The next Peace Cry, as Chaim put it (or rather as the author of the Book of Ivory and Leaves had indicated) as obscurely as possible, was to “Ask of the trees to part their big leaves”. The language, of course, was certainly as vague as possible and again he felt that little pang of the familiar, that eerie sense of having, in his wanderings, drifted away from the paths he knew so well, into a labyrinthine nightmare where one feels hopelessly lost- almost as if one could walk in a straight line, and still wind up having moved in a circle.
Another little bridge led him to another forested vista, though this one was quite dark except for the little plucky spears of sunlight that pierced the canopy where the leaves had neglected to grow. Unlike the previous path however, which was straight as an arrow, this one wound and twisted off into the distance, splitting in a multitude of ways, circling upon itself endlessly like an overlong-snake having hopelessly knotted itself in such a fashion that its head knew not the location of its tail, and vice versa. Another familiar pang- Petka had been in such places- it took hours to one’s way out, given the frustrating number of dead ends and even at high noon, not enough light penetrated the trees to allow one to recognize any specific landmark– not that it would matter though, as it was if some grumbling janitor of the coniferous biome had painstakingly removed them, as if to make escape doubly improbable.
In short, such a landscape was frightening, oppressive, and indeed many times one would feel the overwhelming need to simply lie down and sleep, never to again stir out of pure despondency. Petka usually got out of this situation by calling for Raksha, who had an uncanny knack for getting “un-lost” -as was the common parlance among huntsman- and she would lead him out of such an alive, yet incredibly desolate place like this– he now felt a pang of regret about asking Raksha to leave, but considering the upcoming trials (should he live to see them), he still felt he did the right thing. One less foolish adventurer was one thing, but he wouldn’t drag a friend down with him, especially one who once stood between him and a hungry bear, ready at the slightest moment to launch herself at the hulking beast. Fortunately the bear cautiously backed up, paws in the air, as if to say, “easy man, no need to crack the crust over this”. Such friendship was hard to find.
According to Chaim, Petka would again be required to read the words of the “Peace Cry”, or spell, or verse (they all seemed one in the same, really), though Chaim cautioned him against bravado or arrogance. The little wood apes were just bullies- all pomp and empty sound, so a good verbal hammer-punch put them in their place. In this case, however, the trees he would encounter were (as Chaim put it) sentient “Treants” who were almost always pissed off.
“Tread lightly,” said Chaim, his chin on the hook of his staff, “And be humble. If they had boots, you’d want lick them.”
So Petka whistled low and mournfully to get the attention of a most unlikely audience of perpetually angry tree-monsters and indeed they responded, again in verse.
Why be you here, vile, little, mortal man?
Why did you wake us; why before us you stand?
At the feet of we, wisdom grown whole,
We are stronger in frame; far stronger in soul!
You dare approach, little thing, fragile man
(Who felled us in great numbers with axes in hand)-
To us you are no more than ground-bound apes!
Wont of destruction, taking what’s not yours to take!
So trod, if you will, our darkened paths-
Have you prepared for thirst, and also for fast?
For our branches bring midnight, yes, do we say,
Even on the brightest of brightest of days.
So challenge us Treants, if you wish so,
And we, the great forest will swallow you whole.
Ouch, thought Petka, and deciding to be extra humble, he dropped to his knees, and bowed his great bearded head. Removing his cap, he recited the words Chaim had provided.
I ask only you move your limbs for me-
For what is a man, but a child of trees?
You give us warmth in hearth, food, and roof,
And without such we would die, should you choose.
You have seen the birth and death of gods,
You have seen great kingdoms reach high and fall,
And you have now asked, ‘What am I to thee?’
But only a child, seeking the wisdom of trees.
So I pray thee, sentinels, allow me to pass,
For humbled am I; my tongue is not crass,
And I will bring with me not one other man,
I wish only a path to unseen lands.
Having spoke his words, he extended his right hand, palm upwards, towards the now silent branches. He waited, holding his breath, eyes cast downward, until the creaky groans of bark-on-bark resumed, as if the ancient pines and oaks were bickering amongst each other, deciding Petka’s fate. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the groaning stopped and the familiar sounds of leaves rustling resumed. Into Petka’s his palm dropped (perhaps even reluctantly) a stony acorn with a hole in the middle. As Petka peered through it , he was at first disappointed that the path before him was as dark as ever- but when he let his eye relax just a bit, he saw that the little seer-stone displayed a path lit by the swirling of little orange and yellow lights which flitted just above a path, like embers waiting to fall to ash. And while he did feel some deep-seated dread as to what horrors may have lay beneath the Treants canopied midnight- whether the bones of brasher men, or beasts unknown, he was glad for the flitting little breadcrumbs that, after an anxious hour, eventually led him out of the realm of endless twisting paths, and to the next rickety bridge.
Out of curiosity, he looked through the little acorn at the path where he just left- he was not surprised to see that, not only had its appearance completely change, but there was no ember-marked paths which would lead him back.
“I guessed as much,” thought Petka silently, making a subtle note to build his next home out of stone. In allowing his eye to wander a little, he was able to see something that made him jump- hundreds of frowning faces all about him– some of the faces, all colored and apparently etched into the wood (though visible only through the lens of the seer-stone), expressed the weight of ages of boredom and others of rage; some of indignation- but, as Chaim had indicated, nearly all of them were unhappy and, well (and there was really no other way to put it), pretty pissed off.
“Great,” replied one hoary old oak, moss clinging to ostensibly its North side (but where was north in a place such as this?), “Now its looking at us. Draw a picture, it will, last longer. Hmph.”
“Ooh, oh!” piped in a small pricker bush in a high pitched squeal, “You should draw a picture of you and old Horus riding a tandem bicycle! Prickers!”
“Don’t you dare!” growled the former, “Or I will tear you asunder.”
Petka decided to look elsewhere, and saw another tree, a stout pine, who looked downtrodden, and sighed in a deep, ancient voice.
“Oh, you humans,” said the pine tree, “You wish to know why I am crestfallen? Fine, I’ll tell you. Decades in the future, when humans pretend to care about us trees, I will be ground into a pulp, then used to make leaflets urging other humans to save paper. I am one of the oldest things in this forest, having seen countless seasons, and my destiny? An exercise in irony. An irony people will be too self righteous to even understand. Oh, move on, little man. My quarrel’s not with you. I don’t even have it worst! Just look at poor Mervin. Now there’s a sad case. Hey Mervin, perk up a minute! Tell this squishy thing your fate!”
Mervin, a great acorn-flush tree, gave what Petka believed to be a full, two minute long sigh, and the huntsman didn’t know whether “Mervin” was going to actually speak, or if he still slept. Just as Petka was about to move forward, a branch stopped him gently at the chest.
“You know,” said Mervin, (though whose face had a defeated expression), “I am a proud tree. Pride- a sin? Maybe. But I am a tree. I take in carbon dioxide, and I exhale oxygen so all you dirty, dirty monsters can remain ambulatory. I am a home to the birds of the sky! I can tell you exactly how many little birdlings have hatched and pranced and flew among my sun-blessed branches- cardinals, sparrows, and robins- who I love the best for their warbling song… Bees have built their hives and produced their sweet nectar in my arms!”
“That’s beautiful,” said Petka sincerely.
“Thank you, human. You don’t seem so bad for a dirty, dirty monster, which of course you are. Now, I am an old tree, and as the creator who planted me, left a knothole in my bark- its just to the left of my chin- do you see? And, as a home for life, I welcomed it! Squirrels nested in that little cavern, and once even a cheeky magpie hid all manner of shiny things within that little space in my person. I was actually a happy tree in this forest of malaise. But then, as all trees eventually do, I caught wind of my future. Oh, some of us can put it to the back of our minds, or ignore it, but it just gets louder and louder and louder, until you can ignore it no more. So I sighed (the tree initiated another long sigh, until Petka cleared his throat)-
“What, got somewhere to go human? Bah, I’m sorry. Anyway, I allowed the moving-pictures of my future play behind my eyes, and at first I thought it was a joke.”
“Look,” said Petka, “I hate to interrupt but I would never-”
“Oh, stop you squishy thing. You’re alright. Here, you’ve got somewhere to go, as all dirty monsters do, and you stop to hear out a bunch of crotchety old trees (the branch that had gently prevented Petka from leaving awkwardly patted him on the shoulder, scratching up his face). So here I am, Mervin, proud home to life of all kinds, hoping my future will be one where I can continue to be a home to birds and squirrels and whatever needs it. And for a long time that was to be the case. At first, I was ecstatic! But then, about anno domini 2000, I was slated to be bulldozed. Oh, my heart was broken, but then swiftly lifted at the sight of a group of champions! They wore garments that said that trees were people too, which I took to mean they saw us as equals! They were humans, who wanted to prevent my destruction! Why, they even chained themselves to me to prevent some belching piece of iron from knocking me down. Oh, if trees could cry…
“They held out for days, those little heroes, until one night they asked a question I didn’t quite understand…something like if anybody was ‘holding’.”
Petka shrugged- he didn’t get it either.
“Well, whatever this ‘holding’ was it must have been very important, because they unbuckled themselves from me and went fleeing into the night. Oh, how I prayed and prayed that these little humans- unwashed and hairy- would find this ‘holding’- why, I even thought that if I were to be knocked down, at least the humans tried– that something beyond their control- Providence? Chance? Bad Luck? Had loosed their tethers and sent them fleeing. They weren’t back by dawn, and that belching steel thing knocked me straight over, roots and all– and I, the fool, wept internally for my human champions… I felt a true sadness… that is until they got back.”
“This is where it gets good! Real funny!” piped in the high pitched pricker bush.
“Quiet you!” barked the first oak, “What happens to Mervin is not funny!”
“It’s funny when it isn’t happening to you! May the gods bless my prickers! Ha! Bwaha!”
“It’s best just to ignore him,” said a decaying willow, “My biggest regret is that he grew within in earshot. Anyway, Mervin, Please continue.
“So a few days pass, and one night my champions returned. They seemed intact, and for that I was grateful, but they wandered about almost in a daze- and when they saw me, why they wept and I along with them.
“’We are such a wasteful species,’ said one woman by the name of Pudlow. ‘This is murder!’ replied a man, whose name I didn’t hear. It was such a beautiful moment, under a full moon, a group of twelve or so humans all sat and cried out to the heavens at the injustice. Then they started giggling.”
Here, Mervin gulped, and said, “Oh, I can’t possibly go on.”
“I would understand if you prefer to be alo-”
“But I must!” shouted Mervin, determined.
“After the giggling, the squishy humans- I was wavering on their status as champions because of their strange behavior- set the contents of a garbage can on fire, the smoke of which drifted skyward in a thick acrid plume, blotting out the stars. They danced, and sang songs I can’t recall, then got real lazy, talking about ‘the man’. I don’t know who ‘the man’ is, or will be, but he was apparently behind my destruction. Then I hear whispers. Then more giggling. Then the one called ‘Pudlow’ said, ‘No Thyme, you should totally do it! We’ll make more baby trees that way!”
“So they planted more trees?”
“You assume the best. Perhaps that is what you would have done, isn’t it? You’ve a reasonable aura for a filthy beast. But no. No, they didn’t gather up my acorns and plant them in a field for my progeny to flourish and continue to provide a home for the animals of our big, blue world. And… they didn’t. That’s the end of my tale.”
“No it ain’t,” said a stump, whose face, with triangle eyes and exaggerated sharp teeth looked very much like a jack o’lantern, “Those humans just got inebriated and ‘Thyme’ attempted coitus with the knothole on Mervin’s chin. Bad luck for you Mervin.”
“Bad luck? Bad luck? You try being repeated violated by a bucking human who reeks of clove cigarettes and patchouli oil! Make more trees that way? Make more trees that way!?”
“Eh, could be worse. Atlas is going to be mulched into hamster bedding,” replied the stump.
“Hamsters and other small, domestic rodents,” corrected Atlas, the tallest, proudest tree in the forest. His face was rather unlike the others- merely bored without the air of general misery.
“Whatever! His fate doesn’t count because he likes to be peed on!”
“No, I just like to have a purpose!” retorted Atlas, and then, “Incidentally, Huntsman, if you loaded up on coffee before you came here-”
“How dare you!”
“I told you this was great! Prickers!”
Petka looked down and ran down the remainder of the glowing trail, until the voices of the bickering trees blurred into an indiscernible angry din, with the occasional high-pitched laugh. The seer-stone led him to a small wooden bridge, which he could have sworn offered an angry mumble as he crossed it into the next trial. With the memory (and shame of his species) still lingering on his mind from his talk with the trees, he was actually glad he would not need to recite any verse- it had ended in nothing but utter, disquieting oddness that left him feeling confused, ashamed, and generally unsettled.
No, it seemed for his next test a riddle would be needed to save his skin. And while Petka could be said to possess a sense of humors, riddles were hardly his forte. Fortunately, they were Chaim’s (“He had plenty of time to practice, right?), and he passed this bar-room wisdom down to Petka, assuming he would not have been either eviscerated, or simply wandering an endless maze of trees until succumbing to thirst or hunger. Yes, Chaim, it seemed, had all the confidence a Spirit of the Lonely Hollows could have of a tall, bearded mortal, which (all things considered) was no small feat.