#22 – The Tree

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.

Closer.

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.

#14 – Gwinpine Gnome

See them now. They come from near and far. Shuffling herds of people from villages across the land, pilgrims in ragged garments that cling limply to their bodies’ rugged topography. They do not look at one another as they travel. Their eyes are to the Hill.

Distant sounds of footfalls herald their coming. Through swamp and heath and mountain and meadow they come. Families of men and children and women with babes in arms. A low keening sound crawls from the throats of the men who paint themselves in His colours, in His name. Their eyes are to the Hill.

One person falls; a boy, no more than twelve. He is left behind. His own father steps across his back, pushing his son deeper into the mud. The journey is long. He demands His toll. Stories still linger of the Mother Who Looked Back. It is said that sight was stripped from her the moment she turned her head. Even blind, she finished her journey. Once she reached the Hill she fell and prostrated herself before Him and He blessed her with a swift end. Now none look back. Their eyes are to the Hill. 

The Hill begins to rise gradually, rugged and loamy. Many fall here to their hands and knees and crawl up the Hill, moving ever toward Him. They pull and tear at the earth to help them ascend, yanking out great clods of dirt, seeking any purchase that might help them get closer. The tallest men see it first. A sign of what awaits at the peak. Their eyes are to the Stump.

One group encounters a row of brambles. They do not veer from their path, for to turn is to lose faith in Him. They pass through the biting bush and their bodies weep crimson tears and yet none cry out in pain for He buoys them and shields them from their basest feelings. Their eyes are to the Stump.

A great ring closes around the Hill, growing ever-smaller. He waits at the top. The sun is low in the morning sky and the grass here is wet and a low mist hovers about and when the pilgrims pass through the mist they feel a chill in their bones and they begin to let out a great ululating cry, for His Kiss is cold and gentle. Together they have arrived. Their eyes are to the Stump. 

And Lo! Look at what waits there! The Gwinpine Gnome Himself stands erect on the Stump, His graven image etched in wood eons-old. He rests in a bed of moss, His head and body sized in equal measure, His cane close at hand. Time has silenced His voice. Time has stayed His legs. Time has stolen His sight. And yet still His gaze beseeches the travellers to halt! They fall to their knees, submitting themselves to Him. Their eyes are to the Gnome.

One of the Gnome-Mistresses begins to chant, an elegiac sound that soars with the wind, promising an end to the year, an end to the poor harvest, and an end to hunger, pain, and sorrow. Other Mistresses begin to chant with her, and a rising chorus signals then that the time for offerings has begun. All who are in attendance are now Gnome-Children, and each proceeds forth with their gift. Most common are boughs of holly, the Gnome’s favourite flower, but the Gnome’s favour and grace is plied also with food, trade goods, and idols honouring Him. Last to come forth is a woman. She is not a Gnome-Mistress, and yet in her arms is a babe. It squalls as it approaches the Stump but silences itself abruptly in His presence. The chanting suddenly ceases, and the pilgrims begin to look about. Nobody has offered the Gnome a child before. Their eyes are to the Gnome.

A voice cries out! It is not the mother, but another woman, one who breaks the ring of Gnome-Children and rushes towards the babe, crying of injustice, of cruelty. She reaches the Stump and places a hand on the Gnome. Terror lights her eyes. A stone strikes her in the temple and she collapses without a sound. No-one remembers seeing the stone’s thrower. Later, they will tell that it came from the sky. More stones follow then, this time from the Gnome-Children, burying the heap atop the hill; another offering to the Gnome. The ceremony resumes, and all who attend are filled with the certainty that the coming year will be bountiful and happy. Their eyes are to the Gnome.

Endless ages pass, and now this place is quiet. The mist still gathers on the Hill, but the Stump has been removed. A town has grown in its midst and sometimes when the snow falls children slide down the slope of the Hill, ignorant of where they tread. The Gnome Himself has vanished. His Gnarled Grace has left this world, but it need not be so forever.

My eyes are to the Gnome. Are yours?