James Thorne went out to the forest as the sun was turning honey-colored on the horizon. He wore his best suit, pressed by his maid an hour beforehand, sharp navy blue against white. No briefcase, no wallet, nothing that could be stolen except the cell phone in his pants pocket; and in his breast pocket, of course, nestled as close to his heart as possible, the seed.
He pressed the heel of his hand over that seed, nearly hard enough to hurt. He held it there as he waved for his driver to stop. He peered out into the woods’ deepening gloom; a few minutes ago they’d turned down a dirt road, and now James could see nothing but dirt behind them; the rest of this journey he’d have to make on foot.
His heart beat fast. Through the seed, it beat.
“Shall I wait here, Mr. Thorne?” asked the driver.
James shook his head. “Go back to the paved road. I need a moment alone with the trees.”
Awkward silence followed the words. James wondered if the driver was, at last, going to ask the obvious question. He hadn’t said anything when James had come down the stairs without warning and demanded to be driven out to the forest at once; after all, it was hardly the strangest request he’d ever received. But James imagined there must be some curiosity in the man. Seeing his employer in such a state - jittery, impatient, straying into a forest at night when he surely had late meetings and phone calls to attend to - must spark at least a few inquiries in his mind.
But he simply threw the car into park. “See you when you’re finished, then.”
James climbed out with caution. He waited for the car to turn and rumble away before fixing all his attention on the forest that surrounded him.
It was silent out here. Not the silence of a sterile office building or a sequestered storeroom, but a deep, encompassing silence, the silence of a thousand trees and animals that had no need to speak. No ringing phones or e-mail notifications or murmuring voices, no sounds of cars with flashing lights, but James felt he could almost hear the whole Earth breathing in the air around him and the dirt at his feet.
This was the silence of the unknown. It made his heart stir to beating again after all these endless, restless years.
The ground was soft beneath his polished shoes, silencing his footsteps as he crept up to the nearest tree. It was a wide, gnarled thing he couldn’t fit his arms around if he tried; old enough, he thought, to have seen years, perhaps decades before he was born. Dirt caked into its grooves along with sap. His hand tingled as he reached out toward it; was that a result of what he knew, or simply his own anticipation?
The seed still pulsed in his pocket in time with his heart. He pressed his palm flat against the trunk, digging in the heel as he’d done with his chest, and shut his eyes, breathing in the smell of leaves and earth and air and fungi.
Study of this seed had consumed his last several years. It had become clear to him, after rising to his current position, after months of trudging through gray-tinged days in colorless offices, taking meetings and calls in a polite monotone, that there was something more he was meant for. The air in these rooms of success and weath suffocated him. So when he’d been climbing into the backseat of his car one day, and seen that seed lying stark on the sidewalk, he’d snatched it up without thinking and resolved to learn something from it.
It hadn’t been easy. James had worked his prodigious resources from every angle, bringing in eccentrics who called themselves experts, finding impossibly rare books and poring over them by night, fasting, meditating, attempting to hypnotize himself. He’d gained a reputation as an eccentric, too; though he continued to gain money and influence in his company, it was known he didn’t go to parties, didn’t date, didn’t do anything with his free time but study nature. His staff had grown used to odd requests at odder hours. A need for some rare herb from the cooks, for the launders to pick up baskets full of strangely stained jackets, for the driver to take him somewhere he had no business being.
James didn’t mind the funny looks. He had room for only one emotion, in his private time, and it was the bone-deep need for what the seed would teach him. For what every growing thing would teach him, once he’d learned their language, really learned how to draw himself deep into the seed’s green flowering interior and converse.
He’d been made for more than climbing an endless ladder with a briefcase and a tie. His soul thirsted, desperately, for something more. And when at last he’d begun to hear things from the seed, it had continually shown him images of this forest - urging him to come here. So this must be where he’d find it.
Can you hear me? he asked of the tree against his palm. Not with words, but with the dream-deep call the seed had taught him, the thoughts that branched out from him to the tree like a growing vine.
The tree rumbled in response. James’ blood thrilled. It was working, it heard him just as the seed could. Its voice was unlike the seed’s, which had been thin, small, half-alive and waiting to become real. It was rough and deep and time-wizened, fitting for a tree of a hundred years or more. I hear you.
He was speaking to the forest. To the earth itself, or at least a tiny part of it. This was what he’d been preparing for. He barely had the discipline to keep from shouting aloud with triumph; he kept his thoughts controlled. Kept his connection to the tree intact. He’d been formulating the questions he’d ask the forest since the very beginning, and the words spilled from his mind through his hand and into the bark, easy as flowing water.
I’m dissatisfied with the human world, he conveyed. I can do anything I want; go anywhere in the world, buy anything for any price. Yet I wish to escape it. I don’t know what I’m being drawn toward instead. Will you tell me, what should I do?
It took a long time for the tree to digest his words. James imagined he felt the little vibrations of the trunk that meant they were being drawn inward, toward the tree’s heart. He waited, breath held, shoulders tense, for the answer.
The answer unspooled down his arm like coarse thread. Would you bring me water?
James blinked. He waited for more words, but they didn’t come. The tree’s request hung between them, and it was clear it had no other wisdom to offer.
His disappointment cracked the connection between them. This tree wouldn’t help. He needed an older one, a wiser one, one not concerned with its own needs. He stepped away. Deeper in the woods, toward the center, he’d find the trees with the most to teach him.
Dirt and moss sank beneath his well-shined black shoes as he walked. Underbrush quivered when he passed, and James worked to hear the meaning behind the rustling; a whispered hello to a tiny breeze, or acquiescence to the scurrying of a small animal. He worked to send a feeling of friendship into the greenery, brushing his fingers overtop it. He wasn’t sure of his success.
That had been a bad start. He hadn’t imagined he’d have to search for the right tree to bring him his calling. With the breadth of that tree’s years, the depth of its roots, how could its thoughts still be so simple? It was connected to the whole growing Earth; how could it not have anything better to say to him?
But he’d find his message yet. The next tree he approached was wider than the last, and its branches stretched so far out in every direction that James couldn’t find where they ended and the other trees began. He breathed deep, left every thought of his work, his wealth, his grand office buildings and grand empty house; he pressed both hands against the bark and sent his thoughts within.
I’m tired of my life. I want to be called to adventure. So what adventure can I be called to, forest? What task will you give me for my wanderlust?
The words spiraled around and into the tree, pierced its deepest root. The answer wrapped around his hands as though the tree wanted to grab him and hold him fast.
Will you bring my roots rich soil?
James jerked his hands away as though stung. The end of his blazer’s sleeve tore. He stared at the tree, openmouthed; there was nothing more from it, only a similar request to the first tree. Was that all either of them cared about - was that all anything in this forest cared about? Eating and drinking, the same as every human trapped in every office in every city in the world? Surely they had more. Surely a great forest’s thoughts were deeper.
He stumbled resolutely forward. He wouldn’t rest until he’d found what he came here for. He pulled the seed from his pocket and clutched it tight in one sweaty hand; his perfect shoes scuffed on the forest floor, and brambles tore more little holes in his blazer as he pressed deeper and deeper through trunks and branches.
He felt the way the wood deepened. The language of every leaf and flower and growing thing hummed at the back of his mind, and the ancientness of it, as if the thin wooden center of every tree here had felt the winds at the beginning of time, pressed upon his thoughts. This might as well be the very heart of the world. And the farther he strayed the more his own heart beat in its rhythm. He felt the trees breathe and he breathed in tandem. His jaw set. He would find his calling here. He would finally understand.
At last, when his legs grew tired and he thought the weight of the forest could grow no heavier on his head, James Thorne dropped to his knees.
He set his seed down gingerly on the forest floor. Then he shoved his hands into the dirt below a tree so massive, so twisted and gnarled and far-reaching, he’d have believed its roots stretched all through the woods and around the globe. He worked his fingers downward until they were touching the edge of one of those roots; it was so large he couldn’t feel its dimensions. He shut his eyes. He thrust his awareness outward, with his hands on the root, working to send his message to every tree that touched this one, working to have an audience of a hundred trees instead of one.
Can you hear me? he called again, and there was a new kind of desperation in his words now.
But, agonizingly slowly, like the sinking of glaciers, a chorus of voices began to respond.
I hear you.
We can hear you.
James pressed his lips together. This was his last chance. If these trees didn’t give him an answer, what had this all been for? All these years of studying, meditating, eschewing social events, ignoring phone calls from old friends, what purpose had they served? The seed had told him to come here. It had been one of the only truly clear things it had said.
I’ll climb to the top of any mountain, he urged through the root. I’ll cross any country on foot. I’ll go into any forest, so deep I could never escape if I tried, and find some new kind of life there - if that’s what I’m being called for. I’ll do anything in the world. Just tell me - I can’t live like I’ve been living. I’ll do anything.
He didn’t sound eloquent, but he hoped the rawness of his emotion, his need, could be felt by everything these tree-roots touched.
As before, the answer came slowly and in chorus. One tree, farther away, then one closer, then two at once, and several others joining in before the great tree he knelt beneath at last joined in harmony. The words were like black, overturned earth, like moss in a deep and sunless cave. And they didn’t form an answer, but another question.
Did you learn our language from that seed?
James opened his eyes. The little brown seed, which had stared blankly up at him from the sidewalk all those years ago, still sat beneath his eyes now.
Yes, he replied. I found it, and I learned to speak with it.
Well, asked every tree at once, now, will you give it back to us?
And the question hung. And silence after it. And James knew, without having to wonder, that this was the only response all his questions would get him.
Silence. James knelt with his hands in the dirt. His heart beat, and the forest with it. His chest rose and fell, and all of nature did too. He heard everything that every bud and shoot and sprig said and thought. They were one. And all they had to say to him was a request, for water, for food, for their seed.
The seed hadn’t been guiding him here because he would find answers. It had been asking him to bring it home. Nothing in this forest had ever cared for his restlessness or his desires.
Slowly, James drew his hands from the dirt and sat back. He tried to let the understanding spiral through his mind, as his fruitless words had spiraled through the trees’ trunks. His thoughts came in impressions rather than words. Images. The elevator that took him to his office, every day, just at sunrise. The air that smelled like old carpet and tile and suffocated him with every breath. The endless traffic on his way to and from that building, cars choked together in the street, no room to run even when running would be faster.
The gas that spewed into the air from every choking engine. The sterile hallways of beige and gray and not a hint of green, the wide parking lot that absorbed heat in the summer months without any trees to shade it. His world had done nothing but take from the forests. Of course, what should they want to give him? What should they be concerned with, other than their simple survival?
James rose. He left the seed where it was. He didn’t attempt to say anything else to the trees; he backed away, still thinking hard.
He’d been so sure he could find a calling here. Something to sweep him out of his grayscale world. But he was a part of that world, woven into its fabric, earning its money and adhering to its rules. If he wanted out, if he couldn’t wait for some other magic world to draw him in, then the only option was to break it down from the inside.
He turned and pulled his cell phone from his pocket. He dialed quickly; the familiar voice of his driver, when he picked up, was nearly jarring after all this silent communication.
“I’m ready to come back,” James said. He was sure his driver heard the unsteadiness in his voice, the evidence of how deeply his roots had just been shaken. “I’ll be there in half an hour.”
But the driver made no comment, when James climbed into the backseat, and they drove home in silence. No one questioned him when he crawled back into bed, still clothed, though it must now be past midnight. James Thorne was, after all, an eccentric man.
The beginnings of a plan came to James as he pulled the covers over his head. He thought of the parking lot again, the dry, baking heat of it. There were cracks in the pavement where tiny bits of grass poked through. Sometimes dandelions. Tomorrow he’d arrive in that parking lot half an hour early for work. He’d go to his knees before a dandelion, and press his fingers to the meager dirt around it, and ask it a different question. What do you need?
Then he wouldn’t ride the elevator anymore. He didn’t know what he’d do, but he was finished with his job, with the ladder, with the briefcase and the tie and the wealth. He’d ask what the plants needed. He’d ask what others needed, too, come to that. The driver and the maids and the cooks and anyone else he could find. In all these years, at least, he had learned to listen.
James Thorne went to sleep in clothes that smelled of bark and flowers.