The teacher paused and a student raised his hand, “I don't understand – who is this man?”
“He's the Leaf Man.”
The students guffawed, but the teacher used to this response ignored them, “He was the last shepherd of elm trees before they succumbed to disease.”
“What disease?” A bespectacled young man asked.
“DED. Dutch elm disease.”
In measured tones, the teacher spoke about how the disease affected the trees, sometimes for up to fifteen years. At the end of his long explanation, he added, “The Leaf Man has it.”
“So what you're saying is, this novel is historical fact and mythological fiction?”
The teacher fixed his pale grey eyes on the boy that asked who was at the front of his class, “No, this account is all true.” Despite his solemn delivery, each student laughed; a belly laugh that rose and fell like a Mexican wave to giggles, coughs, and awkward silence.
The students waited for the teacher, and the teacher waited for the students to react, to realise the gravity of a man living with this virus.
The bell broke the spell and as the students gathered up their books and pens, the teacher entreated them to “Read to chapter ten.”
*When the last student had left, the teacher sighed and laid his head to rest on a school desk. Every year it was the same. They thought he was an old man who was losing his mind, who denied that fiction existed. And there was always one who thought he knew better. Who thought he could humiliate or outshine the teacher.
How could he teach this new intake of youth about a landscape they couldn't recognise?
To them, it was so long ago; it was a dream, an old person's memory.
The tree herders had once roamed all the forests; as a small boy, his grandpa had met one, and this book, he was trying to teach, was his grandpa's account of it. He'd loved hearing stories of the Leaf Man when he was young, but the history he now held in his hands, which his grandpa later wrote, was shocking.
His grandpa's voice interrupted his wandering thoughts so that he felt like a boy sitting on his grandpa's knee again.
To the villagers, he was a giant in the final stages of a contagious disease looking for a place to heave his last sigh. All closed their windows and doors, and peeked out at him - they thought doing more would be catching - except for my father, who was a caretaker of a country estate. He opened the gates and invited the Leaf Man into the grounds.
They conversed in a language I'd never heard. My father's face turned ashen and he refused to translate, but in English he said “You're starved.” The disease had ravaged his elm tree herd, before moving to him and wasting his branch-like limbs. He begged my father to fetch an axe and chop him down, which my father did crying with each blow.
It was hard for me to see my father distressed, but he always admired a fine tree with an ecstasy of delight like that with which he would catch a beautiful child in his arms.
*A fable sparked by a sentence in Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke