Aschgrau rocked gently back on his roots as he wakened. Tired roots. Aching roots. He searched his memory for the time; that time so long ago when the Great Sage had first cast his seed to the Earth. That day had been more than seventeen centuries before. The ages had taken their toll on Aschgrau’s memory and he just couldn’t recollect it.
Only the Great Sage knew what he had passed on. Even Aschgrau only felt it coursing in his sap, creaking in his bark, quivering with his leaves in the breezes. It wasn’t just the shade of nearly two thousand years was planted that day; the wise old man had planted his own soul. Like any other death, and any other birth, the one knew not the other.
The other trees mocked Aschgrau with their comments. “He speaks to the apes,” they said. “He thinks they hear him!”
Oh, they said more painful things than that. “The fool! What will he say to them when they have hewn him and burn his worthless branches to warm their tales?” said one. “Burn?” jeered another. “A wood his age will surely be left for the termites!”
Comments such as these carried no weight with Aschgrau. None of these trees, thinking themselves sharp of wit, had stood more than half a century. He had watched them sprout, watched them fall, so many he had lost count. He had forgotten more of their names than he remembered. It was true that it had been many low suns since the days when the apes listened, but listening and hearing are two different things. His insistence at such fell before the mirth of his company of oak saplings.
Their mockery would never stop him from trying. Almost every day, the little ape would come. Almost every day to sit beneath his branches. For as long as she would come, he would whisper to her. Let the others ridicule. He had seen them when they were acorns and he would see their acorns grow.
Ania trudged her way slowly up the small hill to her favorite tree at the top by the fence along her father’s property line. The snow rose up almost to the tops of her boots with each plunging step. The indigo hues of tree shadows played with her trail and her breath refused to rise as the winter air robbed it instantly of its warmth. The snow was a little heavier than usual, but she knew her tree would save her a place. It always saved her a place.
She reached the top and stood underneath the two huge branches, so thick and strong that even without leaves they kept the snow from reaching the ground in her favorite spot. It was her little oasis of green in the frozen desert of white. She set down her basket and turned to gaze out at the view that was the only view her tree ever saw.
“Yes, it is!” Ania said aloud. “The snow is beautiful. I brought us lunch today!” A sudden horror flooded her, and she whirled to face whoever had asked her the question. There was no one. There were no footprints in the snow but her own. There was no steamy breath emerging and settling from behind any tree.
What is… lunch…?
She heard the question. It was almost as if she had whispered it in her own mind, but she would never ask such a stupid question. “It’s what you eat when you get hungry in the middle of the day,” she muttered.
A little too much snow had drifted into her spot. She knelt and brushed it away with her gloved hands and then spread out her little blue blanket. She didn’t have to worry about the blanket getting wet in this weather, but her little safe patch just seemed cozier with less snow in it.
What is… hungry…?
She smoothed out the blanket and put the basket on it before she realized she was sure she had heard it again.
Ania turned around very slowly this time. “Hungry…” she said very deliberately, getting up and walking toward the fence, “is when… your tummy says…” She shot her head around the back of the tree. “…it’s time… for food.” Turning her head from side to side, she still saw no one. She walked up to the fence and looked along it both ways and on both sides. There were no footprints anywhere.
She started back to her blanket. There was no mistaking the sound in her head.
Hungry is like… when rains… do not come…?
The blanket suddenly seemed a long way a way. She dizzied and sat hard on her butt, thankful it found a cushion in the fluffy powder. She waited and waited, but the pounding of her heart from inside drowned any sounds that might have fallen on her ears from without. There was only the silence of the snow settling delicately on the hillside around her.
“Karl, is that you?” She called out. “Where are you hiding? This isn’t funny!”
Karl was an older boy who lived on the adjacent property. He had discovered how Ania liked to sit in the shade of the ancient elm to read, and sometimes she would turn to find him hanging over the top of the fence watching her silently.
It was horribly unsettling at first, but he had never caused her any harm. He probably entertained thoughts of her in his mind or he wouldn’t wander so far out just to see if she was there, but whatever those thoughts were, he kept them to himself. She looked back over her shoulder again to be sure. Karl was definitely still not there.
Ania picked herself up and dusted herself off. She walked back to her blanket, sat and removed her gloves. She pulled out her sandwich and began to eat, almost fearful now that she would hear the voice again. There was nothing and she ate her sandwich in peace. An odd jittery feeling made the bites tasteless and hard to swallow. She crumbled up some of the last bit of crust and sprinkled the crumbs on the ground for her tree.
She pulled a candy bar out and set it in her lap for later. It would taste better after the funny feeling left and her lap would keep it warm. She leaned back against the tree and opened her book to read.
Too many thoughts… the voice said again.
Immediately she sat back forward with a start. “What?” Her thoughts raced.
Too many thoughts… all at once… when you hold it…
Puzzlement and wonder began to replace the feeling of nervous sickness. She turned to look up and placed a hand on the tree’s frozen trunk. “Are you talking to me?” She waited patiently, hardly daring to believe there would be an answer.
Hard to understand… many thoughts at once…
She jumped to her feet in surprise. “You are talking to me! What thoughts? Hold it? Hold what? My book?”
She stepped away to take in the full view of her giant shade tree friend. Snow rather than leaves adorned its gnarly branches. It did not answer her string of questions. It merely loomed against the pale, grey sky as it should. “Trees can’t talk!” she scolded shaking her finger. “You should be ashamed of yourself!” Aschgrau couldn’t answer. Someone he had been centuries ago understood, but he did not. “What do you have to say for yourself, tree?” Ania prompted impatiently.
You hear… Aschgrau’s words… the wooden giant whispered.
“Yes, I hear you,” she said impudently. “That’s the whole problem, I’m not supposed to hear you.” The thought flurries were still too much for Aschgrau to comprehend.
Patience… you leave your thoughts… as if nothing…
Ania bristled. “Patience! What am I doing? I’m talking to a tree? Why am I talking to a tree?”
Aschgrau reflected. The centuries carried their message in him. A long time ago… he began, A very long time ago… a very wise man… cast a seed… Ania’s eyes opened wide. The tree was telling her a story! Many things… the man knew… knew would pass… before the seed grew… before Aschgrau would stand.
“Who is Aschgrau?” Ania asked. “Are you Aschgrau?”
The tree continued on. In those days… we whispered… the apes heard… he knew… it would cease… so he cast my seed…
Ania’s new patience was tested beyond its limit. “You mean he planted you? What are you talking about? What apes? Are you calling me an ape?”
Fits of laughter suddenly interrupted her conversation. Karl was hanging over the fence watching her, and this was simply too much for him. “Ha ha ha, Ania,” he chortled uncontrollably. “Ania the ape! I know what to get you for Christmas!” he clapped his hands together in annoying fashion. “You need a Tree-English Dictionary! Ha ha ha!”
Ania was furious. Her cheeks burned in mortified humiliation. She looked around for something to throw but there was nothing except the candy bar she had been saving for later. It was probably as hard as any rock now. She picked it up.
“And I have your Christmas present right here! I brought you a Snickers bar!”
She hurled it as hard as she could. Karl tried to fend it too slowly and it caught the side of his head with a loud crack. “Ow! Hey!” he yelled. “Where’s your holiday spirit?”
Ania quickly stuffed her blanket, her gloves, and her book back in the basket. “Your brain’s on a holiday, stupid Karl!” she shouted. She turned and raced down the hillside, oblivious to Karl’s calls. If she never saw him again it would be too soon.
The trees were left alone again. The company of oaks stood in awe of the venerable elm in their midst. “She heard him!” said one. “He speaks to apes!” cried another. Aschgrau felt the warm pride of destiny flowing under his frozen bark. “This Christmas she spoke of,” he told them, “is a time of celebration. It is not yet. But each low sun, we shall remember this time when it comes. For certainly, this is a time of celebration for the trees!”
© 2010 Anne Schilde