We called her Cherry. Inventive, I know. It was years ago when we found her, branches gnarled and curling, perfect for climbing. We spent hours in her boughs, throwing little mud pies and having imaginary battles where we were always allies united against some invisible enemy. It was always like that between Delia and I – we could fight and laugh but always together, never against. Our older brothers shared a soccer team, and when they played games each Sunday, we little ones were allowed to run around and explore the bushland which fringed the fields.
Of all the trees, Cherry was the best – far away enough from the parents’ sight that we could clamber high without being yelled at, and with spongy moss beneath so that we couldn’t get hurt if we fell. It wasn’t until Spring that we first discovered she could bloom. Soccer only happened during Winter so it was pure luck that we ran into each other while trick-or-treating. Delia was dressed as a ghost, but with her hazel eyes shining warmly out from under the unblemished cloth, I thought she looked more like an angel. I chased her down the road, dressed as a vampire coming to suck her blood.
“Ghosts don’t have blood, silly!” She laughed, but kept running until we were crossing the football field and escaping to our favourite place beneath Cherry’s shade.
Delia gasped, “She’s pink!” Indeed, the once green leaves had metamorphosed into gossamer, blushing buds.
In amazement, I scooped up a handful of the petals sprinkled like icing sugar on a pudding. I threw them up in the air and we rolled in the rosy confetti that drifted down on the air currents, settling on our faces with all the grace of forest fairies. We must have played too long because darkness came and we realised trick-or-treating must be over. Just as we were mourning the loss of free candy, something dropped into my lap.
“Hey!” I exclaimed, picking up the glittering lump. It crinkled in my hand, and I realised with shock that it was a cellophane-wrapped piece of candy. The scent of sugar saturated the grove. Delia jumped to her feet, grinning.
“Look!” she pointed. I followed the line of her caramel-brown finger to Cherry’s blossoms. Glistening in each one was a gold-wrapped treacle, and as more buds unfurled, further colours and flavours emerged. We shrieked with delight and raced into her branches, harvesting each and every treat until she was just a tree once more, as if the magic had never happened. But our sacks were full and we emptied them onto the moss, counting out every treat to make sure we divided them equally. I could see how much Delia loved the marshmallows, so I made sure to sneak a few of mine into her bag when she wasn’t looking. When I got home later that night, I could have sworn I had extra minties – my favourite.
We started visiting more often after that. Delia would show me all the flips and cartwheels she had learned in gymnastics, and I brought my hockey-stick so I could practice dribbling around the trunk. Every now and then, one or more of Cherry’s buds would bloom and swell with some new item. If I lost my hockey ball, a new one was ready and waiting in my favourite colour. When we were old enough to sit and read, Delia once finished a book in Cherry’s boughs and had nothing left to do, until a new one bloomed and we took turns reading it aloud. It quickly became our most beloved series.
When we held a picnic together and I forgot to bring cups for the orange juice, Cherry provided – but only one, with two straws. I reddened as Delia sipped from one and I sipped from the other, our faces inches apart. I resisted the urge to glance up to see the way her curly hair framed her face, fluttering in the breeze like butterfly wings.
As we grew older, Cherry gave us many more gifts, but we started to notice that her blooms were less frequent and less profuse. Even her winter leaves were dull. Her branches creaked. Her twigs were brittle.
By the time we reached high school, it was more difficult to see her. Time was short, but we both made the effort to water her when we could in an attempt to pay her back for all that she had given us. Her second-last gift was one of the sweetest. It was a week before Delia’s quinceañera. The only family events I had were cookouts in the yard, so I didn’t know much about Mexican culture, but even I knew that the dress was a big deal. Delia was humble - a little embarrassed about having to be the centre of attention for the party, so she’d been avoiding shopping for her outfit. The week before the event, the sound of a flute wound through the grove to Delia’s expert playing, so melodic that I even turned the sound off on the hockey game I was watching on my laptop. But suddenly, a shadow blocked out the sun. I looked up to see an explosion of tulle hanging over us. Spellbound, Delia plucked the dress dangling from the tree. I told her to try it on, only turning around to look when she was ready. The garment enveloped her with cherry blossoms, swirling all the way up to her collarbones. For the first time, I blurted out that she looked beautiful. She laughed in that shy but cheeky way of hers that made my pulse tap dance. She pointed once more at Cherry.
“I think she wants you to come to the quinceañera too.”
Sure enough, draped over a branch was a black suit and a tie the same green as Cherry’s leaves.
“I thought your dad said no guys at the party?”
Delia tilted her head. “I’m sure he could make allowances for my… best friend.” At the last two words, she toed the ground in uncertainty.
I put on the suit, hoping her eyes were really closed beneath her interlaced fingers. Gently, I pried Delia’s hands away from her face and took one in mine. Slowly, I slid my hand around her waist, monitoring for any flinch that would tell me I was wrong. Instead, she placed a hand on my shoulder and we danced. I learned to waltz during a painfully awkward P.E. lesson. Here, it felt different. My face was hot again, this time not from embarrassment but something else.
We graduated school and went on to uni. Everything was chaos – assignments, working at the bar four nights a week to stay afloat, trying to keep the hockey team together. But it was also heaven. I asked Delia, finally, to be my girlfriend, and she didn’t hesitate to say yes – she had the whole first date planned and everything. Years passed in a rush of ‘good morning’ texts and nights exploring the city together. I finished my degree and landed a low-level job at a sports media company, but hey, the pay was decent and one day maybe I’d work my way up to being a commentator. Delia worked at a dance school, even composing her own flute music for some of the performance tracks. We didn’t get to see each other much with our schedules, and it was driving me crazy.
One day she asked, “Should we go visit her?”
I knew immediately who she meant. It had been a long time since we’d seen Cherry. When we got to the place, I grabbed Delia’s hand.
“Don’t look, honey” I said, stepping to block her view, but she pushed past.
“Oh, Cherry,” Delia whispered, sinking to her knees. A fissure ran up her trunk. Her wood was brittle, grey. Her limbs, completely bare.
We bought an apartment in the area, if only so we could take turns visiting our old friend, bringing water, fertiliser, anything we could think of in an effort to bring her back to life. Until, one night, wind snapped through the valley like a whip. The trees in our backyard bent and groaned against the pressure. Delia and I locked eyes, struck with fear. As one, we ran into the pelting rain, slipping on the street puddles but not giving up until we reached the grove in time to be deafened by a sickening crack. Cherry fell magnificently, spraying splinters as her trunk tore in two. Delia screamed and, honestly, I might have too. We fell upon her corpse, hands frigid against the slick wood. It felt as if a book had been snapped shut in the middle of reading. This couldn’t be the end of our story, it—
Something caught my eye. I turned to Delia and wiped the tears from her cheek, which were quickly replaced by more raindrops.
“You should get inside, Dee. Go and get warm, yeah? I’ll look after Cherry.”
Exactly how I was going to resurrect a magical tree, I couldn’t say, but Delia was distraught enough that she nodded and got to her feet. As she walked away, I drew closer to what I had spotted. Wedged amongst the ruins of Cherry’s trunk was a final gift. Maybe it was the end of her story, but for us, a new chapter was about to begin. My hair was pressed flat to my forehead and the wind blew through my sopping wet shirt so that I was repeatedly slapped as if by a giant frog. The pathetic fallacy was laughably mismatched to the moment, but in the darkness, I smiled at what glistened in the starlight.
I was already down on one knee. And now, in my hand, was a diamond ring.
“Delia, look. I—I have something to ask you,” I called out.
She turned slowly, still shivering and hunched. Even more gradually, I saw it register in her eyes. Her tight shoulders loosened, her frown relaxed to a smile, and that shy, cheeky laugh bubbled from her lips. She nodded—vigorously, and met me halfway in a desperate, disbelieving hug.
We got married in Spring, at the end of an aisle of cherry blossoms. Years later, we had a daughter. You’ll never guess what we called her.