“Tree, Fire, World” by Desirina Boskovich
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An oral history, recorded in the annals of sentientkind, spoken by Sven Al’bedo di’Cantara, on the eve of the ninth flying.
1. The Tree
And so it came to pass, in the years past reckoning, when I served as a scribe in the court of the king, that there stood the last and only tree.
It is not known how this came to be the only tree. For a time there were disputing theories; it could hardly have happened by chance. As for me, I favor a hypothesis rooted in the fallacy of infinite halves. For in the strange world where we lived, it was once widely known that if you cross half a distance every day, forever and ever, you shall never reach your destination. Thus, if you consume half the riches of the world, every day, forever and ever, you shall always have some riches left. This truth was a fallacy. It is not possible to cut down half a tree.
Others suggested that perhaps there had never been more than one tree; that this last and only tree was in fact every tree, and the only tree. The tree of knowledge. The tree of life. The giving tree. The burning bush.
When Adam’s son journeyed to the Garden of Eden, begging that his dying father might gain entrance one last time to eat the fruit of everlasting life, the angels barred the door, yet allowed him to take one single branch. He arrived too late and missed his chance to say goodbye, but he planted the branch in the hollow of his father’s corpse, where his mother had once been a rib. This branch from another world grew into a tree, and — they said — this tree was that tree, now the last and only tree.
They claimed that all the forests our ancestors once knew were nothing more than echoes, reflections of a single truth. And whether or not this theory is correct — I myself find it a bit far-fetched — it is true that this last and only tree now held the story of every tree before it, just as the first tree held the seeds of every tree to come.
A tree is where it began, and a tree is where it will end.
But as a scribe in the court of the king, in the years of the last tree, my concerns were of a more pressing and material nature. The land where Where we stood was the most valuable piece of it known to man, because it held the dearest treasure. But as every dragon knows, treasure comes with a price. The work of our land became the work of guarding the tree. Men and women, boys and girls, they were torn from their homes and families to serve the armies of the tree. Their blood soaked our borders. To their bereft parents we had only one command: produce more children. Give us more soldiers for the armies of the tree.
Wars were fought over the fate of the tree.
Religions were born in the name of the tree.
And all the time, a flock of crows nested in the tree, unaware of the chaos down below. The luckiest pack of crows in the world, and they couldn’t care less.
2. The Fire
And so it came to pass, in the last years of the last tree, when the burden of our treasure simply became too great, that we asked the world for guidance.
We took a vote.
Letters poured in by the billions. (In the strange world where we lived, people filled the land like stars now fill the sky.) The weight of the letters was the weight of a thousand felled trees. And as a scribe in the court of the king, the reading of those messages fell to me and to my kind.
Some suggested a velvet rope, a glass case, a wire cage.
Others favored a recovery program. They claimed we could plant more trees.
But it was widely known that increase in supply is inversely proportional to increase in demand; to increase the supply of trees would be to decrease the demand for our tree, the last and only tree, the tree that had made us the wealthiest nation on Earth.
The tree-planters had good intentions, but they were woefully naive.
I secretly wished to cut down the tree and carve its pure and glowing wood into a totem, which would be sanded down to a satin-like finish, then painted in luminous shades of gold and green. Beneath the totem would stand a sign, embossed with the words: “Here stood the last and only tree.”
But I’ve always tended toward the sentimental.
Of course, I never put forth this suggestion. As a scribe in the court of the king, I was required to remain impartial.
We read letter after letter. Letters filled all the long hours of our days and all the short hours of our nights. (It was the warmest, brightest midsummer, in the last days of the last tree). Our eyesight began to fail, and our fingers began to ache, and our backsides began to resemble the flattened contours of the deforested plains.
Still, we read. Until finally, we found this:
“Cut it down. Start a bonfire. Strip naked. Dance in front of the flames, a bottle of champagne in one hand and a bottle of whisky in the other. The world’s a wasteland already. Might as well savor the last flickering light of the most valuable fuel on Earth.”
We took the letter to the king.
In the court of the king we wrestled with our metaphors. We dreamt of the days of the first fire, when fire was an idea spreading as fast as the flames themselves. In those days an enterprising human stole fire for his friends and was rewarded for his trouble with a slow, painful death. He was exiled from the garden and banned from the tree.
At least they buried him with a torch in his chest.
Around fires, we all become storytellers.
Meanwhile, in the strange world where we lived, fires flickered across vast continents that still went dark at night; millions of children wheezed their way toward slow, painful deaths, as they breathed in the haze of cooking fires fueled by human shit. Like treasure, modern life comes with a price.
Perhaps it was the price that did us in; perhaps the prophecy.
Either way, we were always going to eat that fruit. We were always going to crawl down out of that tree, onto the open plains.
And we were always going to light that fire.
3. The World
And so it came to pass, on the last night of the last tree, we lit the fire that we had been longing to light since we first crawled out of the branches of that same tree, a million years before.
We drank champagne to celebrate our mastery over all earthly things and we drank whiskey to mourn our fatal mistakes and in the end we drank wine in a longing toast to all the last nights that had come before.
And with all the people of Earth gathered around — at least all of those who could afford a ticket — the land we owned, which was now no more valuable than the lands around it, was darkened with the bodies of a billion dreaming souls. We danced, and we sang, and the young among us made love. As the dark hours drifted toward dawn, the winds picked up and anointed us with the ashes of the last and only tree.
The morning dawned on the dry wastelands.
It was then that we saw the spaceships darkening the pale clouds of the sky before the sun. The people of Earth made way for this vast fleet but in the end it was just one ship that landed on the open expanse of the plains, a ship bearing the messengers of sentientkind. And though I have told you that we lived on a very strange world, these messengers hailed from stranger worlds still. The oddness of their journeys and the peculiarity of their lineages was written in the eccentric arrangement of themselves.
Yet we spoke the same language: the language of desire and untamable will.
The messengers spoke to us. They told us that we were the recipients of an almighty honor. They told us that they had traveled the galaxy far and wide (the work of the eighth flying, and it had come to pass that this was the last and only world, or at least the last and only world where sentientkind might live.
It was not known how this came to be the only world. For a time there were disputing theories; it could hardly have happened by chance.
Speaking with great joy, they told us how they had taken a vote of all sentientkind.
Their leader delivered these tidings with tears in his eyes. He spoke of stories and legends long past, from worlds that may not have been his own; of a time when people ate the fruit that was poisoned by the light of the treacherous moon, and thus they came to know that we are all made out of the same stuff, that when death comes to even a single withered leaf, soon it must come to us all. Eventually, the last tree would be consumed in the flames of the last fire of the last world, and there would be nowhere left to dance. So it was foreordained from the first moments of the first star from which all sentient things are made.
My king, who had just managed to secure to his own advantage at least one third of all the riches in the world, by the simple ploy of charging admission to view the destruction of the single most valuable asset on Earth, was astonished and confounded by these developments. In confusion he uttered a single cry, “But…where will we live?”
I, of course, already knew the answer, because I had seen it, in the few moments of daylight before the ships of sentientkind filled the sky: a homeless pack of crows, wheeling overhead.
|Desirina Boskovich is an ’07 graduate of the Clarion Writer’s Workshop. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Fantasy Magazine, Realms of Fantasy, Lightspeed, and Nightmare, and in anthologies such as The Way of the Wizard and The End Is Nigh. She is also the editor of the recent anthology It Came From the North: An Anthology of Finnish Speculative Fiction (Cheeky Frawg, 2013). She lives in Atlanta.|