Bedtime Speculative

“I was once a young man not too much unlike yourself, and I thought the world open to me if only I could live long enough. I covered deserts and scaled mountains, trying to find the one thing that would extend my years.”

“Did you find it?”

The old man grinned. “What do you think?

“At last, only a few miles from the village from whence I came, I found an old spiritist who told me that she could make my life last for centuries if only I wished it and would give her all the knowledge I had gained in my travels. I agreed, of course, and after years of sharing my stories with her, she insisted that I choose the spot where the transformation would take place.

“When I regained consciousness, or the only form of consciousness I had, it was to a sky much larger than before, the ground much closer than before. The soil greeted me as an old friend. The wind caressed me as a lover. I strained to move and could feel myself perhaps, just a little, rising. My efforts were grains of sand in an ocean, and centuries passed before I realised the entirety my state.

“Those around me rose and fell, silent in their ascents, thundering in their deaths. Their limbs danced above me, and the breeze made music of their oft golden trappings. During their cycles, I grew larger, taller, stronger. No longer did the storm bend me nor the rain push me down. The bitter cold nipped, but I slept peacefully through it. Even in summer, it was an odd sort of consciousness that was half-aware, half-asleep. Things happened. I knew they did, but it was a distanced life around me. There was the soil, the sun, and the wind.

“People drifted around me, fading mirages, fleeting impressions. I do not remember them now, though they built houses on my limbs and made timber from my branches. The children gave their secrets willingly to me, lips pressed close to my bark as they offered what none else would receive. The young climbed my branches and kissed in the leaves. The old settled at my feet to weave tales that caused me to drift into endless slumbers of near-dreams. Then the woodcutter came.”

“You died!”

“I was old, and part of my life died that day he cut the legs off me. He took me from the steadying ground I had woven myself into. For a moment, I flew. Then there was my own thunder and the scraping, bruising journey from the forest. I do not remember what happened next. I suppose it was a type of rebirth, and as with regular birth, the events are too painful to recall.

“Clearer consciousness came to me then, and a darkness I would spend much time in. I journeyed across the lands without seeing much of it, and I could feel that I had left most of myself behind. A man who claimed many languages as his own carried me. His words were the sweetest honey, and he would etch the best of them onto me. I clung to them as a dragon its hoard, savored them as a child his treasures. He crafted medicine and pressed herbs, and I curved, I weighed those leaves and petals. The dust of desert turned to brine and then salt-stained air to crisp cold. His hand wavered, and the letters detoured and grew like wandering nomads till the ink splattered.

“I traced over his precious lines as time aged them, and none read them but me. Finally, thin fingers, coarse but blistered in all the right places, dusted my covers and gave breath to my pages. She placed me on a table, and I saw nothing but the bare rafters and her keen eyes, her quick hands, the quill she placed upon the blank pages and in the margins. I relished the words, the feel of wisdom etched onto my being. Winters were muted. Summers nigh unbearable, but she brought me to breathe every night.

“As the taut sheet of her face crinkled, little hands picked me up and turned me. They ran fingers along the ink and ripped pages and bent corners. I bore it. I could do little else. One face reappeared more often, and then I was journeying again to another small room every day where he would scribble portraits and single-phrase monologues around the prior columns and drawings. He gave me to another. She gave me to a third. Then a fourth and a fifth, and the count was lost to me as hands touched, sketched, licked, turned, dropped, hugged, lost, loved, forgot, stained.

“I was a masterpiece of time, of livelihoods and longings. I was a companion and an enemy and a helper.

“I was buried.

“Suffocation did not scare me, but rot ate my edges. Moisture soaked my pages. Winters brought silence. Death. It was a hibernation deeper than I had ever experienced. Summers were worse as my being died and fell as a leper’s limbs. From dust I had come. To dust I longed to return.

“They dug me up, a group of gentlemen with beards and strong hands that built a camp that night and circled a fire. Once flames twisted towards upwards as Northern lights danced in dark skies, they tossed me in. The heat blistered my skin. An endless, horrified scream rose from my pages. My spine twisted. Excruciating pain curled my body inwards. Words left me.

“The pain stopped. There was silence.”

“You died again?”

“Yes. And no. I was cursed to live longer. I returned to a quiet state, a womb most pleasant. Warmth reached me, unfurling my fingers. I stretched for the sun. When I broke forth that spring, it was as a sapling from a descendant of the tree I had once been. I arose but much quicker than before, and I could move now. I could see. My branches turned to limbs, and my twigs formed fingers. One day, much the same as the others, I lifted my foot, and my roots fell away. Another decade passed as bark morphed to skin and leaves lengthened to hair. Then I was a man once more. I laughed and left the woods. Now I have returned.

“So, young man, I ask you. What am I?”

“You told me already. I know what you’ve been.”

“But what am I?”

The young man thought, and he thought. After much time had passed, he raised his head and spoke, “You are an old man with a story to tell.”

The old man grinned. “That is one answer.”

“Is it the right one?”

He shrugged. “I am a storyteller.

“The possibilities are endless.”

April 23, 2021 12:00

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