Thursday, December 22, 2011

Heart Tree

Twenty-five thousand, eight hundred and seventy steps. They had been counted before. The men who had carved them into the rock face certainly knew the number very well, and many more had climbed them in the uncountable years since. Several even returned. They were broad and high, wide enough for a score of men to walk abreast without their shoulders touching, and each stair was nearly a march-step above its predecessor. It was almost like seeing the ocean. They stretched out of sight into the clouds, winding ever so slightly on their course but inevitably climbing to the Rim.
It was said the Rim gave you an answer, the answer to whatever you sought. Some said that the answer was to whatever lay deepest in your heart, regardless of what you thought you were seeking. Many never returned from the top, supposedly after receiving their knowledge they threw themselves from the top. There were less bodies than there were those who had gone missing. The first step of any pilgrimage to the Rim was the Temple of the Fallen. Those who guarded the gates thought it necessary to warn climbers that the answers may destroy them.
I tightened my pack, and started up. Every step was one step closer, after all.

It was only a few hours in that I met a man coming down. He was actually laying down, asleep next to small pile of coals.  I assumed that the fire had been for cooking, the weather being very temperate. Of  course my body was warm from the exercise, so I couldn't really speak for the climate. I decided to take my own rest to drink some water. The water was cool and refreshing, and stopping, I could finally feel the small stilted breeze coming down the mountain.
“How much further?” The man on the step stirred and sat up, blinking the sleep from his eyes. He was quite old, I noticed. It seemed that most of his wispy gray hair had migrated from the top of his head to the bottom, in a long and thinning beard.
“Excuse me?”
“To the bottom, you fool. How much longer till I reach the bottom?” He leaned over to grab some fists-full of dirt and scattered them over the smoldering coals.
“Not far grandfather. Less than a thousand by my count.”
“Thanks be to it. The sooner I get back home the better. These forsaken steps and the forsaken Rim, to the midden-heap with all of it. A waste of what time I have.” I watched him for a few minutes longer as he began getting his belongings together. “You should turn back, young man. Fanciful tales will get you nowhere. I'd sooner have spent a month working a stable than with this trek.”
“What were you looking for?”
“That's my own sodding business.” He snapped at me. After a moment, his face softened. “Don't waste your time son. It's a tree. An old tree. Whatever the answer is supposed to be, it's always a tree. If you plan on hiking up these steps, the only question you should ask is what a tree that has lived too long looks like. That's the only answer you'll get.” He gather his cloak around him, shouldered his knapsack, and started away.
A tree? Perhaps he just didn't understand what he was looking at. The rest of that day was an uneventful climb. I made over six thousand steps on that first day, quitting only when I began to lose feeling in my feet. I laid out my bedroll, tucked my pack under my head, and was out before I had counted three stars.

When morning came, I was definitely feeling the chill. At some point I had thrashed about and rolled down two of the stairs. The fall should have woken me, but I guess my exhaustion was more than I thought. After a light breakfast of dried jerky and water, I began again. It was cold. Bitter, biting cold.
The climb was harder that second day. Worse even the third. When I woke up on the morning of the fourth day, I tallied in my head how far I had come. It turns out that what I had climbed in that first day was more than half of my trip so far. I needed to pace myself a bit better if I had any hope of climbing all the way to the Rim. I stood, and stretched my muscles, feeling the already familiar ache. This time, however, it was less sharp. Like a sickness passing, the stiff muscles and angry joints were dulled, finally accepting their role in this trip. When I sat for my noon-break, they sighed in relief, but were wary of the upcoming resumption of their effort.
Since seeing the man on my first day, the stairs had been otherwise clear and silent. It's understandable, then, that I nearly choked on my water when I felt a tap on my shoulder.
I jumped up, and reeled backwards. I could feel the back of my heel beginning to step into thin air, I began to picture my death as I rolled down thousands of steps, crushing my skull, my neck, smashing against the stone-when a hand caught my wrist. It was a firm, steeled grip, pulling me in a manner that was anything but gingerly back towards the way up instead of the way down. I collapsed on the ground, sucking in thin air through clenched teeth. When I finally managed to open my eyes, my breath caught in my throat. Who should be standing there, but the old man. His features seemed a little fuller, the wisps that had once covered his bald pate seemed thicker and darker, his beard shot through with small streaks of black.
“That's impossible,” I stammered, “you... I met you going-”
“Save the double-talk, child.” He sat next to me, shedding his cloak despite the deep chill. I could see that he had been sweating profusely. His skin was sun-darkened, almost leathery. Where I had first seen frail arms, there were instead thin but toned biceps, the muscles of a man who gained his strength through work instead of vanity. “You really want to see a tree this badly?”
I didn't know what to say. “Is that really what's there?”
“Did you think I was lying? Of course it's a tree. A gnarled, old warped knotted tree. It doesn't grow any fruit, or leaves, nor does it keel over and die. The only thing that's impressive about it is that it doesn't die. At least not yet.” He unwrapped a water-skin from his belt and took a long pull. He turned and looked at me for a long moment. “You look disappointed.”
I didn't respond. I couldn't really.
“So lad, what are you looking for on the Rim? Some young lady broke your heart? 'Haps you're trying to find your 'true calling'?” He passed me his skin, and I took a sip. I immediately felt fire in my mouth, my chest, and began coughing. The old man belted out a deep, belly laugh, slapping his knee. “Don't worry boy, you'll grow to the taste. So what's your angle, eh?”
I had only a sip, but it took quickly. My muscles relaxed a little more, my mind hazed and cleared at the same time. “I don't know.” The old man continued to watch me. “Honestly, I don't. I'm not particularly interested in any answers. I don't really have any questions. At least, none so profound I couldn't find the answer myself.” I took one more draw from the skin and passed it back to him. He sat, unmoving, while I stood, stored my own skin and shouldered my pack.
“That's good.” he said, finally. I was already ten steps above him. “Still doesn't change the fact that all you're going to find is a sodding tree.” I continued on my way.

At the end of the seventh day, I was nearing the top. I had counted eighteen thousand steps by nightfall, and had a little strength left in me to keep going until about mid-night. It had started grating on me: why was I climbing? Throughout the years many men and women had come back with profound answers, written many of the greatest texts of generations. Love, God, Gods, Terror, Destruction, Distraction, Happiness, Humility... these were all gifts bestowed to those who had sought the threshold of the Rim.
But they had come armed. They knew what they sought, and they had the strength. Who was I to attempt this climb? What experiences had I had to precipitate this journey? I had told him the truth, I had no question. I enjoyed learning, but had no aim in my knowledge. I simply learned what there was to learn in a place, and continued on my way. The simplest answer I could give myself was that this was just simply on the way. I had been making my way north for years, and passing by the Temple of the Fallen, it seemed a natural extension of the journey.
Could he be telling the truth? How could so many have come down from the Rim with insights from a tree? What could men see in its branches that would cause them to throw themselves from the top? Clearly the old man was part of this. There's no way he could have climbed back up after me without me knowing. Some magic of the steps. Or, worse, my own imagination. Funny, I told him I had no questions needing answered, and here he was providing me with several.
By the time I laid my roll out that night, I had forgotten all about them. My body had reached such a point of exhaustion that the entire ordeal of sleeping was more routine than will.

The morning of the eighth day was warm. The sun was higher than I had hoped, but it didn't stop me from just laying under my cloak, basking in the morning air.
“I know what you're thinking.” The voice should have surprised me, but to be honest, I had been expecting it. The face was mildly surprising though. A sharp widow's peak with a thinning top. A short, trimmed beard that was more pepper than salt. He had spectacles, but they seemed more of a decoration than a utility. “You're thinking about the tree.” He pulled an apple from his robes, and began to snack on it. “It really does have answers. But it's just a tree.”
“So there really is a tree?” I sat up, blinking the sleep out of my eyes.
“Yeah, but it's nothing amazing. It's just a tree. A really astoundingly old one, but it's just a tree. With answers.” His attention was more on the apple than the conversation, I could tell.
“You mean it speaks? How?”
He wiped the juices dribbling from his chin with a too-large sleeve. “No. Trees don't talk. You'll see though. What are you asking it?” His eyes were bright, expectant.
“I don't know. Nothing. I'm just traveling.”
He started to grin. “Good choice. Pretty stupid if you ask me. It's a long climb. Then again you know that by now.” Chomp. “Ish preyey poinlesh if you're going up err for noffing” Swallow. “Anyways, I have to be on my way. It's a long way down.” With that, he stood, and began bounding down the stairs.
I started to feel afraid. I made camp early, planning to tackle the last thousand steps on the morning. Whatever waited up there I wanted a good deal of daylight with me when I found it.

The last one hundred steps were light, almost airy. The stone gave way to a loose, sedimentary mix shored up by wooden beams. Then it worked itself to dirt, hemmed in by roots. Finally, the Rim.
It stretched both ways across the horizon, the bowl edge of the world. I had expected it to be a sharp ridge, but instead I was faced with the edge of a plateau. The sky was bright and clear, a stiff breeze against my face, but it was fog-less, cloudless. You could see miles all around in every direction except down.
There in front of me, in a shallow valley, was the tree. It was simultaneously enormous yet small. It's age was easily apparent, but it didn't look anywhere near ancient. It was amazingly stout, and right above the ground, its bark grew outwards, creating a hole that exposed its inner core, the ivory white of its heartwood-the part that should always be encased-having been worn to a tough gray. As it rose upwards, the shell closed back, and began stretching its leafless branches out not towards the sky, but more towards the sunset. Below the crest of branchings there was a growth, almost tumorous. Had it been red and pulsing, it would have appeared to be a heart.
I walked to it, and made rest in the little shade it provided. A warm breeze waved its way across my face, and I began to sweat again for the first time in days. I had heard that the Rim was the frozen cusp of the world, but here it was, far from frozen, and flat in every direction. Behind me I could trace the line where the world dipped out of sight, looking so much like an ocean of clouds in a giant's teacup. In the silence, I began to study the tree a little more.
It was unusual, but not so unusual that it was astounding. It looked ill, to be honest. The section of its heartwood I saw with closer inspection had almost grown a bark of its own. I stood and walked over to touch it. It was soft, but rigid. I felt that with any small effort on my part I could tear a chunk out of its meat. I tested pressing my finger firmly against it, but it didn't give.
“I wouldn't do that. That's a god you're poking.” Through the hole made by the bark, there was a small child standing on the other side. She had disheveled strawberry blond curls framing her face. As she stared at me, the freckles on her nose began to darken. Finally I drew my hand back. “You're not supposed to poke gods.” She stepped around the tree, and grabbed my hand. “Come over here and sit with me.”
“Who are you? I was expecting the old man to be here.” It was all I could think to say as she walked me back to my pack. She pulled out my bedroll, sat down and crossed her legs. She looked up at me expectantly, so I sat next to her.
“Grandfather talks too much. He says it's just a tree. But my mommy told me that this is the heart-tree, and it's older than anyone. She said when she was a baby, Grandfather would bring her here and it looked just as old as it does now.”
“I didn't know there was any land up here. The Rim is supposed to be... well, a rim I guess.”
The girl gave me a look that only children can give: the exasperation of having to explain something to an adult. “Of course there's land here. Lots of it. It goes on forever mommy says. Grandfather says it goes so far it wraps all the way around and comes back to the other side. He thinks it's too big.”
Neither of us spoke for a while. If I hadn't had questions when I started, I certainly had them now. I was never any good speaking with children, and this had been made doubly hard by the fact that I had no idea what to think of any of this, while this girl seemed to be entirely comfortable out here. “Are you going to jump off the cliff?” Her question was simple curiosity. If she understood the morbidity of such an action, it didn't show.
“I hadn't planned on it.”
“A lot of people jump off the cliff. Grandfather says it's because they were expecting to find god, and it was just a tree. That's why he leaves, so he can tell people it's just a tree. Mommy thinks it's 'cause they're scared.” She leaned over and rummaged in my pack, pulled out a small piece of jerky, frowned at, and took a small nibble from the corner. “I think they're both wrong. I think that the people who jump are like my bunny.” She fell silent again, and finished the piece of jerky. When she was done, she dug around again until she found my water-skin, and drank deeply.
“How are they like your bunny?” I grabbed my own piece of jerky to eat while she screwed up her face and thought.
“Grandfather gave me a bunny. He told me to keep it in its cage or it would run away. I didn't like to keep her in a cage though. So when he would leave to go down the steps, I would let her out and play with her. Last spring I forgot to make sure the front door was shut and she ran away. When Grandfather got back, he was mad. We went to look for her, and found her out in the trees by my yard. She had starved to death. She had been in a cage for so long that when she got out, she was so scared she forgot to eat and stay alive. That's what the people who jump off the cliff are like. They just got out of their cage, and don't want to go back, but they forget how to stay alive.”
“What's your name?”
“I can't tell you my name.” She said abruptly. She got up and smoothed out her dress, and began walking away.
“Wait!” I called out to her. When she turned around, I realized I had nothing to say, no reason she shouldn't leave me alone.
“You're a stranger. And you're from below the clouds. I'm not supposed to tell my name to strangers. Mommy said so.” She took another few steps away, and stopped. When she turned around again, her cheeks were flushed. “I ate your food. Come to my house and my mommy will give you food. Then you won't be a stranger and I can tell you my name.”
She was almost out of sight by the time I could get my pack together, but I managed to keep her in eyesight until I caught up. I looked back one last time, to see the bare, leafless branches of the tree swaying in the wind.

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