What growth crops out from the balding earth is parched and brittle and coalesces in patches rather evenly distributed along a wide savannah seeming never to curve. The dirt, packed flat, is pockmarked with craters from the ghosts of crashing knees and sweaty, rolling backs that impacted long before we appeared. Now it is our thumping heels that bore in new scars, digging and pivoting and ripping up the frail subterranean tendrils of the last delicate blades.
A spell of peace falls around us and we stop to catch our breaths. I let three seconds pass, finding nothing in sight, and ease the tension in my shoulders. I steal a quick glance at Tor, the man I had just spent, what - hours? days? - pressed firmly to with my arms flat on his shoulders in our impenetrable bodily dome, glancing when I could around his neck to make notes on where in the beige sandstorm wall that had enveloped us the debris rocketed from toward our tight mass.
Ribbons of hazel with a bit of blue loom in my view, their clear shine popping against the marbled dusty brown canvas and frame. It jolts me, reminding me that there is more to life than the dust that has become our habituation. That even in the harshest, most stripping of circumstances, these small, self-equilibrating pools maintain life’s diversity.
My eyes move quickly to observe the expanse. With that sudden lull, the land has grown quiet, gifting a silence that feels nearly cold. Still on our guard, we resume march. On toward the horizon of no changes, no signs of civilization, no geological variety save one stoic canopy of a distant, life-guarding tree that stands days away. Criss-crossing palmprint trails below our feet record the long, fraughtful history of we wanderers like broken pearl strands, a document of life’s constant struggle to validate itself.
Above hangs the ever present ream of unbroken cloud, dark white, a remote ganzfeld gazing blankly upon our unguided journeying. How high above, we can’t gauge. Enough space for aircraft to carelessly cavort, could be. Or perhaps thirty feet above our fingertips begins a solid wall that curves ever so slightly to dome us. The latter, given our inability to reach any end of this terrain, I scratched from the notebook long ago. We know little of its composition, its texture, its depth, and - as most recently noted - its intelligence. Whatever the fingerprint of our untouchable guardian, a generation’s worth of explorations have sculpted our band’s central tenant: escape lies upward.
Unlike the treatment most tenets receive, there is rarely time to debate ours, so I debate it much in my head. Truth be told, I’ve given less thought to what lies below or inside than to what lies beyond our puffed intermediary. I have slowly, over the course of my long tenure here, come to suspect that our vast whitish overlord is closer to a single-sensed ball of moss tumbled accidentally into a crevice of dimensionality and become lodged than it is to a watchful eye and sadistic mind (which portrait is more popular, the easier to fling anger at). I have shared this speculation with only one other, Tor, during another brief spell of peace similar to the present’s:
“It’s only wide enough to create the illusion of an infinite stretch. Maybe we’re looking at the butt of a dumb accident that fell into a toilet,” I mumbled without preamble.
“I can accept we’re in the toilet,” he muttered back, then paused - rare for him, but still inclusive of some cursory glances to the right and the left - and said, for the second time, “We’re tiny, that’s for sure.”
One of our earliest conclusions, fixed long ago into worldview, was of our smallness in this land.
“Then we must be much smaller than we perceive, even when we already perceive we are -”
The noise of collision rent the air, shaking our feet and shutting our mouths. I turned to the west guard and traced their scattered numbers as they rolled upon stomachs and backs, while Tor had already bounded right, checking the angles we’d risked exposing. No signs of disturbance. No debris hurtling through the air. Nothing around us at all, save apparent peace. The attack had come from within, among the west guard itself, building under pressure in the air between them and unleashing like sodium touching the water of their anxious sweat.
They lay grazed - as we’ve all been once or thrice - but returning quickly to foot amid an almost comically retained silence. None dared laugh. Incompetence and clumsiness had been antiseptically wiped from our makeup eons ago. We all recognized the invisible enemy.
All turned lookout. As far as I could see, only the spots already already on our watch, where wily objects spun in pockets of chaotic bramble on unstable axes, steady at present but subject to sudden change, danced with restrained threat. I thought our invisible attacker could have been a benevolent messenger sent to warn us of our own complacency. We were once more on full alert. Even if it did mean losing our train of thought.
In a good storm - and most days see at least one - debris whips past like torpedos - one, two, a break, a third - corkscrewing with the whirr of impending collision. Fired into the medium at a skew, it reroutes capriciously. We dodge, duck, spin, absorb, reflect. What we’d carefully stood an angle from now makes our calculated safe radius its thoughtless target. If by a miracle we’re quick enough to dodge the sudden misdirection, another will come, from behind, from an angle we’d thought protected, or, most often, from the only dimension we hadn’t considered. And our unprepared bodies are slammed.
It is a deft but joyless dance, orchestral in technicality, wholly without the participation of what we move so precisely to preserve. Half the time our predictions fail to identify the next form-as-weapon until it has already bludgeoned us. How often can we be baffled by the creativity of our foe?, I think angrily in these moments. It suffocates you with the clothes that are saving you from its cold. Tilts a shield into a lance if you aren’t quick enough to spin along. It is master of its game of turning yesterday’s aid into today’s poison and wiping out tomorrow’s shelter. This is the only pattern that persists, keeping even our moments of calm from being real calm. If the air is not beating us, our anticipation of the next attack is.
The great trees, at least one of which typically dot the horizon, are little shield for us field dwellers. They’re too sparse. Occasionally our travels bring us into the span of their safe branches, whose thick canopies catch much of the errant deluge ricocheting in the naked atmosphere and, as a result, always let fruit, flower, and society thrive on the soft grass beneath them, nourished by the light that filters through. I cannot speak to the others’ sentiments - keeping your own counsel if the first rule among us - but I fall gladly to the shade whenever we reach it. I take comfort in the motionless trunks. They are intractable in a world where nothing else but that which by its design is indifferent to us is. I think my sentiment is visible.
“You aren’t shy about it,” Tor said to me once in a terse expression.
I looked around our group and saw nothing but mirrors of Tor’s tense, tight face. I could not look at myself, but I became aware of a slackness around my mouth where there were lines in the others’, and a gust of breeze going over the tops and bottoms of my eyeballs.
“It’s a long time since we broke the monotony,” I nodded upward at the dimness. “And there’s nothing wrong with rest,” I felt the need to add.
“I know. I said you weren’t shy.”
It had again been a long time since we’d broken the monotony, and again a long time since we’d had a span of quiet. In our newfound but untrusted quiet, that distant tree still days away reminded me not of the storms we’d had encountered on our way to other trees, but of our previous findings within these enclaves and of the garden of surprises that awaited us at the upcoming juncture. Even the sky looked a little bit lighter now, but I recognized my own bias. And I kept my mouth shut through the march. Every canopy enfolds a fine civilization beneath it, intricate as an iris but bred and cultivated in isolation. From composite memories I can already see in my mind’s eye the little house on the outskirts tending its small plot of land that will be our first contact with a society more advanced than ours. I can’t see its details - those alone vary - but I can make out its general shape - which never does. Following the model inward, toward the nucleus of the impenetrable trunk, it leads, perhaps after a few more houses, to a lopsided neighborhood - one of many - and then, density increasing with every meter, to a town square with, among other entertainments, a little theatre, all decorated with the lights and frills and delicate arts a tree’s safety allows to develop. Even a frilly sort of science, content to label and categorize and mesh easily with prevailing philosophy, blossoms as something revolutionary in the shade of every tree. And when we settle down for a good while to gather our strength, the less tangible aspects of collectivity reveal themselves, coyly at first and then all at once. Slang, art, emotional footprints, above all rituals. The ephemeral concrete instances of the permanent intangible templates, whose complexity builds and builds like towers, urban settlements emerging shortly after in their wake. So comes advancement, always.
Much as it shouldn’t - and much as it didn’t in my earlier years on the field when I held tightly to my contempt for the yard sale treasures beneath any tree - the trains of excess fabric hanging from patterned shirts and dresses please and amuse me. The wild experiments in hair that come, are chased, and go. The trivia nights where nobody wins. The squabbles about inessentials that blossom like wildflowers among every single society. Malek says it is because they have nothing real to fight against anymore, but the hunger must be fed one way or another. He’s not without his own bias. To me, it’s pure indulgence. Yet it’s unstoppable.
“Identical strangers,” I once muttered to Tor as we sat on a soft stretch of grass at the end of a summer’s show. A fire burned in the stone pit at the center, crackling soft background noise for a dozen spirited conversations around us.
His lack of response - his response to half of my statements - spun once again the wheel of my self-doubt. “Identical” pushed itself to the front of my mind for reevaluation. We spoke a common language, all of us, but half of each tree dialect had been unintelligible to me, and this one was no different. At least half of a network of connections was hidden in obscurity. I had no way to know what I was really in the presence of. Upon what layers were the tracks I could trace built, and how many more lay above us beyond reach of my experience and intellect? I understood things as they fit into my understanding. Were we sitting on the tenth floor and they on the fiftieth? We in the east wing and they in the west? How many floors or miles of perspective had to lay between us to sever the thread? To mark a real difference?
In the glances so many tree dwellers threw our way, I assumed that from their end some wondered similar questions of us, if they could spare a care, which, I gathered, like many of ours, they could not.
Hidden in a shadowy spot, Malek alternated between watching the grass and watching myself and Tor from some meters behind so as to keep from the crowd. The firelight nonetheless reached far enough to illuminate his frowning mouth, and I knew that, much to my consternation, we would leave the tree in the morning. We had not gone in very deeply, but evidently Malek - and the others - felt it was deep enough. Our energy stores had been repleted and there was no reason to prolong our stay.
With Tor’s conversationalism and the minimal efforts at hospitality from our hosts, I began to take stock of what I’d managed to glean here. A few new words, but no new expressions. Involuntary sounds among us and them were the same. Wary glances from us were sent to the wary glances from them. Values? I drew a blank. They enjoyed music, and fire for entertainment’s sake. As had everyone under a tree. Comfortingly, I thought, we’re still identical. But I could not truly know.
“We’re not among strangers,” I said. “We’re not among strangers,” Tor repeated. “We’re among the blind.”
“I expect a great people there,” Malek’s voice cuts back to us from the front now, a little muffled by the low howl of the wind as he squints at the tree only a day’s walk away. It’s twice as wide as it is tall. One of the grandest we’ve encountered. Its leaves are still, I note. We’ll be out of this chill soon.
Malek grins and proceeds leading our steady march in no hurry, unfazed by nothing but a breeze.
I count us near when I hear the music, as I always do within a certain distance. A different music for a different tree. It’s my greatest joy to imagine what the music the next lone civilization has conjured will sound like. Malek has never been able to wrap his head around my fascination with it.
“What gets you so excited?” he asks from the grass we rest on as it floats to us across the dust-laden air, noting my perked ears and eyes fixated upon the distance source.
It cuts through the words I don’t understand. It’s faster to explain than politics or philosophy. A difference in music is a difference in thought. “It’s the shortest route into them,” I say. He looks out with me, listens with me for a moment, and I, instead of listening, now await a spiteful remark.
“Variations on a theme,” he emits exactly when I expect him to speak.
He’s not wrong in his assessment. The music follows unwavering patterns, but I have to wonder - in my unquenchable hope to hear a new theme - if I haven’t yet encountered it not because it doesn’t exist but because, if I already had, I would not hear the difference. Can it be anything else besides that what we hear fits perfectly with how we think? Environment shapes language; language gives life a quick outlet for the experiences that jam up processing; and then language shapes the next experience. Music - one or two melodies can express the kernel of a night’s discussion, and can enact a greater change in a person than the entire library of a whole tree.
“So are we,” I reply, cognizant that we who have heard more kinds of music than any tree dweller have made less.
Every civilization believes that it invented music, but a few behind us now know that they only discovered it, and this transmission - if I can’t invent my own music - I’m proud to call my greatest contribution. As guests, we cannot let on that we’ve heard their songs a hundred times in a hundred places as they play them for us. But if our relations are good enough - or even if they aren’t - we tell them in private, after the fact.
Having no means to survive beyond the safety of their leaves, every tree civilization has never ventured beyond the shade of its leaves, and each, like a perfect reflection of all others, knows nothing of any other world until we pass on the information. It is only we field dwellers - we savages with little culture of our own yet who know a multitude of cultures - who are free to make comparisons. For our minimalist ways the one luxury we do have is an overview, and this luxury affords me a sweet impracticality I cannot relinquish.
“You want to run in and grab converts,” Malek states.
I do wish to believe that the information we bring effects a change in the way of a ripple effect, but I’m not so naive as to pretend to foresee what those effects could be, and no, I don’t think we will convince anyone to abandon the idyllic safety of a tree and join us in the field “reality” when everything we bring to them works against our case, including, I want to mention, our sneers.
But Malek draws his own conclusions of my train of thought, and, as much as I hate it, they roughly follow the course.
“Say you were born beneath a tree,” I pose.
“I wasn’t,” he replies.
“But I’m saying, if you were, would you think of any compelling reason to spend your life in the field?”
“Nobody can budge anybody,” he says without further explanation. I know his silence isn’t meant to shut me down. He’s silent because further explanation of this self-evident point isn’t necessary. It’s such a simple, such an obvious truth, he keeps lookout ahead while he says it.
My true passion remains safely guarded from his heel, and that’s all I’m concerned with really. Even when the next stop only shows once more that society followed the same course, I’m just as happy to validate my model yet again. Every tree is just a little different - a variation on a theme - and I cannot stop being curious about what trite idiosyncrasies have cropped up in this next one. Did the wind blow harder? Does daylight shine a little brighter? What’s the source of accident? Of difference? Of preference?
The similarities are too many to list. Tree dwellers everywhere are the perpetually young, the smart and selfish with regard to their short lives. They are always endowed with porcelain skin and urbane common sense, upon which they base their collective decision to remain at the trunk and their judgment upon those who take the field life for naught. Their observation is as keen toward ugliness as ours is toward danger, and despite all the worldly information we bring, we can’t hide the scars and upset we bring, too. No matter what, we tell two tales: that of the worlds beyond, and that of the danger outside.
“Disappointed?” Malek asks me, reading my mind as we get our fill of melodies: such a grand tree, such freedom to bloom, likely a city that spins and never rests at the core, and nothing novel.
Every time we don’t find it, I get more excited to find it somewhere else. I keep my mouth shut twice for that one.
Malek has concluded that we’re in no mood to sit on the grass and look at strangers again. There’s no mention of stopping by. I know that we’ll bypass it altogether.
In the morning as we slowly veer away, I look back at the tree that will never know it is not alone in a world of many others of remarkable similarity, where they tell similar tales and where two men also fought over two women fighting over one hat and then one wrote a song about it.
The rest of my group have forgotten the trunk I still glance at as if we neglected our responsibility to bring the chance for change. Has our passing presence ever?
Something new finally does appear. Not from the tree, but from the horizon directly ahead, a little patch on the sky. It is the sky itself. A spot where the ganzfeld has subtly changed shade to a bluish. Though so primed for change, when it finally comes I doubt myself endlessly.
All see the oblong bruise rising from the ground and staining a small patch of the backdrop we recall being monotonous for ever. It stops us in our tracks. We settle down. The new apparition looms on the field’s edge for weeks while we camp, hanging like a cloudy mirror pressed to an unseen wall.
Is the sky lifting? Has whatever lies beyond the white caused a disturbance? Have we at last reached the wall we’ve been seeking a generation, or has it found us?
Hope and speculation break out fervently among us, metered by wariness in kind. One morning when I awake, I cannot shake off the suspicion that the spot appears larger than it did before I went to sleep. I pinch it with my thumb and forefinger, then squint and look through the funnel of my other hand. Colors differentiate themselves: swirling blues and a hint of teal in thin waving ribbons. It is a wave, beginning long past the point where the grass blades converge into a single brush stroke.
We confirm growth by the late afternoon and begin to trace the change in its base and crest. We track changes in direction, and by tomorrow conclude that it doesn’t matter; an entire ocean is roaring toward us with the unstoppable cry of a full speed train. Etched lines swirl in the mass like a brainless gyrating net. I know as I watch them entranced that the ribbons of green-turning-white are crashes too power to sense, movements of monstrous amounts of water. Distant yet, real already.
Over the next few days we make crude calculations about its distance... its height... its power and speed... our time.
I glance to the tree we’ve not traveled far from, shimmering with the far off flashes of color from its flowers and fabric like little baubles of all its delicate manifestations strung on a lush green garland. Then I turn to the still motionless wave, then back to take a quick measure of the tree’s height, its thickness, gauge its stability.
A laugh escapes me. A few turn but don’t bother to ask when I don’t explain. Even the roughest numbers reveal orders of magnitude separating their strengths. Without thought I break from home base and sprint to the tree unshielded. All senses ceased, all functions suspended. I am a single aim, less than a thought, an impulse frozen in time powered by all the force dispersed through dozens of outlets in normal functioning concentrated into one.
The world comes to. I lie on my back, panting. I had just run and rolled onto safety from a stumble as my body crossed into the shade. Two feet from me sits a young woman, pale as a star in a fog and barely perturbed by my sudden appearance, her hair falling over her face and shoulders. She is walking contentedly barefoot, her pale soles caressed by the ever-soft grass, and from her stance pauses to merely gaze down at me with an expression of mild aristocracy, as if I’m a large nut that fell from one of the unreachable branches. Her svelte languid body ejects relaxed movements. She has doubtless grown up beneath the shade of the tree’s velvety leaved branches. Her appearance betrays no sign of an eternal battle raging on all sides.
From where we sit close to the canopy’s edge, I watch the dramatic display of the distant field as if on a silent screen, a living painting of horrors. Inoffensively, the lady follows my gaze and cocks her head at the sight as if interpreting abstract art, and in her expression I touch upon that relaxed, half-moon-eye state so foreign to me just the tiniest bit, even if I stretch myself to the utmost to imagine it. I follow its trajectory from her birth and understand how it feels. I only wish that I could convey some of my urgency to her, to catapult her easy languor into the state of marvel that makes me so quick.
I turn to her. “Do you see the ocean?” I gesture to the horizon. Very far off but undisputably, an ocean is racing toward us.
Her glazed eyes sit unfocused on the sky, where the darkening blue has now shaded a sliver of the light falling through the canopy. As she stares, I take in this civilization of gentle little streams cutting through wet soil and the bare, smooth feet in them; of stone houses lined idyllically side by side; of mossy roofs and colorful, innocuous gardens, all sitting so pleasantly. I listen to the placid talk of people some distance away, the trimmed thoughts, the exclamations of the future.
Two men nearby amble along as if moving through a dream. Their unscarred bodies are enrobed in intricate clothing the likes of which make no sense to me. From their vague mouths I hear trills of song and laughter, echoes of words I have never heard rich with meanings I stand at the gates of. They may encapsulate whole ways of being novel in their connections, and every ounce of their weight passes through me without touching me, one ghost into another. Where exactly is it that life occurs when two beings walk upon the same spot of earth at the same times and experience no overlap in their perceptions? If two people talk and neither understands the other, where exactly does this interaction take place? We have diverged. Is it beyond the point of communication? Beyond the point of reproduction? We can still copulate, I judge as I look at them, but would we want to? What would drive it if our same urges are evoked by different triggers? We’d need intermediaries standing on the outside, whispering stories to us about the other so that we run out of our rooms at the same time, imagining independent illusions, and grab each other before we can think.
Whatever the treasures of this precious land, all of them have already fallen, the intricate, elaborate symphony trilling in soprano before the careless footfall of a single whole note in bass. Perhaps it is good that I can’t understand half of what they say; they may be talking about tomorrow.
Her eyes are now wide on the sky, opened with a delay at the jolt of my frantic tone, but when I pull her hand toward the edge, she makes like one tazed and rips it out, looking at me in horror.
It is too late to explain the fruits of our wanders. I back away. She remains. Each of us as before, and the ocean advancing upon us both. Perhaps there is no compelling reason to spend a lifetime in the field.
I cannot run back with the same overpowering urgency that brought me there, at least not while carrying that thought inside me.
My closest and I have been together for many long years, forming a nucleus that survives. The ocean so rules the open field, tomorrow it will take up half the sky. But the field reveals that change begets change. There is something else. A type of glow never beheld. Much closer to us than the ocean.
It comes with a powerful wind, picking up debris with its funnel. A fatalistic satisfaction overtakes me as my instincts kick back into full gear after too long a lull.
Tor pushes me into our pod and crouches across from me as we both go low to the ground, grabbing my hands, looking straight at me as our foreheads press together and reveal sweat under the glow of this new apparition. It grows, ballooning in a swell and enveloping us in a strange light none are acclimated to. It isn’t bright, but it blinds; for our sharpened ears and sensitive noses, we have forgotten our eyes. How lazy they got under the dim, starless constant we’ve wandered beneath. The lights of tree civilizations - their fires and lamps, their holiday strings, their torches and televisions - had always made us squint and lose our footing while those butter-fed weaklings moved among them unperturbed. And we mighty warriors now sit caught lamely in the snare of a glow, holding to each other in the blind.
Whatever the light brings for us, we have failed to predict it. It bears no qualities for us yet. We will come up with those in retrospect, as we have done for every manifestation.
Out of the light comes a sudden thrust, violent as a rip and a boom. A cannon shot gone long before I process its impact. But impact is impact is unstoppable. I was right in the line of fire and I’m hit. For the first time I am fully hit, end to end, every cell singed by the beam no better than if the sky had come down to arm’s length and pointed it at my chest.
I feel our hands break apart before I roll off the ground, away from Tor, away from the spot where I had made the closest thing I could call to home, and I see it spinning and spinning as I roll along the ground at speed heretofore unknown toward a new place in the field so unimaginably far the decades have kept it from my wildest dreams. For moments I don’t know if I’m alive. It is all happening to me, but I am and yet not.
The ground becomes the sky. The sky is breaking into chunks like an earthenware plate, and behind it lies another, a dense bright web of crisscrossing interconnected lines. A vast ocean of new connections, jarringly burrowing through the faces of all whom I had known crouched like thimble heads in the distance. They burrow through my family, rearranging them, revealing tiny archways in their beings lit by secret tags, pulling back their faces and putting them back together.
I cannot comprehend what the light has done to my sight, but I am certain it cannot be undone. I cannot seem them as I saw them before. I feel my eyes. They’re softer, in mild pain when I touch them. They are responding to new light that they have not yet adjusted to.
I turn to the sky-wide rip in the backdrop which does not close and from which the web spills. It is inevitable. It becomes my new sky.
Standing on a hill - I had no idea there were hills - looking down at the field I’d called home, where I see my old ties. I do not yet have new ones. They are speaking the language we used to speak together before the impact that - I believe - nearly destroyed me, but it no longer sounds the same. Have I traded new eyes for old ears? Have I traded nothing at all?
That rip in the sky holds a strange glow. There, a net of fibers seem to coalesce and condense to create a mass like an eerie, lumpy sun. It’s the same light that overwhelmed me, threw me off course. It clears the way ahead upon this new sky. It is never the last sky, but only another. My life, I now see, is a series of skies replacing each other.
I look back at the world I have known for so long. They are fighting a nothing. Waving their hands at the air in the patches of a grove. Speaking in grunts. I raise my head to the new sun. Miles away, further up the hill, a glimmering front of objects is sitting still and light plays through it from the dim ball behind. It casts its varied images far ahead. They seem to fly through the air like bullets, but they are less than a feather.
I long to rush down, to tell them, to show them. To take them to a tree and pull out the ones hiding beneath the tree and show them how simple it really is. I wish that the grunts and groans still sounded eloquent.
I am alone in this new place with my new eyes and ears, but they get no trouble in this space. There is no one here that I can yet see, but they are out there, on the way... waiting for me after I summon the courage to part with what I have known. There is even a guide in this new clarity, a point of fixture in the sky. The killing field is quiet, and I sense it will be for a long time. I sense an era of exploration.
I look back and see Tor among the bodies, watch him struggle as the moment we gazed at each other and crouched low on the ground together still replays like an echo. I still feel his hand closed around mine like a phantom limb, and that is the last of he who has been my closest I will feel.
I turn around from the valley and walk toward the low waiting sun. Not because I don’t love you; because it’s the only place I can go.