Every morning since he had discovered them, he had returned to Big Black Trunk and lifted the flap of bark he had found the grubs living under. They were the big, fat white ones which wriggled when he picked them up and popped when he bit into them. His favourites. They were a rare treat and he hadn’t expected them to last long, so he wasn’t surprised when he got there and found that the birds had had the entire community.
Never mind. What was it the Gammer used to say? If the tide comes in, it always goes out again? He didn't know what a tide was, having never seen the ocean, but the expression seemed to fit these circumstances. The Trees had always provided and as long as he took care of them, he was sure they always would.
His belly rumbled, reminding him: he was hungry and he would have to find something else for breakfast.
Often, when he didn’t know quite what to do, the Trees gave him advice. He had learned to trust them, so he looked up at the canopy and let his eyes lose focus. Gradually, the details fell away, leaving behind a haze of shapes from which it became easier to pick out patterns or spot things which were out of place. He called this technique Seeing the Forest for the Trees.
Slowly, his eyes dropped from the canopy and came back down to earth. He noticed how the canopy was pierced by shafts of light through which motes of dust and pollen pinwheeled, glowing faintly ghostly and falling to the forest floor like exotic rain. The shafts of light came to earth and highlighted certain spaces, making the forest alive with portents and omens. He saw how the paths of smaller animals bent through the bracken and leaf litter and made sweeping indicators which pointed him in a certain direction. He followed these markers with his eyes, slowly picking out where the forest was trying to take him.
He took a step in that direction and immediately tripped, landing so hard that it knocked the wind out of him. He started to whimper. It was the cry of a little child and he hated himself for it. He turned to see what he had tripped over, ready to smash whatever it was to splinters. Instead, he lowered his hands. His face took on an expression of silent wonder, mouth open in a tight O shape as he saw what the forest had brought him low to find.
A fallen seed pod, caught in a nest of devil grass like a charred egg. He could have walked past it a millionbillion times and never noticed it, but now that he had stumbled and skinned his knee, he had seen it. From accidents, the Gammer said, designs are sometimes born.
With trembling fingers, he picked the pod up. It was brown and all over strigulated with veins of pure ebony. The surface was glossy and slick: precarious to hold. He brought it up to his ear and shook it. a wide, beautiful grin spread across his face as the contents rattled.
A heart, he thought. Finally, a heart for the Gammer.
He whooped excitedly, scaring a bird out a tree and then started to run over to the Bone Stems before remembering what the Gammer told him: every seed is a gift. You should always be thankful.
He turned around and looked up at the arcing bowers of Big Black Trunk cutting crazy patterns against the sky. "Thankee, siree," he said.
Big Black Trunk's branches creaked. A gust of icy wind whistled and for a second, the light of the day dimmed as though a cloud had rolled across the sun. Big Black Trunk had a temper. When he was younger, he had been scared of its strange darkness; scared of this twisted King of Limbs. That was why the Gammer had suggested that he make friends with it. That was why he remembered his manners and bowed to it as well.
The wind died down and the day brightened back up to late Summer’s lazy warmth. He waved goodbye to the Tree and made his way absently towards the Bone Stems. His attention was focussed almost entirely on the seed. He held it cupped between his two hands and now and then, he peeked inside. Just to make sure. He kept thinking: a gift. A gift from Big Black Trunk.
There had been a time, or so the Gammer said, when Seeds had been plentiful and much of the world had been given over to ordered rows of shoots and furrows. She had even shown him pictures in books when he didn’t believe her. He still wasn’t sure he did anyway. The Gammer had held the books in high regard, but he sometimes wondered what he could really learn from a book about seeds that he couldn’t learn from just planting one and watching it grow?
He became aware that he had reached the Bone Stems when his skin started to prickle with cold. The hairs on his arms lifted up and tingled against the air pressure. He paused at the edge of the boundary, took a deep breath, checked the seed in his hand one last time and then stepped inside.
The Bone Stems were roughly circular, populated by a rough, sawtooth, mongrel grass which had gone to seed and spread and gone to seed and spread and so on. Once, there had been a path running through it, but the grass had got into it and broken the concrete into dust and flecks of flashing mica.
The only place that the grass hadn’t grown was on the five mounds only just visible over the high tips of the grass. A mound had been placed at North, South, East and West and growing from each one there were saplings of varying size. Some were bigger than others because they had been in the ground longer. They reminded him of pale, reaching arms, terminating in grasping finger.
The South, East and West mounds belonged to people he didn’t know. People important to Mama and the Gammer ‘Before’, but the North mound was Mama’s. Her sapling was the smallest, but also the one he loved the most. Sometimes, he came here and just lay next to it and told it all the stories the Trees told him, or about whatever it was which was troubling him. He had named it Slender Starlight and the Gammer said it was a fitting name for Mama.
The fifth empty mound was in the centre of the circle and it was only bare earth. That was where the Gammer was. Before she changed, she had promised him that one day, Big Black Trunk would give her her heart. One day, she too would begin to bloom again.
He walked over to the bare mound and bowed, then set the seed pod down at the edge of the mound and began to dig. By the time he was done, his face was streaked with dirt and tears and the sun was going down.
“Hello, Gammer,” he said. She was barely more than bones now. Barely more than earth and ash. “I said I’d see you again.”
She smiled up at him. There was still life crawling in the empty cavities which used to be full of her. He didn’t mind that. That was the point: nothing ever dies, but from time to time, the space that life occupies changes place.
“It finally happened,” he said. “Old Big Black Trunk is just as stubborn as ever, but he finally dropped a seed. So I’m here, to do the same as we did with Mama. Just like you said: new life will sprout and we all carry on growing and blooming forever.” As he said this, a spear of radiant sunlight pierced the tree canopy above and hit the Gammer right where her heart used to be. Right where her new heart would grow. He poked his finger into that spot before the light faded and then dropped the seed into it. He pushed earth over the top and then spit on it until the soil was moist and glistening. Then he filled the grave back in.
It was full dark when he finished. The Harvester’s Moon was in the sky. All around him in the silence of the night, the trees and the plants and the funghi were dropping seeds. Life was spreading.
The Gammer’s voice spoke to him out of the ground. Her voice was muffled. Her mouth was full of dirt. “You’re supposed to say the words,” she said.
He thought for a moment, trying to remember, before starting to speak. “Saplings to stones,” he said. “Bud to bones.” He thought for a few seconds longer, wondering who would say the words for him after he changed?
Who was going to plant a seed in his heart?
Trees creaked all around him, whispering comfort. He smiled and lay back on the loose earth of the Gammer’s grave. The stars turned overhead.
“The Trees will provide,” he said.
It was a thought which was some comfort to him.