Editor’s note(s): Because we’ve grown so much in the past year, we asked you, our readers, to let us know what your early favorite stories were, so we could share them with everyone during the months of November and December (and maybe a little beyond). We’re so pleased to share our fourth Readers Favorite Wednesday story: Miyuki Jane Pinckard’s “The Tree at the Edge of an Unknown Land” — now free to read — from June 2022. ~ Fran & Julian, December 7, 2022. (We include our original editors’ note with each story as well, below.)
Miyuki Jane Pinckard’s “The Tree at the Edge of an Unknown Land” is a full sweep of civilization realized in just a few concise words. We think you’ll find its world building as moving and remarkable as we do. ~ Julian Yap, June 26
The Sunday Morning Transport is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our authors’ work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The Tree at the Edge of an Unknown Land
By Miyuki Jane Pinckard
The ragged sound of weeping rouses the ubo tree from a century of dreaming. She shakes her branches, annoyed; she has little regard for humans as a rule. They are less graceful and respectful than the deer that seek shade under her leaves in summer, and less melodic than the birds that cluster along her branches, enjoying the gifts of her fruit in autumn. The one who is weeping is a woman, but the whole group chatters in shared distress. It’s too noisy to sleep now. She shakes her branches again. This is no place to take shelter. Move on.
An older male who has gray-tufted hair like the breast of a sparrow’s chick speaks gravely. The tree does not know this language, but she reaches out with her senses and understands the intent behind the words: It is cold. We need to burn wood for fire. Here is a tree.
The humans look up into her branches.
She is more outraged than anything else; she has endured humans before. So far, they have let her alone in her magnificent solitude and she now reaches an impressive height. Her roots—although the humans cannot perceive them—spread even wider and deeper into the earth than her canopy does into the sky. She is the lone tree for miles around in a dry valley bisected by a rocky little stream that dries up in summer, its banks festooned by scrubby, hardy plants that cling to the golden rocks to suck up every little drop of moisture available. She was already a mature arbor when the human city, just over the hill, was still a collection of huts. Surely they wouldn’t dare to cut her down.
But the humans are desperate. They are dirty and exhausted and some of them are limping, and there is not one, even among the children, who isn’t holding pain in their body and in their heart. She can feel their need and their fear. And then she is afraid. She imagines herself being torn apart, her sturdy trunk split, her roots left ragged, her bones cracked and fed to a devouring flame.
The woman who was weeping breaks from her sobs to say, Is that the only solution? To destroy something beautiful because our lives, too, have been destroyed? She puts a hand on the tree’s bark, strokes it. I was a gardener, back home. This tree must be close to five hundred years old.
The ubo tree shakes her branches for a third time, and she sheds a few, ones she no longer needs.
There, you see, says the woman who was weeping, the gardener. She is, the tree realizes, pregnant. There’s no need to kill the tree. We’ll scavenge what we need.
The tree is satisfied, at least for now. Surely they’ll move on soon. There is nothing for them here, and a human city waits for them over the hill. Drowsy, the ubo tree slips back into dappled dreams of green and gold.
She’s woken again, this time by the acrid tang of fire mingled with a strange scent, the rich warmth of southern winds, of soil that is moist with the bones and offal of animals. The humans huddle near her trunk, burning the offerings of her wood, and heating something in an iron vessel. She does not like fire, it is anathema to her, but she calms as she sees how careful the group is. The scent of the spices simmering in the pot is unknown to her, but not unpleasant.
They eat food they have carried with them, made from plants that grow so far from here that the ubo tree has never even encountered their seeds. They eat slowly, reverently.
After their meal, an older woman sitting next to the pregnant one tells a tale. Beneath the words the tree grasps the meaning:
We walked until our shoes wore out and our limbs trembled from exhaustion and we finally stopped at the edge of a land where no one wants us. We stopped under this tree, which gave us shelter and wood.
The tree is resentful. Why should she have to give anything to these intruders? She only did it so they wouldn’t cut her down, so that they’d leave her alone. She didn’t ask to be featured in one of their stories.
The old woman keeps talking, and some of the humans begin to weep again. Their tears fall into the earth and soak the soil. The tears carry meanings, too, that the tree can understand:
The war is everywhere. It rains debris around us, shakes the earth where we huddle in scrabbling hollows, pressing hands to our mouths to stuff the screams back inside. Every sleepless night we try not to wonder who will be missing in the morning. Every day we walk a little farther along the dusty road, trying to escape the unescapable.
The city we lived in doesn’t exist anymore. It’s not even a memory, because we can’t remember a time when we’d been free and safe, when we walked without cowering on sunlit streets and laughed without fear. Those days belong to strangers.
The ubo tree retracts her roots, unwilling to learn more. It doesn’t matter why they’re here—it only matters that they don’t belong here. The smoke from their fire stings, and it’ll drive away the birds, and they’ll kill the deer and the foxes, and they should leave. They will leave, she reassures herself. There’s no place for them to sleep here.
The humans have built shelters, and they have managed to survive the winter.
The structures are pathetic and inexpert, just flimsy sticks and cloth. When the wind gusts through the valley, the cloth shudders and threatens to blow away. They hardly suffice for homes. The tree has never seen human homes, but the birds chatter about them, as do the foxes that sometimes rest at her roots after foraging among the vast trash heaps that humans surround their cities with. Human homes are made of stone and plaster and thick wood beams and crested with clay tiles. Human homes have a place to keep a fire lit, for the cooking of their meat and the baking of ground wheat. Humans are, after all, extraordinarily fragile and they need quite a lot of structural support to survive even the slightest changes in temperature and weather conditions.
And yet, these humans—she almost called them “her humans”—doggedly persist.
It has not all been annoying, the tree has to acknowledge. The pruning of her branches has made way for new shoots that she plans to push out later in the spring. The humans have buried some of their leavings around her roots—stalks and tubers of their plants that they don’t eat, the eggshells of their fowl, the manure of their goats—and the tree can already feel the soil absorbing these gifts. The humans cry a little less, too, and the tree is glad of that, because the grief conveyed by their tears in the soil is overwhelming.
The weeping woman, no longer pregnant, has a baby strapped to her back. She’s gathered a few others to help her till some soil. The ubo tree is grudgingly impressed at what she’s managed, but the tree also knows that the seeds she’s planted—seeds that she must have carried with her from wherever they came from—are doomed. The tree can already sense that the little seedlings are ailing. The soil here is rocky and full of clay, parched and bleached by the sun, and the seeds are not adapted to these harsh conditions.
The woman watches over her tender shoots with care, as if they were as precious to her as the baby on her back, sharing with them a portion of her precious water. Look, Tavi, she tells the infant on her back. By summer these will be ready to eat.
No, they will not, the ubo tree thinks. But in spite of herself, she reaches a root toward the little patch of tilled soil. Grow, she tells the seedlings encouragingly. Survive. She may not want the humans here, but neither does she want them to die. She tells herself it’s because she does not want their corpses decaying and mingling with her soil.
As the sun warms her, the ubo tree pushes out the first buds of her flowers. The woman pauses in her work, wipes the sweat from her face, and looks up. She points at the pale pink buds, smiling, and tells her infant to look. How pretty they are! I wonder what kind of tree it is? I wonder what kind of fruit it’ll create?
The ubo tree bursts into bloom and scatters petals like a blessing over the humans’ poor excuse for a settlement.
New voices, harsh with speech that she recognizes, wake her. Men in uniform surround the camp. Who are you? You can’t stay here. Move along.
The old man with the soft tuft of gray hair lifts his hands placatingly. We don’t understand your language. Please, we don’t mean any harm. There’s nowhere for us to go.
One of the men strikes the old man down. A spot of blood drips onto the dirt. Pain, fear, rage. The tree shakes with indignation.
The old man is, she knows, gentle. He tries to protect his little group of humans. In spite of his folded spine and his hands gnarled like briars, he still helps the woman in her garden every day, working alongside her.
This land doesn’t belong to you, the newcomers say.
But it doesn’t belong to you, either, the ubo tree says, although the humans can’t hear her. If anything, this land belongs to me. I’ve been here for so many generations of your kind. I’ve shaped the earth with my roots. I’ve sheltered plants and animals with my leaves.
We have food, the woman says. It’s the food of our homeland, and it’s delicious. She smiles at them, but the tree notices that she has hidden her baby somewhere, away from the men’s eyes. She brings out a small fragrant box. I’ve saved spices from our city. I’ll show you how to use them to delight the palate.
Some of the men laugh at the woman’s pathetic attempt to bribe them—with food, of all things! As if they don’t get plenty to eat on their own—but a few are curious. They sit down under the tree.
A fire is kindled, deer meat hunted earlier is brought out, and the woman gets to work, helped by several other people in the camp. Into an iron vessel placed among the flames the woman gently adds the green shoots that the ubo tree helped to grow; she sprinkles in the jewel-toned powders, which mix with the meat and issue the scent of the wind from far to the southeast, a rich tropical wind from the other side of the mountains.
The men eat; they enjoy the food. Do you have more of those spices? Their bellies are full, their tongues warmed.
The gardener hands over the box of powder. The man who seems to be the leader of the band tucks it into his jacket. The men stride off, to the road that will take them into the city on the other side of the hill.
The tree has seen too many human groups come and go to believe that they will not return. What will the gardener do then? She has no more spices to barter with.
The rest of the camp quietly eats what the men have left. The woman is weeping again, but only inside her heart, and the tree is sure the other humans cannot tell. The woman feeds her baby a bite of the meal they’ve created. Taste this, Tavi. This is the last taste of our homeland. Don’t forget where you come from.
The ubo tree’s branches are heavy with fruit. She’s proud of this year’s bounty, the richest in a long time, for she’s been awake for much of the process, urging her buds to grow into fruit. The additions to the soil given by the humans have helped too. The fruit will be bigger and juicier than ever.
To her delight, the birds are not scared away by the humans; on the contrary, they gather in her branches, bright-eyed, feasting on both her fruit and the crumbs that the humans drop in the dirt. The foxes, while more wary than their avian counterparts, wait with sly patience in the underbrush until the humans go to sleep.
The gardener is curious about the ubo fruit. She picks one, inspects it, takes a bite, makes a face. It’s bitter.
The tree is offended. She shakes her branches and an ubo drops, bouncing off the woman’s head. Ouch. She squints up at the tree’s higher branches. Was that really necessary? She looks at the fruit in her hand. The tree can sense the questions in her mind. Maybe we can soak the bitterness out? Simmer it? Pickle it?
Her infant—still an infant, but able to reach and grasp and laugh and almost move around on her own—stretches her chubby little fingers for the fruit. The woman laughs and, with a small knife, cuts off a piece of the ubo’s flesh. The infant sucks on it enthusiastically with coos of delight.
The woman creates a meal of the fruit and the camp gathers to eat.
It’s a little like apples but not as sweet.
Ugh, the skin is tough! Very unpleasant.
Well, it’s not as though we have many choices.
The ubo tree retreats into herself. These humans are too much. They should have already left, months ago. What are they still doing here, in their crumbling shelters? They’ll not survive the second winter. And good riddance. She doesn’t care what becomes of them.
Just before the tree falls back into her dreams, the gardener comes to lean against her trunk. Thank you for the fruit. We’re not used to it yet, but that’s because we miss home. I appreciate what you’ve given us.
* * *
Seasons pass; the tree dozes, in and out of waking. Somehow the humans manage to survive. The makeshift camp grows, and houses are built, after a fashion—shacks and lean-tos. The old man with the tuft of gray hair dies and they bury him nearby. The tree sends her roots to cradle him. Through his skin and flesh, she learns so much about this small tribe of humans. The old man was their leader; his children died in the war, but he protected the gardener, his granddaughter. His body, as it gently returns to earth, releases all the love and fierceness he held in life, and those qualities return to the soil and push through as new seedlings in the next cycle of the seasons.
After some time, the gardener opens a sort of eating establishment where people from the city over the hill come to taste the flavors of a faraway land, created by the plants she’s managed to grow from the precious seeds, tilled in the earth that she has worked with her hands. These seedlings grown in the local soil, under this sun, are no longer the same as they once were, in the land they come from. They have been transformed.
The soldiers come back, now and then. Sometimes they are sympathetic, sometimes they are harsh. But it is never comfortable when they are sighted, and the camp braces for them each time. Each time, they take something: seeds, spices, fruit, vegetables, meat.
In the evenings, the humans of the camp gather at the roots of the ubo tree.
I wonder when we can go home, a man says.
Home to where?
And silence settles over them.
The tree, tired now after having been continuously awake for longer than ever in her life, dips into sleep, wondering what will become of the humans.
When the tree wakes again, it is the very end of summer, a hot one, and all is quiet but the murmuring of bees. Birds rest among her leaves, and a family of foxes is sleeping in a den at the base of her trunk. The humans are gone. It has been, the tree thinks, about a generation or two since they first arrived. She asks the birds and she learns that one by one the humans dispersed over the last several years. They moved to the city, or to a village, or died. A few went back to their former home, and the tree wonders what they found there.
Faint signs of the camp remain, but the wilderness has reclaimed most of the land. The patch of soil where the gardener toiled so diligently is almost entirely gone, although the tree can still feel the effects of the human’s care if she reaches her roots out for it, like the imprint of a loving hand. The grave of the old man is still there, his bones embraced by sunbaked dirt.
The valley is so quiet without the humans.
Then she hears a voice. Look! That’s the tree I was born under.
It is the infant, Tavi, no longer an infant, but a woman as old as her mother was when she first arrived, and she has a baby of her own, a little child with laughing eyes, strapped to her back. A young man is with her, holding her hand, and in his other hand he carries a basket of flowers. They stop at the grave of the old man and she places the blooms carefully. What a waste, the tree thinks, to decorate with dead flowers.If they want flowers for the old man, they could plant some. The tree asks the birds to drop seeds there, and she asks the foxes to press them into the soil. By next summer, wildflowers will bloom over his grave.
Tavi and her companion spread a cloth under the tree and pull clay dishes out of the basket. Half-remembered smells waft from the pots: spices from the gardener’s seeds, grown in the local clay-rich mineral soil that’s so familiar to her. As the woman and the man eat, the baby crawls on the cloth and then onto the dirt, exploring the ubo tree’s roots. The tree counsels the den of foxes to stay quiet, although she doesn’t need to—they have no interest in engaging with a human child as long as he stays away from their kits.
Tavi stands up. The tree is fruiting, Matan! Look! She reaches up for the ubo fruit, the first of the season. She gently tugs it off the branch and bites into it. She shares it with Matan and then with the baby.
She closes her eyes and takes the last bite for herself. It tastes like home. She lies back on the cloth, resting her head on the man’s shoulder, while the infant cuddles beside her and falls asleep.
The ubo tree rustles her branches softly. Below her, the family sighs, dreaming. Tavi is dreaming of the ubo tree, where she played as an infant. The tree spreads her leaves to give them a little more shade from the sun, which is very bright today.
Thank you for being part of the Sunday Morning Transport journey this week!
Jane writes things that have appeared in places like Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, and Baffling Magazine. A long time ago she used to be in a band, and you can listen to some of her music on Spotify. She likes wine and mystery novels and karaoke.
The Sunday Morning Transport is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our authors’ work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Oh! This is absolutely beautiful. Just really lovely. I am sitting here with tears in my eyes, but a smile on my face, too.