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Featured Story • June 2014

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The Giant’s Tree

 

Yukimi Ogawa

 
 

His strides defined hills and plains. Where he jumped playfully, the footprints he left became lakes.

Haru looked down from his shoulder in awe; she always did. All her life she had been with the giant, and she still marveled at how whimsical he seemed, with the results so meticulous and beautiful. The ridges ran across the plain of red soil, and hills, woods and rivers ran from it like veins, reminding her of a leaf.

Their plain.

But now she saw her own legs dangling and sighed. They looked paler, fainter, as they always did before her departure. “Bo,” she said to the giant, “I think I have to go soon.”

“Really?” The giant’s enormous head turned left to her; he looked at her and grunted. “I’ll miss you. I wish at least you could tell how long it’s going to take.”

“Me, too. I’ll bring as many memories as possible.”

“Thanks, Haru.”

* * *

Aki opened her eyes.

She slowly dragged herself out of the dream, which she didn’t remember except for a lingering sense of something missing. Reluctantly she crawled out of her futon, which seemed so warm, the heat too complete, too enclosing to be of her own making. But now the warmth faded rapidly. She shook her pajamas off and changed.

Downstairs her breakfast was already waiting for her. She wrinkled her nose at the smell of natto, but smiled. “I think I want to give it a try this morning,” she said to her mother.

“What? But you don’t like natto.”

“I had the dream.”

“Oh.”

The dream came to her every couple of years. She had first had the dream when she was three, and now she was ten and she’d had four or five of these dreams. She never remembered what the dream was about, but for a while after waking, everything looked brighter and clearer, as if an invisible filter had been removed from her eyes. She needed to know, to memorize, everything she could. The long-forgotten (to her) flavor of natto had to be recalled thoroughly, as if she had to teach someone else about it.

Now Aki chuckled at the sticky feel of the food. “Doesn’t taste that bad, but I still don’t like the smell.”

“You don’t have to finish it if you don’t want to.”

“I want to. Morning, Dad.”

Her father came in, polishing his glasses. “You eating natto?”

“I had the dream.”

Her father shook his head and sat down. Aki finished her breakfast quite happily, but brushed her teeth very carefully afterwards to scrub the flavor away.

* * *

At school Aki ran up to the sixth graders’ floor, to the veranda overlooking the hills, rivers and forests. Then she went to the library and started devouring history books and maps. She opened the map of her district and pointed to the plain their town belonged to, and asked her friends if it didn’t look like a leaf. None of them had ever thought of it that way, but now that she asked, perhaps it did, yes.

On her way home her best friend, Fumi, came running after Aki and caught up. “My mom’s baking cakes today. Do you want to drop by?”

“Cakes can be baked at home?” Aki almost yelled. Her own mother wasn’t a home-baking type.

Fumi laughed. “Of course. Come on.”

As soon as Fumi slid the door to her house open, they could smell the sweet vanilla and chocolate scent wafting out. Aki inhaled deeply. “Oooooh, how nice.”

As they waited for Fumi’s mother to prepare their plates, Aki found a pamphlet about local legends, and the two girls read it aloud together. A few lines in the middle were dedicated to an ancient giant, who made a pyramid-shaped mountain over a lake in Haruna, a place to the west of their town. Aki trailed off in the middle of a sentence, and Fumi looked at her, surprised. “Aki, why are you crying?”

Aki touched her cheeks and found tears. “I don’t know,” she said, honestly. “I don’t know.”

Then Fumi’s mother came in with a tray. “Here you go, girls! —Aki-chan? Are you all right?”

Aki smiled and took her plate. As she bit into her cupcake she chewed really slowly, trying to memorize the taste. Then she asked Fumi’s mother about the ingredients. By the time she said goodbye to her friend, she had forgotten about crying.

* * *

Haru found herself lying curled on Bo’s chest.

Bo himself was curled up in their cave like a small child, snoring ferociously and smiling, dreaming. Haru smiled and looked over at the mouth of the cave; the sky was still star-strewn and all was quiet. Bo’s snore was so loud that no living thing slept or hunted around here at night. Haru was the only one who could put up with it. She’d been away a relatively short period. Last time Haru went away, it took her almost a month to come back.

She bit her lower lip to suppress the urge to shake him awake. With their difference in size, it was always a wonder to the girl how the giant would wake, no matter how subtle her shaking or patting, when Haru needed him.

But tonight Haru shook her thoughts away. Just as much as she wanted to talk to him, sleeping, surrounded by his presence, was a treat she had missed all week.

So she went back to sleep.

* * *

The next time she opened her eyes, she was afloat.

Haru looked around, rubbing at her eyes. Bo was sunk to his neck, only his bald head above the surface of the lake he had created for his bath. Haru was on a very crude boat Bo had made out of loose-knit grasses and leaves, which sooner or later would come apart.

Bo let out a laugh. “I was hoping to startle you when the thing broke and sank.”

Haru wriggled and kicked, unraveling the raft. Then she swam to Bo’s side and hugged his enormous arm. “This lake isn’t even there in the times to come!” she said.

“What?” the giant said and sat up, filling the lake with huge waves.

Haru screamed an amused scream as the waves carried her off. Bo scooped her up and held her in front of his face. “They buried the lake,” the little girl giggled. “They have these special tools to bury a lake, or flatten a mountain.”

Bo shook his head and placed the girl on his shoulder. “Where would I bathe, then?”

“Sea, of course. It’s so huge.”

“But is it big enough for me?”

“Sure. And Bo, that mountain should be higher.”

“But I’ve used up all the soil around it.”

“You can use it from over there.” Haru pointed, in the direction she had learned—Aki had learned—as south. “That land was lower, like a basin surrounded by hills. And . . . I think the river was wider.” She squinted at the shining flow.

“That shouldn’t be a problem. Rivers will get wider on their own in time.”

“Will they?”

Bo nodded. “The land, we don’t have to make it perfect. Those creatures sure know how to spoil what’s been prepared for them, like what they’ll do to my lake.”

Haru chuckled, and looked up. Even the color of Aki’s sky wasn’t the same. Was it impossible to make a perfect world for humans?

“Oh, Bo. I need some seeds.”

“What for?”

From his left shoulder, Haru reached out and touched his eyelid. Images washed through the giant—egg, wheat, sugarcane and other things. “Cake,” she whispered. “It was so delicious—why can I only show you, but never let you taste it?”

Bo grinned. “Mmm. Okay, let’s get the seeds then.”

The two looked up into the sky. Haru watched as Bo willed the sky to change so it looked like night, only it was a little lighter. It reminded Haru of sunshine twinkling through a green canopy thick with leaves.

The giant reached out. And at that moment his arm became very long—or the sky drew close to them, Haru didn’t know which was the case—and his hand closed around a cluster of stars. When his arm came back his hand was full of seeds.

“Today, let’s prepare dry lands for the powder thing, and humid fields for the sweet thing . . . Will be a busy day.” Bo grinned again, baring his teeth like tombstones.

Haru nodded and hugged the giant’s head.

* * *

Aki was looking up at the ancient, huge zelkova tree on the school grounds when Fumi found her. Their graduation ceremony had just ended, and other sixth graders were scattered around the ground, taking photos or exchanging messages on the blank pages of their yearbooks. Fumi trotted up until she stood beside Aki. “You always liked this tree, didn’t you?” she asked.

“Not always,” Aki said. “Since last year, when I had another dream. For some reason it keeps reminding me of someone I don’t remember. Funny?”

Fumi shook her head. “Your dreams have always been so mysterious. Remember the field trip to the mountain a few years back? You helped our team a lot in the trekking competition, telling us which way to go find the landmarks, though you’d never been there.”

“Perhaps I had. When I was really small or something. Perhaps I just don’t remember.”

“Perhaps. But when you look at this tree, you look as if you are in love with it.”

Aki blushed, even knowing it was nonsense. “I’ll miss this tree,” she muttered after a while.

Fumi nodded and smiled. “We can always come back here, you know. It’s not going anywhere.”

Aki nodded back, and said nothing.

* * *

Haru circled around the baby zelkova tree. This one was the first of the race, grown from one of Bo’s seeds, and so grew very slowly, so that it would live long and produce many seeds of its own in the times to come. Bo let her bury the seed and nurture it; it was the first time Bo entrusted her with any life. He’d said she was big enough now to handle it.

Bo found her patting lovingly at the bark. He chuckled. “You really love that tree, don’t you?”

Haru turned to look at him. “You don’t understand. It’s still there in thousands of years. Feels just like we ourselves are still there.”

“I wish I could see it for myself, too, with you.”

“Why am I the only one going to see the times to come?”

Bo only shook his head.

Later that night, she felt a chilly wind swirling around her and woke up. Bo seemed undisturbed and snored on. Haru stood and walked out of the cave, down the slope to the riverside. The moon shone on the river, the reflection quavered a little unnaturally and a creature, of Haru’s own race, appeared out of the water. It found Haru and smiled. It was male, like Bo.

He came to stand in front of Haru. “The earth shaped me to be your partner,” he said, smiling shyly.

Haru blinked, in surprise and confusion. “But . . . but I have Bo.”

“He is not made for you.”

Of course, she had thought about it. Other creatures around them, foxes, butterflies and sparrows and everything, all matched so perfectly, while Bo and Haru were so different. Haru had started vaguely wondering if she would ever grow to be Bo’s size. But . . .

The he-creature tilted his head. “We are going to be the first, real couple of our race.”

“Then what about Bo?”

He shook his head. “Sorry. He cannot survive in the times to come. His role is ending.”

“But . . .” Tears suddenly welled out of Haru’s eyes. “But . . .”

He stepped closer to her, touched her cheek and for some reason Haru couldn’t imagine, pressed his lips to hers. “I’m sorry,” he said. Haru tasted salt and river and moon. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you.” He pressed his lips again.

Then Haru, surprised at her own reaction, kissed him back.

Lost in this new experience, she didn’t realize, until a long time later, that Bo’s snoring had stopped.

* * *

When he knew Haru was lost to him, Bo collapsed, and countless seeds, just too many of them for even Haru to comprehend, exploded into the world. His flesh nurtured the plain. On this plain, humans, Haru’s children, thrived. Only the remnants of Bo’s snore got trapped in the mountain cave, and remained there and shook the earth from time to time.

And Aki stopped having the dreams.

* * *

For a few years Aki missed the strange feelings brought by the dreams. When these feelings began to fade, and the missing began to fade, she wanted badly to fill the hollow. The first time a man tried to court her, with no thought at all she leapt into his arms.

The feel of his arms was different, wrong. But she ignored the difference, because she had no idea what it was different from. She followed the man to a town facing the sea, and dreamed of her children bathing in the water.

* * *

And now, Aki stood at the foot of the huge zelkova tree in her hometown.

It had taken three years to find out that her husband was infertile. Aki said to him she was okay, she didn’t care. But in truth it was not okay at all, she really cared, and her husband seemed to sense that. He started doubting her love, which was in fact starting to fade, and so he started ignoring her.

So Aki came back to her town, where there was no sea or lake. She was still in touch with Fumi, but Fumi had left the town long ago. Aki wondered about the buzz in her chest, attributed it to the loneliness, the aftermath of putting an end to a relationship and having no friend to talk to about it. When one Sunday she realized it wasn’t just these things, she went out of her parent’s house and sneaked into her old elementary school to gaze up at the tree.

She missed the dreams, in which she knew she had a place, safe and comfortable, to go back to; now she couldn’t remember where it was. Or if such a place had ever existed. She started to cry, saw the tree blur with tears, when she heard footsteps approaching.

They stopped a little behind her. “Ma’am.” A man’s voice. “Unauthorized entry is strictly prohibited here. May I see your ID?”

Aki flinched and turned around, eyes still a little watery. “I’m sorry. I’m a graduate here and wanted to see the tree—”

And it was the man’s turn to flinch, as he saw her eyes full of tears. “Sorry. Sorry, I was just kidding. I’m no authority here. I myself sneaked in because I saw the tree from the road and—”

Aki watched him as he said three or four more sorries. He was a tall man, his head shaved, sturdily built and somewhat intimidating. But his eyes looked warm to her—silly, of course; she didn’t know this man, warm or cold.

When Aki said nothing in reply for a while, the man blushed and said, “Do you know how old this tree is?”

Aki shook her head, smile invading her face despite herself. “No, sir. No one knows for sure.”

The man grew even redder. “Oh, please. I’m sorry.”

She burst out laughing, wiped her tears and went to stand beside the man. “You’re not from around here?”

“No,” he shook his head. “My ancestors lived here, and we have the family tomb not far from here. I just went there and saw this tree on the way back. Such a huge tree—so you played and studied under it?”

“Yes, it was one of us, really. Our friend. Pupils all loved it.”

The man looked somehow happy to hear it, and they both looked up, side by side. Then he let out a deep, warm laugh. “The foliage is so dense,” he said and reached out his arm towards the canopy, as if he thought he could touch the leaves if he tried. “I know this must sound silly, but it reminds me of something . . . something I used to be able to reach . . . I don’t know, can’t explain well enough . . .”

The man trailed off, because he caught Aki looking at him.

The tears had come back into her eyes. The moment she had heard him laugh she knew, just knew what she had to say. When the man stretched his arm upwards there was no doubt about it. When their eyes met, she only followed the sentence that was ringing in her head. “How would you like some cakes?”

He blinked in surprise. But soon—too soon—grinned. “I’d like that very much.”

Tears found their way down her cheeks, but Aki smiled. He never questioned her tears, or the sudden change of subject. She invited him to her house, where she would bake cupcakes for them both. Vanilla and chocolate. And in the years to come, they would start building their own realm, which was called home.

 
 

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Yukimi Ogawa

Yukimi Ogawa lives in a small town in Tokyo where she writes in English but never speaks the language. She still wonders why it works that way. Her fiction can be found in such places as Strange Horizons and Clockwork Phoenix 4.

She had this to say about how “The Giant’s Tree” grew: “I don’t remember exactly how this story came to be, but the story is full of real things: the legend of Daidara-Bocchi the giant, the zelkova tree, and Aki’s/Haru’s feelings toward home (which are actually mine.) I think I wanted to believe that, while many things change over time, over place, there are things that never change, too.”

 

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