Brizzle saw them first and alerted the rest of us. I had heard about the two-limbed creatures, but had never seen one. Soon I would. I wondered if I would survive it.
Twink brushed against me. “Will they kill us, Faust?”
The agitation of the cluster vibrated through me like the passing of the furry, horned ones. Everyone was scared. Everyone wondered if the stories we had been told when we were saps were true and not just made-up. You behave now, or the two-limbs will get you, the old ones had threatened.
“The two-limbs will not harm you,” I said to Twink.
A flurry of movement accompanied a ragged cackle. “Do not lie to the sap.” Old Clartha shook a withered, brown limb at me. “They will kill every last one of us, given time.”
Twink shook. The other little saps nearby trembled as well.
“Do not pay any attention to her,” I said. “The sky-fire has affected her mind.”
Old Clartha’s good side swayed toward me. “I might be old and half-dead, but I have not forgotten what was told to me by my mother-tree, and her mother-tree before her, and farther back still.”
Twink said, “What did she tell you?” Her question was echoed over and over by all the younger ones in the cluster. Saps were so curious; they always wanted to know the whys and wherefores of everything.
Clartha straightened her trunk as much as she was able. She rustled her leaves. The saps quieted.
“Many, many sun-cycles ago, so many that all who were alive then have returned to the root-source, a cold, white hush fell over the world,” Clartha said. “And out of this hush, the two-limbs came into existence. They were cold inside like the hush that had sprouted them. They cared not about the root-source and all that it nourished. All they cared about were themselves.”
Twink shivered. “What happened then?”
I should have spoken up, told Old Clartha to be quiet, but I was as curious as the saps were to hear her words. I had never heard this story before, only vague warnings from the old ones about the fabled two-limbs and their murderous ways.
Old Clartha continued. “The sun grew hotter and the white hush retreated. The two-limbs spread outward, and wherever they went, they killed. The sky creatures, the earth creatures, all fell before them. They slaughtered entire clusters of us, used us for shelters, and other things too horrible to mention.”
Fear stabbed my trunk; my limbs clacked together. “What things?”
Old Clartha crowed. “Now you listen to me, Faust, now that the two-limbs—”
“They are here.” Brizzle’s excited voice interrupted Old Clartha. “Right here beneath me.”
The cluster stilled. Not a whisper, not a rustle of leaf nor creak of limb broke the anxious silence.
Brizzle said, “They are taking off pieces of themselves and laying them on the root-source. Odd…”
The cluster became one, melded its consciousness into the collective, and looked through Brizzle and others who were close to the two-limbs.
They were strange, and not quite what I had expected. Instead of two limbs, they had four like the other earth creatures, but used only two for walking. Something that was neither feathers nor fur, sprouted from their tops. And from there on down, big chunks of bark loosely covered their trunks.
“What are they doing?” said Brizzle’s daughter, Zlip.
All concentrated their focus with young Zlip, watching as the two-limbs wandered about, using their top two limbs to gather parts of the Ancient Ones who slept upon the root-source. They dumped the crumbly pieces into a pile, eliciting faint protests from the Ancient Ones. What did the two-limbs think they were doing? It was wrong to disturb one who was journeying back into the root-source.
An uneasy murmur rippled through the cluster.
One of the two-limbs lowered itself next to the decaying pieces, and moved its top limbs back and forth. A flash like a small sky-fire leapt from the tips. In moments the flash turned into hungry flames, feeding on the remains of the Ancient Ones. They cried out in pain.
Oh, the horror of it! The Ancient Ones were being consumed before they had returned to the root-source, and the two-limbs were the cause, not the sky-fire that in the times of the hot, dry winds had killed entire clusters.
Clartha was right: they would kill us all.
Sickened and helpless, we watched and listened as the Ancient Ones burned.
The sun slipped from the sky. Darkness fell over the root-source. A glowing circle hovered around the burning remains of the Ancient Ones, and there the two-limbs clumped together. After a time, they stretched out their trunks upon the root-source.
The cluster buzzed. Everyone was angry. Everyone was scared. What would the two-limbs do next?
An uneasy dark-time crawled by filled with whispers of “what ifs” and “will theys”. Limbs rustled nervously. Saps quivered. And as the sun rose to spread its light and warmth upon the root-source, the two-limbs rose also and moved deeper into the cluster.
I followed their progress through the collective’s sight. Occasionally they stopped, waved their upper limbs about and made their strange sounds. A few times, a two-limb touched one of us—and that tree froze in terror at being singled out—then moved on.
And at last, the two-limbs came close enough that I did not have to see them through others; I saw them for myself.
Beside me, Twink whimpered. Her slender limbs brushed my trunk.
I swept a leafy branch over her top. “Shh…it will be all right.”
But I was wrong.
The two-limbs paused beneath Old Clartha’s ragged canopy. Again, they waved their top limbs, gesturing here and there. One turned in my direction and stretched out a limb toward me. Fear gripped me; my trunk felt as if it were wrapped in the cold-time. Would it send a sky-fire to eat me?
“There are worse things than being broken apart,” Old Clartha said. “Even in pieces one can still return to the root-source. But if one burns…”
Twink shook with fright. I was too scared to admonish Old Clartha, too scared to assure the sap that everything would be all right.
Brizzle said, “No more, Clartha. Everyone is worried enough without you making it worse.”
“The sky-fire hurts so bad,” Old Clartha whined. “It burns, it hurts—”
“I said, no more!”
Old Clartha chortled.
Again, the two-limbs brandished their top limbs and made their noises. Then, they all turned toward Old Clartha. One patted her trunk. Then another.
Old Clartha’s laugh ended abruptly. “What? They are touching me.” Her terror ran rampant through the cluster.
A two-limb raised one of its limbs that now ended in an odd-looking, shiny bulge. It pulled the limb away from Old Clartha, then brought it back, sinking the tip into the side of her that had been damaged by the sky-fire.
A combined wail erupted from the cluster.
The strange limb made contact again, sending pieces of Old Clartha’s rotting bark flying. The saps squealed, the mature trees hissed, the old ones moaned. Again and again the shiny tip bit into Old Clartha’s trunk. Hysteria vibrated throughout the cluster.
But then I noticed…
Old Clartha was silent. She did not scream, she did not tremble. She did not appear as if she were hurting at all. Her fear was gone, and in its place, I felt a cold, seething anger.
Around me, the cluster wailed and keened and shook. They did not realize that the two-limb was not hurting Clartha. Chunks of her were being gouged out, and she did not feel pain. How could that be?
“It is my bad side,” Old Clartha said. “I have not felt anything there since the sky-fire hit me. Remember the sky-fire, Faust? You remind me of it every chance you get.”
“I am sorry…”
“Ah well, good excuse to say whatever you want—the sky-fire damaged my mind, I cannot help myself.” She snickered.
Below, the strange limb was passed to another of the two-limbs. It moved onto the crumbly wood that littered the root-source around Old Clartha, and waved the odd-shaped limb. The tip bit deep into Old Clartha.
She winced. “Getting close.”
“Will it hurt when it reaches the part of you that is undamaged?”
“Do not talk like a silly sap, of course it will.”
“How can you stay so calm, when around you…” I gestured with my branches. “…everyone else is frantic?”
“I have to stay calm. When the time is right, I am going down. And you are going to help me.”
“Going down? No, you cannot.”
“I can and I will.” Old Clartha laughed softly. “Besides, it does not look like I have much choice, now does it, Faust?”
“I…well…” Pieces of Old Clartha smacked my trunk. “No.”
“But with your help, I can choose where I go down.”
“What does it matter?” My limbs drooped.
Old Clartha gently swept me with a gnarled limb. “Ah, Faust, do not be sad. I have had a long life, a good life. Look at it this way: I will not be around to scare the saps anymore.”
“They do not pay any attention to you. They know—”
“What?” I straightened up in a flurry of leaves and branches. “What is it?”
“Lean over against me.”
“What do you mean?”
Old Clartha cried out in pain. The cluster shrieked.
“Now, Faust,” Old Clartha said. “Lean against me. NOW!”
I swayed toward her, bringing all my branches with me, coming in contact with her good side.
I leaned harder, my trunk creaking and popping with the effort. I stiffened my limbs and pushed, pushed, pushed! I felt Old Clartha toppling, heard the splintering of her trunk.
“Thank you, Faust…”
I closed my mind, but still, dimly, I felt her slam onto the root-source, felt her pain, and I felt her…what? What was that?
A faint cackle?
And the loud buzz of the two-limbs’ noises.
Below, Old Clartha lay busted and broken upon the root-source. And beneath her mighty trunk and crooked branches, two of the two-limbs lay pinned and motionless. The others swarmed around Old Clartha, brandishing their limbs and howling like the sleek-furred packs that preyed upon the small earth creatures. I did not comprehend their noise any more than I did any other creature’s noise; but I discerned anguish in their babble. And it pleased me.
For a moment, I felt ashamed that I had taken pleasure in another’s pain. Then I remembered the cries of the Ancient Ones’, cries that had reverberated throughout the cluster the preceding dark-time, and I felt shame no more.
The two-limbs pushed against Old Clartha, but she was too big and too heavy, and they were too little and too puny; they could not budge her. Their dead remained trapped beneath the tangle of branches and fractured trunk of Old Clartha, my mother-tree.
Defeated, their tops hanging over, the two-limbs departed. But I knew they would be back. It was only a matter of time.
©️2019 KT Workman