Deep in the heart of the shaded grove stand the oldest, tallest, and strongest of the humantrees. They were the first to find the sheltered valley, the first to sink their feet into the rich soil, and the first to stretch their arms to the sky. Sturdy veins sprouted from their arms and hands and fingers, bearing blood-red foliage that spread into a canopy over the growing forest. Their hearts slowed as they lignified themselves with the passing years, turning soft flesh into hard wood and smooth skin into rough bark. They gave up the freedom to walk and run, claiming instead the freedom to gather warm sunlight with their crimson leaves, to draw water and nutrients from the earth with their bony roots, and to live out their long lives with their chosen mate.
For none of them stand alone.
Each of the towering giants is formed from two individuals, fused together in a union that will last until death. They stand upon four legtrunks that merge into a dual torso: two bodies pressed so tightly together that it is impossible to tell where one begins and another ends. This central trunk rises up to the shoulders and then divides into a quartet of armbranches, their spreading veins heavy with red foliage. Between those outstretched arms, two wizened heads rest side by side on their partner’s shoulders, their eyelids heavy with bark, sleeping out their days as they grow the seeds that will one day sprout into the next generation of humantrees.
But their idyll must soon come to an end.
Too many young trees have sought the safety of the sheltered valley. The soil is crowded, and there is no room for them to put down their roots, nor can they grow tall in the deep red shade beneath the canopy of the oldest trees. And so they have spread out beyond the original grove, turning it into a forest that runs up the sides of the valley and onto the surrounding hills. The youngest trees are now visible from the endless highways that cross the continent. Predatory cities travel along those highways; and while there are, as yet, no connecting roads that might give a hungry metropolis access to their prey, all that is about to change.
For roadworms have found the humantree grove.
They crawl in from the plains at night, squirming through the forest on rubber-black ring segments. They come not for the trees themselves but for the soil around them, rich with leaf litter and organic debris. They gape their jawless mouths wide to scoop up the loamy earth, gulping it down through long, pulsing bodies and excreting the waste as acrid trails of hot tarmac. They circle the trees and weave their way between the legtrunks until the fresh soil is gone. Then the roadworms move on, striking out in all directions and leaving new roads steaming behind them as they disappear into the distance.
A bituminous stench troubles the dreams of sleeping trees. They wake. Bark-encrusted eyelids creak open to reveal eyes like pools of amber.
They find their woodland tamed.
A tangle of streets runs around and between their gnarled legtrunks, penetrating every part of the hidden valley and forming a circle around the oldest, tallest pair. The roads carry on up the valley and over the hills, reaching out beyond the forest and running into the endless dusty plains. There, they will surely merge with one of the great highways along which the cityherds roam.
Sooner or later, the grove will be found.
There will be no escape. The humantrees cannot pull their roots from the ground or turn their muscles back into flesh. All they can do is wait. The outer trees scan the horizon while the rest of them listen to the wind, straining to make out any sound over the gentle rustling of their own leaves.
Nothing comes on the first day, nor on the second. But on the third, a heat haze softens the horizon while a low roar rises in the distance: the first signs of a hungry cityherd making its way along fresh-laid roads toward the grove. Each tree presses closer to their consort, hoping it will merely be a village, or that the bulk of the metropolis will pass them by.
They know it will not.
The outlying districts come first. Long lines of red-brick terraced houses swarm along the roadside and rear up as they approach, water pipes wriggling on their undersides, windows flung wide to sniff the breeze. Then they plunge forward, diving in among the young trees atop the hills around the grove. They circle their legtrunks in a frenzy and then attack, swarming up their sides and digging their pipes into the smooth bark beneath the armbranches so they can drink bloodsap from the veins.
The young trees shudder. Bark-lined mouths open wide. Whistling screams cry out from wooden windpipes.
The terraces only bite harder.
A drove of wild churches comes next, sniffing out a meal beneath the red leaves of the forest. They press further into the wood, grubbing up the earth beside the roadways with their steeples and bell-towers. They find pale boneroots just beneath the surface and crack them open for the warm pink marrow within. Others gnaw on the bark at the base of legtrunks, ripping it loose in strips and chewing it down. Wood that used to be muscle trembles as it oozes from each new wound.
The feasting goes on for the best part of a day. And then it stops.
The churches look up from their meal. The terraces turn from the wood, swiveling TV aerials and satellite dishes. A silence falls as they listen to something beyond the perception of the trees. And then they screech with deafening burglar alarms, loud enough to set wooden teeth on edge. The churches join in with their bells, trembling the red leaves in the canopy above.
Towers rise on the horizon. The haze darkens with smoke. The humantrees press closer to their partners.
The city center is on the march.
They lumber towards the grove, some of them near as tall as the giant humantrees themselves. A massive brutalist convention center leads the way, her structural columns driving up clouds of dust with every step of reinforced concrete. She is the matriarch of the herd, and though her facade crumbles with age she is still the one who leads them along the highways, following the road markings to the groves where food can be found in abundance. Behind her come the rest of the cows–sports halls and stadiums, theatres and cinemas, galleries and nightclubs, all of them heavy with calves growing brick by brick in their wombhalls. Their last meal of any substance was hundreds of kilometers behind them; and they announce their hunger as they approach the next. Bright lights illuminate their facades, while sound systems blast ravenous music over the hills and down into the valley.
It is too much for the churches and terraced houses. They silence their bells and alarms and skitter away from the trees, unwilling to stand in the path of the hungry herd. But the humantrees do not have that luxury. Their branches shudder with every heavy tread of column or foundation as the cows spread out, taking sliproads that lead into the wood from almost every side. Even the oldest, tallest trees at the heart of the grove feel their approach and hold each other tighter. There is nothing they can do for the younger trees who have given them away; there is little enough they can do for themselves. They can only trust to their height, their bulk and the thickness of their bark.
The cityherd attacks the youngest trees first, particularly the ones where churches have left thin strips of keloid bark hanging from their side. They carry on where the smaller buildings left off, ripping away the bark with serrated doors and gulping it down through their lobbies to be processed in boilers and ducts and steam pipes. The young humantrees moan with whistling cries rising up from deep within their heartwood; but the cows drown their cries with exultant music.
Behind the cows come adolescent bull-towers, taller than their mothers and sisters but too young for their glass sides to be dignified by stone. They reach with cranes and radio masts to grasp at the canopy, tearing away young, succulent leaves so they can shred them with their revolving doors. Some are so greedy that they rip fingers and hands from the armbranches, leaving bloodsap to drip down the bark. The older bulls are next, shaking the ground with untold tons of marble as they bring their classical facades into the wood. They open porticos of Palladian pillars and scrape whole trees clean of bark and leaves, leaving their immobile prey bleeding from deep wounds and dying where they stand. The whistling moans of the doomed humantrees rise to anguished cries, like fleeting sirens among the juddering footsteps and thumping sound systems. They choke on the bitter smog that rolls in with the herd and spreads down over the hills and into the valley, where the fumes bite into amber eyes and make them weep resinous tears.
The city spreads until it towers high over every hill around the valley, closing in around the central grove until the oldest trees can see only a shifting concrete skyline where once they were surrounded by woodlands. But there the city halts; the cows find that the bark of the older trees cannot be so easily separated from the wood, while the bulls discover that even their highest masts are not tall enough to reach the canopy.
For a brief time, the trees of the grove permit themselves to hope.
But then a more determined foe lumbers down into the valley: the dominant male of the cityherd. He is a parliament bull, ornamented and gothic, his great bulk of stone marked by ancient wounds long since scabbed over with scaffolding and polythene sheets. His bells ring out to remind the cows and younger bulls of his utter supremacy. They shuffle aside to let him pass. He has ignored the younger trees, though not because he is weak or sick or lacking in appetite. He ignores them because he knows there is a more succulent meal to be had within the ancient trees.
The long-gestated humanfruit.
He marches into the heart of the grove and finds the oldest pair, trembling within the tarmac circle left by the roadworms. Their eyes stream with resinous tears and they open their mouths to plead, but they are too slow and wooden to make any sound. They can only watch as the parliament bull sidles up beside them and presses the great bulk of his stone belly into their side–slowly, insistently, building up pressure with all his might. They grit their wooden teeth as they struggle to withstand him, but he presses again and again and their heartwood creaks under the terrible strain.
They soon realize there is no hope of survival. They struggle to bring their arms down from the canopy, reaching not to fend him off but to hold each other tight. Yet the weight of stone against wood takes its toll before they can complete their embrace. A legtrunk cracks and bark bursts open as the wood beneath splinters. The bull pulls back for a moment, and then slams his bulk into the broken trees, smashing another legtrunk and breaking the couple apart for the last time. One of them falls away from the other with a creaking scream, their eyes open wide, seeing their love for the last time as they crash down upon the roadways below.
The bull tolls his bell-tower in triumph, and stabs his snout into the space that was hidden between them: a flesh-lined hollow that lay deep inside the wood between the two trees, a womb they shared which is still wet and bloody and steaming with heat. Row upon row of tiny humanfruit are embedded in the womb lining, each one encased in a leathery placental husk. He digs in and gulps them whole into his boilers, where the rich infant flesh will be digested.
The rest of the herd joins in. Bulls and cows alike stampede into the valley and crash their sides into the trees to weaken them, or drive radio masts into the gap to crack them open, or strike the trunks head-on with lowered roofs until they split. Each partnered set of trees breaks open to reveal the same treasure inside, even as the humantrees themselves collapse and die. The fruit are eaten in their thousands, rolling in through lobbies and chewed by grinding mezzanine staircases.
The city feasts until there are only a few cracked and bleeding trees left standing in the valley. Some of the buildings return to the younger trees and break them open, finding immature fruit too small to satisfy their hunger; so they go back to stripping off bark and leaves from the damaged trees, without which they will not long survive. Soon, all that remains are a few jagged stumps among the walking towers.
The cityherd moves on, trampling the remains of the grove into the tarmac. A host of carrion factories moves in behind them, their alarms squealing as they bicker over bits of wood or leaf or bone. They gnaw on whatever they can find, leaving piles of planks and sawdust behind for others to eat in turn. All of it is recycled and recycled until there is nothing left of the grove; just a barren valley with a profusion of roads that looks like the ghost of a town that was never built.
Yet this is not the end for the humantrees.
The cityherd might have wiped the grove from the face of the Earth, but it has also given the trees a future. Many of the fruit are crushed by the serrated staircases of lobbies and entrance halls, yet some are still intact when they are fed into the boilers. There, the meaty, blood-rich placental husk is stripped away and digested, revealing a tough amniotic shell that protects the humanseeds within. Those shells roll on through waste-pipes to be expelled through drains onto the soil below, where they will either be trampled or seized on by scavengers who will crack them open to devour their contents.
But some of them do not fall. Some of them are caught in handmade nets, woven from electrical cords. Some of them are pulled out of the drains by young humans, their skin free of bark and their muscles not yet turned to wood. Two such humans, deep inside the parliament bull, heave against the rush of wastewater until they collapse together with a seed between them. They crack it open along its seam with a knife made from a broken window. A baby cries from within. They lift it free and their eyes rise to meet each other.
They are at the age when the humans who will one day be trees select the partners with whom they will mate for life. As they hold the newborn between them, they make their choice.
They will adopt the infant and care for it until it is old enough to fend for itself within the building, living as part of a thriving community of other young humans. They are not parasites, but are instead an integral part of the architecture of the organism, performing maintenance and construction work the buildings cannot manage themselves. These skills are passed from generation to generation, all the way back to the humans who colonized the parliament bull as he was born from his mother’s loading bay. They know no other life. They make homes in his halls and corridors and offices; they eat and drink from the pipework carrying nutrients around the structure; and they rescue humanseeds every time the cityherd encounters a humantree grove.
The young humans will continue to grow, piling on weight until they can no longer fit within the passages. When they are ready, each couple will squeeze through an emergency exit and clamber down to the roadside before making a break for open ground, far from the dangers of the cityherd. They will wander alone, living on their reserves of fat until they find a safe place in which they can put down roots. Many will join forests that already exist, but some will be the founders of new groves–perhaps in the fertile ground of a hidden valley whose roadworm tarmac has long since been broken down, its nutrients enriching the soil. They will wrap themselves around their partners, drive their feet into the earth and reach for the sky with arms whose veins burst with leaves.
And deep within the womb that forms between them will grow the next generation of humantrees, waiting for the day the cityherd finds them once more, and the cycle begins anew.
|Paul R. Hardy‘s stories previously appeared in publications such as Unidentified Funny Objects, Escape Pod, Diabolical Plots, Deep Magic, and Gallery of Curiosities. He also had several novels published on Amazon. He sadly passed away in 2020.|