Carnivores of Darkness and Light: Journeys of the Catechist, Book 1 by Alan Dean Foster

Only the tree survived. Along with wind, the storm had contained a great deal of water, which fell along its path as heavy rain. The soil in which the tree had providentially landed upright was now saturated, so much so that the sapling’s roots were able to draw from this source for many months after its unwilling transplantation.

Against all odds, its roots took hold in the alien ground. Where winter had been approaching in the tree’s homeland, it was summer where it had landed. Sap began to flow well in advance of the date determined by the tree’s biological clock. This perturbation also it adapted to. Buds appeared on those branches that had survived the storm’s wrath. Leaves sprouted and unfolded wide, drinking in the strong, unobstructed sunlight of their new home.

In this new land there were far fewer insects, and so the tree was able to grow even faster than was normal. Over the years its branches thickened and its trunk put on weight. It spread its arms wide to shade the ground on which it stood. This helped to preserve the rain that fell seasonally and rarely, much more so than in the land where the tree had first sprouted.

But beneath its roots lay a consistent, subterranean supply of water. This the tree tapped with roots that bored deep, assuring it of proper nourishment no matter how infrequent the annual rains. With no other growths in its immediate vicinity, it had no competition for nutrients. Only the sparseness of the land itself kept it from growing to even greater proportions.

Inherently unambitious, over the years and the decades and even the centuries, the sapling flourished and matured into a fine, tall specimen of its species, with numerous major branches and a trunk whose diameter far exceeded that of its parent. As the centuries unfolded, it observed the comings and goings of hundreds of creatures, from small beetles that tried and were unable to penetrate its dense, healthy layer of bark to migrating birds and other flying creatures that found grateful refuge in its branches. Occasionally, intelligent beings would pass by, and pause to enjoy the shade it gave freely, and marvel at its unexpected splendor.

Unexpected, because the tree was alone. Not only were there no other trees of its kind in the vicinity, there were none anywhere in sight. With none of the particular insects that were needed to pollinate its flowers, its seeds did not germinate, and so it was denied the company even of its own offspring. No lowly bushes crowded its base to make use of its protective shade, no flowers blossomed beneath its branches. There were not even weeds. There was only the tree, spectacular in its isolation, alone atop the small hillock on which it grew. An accident of nature had condemned it to eternal hermitage.

But a tree cannot die of loneliness. Every year it put out new leaves, and every year it hoped for the company of its own kind. But there were only visiting insects, and birds, and the occasional small animal, or travelers passing through.

Three such were approaching now, and an odd trio they were. Though it had no eyes, the tree perceived them. Through sensitive roots that grew just beneath the surface it sensed the vibration of their coming. It knew when they increased their pace, and felt when they slowed and stopped beneath it.

Two of the travelers immediately sat down at the base of its trunk, leaning their backs against its staunch solidity. The tree supported them effortlessly, grateful again for some company. Such visitations were rare and welcome. Lately, the tree had come to treasure them even more.

Because it was dying.

Not from senescence, though given its long lineage that would not have been unnatural, or even unexpected. Despite its great age it was still inherently healthy. But its roots had exhausted the soil in the immediate vicinity. Despite the extent and depth to which they probed, they could no longer find enough of the nutrients vital to the tree’s continued health. The land in which the tree had taken root so long ago was simply not rich enough to support more than another decade or two of continued healthy life. And with no other vegetation nearby to supply new nutrients through the natural decomposition of leaves and branches and other organic matter, there was nothing to renew the supply the tree had mined when it had been planted atop the small rise by the ancient storm.

So it sat quietly dying and contemplating the world around it. There were no regrets. By rights it should never have reached maturity, much less lived a long and healthy life. Trees were not in the habit of regretting anyway.

It savored the presence of the travelers, silently delighting in the pleasure they took from the shade it provided against the hot sun, the support it gave to their tired, sweaty backs, and the use they made of the seeds that lay scattered all about. Most creatures found those seeds delicious, and these visitors were no exception, though there was one among them who refused absolutely to partake of the free feast. Apparently, despite the protein they contained, such vegetable matter was not to its liking.

No matter. Its companions gorged themselves. What they did not eat on the spot they gathered up and packed away for future consumption. All this activity the tree marked through its receptive roots, glad of active company on a scale it could easily sense. It had been a hale and robust life, but a lonely one.

Unlike many of the tree’s visitors, these travelers were among those who employed a language. This was normal, since all motile visitors possessed a means for communicating among themselves. The insects used touch and smell, the birds song and wing, but spoken language was of the most interest to the tree. Sensed by its leaves, the vibrations words produced in the air were always novel and interesting. Though the tree could not understand a single one of them, that never stopped it from trying. It was a diversion, and any diversion in its lonely existence was most welcome.

Taking turns, all three of the travelers urinated near the base of the tree. This gift of water and nitrates was much appreciated, though the tree had no way of thanking the disseminators openly. It tried to provide a breeze where none existed, but succeeded only in motivating a few of its leaves. The travelers did not notice the movement. Even if they had, it’s doubtful they would have remarked upon it.

They seemed content with the shade, however, and that pleased the tree. It was happy it could give back some of the pleasure the travelers were providing through their company. Had it a voice, it would have trilled with delight when they decided to spend the night beneath its spreading boughs. Curled up near the trunk, they relaxed around a small fire they built from fallen bits and pieces of the tree itself. The tree felt the heat of the flames but was not afraid. The travelers kept the fire small, and there was nothing around to make it spread.

In the middle of the night one of the visitors rose. Leaving its companions motionless and asleep, it walked a little ways out from their encampment until it stood beneath the very longest of the tree’s branches. This pointed like a crooked arrow to the south, which direction the traveler stood facing for a long while. The moon was up, allowing him to view dimly but adequately his surroundings. But he looked only to the south, his stance barely shifting, his gaze never varying.

After what was for his kind a long while but which to the tree was hardly more than an instant, he turned slowly and walked back toward the encampment. But he did not lie back down on the ground. Instead, he walked slowly and contemplatively around the base of the tree, peering up into its numerous branches, studying its leaves. Several times he reached out to feel of the rippling rivulets that gave character to its cloak of heavy bark, caressing them as gently as he might have the wrinkles on an old woman’s face.

Then he began to climb.

The tree could hardly contain its joy. The feel of the traveler’s weight against its body, the sensation of fingers gripping branches for support, the heavy placement of foot against wood, was something it had never felt before. In all its long and insightful life, no other traveler had thought to ascend into its upper reaches. It relished every new contact, every fresh vibration and touch.

Eventually, the traveler could ascend no higher. Up in the last branches that would support his weight, he paused. Settling himself into a crook between two accommodating boughs, he leaned back, resting his upper back and neck and head against one unyielding surface. With his legs dangling and his hands folded over his belly, he lay motionless, contemplating the moonlit horizon. All his work and effort gained him a perch that allowed him to see only a little farther to the south, but to the traveler this seemed enough.

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster