The Old One

It was summer vacation. For most of the first month out of school, Mary and Tom had been as industrious as the bees that buzzed around them, intent on turning every source of nectar in the fields and woods into food for the hive. The two kids had been up and down, around and through the woods and the river, perfecting the maps they had been working on since they met each other five years before. Somehow there always seemed to be another animal path to follow; a tree torn down by a storm, revealing a cave in its upturned roots; a new bend in the river which had uncovered a cache of interesting stones. They felt accomplished and satisfied, and now they were ready to settle down for some serious loafing.

"Boy-o!" said Tom to Mary as they filed away the last of the new maps in the box under Mary's desk, "That was a summer's worth of work already!"

"Yeah. It's pretty complete and I'm sure ready for a break, but I still feel so buzzed. Almost like we were still in school!"

Tom yawned and was about to nod and suggest hanging around down by the river, when his eyes lit up instead, "Well, when you want to slow down, the best place to go is..."

"Treebeard!" "Right exactly on! Let's go!"

They knew that finding Treebeard was not going to be too difficult - it never was. The old ent was never far from the place where they had last talked with him. Two weeks ago, they had come on him a few feet from the stream as they were mapping its course through the forest, through the Marye's pool and then  winding down to the river. During the winter he had moved to a more exposed position, liking the feel of the wind and snow, but as the snow melted and filled the stream in April and May, he had moved five feet or so down a small hill to a spot where he could talk with the ducks and animals that came to the water. That's where they found him and there he would stay through June and July, content and busy with the life of the river.

As the summer weather stretched on, hot and still. Mary and Tom took to spending hours every day, listening to Treebeard rumble on. When Treebeard described - a process between story and history, philosophy and poem - his human listeners slipped into a dozey state, so slow and deliberate were his pronouncements.

Mary and Tom lay under his shade, idly listening to bird arguments, watching clouds over the nearby clearing, taking turns napping - a Treebeard story was the essence of summer vacation. It was slow, soothing, deep and endless. His teaching song, as he called it, had mostly concerned something he called The Old One. Tom and Mary half listened, half dreamed his rumbling, rambling, discourse. Condensed to only the essential facts, by far the least interesting part of an ent discussion, Treebeard had been describing an immensely old being, old as plants, old as soil. It was born time out of mind of rock, became pre-sentient as sand, aware as humus, slowly wise as a tree. Now so old that it produced only one leaf a year, the Old One had gathered around itself other trees, seeded to it to learn and carry on its vast and ancient knowledge. All the trees together formed a knot, an intertwined strength of trunks and branches and roots that fed the Old One, and when their natural span had come to an end, withered and died and were replaced by others.

Sometime, perhaps it was a Thursday, Tom had an idea. It struggled up through the layers of summer heat and drowse and spread slowly in his conscious mind.

"Mary?" he said.

"Mmm," Mary replied. She was picturing a corded mass, made of up bark and shapes of all possible treeforms, its crown spreading over a city block in size, and at its heart a living wood - wise, ancient, dreaming. She smiled. "What a lovely story," she sighed.

"Something Treebeard just said..." He lost the thought for a moment watching a dust mote make its way deliberately across his vision against the flow of other dust motes. Treebeard's voice continued its peaceful ruminations.

"Yeah," Tom said, suddenly awake. "That's what I was going to say. What if it isn't? A story, I mean. What if there is an Old One?"

"Oh," said Mary, faintly surprised by the thought. "Oh, Treebeard, could this be a true story?"

"All stories given, spoken, told, true as grass growing straight after the rain beating down, passes away toward the river, hoommm," replied Treebeard, taking five minutes and several more metaphors to say it.

"No, but I mean is it a thing we can see, talk to," explained Mary patiently. Tom was onto something. While waiting for Treebeard's reply, she silently went over her memories of his story. It sounded like something real, but where could such a huge tree-thing be? The rain forest? Maybe the Siberian forests? Did they have forests or was that just in Baba Yaga stories?

For the next few days, Mary and then Tom tried again to get a description from Treebeard of where this Old One was, but their attempts met with failure. They came to believe even more strongly that it existed, but could get nothing they could understand from the old ent.

Finally, I think it was Sunday morning, with Tom reading the Sunday funnies he had brought along and Mary sunk in a pout of frustration, Treebeard said in his rumbling, heartwood voice, "Talk with him, be with him, teacher to, being with, all creatures, fast, slow, chatterboxes and silent rivers." This speech took about fifteen minutes, with many more digressions and phrases and humming than I have patience to recreate. It was followed by a burst of typical human girl enthusiasm that made Treebeard smile indulgently at his "little chatterbird".

"Yes! That's what I mean? Could we? Talk with him, be with him? Go to where he is?"

Tom stopped reading Far Side and looked up interestedly. Treebeard rumbled on to himself for a few minutes, then said, "Yes, go soon, when moon is horned like a snail."

"Soon," said Tom, who was a great observer of sky events and always knew what phase of the moon his part of Earth was in, "that's three weeks off!"

"Yes," rumbled Treebeard. "Can you be ready so quickly, going then in that particular moment?"

"What must we do?" asked Mary.

"Oh, nothing," said Treebeard in surprise. "Be."

"Yeah, we can handle it," said Tom, grinning.

Every morning for the next three weeks Mary would wake up, at home in bed or in her sleeping bag somewhere in the woods, and unwrap the thought of a trip to an unknown place to meet an unknown tree-being for a delicious peek, then tuck it away with a sigh of anticipation. Tom wanted to know more, and quizzed Treebeard about all manner of things. How far was it? Did the Old One move around? Had Treebeard seen it? How did he get there? How would they get there? He had gotten an answer of sorts to the last question and reported it to Mary with some puzzlement.

"He said 'tickling'."

"Tickling? Like this?" Mary dove for Tom's ticklish feet, which were conveniently bare at the moment. Tom yelped and by the time Mary had chased him around the clearing where they had camped the night before, they were thoroughly awake. Over bread and honey and apples, Tom described how Treebeard had bent one of his smallest branches down and scritched lightly over Tom's arm until the hairs stood up and he shivered suddenly.

"But it felt neat," Tom said.

"I don't see how that's a mode of transportation, though!" Mary said.

"Me neither, maybe I'll find out more today," Tom replied indistinctly, stuffing the last of the bread into his mouth. "It's almost the horned moon. Tomorrow night, in fact."

They spent the rest of the day and all of the next making visits, without leaving the woods. They dropped by the Marye's pool, where the Marye, always eager for travel news, got quite stirred up by the prospect of their trip and made them promise to see it first when they got back. The mud at the bottom of the pool knew the Old One, it said, but was so phlegmatic that it never had much to say about anything.

Robin Hood wasn't much interested; he and the ent weren't getting along too well since he had made his last set of arrows from a young birch without consulting Treebeard first. The ent had had his eye on that particular birch; it had the possibility of speech, Treebeard had said, but impossible to be sure until it was older. Robin sniffed, and said, "Old trees' tale." and offered to take them on a hunting expedition instead.

Mary and Tom declined and went off to see Nahomet, who was as thoroughly delighted as Robin had been stuffy. "The Old One!" he said reverently, "what a good thing this is for you. You will know many new things when you return. No, I have never seen this Old One, but there are many evenings' worth of tales. It is the father of all green things, born of minerals and water, brought to life by the sun, but with its feet always deep in the earth. I will look forward to your returning song - I'll have the drum ready."

Nahomet preferred his stories told with the drumbeat keeping pace. Really important stories were always told by moonlight and firelight, with the flickering light and the steady light, the fluttering soft breathbeat and the deep vibrating

As they stood at the mouth of his cave, looking out over the Marye's pool, green and gold in the afternoon sun, Nahomet went back under the overhanging rock to his sleeping place. Taking a pinch of dirt, he brought it to Mary and Tom and placed a bit on each of their palms. Curling their fingers over it, he asked
them to take it with them. "For deep dreams," he said.

Mary nodded and Tom said, "Sure, Nahomet. We don't know exactly how we're travelling, but..."

"Let's rub it in," said Mary, and they rubbed Nahomet's dirt into their hands, and as darkness gathered, turned to see the horned moon slipping through the spiky pines.

Following the silver gleam along the stream, Mary and Tom came to where the dark shadow of Treebeard loomed over the water. He had moved even closer in the last two days; one tendril rootlet trailed in the stream.

"Here we are," announced Tom.

"Oh, yes, hearing you coming, feeling breath of human ones, chatterbird voice, Nahomet in your hand I smell."

Mary and Tom held out their dirt smeared hands and one of Treebeard's knotted arms reached down to them. As the tip of a twig touched each of them, a shiver ran over their whole bodies and a shadow came over the moon. Or was there a moon? The air felt close somehow - as though they were surrounded by something soft, yet gritty. It was rather like sinking into the sand at the beach as the waves come in over your feet. Before they had a chance to feel uncomfortable, or to think up such worries as how to breathe, the darkness around them became even more solid, and their shivering became a humming.

"We're in the bedrock under Treebeard's feet," thought Tom, wondering how he knew that. Fast as a sound, they felt themselves humming along and then suddenly the gritty softness again and then they were there. Everything was still and at the same time intensely alive.

Neither Mary nor Tom was ever able to put into words what they learned in the Old One's presence, or how long they spent there with him. Later, strange bits of knowledge would come up out of nowhere. Like the roses. Helping Grandfather with his beloved roses the next spring, Mary found herself with a handful of
water, trickling it onto the bare root ball of a new rose.

"What are you doing, my girl?" her grandfather asked.

"They like to be waked up this way," she said. "Tickled. They've been asleep, and this is like the spring thaw tickling their roots."

"I don't think I've ever seen it done that way," Grandfather said doubtfully. "But let's try something - treat these three your way, and these other three we'll do it as my grandfather taught me."

The new leaves on Mary's roses uncurled two weeks before Grandfather's, and the bushes bloomed longer - though with fewer blooms, because she said they didn't want that nasty tasting fertilizer he applied every spring. Grandfather was curious, but Mary couldn't say exactly how she knew how roses felt and when she saw Tom they giggled over the ticklish roses and remembered the Old One.

Their visit, or audience, had been short and long, timeless and calm, yet electric with thoughts, feelings, energy. There were no words of greeting, but they both felt accepted there as though they had been expected. Or as though nothing unexpected happened to the Old One.

So it seemed as if a moment or an eternity had passed when they felt his presence fading. This time, though, the deep humming of bedrock gave way after a time to a silky hurrying in the darkness. There were others with them, uncounted others slipping along as they tumbled on, running free, then squeezed and slowing, then breaking free to roll on over bumps and around bends, spreading out thin, rushing on in a burst. Rock spoke to them as they flew by, rolling off a grain of sand, dissolving a mote of silica into the stream. In the slower stretches when
they spread into pools, the inquisitive voices of roots questioned them, politely inquiring, "Do you carry food?" Or in a cool rush, messages they had been carrying were greedily sucked up and disappeared.

Always they were jostled, bumped and giggled over by a billion others just like them, water voices burbling along in cheerful companionship. The voices were so numerous and so similar Mary couldn't tell them apart. Even Tom's voice sounded the same, but he said things like "Wow!" and "Look out - I don't believe we just did that!" and "Mary? Are you still out there?" The water voices shouted, laughed, yelled: "Here we go!" "Bumper cars!" and "Going up!" "See ya, fellows!" "I'm off!" There was no time to think, no need to make decisions, it was all rush and tumble as they were drawn up by the roots or down by gravity into hairline

Once they felt a slowing that became pressure; Tom would have held his breath if he had been breathing. When they inched along to a freer place, Mary felt a burst of colors - turquoise, chalk white, translucent green - take the place of the black, gray, brown darkness.

As she gasped, Tom felt new textures in the thick adobe clay - like silk, wetness, tiny points of iciness. A sudden sensation of space all around him made him giddy.

Slipping, slithering, they slid down both sides of - "a stalagtite!" breathed Mary - broke free and fell through air. "Plop!" "Splash!" And then they were carried on again; back in the dark, flowing on through an underground channel, they ran and slipped through tunnels, caves and pools, always sliding downhill.

Tom smelled it first. "Mary, what's that smell?"

"Brown," said Mary cryptically.

And suddenly they could see - the dense rockiness around them began to feel crumbly. "Like a chocolate chip cookie!" laughed Tom as he bumped over a small stone and worked his way upwards, propelled along by a million or so of his
fellows pushing up from behind.

A flash of silver surprised him as he came briefly face to face with a large round disk which stared back, seeming almost as surprised.

"Hey," Tom gasped, as he was sucked in, swept back and expelled again from a cold fish gill into the warm spring water. Swirling around he found Mary again and they were drawn upwards, floating up toward a lighter space as colors revolved and bubbled around them. New voices called and commented - rich green voices, golden sun voices, dripping like honey into their pool. Nervous minnow voices whispered, and squeaked, "What's that?" "Shadow, shadow, turn left, turn left!" Under the babble a steady hum and burble came up from the muddy bottom where snails shared their slow thoughts with mud, lying placid on the floor of the spring pool.

With a burst of light splinters Mary came crashing up through the surface of a pond, scattering water droplets whose voices had become tiny - giggles and shrieks that were becoming splashes as she listened. Tom followed a moment later, feeling suddenly very solid as he broke through the water mirror into air. Both kids drew great lungfuls of sweet summer air and as it pumped through their veins, felt as though the air itself were blowing them up.

"I feel like a balloon!" Mary laughed.

"Pop, an arm, look at that!" her companion replied.

"Hey, we're back!" she sang to no one in particular, and was answered by a chorus of bird song, wind song, and far back in the woods, a contented, questioning "Hooomm."

As they stretched out on the bank, simply feeling the sun on drying skin, wordless, the Marye came cautiously to the surface and watched them silently for a moment. "It is you, isn't it?" it finally inquired. "Didn't expect you to drop in so soon. Or weren't you in the pool? How did you...oh, it must have been a trip and a half!" it concluded exhultantly.

Tom and Mary looked at each other and just laughed.

"Oh, yes," May said finally, "But I haven't the words for it."

"Not yet," said Tom hastily, as the Marye began to pout. "I think a poem is definitely in order. Something with alot of sharp stuff in it and really fast, and …"

"Gray, like pearls, and blue like the sky as soon as it's really dark, and all that shivery silver..."

"And the tree..."

"The roots all grown around, braided like my Grandma's hair in that old picture..."

"and all of it alive," concluded Tom.

"Yeah," said Mary, and fell silent again.

Despite the Marye's pleadings, they never were able to put that trip into words. But it stayed with them for the rest of their lives.