The Cedar Tree in the Snow

Martina Dei Cas
The Cedar Tree in the Snow
The clouds are coiled between the snowy peaks, hiding the magic of the sunset from the eyes of the tourists who, disappointed, abandon the viewpoint and seek comfort in the warmth of the resort.

“They’ll be wanting their dinner early tonight,” mutters Sandro, scratching his chest at the place where his heart is and where, concealed under a thick layer of cotton flannel, he keeps a photograph. The old man pulls it out and props it up against the balustrade, perpendicular to the contours of the mountains and it’s like looking into the reflection of a time where nothing has changed. His arm trembles with the effort, his fingers growing red and numb with the cold and his insides burning with regret.

The peaks which surround him now were the very first thing he saw when the village doctor brought him into this world after hours of agony. He worships them, can’t imagine ever living anywhere else, but the mountains have scorned him, taking the people he loved away from him, season after season, and now he’s a stranger in his own home.

First they took his father’s arm when he was chopping firewood, then they took his wife, because health cuts meant that the helicopter didn’t make it in time to save her from the heart attack. And lastly, just as it seemed that everything had returned to normal, they took his daughter. How was it possible to die falling down a crevice in your own backyard after having climbed both K2 and Aconcagua? Sandro can’t explain it, so he has to make do with hating the mountains, the same way you can only really hate someone you truly love. He even tried moving to further down the valley, but those devilish mountains followed him, forcing him back.

The old man strokes the photograph, and for one moment it really seems as though his wife is there in the flesh, smiling up at him from the crumpled bit of paper, until the sound of snapping twigs behind him breaks the spell.

Sandro whirls round, and his irritations turns to rage.

“Will you quit poking around?” he yells, fixing his dark eyes on the young boy before him.
He was always against this boy coming to the resort, not for any particular ideological reasons, but because he recognises that in his barren existence there’s no room for human relationships. But the mayor implored him to set a good example and how do you say no to the mayor, especially when he’s also your first-born, the only thing keeping you from wallowing in memories of the past with no hope of a future?

Iskandar loss his balance and the Italian dictionary, which he never lets out of his sight as though this will somehow make him one of these foreign folk, falls onto the damp grass. He picks it up and wipes it carefully with the sleeve of his oversized jacket.

Sandro, feeling a little guilty, offers him his handkerchief. The boy opens the book: the first page has been carefully folded down, a makeshift frame to safeguard a photograph, where in bright blotches of colour, stains from the salt corrosion, cover the jumble of smiling faces. It is not at all unlike the one the old man is clutching.

“That’s my parents, and my grandfather,” Iskandar points to a little girl with plaits, “And that’s Rahma, my sister.”

“Are they ...?” Sandro can’t find a polite way to ask the question.

“If they had listened to my grandfather they’d still be alive. He was like you: always said that the mountains had been his cradle and they’d be his tomb too. He didn’t go to school, so he owed everything he had to the sweat of his brow. He started off bringing goods to the remote villages on a crooked old mule, and by the end he was the owner of a haulage company. Dad followed him into the family business, he was already married with two kids. My grandfather was happy, he took us walking in the woods and taught us when the citrons were ready to harvest. Then we heard that the Taliban had crossed into Pakistan and were in our region. Mount Attock, which had always been like a sacred temple for grandfather ever since he was a boy, and for me and my father too, suddenly became a dark spectre, where those devils would plan their raids: they started off by burning down the odd farm, slaughtering the goats belonging to the leader of the equality party, but then they got tired of killing animals, so they started on the people. My grandfather begged us to leave, to go to our cousins in England or at the very least to our uncle in the capital, but my father was adamant. He said he wouldn’t see his children grow up like poppy petals, subject to the mercy of a foreign wind, and that was that. We soon learned to recognise the rockets by the whistle the made above the forest. Even though it was no longer safe, I still went to the woods in secret. I would reach the clearing of cedar trees where my grandfather had taught us the basics of cross-country skiing, and there I would pray to God, to the US and to the President to put an end to the violence.
That’s where I was when the Taliban arrived in the village square and opened fire. I ran all the way home, but I was too late: I wanted to die with my family, but all I did was cut my leg on a sheet of metal. I had a lot of time to think during those three months I spent in hospital: I had nobody left to fight for, no reason to stay. So I decided to come to Europe, convinced that the people here couldn’t know what was happening in my country,” Iskandar sighs. “I thought that if you had known, there’s no way you wouldn’t have helped. I crossed the Iranian desserts hiding in the boot of a car, and it was in the Salma mountains that I lost Ali. During the forced marches we walked side by side, praying to the moon and the stars to keep watch over our journey. They he fell down a crevice, twenty metres from the Turkish border. He called out for me to help him, for the love of God, but the traffickers dragged me away, he was done for they said. He would soon join the rows of decaying corpses lying there in the fresh snow. I swore I’d never set foot on a mountain path again, and yet the great waters led me here, to your land, where I have found a bed, a hot meal, and a house to welcome me. Maybe my people weren’t wrong believing in the legend of the cedar tree. You know, the old folk say that, even if its roots shrivel in the frozen ground and its branches are splintered by a bolt of lightning, you shouldn’t lose faith, because the sap continues to run in the broken trunk of the cedar, bringing with it hope of a new spring, when all that we have lost will be returned to us.”

Sandro nods, takes the boy under his arm, and leads him away towards the resort, suddenly aware that both he and Iskandar, which means Alessandro in Urdu, have both had faith in the ancient meaning of their names. They have each proved to be the salvation of the other, whilst the benign mountains to which they both belong, stood by and watched.

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