In ten thousand B.C.E., a family of three made shelter beneath my branches. My family watched through the wild winds as they shivered together against the winter fury. I waited for their cooling bodies to nourish my grasping roots.
But with a fallen branch and a magic spell, they brought a shard of summer into the heart of the frozen forest, and I began to wonder if they would survive.
On the first day, they picked the berries from the bushes beneath the snow. In the first week, a child dragged a struggling rabbit from its warren beneath the frost-hard earth. By the time the spring rains came and the ground sang green, the family was four, and there was always something good to eat in the hut around my trunk.
In six thousand B.C.E., a village of six hundred made shelter around my family. The breezes and the roots buzzed with our curiosity. My leaves would never stop prickling with the smoke of yams and deer and berries boiling down, and at the heart of every winter, a blazing campfire would blunt nature’s chill fangs.
It warmed me to my core.
Over the years, my leaves grew rich and thick, and ten thousand lovers wrote their faces on my skin. The children explored every inch of me, scaling my trunk, plucking my fruits, lounging in my branches, finding parts of me I never knew I had.
Each spring, a girl would climb as high as she could through my verdant, red-gold canopy, and each spring, she would fail to reach my crown. Her son never made it, and neither did her nine grandchildren. But I remember when a little boy proudly placed his hand on my head, and the echoes of his great-grandmother ran through him.
In three thousand B.C.E., the sky spat death upon our home. A shooting star fell to the earth, its heat swallowing us whole. The birds screamed and cried as they fled, and my shadow writhed and scrambled to flee the inferno. The bones of the villagers cracked and melted away, and my brethren tilted drunkenly, celebrating one last party before their fall. The wishes of all the lovers on my skin were torn from my bark, and the fires hollowed me out, leaving me ashen, scarred, empty.
My leaves would never stop prickling with the flesh of the children who had slept in my arms and the smell of the trees I’d grown up with.
In one thousand B.C.E., the bees had made their home in my heart, and even the humans stayed away. The fires had split me open, and in the crevice where my flesh once was, a hive was born. New-green seedlings, unmarred by ash, tried to grow around me—but I blotted out the sun with my drooping, swaying leaves, smothering them with my shadow. I was taller than them all, stronger than them all, fortified with the ashes of those who came before.
The little ones were not. They had no right to live on the graves of my family.
A few times, a child—always a child—walked up to me, wide-eyed. They’d run their enraptured gaze along my scars, or gape at my limp, dull branches. But when they got close enough to touch, the furious swarm I’d taken in would awake, and they’d back away—for a thousand stings would kill as surely as a meteor strike.
But children grow, and some remember.
In one C.E., a woman brought her family into the shadow of my trunk, and from my fallen limbs she drew a fire to feed her parents and sister. With a spit of roasted venison in one hand and a greenwood torch in the other, she walked towards me. The buzzing, pulsing insects inside me awoke, and venom and pain belched forth from my heart.
But she held her gift of fire out, and the smoke of the same deer that had walked here for millennia danced around my trunk, filling my hollowed body. Gradually, cautiously, she drew closer to my gnarled core, soothing the bees with her smoke.
Shadows lashed at her as the fire flickered, and through the haze the swarm blindly struck, stinging her neck, her arms, her face.
I waited for her body to nourish my roots.
But though the stings assaulted her, she stood immutable, determined, still. Gently blowing the bees from her lips, she whispered, “I’m here. That’s all.”
The torch she bore blazed down to her very fingertips, the bees wobbling in the air, until the fervent, pent-up buzzing quieted to nothing.
She laid a hand on my trunk, and the echoes of her ancestors sang through her.
In one thousand C.E., the humans hewed a grand town from the earth. The bees inside me had long since faded, and stray cats slept in the space the fires had carved. Spring graced my leaves with dew, and every slight breeze would send sparkling droplets dancing across my park. Fresh, young trees had arisen alongside me—far away enough that they would grow in their own right, but close enough that the children could laugh and play among our boughs with ease.
I shared my fruits with all who came, and they spread the seeds across the world.
Over the years, brick by brick, plot by plot, the town grew. The buildings quenched the sun, leeching the life from my leaves. The streets ran brown with refuse and offal, and their toxins seeped into the earth. The grass and dirt was paved over and built upon, eroding the hill I stood upon to a dim shadow of what once had been.
But the children still came.
In two thousand C.E., the city canceled the night. Neverending light spilled from every window. Rivers of people flowed around me, cloaked in gasoline and steel. The streets hummed and buzzed like the bees that lived inside me so long ago.
I wondered whose smoke could calm them.
I could tell when they were going to swarm. Whether in tree-hearts or city-hearts, bees are the same. Something had enraged the grandest hive in history, and the stingers were about to come out.
And come out they did. Humanity delivered the judgement of the stars.
The blasts were fire and darkness. Windows shattered. Lights vanished. People crisped into ash and shadow.
The city fell silent.
It pared me to my core.
In six thousand C.E., the lands had healed. Only crumbling ruins indicated that there had ever been anything but timeless forest here. The same berry-bushes still hid beneath the snow. The same deer still rested at my base. Even the trees around me were indistinguishable from me, for all the more years I held over them.
For a century after the city disappeared, a mournful winter consumed the world, the likes of which I had never seen before, and never would again. It tempered me. I rebuilt, rooting myself into the earth so firmly that it would be easier to move the mountains themselves than uproot me.
I saw the humans, from time to time—what was left of them, that is. They marveled at the single tree on a hill, ancient beyond their measuring, some touched with reverence, others with joy. They would reach out to touch my trunk, or pick the leaves I shed.
But I kept my fruits in the highest branches, and my lower limbs had grown too brittle to support humanity. The birds and the sky were the only visitors to my verdant canopy.
I swallowed my scars, one by one, with a patience that would outlive eternity.
In ten thousand C.E., a family of four took shelter beneath my trunk.
The winter had been rough, but I had seen ones a thousandfold worse. The weary family, nearly overwhelmed by nature’s wrath, shuddered in the cold and wondered what they could possibly do to survive.
The mother’s answer was the ancient city, and she left in hope of finding some intact cavern there. The father’s answer was the sticks and branches, and he raced against the winter cold to create a fire. The childrens’ answer was to rest and dream, for whatever time they had left.