Consider this story. Perhaps it may enlighten you. You might be more open to the realm of the possible. Then it won’t matter if you think it true or not. One hard lesson I’ve learned during my life is that the form of things, their surface, doesn’t matter. But one can often reach the heart of what matters by following it through. Writing this helped me to get to the heart of something that happened to me a few months ago. It’s a start anyway. May 2008.
Stroke after stroke of the pedals I made my way, head down and panting, up the long hill. Even with the climb, cycling to work was always my favourite time of day. There was no better way to wake up. And the relief of reaching the top of this obstacle and the little dip after was always worth the effort. I could relax in a minor exultation.
So when I see it I’m always happy, even if a little breathless.
I’m talking about the Oak.
It’s on the boulevard and stands out to anyone not entranced by the road. Admittedly, that’s easier from the seat of a bicycle but any way you look at it, this Burr Oak is magnificent, easily among the oldest trees in the city. I’m always struck by its dark, deeply indented bark and the craggy, improbable limbs reaching out in every direction. At least a metre at the base, the sidewalk has to swerve around it. So tall that the hydro lines do not dare to trespass: they cross the road to avoid it and recross immediately after. It is rare that it doesn’t astonish me — on those few occasions when I, likely up too late the night before, miss it, I turn to face it like some green Mecca. The ritual for the Tree acknowledged; I can move on.
This has been a long Winter and Spring is finally, though slowly, mustering itself from the snow on this wet week. During the bleakest months I took up the practise of calling out to the tree as I passed. I know how this could be construed but there it is. I’d say “Hello Tree!” Or sometimes I’d be botanical: “Hi Quercus.” Or use my French: “Salut Monsieur Chêne!” Most often it was simply “Hey Oak”.
The Oak is roughly halfway to work, about six klicks. But it’s more than a milestone. My little gesture is an acknowledgement to natural majesty. A small way to connect with life. A salute for a being at least three times my age.
But that Thursday everything changed. That tree became something more.
Here’s what happened.
There were the usual number of cars steadily exhausting the road for me. Still energized by the hill I could feel sweat trickling down my skin under my layers as I coasted toward the tree. But on this particular morning something was different. It was the tree—in an instant I had somehow recognized that it looked wider and taller. And there seemed to be more limbs jutting into the cold air. I recall that clearly but don’t ask me to explain how that could be.
Suddenly I felt like shouting: there were no pedestrians to trigger any embarrassed restraint. “Hey Oak!” I yelled at the top of my lungs.
The “Hello” I heard in response was nothing like the volume of my bellow. I wonder, now, how I heard it at all. Yet somehow it penetrated helmet, fleece balaclava and morning cobwebs. I craned back and there was a middle-aged woman leaning on the Oak and staring at me. She wore a green and yellow dress that was far too thin for the cold. She gave me the impression of being very anxious about something.
Perhaps it was her eyes. They were an intense green. I quickly turned into the next driveway and circled back on the sidewalk. I stopped, legs astride my bike in front of the tree and the woman.
“Are you OK?”
She smiled briefly, still leaning against the tree. “Sir. I thank you. I am somewhat short of breath but well enough.” She spoke with a British accent but in an old style. Like in that movie my wife loves to watch over and over again. ‘Pride and Justice’ or something like that.
“I’m surprised you’re not frozen dressed like that.”
“Not at all, sir. The cold is crisp but it is the air that chokes me. Such a reek. But I would be very much indebted if you could find it in your heart to help me quit this place.”
It wasn’t only her voice but the words she chose that seemed old. These made her seem older than she looked.
“Well. I’m on my way to work. Ah. Maybe I could get you a cab? There’s usually at least one at the mall up ahead.”
“I thank you, no. But I would certainly like to shake your hand. You were caring enough to stop.” She gestured disdainfully at the cars passing by.
It was an odd request. But seeing no harm and thinking how much I agreed with the sentiment about the cars, I pulled my glove off and reached out. She smiled broadly. Her grip was icy but firm.
“A pleasure, sir. Your kindness was just what was needed.”
She didn’t let go but I tried to keep my voice reasonable.
“Your hand is freezing. Are you sure you don’t want to get somewhere warm?”
“A most excellent suggestion.” Then she stepped back into the tree and vanished. Only her arm and hand holding mine could be seen.
I said nothing. I simply stood there with my mouth open.
I realized her arm was still withdrawing into the tree but very slowly. And she was not letting go!
I looked around. The speeding cars took no notice and I didn’t see anyone else in the windows of the houses or out walking.
No matter what type of crazy thing this woman was up to, I didn’t want any part of it. I tried to pull away gently but had no luck. I tried to quickly wrench my hand away but that just hurt. Her grip felt like nothing more than cold flesh closed upon my hand but it was as unyielding as steel.
I heard the woman’s voice. It was hollow and far away. “Do not let yourself become panicked, sir. I promise you will come to no harm.”
As you can imagine this did nothing to decrease my fear.
I pulled my leg over the bike letting it fall. I set my feet firmly through the crust of grass gritty from the months of snow ploughing. I was about to pull back when suddenly I felt—very wrong. My hand had been forced so the tips of my fingers were against the bark. Something gave way and all the warmth in my body seemed to drain out of my body through the held hand. I remember feeling like I was ripped into two pieces as I was pulled into a tunnel of darkness.
My first impression as I came back to myself was of pleasure. I was sunk into the most comfortable mattress I had ever lain on. It felt wonderful. I wanted to stay absolutely still and keep my eyes closed, enjoying it. The only thing at all wrong was that my mouth was very dry. The air on my face was fresh and cool. It had a slight taint of mould but it wasn’t a bad smell: it reminded me of rich garden earth.
Woods came to mind. Deep woods. And as I opened my eyes the light was dim and myrtle green. Like I was in a vast and dark temple with enormous columns supporting a high lattice roof.
I blinked. What was I doing? I must be incredibly late for work by now. I sat bolt upright sinking further into an incredibly deep blanket of moss. I could feel moisture penetrating my clothes. As I manoeuvred my feet beneath me I sank yet further but managed to stand unsteadily. It was difficult in the shin-deep moss. I was wearing a thin green robe and sandals. Where were my real clothes? My backpack? My bike?
The smell of the moss water on the robe was powerful.
I was in a forest but it wasn’t like any woods I had ever seen. Some of the trees were so massive that I was reminded of an old picture of a car driving through a Californian Redwood. One of them could have taken several cars side by side. Some of the canyons made by their roots were probably as tall as I was. I turned around. They were so large that I could only count six trees in sight. The nearest one looked very much like my Oak although wider and much taller. It had the same bark and haphazard set of limbs far above. But the other trees were so much taller it made me dizzy to follow their trunks up. There was a haze of branches entwining far overhead which kept out almost all the light but that canopy must have been hundreds of metres above. It all made me feel somewhat claustrophobic.
A voice interrupted my survey.
“You are up! Excellent. You are well I trust?”
The woman in green was walking toward me holding a wooden bowl. She stopped as I stared at her. I was at a loss as to what to say.
“Welcome, sir. Welcome to Sidon Tule Fell.”
A mix of anger, wonder and astonishment fought for my tongue but I thought tact might be the best way out of this.
“I… I’ve never heard of it.”
“No. You are the first human to come here since I did many years ago. The Earth has changed much since then. I found the air quite difficult to breathe.”
I realized I was shaking my head in frustration and stopped.
“Um. Why did you bring me here?”
The woman cocked her head to one side, scrutinizing me. “Are you not pleased with this paradise? Is not the air improved at the very least?”
“The air has little to do with anything. I would like to know how I can get back.”
“I shall answer your first question. I brought you here because we could hear you calling through the Oak.” She gestured toward the tree behind me. “You cannot know how long it has been for me. I am content—but—I have missed being with another human so much!”
She looked down into the bowl and a blush crept up her face.
“I’m sorry. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
She looked up and smiled. It looked as though she was trying to reassure me. “I understand. I know that you were not calling me. But you were calling to the Oak every day. We heard your call and I was sent to try to fetch you if possible. I have watched you riding your two-wheel vehicle past the oak for a fortnight now. I was exceedingly pleased that you heard my call today. It is now my happy task to make your stay here pleasant.”
“Pleasant? I have to get to work. Your forest is amazing but I’m probably already late for work. Can you show me how I can get back to my bicycle?”
“Oh you needn’t be concerned on that score. You shall get to work on time. I promise.”
“How? I don’t know how I can get back or how long it will take.” I turned to look down at the mossy hole I had stood up from. “Or how long I was lying there in the moss.”
“Please sir. You have only just arrived. Allow me to appeal to your generous nature. It does, I’m sure, seem excessive strange. If you but try to enjoy your visit in our world: it will be of short duration. I cannot bring you back until you have met someone. After that I promise you will decide how long you stay.”
My curiosity was aroused despite my concerns. “Your world?”
“Yes. We are far from Earth. But I am remiss. Introductions are in order. Please allow me to introduce myself, sir. My name is Helen Macfarlane Paisley.”
“I’m Justin Gannon. You will bring me back to—ah—Earth?”
“If you wish, it will surely be as if you never left it.”
I looked around and it didn’t seem I had much choice. There certainly were no other people who could possibly help. The fact that she thought we were on a different world was enough for me to think she was a little disturbed. I certainly didn’t know of any woods near the city that could match these; this forest seemed magically primeval. Who knew where I was? I felt like it hadn’t been long. But I did remember waking up so I was possible they’d moved my unconscious body far.
Helen began again, “Please take this water. The trip has the effect of making people very thirsty.”
The liquid in the bowl had no odour and certainly looked like water: I quickly drank and passed it back.
“Would you consent to follow me to the meeting place?”
I thought I’d better play along. “Okay.”
Her face lit up. “Excellent! We will make haste then.”
After only a few metres Helen led me to a path of black earth which cut deeply through the moss and was obstructed by roots at irregular intervals. I had to watch where I stepped. We walked silently for a little under ten minutes during which I saw an astonishing variety of trees in the dark shade.
At one point I stopped dead in my tracks. There, just twenty metres from the path, stood something completely alien to my experience. It was not as tall as the other trees but still at least a hundred metres high. It had translucent yellow bark and long trailing limbs which looked more like tentacles with suckers than branches with leaves. A wide circle of bare earth surrounded the base of the thing.
“Helen? What is that?”
Helen stopped and looked around.
“That, Mr. Gannon, is an Otumnuh. It is quite like a tree in many particulars. I have been informed it consumes sunlight like our trees. However it also eats any vegetable or animal matter. Not to be approached by the likes of us without protection. The meeting place is just ahead, sir.”
The nearer tentacles shuddered and moved slightly my way. That made me shudder.
At that moment I heard a strange sound from far above in the canopy. Like a horn but the keening note strangled into a thork, thork, thork ending. Everything became silent after that. I turned back toward Helen and took several steps to close the gap to my guide.
“I’ve never seen a tree with tentacles. Where is it from?”
“I am sure I do not know, sir. Some planet or other. We will soon see one who will know, however. He can answer all your questions and more, assuredly.”
The phrase ‘I’m not in Kansas any more’ crept into my head as I followed. Helen certainly hadn’t seemed to be lying as she spoke about other planets and being far from Earth but I’ve heard that insane people often look like they believe everything they say. But what if she was right? That tentacle tree certainly looked strange enough.
We came to a wall of foliage with a bright slit directly above the path. The light leaking through the gap seemed to pulse a little and made the shade seem much more gloomy. It hurt my eyes.
Helen turned sideways and carefully side stepped through the gap. I followed and learned quickly why she was being so careful after a thorn left a burning impression in my shoulder.
At my involuntary gasp Helen stopped and faced me.
“I am so very sorry. How thoughtless and unforgivable of me not to have warned you. The thorns are grown specially to keep the night carnivores out. They are not poisonous.”
“No harm done.”
“We are almost through.”
The light increased at each small step and suddenly I was in extremely bright light. So bright I had to stop and close my eyes. After a moment of adjustment I was able to see that we were in a round clearing about a hundred metres wide but it was still too bright to look up. In the centre of the clearing there was a flat wooden roof covered in fronds erected on four posts where Helen waited. I quickly joined her as much to get out of the strong sun as to get the meeting she had proposed over with.
I noticed something very strange once I was in the shade.
Helen was saying something to me but I missed it.
“What the hell…?” It was the horizon. I knew then that Helen had told me the absolute truth. This was definitely not Earth: the sky was completely wrong. I should not have been able to see the horizon with the clearing surrounded by trees so tall and yet I could. Not only were there impossibly smooth lines converging in the sky but they curved up over an incredible distance. I was immediately reminded of one of my favourite video games. Halo. This was like the Halo ring except with several rings linked together side by side. The way they converged suggested a sphere.
I turned to Helen who, I noticed, was sitting beside a pale-yellow, translucent jelly-like thing . It was about a metre high and sloped down from a rounded point to a width of approximately three quarters of a metre.
“Are we on the inner surface of a gigantic sphere?”
Helen laughed. “Yes! Excellent, Mr. Gannon!”
A melodious voice that seemed to come from the air above the jelly spoke. “Justin Gannon, I applaud your observation skills and your deductive reasoning. Your technology is what I would call, meaning no offence, primitive yet you were able to understand your situation very quickly. Most gratifying! Entirely gratifying! My name is unpronounceable in human language but you can call me ‘Myxomycota’ after the closest life form on Earth that matches mine.”
“That’s a Slime mold, right?”
“Exactly. You must be trained in the biological sciences.” The voice was clearly excited.
“Gratifying again! I too am what you would call a biologist. My people created this container to hold as many life forms as possible from the Universe. Your Earth has a luxurious number of species for which we have an almost complete set of copies in Sidon Tule Fell. That is the name of this section of our container.”
I was curious despite my anxiety about leaving. “What are the lines that converge in the sky?”
An extension of the mold’s body pointed toward the horizon. “Each section is like a stave or rib in one of your wooden barrels. The lines you see separate each section. They are walls approximately six of your kilometres high. These keep the life from different worlds separate and maintain their own environmental requirements.”
Myxomycota indicated the perpendicular direction. “Two sections that way a liquid methane ocean is hosted. I would be delighted to show you the incredibly interesting life forms there.”
Fascinating and intriguing as all this was, a tightening in my gut reminded me that how utterly alien a place this was. I had a family to return to. “Why was I brought here?”
“I understand your concern, Justin Gannon. Not every sentient being can travel here. For reasons we do not entirely understand only certain organisms can move unscathed through our portals. You and Helen are the only humans to have travelled successfully in this way. But it was you who made your presence known to us. Through your oak tree. But the reason why we wanted you or any human here is that we would like to expand our collection of genetic material for your species. We would very much treasure a sample of your DNA.”
“Helen is the only other human here?”
“That is correct.”
“So… you just need a few of my cells?”
“Yes, that is it exactly. It is a pleasure to meet with someone who understands biology.”
“Then I can return to Earth?”
“Your wishes will determine your fate. You are welcome to stay here too. There are many benefits to doing so including immortality. Helen, here, is nearly two hundred Earth years old and completely free of disease. There are many benefits for a biologist like yourself. We pride ourselves on having the finest collection of life in the entire Universe. You will see organisms no one on your planet has seen. It is possible that none ever will. Even though the percentage of worlds with life is terribly small, there is still the biological diversity of millions of planets here to study; some are even richer than Earth in biodiversity.”
It was obviously an incredible offer but there was no way I could so easily leave my life. Even with all its faults, Earth was home. “Thank you for the offer but I can’t leave my family. I must return to my responsibilities at home. You can take your sample and I’ll leave.”
“No need. The sample was taken already when you first arrived but we have rules to prevent us from using the sample without your express consent.”
“You have it.”
“Thank you Justin Gannon. There is just one other matter.”
“Even greater than your genetic material we would be overjoyed with something else you could easily provide us.”
The voice hesitated. “We would like a copy of you. We can produce clones of you from your cells but they will not have your experience, knowledge or skills. Intelligent life in the universe is especially rare. We have found only about a thousand extant examples. The greatest goal of my people is to preserve all intelligent life that we can. Without a community of sentients, this is a lonely universe indeed. And the gain is especially more valuable to us if it is from a planet that is as threatened as yours. Would you agree to leave an exact copy here on Sidon Tule Fell?”
“I would like to know the consequences of a decision like that first.”
I noticed Helen quickly look at Myxomycota. Perhaps I had hit on the right question.
“An astute query. But a difficult one to answer without a starting point. What kind of consequences would you imagine there to be?”
“I don’t know. If an exact copy of me was made wouldn’t the copy want to return home to Earth too?”
There was a pause before the voice of Myxomycota continued. “Yes. That is a good point. But we could do a little editing. Only with your permission, of course. The copy wouldn’t feel compelled about certain things especially knowing that your original was back on Earth.”
Still it was a strange request. It seemed logical enough but I didn’t know how I’d feel about there being two of me. “I don’t know.”
Helen spoke up at this point. “I am just such a copy, Justin. It was my express choice to return to Earth as well. But, as you can see, part of me remained here. I can still remember everything but some things which were important enough to make me want to return are of less import to me. On the other hand, the original Helen, has long since died on Earth. But she lives on in me. On a purely selfish note I would add that I would very much appreciate some human company. You can’t know how hearing your call through the oak tree made me feel.”
“I see.” My choice was easy to make. There seemed to be no threat to me and I was certainly intrigued by the possibilities. “I agree then.”
There were tears in Helen’s eyes. “Thank you, Mr. Gannon.”
“Yes, thank you Justin. Please place your hand on the soil in front of me.”
I placed my hand down and suddenly a bulge from Myxomycota oozed out and covered my hand like an amoeba engulfing food. Everything blacked out again.
When I woke up on Sidon Tule Fell with Helen and the slime mold I knew I had been the copy all along. There was no urge to leave. Myxomycota began to tell me the story of his race and their unceasing quest to explore and preserve life in the universe. I felt no sense of urgency to get anywhere. I had all the time I could ever want.
The simple problem I was working on couldn’t stop my thoughts from drifting. For the umpteenth time my thoughts returned to the strange incident with the woman at the Oak at the same time. I recall the woman in green had pulled me toward the tree but she had just disappeared into it. The cars hadn’t stopped whizzing past. No one had noticed the green lady. It had all been so very strange. I picked up my bike and began riding quickly to work. It turned out that I was only a few minutes late.
That afternoon I cycled home and stopped by the Oak on the sidewalk. I touched the tree and felt its solidity. There seemed to be no sign that the woman had been there at all. A white-haired man came out of his house and ambled to the centre of his lawn looking curiously at me.
“You have an incredible Oak here!”
“Yes I do. I hope it sticks around for many years.”
“Me too. I hope you don’t mind my touching it.”
He laughed. “Of course not. You’re not the first. As long as no one hurts the tree I am pleased that natural things still have the power to draw people to them.” He turned and was soon gone into his house.
I had the strangest dream that night. I dreamt of organisms from many worlds populating the inside of a sphere billions of times bigger than the earth. And of a green eyed woman pulling me there.