by Jeremiah Zaeske
At first you were a seed, with tendrils spiraling down and taking root. Then you began to sprout upwards, thrashing through soil and rock until you broke through to the surface, not knowing what drove you or that there was even a surface to be reached. By the time you grew your first layer of bark, you had already forgotten your time spent beneath the earth. Your leaves unfurled, flowers budded and bloomed, fruit ripened, then it all withered and rotted, leaving you bare. This went on and on in circles, birds combing through your hair in search of sustenance and materials for shelter and warmth, soon joined by human hands. The humans’ skin grew lines much like yours, sagging with age, until a final sigh returned them to your roots, withering and rotting in your embrace, leaving only bone. Each cycle a new feast of fruit and flesh.
You have been given many names, many lost to time. You are older than names, and perhaps even time, but you never forgot them. Each one wrapped somewhere within your core. Sometimes I can almost hear them, when I press my ear against your trunk, a faint rhythmic thumping like a heartbeat. I’ve been coming here for years now, stopping to listen, trying to muster up the courage to climb. I’ve grown tall enough now to grasp the first sturdy branch, find footing in your grooves, but I fear that once I start I may never return to solid ground. The wind will sweep me away, or I’ll get lost in the rush and climb high enough for sky to swallow me whole.
But something’s shifted in me now. Fear no longer holds me in stasis. There is no defining moment of decision, no gathering of resolve, only looking down and seeing that my feet are no longer suctioned to the grass at your base, and that the grass is growing further and further away. My arms reach up to hold onto the next branch as if they had a will of their own. I have no memory of learning to climb a tree, but the movements come to me with ease, like I’ve been doing this my whole life, like I’ve never been anywhere else. The path up your body comes to me by instinct, the parts of you that can support my weight, every bend and curve. Your skin is rough against my palms, but there is a kind of gentleness and warmth to it, a sense of security.
I don’t know how long I’ve been climbing. It feels like hours, but also like no time at all. The air is colder now, and I can see the sun beginning to set over the horizon, splashing a kaleidoscope of colors across the sky. You tower over the heads of your children, their browning leaves rustling in the wind. I get a nagging sense of loss looking out at the rows of houses and hills beyond them, and for a moment the forest expands around me, sprawling out as far as the eye can see, a vision from a long distant past.
As I continue climbing, I hear a low hum, quiet at first but steadily growing louder. A melody that feels at once foreign and vaguely familiar. After a while I begin to hum along. The pink and orange streaks give way to a darker blue, speckled with far away lights. The rest of the forest begins to chime in, a chorus of crickets and owls and other sounds I can’t quite place. It vibrates in my chest, buzzing through my arms and legs like an electric current. I look up for the first time and see only a vast expanse of stars. I stop to rest, pressing my head against your trunk like I’ve done so many times before, heart pounding in my ears. My body feels heavy, and I can no longer tell where my limbs end and yours begin.
That’s when we start to fall. I hear a distant sawing, the sensation of sharp metal teeth cutting through bone, then a deafening snap sends us lurching forward. I wrap myself around you as tightly as I can, a futile attempt to stop us both from flying through the air. There is a brief moment of stillness, as if the whole forest is holdings its breath, then the air rushes around me in a haunted wailing, my stomach dropping as I hurtle through the darkness. I try to catch a glimpse of sky or earth, but see only a wall of shadowy branches in every direction. I grasp at leaves and twigs flashing by, trying desperately to regain my grip, but everything gives way or breaks off in my hands. I can only spin helplessly in freefall with no end in sight, bracing for an impact that never seems to come, until I start to wonder if there was ever a beginning or end.
A scream echoes through the forest, a mix of anger and sorrow, but not my own. Its pain is far more ancient. I finally meet the ground with a thud and the sound of something cracking. My vision blurs, but I can still make out a soft glow emanating from where you once stood, a small orb of light illuminating the viscous dark liquid gushing out of your severed stump, a swirling spiral of blood. The orb sinks back into the earth, traveling through roots dug deep down to soil untouched by man, and I sink with it in a final sigh.