“Dad, do you believe that there is such a thing as a soulmate?”
For fuck sakes, I think.
I pride myself on having a decent command of the English language, but this is all that my brain can muster as I look up from my desk at the small copy of myself, standing in front of me. Could the boy not ask about whether or not Santa exists? Or where babies came from? I had paused for too long and in spite of catching myself I knew that my expression was giving me away. I could tell, as he began to recoil from the space between us. We had solemnly vowed to always tell one another the truth and also never to say, “I don’t know”. I couldn’t tell him the truth. The truth was that I couldn’t bring myself to think about things like soulmates, let alone discuss them with my son.
“What do you think?” I asked, to which he smartly replies that you cannot answer a question with a question and that I am avoiding his question. Raised by wolves this one. So, I have to concentrate and engage with his question.
“If you are asking me whether, given that there are seven billion people on this planet, I believe that there is only one perfect person for you, then probably not. That isn’t to say that I don’t believe that we find a partner and grow together to become so intertwined that the constituent parts of our individual souls might become indistinguishable from one other.”
I could see him reflecting on my words. Good. Hopefully, I thought, he would tootle off and find something age appropriate to do. I may have even suggested that he go and play X-Box. He didn’t. The amber sun poured like syrup through the bay window warming the study. He planted himself on the overstuffed couch adjacent to my desk. I stopped typing and peered at him, attentively.
“So, what you are saying is that two people meet and then they work at becoming soul mates?” He was paraphrasing and I considered whether or not to lecture him on some technical aspects of comprehension. Cowardly. This had to be a truthful conversation and I had to be honest. I lowered the lid of my laptop and stood up. I motioned for him to move over to one side of the couch and sat next to him, careful to position my body so that I was still facing him and that by leaning over to my right, our faces would be at a similar level. He has his mother’s deep umber-colour eyes.
“What I am saying is that the idea of a soul mate is only half of an idea. Let’s say that when you are young, you are like a small tree.”
“A sapling” he interrupts.
“Sure, but this is a thought exercise so some of the things that I tell you will be literal and some of them need you to use your imagination.”
“OK.” He is studying my face intently and I wonder whether he is trying to figure out if I am just trying to placate him.
“When you are younger you don’t have deep roots, so you can move around and find space to grow next to another tree. It would be silly to go and find another tree that grows much faster or much slower or is much younger or older than you. Also, if the other tree needs a lot of water or sunshine and you don’t. So, this isn’t a rule but it’s easier if you are the same type of tree and that you grow in the same type of soil. Got it?” He nods. I might be losing him.
“While you are still both flexible you find some good soil and put down roots. Then you start to grow, together. Your roots and your branches grow together and even though technically you are separate trees you start to become one organism. So, I am not saying that there is only one other tree to grow next to out of all of the trees in the world, but I am saying that you need to be sensible about how you choose one and then it’s easier for you to grow together.” He looks at me earnestly and nods his head. He blinks, very slowly.
“Then what happens when one of the trees dies?” I was expecting this question. In some form or another, for a while. That isn’t to say that just because you ride up the side of the roller-coaster it doesn’t still feel like your stomach has been removed when the cart drops off the business end. I take a moment.
“Well, one part of the tree can stop being alive but think about all of the parts of it that are now living inside of the other trees. And if those trees dropped seeds onto the ground near to them then a combination of those trees is now also growing nearby. So, even though the one tree doesn’t exist as its own tree anymore, it isn’t really dead, is it?” He takes longer to respond. We stare out of the window at the Acacia tree that shades his jungle gym on the lawn downstairs. In this light it casts a long shadow that looks like the outstretched fingers on two hands with the palms touching one another.
“Then part of the surviving tree is also dead, if all of the trees grew together?” he finally says to the window, not looking at me.
“I don’t think so. I don’t think that trees work in fractions. They share everything, so that the resulting organism is bigger and more complicated and interesting than any of them would have been if they had all grown alone.” He nods.
“So, that tree is always alive in the memories of all of the other trees?”
“Yes” I say, “it is always alive in the Memory of Trees”.
* With acknowledgement to the title of Enya’s album of the same name. The album was her first to be recorded entirely in Ireland, and covers themes that include Irish and Druid mythology, the idea of one’s home, journeys, religion, dreams and love. Its front cover is an adaptation of The Young King of the Black Isles, a painting by American artist Maxfield Parrish from 1906, itself based on the story of the same name from the collection of folktales, One Thousand and One Nights.