A Poison Tree, by William Blake
I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe;
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
And I waterd it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.
And it grew both day and night.
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine.
And into my garden stole,
When the night had veild the pole;
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
The room she had been given was, in all fairness, of the level of luxury she was used to in the Palace. It was airy and spacious, with finely-made furniture and a large bed covered with silk sheets. The numerous windows ensured that she, as a firebender, would be able to feel the caressing light and warmth of the sun. It also meant that she was able to look out and see the beautifully kept garden with its manicured trees and bushes.
One painfully apparent thing that gave the room away as a cell, however, was the bars which stretched down on the windows. The rays of sunlight were distorted by unyielding steel, which cast shadows on the room and created a discolouration which marred the otherwise luxurious aesthetic.
Azula was hardly in the appropriate state of mind to appreciate the comforts of her cell. In spite of her breakdown (a mere slip in front of Zuko, she told herself), she was well aware of her surroundings and knew that she was being held as a patient in a mental facility. She could taste the drug in her food. It was, in that dosage, merely meant to dampen her firebending abilities, and not addle her mental faculties. That was accomplished by regular visits to some long-faced fool who asked her stupid questions and wrote down things on a piece of paper.
She seethed at the thought of being seen as unstable, as anything other than perfect. In her undistracted mind they laughed at her secretly, behind their hands, behind the thick walls of her prison – for it was a prison, all right – and for that she hated them.
Anger. Anger was her sole companion, the one constant in her life now. Everyone and everything else was in flux, outside the limited boundaries of her control, all slipping away like sand trickling between her fingers. One by one, they had all abandoned her. First was Mother, then Mai and Ty Lee, then Father. . . They were all gone.
Perhaps Zuko was still around. But really, he had disappeared too, all those ages ago, when he'd gone off to capture the Avatar and instead changed his traitorous mind and sided with him.
They were all gone. All she had left was her anger and resentment, reminiscent of a caged animal.
There were times when she snapped in the dark recesses of the night and burst into fits of quiet dry sobs, straining against her straitjacket and crying out to no one. She would never cry out to a person, because people weren't dependable, and people weren't constant, and people left. She had played the game and lost. Scenes of her humiliation constantly flashed in front of her eyes – being tossed to the ground by Zuko's attacks, being denied her glory by Father, being defeated by, of all people, that filthy Water Tribe peasant.
During mealtimes, she sat on a chair by the largest window and ate numbly, looking through the bars at the garden sprawled right outside her window. It irritated her, all those smug bushes, pruned into submission, those trees which never had a branch out of place, the symmetry of the garden’s design. The garden was perfect, and in being perfect it reminded her of her failure.
Almost isn't good enough.
Although she was, in her current state, far from even an 'almost'.
One day, however, under the unrelenting heat of the sun, or perhaps some parasite, one of the trees started to show signs of degradation. It started when a few leaves turned brown and dry and dead, soundlessly falling to the ground. The effect on the otherwise perfectly-shaped tree was barely visible; the only change was that one branch was a few leaves less.
Crackle crackle. The leaves were swept up by a gardener a few hours later, and it was as though they had never existed.
Azula watched the empty space on the branch, noticing the beginnings of decay in a few other leaves, and the hard angry knot in her stomach loosened slightly.
She observed the tree over the next few days during her meals and when she was permitted her hour in the garden during the evening. The gradual decay of the tree became increasingly apparent; more leaves shrivelled and fell onto the grass, forming an ugly contrast until it was inevitably swept away by a gardener. No blemishes were allowed. No ugliness was permitted within the princess's sight.
It came to a point where the gardeners decided that the tree was beyond saving; by this time half its leaves were gone and it looked bare and decrepit. The trunk showed signs of decay. It spoiled the overall picture of the garden, and thus it was decided that the tree would be uprooted and something new and fresh and perfect would replace it.
Azula heard voices outside the window and looked out, only to see a few people standing around the tree, that tree which she had observed every single day almost to the point of routine, and the ever-present anger bubbled up.
"What do you think you're doing?" she demanded, a dangerous note in her voice.
Startled, the men looked towards the malevolent face with glittering amber eyes glaring out at them from behind the window. This was the mad princess, shut away for the good of herself and everyone else.
Aloud, the most senior gardener bowed and said, "Forgive us, Your Highness, but the tree is diseased and beyond recovery. We only wish to replace it with a healthy specimen so that your view might not be blemished."
His words, for some reason, only served to infuriate Azula further. Her stomach tightened. "There is absolutely nothing wrong with that tree," she snapped, her voice cold with fury. "Leave it. If I see anyone even attempt to take it down, they will be banished immediately."
There was a slight hesitation amongst the gardeners. One shuffled his feet uncomfortably, and they all looked toward the senior gardener. A long, sticky moment passed. His face was still frozen in the polite mask as he finally said, "Of course, Your Highness. Do forgive us our impertinence and presumption." He bowed deeply and the rest followed suit.
Azula derived no satisfaction from this act of obeisance. Her face remained white with fury. A sudden spurt of anger made her bite out, "Get out of my sight this instant. Liars! Get out right now!" Her voice rose in volume to a shout.
The gardeners did as she commanded with shuffling feet, backing away until she could no longer see them. When they had gone, all she could see was the tree, half-rotten, half-degraded, half-perfect, and all her energy fled as she sank to her knees, her throat tight with suppressed sobs and her body shaking.
She had a vivid dream that night.
Out in an open field, the tree stood in the state she had last seen it in. Half-withered, some branches bare and others missing, it stood defiantly in the bare plains while the heavens glared down. The only difference was that its branches, both the healthy and the diseased, were laden with fruit.
They were ripe fruit, painfully edible-looking. Azula couldn't quite identify what the fruit were, and it irritated her. She stood a distance away from the tree, and was about to approach it when she spied a figure standing beside the lowest branch.
In her dream, Azula could only stand and watch as he plucked a full, juicy-looking fruit off the branch. He held it in his hand for a moment, staring, and then took a bite, the sound of which resounded across the vast empty swathe of land.
Some unidentified emotion overcame her and she turned away and stared at the endless plain of grass, ruffled gently by the wind. When next she looked back Zuko lay outstretched beneath the tree, his eyes glassy and his face pale. The fruit was nowhere to be seen.
Moments passed, or perhaps months and years. She could have been staring at the corpse of her brother for eternity.
A strangled laugh erupted from her throat, and her vision swam before her eyes, shimmering and distorting, before she awoke with a start.
She was quiet for the next few days. Most of her time was spent staring out of the window, between the warm metal bars. When it was time to eat she did so, paying little attention to her food. When it was time for her hour out, she sat quietly in her wheelchair, pushed along by a nurse who knew better than to try and engage her in conversation. There were little variations in her routine, all controlled by some unknown variable, but she displayed no outward sign of resentment.
The tree stayed.
In the Fire Nation where the season changes were mild and the temperature was always high, plants were evergreen. There was a fierce life to them, and they were stubbornly, vividly green all year, fed by the relentless energy of the sun.
However, that tree, her tree, slowly faded and lost its leaves. Little by little. The life was sucked out of them and then when they had nothing left to give, they fell to the ground, and were swept away into oblivion. The tree looked anything but perfect, compared to its immaculately groomed surroundings. It would eventually, inevitably, be completely bare.
And one day, the inevitable arrived.
The last branch was small, and a solitary withered leaf clung on with weary strength. When Azula saw the state of the tree, she immediately kept vigil beside the window. When evening came, she refused to move, preferring to stare out of her window with an unreadable expression, amber eyes fixed on what the otherwise bare tree had left, that last leaf.
When it was time to sleep, she stubbornly resisted all attempts to send her to bed. Her temper, dampened for so long, flared with renewed energy and she emerged victorious from this battle, sending the bewildered nurses away.
No doubt Zuko would hear of this. His occasional visits revealed that he was kept updated on her situation. And for once, she couldn't care less.
Through the darkness, she could just about make out the shape of the leaf as it quivered on the branch whenever there was a breeze. In those moments, it seemed almost like a creature, desperate to cling on to life. Or was it already dead? Her knowledge of plants was limited at best. But she felt nothing, save for a compulsive need to see it through, to see the leaf fall and know that in the end, everything had to go. . .
She sat for hours, ignoring the stiffness in her body, her eyes staring unblinkingly out of the window. It was fortunate that the moon was out that night, casting her pale glow. And Azula felt nothing at all: not anger, not regret, not resentment, not bitterness. Nothing. All her energies were directed at this one task, and she had always had a single-minded determination anyway.
And then it happened.
Like a last weary sigh, the leaf detached itself from the branch, and fell gently to the ground. And then the tree was completely bare.
Azula sat bolt upright. Her face was rigid as she beheld the empty branch, bereft, barren, desolate. There was nothing left. She stared at it almost dispassionately, the empty, once-perfect specimen, and then a like a mask cracking, her face started to contort.
Where she had felt nothing, she now felt everything.
Hatred, sorrow, rage, betrayal, grief. Because they all left in the end, and with that picked apart perfection until there was nothing but a ruin left, a skeleton of what once had been. Why did everything have to go? The bile rose in her throat, her limbs trembling with some strong emotion that could not be contained. Betrayal and an acute feeling of loss caused the knot in her stomach to tighten. Such a tree could not even bear the fruits of anger and hatred anymore. But she could feel the anger and hatred, and her mouth opened to let forth the wave of blue flames.
But then, nothing came out but a cry of desolation. Her arms strained against the straitjacket as she screamed and screamed, and continued screaming even as the nurses and a doctor burst into the room, shouting out nonsensical instructions, trying unsuccessfully to calm her down. She struggled against her restraints and all this time her tears mingled with the sound of her cries.
She was only faintly aware of being administered something, but then soon her screams sounded more and more distant, her vision blurring as she slipped away from this stark, horrible reality and into a comforting darkness.
The last image before her eyes was her outstretched arm in warning to her brother as he brought a ripe fruit towards his mouth.And then all went black.
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