4240 words, short story
The Painter of Trees
2020 Finalist: Theodore A. Sturgeon Memorial Award
2020 Finalist: WSFA Small Press Award
I go down to the gate, swipe my security pass, and step through the ten-meter tall, still-opening doors into the last of the wild lands. I remove my boots at the threshold and set them on a rack for that purpose, then carefully wash my feet from the basin of rainwater, still chill from the night before. When the doors have closed and sealed again, I remove my clothes. There is no one on this side of the wall to see who would take either advantage or offense at my nakedness. I wash my body from the same basin, shivering from the shock of the cold, before I remove the plain linen cloth from its hook above the rack and wrap it around myself. And then I walk down the path to find the painter of trees.
The path curves over a small slope and then down a kilometer or so to the glade at the edge of a forest. The vegetation changes around me as I walk, from the familiar sharp-bladed grasses that have crept over the wall and seeded themselves along its perimeter, to the tiny, delicate frills of blue-green of the grass that first grew here, now in forced retreat. I know how soft they would be under my bare feet, how they would tickle, but also how easily they will crush and die, and though I know I will surely give into temptation one last time before they are gone forever, this time I keep to the stones.
The trees here are, outwardly, very similar to the trees of home, except for their smooth exteriors and symmetrical branching. Their leaves are wide, gold-green, open cones, grouped in threes at the end of each stem, which catch and hold rain for a long while after a storm. Cut a tree open, though, and you find neither rings nor wood at all, but hexagonal cells all tucked neatly together, larger the closer to the center they are. Each one is capable, if broken free, of starting a new tree by itself, but together they each serve different functions, observed to change over time as both external conditions and each cell’s internal position in the whole changes.
Mathematically, structurally, the trees are beautiful as they are naturally. Among them there are flashes of bright color, vibrant pigments carefully etched into shallow scratches in the trunks forming intricate, hypnotic patterns, no two the same, none less compelling than the others. There have been days I have spent hours staring at them, or at our archived 3-D images, and always there is that sense that some vast understanding of the meaning of being is just there, in the lines, waiting for me to finally understand.
From here, I can see signs the trees are dying.
The small valley has a river that winds through it, and I cross a bridge made of carefully placed stones to the far side. I can see the large stick-ball nests up in the canopy above, fewer with each visit, and I can smell smoke.
I find Tski tending to the fire as one of the nest balls, carefully extricated from its perch in the trees above and set upon stones, crackles and hisses in flame.
Tski sees me, and turns toward me—the Ofti don’t have heads, per se, with all the functions we think of as specific to heads integrated in with the rest of their singular, horizontal lump of a body the same color as the leaves above. It stands atop nine legs—it lost three in an accident, it told me once—that are fine, graceful arcs that end in three pieces that can come together as a sharp, dangerous point, or open to function like fingers.
I sit on the ground, eye level with it. After a while it speaks, a complex series of whistles, clicks, and trills, that my implant decodes for me.
“I am sorry that Ceye has died,” I say, and the implant moments later returns that in Tski’s own language.
“Ceye ate the new grasses and became sick,” Tski tells me. “Ceye was afraid we would starve when the old grasses are gone, with your wall between us and other meadows.”
There are no other meadows, though; that is why there is a wall. It was carefully placed so that you can’t see it from here, in the heart of the forest valley, but that was before we knew the animals here were intelligent tree-dwellers and could likely see from the canopy. But still, they cannot see over it, which is for the best.
Tski swivels its body again, back and forth for a few long minutes. It is thinking. “Do your people eat the new grasses?” it asked at last.
“No,” I say, because we do not.
“Then why did you bring them?”
“It is part of our native ecosystem,” I explain.
“Even the soil and the air do not taste right any longer,” Tski says, and it picks up a stick with its tiny finger-blades and pokes the fire.
In the silence, I look around the glade. “Where are the others?”
“Desperate,” Tski says. “They have gone to look for hope.”
There is no response to give to that. “Will you paint Ceye’s tree?” I ask instead.
“When her nest is cold ash, and I can mix it with the colors,” Tski says. “Only then will I paint. I am almost out of warm-sky-midday-blue, which we traveled to meadow-by-the-five-hills to obtain. I am too old to go, and only Ceye also knew the way. Unless you also could go?”
“I can’t,” I say. Because it is not there, but also because even if it was, it is not something the council would accept. There is no way forward except forward, they would admonish me, no path to success without steadiness of thought, purpose, and action.
The burning nest has collapsed down into itself, its once-intricate woven structure now a chaos of ember and ash.
“It does not matter,” Tski says at last. “There are only the three others and myself left now, and there will be no one to paint for the last of us that goes.”
The Ofti pokes the fire a few more times, then lays its stick carefully aside. “Tomorrow,” it says.
“May I come watch?”
“I cannot stop you,” Tski says.
“If you could, would you?”
“Yes. But it is too late now. You are strange, squishy people and you move as if you are always in the act of falling, but instead it is everyone around you who falls and does not rise again,” Tski says. “And so it will also be with us.”
“Yes,” I answer in turn. It is a good summation of who we are, and what we do: we are teeth on a cog, always moving forward and doing our part until we fall away and the next tooth takes up our work in turn.
I get up from the ground, my legs stiff, and stretch. “Tomorrow, then.”
I make the walk back to the gate without looking back, but my thoughts drag on me.
The Council members wait for the beginning chime, and all take their seats around the table with precise synchronicity, so that no one is ahead, no one is behind. The table is circular and is inlaid with a stylized copper cog design, so that each member is reminded that the way forward for each of them is with the others. This is how steadiness of purpose is maintained.
And hatred, Joesla thinks, as each face opposite perfectly reflects the righteous moral bankruptcy of their own. “I propose, with some urgency, that we take whatever steps are necessary to preserve the remaining Ofti population and environs before it is lost forever.”
“We already have extensive samples—” Tauso, to her left, says. He is the biological archivist, and his expression suggests he has found a personal criticism in her words.
“Forgive me, your collection is unassailable in its diligence and scope. I was speaking in regards to the still-living population,” Joesla interrupts.
“It is already too late.” Motas speaks from directly across the table. There is no leader among them by consensus, but Motas—always rigid, always perfect in his adherence to the letter of their laws—leads them anyway. “There are only four left; they no longer have sufficient genetic diversity to survive, even if we did find some way to insulate them from the planetary terraforming changes.”
“With Tauso’s collection, we could bolster their gene pool,” Joesla says.
“To what end? A great expenditure of effort and resources for something that gives us nothing in return? Your proposal is backwards thinking,” Motas says.
“Not for the Ofti,” Joesla counters. “They have a unique culture and language that should not be discarded so hastily. I know it has been a long time since any of you have spent time among them, but—”
“The Ofti have no future. They are already gone, but for a few final moments,” Motas interrupts. “Does anyone here second Joesla’s proposal that we abandon our own guiding principles for this lost cause?”
Many should, but none will or do. Tauso does not meet Joesla’s eyes—and why should he, she thinks bitterly, when he has what he is required to save already? His silence is a betrayal of both her and himself.
“The matter is settled, then,” Motas declares. “Forward.”
“Forward,” some portion of the council responds, some with enthusiasm, some less so. Tauso is silent with Joesla, but it is too late, too small a gesture in the face of his earlier cowardice, and she will not forgive him this day. Now there is a necessary discussion of high-speed rail lines, anticipated crop yields in the newly reformed soil, and planning for the next wave of colonists; they cannot linger for one member’s wasteful, wasted regret.
There is smoke rising from the glade again. I try not to hurry down the path—I remind myself that I am an observer here, nothing more—but if my steps are quicker than usual, who would there be to accuse me? No one else comes here.
Tski is hopping back and forth unsteadily, whether because of its missing legs or its great agitation, beside a large, roaring bonfire. It does not have its tending stick, and the flames spark and flare and crackle with uncontrolled abandon. Dimly within the bright fire I can make out three shapes, three nest balls.
“What happened?” I ask.
It takes several minutes for my translator to make sense of Tski’s distressed whistles, but at last it speaks: “The others walked the circumference of the wall, back to where they started, and found no cause for hope. They have returned home and burned themselves. I tried to stop them, but I could not.”
I see now its awkwardness of movement is because many of its remaining legs are burned.
I do not know what to do.
“Sesh. Awsa. Eesn. That was their names,” Tski says. “Awsa and Eesn were children of my children. They should be here with their long lives ahead to remember my last days, and not this.”
“I am sorry,” I say.
“Are you?” Tski asks. The fires still rage, and some of the native grass beside the stones has caught, but the Ofti either does not notice or ignores this. Does it matter which?
“I don’t know,” I say. Through the wavering heat and smoke, I can see that Tski had started already to paint Ceye’s tree, no doubt wanting to get it done before I could arrive and be an unwelcome witness. It must have been doing that when the others returned to end their lives, as there are leaves on the ground around the base of the trunk, their cones filled with different colors, and I can see the silvery lines of etching up the tree trunk that had not yet been filled. The effect is still mesmerizing, even so unfinished, and I feel momentarily lost in it again. Then the realization strikes me: with its legs burned, Tski will not be able to finish the painting, will not take me that one step closer to elusive understanding. And at that, my heart catches in my throat, and I feel now the loss that Joesla had warned us of like a million cuts in my skin. Too late, too late!
“Can I help you paint?” I ask.
It is the wrong thing to say. “Go!” Tski cries. “These are not here for you, for your eyes or alien thoughts. These are our memories, made in love of one another, a declaration for future generations, and you have destroyed us. Leave now and do not return.”
I stand there for a while. Tski watches the fires burn, and does not move to tend it, nor to throw itself upon it. The thought that Tski might burn the grove down once I am gone keeps me there longer, until at last the burning nests have been consumed and the grassfire has died out, leaving a three-meter blackened, jagged scar on the land, an indelible fracture that will never grow back.
Tski makes a sound that the translation implant cannot work with, perhaps because it is not a word, just inarticulate grief. I should not have come, should not have stayed this long. These conversations with Tski have not been forward-thinking, and I know this, and knew better, but yet I came. It is a defect in my commitment to my own people that I let strangeness and novelty tempt me.
“I am sorry,” I say again, and this time I leave.
I stay on the path, even though my feet want to walk upon the native grasses one last time, because I am certain I will not come again.
At the gate, I leave my linen shift, bathe again with the lukewarm water, and when the sun and meager breeze has left my skin chill and mostly dry I dress and gather my things and put my real life back on.
The gates open, and despite a life of training and my commitment to our ways and philosophies, this time I look back.
Tski is coming up the path toward me. It is moving with difficulty and obvious pain, made the worse by the urgency with which it is trying to catch up to me. I should not have looked back, should now turn and step through the gate and close the doors for this last time, but I cannot.
Tski stops a few meters from me, and almost collapses before it gathers its strength to stand tall again. “Show me,” it says.
“What?” I ask. I do not understand.
“Show me what is now outside this wall, where once my children played and ran and climbed. Show me what you have done with my world, what you have that is so much better than us.”
On my side of the wall, it is city under construction, a thousand identical structures for ten thousand people, all looking only forward, in the direction we, the council, point. There is no art, no individual movement away from the whole, nothing rare to puzzle over. It is an existence I am proud of, and proud of my part in, but it is only for us and I do not want to explain or justify any of it, nor have to face the council and explain myself.
“No,” I say.
“Could you stop me?” Tski asks.
“Yes,” I say.
“Would you, if you could?”
“Yes,” I say again.
“Then stop me,” Tski says, and it steps around me and heads toward the gates.
I take the small gun from my bag. All council members carry one for protection, for moments of dispensing justice, and although I have never used it except in training, it is solid and comfortable in my hand, and with it I kill Tski.
It crumples, and becomes still, and in the removal of its animation it becomes just a thing, a leftover bit of debris from this world that has been repurposed. Now, I can turn my back and proceed through the gates and return to this city of ours, and be whole and compliant in forward-thinking again.
Joesla speaks barely a moment after the council chime has rung and everyone has settled in their seats. “The Ofti are extinct,” she says. “Three of the remaining population appear to have self-immolated, and the last was found dead at the exterior gates with significant burns. I recommend a necropsy to determine the cause.”
“Surely it must have succumbed to the burns?” Motas says.
“There may be things we can learn—”
“Counselor Tauso, do we have any incomplete biological or behavioral data that could still be obtained from this specimen, if retrieved?” Motas asks.
Tauso looks miserable. His eyes are puffy, as if he has been crying, though none would ask and none would admit such a thing in his place. Tears only ever serve the past. “No,” he says, his voice barely a whisper, then he speaks again louder and more firmly. “No.”
“Then what would you propose we learn from such a procedure, Counselor Joesla? Its death is sooner than we would have anticipated, but it was also inevitable, and its cause does seem self-evident.”
I want to know why it crawled all that way, after being burned, to die at our gate, Joesla wants to say, but Motas is right, for all she hates it. The Ofti was old and injured. There is no purpose now, nothing to be gained, and whatever the Ofti wanted in its last moments was already lost to them. “I feel it would be a matter of completeness of record,” she says instead.
“So noted,” Motas says. “Does anyone second that proposal?”
There are hesitations, shared looks, mutual avoidance, but in the end, predictably, no one does.
“There is the matter of the grove and it surrounding lands,” Avel brings up, from Joesla’s right. “We had spoken about keeping it as is, as an educational, historical attraction. If we wish to do so, we should act now before the remaining grass and trees deteriorate further; it would only be a matter of a week or two of work to encase everything individually so they are preserved in their current state.”
“It is a waste of space that could be used for something productive,” Banad speaks up.
“I would vote for preservation,” Joesla says.
“As would I,” Tauso adds.
Motas turns to Avel. “I propose you bring the full details of a preservation project to our next meeting, so we may view and assess its merits and costs objectively. Banad, if you have an alternate proposal, then likewise we need all the relevant specifics and an objective justification for why it is a better use of the space. Does anyone second me?”
Tauso nods, and swallows. “I do,” he says.
“Good. Forward,” Motas says, and then they adjourn.
The grove looks the same as the last time I was here, but it feels empty.
It has not rained here in weeks—the moisture-laden clouds were needed elsewhere, with our fledgling farms—so the ash and small remains of the three burned nests have not washed away. I walk around them to where Tski had set up his leaves of paint, and I sit in front of them, and I look at the trees, dozens and dozens of them, here and in the forest behind, many freshly painted, many more marking the fading record of thousands of generations gone.
I still do not comprehend my own attraction, how this uncivilized, unrefined, unforward art can feel so alive, so in the moment, so connecting. So utterly alien. Perhaps it is the simple act of remembering the dead, when I come from a people where to mourn, to grieve, to remember those who are no longer part of the future, is the most foolish backward thinking of all.
Yet it is the painted trees that keep drawing me here, and they are still here; Tski was, ultimately, an obstacle to my full and peaceful enjoyment of them. Surely, though none of this would exist without the Ofti, now it is ours. Mine.
There is pride and relief as I think this, and also a deep shame that feels wrapped around the core of my being. Guilt is a backwards emotion and I disavow that shame, even if it will not leave me be. Instead, I find that the more I study them, the more the designs on the trees seem to be mocking me, forever locked away from my comprehension. Tski must have followed me, made me kill it, because it knew that by doing so it would steal this from me.
The worst is the half-finished memorial on Ceye’s tree. I should have stayed here that day and forced Tski back to work, forced it to finish this last tree, so that I could have the whole now, and walk away satisfied that I missed and lost nothing. But it is broken, like Tski is broken, and it is Tski’s doing that both should be so.
I did not change my clothes nor leave my things at the gate; there is no fear of bringing microorganisms with me that could damage what is already, functionally, administratively dead. From my bag I take out blue paint that I had made in one of our autofab units. Holding it now against the blue in Tski’s leaf, I see mine is darker, not the right shade at all. But it will be close enough! Blue is blue. I use my fingers and I rub it on Ceye’s tree, press it into the scratches Tski left with my fingertips, until, breathing heavily from the exertion, I stand back again to admire my own accomplishment.
It is a mess, an inarticulate, artless smear.
I take several deep breaths, and then I go back in and I try again, using my fingernails instead of fingertips, trying to work with the flow of the lines, trying to find how it is supposed to go. I chip my nails, and several bleed before I give up, recap my jar of paint, and stand back to see that I have just made it worse.
I do not understand how I—I!—could fail at this frivolous thing that some dead animal moldering in the grass up the hill could comprehend and encompass. I had thought, in my arrogance, in my superior thinking, that after my practice on Ceye’s tree I would for my last act here paint Tski’s tree, and no one would ever know it was me. And thus I would be preserved, and every one of my people who looked here for generations would remember me, even if they did not know they did so. Then I would not just be one undifferentiated tooth on a cog gear, turning forward, resisting backward with all the others, but a fixed point.
I feel in that instant that all I have accomplished is to immortalize my own foolishness, to forever diminish everything I have ever reliably and competently accomplished under a shadow of mockery. Furious—at myself, at Tski for forcing my hand, at this entire planet—I throw down my jar of paint. I had sealed it, but it hits one of the rocks just right (just wrong!) and shatters, and paint droplets fly everywhere—not just onto the disaster I’ve made of Ceye’s tree, but onto others nearby.
“No!” I cry out loud, and I sink to my knees in the dying grasses and am consumed by my own rage and horror.
Joesla stands, trying not to shift impatiently from foot to foot, waiting for the rest of the council to arrive. She is early, but not by much. Banad was already here, clutching his report pad to his chest as if to protect his ambitions from her judging eyes. She has prepared her own argument to back up Avel’s, in case he does not make a compelling enough case on his own against Banad. So much has been lost already, she thinks, but if I can save the tiny fraction left, I will.
One by one others arrive, but other than the sounds of their movement, the chamber remains silent. It is a recognition, she likes to think, of the weighty day ahead of them.
Right at the hour bell the doors slide open again, and Motas comes in, moving more quickly than his usual ponderous and insufferably formal gait, and there is something in his expression she has never seen before. As she tries to untangle and define what is new there, she is distracted by something else: his hands are, inexplicably, stained blue.
“Motas—” she begins to ask, and he visibly flinches at the sound of his own name.
Behind him, Tauso, last of the council to arrive, runs into the chamber. He is heaving for breath, his face red with sweat and something more, something the opposite of Motas’.
“The Ofti grove!” he shouts. “It’s on fire! Arson! The whole forest has gone up!”
Everyone turns just as the council chime sounds, and the acrid smell of smoke drifts in through the doors behind Tauso, a ghost with the swagger of an uninvited guest and accusations of murder on its breath, and it settles itself around a shivering Motas like a linen shroud.
Suzanne Palmer is a writer, artist, and linux system administrator who lives in western Massachusetts with her kids, lots of chickens, and an Irish Wolfhound named Tolkien. She won the 2018 Hugo for Best Novelette for her Clarkesworld story “The Secret Life of Bots,” and its sequel, “Bots of the Lost Ark,” is a nominee for the 2022 Hugo. She has no idea what color her hair is anymore.