door to Antonio just a few weeks later and was very happy with his purchase. There was a cantina in the back that needed some work but in which he would be able to make wine. The basement was in good shape with no mold or leaks. The kitchen was big and his son and daughter would now have their own bedrooms. He had worked very, very hard since immigrating from South America, but now, 11 years later he was buying his first home. His wife was very pleased. And there was that beautiful tree in the front yard that was going to provide shade on his porch during the hottest days of summer…

     Within a few days of moving in, the two men met out back by their garages. They smiled and shook hands and introduced themselves. Antonio was the larger man, but Luiz was a personal trainer and in much better shape. As they stood proudly facing each other and relishing in their accomplishments, it didn’t take long for Antonio to bring up the tree.

     “Yeah, so I’m gonna take out that tree and do a beautiful landscaping job on my front yard. Let me know if you like it and I can probably get you a good price from my cousins.”

     “What do you mean you’re going to take out that tree? That tree is on my property. You can’t take it out. That’s my tree.”

     “No-no-no, the tree is on my property. I checked. If you take a measurement from a perfect ninety degree angle from the centre of our houses, you’ll see it’s on my property.”

     “Impossible. I checked. It is definitely on my property and you can’t cut it down.”

     Antonio cleared his throat with obvious irritation.

     “Hey. Let’s not start off on the wrong foot. I need the tree out. Come with me. I have a t-square and a guide wire. I’ll show you right now.”

     “O.k., but I know it’s on my property.”

     The two men went into Antonio’s garage where he fished out the t-square and spool of guide wire and they proceeded to their front yards.

     “We could just tie it to the railing that separates our porches and pull it forward.”

     “Yes but we need the t-square to be precise. Here, hold it here and I’ll back up with it. You tell me to go to the left or right to stay flush with it.”


     Luiz held the t-square and wire while Antonio backed up unreeling the spool…

     …and he backed right into the tree.

     “O.k., a little bit left. No, too much. Right. O.k. There”

     Antonio was holding the lead right in the centre of the tree.

     “See! It’s on my property!” Luiz exclaimed.

     “Yeah, but it’s on my property too!” Antonio shouted back. “Here, let me hold those while you hold this end!”

     “Sure, but it’s not going to change.”

     They switched positions and sure enough the lead landed right in the centre of the tree again.

     “O.k., so it’s definitely on my property, so I have a right to take it out,” Antonio declared.

     “Excuse me? It’s also on my property, so I have every right to keep it in the ground.”

     “Look man. I’ve been planning how my house is going to look for weeks. I can’t have the fountain and rose bushes look the way their supposed to if the tree stays in the middle of my lawn.”

     “And I won’t get the shade on my porch that I need if there’s no tree. And my yard looks perfect the way it is now.”

     “You don’t seem to understand how much time and money I’m going to invest in this yard. It’s going to be a work of art! A fountain and stone tigers and a gravel bed around them and tulips for the spring. You don’t understand! There’s going to be a brick wall around the whole thing and I can’t put it through a damn tree! I’ve got all the drawings! My cousins are going to dig it up next week!”

     “Well you’ll have to go around the tree. You have to change the plans.”

     “No. I’m taking out the tree.”

     “If you do, I will report it to the city as an illegal tree removal and then take you to court and sue you.”

     “Are you fucking serious! You do NOT want to piss me off man! I’ll file a claim with the city and get this fucking tree taken out! You can bet on that!”

     “Go ahead and try! I’ll be at City Hall first thing in the morning to make sure that you can’t!”

     “We’ll see about that!”

     With that, Antonio stormed off up his front steps and slammed the door behind him.

     “Nice meeting you too,” Luiz muttered to himself as he headed back inside.

     The two men exchanged cold glances in the following week as each of them plotted how to ensure that they were going to stay in control of what would happen to the tree. Both went to City Hall, and after lengthy explanations of their situations, accompanied by pictures and city hall land records, they were both told the same thing.

     It’s a mature, healthy tree. We have laws to protect them. Work it out between the two of you or it stays where it is.

     Antonio flew into a rage in his garage when he got the final word on the matter. Tools clanged off of the brick wall and he kicked in a couple of boxes of work-clothes, ultimately causing no real damage to anything. Having worked out his frustrations a bit, he sucked back a cigarette and then returned to his house to start plotting how he was going to deal with the cursed tree.

     Luiz went on his breezy way as usual and lifted his weights, did his cardiovascular, trained his clients and things in his world remained just right.

     As much as he tried to wrap his head around how to deal with Luiz and get the tree removed from his yard, Antonio could only come up with one solution to the problem. He would buy him off. At first he would offer Luiz $500 to relent. If he was refused, he would bump it up to $700, then $800 and finally top off at $1000 – but not a cent more than that!

     “If that little prick wants more than $1000 he can kiss my ass. And I’ll make his life soooooo miserable,” he hissed, talking to himself.

     So, the next day, he put on his best demeanour and calmly went over to Luiz’s house to pay off his nemesis and get the shovels into his yard before the frosts came.

     The doorbell rang. Antonio exhaled deeply. Footsteps approached. The door opened.


     “How ya doin’?”


     “Look. We got off on the wrong foot and I want to apologize if I seemed to come on a little strong.”

     “No problem. It’s not a big deal.”

     “Good – good. I don’t want us to hold a grudge. We’ve got to be neighbours for a long time and we’ve got to get along.”

     “I agree.”

     “Good – good! So I’d like to make things up to you. I want to give you $500 for your trouble. That way, you make some good money and plant a new tree and I can build my garden. Sounds good, eh?”

     “Thank-you, but no. My host family when I first came here had a tree like this one and it takes at least twenty years to mature properly, so I’m happy with this one.”

     Antonio smiled a humble smile and rocked his head from side to side a bit.

     “O.k., I understand. It’s very important to you. So I’ll give you $700. O.k.? That’s fair, right?’

     “It’s fair, but I can’t accept. Thanks anyway.”

     “Well then $800 has to be enough for you to buy one of those trees that’s already a bit mature right? You want to meet me halfway on this don’t you?”

     “Replanting mature trees is very tricky. I don’t want to risk it.”

     “Okayyyyyyyyyy… welllllllllllllllllll… then I’ll just have to give you $1000 for your troubles. That’s much more than fair. I have cash. Here. I’ll give you cash right now and we can write a little letter and sign it and get on with our lives, ok?”

     “Thank-you, but no. I appreciate the offer but I have to respectfully decline.”

     Antonio stood there stunned for a moment and then cocked his head to one side and shot Luiz a gaze of laser intensity.

     “Are you seriously telling me that you are going to refuse my kind, kind offer of $1000, and make an enemy of me just to keep that damn tree.”

     “I’m not trying to make an enemy of you.”

     “But, bah – wha’? What do you mean you’re not trying to make an enemy of me? You are refusing my extremely generous $1000 and killing my dreams of building a beautiful garden in my own front yard just to keep a damn tree!”

     “I am not trying to kill your dreams – just keep a beautiful tree alive.”

     “It’s just a fucking tree!” Anonio shouted, his fists clenched.

     A young girls voice came calling from within the house.

     “Daddy, what’s wrong?”

     “Nothing dear. I’ll be right there.”

     With a stoney look on his face, Luiz stepped onto his porch and took off his sweat-top. A perfectly sculpted body stared Antonio right in the face.

     “Now look man. I’ve been very polite about all this, but  if you don’t get off of my porch right now I’ll hit you so hard you won’t be able to find your face for a week.”

     Antonio, trying his best to control his rage, gave Luiz a look of pure hatred, shook his finger at him, but without saying a word, went back to his own property.

     The men didn’t speak again for a long time. No shovels broke the dirt of Antonio’s yard that fall and the frosts settled in and then the snow covered their yards for months on end. The men rarely saw each other and Antonio actually listened carefully to make sure he wasn’t coming and going from his garage at the same time as Luiz. By winter’s end both men had had a long respite from each other, but with the coming of spring, Antonio’s mind returned to landscaping his yard.

     `If I build the wall with a gap or a turn in it to accommodate that tree the whole thing is going to look like shit. Maybe I should just redesign it all without a garden wall… but fuck! The wall was what was going to make it look so impressive. Just like my dad’s and my uncles. Dammit! I don’t know what the hell to do!’ he told himself.

     As spring kicked into full gear and things started to sprout and shoot, little buds started to form on the tree. Days passed and the buds got bigger and fuller until they looked like they were about to burst. Antonio looked at it with disgust.

     `Now matter how I draw the plans, they don’t look anything like what I want. My dad’s gonna look at it when it’s done and I know the first thing out of his mouth will be: “Where’s the wall? A proper front garden has a good wall!” – I’m gonna bring him here and ask him what I should do.

     He went to work as usual that day and returned home that evening by the back alley. As he came around the corner of his house into his front yard he was immediately caught off guard by what he saw.

     The tree had bloomed. It was a Sweetbay Magnolia and the flowers were white and puffy and stunningly beautiful. Antonio stopped in his tracks. A heavenly fragrance touched his nose and he cocked his head to one side and just stood there staring at it.

     `That’s… it’s… really beautiful…’

     He stood and he stood and then he hung his head a little and slumped into his house.

     That weekend, Antonio’s father and mother came to visit the kids. A bit later on some cousins came and the kitchen started to fill with the mouthwatering aromas of Italian cooking. Once the kids became more occupied with playing with each other than being around the adults, Antonio and his dad slipped out onto the front porch with their glasses of wine and sat down on one of the benches.

     `I may as well ask for his advice. Now is as good a time as any.’

     “What a beautiful tree, isn’t it Antonio!” his father declared loudly, gesturing towards the Magnolia.

     “Yeah. It’s really nice, but it’s given me a big headache!”

     “What do you mean? How can a tree so beautiful give you a headache?”

     “When I bought this house I had a big plan to landscape this yard so that I could put in a garden wall and a fountain and some lions and roses and flowers like your and mama’s garden but the tree is half on my neighbour’s property and he and the City won’t let me cut it down.”

     Ffff!!! His father scoffed, dismissing the idea.

     “Why you need to cut down such a beautiful tree? Why you need a garden like ours? It’s a very nice garden, but this tree makes your houses look so beautiful all by itself. You should just design what you want around the tree. You don’t need a wall! You should just put in some roses at the front and a couple of columns with two lions at the bottom of the driveway. That’ll be perfetto!”

     “Really papa? You think so?”

     “Look at that tree! It’s an old gentleman! You gotta let him live!”

     “Yeah, I guess you’re right papa,” Antonio smiled with relief. “I guess I just really wanted to carry on the tradition of our family’s style of garden.”

     “Ahhh… so many Italians have a style like that now. You have to work around what nature gives you sometimes. That’s why I kept the grapes that were in the backyard when we bought our house. They weren’t the kind I like best, but I learned how to blend them and use them and now I really like them and the vines are almost 100 years old and the grapes are very good.”

     “You’re right papa. I should probably make things better with my neighbour.”

     “You mean you started a fight? Ahhh… you always were a stubborn boy. You smile at him the next time you see him and tell him how much you like your tree. He’ll probably say it’s o.k.”

     “O.k. Papa.”

     And Antonio did just that. He didn’t push things too fast and that summer they started talking over the fence about their gardens and what kind of tomatoes they had planted. A few weeks later Antonio invited them over and they had a big barbeque and  lots of wine and everyone finished the day full and happy.

     Then, that summer, the tree bloomed a second time, which is what Sweetbay Magnolias do, and Antonio and Luiz found themselves out on their front porches one Sunday evening drinking wine together again, both of them alternately stepping over the short wrought-iron fence that separated the two porches to come and go from each others houses – which gave Antonio an idea.

     “This part of the fence. It’s very inconvenient for our kids don’t you think? You know I have a metal saw in my garage… we could…”

     “Let’s do it!

     So Antonio got the circular saw from his garage while Luiz plugged in an extension chord, and about a half hour later, the men, women and children were passing freely back and forth between the two semi-detached houses, delighting in their friendship and the beauty of the white, fragrant flowers of the Magnolia tree…




The Lesson

     Takase-Sensei methodically finished laying out the materials that he and his student Yanase-san would be using to finish their shodo calligraphy project. It was the most important piece they would work on that year, as it represented the culmination of the blooming talents of the apprentice and the subtle, guiding hand of the master and how well they had been married together through their relationship. It was to be judged by Takase-Sensei’s peers, for Yanase-san was in his final year with Takase-Sensei and would advance in seniority and move on to study at another temple if all went as it should. This is, at least, what Takase-Sensei expected.

     Satisfied that all was in place, Takase-Sensei attended to the preparation of the making of the tea and sat to await Yanase-san’s arrival. As he watched the kettle start to slowly steam, he closed his eyes and cleared his mind in preparation for the final lesson.

     `Yanase-san is not yet ready. My way is clear,’ he thought, then meditated upon the image of a waterfall.

     Soon, he heard soft footsteps approach.

     “Takase Sensei imasu ka?”

     “Hai. Dozo…”

     Yanase-san, seated on his shins, slid open the door to his master’s office, bowed, slid himself in and forward with his hands, and slid the door closed again. Then, the handsome youth leaned forward, bowing and touching his forehead against the ground in respect towards his master, and then slid himself forward with his hands until he was seated across from Takase-Sensei.

     “Are you prepared to do your best?”


     “Then I will pour some tea and we will begin.”

     It was a large piece comprised of long poems that the two had written earlier that year. The readiness to brush a line in one’s own stylistic hand, the preparation of the ink and the execution of each kanji required much practice, trial and error and clear-headed confidence. One did not simply put down a poem and expect the shapes of the words to shimmer with life. It was a lifelong challenge of which there were limitless possibilities.

     Takase-Sensei and Yanase-san began the long process of preparing their inks, grinding their sticks against their river slate in a figure eight motion, going back and forth and back and forth from the reservoir of ink to the grinding surface. After carefully adding the exact amount of water needed, they were ready to begin.

     They usually worked mostly in silence, but today Takase-Sensei had some final questions for his apprentice…

     “How is Kumamoto-san coming along under your tutelage?”

     “He is very slow with his history – which is why he could probably do with two tutors.”

     “Not everyone has your memorization skills Yanase-san. Kumamoto-san’s strength is in his kabuki writing. He is a natural actor. He has already been chosen by a top Kyoto master.”

     “Clowning and frowning will not make him a well-rounded literati. He needs more discipline with his studies.”

     “Is he really so bad at his work that he needs to be insulted with degrading words and struck with your stick on the head?”

     “So he went crying to someone did he?”

     “No. Two other students saw it and word spread.”

     “His ego gets in the way of his learning. I was teaching him the rule of the stick. If he can’t be disciplined, he will not know the way.”

     “Well, I fear that you may think my way too soft and easy to manipulate. Maybe that is not good for you.”

     “No Sensei. You are an excellent teacher.”

     “Is that so? Even if I tell you that I am disappointed of your beating of younger students? Even if I tell you that I don’t think that you are as smart as you think you are because you can’t find better ways to express your teachings than through anger?”

     There was a short pause as Yanase-san stiffened and his intense gaze focused upon his master. Takase-Sensei stared back emotionlessly.

     “You are entitled to your methods and beliefs Sensei. You have done well here in the lower levels and you are well respected. I’m sure that you will live a long, peaceful life. If I hit a student I do it for a very good reason indeed.”

     “Whereas I can’t see any good reason to ever hit anyone unless you are defending yourself, but then you come from a different school of martial arts than I do, and I have only lived three times as long as you.”

     “True. Though I am sure that despite your small stature, you could defend yourself if need be.”

     “Thank-you for the compliment. Such flattery deserves a drink. I have prepared some tea. Shall we drink?”

     “Certainly. -Best to forget our differences.”

     “Indeed. Time to move on.”

     Takase-Sensei gracefully went through the motions of preparing tea while Yanase-san made practice strokes on a separate piece of paper. Takase-Sensei, finished, turned with the full pot of tea and started over to their workspace. Almost there, the toe of his slipper seemed to catch on a corner of the tatami bamboo mat and he tripped. Yanase-san watched in horror as the pot of tea came slowly tumbling in the air towards him and then landed with a great splash in the middle of their work, ruining it instantly.

     There was a long pause as the two of them drank in the severity of the accident. Their pieces were now useless. There would be no choice left now but to work through the night to have them ready for the next days judging.

     “You… you… I can’t believe it! How could you do it! You did it on… You did it on… aaah!”

     “I am so terribly sorry. My eyes aren’t what they used to be…”

     “You old fool! You’ve ruined everything!”

     “Ohhh, no-no-no… it’s impossible to ruin everything. You are overreacting.”

     “Overreacting? Overreacting? Do you realize what you’ve done?”

     “Certainly. I ruined some good work, but it is easily replaced. Why are you so upset?”

     “Why? You’ve ruined my whole night! I’ll be up all night redoing this!”

     “Well, so will I… What’s so hard about that? You are letting your emotions get the better of you.”

     “Ohhhhh… I am am I? Hmmm… Very clever… Very clever…”

     “You see, I am not upset because I know that all I have to do is drink half as much sake as I usually do, concentrate a little harder and keep myself focused and enjoy the work I have to redo because it is enjoyable and I have a chance to do it differently now, which is always rewarding. Remember… misfortune means opportunity.”

     “Yes… and everything is imperfect. Except some people are more imperfect than others. Well… enjoy working by yourself. I will work in my own chamber and we’ll paste the new pages together tomorrow. I can’t work here anymore. It’s a good thing that I’ll be leaving soon. I am assured a place with much more prominent men than you as you well know and it will be a blessing to be among them.”

     “And I’m sure that you’ll go on to be a much more famous monk than I am… or maybe someone higher up than you will think you stupid and beat you down…”

     Yanase-san froze for a moment as he looked at his master, then cast his gaze at the floor, collected up his ink and brushes, and slid his way out of his master’s chamber, pausing very briefly to touch his forehead to the tatami bamboo mat before sliding the door open, sliding himself out, and then bowing quickly again and sliding the door shut.

     Takase-Sensei smiled softly after his ex-apprentice and then slowly and methodically cleaned up the mess he had made. Then, he went to the shelves where he kept his best work, and from between to large protective sheaves, pulled out his completed half of the project that would be glued to his apprentice’s tomorrow morning and laid it out so that he could look at it. He was quite satisfied with it, as he was with most things. There were weaknesses in the brush strokes here and there, but they were all part of it’s charm.

     Feeling that he had done as best he could, Takase-Sensei closed his eyes and again meditated upon a grand waterfall rushing from it’s very heights to its lower depths… it’s mists floating in the air and falling gently upon his face.

     Then, he poured himself a full tokkuri of sake and toasted the gods.