Story

The Dreaming Tree

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The eyes of a person with a tree overlaid on their forehead.
Lithunsa was dying. The tree’s fabled voice, which once carried as many tones as the temple’s choir, had dimmed to soft cries. Through the long years, Lithunsa’s song had given Pao refuge from hurtful taunts, buoyed him when he felt worthless, and rejoiced with him on sunlit days. The tree was the only one who understood him, or cared to. Now he stood helpless as the leaves crumpled and fell.

A single fruit glowed under a shard of light from the ceiling. Pao reached into the branches and gently pulled it free. The fruit was a year’s harvest, and it was too small by far. Yet it offered a chance to find an answer to the tree’s illness – his only chance. For this small fruit, Lithunsa had sacrificed what vitality remained. No more would grow.

A knock echoed through the temple, drowning out the mournful murmur of the tree. Pao grumbled. Why wouldn’t the gods give him a day without invasions from peasants, pilgrims, and vagabonds? Their polite demands and self-serving apologies exhausted him. Once, Pao could neglect the door until the visitors departed. Then the refugees began arriving. If he didn’t answer, they would climb through the windows! He almost wished others were present to mind the door. Almost.

Pao set the fruit aside and made his way to the front entrance. The great doors opened to reveal a woman with sun-deepened skin. Behind her, several children and a young man leaned on a wagon so burdened with belongings that it was a wonder it still stood.

“We beg shelter of Lithunsa Temple.” The woman spoke with a heavy accent. She lifted a tanned chin and straightened her spine.

Pao examined her stubborn posture; it reminded him of the woman who visited earlier that summer. That woman had asked for a bed, and then she expected him to heat her water, cook her food from his gardens, and even clean up after her. She stayed for a fortnight, but at least she didn’t have children to scurry and scream about, as this new woman did.

“I have no hospitality to give.” Pao gestured up the road. “The scepter accepts petitioners a day north of here; I hear he is gracious at times.”

She frowned. “Is this not the temple?”

“It was before the war. Now it is empty.”

Her eyes widened. “That is sad. Still, we traveled long. If we could take shelter – ”

“I am tending to someone who is very ill. I cannot risk disturbances.” Pao swung the doors closed. There. He should have done the same to the pilgrim who brought offerings but asked favors and to the family who’d flattered him while flattening his gardens. Pao placed his ear on the door; the cobblestones rattled as the wagon pulled away.

He knew why they came. Only a year before, the temple offered not just food and shelter but also the wisdom and healing of Lithunsa. The tree’s voice had been so strong it could be heard down the hillside on restful nights. The branches had bent with boundless fruit; eating a single segment from one bestowed a vision of knowledge and wisdom. Dreams from Lithunsa had shown congregants how to stop plagues, endure droughts, and negotiate peace. The temple’s priests and their acolytes ensured that all in need were seen to, yet they neglected the tree that birthed their miracles.

Lithunsa had declined once before. No one could explain this occurrence, much less find a cure. Then the tree simply grew well again. The day Pao took charge of the gardens, he beseeched the priests to search for an answer. They nodded indulgently, but then whenever a fruit was picked, they refused to spare a segment. To them, the tree’s health was a sign of the gods’ satisfaction. No argument convinced them otherwise.

When war broke out and the torrent of pilgrims became a trickle, the priests abandoned the temple to appeal for peace. The acolytes became aimless and inconsistent. They tended Lithunsa carelessly, and the tree slowly grew ill once more. Fruit fell without ripening; fewer blossoms arrived with each moon. All the acolytes, servants, and monks were sent elsewhere. Everyone except Pao.

Solitude was a blessing. Now no one judged what they didn’t understand and then insisted others follow them. Pao tended the tree as he wished. Yet despite his efforts, Lithunsa waned. He needed the knowledge of this last, meager fruit. Pao removed the outer skin. The segments were undergrown, but if he grouped them together, he could receive three short visions. Either they would teach him how to heal Lithunsa, or they would leave him to mourn over silent, brittle branches.

He placed several segments in his mouth. The room fragmented like panes of stained glass. Lithunsa was ready; in the next moment Pao might see from the eyes of a ruler or follow the steps of a traveler. Tell me about your illness, Pao prompted the tree. The panes rotated, merged, and divided.

“What is this I hear about your visions?” The archpriest leaned back in his tall seat, carved from the marble of the temple walls.

Kneeling on the rug before him, Pao’s stomach dropped. Only a trusted few had been told that Lithunsa gave Pao a different body during the visions. “I do not know what rumors you heard, Your Grace, but my visions have been nothing but pleasant, serene even.”

“Do you deny that when you enter a vision, you become a woman?”

Pao clenched her fists. She’d been betrayed by one of her brothers; it was the only way the archpriest could know. How foolish she was, thinking they’d accepted her.

“Well?” the archpriest asked.

“I do not deny it, but the transformation is not disturbing, Your Grace. It feels…comfortable.”

“The circle of priests will judge its meaning.” The archpriest looked down his nose at her. “However, a woman cannot become a monk as you have; their hearts are too soft. Perhaps you are ill-suited to serve here.”

Pao drew a sharp breath. The archpriest spoke of acceptance and compassion to every congregation, yet he would cast her out for an innocent vision? Lithunsa was only giving Pao what was missing from her waking life. “Your Grace, I have experienced this anomaly only once, perhaps twice,” she lied. “I had almost forgotten it. Surely it is of small importance.”

“I see.” The archpriest nodded, tapping his fingernails on a marble armrest. “Very well, we may forget this omen for now, but I trust you will tell me if it happens again.”

Pao’s breath shuddered as the room crystallized and drew together, finally forming the deserted temple where he was still standing. The vision was an echo of a real day, fifteen years past. He disliked recalling it, but he still followed the lesson he learned. Do not share the visions. He was a woman in all of them, but he left the experience there, where he could explore it without the judgment of priests or worshippers.

The tree had never shown him one of his own memories before. How did this memory describe the tree’s illness? Was it the priest’s condemnation of Lithunsa’s gift? Pao had no method of discovering which detail of his vision was the important one. When Lithunsa was healthy, an entire circle of priests had interpreted the visions. What if Pao lacked the wisdom? What if the tree’s ailment was simply incurable? He had no way of knowing; all he could do was ask again. Perhaps a more specific question would bestow a clearer answer.

Pao bit down on several more segments. The temple separated into shards of light and color. What is making you ill?

Lithunsa’s cries carried across the courtyard. Pao hurried over the cold stone to the great chamber, where a group of acolytes stood around the altar. One was on a stool, holding a knife to the tree.

“What is this?” she called to them. “Lithunsa is ill.”

The acolyte with the knife paused. “I am aware. If I send a few cuttings to the Divine Seat, perhaps they may sprout a tree that is healthy.”

“I see.” Pao’s lip curled. The master gardeners had never succeeded in sprouting another dreaming tree, but naturally that didn’t stop the acolytes. Mesmerized by the brilliance of their redundant notions, they hacked away at her dying friend. “I have a more important task for all of you: pack your bags. Take your leave by morning.”

The acolytes exchanged worried looks. “Send the servants away if you will, but you can’t dismiss us! We serve under the archpriest.”

“The priests are not here,” Pao said. “I sent word of the tree’s illness, and they postponed their return. The temple is under my charge until Lithunsa is well again. Now be gone!”

The acolytes scattered from the altar, their footfalls echoing off the bare stone. The last disappeared into an upper corridor, and the great chamber fell silent except for the panicked wail of the tree.

Pao approached Lithunsa to offer a comforting hum and stepped on something rough but yielding. She picked it up; it was doll made from plant husks. How did it get here?

As the room pieced itself together, Pao contemplated the vision. That day he did everything he could to protect Lithunsa, and in the months after, he ensured no one hurt the tree again. Was it not enough? The acolytes cut some branches before he intervened, but surely that wasn’t beyond recovery. What’s more, the cuttings were made after Lithunsa became ill. The problem must be elsewhere.

Lithunsa had never been this cryptic before. The visions were not only shorter but less powerful. Instead of taking Pao to strange places, the tree left him in his own mind. No, not quite. He did not remember seeing the doll before. What did it mean? How could it possibly help him heal his friend? He needed answers, and Lithunsa gave only riddles.

Pao held the last segments of the fruit, the key to one last vision. Then he would never have one again. He could make a final request for a cure, but what chance did he have of understanding the answer? He would lose his last opportunity to bid goodbye to his friend, the friend who meant everything to him. Whereas if he used the fruit to say goodbye, he would forfeit his only chance to save Lithunsa.

He knew what the priests would advise if they were present. The others always laughed when Pao spoke of Lithunsa as a person; to them the tree was but a tool. They were wrong. Pao was certain the tree would understand him, and he wouldn’t let a loved one perish alone.

He ate the last of the fruit, and his surroundings parted. He formed the last prompt in his mind: Thank you for everything you have done. I treasure our friendship and always will.

The sun was setting, but everyone was out in the fields. Bored, Pao took out a small husk doll and fed it with a wooden spoon.

“Pao, I have a task for you,” her mother called.

“I’m hungry.” Pao spoke with a child’s voice.

Her mother came over and lifted her up on a hip. “Sorry Sweet Berry, we have to finish before the frost tonight. We’ll eat as soon as we’re done. Do you see Gohen and Bada out there?” She pointed out to the fields, where many people Pao barely recognized were working.

“Yes.”

“They don’t normally work with us, do they? But they help us when we need help, and we help them when they need it. That makes us all strong. Can I count on you to make everyone strong?”

Pao nodded.

“I knew I could. If you work fast, I’ll sew a dress for your doll tonight. Would you like that?”

The temple rushed back into view, blurred by Pao’s tears. The dream wasn’t from his memories; Lithunsa must have gathered what strength remained. The vision held a beautiful lesson about helping one another. Why couldn’t he help? He only wanted to help one friend, just one, and he had wasted his chances. He had squandered Lithsunsa’s only hope. Soon he would be alone.

Pounding rang through the temple. More refugees? He dried his eyes and stood.

The woman he’d seen earlier was alone outside, her tunic soaked in sweat. “I know we can’t stay,” she said, “but a wagon wheel broke. You lend a few tools, and I’ll mend it. Then we’ll move on.”

“I’ll look, but I’m afraid I don’t have…” Pao trailed off as an item swinging from the women’s hip caught his eye. It was the husk doll. Its crumpled skin and rough dress were faded from years in the sun.

She followed his gaze. “What?”

“You were raised on a farm,” Pao said. The farmers were from her memory.

“Yes, is that wrong?”

“No, not at all. I think…” Pao looked back toward the center of the temple, where Lithunsa waited. In the tree’s last visions, he’d seen only the woman’s memories and his own. “I think my friend wants me to speak with you. Do you know anything about illnesses in trees?”

She shook her head. “I am sorry. I know little of trees.”

“There must be something you can tell me.” The doll was more than coincidence – it had to be. “Why else would my friend choose you?”

She frowned in thought. “No one else is here.”

Pao’s breath caught in his throat. Before the war, hundreds of people filled the temple, resting on every seat and warming every room. This was the only fruit Lithunsa had produced since its decline, and the visions were clearly taken from memories. What if it had always been that way? With a temple full of pilgrims to take figments from, no one would know.

Then the temple emptied, and Lithunsa grew ill. What if the tree’s vitality depended on the same congregants that supplied Lithunsa with moments from their lives? The tree would have been hurt by their departure. In Pao’s second vision, Lithunsa had shown the acolytes leaving, shown him sending them away.

He had almost killed his only friend.

Pao tried to swallow the lump in his throat. He turned away from the woman at the door and stumbled back to the altar. Feeling his legs weaken, he knelt on the cold stone at Lithunsa’s feet. “Please forgive me.”

Lithunsa murmured back, weaving a single melody of lament. Footsteps approached from the temple entrance, and a second song arose, a harmony with low notes that refused to waver.

“Do you need help?” The refugee asked.

Pao couldn’t stop his tears. She was offering help to him? After he’d sent her away? Brutal years had shown him only Lithunsa could be trusted. Such offers were never more than veils to obscure true intent. Yet now that he knew what Lithunsa was, how could that be true? Every song the tree hummed was an echo from someone nearby. Every word the tree spoke was plucked from paupers and priests alike. If the attendants surrounding Lithunsa were so vile, the tree would have no source for the compassion it granted him.

Pao had to trust Lithunsa. The tree’s parting vision was one of the woman’s memories. That day, her mother had taught her the value of contributing to a group. She was here now because she had hiked back up the hill alone, while the others rested with the broken wagon.

The refugee sighed softly. “I leave you in peace.” Her footsteps faded away.

“Wait!” He turned to face her.

She paused and glanced back at him.

Pao swallowed. “Could you…could you and your family stay in the temple?”

“Could we?” Her shoulders relaxed. “That would mean much. We will work in return. We can tend the gardens or clean if you wish.”

“That is most generous.” How many others would have helped him, if Pao had given them the chance? He had assumed every visitor only thought of themselves, and to learn otherwise shamed him. He had turned away the needy, when he could have bid them work alongside him. Pao didn’t deserve the refugee’s trust or kindness, yet for Lithunsa he had to accept it. “Once your family is settled, could you help me find others who need shelter? I have many rooms to fill.”

 

Comments

  1. Mike

    That was a beautiful story, Chris!

    Just curious: was this the one you mentioned in the podcast, when you talked about coming up with a gender-neutral name?

    • Chris Winkle

      Thanks! I did some searches to try to keep the name in this story gender neutral if possible, but “Pao” is shared between multiple cultures, so how it comes off probably depends on the culture.

      However, I was probably talking about a different story. You’ll see it in a couple of months, it’s called “The Death and Life of Turing,” and the first person narrator has no specified gender.

      • Mike

        Awesome! Looking forward to reading that one as well.

  2. Sam

    Lovely story, I really liked it too. Thank you!

  3. Oren Ashkenazi

    For the record, this story is amazing.

  4. Cay Reet

    A great story again. I have to admit, I pushed off reading until today, because I did a lot of writing last week and hardly read anything in between.I didn’t just want to read it quickly and forget about it. Glad I decided to wait and enjoy the story in peace.

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