Ask

May 31, 2016Filed under art#fiction#poetryMarkdown source

My wife and a few others regularly do a 30-minute writing challenge every Tuesday evening. This week, since I’m taking some time off, I got to participate! The prompt was: Write a story about trees which whisper poems to those who know how to hear them. (It’s not allowed to be scary.)


Her first question was: “Who taught the trees to speak?”

Her second, of course, was: “Any why only in such awful poetry?”

I didn’t always know about the whispers, and of course I didn’t believe old Dallet when he told me about it, and it took me six weeks to hear them for the first time myself—so I didn’t particularly expect Annyth to hear them immediately after I mentioned them to her. I probably should have. She’d always been a little odd. But whatever the reason, she just blinked those round not-quite-brown, not-quite-green eyes at me a few times, like some slightly startled owl caught out in daylight, and then giggled.

For good reason: the spruces had just started in on a ridiculous ditty about nymphs—

They dance like dancers
and twirl like twirlers
and all the little nymphs
are sort of like curlers
but sans the ice
and add a dash of spice…

You get the idea. The worst kinds of puns and rhymes, for hours on end. Annyth’s second question had good cause.

Apparently, I’d gotten lost in my own mind again, listening to the rhymes, because she repeated her questions.

“Who taught the trees to speak? Any why only in such awful poetry?”

I shrugged. “No one knows who taught them. Maybe they’ve always known.” She somehow managed to furrow her brows and quirk them at me at the same time. “Okay, probably not, but Dallet said his grandfather taught him, and that his great-uncle taught him, and so on back a thousand years, and either the first one forgot to tell anyone that he was the one responsible for it all, or everyone else—”

“Heard this terrible poetry and decided to make sure his name didn’t live on at all?”

I laughed. “Probably.

The nymph poem had ended; now they were onto something about stream beds…

It runs, so cool, down through the bed
And even though, the stream, it has no head
It likes to lie down in its bed
Until it comes to make us fed…

She turned away from the trees for a moment and looked at me. “Is it… always this bad?”

I shrugged again. “Not… always.”

Now her eyebrows were raised and quirked.

“I mean, sometimes it’s actually worse. When they start telling limericks… just stop up your ears. But every once in a while some tree or another will start up a sonnet and you’ll get those fourteen lines of decency.”

She smirked. “A sonnet? Tree love poems?”

I shrugged again. I seemed to be doing a lot of that today. “As far as tree love poems go, honestly, the sonnets are preferable. Sappy but not… weird.”

Now the eyebrows went completely flat. “I don’t think I want to know.”

“You don’t, but you probably will, soon enough. Now that you’ve heard them, you’ll never be able to unhear them.”

“What do you mean?” The eyebrows were climbing again. “Don’t they stop?”

I smiled my worried smile at her. “What, exactly, do you think you’re hearing?”

The eyebrows furrowed for a moment again as she listened, then twitched and quivered a moment in what looked like consternation, then rose until I thought they would come entirely off the top of her head. “No. No no no no no.”

I shrugged. Again. Stop shrugging, idiot.

“It’s the wind?”

I nodded, smiled my sympathetic, just-one-side-of-my-mouth quirked smile at her. “And when was the last time you heard a day without a breeze?”

Annyth shook her head. Her eyebrows were darting furiously this way and that. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such versatile eyebrows, truly. She started breathing a little faster. Her eyes were darting to match her eyebrows. “You mean to tell me that you thought it would be nice to subject me to these awful, awful rhymes for the rest of my life?”

“I…”

“That’s what you said, you…” she paused, listened for a moment:

like a jolly little man with no brain
he dances across the plain
and does a dance, a sprightly jig
as if he were a baboon grown over big

“You little man with no brain, you baboon grown over big!” The eyebrows were low and fierce.

I… shrugged. Again. What was it with the shrugs today?

Annyth paused. “They weren’t actually singing that about you, were they?” Now the eyebrows were in thinking posture: left furrowed more than right, right slightly quirked.

I tried desperately to keep my shoulders from moving. No more shrugs. “I… honestly don’t know. I’ve never really paid attention to why the songs change.”

Annyth stared at me like I were a complete dunce.

He does not see, he has no eyes
Though stare out from his face they do
He listens to winds and hears but lies
Though every day he hears the truth

My eyes went wide. Her eyes went wide. We looked at the trees. I swallowed. “That was… just a coincidence, don’t you think?”

The wind stopped.

I shivered, looked at her. Her hazel owl eyes stared back wide.

And then it whispered in the spruce trees.

Ask

We breathed. “Ask what?” Annyth whispered back.

Ask, ask, ask
  Ten thousand years

Call and response: the oaks were answering the spruce trees with a low flutter to the whisper in the needles.

Ask, ask, ask
  Just one question
Ask, ask, ask
  Ignored, unheard
Ask, ask, ask
  Why do you have ears
Ask, ask, ask
  And we speak
Ask, ask, ask
  And you listen not
Ask, ask, ask
  Ask, ask, ask
Ask, ask, ask
  Ask, ask, ask

Silence, again.

I looked at Annyth, ran my tongue across my bottom teeth, shrugged (of course), and mouthed, “Ask?”

She giggled. The sound startled in the silence, but still the trees stood waiting.

I cleared my throat. “Ask what?”

Silence.

She rolled her eyes at me. “Who taught you to speak?”

Silence.

Then, like a whispered shout in the gathering dusk, spruce and oak in chorus:

God

That was new.

She smiled at me. “When?”

At dawn
  At beginning times
    At start of age
       At end of unseeing

Eyebrows wide, Annyth asked: “Why?”

Ask, ask, ask

Annyth’s eyes were bright with joy, and round; her eyebrows high again. I shrugged uncomprehending. “Don’t you hear?” she said. “We just keep asking. That’s what we do. Until we find the truth. We keep asking.”

Ask, ask, ask

The poetry ran on. But no more folly. Now it had answers.