Tree

In a time once ago, a weary Traveler rested beside a tree, a birch of browning wood and soft green leaves. There was nothing special about this particular tree. It was neither the tallest, nor the widest. It was not the prettiest, or the straightest. In its center there was an ugly dark knot, and its limbs were far too short to give proper shade, but it was still a tree.

So the Traveler sat beneath it, eating an apple, and watering his horse at a nearby stream. When he was done he discarded the core beside the tree, and decided to settle in for the night. The tired man had a long road ahead and was none too eager to be on his way.

As the man set about building his fire he was unaware of the two creatures that watched him. Two ravens, Vel and Sloegr, sat upon a limb of the birch and watched the Traveler as he went about his business. Finally noticing the discarded apple core, it was Vel who soared down the trunk and returned with the prize that both brothers consumed. It was a feast like none they had ever had.

“Brother,” said Sloegr, “This has been a feast like none we have ever had.”

“Truly, brother,” replied Vel, “truly. Yet, tomorrow we will starve again.”

“Perhaps not,” said Sloegr, “for I have a proposal.”

And so, the two ravens discussed their plot and the Traveler went about his business. He cleared away the brush, stacked stones for a pit, constructed the wood for a proper fire, and unpacked his blankets. Once all was complete he rested beside his meager campfire, longing for the comforts of home and dreading the road ahead.

That night the weary Traveler dreamed as he slept beside that birch of browning wood and soft green leaves. There was nothing special about these particular dreams. They were neither the sweetest, nor the most pleasurable. They were not the most agreeable, or the gentlest. In their center was an ugly dark moment, and the harmonious parts were far too short to give proper comfort, but they were still dreams.

So, when the Traveler awoke he found himself once again beneath the birch tree, and he heard two voices.

“Ho, there,” said Sloegr hopping along the ground toward the Traveler. “Do not have dread.”

“Truly,” replied Vel to the man, “truly, for we are creatures of temperate nature.”

“We are guardians of this sacred place,” said Sloegr. “For, you have spent your night beneath the Great Tree of Prosperity.”

“I have?” replied the Traveler.

“Truly,” said Vel, “truly you have.”

“This tree,” said Sloegr stopping only to peck through the cinders of the man’s long cooled fire, “it is a place of great magic. Many generations ago a powerful witch carved her runes inside the trunk of this tree. Now it grants prosperity and happiness to any who offer it the sacrifice of food, as you have.”

“I did?” asked the Traveler.

“Truly,” said Vel, “truly, you offered it part of your supper, the core of your apple.”

“As you can see,” said Sloegr, “The apple core is gone, and you have received your reward.”

The Traveler looked around for the apple core and found that what the raven brothers said was true. The core was gone. “I am unsure,” said the man at last. “The apple core has vanished, but I recall receiving nothing in return?”

“Of course,” said Sloegr, “of course you did. Your slumber was restful and safe. Your dreams were both pleasant and fulfilling.”

“I do not remember my dreams,” said the Traveler.

“Truly,” said Vel, “truly you do. They were as honeyed as your love’s kiss, and as comforting as your mother’s smile. Now you feel as rested as you have ever felt.”

“I suppose,” said the Traveler.

“Do more than suppose, my good man,” chimed in Sloegr. “For during the night a fearsome wolf was prowling nearby and yet he did not come near, because all beasts and forces respect the Great Tree of Prosperity. It has saved your life.”

“Truly?” Asked the man

“Truly,” replied Vel, “truly.”

“And that was all done with only the sacrifice of a single apple’s core. More food yields greater results and continued prosperity and happiness. We know this because we are the guardians of this tree.”

“I will admit,” said the Traveler, “I am none too eager to move on. I do suppose I could stay for another night, and perhaps this time I will offer more food, a small loaf of rye perhaps, and some stone fruit.”

“The great tree will appreciate that sacrifice even more, and you will be blessed for your contribution,” said Sloegr with eager appetite. “Yet, we must warn you, for the tree is also protected, as are we. If you kill either myself or my brother, than you and yours will experience a plague of misery unlike any you have ever comprehended. Nor can you cut the tree down, for that would mean death to any who attempt so.”

“I understand,” said the Traveler. “I swear I will uphold these vows.”

So the Traveler stayed another night and the ravens feasted as they never had before on bread of rye and sweet cold fruit with pits of stone. That night the man slept as if he were dead and when he awoke he talked of pleasant dreams and warm sunshine. He talked of how the stream was clear and soothing and the land seemed serene and gay.

Satisfied, the man went on his way and as he traveled he told others of the Great Tree of Prosperity. He told them of the fortune it brought him and the protection it offered. The story spread as the man passed through the countryside, through inns and taverns, through villages and cities, carried by old and young, rich and poor.

Upon reaching his destination the man was married to a reliable woman of middling beauty. There he stayed for a year’s time with the family of his bride. Upon the coming of a new spring he set off on his return from that far off errand, with his new wife in tow. When the Traveler happened upon the spot where he had once rested and met the two ravens, instead of empty wood, he found that a small community had risen up around the tree.

The town sat beside that birch of browning wood and soft green leaves. There was nothing special about this particular community. It was neither the grandest, nor the richest. It was not the most populated, or the prettiest. In its center there was an ugly dark stump, and its houses were far too small to give proper shelter, but it was still a community.

There were pens for animals, nets across the stream, and parts of the forest had been cleared for crops and timber. Roads and other paths were laid from house to house. When the Traveler arrived he was greeted by the Farmer and the Baker. They welcomed him to their town, as did the Fisher and his wife. The Carpenter was busy making chairs while his children ran around under foot. The wives of the Woodsman and the Hunter set a place at the table for the Traveler and his new wife.

Soon the couple was part of the community. The Carpenter and the Woodsman helped them build their house. The Farmer showed them how to grow crops. The Baker gave them fresh bread in exchange for the songs the Traveler sang each night. Together the small town of people grew and prospered, just as the raven brothers had promised. Though they were not rich, the town was happy and healthy. They shared their wares and skills with one another freely and no one was without want or need.

The seasons turned and the days progressed. The town grew in the passing years as children were born, newcomers were welcomed, and everyone did their part. Each night, they never forgot to leave an offering of food beneath the birch tree. Each morning the food would be gone and the town would be happy for another day. This was an important ritual, for everyone knew that without the sacrifice to the Great Tree of Prosperity their town would fail. They knew it as they knew the sun would rise and the wind would blow.

Meanwhile, each night Sloegr and Vel ate a feast like none they had ever had. Over the years the two brothers grew fat and lazy.

“Brother,” said Sloegr “I feel so fat and lazy.”

“Truly,” said Vel, “truly, I do as well. Each night we have a feast like none we have ever had.”

Yet, this state of affairs was not meant to last. For one day the Traveler and his young son were out hunting, as Vel was digging around the underbrush for worms. Mistaking the fat raven for a grouse the Traveler raised his bow and shot the bird through its heart. It was only too late that the man noticed his mistake.

Sloegr screamed at the sight of his dead brother. “You have killed my brother,” he said.

“I did not mean to,” said the Traveler. “I mistook him for a fat grouse that I was going to cook for stew.”

“Stew?” said Sloegr. “It will be you who is in a stew when it is discovered what you have done. A plague of misery will descend on your town like none you have ever known.”

Then the raven flew to the ugly dark stump in the center of the town and began to caw to the people. “This man has killed my brother. He has slain one of the guardians of prosperity,” said Sloegr. “Sickness and wretchedness are at hand.”

The Traveler once again raised his bow and shot the second raven brother. Sloegr died on the great dark stump, the man’s arrow through his heart. Yet, the damage had already been done for the townsfolk had begun to gather at the cawing of the bird. Those that did not hear the creature’s words still arrived to find the bird impaled by the Traveler’s arrow on that dark wretched stump. The discovery was quickly followed by dark murmurs and even darker stares. That night the townsfolk nailed the dead ravens to the door of the Traveler and his family, to remind him of what he had wrought.

The next morning the townsfolk discovered that their nightly sacrifice to the Great Tree of Prosperity remained untouched. Many believed that the tree was rejecting the town because they had slain the raven brothers, the tree’s own guardians. By supper time three people had come down with a sickness, including the Traveler’s young son, and even more claimed fever and chills by the following morning.

Some people pleaded for their health beside the birch of browning wood and soft green leaves. Yet, there was nothing special about this sickness. It was neither the deadliest, nor the most infectious. It was not the swiftest, or the most ferocious. In its center there was an ugly dark stomach ache, and its symptoms were far too short to give proper demise, but it was still a sickness.

As the days wore on, more of the people claimed fever and sweats, and the townsfolk grew more distrustful. The Carpenter and the Woodsman no longer helped to build houses. The Farmer no longer showed how to grow crops. The Baker no longer gave fresh bread, and even the Traveler no longer sang each night. Together the small town of people grew fearful and miserable, just as the raven brothers had promised. Though they were not poor, the town was unhappy and unhealthy. They no longer shared their wares and skills with one another freely, and want and greed grew like another sickness in their minds.

The seasons turned and time progressed. Newcomers were no longer welcomed, and everyone kept to themselves. Misery blanketed the town like sackcloth. Each night, they no longer offered food to the birch tree, nor to one another. Their ritual was gone, for everyone knew that without the sacrifice to the Great Tree of Prosperity their town would fail. They knew it as they knew the sun would set and the wind would calm.

Finally, the Traveler’s young son died of his hunger and his fever, and his father and mother wept like none they had ever had.

“This is sorrow like none we have ever had,” said the Traveler.

“Truly,” said his wife. “Truly and tomorrow we will know only misery again.”

“Perhaps,” said the man, “but I have a proposal.”

Grabbing his axe the Traveler left his wife and the comfort of his home and strode to the Great Tree of Prosperity. The townsfolk, ever fearful and ready to blame the man for their sorrows watched as he stopped before the tree, and raised his axe. The people left their houses yelling for him to stop, remembering the final warning of the raven brothers. Death awaited anyone who chopped the tree, but the man was too overcome with grief and determination.

So the townsfolk only stood by in horror as the blows of the Traveler’s axe fell upon the birch tree, over and over, and over again. Sweat poured from the man’s brow as the pounding of his heart rang in his ears. There was fear in his breast, but he was insensible to it, no longer caring if he lived or died. He was only certain that the Great Tree of Prosperity was a burden the town could no longer bear.

Hours passed and still the man pressed on. As the birch began to lean and lurch the townsfolk began to panic, for the Traveler had not yet been killed, but a new fear arose among the people. For some began to believe that instead of killing the man the magic of the fallen tree would instead punish the town further. They began to wonder if all who were gathered at the tree’s felling would not see another sunrise. Yet, just as their panic came to a frenzied pitch the birch tree gave a thunder crack and the last of its bark splintered.

The tree fell on its side and the townsfolk became like savages. They cried to the heavens, wept openly amongst themselves, and became overcome with vicious fury. The Woodsman was the first to grab the Traveler, urged on by the Fisher’s wife. The Carpenter and the Farmer were next to join in and were soon followed by the rest of the town. The people let loose their passion and frustration on the Traveler, who could only yell for mercy.

The Traveler died beside the fallen birch. He took his last breath surrounded by the townsfolk he had once called friends. They watched as the man breathed his last, fulfilling the third foretelling of the raven brothers.

His wife, a reliable woman of aging beauty, wept by his broken body and in that moment the people realized what they had done. The horror of their actions tore at their own hearts, so that they soon left the town. Each of them, the Farmer, the Hunstman, the Baker and all the rest abandoned the town and the fallen tree, hoping to escape the gloom and the curse of what they had done.

Yet, in their mad rush to leave not a single person ever stopped to examine the fallen birch tree. If they had they would have noticed no special runes or symbols of witchcraft beneath its skin. They would have found no magic or mystery to the felled and imperfect tree.

All they would have found was a birch of dead wood and hard browning leaves. They would have discovered nothing special about that particular tree. It had neither been the tallest, nor the widest. It had not been the prettiest or the straightest. In its center there had been an ugly dark knot, and its limbs were still far too short to have ever given proper shade, for it had only ever been a tree.

I watched the pigeons gather on the roof across the way, white, grey, black, brown, a rainbow of foul huddling on corrugated rooftop, flitting here and there. I often imagined them chatting, speaking as they hopped along on legs too thin to convey their bodies. Sometimes they would take flight, circle around the group as if to demonstrate they could, only to land moments later among the flock. Flight was always temporary, everyone had to come back down eventually.

The door to the main corridor opened and I turned from the tiny barred window to watch whatever entertainment was arriving. My cellmate was almost oblivious to the break in our monotony. Cray-zee sat as he always did, facing away from the bars, gazing into the white oblivion that was our perfectly polished walls. He lived in a world that no one else could see, never talked, never joked, but no one was fool enough to mess with him either. Some people claimed it was an act, but I had been shacked up with Zee for six months and I knew it was genuine. I knew because I was the only one in whole damn place who ever heard him talk, but I’ll get to that.

“Attention prison block 453D, prepare for a new arrival. Step back from your cells. Prepare for a new arrival.” The voice that played over the loud speak was computerized, not that you would know it. She had a soft and plain-spoken voice, the kind you would find in the girl next door. The inmates had nicknamed her the RILF. You know, Robot I’d Like to… well you get the idea. Some guys often fantasized about it, computer or no computer, the nights in a cell could get lonely, well figuratively speaking anyway.

All the inmates knew they were never truly alone, and as I stepped up to the bars to watch the show I kept a wary eye on the floating metal ball that hung above my own little piece of the world. A floating eyeball, never blinking, never ceasing. It monitored everything that went on, body temperature, heart rates, the integrity of the cell walls. It was more than just an eye, it was a judge, a jury, and even an executioner. It was God, and like the Almighty it was more than ready to strike down the wicked with an array of tasers, gas, and other nasty surprises.

The entire cage could even be electrocuted. So, I stayed as far away from the bars as I could, even as I tried to catch a glimpse of the new arrival. Zee, of course, never even glanced back.

It was the ominous heavy thuds of the tank-like prison droid that first drew my attention. Like a mix between a linebacker and a refrigerator it moved slowly, walking heavily in the wake of the prisoner it was herding. A thud both, loud and muffled, clanging like a heart beat as it methodically moved down the block. No one was going to mess with it, especially not the kid it was leading in.

I recognized him, of course. He was a repeater, most of them were. In the joint for a year or two, then back out on the street for six months only to be back in their cell before Christmas. Jackson was his name, but that’s not what everyone called him. He was skinny, with shifty eyes, skin as dark as night. He walked with a cocky swagger, like someone who thought they were tougher than they were. I knew he was wrong, and he was going to find out soon enough. The robots were good but the system had blind spots, and every prisoner knew the dark zones. They knew where business could be conducted away from the eyes of our digital overlords.

Some thought that those blind spots were intentional, part of some psychology game that the bots used to keep us inline. I don’t know anything about that kind of botshit, but I do know that if you were a man like Jackson, you made sure to avoid the dark zones at all costs.

“You’re dead, Twig,” said a familiar face from the cell across the way. “I still owe you from the last time.” The bold speaker had a swastika tattooed on his neck, marking his affiliation.

“Unlawful threat detected,” said the RILF. “This is your final warning.”

“He didn’t mean nuthin by it,” said his cellmate, some kid younger than the rest of us, with skin as black as Twig’s. Part of me almost felt sorry. He was new and had no idea what was in store for him, but he would learn quick enough.

“Initiate punishment protocols,” The air hummed, signing with electricity. The plates inside the walls of the prison cell exploded to life and both men screamed as the electricity pulsed through their body.

I had only experienced the shock once, years before. It kept me from being knifed by my cellmate, but it also burnt off most of my arm hairs and left me walking funny for a week. Humane was the word they called it, but really it all just seemed like a cruel joke.

The black kid was the first to rise, mistake number two. “Remain calm,” said the pleasant sounding female computer voice. The small floating eyeball opened up and fired off a dark projectile. It pierced the kid’s skin, and he dropped again, convulsing on the ground.

His roommate started laughing. I knew the man, he was a sick son of a bitch named Freddie. He was the kind of person who enjoyed causing pain in others.

“Alright,” said the black kid, “I’m calm.” He never moved, still it was a mistake.

“Remain calm, please.” More volts of electricity  and the kid flopped around like a fish out water. The big white man next to him only laughed that much harder.

I looked down at the swastika tattooed on my own wrist. I didn’t really hate the blacks or Hispanics, hell my own cellmate was a darkie, and Zee seemed like a nice enough guy. I mean at least he never bothered me. I joined the brotherhood for protection. Everyday there seemed like there were more of them than us. The damn prison was so filled with their kind that sometimes it felt like Africa in here.

When I returned my gaze to the scene beyond the bars, I met eyes with Twig. I never had a problem with the man. We even shared a cigarette on an occasion or two. He liked to talk, about his kids, his ex-wife, his mama, his homies, anything. He just liked the sound of his own voice, and I never hated the company. It was all that talking that did him in. He had said the wrong thing to the wrong person, and now the Brotherhood had a bullseye on his back.

We shared the briefest of looks, but in that moment I knew what he was planning. All the cocksure attitude was just swagger. We both knew he’d be dead before the end of the week. In his eyes I saw his decision, maybe even before he did.

He ran. The door to the cellblock was still open and he took off. He ran for his life, but not in the way you probably think.

“Prisoner 45-678, halt your forward progress.” That was the only warning Twig would get. He was gone from my sight, the walls of my cell blocking my view. Some people were yelling, egging him on or begging him to stop. Then there was more sounds, the pulse of electricity, burning flesh, and ionized ozone, as men convulsed on the floors, like the kid across the way. The world erupted in yells and screams, but it all stopped with the gunshot.

Even the cries of pain died away as the walls of our small block echoed with the thunder of that shot. Suicide by bot, they called it. I just called it dumb, and for a moment I was in another place and another time.

Hands bound above my head as two robot cops, RoPo, bound them tight. The contents of a cash register were sprawled out in front of me. It was barely a grand, hardly worth anything. It scattered in the rain after I had been dropped by the taser. My partner, Eddy, was just looking at me from where he lay on the ground, blood falling from a gash in his head. The scarlet streaked by rain drops ran down his face like paint on ebony. It was the same look as Twig. The same shared moment. It was his third offense.

I shook my head but he stood and reached inside his pocket. He had no weapon, neither of us did. Two idiot kids from the same block in Queens. We could barely afford beer let alone a gun. Two shots rang out that night. The RoPo were quick and precise. They never missed and their pre-programmed reflexes were faster than any human. I watched my best friend as he crumpled to the pavement, rain washing away the blood and again I met his eyes, this time they were dead and cold. Suicide by bot.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like this.” The voice was raspy and quiet. I didn’t even realize it was Zee till I turned around and found him looking at me. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

“What was it supposed to be like, old man?” My eyes felt cloudy and I turned away.

“I designed them. I designed them all.” When I turned back in shock he was still staring at me with a look on his face I could no longer understand. “I designed the system.

“After all the riots, and the shootings, and the killings. We thought that if we took the human element out it would get better. People were racist. It is part of who we are, but not machines, not droids. They are cold and follow the facts, but it didn’t get better, at least not for people who look like me.” He examined his own hand as if seeing it for the time. He was lighter skinned but still darker than me.

“Yeah, so what the hell happened?” I knew he was right, it was hard not to see it. Nothing had changed from the time of flesh and blood prison guards and flesh and blood cops. The bots always seemed to go easier on guys that looked like me, less shocks, more warnings, and swifter punishment for anyone who messed with us. It was a sort of unwritten rule that not many people spoke about.

Zee was ranting, getting louder. “We were wrong. It wasn’t the people that were the problem. It was the system. We forgot. The bots are just machines. We forgot that they were not without prejudice, because we are not. They may be machines, but they are our machines, programmed by flawed creatures created in a system that began before you or I were ever born.”

“Remain calm,” said the RILF, her voice booming in our cell. “This is your final warning.”

Zee just nodded as if he expected it, but he continued anyway. “We thought that if we fixed the man we would fix the system, but you can’t change the man until you change the system. We forgot.”

“Initiate punishment protocols.”