The Tree at the Edge of an Unknown Land
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 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.
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