by C.E. Wilder
In a world where humans slave for trees, one is compelled toward an unknown destination.
This thorn in my side
This thorn in my side is from the tree
This thorn in my side is from the tree I've planted
It tears me and I bleed
As one was compelled to do at a certain age, I found myself wandering out into the Great Fields. Stretching out as far as the eye could see, gnarled and barren trees reached for the ruddy sky. Their pale fingers grasped at the sun as if it could be pulled down into the cradle of their pristine branches and held there until the world burned. I turned my eyes to the empty fields yet to be populated with the majestic titans where men and women toiled in holes of varying depths, backs bent and fingers stained with blood and clay. I turned and searched out my hole silently.
Though I felt a longing deep in my chest, I couldn't approach the great trees in the distance. As a youth, I had been so bold as to touch one. The bark had been softer than it looked, spongy even. Where my fingers poked and prodded, red marks were left like a trail. The dotted line I'd drawn pointed straight to the ground where its roots squirmed in discomfort, pushing sand about as it tried to escape my childish curiosity.
Well, now I knew better. I lowered myself into my hole where I belonged. My reddened fingers dug deep into the earth, and the cool clay managed to soothe my chaffed and raw skin. A temporary relief soon to beget more of the pain it abated as the day's work wore on. It sucked the moisture from my hands, a veritable leech. I made but modest progress, the labor relieving some of the tension of the longing in my chest. There were many a digger better than I, and my task far from complete.
As the sun drew down the blood-red sky, we all rose as if one from our holes, ready to begin the march home. All but a single worker. A crop of us gathered around his hole. He lay six feet below, curled into himself. His chest had stilled, his hands clasped over his heart. From beneath his fingers, tendrils of green sprouted.
I knew this worker. He had cared for me as a child.
Now he had completed his task. I bent forward, as did the others, and took a handful of the dirt he'd pushed out of his hole. It rained down upon his frozen face from broken fingernails in a slow succession. As I let the dirt shift through my aching fingers, something hard and round caught in a crevice of cracked skin. I drew my hand in to myself as the others began to clap softly, congratulating my caretaker for his hard work.
As was tradition, they took the time to bury him, pushing the dirt back into his hole - where it belonged. I watched, vacantly until they were done. Then they were gone. They had a long day of work tomorrow, after all, and needed their rest. Something inside wouldn't let me leave. I had heard of this emptiness before. A place where someone had once been, now unoccupied. Some workers found themselves unable to continue.
I fretted over this as much as I did the emptiness left by my caretaker. As my fists clenched, a sharp sting reminded me that something had lodged itself in a wound in my hand. I dug under the skin and pushed out what I thought to be a small pebble at first. On further examination, the tiny grey orb held a speck of green in the center. The green pulsed steadily, like a heart beat.
I whipped around to face the trees in the distance. I had never seen one of their seeds before. It felt...sacrilegious. I turned away again, cradling the seed in my cupped palm, hiding it in the curve of my body as if the trees would see. The bright green center hummed. Not in a way my ears could hear, but in a way my chest felt. It echoed in the empty chambers of my heart where my caretaker had departed.
My feet took on a mind of their own, and I began my journey.
I traveled all through the night, heedless of the dangers that lay outside the Great Fields. Creatures of indescribable horror stalked the land beyond our borders if the stories were to be believed. Any moment, something could snatch me from the sky or pull me deep into the earth. But the hum deep in my chest drove me on into the sunrise.
No matter how insistent the hum, eventually my body could go on no longer. I collapsed as the sun set once more. A sharp pain that seemed to permeate my being pulled me back into the waking world. I lifted my shirt slowly and there, growing from between my ribs, a shock of green. It curled from beneath my skin, blood soaking into its vines as it squirmed its way out.
But I hadn't completed my hole. I sat in shock for time immeasurable. I had no mind to spare for the unsettling motion rippling through my innards. As far as I knew, this had never happened before. A tree couldn't sprout until you'd completed your task. Why....?
In my hand, still clenched in a fist, I felt the pulsing rhythm of the seed. I opened my fingers slowly to find its glow had spread, illuminating every crack in my skin. As it vibrated sporadically, the vines beneath my flesh writhed and squirmed. A disagreement had clearly taken place as I slept. I stood, unsteady on my feet and weakened by the tree's feeding. But what could I do? The hum demanded I continue.
As I took my first step, vines erupted from my ankle and drilled into the earth around me. I fell to a knee with a cry of surprised anguish. The seed in my hand pulsed more frantically, an SOS that went straight to my brain. I had no choice. Everything inside me screamed at the sinful act as my fingers grasped the roots in a tight fist. I pulled hard. The verdant tendrils were ripped from the ground easily. But they held tight to my ankle. I screamed out as I ripped them free and threw them down in disgust.
Blood spattered the ground and I sobbed as I stood again only to find more vines pushing their way from the wounds. The tree grew from other parts of my body as I journeyed onward. It attempted to constrict my limbs and slowly overtook my throat. I clawed it away from my neck periodically and pushed on with all my strength. I fought the tree this way for days. I couldn't afford to sleep. If I stopped moving, I knew I'd be anchored to the ground and then all would be lost.
Between the pain of the sapling and the commanding nature of the seed, I had no time to ponder my destination. Sunrise and sunset, motion dominated my mind. As the days wore on, the tree sapped more of my strength. I slowed until it could put down roots with every step. But still I forced myself onward, leaving a trail of blood and sweat across the barren earth.
And then, at last, I fell to my knees and could not find the strength to stand again. The tree took root immediately. It had covered me from head to toe, the most minuscule of roots attaching to every inch of skin. Except the hand that grasped the seed. Its pulse seemed to ward off the growth.
And in this moment, the seed's hum had grown stronger than ever. My hand, of its own accord, lifted and my palm opened to expose the seed to the sky. I followed the direction of my reaching and saw in the distance something miraculous.
They ran to stand before me. But none came to my aid. They wore strange clothes that covered their bodies fully, a large dome of glass over their heads. One of the men came forward and lifted the seed from my hand with a strange instrument. He dropped it into a glass container in which something shiny and pulsing waited for the embrace of the seed as it began to sprout. I met the stranger's eyes when he turned to face me again.
"You've done the right thing." he stated.
"Can...you help...me?" I rasped from dried and pale lips.
I fell face-first into the ground. I would have cried had I any moisture left in my body. Dry sobs raked my throat instead. I could feel the tree accelerate its growth. It filled every inch of me, organs pierced by lush, probing spears. They crept from my ears and curled around the corners of my lips. And then I heard the stranger's voice again, cold and unfeeling.