Tamal found the willow while escaping from the Smith brothers. The bullies chased him nearly every day, but on this day Tamal tried another escape route. Muscles burning and breathing hard from the long chase, he was too exhausted to do anything more than huddle beneath the fronds of the willow. As the Smith brothers emerged from the trail nearby, he thought the branches were too sparse to hide him well enough. He expected to be found and braced himself for the beating to come. Just as one of the brothers turned in Tamal’s direction, the willow’s branches moved. He felt no breeze that could have stirred them that way, but they shifted nonetheless. In a mere moment any chance of the brother seeing him was blocked. Frustrated, the brothers moved off, shouting in vain for him. Surprised at his amazing luck, Tamal huddled there beside the willow, feeling safe at last.
In the years that followed, the Smith brothers would chase Tamal many times over. Every time he ran directly for the willow and every time the brothers could not find him. A thick knot of willow branches always blocked their search or even their passage.
Tamal never did figure out how to stop the bullying. He had too many strikes against him. Small for his age and the only South Asian Indian in the school, he drew a lot of unwanted attention from bullies. More importantly, Tamal’s social skills were abysmal. His parents, two brilliant scientists in Bio-chemistry and Particle Physics, had little interest in the social graces. They had birthed a son who was even worse. They loved him very much, but his eternally distracted parents understood too little to help with his social problems. So each day, he would return to the willow to lick his emotional and physical wounds, and feel safe.
As the years went by, he began calling the willow, “Nipa,” a name that means “one who watches over.” He spent hours beneath Nipa’s protective limbs, sometimes whole days, studying his own interest in natural sciences. He read to her as he gained an interest in urban fantasy books. She became his study partner when he worked on homework, his confidant when frustrated, his best friend when he discovered a new author.
Upon entering college, Tamal learned to drink coffee. He didn’t care for the bitter taste, but it would become a centerpiece of his life.
He had expectations for college, believing it would turn his life around. It was not to be. His poor understanding of people cursed him yet again. He studied hard but suffered badly when interacting with people, including his professors. They disliked him uniformly, not because of ill-behavior, but because he made them and anyone else around him uncomfortable. Their discomfort reflected in his grades. After a poor semester’s results, Tamal sat beneath Nipa and drank coffee. The bitter brew reflected his feelings and he chose to wallow in it. Swimming in the bitterness of coffee came to dominate his existence
When a second year finished, and Tamal’s grades showed no better, he fell into a heated argument with his parents. It ended with Tamal banished from the house. That day he sat beneath the willow until sunset, drinking acrid coffee until his throat burned.
Tamal’s life became a cycle of relationships and jobs that failed followed by bitter coffee beneath Nipa until dark. It all changed one day when he returned to the willow, only to learn that Nipa had been cut down. The area was blocked off with yellow ribbon. A sign beside it told of the planned community building to improve the park for everyone. It was a new low for him. His only companion was gone. Tamal sat on a bench overlooking the site, and cried.
His tears had tried up hours before, no more could flow, when Tamal noticed a strange young woman. Her hair was impossibly thick and curly, reaching down to her waist. She wore a simple dress and no shoes. Her gait was uncoordinated like a toddler’s, unfamiliar with the notion of walking. Periodically, she stopped to trail long fingers through the creek. Several of the park’s squirrels paced behind her and frolicked as she walked. Then she did something no one else had ever done. She walked directly to the bench with Tamal, and smiled at him.
“Mind if I join you?” She said.
No had one ever asked Tamal if they could join him. He had no idea what to say. Her golden eyes gazed gently from smooth, richly colored skin and Tamal felt something stirring inside. He knew he should respond but he couldn’t while gazing into her lovely eyes and with that something occupying every fiber of his body.
Ignoring his gaping expression, the woman sat down with a smile. She turned and looked to where the willow once stood. “It’s sad. I’ll bet someone really loved that tree.” She said.
“Yes,” said Tamal, trying not to look. “Very much.”
“I know how it feels. I just lost my home recently.”
Tamal mumbled something, unsure of what to say. The woman began to talk and Tamal mostly listened. He was drawn to her in a way he couldn’t describe to himself. She seemed familiar, yet so different. The strangeness of her began to fade though, as the softness of her voice and the earthy scent of her wafted over him. He fell into a comfortable, safe place as she spoke. Soon, his simple responses become longer and more detailed. He began to talk more, like he never had before. Hours drifted by and she stayed with him. Tamal spoke of his failures and his confusion with people. Too late he remembered such things normally drove people away, but to his surprise, she stayed at his side.
After a time, he’d shared his bitter tales until there were no more. It was gone. Only his smile remained. He told her a biology joke, one that no one ever liked. Again too late, he realized it was a dumb idea. Such gaffes always drove people away. But the woman surprised him yet again. She loudly guffawed; she laughed until tears poured from her eyes.
“Oh my gosh,” she gasped after a time. “I need a drink after that. Could I have some of your coffee?”
“Sure, but it’s bitter. It doesn’t really taste that good.”
“Maybe it just needs something,” she said, taking the proffered cup. She swiped a tear from her laughter and stirred the tear in with her finger.
“Try that,” she said, returning the cup.
Gazing into her warm and gentle eyes, he sipped the coffee.
It was sweet.
They stared into each other’s eyes for a while, then Tamal said, “What’s your name?”
“Nipa,” she replied, but Tamal already knew that.
She walked to her new home with him, and Tamal never drank bitter coffee again.