I’ve had a niggling daydream in my head for a novel for couple of decades now. It’s one of these things that I’ve let ferment, never really acted on, and pops into my brain every now and again. I have other projects I want to do first, but eventually, the concept will finally accumulate enough substance for me to turn into a story.
It’s about dreams, and shared dream experience, and memory, and loss, and how we cope with guilt and fear and it’s still only half baked after all these years. But this picture pulled it strongly out of my head and I decided to write a scene that could exist (but probably doesn’t).
There was something hiding beneath the leaves. There was no outward indication of this fact. The crimson plants remained still and did not move. No sounds came from their quiet fronds. But still, I knew. I knew it almost from the moment I entered this place.
But, with the same certainty that I knew there was something out there, moving around beneath the shrubbery, hiding in the gloom, I was certain that it was not harmful. I felt strongly that I was in no danger.
It was a great flat forest. The ground was as level as if it had been engineered and covered in waist high red-leafed foliage. Tall, branch-less, black trees reached up into the mist. Everything was painted on a blue, sourcelessly illuminated, fog.
I was pretty sure that I was a silhouette.
“What is this place to you?” I asked.
From a half dozen yards away her outline responded. “A secret mostly. Something lost. Maybe wants to be found.”
I looked out into the rows of trees, vanishing into the haze. I felt I could walk miles in any direction and find the same view. A treadmill maze without walls.
“Not exactly the most romantic place to meet up.” I said.
Her figure shrugged, leaned against a tree. “I’m not feeling particularly romantic.”
Whatever it was, beneath the bushes, was listening. I used my foot to push away one of the plants to get a look at it. Nothing was there. I was sure it had been though. It was quick and quiet and absolutely not real.
“This is an old one, isn’t it? It’s very simple. Very clean.”
She chuckled. “Are you saying my newer expansions are dirty?”
I walked over to a tree and touched it. The bark was smooth, unfinished, and felt more like drywall than a tree. “Of course I am. We all clutter with age. Have you ever been in an old person’s Sphere? Their final realms?”
“They’re amazing. Terrifying too. Nothing is so pure. Everything is touched by something. Usually more than one thing. Every object, every component, is ladled full of memories. This tree, right here…” He knocked on the trunk. “It has none. It feels like you might think it feels if you’d only looked at it, tall and straight, and never touched a tree. Like someone who didn’t know that smooth pine was flaky and moist with sap. That oak is craggier and deeper than ash, but both are rough. Or birch had horizontal bumps of tough interspersed with paper thin curls. No, when you made this, you weren’t even tall enough to pull yourself up onto a branch.”
“And someone very old?” She asked.
I was unsure how to articulate it. I gave it my best shot. “So, imagine this tree is there. The bark could look the same, even feel the same, but it wouldn’t be the same. It would hold the weight of what it isn’t more heavily than what it is. It would know it didn’t feel right. You would feel the reasons. The old person couldn’t have created it without their own experiences, and they graft into it.”
I continued. “You would feel the differences. Every other tree, every other texture, that had ever passed through their fingertips would stand along-side it. Their choice, to use that texture, cannot hide the fact that it’s a choice. Like, picking a number between one and ten. The number five cannot be picked without also knowing that the other nine were there, along side it, as possibilities. Nothing an elder creates stands outside the context of everything they’ve experienced. Knowledge crushes it. One fingertip on such a tree and you recognize the scale of everything they’d ever touched.”
She stepped away from the tree she’d been leaning on. I noted that her hand slid away from it last, feeling. “That doesn’t sound so bad.”
I nodded. “Oh sure. If that were all there was to it. But it’s not. You see, every one of those textures has memories associated with it. They come along, playing into the sensation; childhood climbing, shop class, yard work, camping trips. All of it, communicated indirectly through only the feelings associated with them. A flood of contradicting emotions rushes in along with the scale of the thing. It’s overwhelming. And, keep in mind. I’m only using a single tree as an example. When the elderly build, everything they create is this dense. Impossibly assaulting to your system. Near utter confusion.”
“It sounds like a lot.”
“It is. But, in the end, that barrage of sensation and imagery, isn’t the worst of it. The brain can’t handle it. So, it simplifies. Tries to bundle it all up into one giant feeling. It sees all this information, pouring from someone nearing the end of their journey, and recognizes it for what it is.”
Finally, she walked over to me. “And what is it?”
“A desperate revealing of self before they die. It’s the spiritual equivalent of a ninety five year old in a wheelchair, trying to hand out their biography for free in Times Square, and everyone ignoring them. And they know it. They know none of them care. They knows when they die that those books will rot, unread. And it terrifies them, so they start throwing them at anyone within reach. But they’re too frail to throw and the effort won’t matter. They know this too.”
It was as close a description as I could muster. It was wildly insufficient.
“That’s so sad.”
I looked her trees up and down. “Yeah, it is. I like this more. Romantic or not, we can come here any time you like.”
She took my hand. “Let’s walk.”
We did. I knew that whatever it was hiding beneath the leaves was following us but it didn’t bother me. And despite the fact that we went nowhere, and the fog reminded us of the futility of progress, I quite enjoyed myself.