Old Man Tree

The palace the rainbows had built for them was incredible, obviously. Constructed of clouds and light, it was a constant feast of the senses. It flew low over the land, so though the air was cold, it wasn’t so terrible that warm clothing didn’t answer the need for heat. Food arrived on arcs of color and with Urielle’s close underllastanding of the rainbows’ language, they were able to go where they liked. And they had. The three of them had traveled the world, the rainbows taking them where they were most needed. They had helped hundreds of folks with hundreds of problems. They’d done what they could to minimize the damage of the scourge of myir created for that the king whose name would be erased from history. They’d helped the last of the giants find their way to the meeting place, where they intended to sleep until ‘it was time.’ Now, Absulla gazed down on the world over a soft cloud rail in thought.

She was the last of the Tree Folk. Her tattoo was unfinished, and though she knew where each mark ought to go, before adding the ones she had earned, she desired to find someone who could understand the significance of each mark and bear them with her. Someone who would help her carry on what remained of her peoples’ long history in her memories. She wouldn’t find that person floating above the world on a cloud. Urielle and Hendron had each other. And they had the rainbows. Absulla had been a person of limb and root, and though she appreciated the skies, she doubted she would ever feel at home. It was time to go. She heard Urielle approach and stop, thinking she was unseen as she watched.

“There was a story,” Absulla told her. “An old story, of my people.”

Urielle sighed, and Absulla could tell she was smiling.

“Even on a cloud I can’t sneak up on you,” she said, “joining Absulla at the rail and gazing down at the meadow currently under the shadow of their cloud palace. “What is the story?”

“An old man living at the edge of a stream,” Absulla said. “He loved the stream and she loved him. She sang to him through the day and night. She was sweet and pure, and nurturing. And he treated her with respect. One day, men from far away met the stream closer to her source and decided they wanted to live where her winding path wandered. They dammed her up, diverting her waters and forcing her underground. The man who lived at the edge of her small banks awoke one day to find her missing. He mourned her, stamping his feet and raising a great wail. That is when a nearby tree chose to speak to him. They told him that his beloved stream was not gone. In fact, she hummed beneath his feet with her songs of love for him. She wished that she could reach him again, but she was deep underground where only roots reached. The old man knew that he was not long for this world, especially with such heartbreak weighing on his heart. He knew an old song, taught in the early days and rarely heard now that things were fixed. He knew that if he sang this song he could transform into something new. It would mean leaving behind who and what he was. He sang this song. The forest hushed to listen. None but the oldest trees remembered hearing such a song uttered aloud. The old man’s song turned to wails of pain and the trees wept for him. Those tears leaked into the soil and mingled with the sweet, pure waters of his beloved stream. She surged upward, trying to reach her beloved to be with him again, but she didn’t have the strength. She felt him though, suddenly, reaching down through the soil toward her. His toes had grown long and turned into roots. His arms had turned into branches. His body and head into a long trunk. She swirled in joy around his roots, and to this day they are together.”

Urielle breathed in the crisp air and sighed. “That’s a nice story,” she said. “What does it teach?” She had learned by now that all of the stories from the Tree Folk had hidden meanings.

Absulla didn’t respond right away. She watched the world below glide by.

“I’ve heard many meanings given to the story,” she said at last, “but that isn’t why it’s on my mind now. I want to…” She fell silent.

Urielle frowned at her friend. They had traveled together for years and in that time she had grown to know many things about Absulla. First, she was decisive. She didn’t leave sentences unfinished. Second, though she had told a few tales from the Tree Folk, these stories were shared in specific settings. She had never offered one up without prompting. Something had been on Absulla’s mind of late and it had both Urielle and Hendron worried.

“Yes?” Urielle prompted.

“I need to find Old Man Tree,” Absulla said.

“You… but it’s a story,” Urielle said. “A fable. You can’t think…”

“I do think that the story is based on the truth,” Absulla said. “An old truth, but still true. And it means we need to go back to where I grew up.” She turned haunted eyes on Urielle. “I need to go home,” she said.

“I thought your people were all…”

“Gone,” Absulla confirmed, watching the horizon. “Yes. The trees are still there, though, and Old Man Tree must be one of them. I have a question for him.”

Urielle nodded. She knew that look of resolve. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll speak with the rainbows.”

They watched together a week later as the shadow of their palace darkened the ruins of what had once been a formidable fortress. Deep gouges in the earth showed where two giants had risen from beneath it laying waste to its towers and thick stone walls. A town bustled beyond, and they saw that roads and farms had carved away at what had once been a vast, mysterious forest. Absulla choked when she saw.

“There is still much forest left,” Hendron assured, pointing to the thick soft blanket of ancient trees that now flowed beneath them.

“So much is gone though,” Absulla said, her voice cracking with grief.

“Much is gone,” Hendron nodded.

His gaze strayed back to the remains of the palace where he and had once lived. Urielle’s eye was on the town beyond. The people there had rebuilt over what the nameless king had destroyed. None of her people were left there to do the rebuilding.

“All we can do is continue forward,” Urielle said. “The rainbows are ready to take us down now. Absulla, where should they drop us?”

No sooner had Absulla pointed than they were sliding down arcs of color to the spot. It was a sense of relief that greeted her once her feet were on the ground and the green canopy sheltered them from above. She breathed in deeply, loving every scent of her old forest. The creatures had gone quiet at their arrival but within a minute they began to discuss what they’d just seen and she smiled at the familiar languages of the birds and other small creatures of her home.

“Come,” Absulla said, guiding Urielle and Hendron to the base of a tree her people called Stepper.

She showed them each of the foot and hand holds that led them up into the canopy where one of Stepper’s thick limbs formed a bridge to the outer platform of her clan’s town. The town had remained undiscovered. The frail and the young had fled, mistakenly believing that they would find safety if they disguised themselves in a nearby fishing village. They had been betrayed. She and what remained of her people had led the Myrinian soldiers away from this place and taken the fight to the ground in order to protect their secrets. Absulla had been among the youngest who had been allowed to stay and fight. She’d been inexperienced, though, and had been knocked out by a metal-clad soldier on a horse. She’d awakened in captivity and learned the fate of her people from the other captives. She was the last.

Standing on this platform, she saw distinctly, past the layers of unswept leaves, the people who belonged in each spot. Each empty family home, in her eyes, still bustled with its inhabitants. She felt Hendron’s hand steadying her. Had she swayed? She brought them to where her family’s home stood, but found herself unable to enter. Urielle seemed to understand.

“What are you looking for here?” Urielle asked.

Absulla smiled in thanks. That was exactly the reminder she needed. She moved past her hollow home and made her way to the Hall of Wisdom. It was a spiral staircase that wrapped around the trunk of the oldest tree supporting the town. Lined on its walls were every scroll, book and carving her people had collected through untold generations. Elders dedicated their last decades to studying and teaching the young from these shelves. She began her search.

Urielle and Hendron slept in the cloud palace in the nights that followed, but returned each morning to assist Absulla with her research. They found that, like the rest of the town, the forest and its creatures were reclaiming the library and many of the books and scrolls had been damaged already. The rainbows helped them to find a suitable cave in a mountain barely visible from the highest tree, and there Urielle and Hendron moved cart after cart while Absulla read and organized.

Absulla could feel the forest watching their movements. At night, after Urielle and Hendron had gone, Absulla traveled the platforms, speaking to the listening darkness. She told stories about each person she remembered. She explained that these efforts were to preserve the history of her people, so that someday, her children and their children could carry on the traditions. She talked about her desire to speak with Old Man Tree and learn from him the old song so that one day she might join the forest herself. She spoke, and the forest listened. Finally, she stood at her own house. She had just finished the stories of her parents and siblings, and hesitated.

“There is only one story left to tell,” she said. “I think I know where to find Old Man Tree. The library is saved. My work here is complete.”

“It isn’t though,” a voice said from behind her.

Absulla spun around. Nobody was able to sneak up on her! Here, though, stood a man not ten steps away. His eyes were leafy green. His skin and hair were bark brown. He smiled kindly.

“Old Man Tree?” she asked breathlessly.

“Close,” he said. “That story is about my father. He left this world long ago but I’m glad to know that he is still remembered, and that his gentle nature and strength have come through in the tales.”

“Your father… does that mean that you…”

“Know the song?” the man asked. “Yes. I do. And yes,” he said before Absulla could ask, “I will teach it to you someday, if that is what you wish.”

He turned from her and she followed him back toward the Hall of Wisdom. He slowed, allowing her to walk by his side.

“Please don’t tell your own story just yet,” he said as they walked.

He took her hand and she marveled that his touch was soft yet his fingers felt like twigs on a branch.

“It has been lonely,” he added, gazing around at the empty homes. “Your people not only protected us, but gave us treasured company through the years. I had thought that you were all lost and had nearly given up. When you arrived with your friends, I suspected that you were thieves. When you began to tell your stories I realized that you were at least a friend to my people. And tonight I finally realized who you are.”

They stopped at the Hall of Wisdom and he walked up to the inner wall. He placed his hand against the trunk of the great old tree and Absulla watched as his hand merged with the bark briefly.

“This is you,” she said. “This tree. It’s you.”

“Yes,” he smiled. “My name is Ean. My father once stood over there,” he said, nodding toward a large space between platforms that Absulla had always assumed was meant as an area to watch the ground far below.

Looking with new understanding, she realized that an enormous trunk must have stood in that spot once.

“Your people used to protect this forest,” Ean said. “In their absence my friends are pulled down. The animals who live here are left homeless and hunted. I am doing what I can but I have limitations in this form. I need your help, Absulla.”

He turned his leaf green eyes to her and took both of her hands in his.

“Yes,” she said. “I’ll stay. And together, we’ll protect our home.”

Urielle and Hendron were saddened to leave their friend behind but they understood. They stayed one more day to say goodbye and then floated away on their rainbows and clouds. They’d see each other again, they knew this, but in everything would be different when they did. They knew this and worked to accept it.

As for Absulla and Ean and their home, many tall tales have come from the Old Forest through the ages. Some are probably complete fabrications but others sometimes ring true. Those who travel into the forest come out again with a sense that the forest was watching their every movement. Superstitions grew through the bordering villages that a felled tree could bring years of misfortune and before long the people took that thought further, holding celebrations to venerate the trees and keep them happy.