Rae knew she was cursed.
She knew it when she was still in her mother’s womb, when her father had abandoned them in an unfamiliar village, never to be seen again.
“That man knew when to bail.” Auntie had said later, with snide satisfaction and just a hint of pride.
Auntie, as she liked to call herself, took Rae’s mother in. She told the young, pregnant woman that ‘if you want a place to stay, you’ll have to earn it’. Apparently ‘earn it’ meant doing all the work in the house by herself, but it was a roof over her head, and food, however little, in her stomach.
Then Rae was born.
‘Magic’, some said. ‘Witch’, said others. But it was the word ‘cursed’ they uttered the most when they saw her head of white hair.
Her mother always stroked it gently, telling Rae that it was alright, she’s not cursed, it’s something special to be treasured just like her.
Then her mother died. buried behind Auntie’s house hurriedly without even a tombstone, only a small pile of dirt to mark where she had been.
Rae was eleven years old then, smaller than most kids her age and always hungry, even more so because all her mother’s duties had passed down to her. When other kids went to school, she was working her back off in the field. Soon, her skin was red and sunburnt, and her thin, small hands were covered in calluses. Only her white hair remained the same, shiny and bright and once again, hopelessly marking her as ‘cursed’.
Auntie despised her even more. Caught taking food from the kitchen? Smack. Didn’t finish the work on time? Smack. Answered too quickly or too slowly? Smack.
It didn’t take long before she was terrified of the old splintered spoon – broken at the edges from the ruthless beatings. “Useless brat.” She would say. “This place would be better without you.”
Yet Rae took it all silently, for there was a sprout growing on that small heap of dirt behind the house, young and green. She watered it everyday, taking care to add some fertiliser meant for the potatoes, and it grew so quickly it seemed to have appeared overnight.
“What is that monstrous thing!” Auntie had shrieked. “That was not there the day before. That tree is cursed!”
Just like me. Rae thought. The tree was big enough to climb now, and she spent more time in it than she spent in the house. Its branches waved gently in the wind, sometimes wrapping around her like a pair of gentle arms, sometimes flying by like a dance. All kinds of small animals had made their home there, and soon the tree was bustling with noise and comfort.
That’s when Auntie decided to chop it down.
“It’s blocking my sunlight.” She had said. But Rae had seen the cruel glint in her eyes and knew it was more than that.
One faded evening, a few young men carried their axes up the hill. Rae was working in the fields, but a child’s intuition had her sprinting back to the house, just in time to see the gleaming metal blades and Auntie’s satisfied smile.
She acted without thinking. A random stick was picked up, thrust in the fire, then taken to the rooftop. Her young eyes shone with a fire that was much too mature.
“You touch a single leaf on that tree and I‘ll burn the house down.”
They stood there, Auntie and Rae, for what seemed like lifetimes. The tree shivered and shook. Rae didn’t. Eventually Auntie called off the young men and gave Rae a good beating, before sending her outside for the night.
Rae didn’t mind. She huddled up in the high branches of the tree, whispering to it as she would to her mother.
When she was sixteen, things got worse. Auntie was intent on marrying her off to the highest bidder.
“For once, you useless trash can bring me some peace. Don’t think of refusing.”
She cried to the tree every night, and it seemed to shake in sorrow with her. There truly was no escape.
Or so it seemed until one early morning. When no one else was awake, she found green fruits hanging from the tree that certainly weren’t there before, and when bitten into, were juicy and sweet, with the softest fragrance of fresh grass. Leaning against the trunk was a backpack with three bottles of water in it. It was a winding, twisting road to freedom. There was no time to think — Auntie would be up soon to check on her. She picked as much of the green fruits as her backpack could hold, before wrapping her arms around the trunk.
The leaves whispered softly, quiet words of hope and encouragement, like they were saying goodbye.
“I’ll be back.” Rae promised. “I’ll be back.”
Written by Amy Zuo and edited by Nicole Lai. Published on 9/7/2023. Image from Unsplash.