I found it one day at the park. It grew on a hill just by the riverbank, right near where the grasses began to grow lush and tall. It was early morning and the sun was obstructed in part by the leaves of other trees, creating a dappled pattern of light across the rugged surface of the bark. The air was chill and damp and the grass was dewy as I approached the tree, soaking my sandaled feet.
But I didn’t care. I had never seen anything like this before. And here it was, in the heart of the city. I stole glances around me. Did others know? Should they know?
No. This was mine. I had never seen another tree like this. Its sheer size made me think it was an oak, but a single forlorn branch jutting out from its body dangled a willow-leaf trail. I put it out of my mind. I wasn’t exactly an arborist. Is that what they call people who know things about trees? I don’t know. That doesn’t feel like it’s common knowledge. There hasn’t ever really been a reason for me to know about trees.
Until now. I felt a strange humming in my ears when I looked at it. The bark was so beautiful. Have you ever looked at a tree up close? Truly looked, I mean. There’s so much detail in the grooves and ridges of it. Like petrified elephant skin. I wondered if trees considered their bark to be like a fingerprint. Perhaps it was a means of identification among the treefolk, especially on dark nights where the moon is hidden and clouds have stolen the sky. A way for trees to know each other, since they can’t speak.
If only they could.
The most beautiful thing about the tree were the growths along its body. Great bulging tumours had pushed their way out of the tree and hung in goiterlike clumps on its side. Some spots were comparatively light, while others were half again as wide as me. These growths had a mottled appearance to them, all pitted and gnarled like the surface of some distant moon. There were but a few places where actual virgin bark remained. I ran my fingers first on one of these places, then over the face of a lump. There was a distinct warmth to it that had not existed elsewhere. It was comforting in an abstractly uterine sense.
My knees were wet. When had I kneeled before the tree? I didn’t remember, but it didn’t seem to matter, either. So long as I was there. I knew vaguely that the world around me had grown grey and shadowed and I thought perhaps that clouds bearing rain had come, but no part of me sought to leave. I was enthralled, desperate to see everything this tree had to show me.
I bent closer now, my face mere inches away from one of the growths. I could see now that it wasn’t a random pattern at all, but rather something carefully defined, almost artful.
Could it be? The mass on the side of the tree regarded me with a glorious anguish. Of course! No wonder it had captured me so. I tore my eyes away from the tree with immense sorrow, but only for a moment; I longed to see the others.
Tears trickled down my face. They were all there. Faces embedded in the bark. Souls liberated from flesh-and-bone prisons. I saw before me immortality, visages captured in their moment of ascension, contorted and joyous in a sublime rictus. How could I join? What must I do? Tears flowed freely from my eyes as I beseeched the tree, wishing, hoping, begging.
I leaned forward and pressed my face to the bark.