“Are you serious?” Ash Thatcher asked. He bent practically double in laughter. “That’s hilarious! Is that what they really say about that crazy old broad?”
“Da, who are ye talkin’ to?”
Ash spun to see his young son looking up at him with a puzzled expression. “Oh … Bran.”
“Everythin’ all right, Da?” Bran asked, looking around Ash to see if he could find his interlocutor. Ash rubbed the leaves running down the nape of his neck.
“O’course, Bran, it’s jest, er …” He bit his lip; this had been hard enough to explain to Lyndsay and she at least understood some of the ways of his people. “I was, er, talkin’ ter the tree. Ye know.” He gently patted one of the walls. “This tree.”
“The tree can talk, Da?” Bran asked, his bright blue eyes lighting up. He dashed up to the wall and put his ear again.
“Well, in a manner of speaking …”
Bran pulled away, frowning. “I don’t hear nothin’.” He looked up at his father. “Why don’t I hear nothin’?”
“I — er –” He’d forgotten, of course, that a five-year-old would be much more likely to accept the impossible or improbable than one of his elders might be. It was an easy mistake to make, seeing as Ash had never actually been five himself.
“It’s — er — well, probably because ye ain’t quite like me.”
“Ye mean because I ain’t a Plantsim, like ye?”
Bran pouted. “When do I get ter be a Plantsim like ye, Da? An’ what was the tree sayin’?”
Why did Bran have to look up at him with those huge eyes, that adoring little smile? And why couldn’t he be cute and adorable when he wasn’t asking Ash questions he didn’t want to have to answer? Why couldn’t he look like this when asking innocent questions, like why the sky was blue and where did the birds go when they left for the winter?
It was at moments like this that Ash felt his own inadequacies as a father. He tried his best, Wright knew that. And he was good with the littlest ones, with Ginny and Thorn and of course Bran too, when Bran had been that age. But Ash had never been the age Bran was now, never had been any of the range of ages his own children and little nephew would some day reach. Like a flower, or a quick-growing weed, he had gone from seedling to full-grown bush in the blink of an eye. He couldn’t remember well his seedling days — it just a hazy recollection of words and images — and thus had no clue how he had gone from his little sprout days to reaching adulthood. As far as he could really remember, he had always been knowing and mature, had always understood the way the world worked.
Oh, there were some things that he would have learned as a child — had he ever been a child — that his strange maturation process could not replicate. He could not read or write, for instance, and even basic ciphering was a chore for him. Marigold had learned those skills after her growth into an adult; so Ash knew it was possible. He had simply been employed instantly by the King, working the Royal lands, and had never taken the time or trouble to learn. Lyndsay was trying to teach him now, and he was learning a lot by following Bran along in his schoolwork, but he doubted he would ever be particularly good at either skill. It didn’t matter, really; he’d have a job as long as the King had a field and growing things within it that needed tending — he didn’t need reading, writing and ciphering, except for taxes, and Lyndsay always figured those out.
But on the whole, though he had missed much in his growing years, very little of what he had missed made him — well — miss not having learned it. There were some mistakes that he had not been able to make as a youngling that he had to make when he was older, romantic mistakes especially (he’d been incredibly awkward in the first steps of his courtship with Lyndsay), but even when he made those mistakes, he made them in a mature way. He didn’t, for instance, resort to pulling Lyndsay’s ponytail or teasing her to the point of tears to get her attention; no, when he’d tried to court her at first, he’d been shy, he’d tripped over his words, he had never been quite sure of what to say, but he hadn’t tried any juvenile stunts.
It was only after Bran had been born, and then Ginny and when Thorn had come to live with them, that Ash began to get a true understanding of what he had missed. It was fascinating to watch the young ones explore their world, gratifying to see the way their eyes would light up when they asked a question or got an explanation of a previously unfamiliar event, and quite funny to hear the way they tried to put the pieces of the puzzle of their world together. And it was all well and good while they were still little, Ash had a sense of what to expect then. Now, for Bran … well, he had no idea what his son would be mature enough to understand, and what things would go sailing over his head. Lyndsay knew, Lyndsay seemed to have an innate sense of it, but Ash … didn’t.
And yet Bran still looked up to him as the Man With All the Answers, the one figure in his world who could be called upon to explain anything quickly and in terms Bran would understand. It was a heady feeling and a terrifying one. More terrifying now that Jeremiah, Ash’s own father, was gone and Ash had no one to turn to for advice.
“Well, Bran,” he began, and paused. What to say first?
“Er — well, ye know trees are long-lived, right?” Ash decided to ask first.
“Um … they are?”
“Oh, aye. A Sim might make it fifty — sixty years if they’re lucky. Fer a tree … if a tree only lives fifty or sixty years, why, that’s like a child’s lifetime ter them. It ain’t nothing.”
“It ain’t?” Bran asked.
“No, no, not a bit — trees’ll live fer hundreds upon hundreds of years, so long as they don’t get hit by lightning an’ nobody chops ’em down. Ye can imagine how much they’d see and learn in all that time, don’t ye?”
“I — I suppose … but Da, don’t trees stay in one place?”
“Aye, lad! But think about it — what do ye think might have happened here in the past hundred years? Did ye know, fer example, that there was a big battle between the folks who used to live here an’ Reme not two miles from here?”
“There was? How come we ain’t learned about it in school?”
“I — er …” Ash frowned. “I don’t know, lad. Maybe … I don’t know. Maybe ye’ll learn about when ye get a little older.”
“I hope so! Who won?”
“Er … I think the Remans did,” Ash replied. At least that was the impression the tree had given him. But then again, how did you explain the perspective of a three-hundred-year-old tree to a five-year-old boy?
Ash didn’t even understand what had happened very well, himself. He couldn’t, because while the tree could witness and understand some things, it didn’t see them or understand them the way a Sim would. It could “see” in a sense; it certainly was more than capable of sending images into Ash’s mind, and it could communicate sensations to Ash, but more than that …
Well, to a three-hundred-year-old tree, a battle that lasted a day or two was over in a blink of an eye; barely worth mentioning. But the battle had had effects that had worked their way into the tree’s consciousness.
First of all, there was the fact that this tree, Ash’s tree, had not been, back then, the only tree of its kind in this area. There were many others — twenty, thirty — trees in the area, living symbiotically with other Plantsims. Sims like Ash. The tree did not like to reminisce too much on these other Plantsims; Ash only divined their existence through fleeting images passed along when the tree was trying to communicate other things — a flash of leafy hair, for instance. or a view of an arm or leg with bark running up the side it. And sometimes, in scenes filled with the chatter of birdsong or the growls of forest animals, Ash would hear something else — a human shout or laugh or moan of pleasure or pain, or perhaps a toddlers’ giggle.
Roughly one hundred years ago, this tree had been small and young, relatively so, at least. From what little Ash could glean, he guessed that the tree had been home to a small and young family of Plantsims. Once or twice the tree had shown him a quick image of a sprout of his species — always from the back — as if to ask, When will you be having one? Ash had tried to show the tree his Sim children, but the tree had shrunk away from the image — whatever it wanted, it wasn’t children like Bran, Ginny and Thorn.
The Plantsim family had been, from what Ash could divine, happy enough. At least the tree didn’t seem to report on any great discords or clashes within the home. And then came the battle.
It was difficult to see a battle from the perspective of a tree. The tree had “seen” the battle, or if it hadn’t, the other trees in the area, their roots connected and intertwined so far beneath the ground, had seen it and passed it on the information to Ash’s tree. The difficulty, though, was that — to a tree’s eyes — battles happened impossibly quickly. Even a months-long siege was scarcely an eye-blink to a tree. And a day-long battle? All the tree, or its friends and neighbors, had been able to perceive was a great deal of tiny Sims rushing around. It wasn’t until after the battle was over — when the blood began to seep into the ground, when the crows and other scavengers came to take apart the bodies, when the fungi and grasses began to grow over the newly enriched soil — that trees could begin to understand that some great scene of death-dealing had occurred on that land.
Except, of course, that this battle had been different.
“How come ye only think the Remans won, Da? The tree don’t know?”
“In a manner of speakin’ … trees don’t see clothes the way ye an I see ’em. So it wouldn’t have been able ter pick out the Reman uniforms or nothin’ like that.”
“Oh.” Bran frowned. “So why do ye think they won?”
“Because of — er — well, because of what happened after,” Ash admitted. But how to explain that to Bran? “The — there were folk livin’ here, in this area, back then. An’ after the battle … they left.”
That wasn’t telling the half of it. At first, when he had begun to get snatches of this history from the tree, Ash had assumed that the barbarian and vicious Reman armies had slaughtered all the Plantsims here, men, women and sprouts alike. After all, the Remans were as “good” Wrightians as anyone — or so they claimed — under the command of a particularly bloodthirsty monk or nun, they might have been convinced that it was Wright’s Will that they eradicate, as best they could, the race of Plantsims from the earth. But Ash’s sister Roma had shared with him some disturbing information — that the Remans enslaved all of his kind, and forced them to grow food for the army and for the cities.
That might explain why the tree found the memories of this event so traumatic — and it might explain why the Reman army had destroyed the settlement and the other hollow trees. If the other Plantsims had just been killed, the tree might have been able to understand that. Quick (from a tree’s perspective) and violent death was no stranger in the natural world.
But if the Plantsims had just left? Though animals leaving — migrating, moving to new territories in search of food — was no strange thing to a tree, Plantsims were different. They were part plant, for Wright’s sake! They were rooted in a way that other animals and Sims were not. When they made a bond with a hollow tree, such as the bond Ash had unwittingly made when he first found this place, all those years ago, they did not leave. They could not leave. Of course Ash could go to work or go to the market or visit a friend’s home. He could even go on a visit for a space of days or even weeks. But his mind, if not his body, was rooted to this tree in a way he could neither describe nor understand. If he was gone for too long, they would, both of them, become ill — perhaps die — perhaps break the mind-connection to the psychological detriment of both.
Maybe the Remans understood that, and that was why they had cut down all those other trees. They had broken, severed, shattered those mind-bonds when the Plantsims were still reeling from their defeat and capture. Yes, the psychic shock would be great, but at least it would all be at once and would all be rolled together. If those mind-links had broken after weeks or months in Reme, their captors would have had a whole new mess of psychological trauma to deal with.
“How do ye know that the army wasn’t made of Glasonlanders?” Bran asked, waking Ash from his trance. “They might’ve left if Glasonlanders attacked.”
Because Glasonlanders wouldn’t attack and enslave Plantsims — they prefer to ignore that we exist.
He couldn’t tell that to a five-year-old, though.
“Well, ye see, this land used ter belong ter Glasonland,” Ash said instead. “Why would the Glasonlanders attack their own land?”
“What if there was a rebellion? We heard about rebellions in school!”
Ash considered that. “Well … I don’t think there would have been. If — if the folk here had been unhappy, an’ lookin’ fer to rebel, I think the tree would have … sensed that. An’ it would have told me.”
Bran looked around Ash, at the blue-painted walls — Ash’s conduit to communication with the tree. “Am I ever gonna be able ter talk ter the tree?”
“I — er, well, I don’t know, lad,” Ash admitted. “Maybe someday, if ye …”
“Well, if ye turn into someone like me,” Ash replied. “Ye know. Leafy.”
“Ooh,” Bran replied. “How would I do that?”
“I — um, well, I don’t rightly know,” Ash admitted. “I think — that is — well, yer grandpa …” Ash sighed. “Yer grandpa was usin’ some kind o’ potion ter kill some bugs, an’, well, it worked in ways that weren’t … intended.”
“Where can we get that potion?” Bran asked, his eyes lighting up.
“Whoa, slow down there, lad!” Ash chuckled. “Ye wouldn’t want ter try messin’ with no potions ’til ye were a man. We leafy folk don’t have children like ye — ye might turn back into a crawlin’ little one like Ginny and Thorn, and ye wouldn’t like that, would ye?”
Bran made a face.
“I didn’t think so,” Ash chuckled.
“But — but I can turn leafy like ye, can’t I? Someday?”
By the time “someday” came along, Ash was certain that “leafy” was the last thing Bran would want to be. But for now …
“If when ye’re a man an’ ye still want ter be leafy,” Ash promised, enveloping his little one in a hug, “we’ll find a way.”
“Aw, ain’t ye two as pretty as a picture,” Lyndsay said as she came down the stairs.
Lyndsay smiled and ruffled Bran’s hair. “Did ye finish yer schoolwork?”
Bran stared at his feet.
“Aw, Ma, do I have to? It ain’t like I’m gonna ever …”
Lyndsay pointed to the table. Bran sighed and shuffled to it, but first he went to his knapsack and took out whatever work the teachers had assigned.
“Guess I dropped the ball on that one, eh?” Ash murmured as Bran started to work.
“Ye probably did, but it ain’t no matter,” Lyndsay replied. “What were ye two talkin’ about?”
“Oh — trees. Hollow trees,” he said, patting the wall. He could feel the tree shiver appreciatively under his pat, like a dog or cat might tremble under its owner’s petting. “An’ how Bran wants ter be leafy like me when he grows up.” Ash sighed. “That won’t last.”
“Don’t be so down on yerself — ye’re a fine man, Ash, there ain’t nothin’ unusual in that Bran wants ter be like ye.”
“It ain’t that, so much, as … well … I don’t know if I’d wish bein’ like me on ‘im, Lyndsay. It’s — it’s one thing if ye’re born that way … but if ye ain’t … me da was never happy as a Plantsim.”
“Hmm,” was Lyndsay’s only remark. “Imagine how jealous Bran would be if the next one came out leafy.”
“What next one? I thought we weren’t gonna try fer no more fer a while …”
Lyndsay moved her face nearer to him; Ash couldn’t resist a quick kiss. “About that, Ash.”
“Well, we might have had plans … but the Lord Wright had different ones.”
“Meanin’ that I’m pregnant, dear.”
An’ here we go again! Ash thought.