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Featured Story • March 2017

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Observations on the Trees of Peace, the Chirping Lizards, and the Sea at the End of the World

 

Patricia Russo

 
 

It is not true that in the province of Pade, trees can talk. Most of the trees in Pade are no different from any of the other trees in the region. The phrase, “just like a Padean tree,” which has spread to most provinces of the empire and is commonly used when a person expresses strong disapproval of an act of aggression, arises from the reputation of the trees in the municipal park in the main Padean city of Higda.

There is general agreement among historians that the trees there grew from seeds brought by the chirping lizards (the debate over the origin of the chirping lizards and the connection postulated by mediums and seers between these lizards and the already-catalogued inhabitants of the afterworld is a contentious one and lies outside the scope of this work), deposited in the soil, it would seem, via their feces. The citizens of Higda have adopted a jocular attitude among themselves concerning this likelihood. “The trees of peace came out of shit,” they say. This, however, must be considered in-group speech, and a visitor or tourist would be well-advised not to mention it, for fear of causing offense.

The trees of peace (or the peaceful trees, in some renderings) display considerable motility, shaking their branches and rustling their leaves when displeased, but accounts of the peaceful trees pulling their roots from the ground to chase down, surround, and chastise malefactors are merely fanciful tales. Their voluntary movements are limited to the waving of their limbs and the occasional deliberate dropping of a twig.

An individual is considered to be greatly favored if a tree of peace bestows a twig upon him or her. Such gifts are highly prized, and passed down in families as priceless heirlooms. They cannot be bought; the twigs on sale in souvenir shops or open-air markets are certain to be, at best, naturally fallen twigs gathered stealthily from the park. It is more likely that the unwary tourist will be sold a twig snapped off one of the many trees (none of which are peaceful trees) lining the major boulevards of the city.

It is true that no violence occurs within the precincts of the municipal park in Higda. The trees react even to voices raised in anger. It is interesting to note that the trees do not rustle their leaves nor sway their branches at the sounds of jubilation, merriment, or excitement, however loud. It is the prospect of enmity that rouses them and which they suppress. The people of Higda obey the trees.

Why this should be so continues to be a matter provoking curiosity and speculation. The trees are not considered by any of the sects of Pade to be direct conduits to the afterworld. Neither can they, as has been established, physically intervene to prevent or halt an act of violence. The only ability they have is to display their disapproval. When greatly upset, they have been known to knock their branches together, producing a thunderous clatter. One might think that rustlings, wavings, and clatterings would scarcely evoke hesitation in an individual intent on causing bodily harm or emotional pain to another, but the people of Higda say, “We listen to the trees because the trees are generous. If they are happy, they fill us.”

This statement about the trees filling people has been misinterpreted by many scholars, most of whom have never bothered to visit Pade, being content to rely on travelers’ accounts. These scholars construe the ‘filling’ as being emotional, if not spiritual, in nature: the trees fill the people with peace or goodness. That this is not at all what is meant can be easily determined if one analyzes the twig-gathering ceremony, held twice a year, once at the beginning of summer, and again after the first snowfall of the cold season. Admittedly, these are private ceremonies, closed to visitors and tourists. On occasion, however, an exception is made for an honored guest. It is said that the chirping lizards are consulted as to the propriety of inviting the person in question, but as to this, I am dubious, for reasons which will become apparent below.

Participants in the twig-gathering ceremonies, in which the twigs and small branches of the peaceful trees which have fallen naturally due to wind, storms, or snowfall are collected, are limited to one member of each family that has lived in Higda since the trees first grew. Those whose families arrived in Higda more recently are not permitted to take part in the gathering; however, they are not totally excluded from the ceremony. They may enter the park and observe as the celebrants go from tree to tree, daubing them with oil and uttering words of thanksgiving. The observers do not pick up any fallen twigs or branches, but it has become customary for those who are entitled to do so to share their harvest with these representatives of more recently arrived families. It should be stressed that true outsiders cannot expect the same, and must be satisfied with the privilege of witnessing the ceremony.

The naturally cast-off, shed, and fallen twigs do not have the same priceless status as those intentionally bestowed by the trees of peace. They are not kept as heirlooms or placed on household altars. “The power in them is small,” the people of Higda say. “That is why we weave them.”

It is perhaps more accurate to say that the twigs are braided rather than woven, for it is rare that a sufficient number is gathered by any one person to fashion even a miniature basket or mat; in addition, the twigs are usually dry and brittle, not suitable for weaving. It is permissible to soak the twigs in water before beginning to braid them, and great care is taken in this twining. I have seen plaits as long as a child’s arm, made up of five or six twigs, but this is uncommon. More usual are shorter braids consisting of two or three twigs.

The people of Higda recite a stereotypical and repetitive chant as they weave, the burden of which is “fill us.” Fill our homes with children, fill our children with food, fill our storerooms with jars, fill our jars with gold. The braided or plaited twigs from the trees of peace are kept in a family’s residence for one season, then taken to the river and cast in, to travel to the place all rivers go, the sea at the end of the world. Here we note another connection with the afterworld; though the Padeans do not believe that the peaceful trees are directly linked to it, they send the twined twigs to its very border. They offer no reason for this beyond “it is our custom.” Appeal to tradition is often employed to stymie inquiries into subjects a people are reluctant to discuss, and I suspect that such is the case here.

It might not be amiss to note that Pade is a thriving province, and Hidga the wealthiest city of the province. Whether this is a direct result of the twig-gathering ceremony and the chant of filling cannot be stated with certainty. Magic is not as strong these days as it was in the past, a fact upon which all respected authorities agree. However, it is clear that the “filling” the residents of Higda refer to is of a material sort, not a spiritual one.

The Hidgans themselves credit the chirping lizards for their prosperity. One informant told me, “When they came, we did not chase them away, as others did. We did not ask, What is the point of chirping lizards, when there are so many other creatures that chirp? We did not scorn them, nor did we molest them. That is why they gave us the trees of peace, and why the trees of peace fill us.”

Such a belief is clearly self-aggrandizing, as it singles out the residents of Hidga as wiser than other people and hence worthier of gifts from the afterworld (or elsewhere). It must be noted that despite numerous attempts to plant their seeds or transplant saplings, to date all efforts to cultivate trees of peace in any other location have proven unsuccessful. In addition, mention can be found in several chronicles of chirping lizards being driven away from other provinces. Still, the purported superiority of the Higdans, in terms of wisdom or otherwise, must be classified as ethnocentrism, until and unless independent evidence is discovered to support it.

The most obvious source for such corroboration is the chirping lizards themselves, but the difficulties of communicating with these evasive creatures is well known. Even in the Padeans’ own annals, it is recorded that the chirping lizards refused to answer the questions most in dispute—did they truly come from the afterworld, and whether or not they did, why did they bring with them the seeds of the trees of peace?

I myself paid a goodly sum to a Padean guide who swore he could take me to a cave in the mountains close to the border with Wara, in which a colony of chirping lizards had established a city suitable for their reptilian needs, and from which a few would emerge every noontime to hear petitions and dispense advice. The guide, a young man with a very friendly demeanor, did indeed lead me to a cave, ligas and ligas from the city, but no lizards emerged, though we camped at the foot of the mountains for three days. I expressed the desire to climb up to the cave, if only to discover if I could detect any chirping from within, but my guide advised against this in the strongest possible terms. The trees are peaceful, he said, but the chirping lizards are not. If you frighten them, or irk them by imposing yourself when they do not wish to receive visitors, they will strip the skin off your flesh simply by flicking their tongues. They won’t even have to touch you, and you’ll be flayed alive, he warned.

He proceeded to recount the following, as a cautionary tale:

Some time ago, when his father was a child, a lord of the Silver Townlands had come to Higda to demand a cartload of twigs as tribute. He arrived at the time of the summer gathering, with ten armed men and a cart large enough to transport four cows. The people of Higda tried to reason with him at first, but when they saw that their words had no effect, they slipped away and concealed themselves—most in their homes, but a few within the thickest shrubbery in the park. As soon as the lord of the Silver Townlands entered the park with his men, the trees clattered their branches loudly. This did not deter him. He ordered his men to gather up all the fallen twigs and branches they could find. Being bound to his service, the men were compelled to comply, but as soon as the first one touched a fallen twig, he heard a chirp. The same befell each of the other men. Meanwhile, the trees continued to clatter their branches. The men grew so frightened that they refused to load the cart. The lord, not heeding the warnings of either the trees or the chirping lizards, decided to gather the fallen twigs himself. However, every twig he picked up fell out of his hand, for his fingers became numb and he could not maintain a grasp on any object, not even a leaf. The trees stopped knocking their branches together when the lord shouted that his hands had turned into blocks of burning ice. “It was the chirping lizards, you see,” my guide explained. “They came to aid the trees, for in a way, the chirping lizards are their mothers and fathers.”

The lord and his men fled the park, and were immediately greeted by some Higdans who had concealed themselves close by. They tended him solicitously, spreading ointment on his hands and wrapping them in gauze. Then they sent him on his way, with a gift of fruit for the journey, and a stick of sugar for each of his men. “They knew it wasn’t the hired men’s fault,” my guide said.

I pressed him for more details—were the chirping lizards actually seen by any Hidgan? Had that been the last time the chirping was heard in the park? But my guide could add nothing further to his tale, except to say that he had told it to me as his father had told it to him.

Higdans, indeed all Padeans, pride themselves on being civilized and hospitable. The tourist industry makes up a large portion of their economy. Nevertheless, to them outsiders will always be outsiders, and cheating or lying to outsiders is not deemed a serious offense. I therefore place little credence in my guide’s tale, or, indeed, in the young man’s assurances that a city of chirping lizards exists in the mountains he took me to.

More and more, I find myself of the opinion that the chirping lizards have departed this world and returned to the afterworld, if indeed that is where they originated. I can offer no proof, but there have been no reputable sightings for decades, and often when people are dying they claim to hear murmurs and a soft, distant twittering akin to birdsong. My own grandmother said the sound was serene and lovely, and she died smiling. I admit the anecdotal nature of the above; however, similar reports from hospices, nursing homes, critical care units, and the like, from all regions of the empire, have persuaded me that the key to understanding the peaceful trees may lie in this change in the perception of the passage from this world to the afterworld. Before the chirping lizards brought the seeds of the trees of peace, no accounts of hearing murmurs or any sort of melody were recorded from the dying. And though the people of Pade, and particularly of Hidga, employ the cast-off twigs of the peaceful trees for material benefit, the fact that the twigs which are intentionally given to an individual are never parted with and pass as legacies from one generation to the next is indicative that their value is of a different nature.

The peaceful trees inhibit violence. In older texts as well as in oral tradition, the passage to the afterworld has frequently been described as brutal and harrowing. And yet, the sea at the end of the world is said to be a calm one, troubled by neither storms nor strong waves. The change in demeanor among the dying, which has occurred in provinces quite distant from Pade, leads to the supposition that the trees of peace may indeed be serving to ease our way. Did this gift come from the inhabitants of the afterworld? Again, the debate over the origin of the chirping lizards is a longstanding and acrimonious one, and I will not go into it further, except to note an intriguing detail—whereas the peaceful trees suppress violence and aggression, the chirping lizards are claimed to be easily irritated and capable of inflicting harm, to the point of flaying people alive. Peace growing out of violence seems incongruous—but then the trees themselves grew out of seeds nourished by excrement. Agriculturalists would point out that manure is a natural fertilizer; philosophers can list many examples of opposites creating balance. Thus, perhaps the apparent inconsistency is nothing of the sort, but an essential element of the phenomenon.

Upon my return to Higda, footsore, insect-bitten, and nearly depleted of cash, I visited the park again. Stealthily, just like one of the swindlers in the souvenir shops, I picked up a fallen twig, no longer than my finger, and slipped it into my pocket. It is on my desk now as I write. No chirping lizards have come to flay me; neither have any riches arrived at my door. The twig is a twig, dry and dead, its bark flaking off. And yet when I press it against my temple, I can hear something. It is not a chirping, nor anything interpretable as words. I hear a murmuring whisper, like that of wind blowing across still water, and I imagine that it is an echo of the breeze that stirs the sea at the end of the world.

One day I may go there, on a raft made of the hair of a hundred people who love me. This is the way, some ancient texts state, for a living person to travel to the sea at the end of the world. Most modern scholars dismiss the raft made out of the hair of a hundred people who love one as a metaphor for a goal impossible to achieve; nonetheless, I have read accounts of people who have managed it. I am aware that these accounts are widely held to be legendary, but more than one legend has been found to contain a clove of truth.

The endeavor is a daunting one. I started my collection the day my grandmother died; her hair was the first I took. At present, I have hair from fifteen people. It will take considerable time to gather one hundred specimens, but I do not believe that such a venture is de facto impossible.

If I succeed in collecting the hair of a hundred people who love me, I will construct a raft, convey the raft to a river, and allow the current to take me to the place all rivers go. And when I do, I will take the twig along, to see if I am right that its whisper is an echo of the breeze that ripples the water of the sea at the end of the world. And should I meet a chirping lizard on the way, I will ask it, Is your chirping, too, an echo of that song that most of us hear only in death?

 
 

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Patricia Russo’s stories can be found in many places, including Daily SF, The Dark, Not One of Us, Rich Horton’s Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015, Clockwork Phoenix 4, Clockwork Phoenix 5, and the collection Shiny Thing, published by Papaveria Press.

 

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