Telling Tales 125
Trees, Travel, and One Further Dream
The most remarkable thing about stepping into a tree, the soldier thought later, was how uneventful it turned out. There was no moment of being in the tree at all. He hopped first on one foot three times, then on the other foot three times, then he stepped into the tree expecting a face full of bark, no matter the spirit’s urgings that he follow the cardinal’s example. Nevertheless, everything worked exactly the way supposed to, he supposed.
One moment he was in the gloom a largely birch forest on the verge of massive thunderstorm, surrounded by fleeing animals large and small and the barks and howls of what he knew were massive hounds. The next moment he was standing next to another alder tree in another largely birch forest. He knew it was different because he could see the twilight sky. There was no thunder and there were no frightened creatures anywhere to be seen. The ground beneath his feet was greener and the air was cooler on his skin. Nothing felt different about walking through the tree but everything was different.
His breath rattled in his throat, reminding him that he was still trying to find where his breath had gone. “Then there’s the matter of Cardinal and the bobcat,” he said to himself. “Whatever happened to them?” He was curious whether or not he could return by the same tree and nervous that he might not be able to, but that very moment, what with the perils on that side of the tree, it didn’t seem the best time to try. “On the other hand,” he said to reassure himself, “the great horned spirit seemed to think that this was the right thing to do.”
In the fading light of day, the trees cast a thick patchwork of shadows over the ground. The sounds of the forest were normal and lacking anything immediately alarming, and after some consideration, the soldier decided that the best thing to do was to eat some of the food he carried and get the best night’s sleep he could. “Everything will make more sense in the morning,” he said.
Ahtna had given him a chunk of rubbery meat (at least, he hoped it was meat) from which he cut a small piece with his knife, and with a resigned sigh popped it into his mouth. She had simply ripped a piece free with her teeth, grinning at him the whole while. The soldier had been rather alarmed upon discovering how difficult he found it to copy her action and settled for his blade. He also became very hot when he ate the stuff, which was uncomfortable in some circumstances, but now he hoped would save him the trouble of building a fire.
Eventually he choked down the food and lay down with a mossy tree trunk for a pillow. He dreamed that he had been traveling for weeks and that Cardinal had never reappeared and that he had lost his way. In his dream, his breath had grown shorter and shorter until the point where even walking was hard work. “I feel like an old man,” he said, thinking of his stooped grandfather and how he’d made his way from the bed to door when he was still able to do so. The pressure on his chest grew and grew until he could barely move. One day he was not even able to arise, and that was the day he knew he would die.
He was rather surprised to discover, upon opening his eyes, that the pressure on his chest was real.