“The Musical Tree” was just published in French, on editions GOPE website. Editions GOPE is my French publisher for Trois Autres Malaisie, the French translation of Lovers and Strangers Revisited. They are doing a series of short pieces by their authors on Southeast Asia, their specialty.
“The Musical Tree” is an excerpt from my short story, “Following the Cat” which was published in Thema in the USA and Off the Edge in Malaysia, which itself is an excerpt from my Penang novel, Taking the Expat Exit, a finalist in 2016 Faulkner-Wisdom Novel Awards. I’m still waiting for the 2017 preliminary results, which should be out in August. Winners won’t be announced until late November.
Here is the English version of “The Musical Tree”:
We stopped at a shady area serviced by several hawker stalls and drank from coconuts. A dozen cats lay around in idle repose while waiting for their next meal. A white cat climbed onto a chair vacated by two Malays and put its paws on the table to survey the leftovers. A mewing gray kitten waiting below asked it to hurry up.
A strange looking tree caught my attention. Then I realized it wasn’t a tree, but a composite of two trees. The one on the inside was old with a dark knotted trunk, while wrapped around it was a younger tree with light, smooth bark. The upper branches of the two trees were so intertwined it was difficult to distinguish one from the other.
I pointed it out to Jeya, who was eleven years old and had befriended me. I asked her about it.
“Oh that. That is a musical tree,” replied Jeya.
“A musical tree.” She finished her coconut and said, “Come!”
She led me to the tree and asked me to sit on the seawall beneath it.
“Now listen.” She cupped her ear. “Hear it?”
Dozens, if not hundreds, of birds were singing all at once, a symphony in full swing. I closed my eyes as I listened to the magic.
“You can hear them, but you cannot see them, am I right or not?”
The foliage was so dark and dense, it was impossible to see anything.
“It must drive all the cats crazy,” I said.
“Cats are crazy,” replied Jeya, and laughed. “Every day the musical tree comes alive. Every day a free concert.”
Two of Jeya’s classmates waved as they passed by. She scampered off to join them.
Already I was missing Jeya’s company….The longer I sat under the tree listening to the birds, the lonelier I became….A young Malay couple walked by holding hands. The boy said something to the girl and she boxed him on the arm. He grabbed his arm and feigned pain. Both of them laughed. She hit him again. They were young and in love, just starting out in life. In comparison, I felt old—not yet thirty but already facing divorce.
A Chinese derelict reeking of alcohol and urine sauntered over, uninvited. He sat down beside me and eyed the driftwood between us. I tried to ignore him, expecting the derelict to hit me up for money. Why were children so giving, and adults, demanding?
“You like the birdies?” He pointed up at the tree. “The birdies sing for themselves, you know. They sing ‘cause it makes them happy. If only people could sing without needing someone to hear them they might be happy, too.”
A black cat stirred. It paused in mid-stretch to look at me. The cat began to walk away. Again it paused as if to see if I were coming. I excused myself from the derelict and followed the cat. It seemed to know where it was going. For now that was good enough for me.
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Here's a link to the intro and excerpts, and to four reviews of Trois Autres Malaisie in eurasie.net, Malaisie.org, easyvoyage.com, and Petit Futé mag.
Here’s also a link to my Maugham and Me series (in English) that I wrote when asked to take part in a French documentary on Somerset Maugham which was recently aired on the Franco-German cultural channel Arte on 5 June 2017 and still can be viewed here for another week or so before Arte takes it down from their website...
—Borneo Expat Writer