[A Mithermage Story From OSC's novel The Lost Gate]
The kingdom of Iceway has no eastern border. It runs up against Icekame, the frozen mountains that are always deep in snow, and its glaciers creep downward year after year, plowing the poor soil and stony earth of the high valleys before them.
Many miles below these valleys, in his city of Kamesham on the Graybourn, King cares nothing for that edge of his kingdom. Beyond Icekame there are no marauding hordes eager to pour over the high passes. There is only the Forest Deep, where no one dwells but thornmages, who seek no visitors and never leave.
From a king's point of view, Icekame was better than a border. On that edge of his kingdom, there was no one who coveted his crown or his lands, and he need not spare thought or money to guard that border. And the higher you journey up the valleys, the poorer the people are, so there's no purpose in trying to tax them. You could only do it once, and then, deprived of the slight margin of survival, they would either die or become expensive refugees farther down the valley.
So the people in the high valleys were left alone. Poor and powerless, scrabbling in their poor soil for food enough to last out the winter, eking out a bit of meat by killing a bird or a squirrel now and then, they buried many a child, and a man was old at forty.
Between hunger and loss, however, they found time to live. The children had games and rhymes and contests and grand adventures between the work they did to help their families survive. They got older and felt the stirring of the hot sap of love rising through them like trees in spring. The women built their mud-daubed hovels and symbolically sang their lovers into husbands at the hearth, and then babies came and they delighted in them and taught them and raged at them and clung to them for however long they might survive.
The people in the King's city of Kamesham would think these highvalley folk lived like animals. But in truth these villagers lived pure human life. They needed each other to survive, and knew it. They had no conspiracies and no secrets, no ambitions and no feuds. They couldn't afford the luxury of treating any man or woman or child as expendable.
The highvalley villagers knew what the King in Kamesham did not think about: every passage over Icekame into the Forest Deep. In high summer, when the crops were doing well and could take care of themselves, families would pack up a bit of food and hike over a pass and then down the other side.
As they walked, the parents taught the children what they could and could not take in this place: Food enough for meals while they were there, but nothing to carry away. Water enough to drink, but nothing for the return journey.
"Will we see a thornmage?" a child would ask. Always they hoped to see one, or feared to see one.
"We will tread in their homes and their hearts," the parents would always answer, "and you will never see one because they are the whole forest. Nothing here goes unseen or unfelt by them. They tend it all."
"And they share with us?"
"They see that we take nothing from their land, but only live here for a day or two as honest as the animals. We live here like squirrels or birds, and they let us be."
Since most children had licked the last scrap of meat and fat and marrow from the bones of squirrels and small birds in order to survive a hard winter, this gave them a bit of a shiver. No wonder they came only in summertime. Who knew how hungry the thornmages would be in wintertime?
Such was the family of Roop and Levet, a man and woman married long enough to have had seven children, and astonished that six of them were still alive. Their oldest was Eko, a girl of eleven, who had a bit of a knack with root vegetables; not enough that anyone would call her a mage, but she could find edible tubers even under the deepest snow, and that was part of the reason they survived. The other children looked up to her and endured her endless bossing, because they knew she loved them and looked out for them.
The family always went to the same place, the meadow of the Man in the Tree. Other families had come with them in years past, but the Man in the Tree unnerved them and they never came back. That was all right with Roop and Levet. It was a lovely meadow for children to romp in, and fruit trees and berries provided sweetness and tartness that could never be found in their high valley.
Why didn't the Man in the Tree frighten them?
The great oak stood alone in the middle of the meadow, as if all other trees had shied away from daring to grow too close. The massive trunk proved the tree to be of great age -- the whole family could not join hands around it, or even get halfway around the trunk.
Ten feet above the ground, the bark was distended in the shape of a man, as if someone were imprisoned between the bark and the heartwood. This was not a vague impression of a man, a trick of the eyes. The man was in perfect proportion, with knees slightly bent, one more than the other, and hands splayed so that in a certain cast of light you could count all five fingers. But he had no nose or eyes, no mouth or belly, no toes sticking out, because his face was inward, toward the heartwood, his back turned to the meadow.
"I think," Eko told the younger children, "that he is a tree mage who defied the thornmages and came to the Forest Deep and tried to turn this great tree into his clant. And the thorn mages punished him by trapping him inside the tree, not just his outself, but his inself too."
"You don't know anything about magery," said her next sister, Immo. "How could a man live inside a tree?"
"Then what do you think it is?"
"I think it's a fungus growing under the bark," said Immo.
"That's silly. You don't really think that."
Father heard them and came over. "I think the tree eats children who play too long around its roots, but it takes so long to digest the children that they have time to grow up into fullsized men."
The children laughed, for it was always fun when Father told them a story. Mother even turned to face them, as she sat in the grass, in the sunlight, nursing the youngest.
"How long, Baba?" asked Eko. "How long has this child been inside the tree?"
"My parents brought us here," said Father, "and the Man in the Tree was already there. But not as high as he is now. My father was as tall as me, and he could still touch the man's heel without standing tiptoe." Father stood up against the tree but could not touch the man at all, even when he jumped a little. "He's been there for hundreds of years. Our family always comes here to watch him. My father said that our family was the first to notice him, back when his head first rose up here."
"There?" said Immo skeptically. "But that's not even on the same side of the tree."
"He hasn't just been rising through the bark," said Father, "he's been circling the tree. All the way around, the long way. They say that when he completes the circuit, he'll be set free."
"Who says that?" asked Eko.
"My father's father. Or someone in the family. Or some stranger who visited this place with our family. Or me."
"Is there really a man in there?" asked Bokky, the oldest boy, who was only six.
"Yes," said Father. "I believe it is. Because why else would a great oak like this bother to make the shape of a man in its bark? Trees have no reason to lie to us. Does a sycamore pretend to be a hickory? Does a walnut pretend to be a willow?"
"But how could he live?" asked Immo.
"Who says he's alive?" challenged Bokky.
"Well what's the point of having a dead man in there, then?"
"I've heard two stories about that," said Father. "One is that this man is the one who invented fire and burned the first tree. The treemages couldn't stop others from learning the secret and burning wood, but the trees took their vengeance by holding the man inside the heart of the wood."
"What's the other story?" demanded the children.
"That he was a hunted man, and a great king sought him to kill him because he had dared to love his daughter. He was slain against this great tree, and his blood soaked into the roots, and in pity the oak opened its heart to him and brought him back to life. The king's daughter came here every year in those days, in a great procession up the valley, and here she wept beside the tree, and inside the bark he heard her, until at last she grew old and died. It broke the heart of the man in the tree, and that's when he turned his back on the world. He still lives, but he sees and hears nothing, because his love is dead and gone, and he still lives on inside the tree that saved him."
Eko brushed a tear from her eye, and Immo jeered at her, but Father held up a hand. "Never mock a tender heart," he said.
Abashed, Immo rolled her eyes but said no more against Eko and her tear.
"Isn't the bark getting thinner over him now?" asked Bokky.
"It might be," said Father. "But it might just seem that way because he's so far above us."
"What if he comes out of the tree while we're here?" asked Bokky.
"Then we'll greet him," said Eko, "and ask him which of the stories is true."
"You wouldn't dare talk to him," said Bokky.
"I think she might," said Father, "because your sister is a brave one."
"She wouldn't jump across the runnel in the north glen," said Bokky.
"It doesn't take bravery to do every foolish dare that someone puts to you," said Father. "Only stupidity."
They all laughed at Bokky for that, because he had taken the dare and Father had to climb down and get him where he dangled from a branch over the runnel far below. Half the village men were in on that rescue, holding the rope that held Father, and then dragging them up together.
That night they slept without blankets, the night was so warm. The moon was high and in the middle of the night, Eko awoke and looked at the oak and for a moment did not realize what she was seeing. She thought it was a snake in the tree, and she glanced around quickly to make sure that none of the children was too near. Only when she was sure that the snake couldn't drop onto anybody did she look again and realize, through her sleepy eyes, that it was not a snake at all. It was an arm, and elbow and arm, and the palm of the hand was pressing against the bark, pushing inward as if the man were trying to pull himself out of the tree.
Which is what he was doing. Only the arm looked smaller than it should have, and as the shoulder emerged, as the body turned sideways, Eko could see that it was a slender boy, not a man's body at all. Taller than Bokky, but no thicker, no more manly.
I should wake someone else to see this thing, she thought.
But she couldn't bring herself to make a sound or even move to poke somebody. What if she frightened the man. What if he did this every night when no one was looking, and then scampered back inside the bark before dawn? If she made a noise he might stop coming out, and no one would believe her when she told what she had seen.
So she watched him in silence. His body rotated so his shoulder and arm were straight out. And when he got his right leg out too, he rotated even more, so now he faced outward. Both legs came free, and then both arms, and . . . and he was dangling, painfully it seemed to Eko, by his neck, for no part of his head had come forth from the bark. And without the tree holding up any part of his lower body, the boy struggled and wriggled but had no leverage. He slapped and pushed against the bark, but he couldn't get his head free.
Eko worried that he might be suffocating. Or strangling. Or simply helpless, and what would he do if he could never get his head out of the oak? Hang there till he starved? Or until some bear decided to eat him? If there were bears in the land of the thornmages. She had never heard of a bear in the Forest Deep, but you never knew.
By the time she thought of bears she was already halfway to the tree. Still none of the family awoke, so she was alone when she stood under the boy in the tree and tried to reach up to help him. She couldn't, of course, so she went back and woke Father, pressing her finger against his lips to keep him from speaking.
She led Father to the tree, and then showed him what she wanted, without saying a word. He lifted her and sat her on his shoulders. Now she could reach the boy's feet and help hold up his weight.
Now he could reach up his hands and push against the bark much nearer to his head. Eko could hear Father beginning to pant with the exertion of bearing both her weight and half the boy's. "Come out come out," she whispered. "The moon's about." The rhyme was supposed to be about the sun, but Eko was adaptable.
The bark didn't tear, it merely opened, or not even that, it simply receded so that his face emerged as if from water. He was not a beautiful boy. His face was stretched. His nose scooped downward and out as if it were some sort of bird's perch. And when he got free, he was pushing so hard against the bark that he toppled all three of them down into the meadow.
Still no one woke.
Eko got up and went to the boy. He was naked, curled up in the grass. She touched his shin. He gasped and quickly withdrew his leg as if her touch had stung him.
She sat down before him, looking at him, marveling. None of the stories said that the Man in the Tree was just a boy.
"Is that a dingle or a dong?" whispered Father. "Is he a man yet or not?"
Eko shook her head. It's not as if she knew anything about how a boy became a man. She was having trouble enough making sense of the nasty things involved in becoming a woman.
At the sound of Father's voice, the boy slowly moved his hands to his ears and covered them. Then he tucked his body into a ball, ears tightly covered, eyes squinted shut.
"He wants to be alone," Father whispered.
Eko nodded her understanding, but not her agreement. As if Father understood both messages, he crept back to the spot where he had been sleeping near Mother, while Eko continued to sit and watch.
Eko woke at the first light of dawn. The boy was gone. Instinctively she looked at the tree to see if it had been real or a dream.
Real. There was no manshape now. Nor was there even a scar in the tree where the boy had broken free.
The boy had not stayed to speak to her. Had not stayed for daylight. Somehow she had fallen asleep and he had crept away while her eyes were closed. It hurt deep inside her, to have been present at his -- what, birth? Emergence, anyway -- only to have him sneak away while she slept. She never heard his voice. More to the point, he had never shown a sign of hearing her, or remembering that she had helped him get free of the oak.
I didn't do it for thanks, she told herself. So it doesn't matter that he never said thanks.
Maybe he couldn't. Maybe he speaks only tree language now.
Or maybe he was born inside the tree . . . somehow. Maybe he was never human. Maybe he is the tree's clant. Why shouldn't there be trees that had the talent of man magery? Then the outself of the tree would ride inside the boy, struggling to understand the world around him.
Eko lay there, weeping quietly, until the others awake and saw that the Man in the Tree was no longer there. They were all so frantic with questions and disappointment that Eko could barely get them to listen to her as she told what she and Father had done that night.
"But you let him go!" said Immo.
"If he was done with being the tree's prisoner," said Father, "why should Eko have tried to make him her prisoner?"
All morning Father and Mother tried to restore the sense of frolic, but it was wasted effort. Everyone could see how Father grieved. The Man in the Tree really had been part of their family's life from his youngest memories. And now he was gone.
By noon everyone knew that it was time to go. It was no longer the meadow of the Man in the Tree. It was just an oak meadow now, and noplace special. Now other families could come here with no mysterious trapped man to frighten them. But their family, who had not feared the Man in the Tree, they would not be back to this place again in their lives.
As they walked home along the barely detectable track which was nevertheless engraved in memory, Eko thought she caught glimpses of movement in the woods to either side. Was the boy dogging them, keeping them in view? Was he hungry? Thirsty? What if he broke the rules of the thorn mages?
Ridiculous. The thorn mages surely knew where he had come from and would not begrudge him a sip or two from whatever stream they passed.
They emerged from the woods and began the long climb toward the pass. They had left too late in the day to make it all the way home, so they camped in a cold clearing high up the slope, where the ground slanted so much that Mother and Father tied the little children to sapling trunks so they wouldn't roll away in their sleep.
"Maybe this is how the man got caught in the tree," Bokky joked. "He was a baby that his mother tied to the tree and then forgot."
"I can't believe he's gone," said Immo.
Gone, but not far, thought Eko, for she had caught another glimpse of a shadow moving just at the edge of her vision.
The next day, if he followed them through the pass and down to the village, Eko never saw. And yet she knew that he had done it somehow, naked as he was, cold as it was. That's why, when they got home, she took a ragged old outworn tunic of Father's that Mother was saving to cut up into rags or maybe make into something for the baby to wear -- she hadn't decided yet -- and, along with a bit of her own dinner, left them at the edge of their potato field, in the shade of a slender oak sapling -- in case the boy had some particular affinity for oaks.
The next morning, food and raiment were both gone, and Eko could only guess where he had gone. Perhaps downriver. Perhaps back over Icekame. Or maybe he had flown away like a bird, or burrowed down into the earth to find the roots of yet another tree. Who could guess, with such a magical being?
on the art and business of science fiction writing.
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