Galaxy Tall Tales

Science fiction books and stories
Science fiction

Death of the Old Gnarled Tree

I hunger for truth, and I have hiked the Eleven Worlds to find it. What’s the chance I’d find it on this one?

I was an alien stranger here. I was the only passenger dropped off by the creaky planet hopper on this strange, out-of-the way world circling a somber reddish star. The local oki* were squat and ugly. They talked funny and treated me rudely. Thus, I walked their roads alone.

As I walked through their villages, they gave me scant notice, despite — or perhaps because of — my strange appearance to them. I’m tall, gangly, and pale, compared to their short, compact, swarthy mien. Their guttural talk would grow guarded; they would busy themselves looking elsewhere. Small ones would stare and point at me until quickly shushed by an elder.

The local foodstuffs were quite good, if I took care to select them and prepare them myself, using my travelling pack of condiments. Spending ancient local coins, I purchased a small amount of food each day from whatever vendor I happened to pass, communicating with gestures and grunts.

I quickly gave up asking directions. The map I had found — though very old — was still quite accurate, showing that little had changed for ages. Besides, it mattered little where I went. My journey was largely an inner one. On this trip, I was just coming to realize this, after spending half a lifetime hiking many worlds.

There was a larger lesson here for me to learn, I felt sure. I should stay here and ponder it, see if I could make it my own. But no; impatient, I figured I would soon push on. There were many more worlds to search.

That night, I was glad I sheltered in an inn, even though my bed was naught but smelly straw, for a strong storm blew through, bringing wind, thunder and lightning, and torrents of rain.

The morning brought a fresh, raw day, so after I broke bread, I packed up and strode swiftly down the road. There I saw something that gave me pause.

An ancient gnarled tree, mostly dead, had finally been blown over by the windstorm. Its long-forgotten secret was revealed. Cradled and interpenetrated by its roots was the skeleton of a rather large animal. To me, a stranger passing by, a sojourner from a far world, it at first seemed a bizarre juxtaposition. But a moment of still contemplation brought revelation.

This beast had been loved. Loved enough so that someone had taken the trouble to dig a hole large enough to bury it upon its passing, and then plant and nurture a tree to mark the memory. The tree had been loved as well. Such a fruit tree wouldn’t grow naturally in this cool clime, so it had been lovingly tended and nurtured. It had probably returned the care with bountiful fruit, judging from the ring of younger saplings surrounding it in silent homage.

What had happened to those who loved and tended the beast and the tree? Obviously they were long gone. But the tree, even in its final act of dying, gave testament to their love and caring.

I was moved to tears as I thought this through. Then I offered a blessing. “May the memory of these loving, caring beings long be cherished by those who come after them.”

In silence, I broke off a tip of the tree branch and removed the last tailbone of the beast; regarded them for a moment, then tucked them into my soft leather pouch. Such things are to be remembered.

I returned to the same inn for a second night. The next day, I went back out to the fallen tree with a shovel, dug up a sapling, and took it back to the village garden to replant. I dug a hole. But before filling it in, I told the story, including my own part in it, recording it on a word crystal. I retrieved the small incised pewter box I had purchased on an earlier world. I placed the twig, the piece of bone, and the crystal within the box, and screwed on the lid. I wrapped it in red silk, and placed it in the bottom of the hole. The silk would soon disappear, I knew, but the pewter box would preserve its contents for a very long time. On top of this I planted the erect young sapling, and filled in the hole with water and rich soil

“May my actions here today help preserve knowledge of the shared spirit of Oki far into the future. May those who might discover this in distant times be heartened by our shared impulses reaching across the ages. It is only this connection that sets us apart from the cold uncaring chaos of the universe.”

I gave the sign of connection and briefly bowed my head in reverence.

Three of the villagers I earlier characterized as squat and ugly had stopped to watch what I was doing, and overheard my benediction. They also bowed and gave the sign of connection. I bowed to them in return, and the oldest promised to tend the young tree. He thanked me in the Common Tongue. “I well remember that tree, and have oft enjoyed its shade.” They invited me in for mid-day repast, and we spent a good long time telling one another tales from our lives.

This of course was the lesson I had scoured the known planets to discover: beneath our ugly exteriors and strange habits, we are connected.

That evening they put me up on the upper floor of the inn, in a bed with silk sheets. But before that, we shared heaping bowls of stew, mugs of fruity grog, and many tall tales while sitting on benches around the roaring fire pit.

If, as the ancients say, home is where the heart is, then if you let your heart expand to encompass all, you are at home wherever you may be.

Before I left in the morning, a village artisan twisted some silver wire into an image of the two clasped hands of the sign of connection, and gave it to me on a fine chain. I was astounded at its intricate beauty, and the speed at which she had created it. I wear it around my neck to this day.

I realized then that my search was over. Yet I keep traveling the worlds, just for the pleasure of the journey, and the joy of connection.

* “Oki” is my term for a being from any intelligent, technology-using worldrace from any planet, but mostly from the water-oxygen worlds. It can be either a singular or collective noun, like “deer.”

© 2021  Mike Van Horn