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Tree of Stone

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He made his way down the slope as the sun began its fast descent from its throne of daylight; its luminescent silhouette peeling through the dense, low clouds that always preceded heavy rain. He wove carelessly through the trees as if guided by something more powerful than vision, the texture of the bark on each tree unique and detailed in his sight. The brush and plants were becoming decreasingly dense as he entered a more habitable area of forest and the pungent yet calming smell of smoke appeared in the air, signaling that he was nearing his destination. A disorienting flash of imagery flipped through his field of view. Undiluted representations of his yearnings for food, rest and contact with others infected his thoughts. Despite this, he executed every stride and maneuver as if he had only just begun his journey - as if the sun had not descended from its throne many times since he had begun his long journey home. He began to see landmarks that he remembered from the beginning of his travels. These sights evoked familiar feelings, but he could distinctly notice a difference in perspective after having undergone such a transformative experience. He was now a new person, sure of his intents, goals and ambitions. He continued to run despite the fact that he could feel the
coagulated blood on the soles of his feet slowly moistening, and the dull burning
accompanying the injury extending itself like lightning up his calves. He began to see traces of others’ presence in his peripherals - extinguished fire pits, scattered possessions and piles of rotting vegetables. Despite the odd location of these items and the possible impacts of their disheveled, discombobulated appearance, he continued. Feelings of suspicion, fear, and isolation were nonexistent in his mind as he passed by these
abandoned items, driven by his anticipation and numbed from the mix of fatigue, exhaustion and excitement. He had just danced with the wilderness in such an intense slew of instinct and passion that the contrast between his recent experience and his current reality was blinding. Returning to his people, having conquered the wild, he would be celebrated and praised. He would now be transformed, in their eyes, from adolescence into adulthood and would assume a quite different role in the community than before. He had spent months in the wilderness with nothing but simple cloth clothing which did little to protect him from nature’s unrelenting lashes. In order to live, he was to end another’s life to sustain his own. He had emerged victorious, after two months in the painful isolation of the wild. Forced to learn the patterns and cycles of nature, he struggled to deal with the difficulties of attaining food in such an unforgiving environment. Ultimately, a family of deer had relinquished the gift of life to help fuel him to continue on his mission.

As he neared the outskirts of the settlement, he began to notice that many things were different than before. At first he attributed this to his newfound adulthood and the perspective that must have accompanied it. He could not hear the sounds of any birds or
other animals that typically performed a never-ending symphony of squeaks, squeals and
screams. He stopped. As the surge of adrenaline decreased and his inflated ego dissipated, feelings of dread and concern flooded in. As if the momentum of his weeklong sprint had caught up with him, a sudden weakness in his legs pushed him forward and brought him to his knees. He had been warned about the day when the wild
would grow so quiet that one’s heartbeat would drown out the interminable sounds of nature. This signified that the rhythm of the wild was either disrupted or severely damaged and negative repercussions would soon ensue. His world upside down and his thoughts contorted and incoherent, he began the hardest steps of his journey, the slow approach to what he had called his home for the duration of his existence. The smell of smoke he had welcomed earlier was overpowering now as he peeled through the last layer of trees that had been planted to keep large animals out of the settlement. It was gone. Everything, regardless of integrity, construction or size was reduced to ash, the area flattened and the ground torched. All that was left standing in the village was a stone structure that had been carved in the early days of his peoples’ arrival to the land. The structure was that of a tree. Trees were the fuel for his peoples’ existence. Their wood built shelter, warmed them when cold, cooked their food; their fruits fed them and the forest was home to all of the animals that composed their diet. The tree was the key to life, overly generous giants willing to provide for all, asking for nothing in return. This tree of stone was all that remained of what was once a flourishing group of over twenty thousand people. Their homes, possessions and bodies were now returned to the earth through smoke and ash; the only memory of their existence carried on by the lone man
who stood upon their ruins.

This man and his people had seen nature’s fury before; the lightning storms, heavy winds, and floods that came often but rarely caused lasting damage. The man now knew that this was different; he knew that even the fury of nature was not capable of inflicting
such widespread destruction and harm. Something much more volatile and murderous had been at work here. It was then that the man noticed hundreds of strange, uniform tracks running through the ash, each depression paired with a perfectly parallel counterpart that traveled in unison with its partner. Hundreds of these prints lined the ash and appeared to be aimed in one direction leading out of what used to be the place of his home and of those he loved. He followed them to the outskirts of the flattened earth and saw that the tracks continued through the forest, maintaining the same organized formation, everything in their path reduced to dust. Horribly perplexed, the man understood that the tracks were of no animal that lived in the forest, nor that of anyone like his own. He could not understand why any intelligent being would commit such an act. His feelings of anger and sadness grew as his understanding of the situation decreased. It was here that he bent over to examine a strange object, a shiny piece of colored material that the man had never encountered in all his travels. It was silver and brown, and had some sort of writing on it; the writing much different than that of his people, bizarre and alien. The material bent when twisted, only to return to its original form when released, with a slight crackling sound that irritated the man’s ears and caused him to scream suddenly in anger. He examined the piece of material and found a small, rectangular brown object inside. It smelled sweet and appealing although the pleasurable
odor left him feeling nauseous and disgusted. He denounced the material as something
evil, a byproduct of whatever caused the destruction of his home, family and people. However, he decided to put it in a sleeve in his clothing should he need it later as proof of the horrible atrocities that had taken place. His mind still obliterated by what had just happened and his body weak from exhaustion and hunger, he fell to the ash and began to cry. Those foreboding clouds he had seen earlier while cloaked in excitement and pride were true to their appearance. The man welcomed the rain as the only familiar thing from before his discovery, a single unchanged aspect of nature. However, the gentle, weeping rain was all so similar to the tears that continued to stream down his face. This rain was weak, slow and very different than the powerful storms that used to provide his people with water and sustain their crops. The man’s cries echoed with the pattern of the solemn precipitation and through the unmoving forest into the night.

In the morning the rain had stopped, but the sun had not ascended to its usual place in the sky and the animals had not resumed their normal endeavors. In fact, no animals were present in what used to be such a diverse and colorful display of life. Not even the dense clouds of insects and birds that used to hum regularly in the sky could be seen. The man stood up after a night of tears and was instantly returned to the ground in a spasm of agony that rippled through his body. The remnants from the months of intense exercise scolded him for subjecting himself to such abuse. Crawling to a stand once again, the man began to follow the strange tracks that led into the forest. He departed and left all memories of his previous life behind, trying to suppress the images of his family and friends that kept forcing themselves into his brain. He needed to forget; the pain he felt
was worse than death and he considered ending his life more than once. He walked night
and day, driven by something entirely different than the ego that drove him on his first journey. He was now driven by the pain of loss and the deep love for his people who had been reduced to nothing, and the loss of the beautiful land they had lived in harmony with for so long, now burned and scarred irreparably. Weeks passed, and the man saw nothing but silent wilderness. He could still taste the sadness all around him, leaves wilted, flowers never opened, even the normally aggravating mosquitoes were unseen. A musty smell, different from the usually refreshing and invigorating smell of the woods, clung to the air in a sickening haze. These changes were alien to him, and much like the strange material he had found, the musty smell evoked revolting feelings of sickness and disapproval. The man did not like these changes and was not okay with the presence of unnatural materials and smells in the place he cared for so much. The destruction of his people was one thing, but the desecration of the untouched, sacred land of the dense forest that stretched for thousands of miles in each direction was too much to bear. It was soon after this that the man came upon an even larger piece of settled land similar to his own. There had been another tribe here, far enough away from his people that the two groups traded rarely, but they had always met each other with the same kindness and respect as they gave nature. It was clear, however, that whatever had visited this group of people had shown no mercy and had no respect for life. This settlement must have been five times the size of his own, with almost a hundred thousand inhabitants, but it also was reduced to ash. The man made his way to the center of the ash were he came across something even more bothersome and shocking than his previous findings. It
was a dead body, and not that of one who belonged to the vast wilderness that was the
home to such a diverse group of people. The body had much different features than that
of the man or any others he had seen. It had a single spear through its heart, probably the only successful attempt at resisting whatever ended such vast amounts of life. The person’s clothing was equally foreign, and the man wondered how this person could function when restricted by such thick, covering material. On the man’s breast there was a strange insignia that depicted some sort of unusual contraption with four circular objects at its base, and a plow-like object similar to those used in his peoples’ farming, but much larger. The man continued on his journey, following the path of destruction through the forest. He came upon villages of all sizes, flattened and destroyed. Few traces of the areas’ inhabitants ever remained, but more prominently, pieces of strange material similar to what the man had found on the first day of the destruction littered the ground. The unexplained tracks that the man had grown to loath more than anything else violently dug up the earth. The sun and rain never returned; the two most nurturing and essential forces of the wild, gone.

As the man continued on his journey, almost twenty years had passed since the day that he had returned to find his village destroyed. Nature remained in its solemn, depressed state; and although the plants did not die, they lay dormant and did not grow. Animals remained completely absent, as if they had sensed the evil that was present in the land and had vanished into nothing. The man was forced to eat unsatisfying fruits and vegetables he found that had never matured to completion when the destruction had first
begun in the midst of spring. He was forced to drink out of springs and rivers that had
stopped flowing and lay stagnant with mud and contaminants. After twenty years of
travel, the man grew tired of eating such unsatisfying meals and ceased eating all together; his hunger antagonizing him further and propelling him on his search for answers. When the man began to see large sections of woods that had been flattened, along with settlement upon settlement of people completely reduced to ash, he realized that the land and forest would be irreversibly destroyed if he could not make progress. None of the devastated patches of land showed any inclination of harboring life, much like the rest of the nonmoving wilderness. The man feared greatly for the death of what had provided life for so many living creatures for so long. He was unable to stop his exhausting journey despite the fact that years of fasting and unending travel were taking a huge toll on his body. He needed to revert the wild back to the way he remembered it before. It was all that he knew, and he felt guilty for not appreciating it while it had nurtured and provided for him. He had taken it for granted, and after all those years ago when he had embarked on his first journey into the wilderness, hoping to conquer, he now understood the foolish triviality of his efforts at the time. Whatever was causing this horrible harm had to be of some bizarre origin, with intent of its own. Nothing with a soul like his could bestow such destruction without feeling the pain that had tortured the man without pause for the past twenty years.

His hope fading, the man continued to follow the unending path of destruction. He felt defeat catching up to him, his mind and body fragile and weak and his psyche worn
down to almost nothing. It was the first day of the twenty-first year of his unending search for answers, when the musty smell that the man had grown accustomed to grew
stronger. His anger flared; he felt that he was near the source of it all. A surge of energy
propelled him forward and his speed increased. He ran with the same agility as he had all those years ago when returning to his people after his first encounter with the wild. His body was a blur and he began to see things in his peripherals again. He saw a lone cougar running beside him; unable to determine whether it was a vision or reality, the man acknowledged its presence and continued. The cougar had represented bravery and loyalty to the man and his people. They had the utmost respect for it and admired the way it gracefully hunted the forest. The man felt connected to the animal and knew that they were directed at the same goal. He understood that the cougar was no figment of his imagination and must have survived the destruction like himself, with an equally horrible experience. The two neared the shoreline and felt strong winds beginning to blow. The overwhelming musty smell grew stronger; it was unidentifiable to the man but smelled like an unnatural mutation of smoke from a wood fire, horribly sickening. As they neared a cliff that overlooked the shore, the man grew serious, his anger fading into something entirely different. Twenty-one years had amounted to this day. Twenty-one years of agony and torture, the pain that he had undergone was incomprehensible. The man knew that his ability to have any impact on such a monstrous force was unlikely. However, he did not care. He had no fear and was ready to face death. The man and his only companion, the only living thing he had come across in all that time, walked to the
edge of the cliff. What they saw below them was clearly the source of all the destruction, but the sight fulfilled little and only raised more questions.

Below them were thousands of large vessels hovering on the water. They appeared
to be constructed of stone, but the material reflected the light and had the same unnatural
tinge as the object that the man still held in his clothing from all the years ago. He took it out and dropped it to the ground. He saw tens of thousands of trees piled in the bays of the vessels and finally understood. His rage flared and his heart pounded; his insides churned like the sea which was being spun by the strong winds that did little to disperse the unbearable smell that was being emitted from the vessels in large plumes of dead black smoke. He sensed that they were departing, and they began to pull away from the shore. They had destroyed everything that was sacred and everything that mattered. All the beauty and elegance of nature’s brilliant design was tarnished, and all for a cause that the man did not understand. Robbed of the friendly giants that allowed life to flourish, the land had grown inhospitable and growth remained in a standstill. Then, for the first time in twenty-one years, since that first night, the man began to cry. His knees buckled and he fell to the ground, but these tears were not sorrowful like before. They were a release of pure emotion. Love, anger, and fury saturated the air around the man, as the sky grew dark. Dense, low clouds materialized out of the bone-dry air and the winds roared like the scream of a cougar pouncing on prey. As the distance grew between the ships and the shore, the man’s tears slowed and he struggled to climb to his feet. In the last of his efforts, the man expelled the remaining bit of energy he had. His flesh and muscle had
eroded to almost nothing and he was little more than bone. His body resembled a corpse that had been left out in the sun and dusted with sand. Letting out a deafening roar that could be heard miles away, figures streamed out onto the decks of the vessels, looking around in confusion. The man’s roar increased in volume and the cougar joined
in as well, the air vibrating and the ground shaking. The skies opened and lightning
reverberated through the dense clouds and extended its fluorescent fingers over the horizon as if reaching for the fleeing vessels. Then the skies let loose, but the rain did not fall like it had when the man had wept in the ash all those years ago. It fell tenaciously and forcefully, pelting the ground and spraying the arid dirt into the air. The sound of the raindrops joined with the man’s and the cougar’s roars and the winds increased in speed. With waves hundreds of feet tall, nature reclaimed the trees that were savagely robbed from it, taking the lives of all those responsible in an effervescent frenzy. The sea opened its mouth and swallowed the thousands of vessels, as lightning lashed the water causing it to boil ferociously.

The chaos slowly died down and the water was left sparkling, pure and clear. The suffocating smell vanished along with the monstrous tyrants that had pillaged the land. The rain, lighting and wind ceased and life-giving moisture began to roll out in dense fog over the trees for hundreds of miles. The man and the cougar continued to roar and the man’s lips curled upwards, unable to remember the last time he smiled. Tears of joy now streamed down his face, and then with a slight cracking noise, he grew suddenly quiet and fell backwards. The sun was slowly ascending from the horizon, happily reassuming its throne and illuminating the water in incandescent hues of crimson and gold. As the man took his last breath of the sweet, pure air that he had missed so dearly, a single blade of grass erupted on the parched earth he lay upon, his last sight as his vision faded slowly to nothing. The cougar lay down next to him briefly, nuzzling into his clothing and eating whatever was contained in that strange, shiny material. It let out a final satisfied, almost playful, roar and ran back towards the forest in an ashy blur.

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