Ehomba was not tormented by invisibilities of enigmatic purpose, nor had he eaten anything whose hallucinogenic potentialities he was not reasonably sure of. Therefore, this was the same tree he had already encountered twice this evening. Therefore, despite his certitude, he was still walking in circles.
No, he corrected himself. It was the same tree, definitely. He had been walking in circles, possibly. Approaching the greenish-barked bole, he prepared to make another mark on its side.
Overhead, branches rustled. “Don’t you think that’s about enough? Or does mutilating me give you some sort of twisted pleasure?”
As one might expect, Ehomba stepped back quickly. His eyes roved the trunk, but he could espy neither eyes nor mouth, nor any other recognizable organ. There were only branches, and leaves, and the voice in his head. The tree looked like nothing but what it was. Am I really hearing this? he thought uncertainly.
“Of course you’re hearing it. Did you ‘really’ cut me?”
“I am very sorry.” The herdsman spread his arms wide and bowed his head. “I did not mean to cause pain. It has been my experience that most trees are not so sensitive as you.”
“Oh really? And how many trees have you asked, before you sliced into them?”
“Truth to tell, tall forest dweller, not a one. But in the land I come from, trees are rarely cut. There are very few of them, and so they are treasured for their shade and companionship.” He gestured at the surrounding forest. “I can see more of your kind from where I stand right now than grow within many leagues of my home.”
“A poor land that must be, to be so treeless.” The growth sounded slightly mollified. “Most of your people are far less sensitive, though admittedly few of them pass this way. Most that do never leave the Unstable Lands. They become lost—or worse.”
“That is why I made the marks.” The herdsman hastened to defend, or at least to explain, his actions. “So I would not pass the same place twice. But it seems that I have been walking in circles, because this is the third time I have come back to you.”
“Nonsense,” the tree replied. “You have been following an almost perfectly straight route north, and as a consequence I have had some difficulty catching up with and passing you.”
So it was the same tree, Ehomba reflected, but it had not stayed in the same place. “Trees cannot move.”
“For a man who confesses to coming from a land where few trees live, you presume to know a great deal about them.” There followed a great rustling and shaking of branches and vines, whereupon the tree promptly rose a foot or so off the ground and skittered forward several feet. Plopping itself back down, it reestablished its root system and regarded the man.
“I withdraw my statement,” Ehomba commented promptly.
Branches bent toward him. “Because of your lack of knowledge of and experience with trees, I forgive you your actions. But a warning: No more casual incising to mark your way. In the lands ahead live plants less benign or forgiving than myself.”
“I appreciate the warning.” Ehomba glanced at the cuts he had made. Sap was already beginning to ooze over the wounds as a first step in healing the marks. “Again, I am sorry.”
“Good. Remember how much you value the trees in your own country, and accord my brethren here the same respect. In return, they will keep you cooled, and sometimes fed.”
Ehomba nodded, turned, and nearly fell as he stumbled to avoid stepping on a tiny shoot that was poking its minuscule green head out of the damp rain-forest soil. After all, it was something’s offspring, and if the example of the tree was to be believed, the vegetation hereabouts was exceedingly sensitive. What with watching for dangerous animals, he had enough to do without riling the forest itself.
In the depths of the jungle there was no wind, but his unfamiliarity with the high humidity was largely canceled out by his natural affinity for hot climes, so that he sweated continually but not excessively. Anyone from a more temperate climate would surely have collapsed from the combination of heat and humidity. Ehomba drank from his water bag and kept walking. With each swallow his body shuddered a little less.
As evening drew into night, he encountered a surprise: a stone. The flat slab of grayish granite protruded like a crude spear point from the moist earth. When journeying through a realm of dirt and decomposing organic matter, it was always unusual to find exposed rock. The smooth, immutable surface reminded him of home, where there was no shortage of rocks but a considerable paucity of thick soil.
Slipping free of his backpack, he laid it carefully down on the dry stone, laying his spear alongside. For the first time in days he allowed himself to do nothing: not to worry about what lay ahead, or about how he was going to find his way out of the jungle, or what he might encounter when he did. He did not concern himself with Tarin Beckwith’s dying request, or how he was going to supplement his limited food supplies, or what dangers the Unstable Lands might still hold. He relaxed in the company of the rock that needed only direct heating to make it feel exactly like the rocks he had left back home.
Astonishing, he mused, the simple things that one misses. We take our environment, our surroundings, for granted, until we are forced to survive in completely different circumstances. He would never have thought he could miss something as straightforward and commonplace as rocks.
If the sky were green, though, he knew that he would miss the blue. If sugar turned bitter, he would miss the sweet. And if he someday turned old and mean, he would miss himself.
Finishing a simple meal, he stretched out on the broad palm of granite and lay back, wishing he could see the stars. But until he emerged from the great rain forest of the Unstable Lands he would have to be content with a roof of green, and with the soaking precipitation that arrived every morning in advance of the sun, like a trumpeter announcing the approach of a king.
The Lord of the Ants
THIS IS A STORY THAT IS TOLD TO EVERY MEMBER OF THE colony on the day when they slough off the last vestiges of pupahood and graduate to the status of worker, attendant, or soldier. It concerns a most momentous event in the history of the colony, one that occurred not so very long ago, which affected the future of everyone from the Queen herself on down to the lowliest worker toiling in the refuse beds.
No one could remember when the war with the Reds had begun. They had come raiding from beyond the big log to the east and had surprised the outpost guards. But providentially, a small column of workers returning with food had espied them sneaking forward through the forest litter and had raced homeward to spread the alarm. All save one pair were run down and dismembered, but those two who made it back alerted the rest of the colony, their agitated pheromones preceding them.
That warning, fleeting as it was, gave the colony time to mobilize. Quickly, soldiers were dispatched to the main entrance while the largest workers took up positions in front of the secondary portals. When it came, the attack was relentless. Holding sturdy defensive positions, however, allowed the members of the colony to keep most of the invaders from penetrating to the nursery. While some pupae and eggs were lost, it was nothing compared to the devastation that might have occurred had the survivors of the foraging party not been able to sound the alert.
That was the beginning of the war. Establishing themselves in a hollow at the base of a great tree on the other side of the fallen log, the Reds continued to make periodic depredations on the colony. In turn, the All-blacks not only defended themselves vigorously but launched zealous reprisals against the Red colony. Pupae and eggs from both brooderies were regularly carried off, to be raised as slaves of the kidnapping colony with no loyalty to or regard for their place of birth. This was in the natural way of things.
Then occurred the remarkable event that is the subject of this recounting.
It was not long after a typically ferocious morning’s battle that the visitation was first remarked upon. Ordinarily, such intrusions from the outside world are ignored. Ants pay no attention to them, and they pay no attention to us, and the world continues as before. But this time, something was different.
Instead of passing through with great speed and indifference, like a passing cloud, the visitant paused. Not only paused but stopped, stretching all of its great length on the nearby rock upon which, unlike all the surrounding earth, nothing grows or can be grown. It stopped, and consumed food common to its kind, and lay there at rest.