“It’s a really big tree, Charlie,” he said earnestly. “Huge!” He stretched out his enormous arms, eyes wide and brows raised, his mouth shaped into an open ‘O’. This man was Grandmaster Zeke Petkovic, whom the students of the Seikido club affectionately called Master Zeke. Only he, I thought, would be this excited about a tree. Then I realized that I felt it too. Surely, a tree as big as the span of his arms must be a very rare thing.
One can only describe Master Zeke by contradictions. Tall and burly with hands as big as two hands, he would easily be considered competitive for the role of the Mountain from the Game of Thrones. Yet, there was a playfulness in his eyes and demeanour that was almost childlike. It was the latter quality that I was witnessing now as he described the tree. “Huge!” His eyes widened with delight.
Earlier that day, I had gone to Master Zeke’s home for lunch. He lived a ten-minute drive south-west from campus with his wife Linda and youngest son Al. Linda had spread a feast. Fish, rice, and an assortment of Polish pickles arrayed the dining room table. I began taste-testing each item in turn.
“How’s the food, eh?” Master Zeke asked as I scooped a spoonful of beet paste.
He gave a hearty chuckle and began spreading rose hip jam onto a generous slice of toast. “You and Al keep working at it. I’ll keep it coming.”
I muttered thanks in between mouthfuls.
“Back in Serbia, we always fed our guests well. Food was scarce when we were younger, so now I guess we’re making up for it.”
I caught a glance from Linda. He’s about to start on one of his stories again, it said.
“I came to Canada with a few dollars in my pocket. I worked hard on anything I could get my hands on, driving buses, doing gardening work, whatever it took…I eventually invested in real estate and retired comfortably. I keep telling young practitioners to be smart with their money. Start early and start young…”
“Have you told Charlie about the fish oil story?” Linda said suddenly.
“What fish oil story?” I asked.
“I haven’t told you?” said Master Zeke.
“No. Tell me.”
“Well, there was this river back home that we used to swim in. Before I went for a swim in that river, I would rub some sardine oil over my body, because, you know, fish oil is good for the skin.”
I nodded skeptically. Master Zeke was known to provide spontaneous medical wisdom based on ancient, experiential sources. To be fair , many of them did turn out to be true, but the underlying explanations were somewhat fuzzier. One of his formulations to treat the common cold was raw garlic and a shot of brandy. “It kills everything,” he claimed, by which he meant bacteria and the like. It also killed any chances of my finding a date.
“After a swim one day, I went on a date with this girl. As I approached her, I saw her face curl into a look of disgust. It turned out that I’d forgotten to wash the sardine oil off. I stank!” We roared with laughter.
“This way, Charlie,” his voice called, drawing me back to our tree hunt.
We walked around the forest, looking for a path to enter. The small patch of woods was located behind Victoria Hospital. It surrounded two small lakes and a cluster of dilapidated structures which surrounded a large central one. These must have been houses, I thought, as I spotted a chimney and pillars amidst the rubble. A more complete hut stood at the centre, the white paint on its elliptical wall bitten off by the years.
“I used to tend the gardens here for the hospital,” said Master Zeke. “It was a rehabilitation unit that housed veterans of the first World War. They lived in these,” he said, pointing to the smaller structures. “And this was a canteen.” He pointed to the large central one.
“Many of them struggled with mental issues. They came here to recover, but some never did. One went missing once, and they couldn’t find him for days. He was found dead under a layer of leaves.” We walked silently on. I tried to imagine the yellowed grass around me as they once were, lush and adorned with care.
We arrived at a trail leading into the thicket. We hiked along it, him leading the way and me trailing behind, brushing aside strands of woody arms as we went. The weather had only recently turned warm, and many of the trees had yet to shake off their winter drowsiness. We soon found ourselves surrounded on both sides by maple and ash. The air grew cool. In the distance, I saw the parking grounds of Victoria Hospital, but I heard no sound except that of birds and our boots gently brushing against the forest floor.
“Oh, look!” said Master Zeke, stopping mid-stride. “A locust flower seed.” He picked a dried pod from a bush, plucked out the beady black seeds, and promptly popped them into his mouth. Someone once told me that Master Zeke had a habit of “eating everything”, which included wild flowers, mushrooms, and the occasional poison ivy. I now had concrete evidence.
Fifteen minutes later, we arrived at our destination. He was right. The tree’s girth was as wide as three adult arm spans, and its peak towered above that of its neighbours. Master Zeke and I fell silent as we approached it.
“Why are all the other trees so much thinner?” I asked after a while.
“This one is probably hundreds of years old. The others never got a chance to grow this big. This is a survivor.”
Master Zeke walked up and wrapped his gigantic arms around the trunk. “There’s nothing like hugging a tree,” he said with a satisfied sigh. “Give it a try!”
As I awkwardly placed my arms around the rugged bark, I realized that it wasn’t as uncomfortable as I’d thought. I looked over at Master Zeke. His eyes were closed and his face had relaxed into a peaceful smile. There is a poetry in existence, and it’s written in a language that can only be understood by someone who has hugged a tree, eaten poison ivy, and rubbed their body with fish oil. How often, I thought, do we take survival for granted?
“It’s time to go, Charlie.” Master Zeke’s voice seemed to come from very far away.
Just a little while longer, said a little voice inside my head.
“Alright, let’s go,” I said out loud.