This was a short I wrote back in college. I present it more or less unchanged, because I am partial to singing trees. There’s one at the University of California, San Diego, and there’s one in Auraria, too.
It’s sixty years now since I’ve worked at the bakery, so it’s been at least that long since the singing tree was run out of town by an angry mob hurling fruit and fire. I was still a young man, only an apprentice, and my fingers didn’t have the touch for making the perfect pie, croissant, fritter, doughnut, cruller, or even simple pierogie. I was so poor then, just like they say in the proverb: poor as a baker’s dough boy. When I left the bakery and got a fruit stall, I could take in over fifty zlotys at the market on a good day. The money’s one reason I decided to give up on the baking—that, and I had no talent. I made maybe 50 groshes a week as an apprentice, ten measly groshes for each day I spent cracking eggs, pouring milk, sweating at the oven. What a sight I must have been!
But at least one girl didn’t mind that I was always finding clumps of flour behind my ears—my darling Greta. On Thursdays I would take her to a picture show, and it was always my groshes that bought the tickets (this is how she saved up her money, I’ve come to realize—by making me pay!). Her favorite fellow was that singer-actor Dasha Pavlovski, and we saw all of his films, even the one with the elephant and the ice skates. Greta was a serving girl at a restaurant, and ours was the typical love story—a poor baker’s apprentice and a serving girl find happiness in each other’s arms, but I had a nagging sensation that if Dasha had ever come to town, he could have stolen away my Greta with a sigh and a few flat notes.
It turns out he did almost come to town once. It was late March, and I left the shop after noon, sticky with butter and eggs. As I was walking home, I took a detour down Vronski Prospect, where the theaters put up their posters. If I had missed the latest Pavlovski film, Greta would’ve killed me. So I always kept my eyes open.
There was a crowd around one of the posters, and I pushed up to the front. Huge green letters jumped out at me: “One Night Only: The Amazing Fabulous Dasha Pavlovski!” I ran to Greta’s restaurant and found her rushing around with drinks.
“Greta,” I said, out of breath. “Greta, he’s coming here!”
“Who?” she said, not even turning to look at me. “Who are you talking about?”
“Dasha Pavlovski! He’s coming to town! One night only!”
The four mugs in Greta’s arms fell to the floor and shattered. A shower of beer leapt upwards and outwards and sparkled in the firelight, but no sparkling beer cascade could match the twinkling in Greta’s eyes. She looked at me with such tenderness and affection, her mouth cracked into a radiant smile, and she flung her arms towards me.
“Oooooooooooooooo, Dasha!” she squealed, and gave me such a tight bearhug that my eyes watered.
Is now a good time to mention that I couldn’t stand Dasha Pavlovski? I’d seen every movie that he’d ever been in, even the one with the elephant and the whistling broom. He had this stupid grin that I found repulsive. And his voice was terrible, I think. He did this thing with his hat that’s very annoying, and he couldn’t act worth a single grosho. Give me an American show any day.
“Ooooooooooooooo, we must go, we must, we must, we must!”
I shuddered at having to sit through several hours of Pavlovski in person, but there was no way out of this mess or out of Greta’s embrace. On the life of our firstborn, I swore to Greta that I would go the next morning as soon as the box office opened to buy the best tickets I could. As I stuffed my hands back into my pockets on the cold walk home, I thought of how my fingers would be warmed by the hands of my darling as she sweated in glee at the show—that is, if she wasn’t wildly applauding every minute for some seductive clearing of the throat or tip of the hat.
I knew there’d be a crowd at the box office, so I arrived before sunrise, but there was already a line. A hushed whispering of men ran up and down the impatient column: “I can’t believe it’s costing me five zlotys to take the missus to see some singing buffoon!”
My heart froze in my chest. Five zlotys? I barely had two, especially since two weeks ago Greta and I had gone for the double feature and then split a mushroom pie afterwards (all on my bill, of course). I don’t like mushrooms. They’re grey, and no food should be grey. Good foods are green or red or yellow or maybe brown, but not grey. The chatter of the cold men around me confirmed my fears: tickets were each two and a half zlotys. I pulled all the coins out of my pocket, but I didn’t even have enough for one ticket. Glumly, I got out of line and watched as the long column snaked forwards and dissipated into grumbling individuals, muttering “Five zlotys, five zlotys.”
They could mutter because they had the five zlotys, and their girls weren’t going to break them when they got home.
“Greta!” I cried.
Greta didn’t slacken her grip on my arm. “What, you miserable weasel?”
“Greta, I have a plan!”
Greta did slacken her grip on my arm, but only a little bit.
“We can sneak in.”
“Sneak in? Isn’t that dishonest?”
“Well, yes, but it’s Dasha Pavlovski.”
Greta promptly turned to a quivering jelly. I returned my sore arm to a more comfortable position. “What’s your plan?” she said.
“Cousin Mikhail has a friend who works at the theatre. He can let us in.”
“But we won’t have seats. The show’s sold out, and the ushers won’t let us through without a ticket.”
“But we won’t have seats. The show’s sold out, and the ushers won’t let us through without a ticket,” I explained to Cousin Mikhail’s friend.
“Is she skinny?” said the friend.
“Your lady friend,” he said.
“Why? And how do you know I have a lady friend?”
“Only ladies want to go see Dasha. I haven’t seen a guy yet who cared. Did you see that film with the elephant and the whistling broom? Awful, right? But the ladies could overlook that, because there was Dasha. And the guys overlooked it, because there were their lady friends. Circle of life, see. So, is your lady skinny?”
“No, not really,” I said.
“Is she fat?”
“Look, why are you asking?”
“Answer me. Is she fat?”
“I don’t know. She’s not fat. I mean, she’s not really fat.”
“Is she this fat?” he said, holding his arms apart at about the width of a wine barrel.
“No, not that fat.”
“Is she claustrophobic?”
“I’m not doing that,” said Greta, not loosening her grip on my arm.
“Honey, honey, I already gave him two zlotys, and he’s got the watch my papa left me as a guarantee on the rest. We can’t back out. It’s the only way.”
“The only way?” she said, sniffing.
“The only way,” I said.
“Well, if I have to sneak in to the sold-out theatre and crawl through an air vent to get above the stage and risk my good name and sense of decency and that’s the only way to see Dasha Pavlovski, then I’ll do it!” She thrust her arms out in a gesture of victory, letting me go. I ran off to wrap up my very sore arm.
The night of the show, Greta and I dressed up in our very best. We met Cousin Mikhail’s friend at the side entrance, and he showed us to the air vent that was at the top of a iron stairwell. Greta was, in person, perhaps a teeny tiny bit larger than I had remembered, and getting her into the vent was more difficult than I’d thought. In fairness, I must say that I was no stranger to the baker’s treats, and the passage wasn’t especially comfortable for me either.
Once inside, I realized that Cousin Mikhail’s friend had taken advantage of many devoted husbands and boyfriends, since the air vent was filled with sneezing fans of Dasha Pavlovski. There was a general moaning mixed with curse words and snippets of angry conversation.
“I feel sick,” I heard a voice say near me. I didn’t recognize at first that it was Greta.
“I’m sorry, dear, but maybe when you hear Dasha, you’ll feel better.”
“I feel really sick. I think I’m going to throw up,” said a voice that wasn’t Greta’s, but this voice did sound quite ill, and it was very close to me.
We waited in the vent for what seemed like an eternity. Greta and I had wiggled our way to a grating that allowed us to peek down onto the stage. Our view was not the best, but Greta seemed excited enough, even though her eyes were puffy and watery from the dust. I gave her my handkerchief.
Below us began a roar, and the sound grew louder and louder. There were stompings of feet, clappings of hands, and then a well-dressed man strode out onto the stage. The curtains hadn’t yet opened, and the lights were on.
“Is that him?” I whispered, confused.
“I can’b really bell,” mumbled Greta. I could barely understand her. “I can’b see bery well.”
“Would it help if I scooted over?” I asked.
Greta sneezed. “No, nob really.”
“Ladies and gentlemen!” cried the voice from far beneath us. “Ladies and gentlemen, I have a great announcement!” The speaker stood at the edge of the stage, and I could hear something shaky in his voice. I didn’t know if he was nervous or excited. “Ladies and gentlemen!” he said for a third time. “I am at once the bearer of bad news and of extraordinary news. The bad news is that Dasha Pavlovski will not be appearing this evening.” Here, a great groan issued from the assembled masses. The air vent contracted in one great brow of woe, and Greta stopped breathing (maybe this was from a dust allergy, but a quick blow to her back, and she gasped, and seemed to be fine). “Ladies and gentlemen, please, please! We have something far more exciting for you tonight! A true marvel! The eighth wonder of the world! A vision beyond your imagination! A treat for the eyes and ears, an awakening to the beauties of our universe! A clarion call from the heavenly spheres, a spectacle to touch your mind, your heart, and your soul! I assure you, ladies and gentlemen, that there are no tricks or ‘special effects’ in the marvelous wonder you are about to witness. Please welcome, a truly splendid sight directly from the pages of antiquity! The Arabs in their great tales have sung of such marvels as you are about to witness on stage right now! Please welcome the wondrous, the spectacular Singing Tree!”
The announcer began to clap wildly, but he was alone. After a moment, he stopped and hurried off the stage. A squeaking sound of moving curtains rattled in the silent hall and wafted up as high as us desperate people in the air vent.
“Whab’s goinb onb?” whispered Greta.
“I don’t know…” I began, but then I saw it. It was a tree on stage, perhaps ten meters tall. There wasn’t any soil or a pot—the tree’s roots skittered across the stage in a skillful, graceful way, and the tree pulled itself up to the spotlight. The branches dipped low to the ground, and then the tree straightened up again. I heard a cough come from below, as if the tree were clearing its throat. Then, it began to sing in a syrupy tenor:
A story of sweet love I
Tell, dear my friends!
And should words fail, I’m sorry but
Shan’t make amends.
See a young boy, with his heart filled with
Much love (what else?).
In’is head (rash it was) he hears naught
But wedding bells.
When his eyes oft glances to
A girl (fair dame!),
His heart beats like a metronome.
(Has he no shame?)
But there’s one, oh yes, there’s one so
And glad ‘n lively, and to not love her
He’d be a fool.
The groom—baker; the bride—bar maid.
(I’ve heard it all before.)
And all’s well, and all’re happy, yes.
But strife! the wife takes delight in
A singer man.
And doom! the groom follows suit, and
Goes for whom’e can…
Oh! can it be a little bit
A fight, a tiff, and argument:
At this point, I heard a woman’s battle cry, and a large, red, half-eaten tomato sailed through the air. I saw the explosion of gooey red seeds before I heard the satisfying squelch. Honestly, though, the song wasn’t the most hideous thing I’d ever heard. In fact, the tree wasn’t half-bad for an evergreen. But I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a fan. In the papers a week later, I read an editorial which argued that the tree had a wonderful voice, but that critic must have attended the performance of a different singing tree. But it was a damn sight better than seeing Dasha Pavlovski’s twinkling blue eyes and listening to his cursed crooning.
The first fruit opened the way to a full volley. Tomatoes, cabbages, apples, lemons, rhubarb, asparagus, grapes, mangos, oranges—anything in reach the crowd began to throw at the performer, who tried to bravely finish a few more stanzas, but its voice was cracking.
Can weather they the trial that’s
No, they whine, and so split ways, just
“Let’s chop it down!” cried one angry voice from nearby.
“No, let’s burn it!” cried another, angrier voice. This was Greta’s.
“Yes, burn it!” echoed the very ill voice.
“Burn it! Burn it! Burn it!” was the chant picked up by the sooty mob in the vent, and the crowd below, momentarily confused by the many voices coming from overhead, quickly joined in. “Burn it! Burn it! Burn it!”
The singing tree at last let its voice die on the wind and let out a whimper. It rustled its branches in apprehension and began dragging itself off stage, throwing root over root in a most ingenious manner. But someone had already set a bundle of papers alight, and others around the flame held out pieces of chair, stage, carpet—anything that could burn. The tree, confused and panicked, began pulling even faster until it was entirely backstage. Greta pushed her way out of the air vent, down the stairs, and into theatre proper, and I followed her. We joined the torch-brandishing mob flooded out of the doors and began searching for the tree.
“Over here!” someone shouted, and the mob turned onto Vronski Prospect. The tree wasn’t far ahead of us, but we didn’t seem to be gaining on it. I’ve never seen a tree move so fast. The tree led the mob through the marketplace, and though the vendors’ stalls were closed, there was plenty of rotten fruit in the gutters. Blackish shapes flew through the night air and squelched against the trunk of the fleeing tree with an icky, sticky noise. The black smoke rising from the mob’s torches made me cough and certainly didn’t help Greta’s condition, but everyone continued to nurse the flames, nurse their revenge against the singing tree.
“Greeeeeeeeta!” I whined. “Do we have to do this?”
“Be quiet and keep running!”
By the time the tree and mob had reached the edge of town, most of the torches had died, and the tree was far ahead of even the best runners. I was very out of breath and had been begging Greta that we slow down, and as we reached the last houses on Vronski Prospect, she slowed to a walk, then stopped. The mob slowed, grumbled, and broke apart, the lust for justice beaten by weariness. Greta refused to hold my hand, so we just stood there, watching the tree scamper into the distance.
Greta shook her fist defiantly in air. “And stay out, you bum!”
“And that was the closest I came to seeing Dasha Pavlovski in person, thank goodness.”
“Grandpa, you tell that story too much!” said little Mateko. “Grandma Greta doesn’t like it.”
Anja chimed in, “Yeah, don’t tell us that boring one! Tell us the one about the elephant and the whistling broom!”