The Tree of Women
First published in The Beltane Papers, Issue 32
The call may be silent as a breath on a feather or as thunderous as a volcano’s cauldron, but when the Tree of Women beckons, the women come. The Tree was not always the core of our world, the bond of divinity that all women share. Once, in what our ancestors called the 20th century, the Tree was no more than a broken, brittle twig, abused and abandoned. Every few generations a woman would crawl up to it in the middle of the night and splash on a drink of water or cover its scraggly roots with rich, loamy soil so that it would survive into our own time. Still, for millennia most women never knew it existed though they pursued its shade for lifetimes.
Embedded in the Tree’s rings is the story of the first generation of women to become the Tree we now know. Though each woman’s story is different, each woman is part of all the others, so that to tell one story is to tell all.
The woman whose story I will tell, the Singer of the Tree of Women, came to the Tree after having given up hope of life, so hungry for love of her sacred self was she. The world she fled gave her an abundance of food and shelter, religions, words and images, and opportunities to live any of hundreds of lives. Yet, each of her moments was hollow, an island alone, a flight from the embrace of the web of all her being. She had just lain down in the cold soil to fade into emptiness when she spied one tiny leaf on a stick in the distance.
“Perhaps the leaf might wet my parched lips to ease the moment of death,” she thought. She crept to it and grasped the scraggly tendons in her mouth, spitting out granules of sand and stone. When she had sucked the tiny drop of water from it she felt a moment’s refreshment and began to search out another root or stem.
After she made a complete circle around the sapling she rested, content that she had found a place where her body could melt away at last. Instead of dying, however, she slumbered and when she awoke, she sat with her back against the trunk, gaining strength even from its slender spine. Gently, the tree began to breathe with her and together they both grew greater, becoming almost as one. The twig became a gaunt peach tree filled with perfectly ripe fruit within easy reach. She ate one juicy globe after another until the nectar ran down her joyful face.
When she was finally sated she held a fruit out in front of her face to gaze at its beauty. As she admired it, the peach was plucked from her hand by a woman who had watched the Tree blossom from far away. The woman did not see the Singer at all, but simply harvested the fruit from what seemed to her to be only another branch of the Tree.
The woman did not relish the sweetness of the fruit, but instead gorged herself. She had come not from the Singer’s land, but from one in which her body had never known enough, whether of food, warmth, dryness, beauty, affection, or wholeness. Sold like a living carcass, she had been beaten and violated until she had escaped onto this path hidden to her pursuers. She devoured the peaches not because she desired to live but to keep any attackers who might follow her from tasting their tenderness.
As the woman ate, the Singer could feel her life’s blood and the Tree’s juice seeping away, yet she was not lessened by it. “It was not like a bleeding from a wound, but a joining of rivers and seas to become an ocean more alive than any of the waters which created it,” the Singer would say as she retold the story over and over for her children and grandchildren.
When the woman had eaten the last peach and carefully buried its pit she began to cover herself with mud, reveling in hiding herself beneath its slimy earthiness. She dug with her fingers into the ground until she had made a tunnel and entered it so that no trace of her could be seen. As she burrowed she expected to find nothing but sanctuary, but instead her hand closed around a round, smooth object. It was a relic, a treasure, from when the Tree had been revered in times past and the soil around it had been salted with sacred moments turned into stone. The woman became the Rediscoverer.
The Rediscoverer’s hand reappeared above the soil holding the relic just as a third woman stumbled up to the Tree. Though both the Singer and the Rediscoverer could see her, she seemed to herself to be invisible. Her life had been spent as the creation of other people’s desires.
When she no longer fulfilled anyone’s cravings she simply disappeared from herself, her shade wandering until she had come to the Tree. Finally, now free, she heard her own voice command “eat.” She gingerly picked a fruit and began to chew the succulent flesh.
As she ate, too, she not only took on the fruit’s physical being, but also its joy in existence. Astounded, she embraced the trunk and began to move with its bending to the wind, easing its ongoing birth and her own. As the Midwife’s belly filled, the Tree’s trunk swelled. She pondered herself in astonishment as her body took on an earthly form.
Woman after woman came and ate peaches, each then settling into her natural place in roots or trunk. The Rediscoverer and her sisters, the root women, nestled into the earth seeking the stories, rituals, and memories still stored in the soil from ancient times when another Tree of Women had grown in its place. These were to be our foundation. They plowed the earth, beating the ground that had hardened almost into rock over so many millennia in order to unearth its hidden treasures. Whenever they discovered an artifact or prayer they would bring it up and proudly hand it to the other women to feast on.
Above the ground were the trunk women, the belly women, the Midwife and her sisters. They transformed what the root women gathered into living flesh. It was their movements that brought forth renewal. Desires became determination; ideas transformed into action; imagination and vision changed reality. Their undulating ignited the bonfire in the Tree’s core so that it radiated out to its hands of magic and its heart of creation.
Neither a root or trunk woman, the Singer rose to the top of the Tree and wondered what to do next, where she belonged.
As she waited to find her own place within the Tree, the Singer listened to the wind in the few, slender branches and it was like a symphony to her. She began to sway and raise her voice with the wind’s. For days, months, and years she sang the stories of the root women and the trunk women, of seeing her own face in the women of the Tree and knowing her soul need not be starved.
Lured by song, crowds of women filled the road to the Tree. Many were women she would never have expected, but all had been seeking the Tree before they were led to it by her singing. Among the women bustling into the Tree were those who had before checked out her groceries, who built the office where she had worked, who raised the children who played in her old neighborhood.
Some were from the Rediscoverer’s world while others were only shades or the dimmest spark of a soul. Legions of women arrived from places beyond where the three women could have ever visioned before their arrival at the Tree.
The newcomers drank at the roots, then were birthed in the trunk before rising to where the Singer stood and becoming the Tree’s branches and leaves. These branch women basked in the trunk’s vitality and shaped it to their own genius. They ventured out into the sky to make something new under the sun. Some women called their branches this religion or that, this path or that, this way of living or another. They made new buds in branches that were ancient but strong, intertwining with one another into magnificent new patterns and shapes. Some of their branches were newborn shoots, green and lively.
As women are the lifegivers of humanity, so the Tree of Women is the source of all its branches, old and new. As each branch grew, its own voice of wind in the leaves was added to the Singer’s until the entire Tree brought forth from it a harmonic chord that shook the very ground. As the Tree swayed in the quaking, the Singer dropped to the soil, the Tree’s first autumn leaf. A breeze blew her away from the Tree so that when she landed she was able to admire the Tree from outside of it, see it as it truly was. The roots had brought such nourishment that the Tree was vital and verdant. The trunk was strong with knots and swirls that were more intricate than the most delicately carved cathedral. The branches intertwined and reached out in lines and shapes that made elegant silhouettes against the twilight sky.
The Singer had been many eons in the Tree, yet she was exactly as she had been the first moment she had crawled up to the twig. Her body was the same and her clothes and shoes were those that she had been wearing, yet she was absolutely made anew. She again found her path back to where she had once lived and began walking when two shadows joined her. As she had dropped from the Tree, so had the Rediscoverer and the Midwife. They walked side by side until they came to the point where the three paths split.
“Why must we go back?” the midwife sighed.
“Everyone who can hear songs sung from the Tree is already here. I can’t stop singing so I must move on,” replied the Singer.
“If I had not seen you I could never have found my way to the Tree. Now I must repay my debt and be that guide for someone else,” explained the Rediscoverer, placing her arm around the Midwife.
The Midwife considered what she had heard and finally said, “I have made flesh out of spirit here, but what about those spirits who are alone? Who will midwife them if I do not venture away?”
The Singer whispered to both, “I will miss you. While the Tree astonished me with its beauty and majesty, it was being with you that made it worthwhile to eat the fruit and live.”
The Rediscoverer reached into her pocket and pulled out three relics she had saved for this moment. She handed each of her friends a small, rusty, encrusted mirror. As each held it up to her face she saw herself as the Tree. No matter where each woman stood, whether with the Tree facing her or behind her, she saw the same image and each time it brought her back to herself as she was in the embrace of the Tree. The women shared a kiss and each began her journey back to the women she had left behind.
When they arrived in their homelands all was the same, yet everything they did was changed. Every word they said, every deed they acted was like a memory, or a birth or a calling song to the women they encountered every day, whether at the market, in their kitchens, or on the street. As more and more women brought her unique experience of the Tree to the women in her homeland, in time every woman on earth heard the words and images that exactly reflected her sacredness back to her and answered.
And thus began our worldwide tradition of gracing each girl with a sacred mirror on the occasion of her womanhood to call her to the Tree of Women. Now a woman need only look in the mirror to see the Tree of Women and her path to it. And we always whisper to her the words “Remember” so that the story of the fruit of the Tree of Women will never again be forgotten or turned against women as it was in the past. The call may be silent as a breath on a feather or as thunderous as a volcano’s cauldron, but when the Tree of Women beckons, the women come.