The molave and the orchid

HINDSIGHT - F Sionil Jose () - November 29, 2010 - 12:00am

Not very long ago, there lived in the jungle an old and arrogant molave. He deemed it right that he should be overbearing and proud, and why not? He was the oldest of all the trees; moreover, he towered over all of them and caught a lot of sun so that in spite of his age, he continued to grow, his huge trunk getting stouter, his leaves always greener. Many of the trees around him had been felled by loggers and kaingineros so that there would be more land to plant, more firewood for the stoves of the farmers, and more lumber for the houses of the wealthy.

But the old molave could not be cut down even if so many had tried. Their axes couldn’t bite into his trunk, and were often broken, so they gave up soon enough and let the old molave be. Indeed, the old molave was the sturdiest tree in all the land, its wood so hard that if it were made into house posts or railroad ties it could easily last more than a hundred years.

It was not difficult for the ancient tree to become smug, to ignore completely the smaller trees that had survived around him. He liked the independence and though he resented the doves that sometimes rested on his branches, they did not stay long for they soon flew away.

Then one shimmering morning in April, he woke up to find a stranger  a solitary orchid clinging to his trunk. Monkeys, too, not just birds and even insects, had many times been his unwelcome guests, but they always left to pursue their own destinies. This young orchid, however, had fastened herself to his trunk with the intention of latching on, a permanent parasite.

“Go away, go away,” the old tree hissed at the intruder when he realized that the young orchid’s roots had already attached themselves to his bark. “I don’t want anyone sponging on me.”

The orchid was surprised, taken aback at the venerable tree’s rudeness, not so much by his inhospitable outburst. “I am no parasite,” she objected vehemently. “First, I did not elect to cling to you, fate blew me here, just as fate dropped the seed that had become you on this very spot.”

“Fate or not, I don’t want you clinging to me.”

“I am a free spirit, can you not see that?” the orchid said. “And you do not sustain me other than give me an anchor so I won’t be blown away anymore by the wind. God’s sweet air is all I need to live. And the sun, and the rain which are not yours to give.”

“Free spirit!” the old tree roared in derision. “No such thing on earth; each living creature has a logic, a reason for existence…”

“I am meant to be free,” the orchid insisted. “And since you are the one who mentioned it, what is your reason for being? You are so old, so tall, but the truth is, your life has no logic, you old fool.”

All through these many years, nobody had ever spoken to him brashly. Everyone had given him obeisant politeness which his age, his height demanded. He was shocked at the youthful insolence, he could not react immediately. How can he deal with this impudent whelp? Briefly he recalled how it was when he, too, was a tender sapling, how he had craved for attention, for breathing space from the bigger, taller trees. And in the end how he had grown taller than all of them and coveted most of the sunlight above the forest canopy. He was now forced to think, not so much to reply to this upstart but to reaffirm for himself, the pith, the reason for being.

“I am this old and tall,” he said, clearly mustering his self-control, trying not to respond angrily to the obvious insult, “because I had patience, perseverance. My roots go deep, very deep, which is why I am firm, which is why no typhoon can bowl me over or break me. Through the years, my dear young punk, they have tried to cut me down. Look below you at the scars and welts their axes left  but they all gave up. I am the hardiest of all the trees.”

“And even if you are, I wouldn’t care because for all your claimed attributes, you are really useless except for yourself. No one has really lived if he has not been useful to others!”

The venerable molave thought it best to keep quiet for a while and ponder what the young pest had said. Indeed, he bore no fruit for people or the creatures of the forest to eat. Yes, his roots were sunk deep in the soil and he had really thrived, drawing sustenance from the earth, the sun and the rain. Had he offered shade to any weary traveler? Who sought his shade except some poor, tired workman or kainginero. But wait, he was giving some anchor now to this impudent weed. He had some use, then, even if that silly little orchid refused to recognize it. He was about to announce this in the loudest bluster he could manage when he decided it was not really worth quarreling with that tiny clinging parasite down there. He was much, much bigger than that.

Anyhow, soon the hot breath of the dry season will pass and with its passing, the typhoons of the monsoon will rage. Indeed, the rains came, first in soft gentle drizzles then in lashing sheets that blotted out the sun. The old tree was quiet in his pleasure, his thick trunk immobile and firm, his branches waving with each gust of wind. “Now,” he smirked to himself, “that little nuisance will be blown away and I will rid myself of her silly taunts.”

The wind broke many of the younger trees but soon enough it lifted with the rain. When the old tree looked down, he found, to his surprise, the orchid still clung to him  soaked, bedraggled, but defiant as ever. “No,” she whimpered. “You cannot get rid of me easily and neither can you answer the question that I asked.”

“And can you answer the same question if it were asked of you?”

“Of course,” she said, her voice coming to life. “Beauty is its own excuse for being. I adorned Cleopatra’s hair when she made love to Caesar. I brought life, color, to an Indian woman’s hut in the Amazon. I gave livelihood to thousands of people through the ages when they traded me for gold and goods. I was ground to a pulp by those who believed I had curative powers, or could revive flagging energies. I did all these, although like I already said, beauty is its own excuse for being. Like virtue is its own reward… So what if you are the tallest, the hardest. But you are not beautiful like the cypress. Your branches have no symmetry. Your trunk is gnarled. In fact, you are quite ugly. A homely father only his dutiful daughter could love. I think you know this  which is why you are so irascible!”

The old tree took in every word and for a while was quite astounded by the truth and profundity as uttered by the pesky weed below. He wanted very much to shout her down but remained silent instead, the rage in him seething, his own impotence now becoming clearer, more obvious to himself. Impotence  that was not too distant from uselessness.

There must be a way he could get rid of her. Maybe the seasons will take care of that, for so soon, the drought came and for days on end the sun scorched the land. Not a single cloud blotted the sky to impede the white heat that deluged all living things. The earth cracked, the grass turned brown and died, even the old tree’s leaves wilted in the unremitting heat. Around him the grass and the young trees were burned but the molave was not even singed. Eventually, the drought had to end and the coolness that presaged rain came upon the faded green.

The molave looked down. The orchid was still there, her leaves wilted, her roots all withered but on the whole, she was alive and breathing.

“Will I ever be rid of you?” the old tree asked.

“Only death can set us apart.” The young plant said in quiet triumph.

“But who can cut me down? All those kaingineros with their axes  they all gave up. Have you forgotten I am the hardest tree ever? Life has no logic for me.”

“Braggart!” the orchid flung at him. “Work is the logic of life. And sacrifice is the logic of love. You have not worked for anyone, nor sacrificed for anyone. Even to someone as fragile and helpless like me you cannot even be kind. What then is your purpose? I do not think you know what love is.”

Again, such impudence, and yet such meaning. He decided to humor her. “What does someone as young as you know about love that you can talk so glibly about it?”

For a while, the orchid was silent. When she finally spoke, her words were slow in coming but they were all crystal clear. “I know a lot about love because I have seen what those in love do, the pain they bear, and their joys as well. Someday, I will love someone for we are destined to do so. And since I am so close to you, and I am grateful, who knows I may yet get to love a cantankerous and conceited ancient like you.”

“I am deeply touched,” the old tree said mockingly. Then he ignored her. But how can he ignore what she had said? What had his own life really meant to him! Must he now also think of death  an abhorrent word which never troubled him before, but now it did, for all who live must die; isn’t death the logic of life, too?

And while he was deep in thought, it came to him with a shock of recognition, the truth about himself, about what the orchid had said in derision to his face. Did he really get nettled by what this little weed said? Could it be that deep within his own pith, there was, after all, some feeling of affection, of concern for this plant that was now irrevocably attached to him?

A long night and he woke up to a morning adorned with dazzling light, dew glistening on his head and birds that had nested on his branches  yes, he had some use after all  flitting about and fluting in song. He looked down then, and there below was an effulgent splash of color, bluish purple with specks of yellow and gorgeous angel white  the little orchid had burst in bloom!

The old molave was speechless with wonder and the full meaning of what the orchid said came to him in all its truth and brilliance  beauty is its own excuse for being. Above the tumult of his feelings, deep within him, he was glad that the orchid had clung to him through typhoon and drought. Was it loyalty or an act of faith? He did not bother anymore with the answer to such questions  it was enough that his eyes were finally opened to such ineffable grandeur.

His joy, alas, was short-lived. Down, down at his base appeared a group of men, and one of them pulled a rope which started a huge chain saw. The old molave cringed as he felt the sharp teeth of the machine bite into his flesh, rip into his innards, slowly and surely, the steel much harder than him.

“They are going to cut you down, kill you, and they will kill me, too,” the orchid shrieked. “My dear old molave, this is the end.”

In his death throes, the old molave was stoic; he did not have to speak, for by then, he also knew what love was and beauty, too. He stood erect for the last time, then severed from all those roots that had sustained him, he keeled over and fell with a loud crash that reverberated in the entire forest.

The fall had bruised the orchid and crushed some of her flowers but she still clung to the old molave.

One of the men came forward and gently pulled her away from the old tree. “We will scrape a bit of the bark,” he said to his companions, “for this beautiful thing to cling on. I have never seen anything like this wild and rare orchid.”

The man who wielded the chain saw surveyed the huge tree stretched before him. “I thought the saw would break. It is really very tough.”

The man who coveted the orchid said, “I will give sections of it to Billy Abueva  he should be able to create sculpture of lasting beauty from them. The rest, I will have a big coffee table made for the living room. And this precious orchid  I am sure my wife will place it on the table to grace our living room, too.”

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