Chapter 4

The First

by Lisa M. Green


Despite its importance in many of the village’s day-to-day functions, the Healing Tree is rarely visited by most of our inhabitants.

The wood for the fire is harvested on a regular basis, as new branches sprout almost daily, but this is only done in the evenings when the heat of the day has somewhat abated. The leaves and bark are collected as needed by those who assist the Healers, usually an apprentice or two. Several kinds of medicinal—yet flavorful—teas are made from the leaves. We also use the roots, as well as leaves, to create a base and flavor for soups. I do so love when Gani makes cassava-bean soup, especially when she adds in extra pieces of root and lets them soak in for hours or even days. The spices from the roots are undeniably delicious and comforting. She always lets me fish out the pieces afterwards to save for the town builders. While the roots are not truly edible, the drained husks can be salvaged by the builders and made into all sorts of sealants and materials for patching and repairing things around town. Nothing is wasted here.

Though not as aesthetically pleasing as the flowering plants surrounding the clearing, the Healing Tree provides us with kastana nuts. They are delicious roasted over a cooking fire and provide a tasty diversion from our normal fare. In many ways, the sap is the best part, if only because we use it for so many different things. Like the mouthwatering berry pastries we sometimes get from the bakery. Or less delicious uses such as patching roofs.

The sheer size and magnitude of our tree makes all of this possible, especially since each portion reaped is replenished by nature just as quickly as it is again needed. Though the roots may grow back within a few days, we cannot afford to throw away what could be put to better use. With so many people to support, even a tree the size of the Healing Tree cannot provide everything all at once. The collections are made on a rotational basis. No one is wanting, but no one is wasting either. We are only able to survive because we respect this balance.

After a couple of slightly awkward moments of indiscretion in which my sense of personal decency was tested, Bhradon suggested, at the prompting of several prominent figures and not a few Primaries, that we discover more remote rendezvous locations. The tree was a perfect spot because most of the time no one is around, and it’s easy to spot when someone is coming as the clearing is secluded and surrounded by tall flowering plants on all sides. The path up is entirely devoid of anything growing above knee-height. No surprises as long as you are keeping an eye out.

As we approach the barrier, Bhradon spreads an arm across a row of plants to clear a path for us to enter. I step first into the clearing. I stop. I stare. This . . . can’t be right. Weird lighting? The sun hitting it in just the right—wrong—way so as to give an illusion of . . . what?

What am I seeing here?

“What . . . is this?” I’m assuming he’s behind me now. Either that or a very large building just crashed into my back. Does he see what I’m seeing, or am I really losing my mind? Images of battling invisible natural elements drift back into my thoughts, and I suddenly realize that I am, in fact, losing my mind. The signs have been there all day. I’ve been dreaming of a man I’ve never met, I screamed hysterically at an old man for no reason, and I fought the forces of nature. All in a day’s work, I say. Why didn’t I notice this before? I breathe a sigh of relief as this is far better than the alternative. What’s a little insanity compared to the survival of our entire population?

“No, sorry. Never mind. It’s okay. Just having a mental breakdown is all. No cause for alarm.” How does he put up with me? No, seriously. I really need to know. Maybe he’s crazy too, and we just complement one another’s craziness.

Turning around, I see the look of confusion on Bhradon’s face. Is that what I looked like a moment ago? I wonder. Looking back at the tree, it’s obvious he’s staring at it. How can he not? The thing is massively huge and takes up your entire peripherals at close range.

He turns to look back at the way we’ve come, as if to verify to himself that we had indeed entered the right clearing. “This . . . the tree, Rinni! Don’t you see the tree?” Well, of course I see it, silly. It’s an enormous tree standing right in front of us.

I was seriously hoping for a mental breakdown there. No luck on that end, huh?

What I actually say is this: “Yes, but how could this be? Maybe we’re experiencing some sort of shared delusion right now. Gani says that’s happened before when people accidentally consume root that’s gone bad. That has to be it! I’m sure we shared a meal yesterday, right?”

“We did, Rinni, but I don’t think this is in our heads. For one thing, I feel perfectly normal. When that’s happened in the past, people always said they felt strange and kind of dizzy. We have to tell someone now. How could this have happened since the last collection time? The tree was healthy the last time we were here, Rinni. That was . . . nine days ago? Right? No way would they have missed this. I mean, look at it!”

I am looking at it. In horror.

Now that I know I’m not imagining this, the reality is beginning to sink in like that building that rammed into my back earlier.

Where once there were a multitude of branches curling off in all directions, a marked difference can now be seen in the number of limbs reaching up and out to the sky. And the leaves. The leaves are in such a pitiful state, their brittle or withering brethren looking on in scorn at the ones that are still managing to survive. This latter group seems to be an alarming minority. Kastana nuts litter the ground in various states of decay, but so very few are actually growing on the tree.

The most frightening aspect of all is the Healing Tree itself. The crumbling exterior is noted by an extreme absence of large sections of bark that cannot be attributed to recent collection times. They don’t take that much at one time, and it grows back. This isn’t growing back. And what’s there doesn’t look very healthy at all. I can feel my knees shaking as the ground suddenly comes closer in friendly greeting.

Or maybe I fell.

I’m lifted up by strong hands, but my head is swimming and my stomach feels as though I may vomit. There’s a mouth near my ear speaking words. Strange words. Shaking my head to clear away the dizziness, I try to focus on Bhradon’s newfound language. He probably made it up, but I feel a sense of duty as his mate to listen to his nonsensical linguistic mutterings.

“Rinni, do you hear what I’m saying? We have to tell someone about this immediately!” Oh, good. My auditory faculties are back. That’s what he was trying to say to me. My head must be clearing now. “Think about what this means, Rinni. The Primaries need to know . . . ” He trails off mid-sentence as his mouth catches up to what his brain should already know. What even I know.

The Primaries are hiding something. And I don’t just mean Jocabin. How can we trust them? How can we not trust them? Surely they know about this already. Surely someone knows. The collectors would know. The apprentices would know. Just exactly how far down does this hole go? And will we ever hit the bottom?

It’s not the fall I fear; it’s the crash at the end.

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