He spent the night thus, nestled in the upper branches of the hardwood, and it was difficult to say who luxuriated in it more: traveler or tree. When morning came his companions awoke and immediately rushed about in panic, wondering what could have happened to their friend. He let them agitate for a while before announcing himself. They reacted with a mixture of relief and anger, generating vibrations whose meaning was transparent even to the tree. It might have chuckled, had it possessed the means.
They gathered together beneath the heavy boughs to ingest nourishment. This was done in the manner of motile creatures, at incredible speed and with little regard for the pleasure of slow conversion. Careful consumers, they left behind very little in the way of organic scrap that might have nourished the tree. It did not mind. The company they had provided was worth far more to it than a few bits of decayable plant or animal matter.
When they had finished, they gathered up their belongings and struck off to the north. As with every visitor it had ever had, the tree was sorry to see them go. But there was nothing it could do about it. It could not cry out to them to stay just one more night, or wave branches at them in hopes of drawing them again to its base. It could only sit, and meditate, and pass the time, which is one of the things trees do best.
Before departing, each of the travelers had performed an individual farewell. A final gesture, if not of good-bye, then of acknowledgment of the comfort the tree had given them. The largest among them raised a hind leg and made water again, forcing it out at an angle that actually struck high up on the tree’s trunk. As before, it was thankful for the small contribution, though it was not nearly enough to provide the quantity of vital nutrients it required for continued healthy life. The second traveler plucked a leaf from a low-hanging branch and placed it in his hair, over one ear, as a decoration.
The one who had spent the night high up in the tree’s branches walked up to the base of the trunk and pressed his body against it. Spreading his arms as wide as possible, he squeezed tight against the bark, as if trying to press his much softer substance into the wood. Then he drew back, turned, and rejoined his companions. The tree felt the vibrations of their footsteps fade as they strode off to the north. It tuned itself to its most sensitive rootlets, drinking in the motion of their passage until the last faint trembling of animate weight against earth had gone.
Once more, it was alone.
However, it did not feel the same as before. When the one traveler had pressed himself tight against the trunk it was as if a part of himself had entered into the tree. Xylem and phloem quivered ever so slightly as a subtle transformation began to race through the tree’s entire self.
It was as if the solid ground beneath its roots were giving way. Not for hundreds of years had the tree experienced the sensation of falling. But it was doing so now. Whether it was penetrating the ground or the ground was moving away beneath it the living wood had no way of telling. It sensed only that it was descending, not in the manner of a dying tree falling over, which was the only natural kind and style of falling it contained in its cells’ memory, but straight down, without damage to branches or leaves.
It fell for what seemed like a very long time. Fell through the soil that had supported it, then through solid rock, and finally through rock that was so hot it was as liquid as water. The tree knew it should have been carbonized, burned to less than a cinder. Miraculously, it was not. It passed on through the region of molten rock as easily as, as a sapling, it had passed through wild, frivolous air.
Still sinking, it reached a region where everything was hot liquid, where the pressure of its surroundings should have crushed and shattered it. Nothing of the kind happened. Instead, it began to rotate, turning slowly, slowly, until it was facing in the exact opposite direction from the one in which it had spent its entire life. Meanwhile, motion never ceased entirely. It continued to sink. Or perhaps now it was rising. Or possibly it had always been rising, or sinking. The tree did not know. It was confused, and bemused, and although it had no means to show such emotion, the sensations were very real to the tree if not to the rest of the world.
Upward it went, or downward. It could not tell, could sense only the movement of motion. Through more of the molten rock, and then through solid stone, until it once again felt the cool, moist embrace of nourishing soil. But it was soil unlike that in which it had grown. Rich soil, thick and loamy, opulent with every kind and sort of nutrient. A veritable feast of a soil.
And then, air. Cool against its leaves, no longer hot and burning. Comforting and damp, encasing each leaf and branch in a diaphanous blanket of invisible humidity. Moving still, rising until the lowest branch was exposed, and lastly the base of the trunk.
Until finally, ascension ceased, leaving it free and exposed to entirely new surroundings. Around it the tree sensed other trees; dozens, hundreds. Smaller growths, and flowers, and grasses in their aggregate profusion. Birds different from those it had known quickly took perch in its outspread branches, and new kinds of animals began to inspect its base. It welcomed even the threatening explorations of active, dangerous insects. Anything that was new, and fresh. If a tree could have been overwhelmed by a surfeit of new sensations, it would have happened then and there.
Except the sensations were not new. Not the atmospheric conditions, not the birds, not the bugs. Certainly not the soil. Not new—simply very old, and all but forgotten. Not quite, though. Trees do not have memory. They are memory, in hard wood and soft presence. The tree was no different. It remembered.
This place, this grove: almost destroyed by a once-in-a-thousand-years storm. Renewed now, rejuvenated by time and nature’s patience. The tree was back.
It had come home.
How and by what means it could not say, because it had nothing to say with. But it knew, as it knew the air, and the soil, and the vibrant mix of creatures that dwelled in the vicinity. Its wind-borne journey as a sapling had carried it over half the surface of the Earth. In the equally inexplicable course of its return, it had passed through the very center.
Long-starved roots sucked hungrily at the rich, fertile soil, commencing the slow process of replenishing the tree’s nutrient-starved cells. In such bountiful surroundings the tree would have no trouble reinvigorating itself. It would not die but would continue to live, perhaps for another hundred years, possibly even longer. For this it did not know whom or what to thank. It knew only that it was going to survive.
Not only in the company of other trees, but trees of its own kind. All around it, hardwoods belonging to the same tribe thrust sturdy trunks skyward and threw out branches to all points of the compass. Birds nested in their boughs and small mammals and reptiles scampered among them. In this forest bees and wasps and bats and birds lived in plenty, more than enough to ensure thorough pollination of any plant that desired to reproduce. The tree would, after all, not die without having given a part of itself over to new life.
Renewed, the tree regretted only one thing, insofar as a tree could have regrets. Somehow, deep within its heartwood, within the solitary spirit that was itself, it knew that everything that had happened, the silent impossibility of it, was all tied in to the final, farewell hug that singular traveler had performed before he and his companions had taken their leave. How mere contact could have initiated the remarkable sequence of events that had led to the tree returning home the tree did not know, but it was the only explanation.
Or perhaps it was not. Refreshed and renewed, it had plenty of time to consider the conundrum, to stand and contemplate. It was the thing that trees did best, and this tree was no exception. If it came into an answer, that would be a good thing. If it did nothing more than continue to stand and grow and put forth leaves and seeds, that would be a good thing too.
It regretted only that it would never see that traveler again, and therefore could not give him a hug back.
EHOMBA GLANCED OVER HIS SHOULDER, BUT THEY HAD BEEN walking for some time and there was nothing to see behind them that was not also in front of them. Sand and rock, rock and gravel.