When I was dead, they called me Harold Half-Helm, for a variety of reasons. Someone wrote a cycle of songs about it once, and they’d sing it in the evenings when I was very drunk. The silver goblets would spill and usually there would be a bit of blood before it was all over. That’s not what I’m writing about now though. I’m writing about the tree, how it died, and what we did with it.
I wouldn’t normally have picked up a quill and written all this. I had held the pen long enough when I was alive, and it hadn’t done me much good then. Here there was much more to do with a good broadsword or spear, so when Andronicus brought me this parchment and a quill and asked me to write, I had hoped my glare would be his answer.
When he lingered I growled, “You’re the poet. You write it.”
He shook his head and said something about not everyone being able to write every story.
“Well I don’t want to write this one.”
But he left the parchment and the horn of ink and the quill, and before I knew it I had notched the quill with my dagger and dipped it in the ink, which was dark like wine.
Andronicus wanted me to write about the tree. The poets called it Aegiros, and the gods had a name the rest of us couldn’t pronounce. We had our own name for it, having to do with the fact that it was a good place to take a woman. I had, more than a few times, and I’m sure the others had as well.
It’s dead now. I’m not sure I’ve written that yet. Apparently Andronicus thinks I have something to say about it.
I guess I do.
The tree was up in the hills that overlook the halls of the gods. From up there you could see everything—all the meadows and forests that sloped down to where the sea sat at the horizon like a blue finger.
It was huge, which you know if you’ve been here. The young dead don’t raise their eyes much, but occasionally you’ll see a new one stagger out of the foam and scan the beaches as if they’re looking for someone. No one comes, and eventually, when their eyes get strong enough, they’ll look up into the hills and see the ivory columns of the gods’ houses. Then above and behind those all, at the foot of the mountains, the grey-green column of the tree itself—or at least they used to.
The gods said it was the first sight of the tree that convinces those on the beaches they’re dead. No tree from before could have been so big. The mahoganies I had spent weeks in the canopies of would have been weeds beside it. Sometimes it seemed that the sight of it was the only thing that got the new dead off the sands and up into the hills. Now that it’s gone they wander like ghosts on the beaches.
This quill wants to write of the tree’s leaves: wide as Spanner’s shield, blue and silver like the sea. When the breezes off the mountains blew through them it was like a cloud was whispering secrets the gods didn’t know anything about. It was tall enough that when the sun passed overhead it left a trail of curled leaves as it wound through the branches, and one evening when I was there with Helga of the Ivory Tower we heard the branches creaking because the moon had gotten caught. We both had to climb up and free it, and if you think a woman’s skin looks fine by moonlight when she’s on the ground, wait and take a look when she’s standing on a silver branch with her arms halfway around the moon.
That was a good night.
But the tree is gone now, as this quill of Andronicus’ keeps reminding me.
Besides being big, it was supposed to be old. There are things here you think are old—the stone table the gods sit around, for instance, or the well that Jarred Slimfist had dug and lined with bricks so he could throw a stone down into hell. You think those things are old, but the gods built them themselves. The tree though, if you believe what they say, was growing when there weren’t any gods at all.
That was the tree.
But all those things about it—about those silver-blue leaves that never changed with the seasons—was why everyone that day in the hall stopped and stared, even the high gods at their table of stone, when Sugarfoot shuffled in through the golden doors holding one of the leaves, withered and brown as old parchment.
I was sitting near the door. This wasn’t because I knew what was coming. I want to get that straight. I had known trees before, but the trees here were different. The ones in the valleys with the bark of human skin or the ones that would come down in the evenings and dance with you like they were half wind and half woman—they didn’t follow the same rules as those from before. I couldn’t tally them, and I couldn’t watch as they were all slowly felled around me. (Not that anyone here would have been so stupid to try.) So whatever I could or could not do before didn’t matter. I had no idea the tree was dying, and I still don’t know why it did.
I was sitting near the door when Sugarfoot limped in because I had had an argument with one of the minor gods earlier that morning. It seemed prudent to sit far from their table. It also meant I saw the dead leaf clearly.
“I thought it was the pages of Old Doom’s book,” Sugarfoot muttered. He was supposed to be the oldest of the old gods and had a face dark and wrinkled as the soil. “I thought he was finally throwing them out one by one.”
He blinked and stared around the hall.
“But it was a leaf from the tree,” he barked, brandishing the thing, “so maybe just as bad as Old Doom and his book.”
No one in gods’ memory had seen the tree drop a leaf. There wasn’t autumn here, and when leaves went red it was usually because someone had bled on them. It was like a story I remembered from before of a bird that had a piece of the sky fall on her head. It was blue and silvered, like glass, and she carried the shard around in her beak warning other animals until she finally met a fox who killed her and used the sky-shard to make a knife. I remembered the story because it was that idea, something as unthinkable as a falling sky, that was what we felt when we saw the wilted leaf. Had Sugarfoot walked in holding a dead, bloated star, I don’t think we would have been any more shocked.
Things don’t often surprise you when you’re dead.
He passed slowly through the hall with the leaf, down to where Ogden himself sat in his silver throne. All the high gods and heroes clustered around him. The rest of us in the hall watched them speak together for a while, and none of us said anything. Then they called over some of the poets and some of the learned dead. There was more talk. Finally Ogden stood and took down the golden spear that hung from the back of his chair. It was the spear that, when held, allowed only truth spoken.
“The tree is dying,” he said.
Then he sat down.
The silence deepened. Things didn’t die in the land of the dead. Sure, things got killed often enough. It wouldn’t have been a very interesting place otherwise. I myself had broken blades on the backs of more than a few warriors, but that was simply the way of things. Come nightfall the mead would flow and everyone, whichever side of the blade they had been on, would wander back into the hall and drink again.
Things got killed, but things didn’t die.
I notched my quill again after I had written that last, and it bucked in my hands like one of Fyoden’s minded blades. Andronicus has not returned, and the shadows have wandered from the forests outside the hall to lay across the lawns with their heads pillowed in the grasses. I wonder what those who pass through the hall must think of me sitting here. I am sure I look ridiculous, hunched over these scraps of parchment and hands smeared with ink like sap.
The quill wants to speak more of the silence that descended in the hall after Ogden spoke, silence so thick you could see its wings in the rafters, but I’ve bit off the nub and notched it again. I’m not sure from what flock of half-charmed and ill-mannered fowl Andronicus gets these things, but this one keeps twitching against my grasp.
I was sitting in the silence of the hall with the other dead thinking about what Ogden had said when Bromin of the Heavy Hand came to sit beside me and spoke quietly. His brows were furrowed.
“What do you make of this, Half-Helm?” he asked.
Bromin had small eyes and a voice that made you hunch your shoulders against it.
I shrugged. “It’s the concern of the gods.”
“Nothing you can do for a dying tree?”
In the past they say that Andronicus would give flesh to his books and let them walk about in the lands across the sea. If that is still the case, you may hear this story before you come here, and you may eventually understand why my hand tightened on the hilt of my blade when Bromin spoke thus to me. There were certain things that were not spoken of here, and the first among these was anything of what had happened before.
“Nothing,” I said evenly. I forced my grip on the blade’s hilt to relax.
He looked at me for a while, then echoed my shrug and moved away.
That next morning the gods called everyone back to the Great Hall. Runners went through the gardens, and the silver trumpets were sounded on the gates. When I took my place about halfway out along the ring of greater and lesser heroes that poured into the chamber and filled the space around Ogden’s throne, the hall was filled with faces like foam on the sea.
“The tree is dying,” Ogden said when the legions of gods and men had gathered. “We have stood beneath its crown and seen the signs of death. This is not the way of things in the lands of the gods.”
From the outside of the Great Hall one could throw a spear along perhaps a third of the length of its walls. From within though, it stretched away in all directions until it was large enough to hold the countless thousands that were gathered. These thousands now voiced their assent to Ogden’s words, and it was as though the faces were indeed a sea, beating against a shore of stone.
“We will not sit idly and watch this death,” Ogden went on. On his tunic there was a silver tree, which I had always thought to be an image of the Tree itself, and this silver tree shifted as he raised his spear. “Thus we have decreed: while the tree is yet whole, Hammerfast will fell it. We will use its wood to craft a gift for those who still dwell across the sea.”
When Ogden spoke those words, Hammerfast (who has many names in many places) raised his huge axe. That the flesh of the tree should be shaped into something of use was not unexpected; that it would be a gift for those beyond the sea only slightly more so. It was true the ships no longer passed that way and few of the bridges that spanned that sea were still whole (and those that were gave no passage to men). This though did not mean the gods had no thought for those who remained.
Again I found that Bromin stood beside me.
“They can do nothing to save it?” he whispered.
I shook my head. “They came over the sea as we did. They don’t have the power they had once. You know this.”
“Or the knowledge?”
Again I shrugged and turned away.
I think I realized then he was baiting me, though I was not sure why. As I wrote before, the trees I knew then were not like the trees here. Those had died all around me, and then like now I had been able to do nothing.
After that the voices swelled even louder, for once Ogden had said that the wood of the tree would be used to fashion something, the gods and heroes argued about what form the gift should take. The old soldiers shouted for a forest of spears as long as Fyngard is tall, but Fyngard himself called for shafts to birth a cloud of ten thousand arrows.
A god whose name I couldn’t remember pulled himself up near a pillar and held his hands for silence. He tried to explain that men no longer warred and instead would be better served by staves to lean upon in their travels. I remember that some of the old gods nodded at this, though it seemed strange to the rest of us.
Someone else called for a ship so that men could again sail the sea and perhaps beyond—for surely the wood from the tree would be fit to fashion a ship to pass beyond the sky. Again some of the gods and heroes nodded, but the hall was vast and soon other voices were added to the tumult.
It continued like this for some time.
The light had begun to fade, and sylvan forms lit lanterns on the pillars and in the gardens, and the horns of mead were passed, before Sugarfoot himself slowly made his way to where the gods took council at the center of the hall. He did indeed in that moment seem as old as they say he is, a form of stone ground down to dark earth by the march of countless years. When he spoke his voice carried through the growing darkness.
“The sons of man are tired,” he said. “They don’t need boats or beams and they sure as shit don’t need spears.”
The gods listened silently.
“They need chairs. Solid chairs beside a hearth or on a porch. They need a place to sit.”
At this there was again silence in the hall, and outside I could hear the first of the glowflies singing in the fields. I waited for the voices to rise again in argument, but they never came. Finally Ogden nodded very slowly, took up his great golden spear, and said, “It shall be done.”
I left the hall then, and when I walked outside and up the long rise beyond the houses of the gods, the tree was visible as a darkness rearing up before the mountains. In the night no signs of death could be seen. The tree stretched upward, boughs branching and re-branching like veins beneath skin, like they were roots working their way up into a soil of blackness where the stars were flecks of brilliant stone.
I was not alone.
“But you shall raid the whole land through,” someone spoke at my back, “and never a tree shall talk to you, though every leaf is a tongue taught true and the forest full of eyes.”
“Chesterton,” I said, turning to find Bromin of the Heavy Hand. “Don’t let him catch you quoting him. I tried that once, and he nearly ran me through with that damned stick of his.”
We looked up at the tree together in silence for a while.
“You think you’d be used to this,” he finally said. “You must be like the patron saint of dying trees.”
I shook my head.
“It was single species.” He muttered. “A single fucking species, and you acted like every last tree on earth was dying.”
I was quiet for a long time.
“Three,” I finally said, rubbing the bridge of my nose where glasses had not perched for perhaps a hundred years. “There were three distinct species of cottonwood, and they were all affected by the blight.”
“And you could never isolate it,” he went on. “Do you remember the first one we saw go, the one at the edge of the lake behind the lodge?”
“Why are you doing this?”
There are those here who argue that what you did across the sea has a bearing on whether you end up here or elsewhere. I don’t know about that. What I do know though—and what everyone who drinks mead under the rafters in the gods’ halls knows—is what I said earlier: here one does not speak of what had happened before. You—you who may hear this across the sea—will not understand, because you think you know now what your life now is.
Bromin knew this as well as any.
“You came in with a dead branch, and no one cared. They sawed it down and made some benches for the lodge porch. Do you remember? And then when they were going everywhere you kept those endless journals of the blight’s progress. No one else gave a damn some weedy trees along the creeks were dying out.” He laughed. “My wife had allergies. She was thrilled to see them go.”
I looked up where the branches of the tree arched far above us, but for a moment I could not see them stretched like beams between stars. Instead I saw the silver-green leaves of those others, shivering in the slightest breeze. The light below them was fluid with snowy seeds falling like dust in a quiet room.
“I kissed a girl for the first time in the branches of that tree,” I said, finding a memory so washed by time it was as smooth as stone. “It was the biggest cottonwood I had ever seen.”
“By the time you left they were nearly all gone,” Bromin was saying.
“Were there any left at all when you finally died?”
“There was a stand in eastern Missouri,” I said. I wasn’t sure at that point that I was still talking to him. I felt I was answering a voiceless question from the leaves above.
“Do you think it mattered? You gave your entire career to saving them, but no one will miss them. By our time they had already forgotten the elms.” He went on, speaking the words of challenge.
The young dead find battles like the one we fought then foolish, perhaps. I’ve walked among them on the beaches though, and their pale faces and dim eyes will never meet my own. They know nothing of the battles higher up and the blood that is spilled on stone or grass. They don’t know the codes of honor or why certain words must always be followed by the drawing of a sword. They linger by the shore and could not understand that last battle fought under the crown of that first tree.
Bromin and I understood. By then I had found his name, dragged up from memories of the days before I found myself washed up these beaches. I really don’t know—and neither does this damned quill, though it quivers like it has a secret—why he issued the challenge beneath the tree. Perhaps it was a way for him of finding redemption for the thousand small betrayals from before. There are still some here who seek such things, though if he was one of those he is more foolish than I thought. Regardless of his reasons, I’d like to think the poets will sing of the battle of Bromin of the Heavy Hand and Harold Half-Helm beneath the tree for perhaps as long again as the tree stood.
When his blade was finally broken and my own had found a home between his ribs, he laughed and said he hoped the tree drank blood. Then he died.
A few nights later, when the mead flowed again, he stood beside me in the hall. I shook my head at his unvoiced question.
“I did all I knew,” I told him then. “I took your damn measurements—even a soil sample and a boring. The gods laughed. You know things don’t work like that here.”
He shrugged and said nothing.
Now the light has died here in the hall where I write, and were I to venture out under the dome of stars I know that I would see many of those whom I feasted with at midday taking their places among the constellations.
Someone has brought me a lantern, and I suddenly have sympathy for the scribes who they say labor in caverns under the mountains. The words seem to dash first one way and then another in the flickering light of the flame.
I should write now what happened to the wood of the tree, how it was felled and carved into Sugarfoot’s chairs, though I can do no more than simply say it. Andronicus came back a moment ago, and I showed him what I had written and thought that he would take it. He shook his head though and told me to finish.
“I wrote about the fight,” I said. “I thought you wanted me to write this damn thing because I was the last to draw a blade in the tree’s shadow.”
“Bromin could have just as well written that,” he said.
“Bromin’s an ass.”
He waited, and for an instant I felt like a kid again with a teacher standing over me and waiting for an answer or assignment I didn’t understand. The quill fluttered on the table.
“Was Plato right?” I finally asked. “Did they all die before because their true form was up here dying all along? Is that why you made me write this bullshit?”
Andronicus reached across the table and grasped the quill. In his hand I somehow saw it for what it was, a single feather from a bird that had roosted for a time in the branches of that tree.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Someone explained it to me once, but I didn’t write it down.”
That was his answer. That was his fucking answer.
I stared at his back as he walked away and then stared for a long time at the door he went through out into the night. He had placed the quill back on the table. When I got tired of staring at the door I stared down at it, wondering if it could explain.
And now it’s in my hand again.
The morning after the battle, after someone had taken Bromin’s body away, wood shavings from the tree soaked up his blood. Hammerfast hewed at its trunk all morning and evening and halfway into the next day, his blows making the branches of the tree tremble and the leaves whisper like an approaching storm. No one could watch, and the men and gods all stood facing the sea.
When it finally fell it fell for a day. Its highest branches lay beyond the mountains of the gods, and the bulk of its trunk stretched to the horizon like a giant’s corpse. Hammerfast took his awl and began to shave away the bark and shape the wood.
“It’s soft,” he said. “It takes to the blade well.”
There was enough wood for seven chairs. As large as the tree had been I thought there would have been enough for an army, but that’s not how things work here. When Hammerfest was done there were seven chairs grained with every shade of gold and brown and a pile of shavings, bark, and branches, which we burned. The highest branches had fallen beyond the mountains, and because we couldn’t stand the thought of the leaves slowly wilting, we lit arrows and launched them over the mountains to burn those as well. The sparks rose upward all night and thickened the sky with unfamiliar stars that never fell or faded.
When dawn found us, we were sitting on the hill where the tree had been, with the absence of the tree filling the sky at our backs, and the gods were muttering about who would send the chairs across the sea.
“The envoys no longer pass between our lands,” the gods said. “Those across the sea expect no word from the lands of the gods, and thus it will be difficult to send this gift.”
Thor Thunderfist wanted to simply throw them across, while Aedan of the Unheard Song said she could carry them across by night. A young god wanted to summon a fleet of porpoises and maiden-fish to ferry the chairs. The gods considered all but shook their heads. The seas were stormy, they said, the nights of the cities of men were no longer still enough for song, and bad things seemed to happen whenever Thor threw things.
There was silence on the hill.
Finally Sugarfoot spoke. “There’s no crossing the sea with them,” he said, leaning against his staff. “But it gets colder every year. I feel it, and the tree felt it too. Soon the sea will be frozen.”
He paused and stretched, and his joints popped like stones.
“You use what’s left of this wood, and you carve a couple good sledges to fasten to each. Then, when the seas have frozen, you have one of these young dead pull them across the sea. That’s when the sons of men will need them anyway.”
The gods were quiet for a while after this, quiet for so long that I thought they had not heard him. We waited, and the hills turned silently beneath us.
Then Ogden nodded, and Hammerfast reached for his awl, and it was done. He fashioned fourteen sledges, curved like the line of a bow, and attached a pair to each of the chairs. The gods carried them to a rise that overlooked the sea and sat them in a row where they slowly rocked back and forth in the breeze.
That’s it, and I’ve wiped this quill on my trousers for the last time and blown on the parchment to dry the ink. If, when Andronicus comes, he doesn’t take this feather with him, I’m going to fletch the damn thing to the end of an arrow and shoot it into the sun.
One more thing, it’s saying. One more thing.
The great stump of the First Tree is still there, rising up like a broken hill or maybe a golden table where the tree once stood. It’s still a good place and maybe I shouldn’t say it and maybe it doesn’t mean anything, but when Julia Half-Moon and I lay there on its soft wood one afternoon I noticed that it had sent up a few shoots from where the wood met the bark. They were tiny things with leaves barely larger than the ends of my fingers, but Julia smiled.
Like I said though, I don’t know much of what it all means. I drink my mead with the gods and heroes in the evening, and sometimes I walk to where Sugarfoot sits in one of the chairs, looking out over the sea toward the cities of men. He says the warmth of the wood warms his bones.
“It’s ending,” he told me once when I stood beside him, facing the blown foam of the sea. “It’s all changing.”
I looked back at where the tree had been and at all the cold marble houses the gods had built for themselves and at the beaches where the new dead still washed up like bones. From this distance the houses of the gods looked like mausoleums dotting the hills. The wind picked up and the chairs rocked back and forth, and the old god hunched his shoulders against the chill.
Trees have for me a significance I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on. They know something we don’t.