Originally published in Bastion Science Fiction Magazine: Issue 3, June 2014.
Asim found the house nearly six months after he buried his mother. For three days, he observed it from the cover of the desert scrub on a nearby hill, watching for any signs of habitation. After the third day, he crept alongside the house and peeked through the windows. The dead bodies inside were in an advanced state of decay, clustered together in a single room where they accomplished their obvious suicide pact.
It took Asim another two days to remove the bodies and empty the house of its contents. Among the refuse, he found a few useful objects and some valuable trinkets that were unlikely to be contaminated with disease. He set them aside and burned the bodies along with everything else.
The house was in good condition structurally for a building that predated the war; the roof was intact and the walls offered substantial protection from the stinging winds. A few of the windows were broken and the floorboards creaked, but the place was sturdy enough to withstand many more years of the region’s harsh weather.
There was a settlement to the west about half a day’s walk from the house. Asim traveled there to trade some of the things he had found in the house for more useful supplies. The village was more of an encampment than a permanent settlement. Men with weathered rifles stood watch over their tents and eyed their neighbors with the same suspicion that they directed towards Asim. Most of the people there were parasites, filthy scavengers scuttling upon the refuse of the old world.
Asim, of course, was no different.
After negotiating with several traders, Asim obtained most of the supplies he needed and a few that he did not. One trader had included a handful of seeds into his deal to make the transaction more equitable. Asim was not interested in seeds, but he reluctantly agreed. His dealings with the village completed, he returned to his new home before nightfall.
The next day, Asim planted the seeds a few yards from the house. There was a small, uncontaminated creek about a mile to the south and when he fetched water for the next few days, he gathered a little extra to pour over the seeds.
Asim repeated this routine every other day for the next three months. After the first month, he noticed a few sprouts of green tendrils pushing through the soil of the seed site. By the end of the third month, however, the scalding winds and withering sun had squashed all but one of the saplings. The survivor’s stem had hardened with a darkly colored bark and tiny leaflets sprouted from its needle thin limbs.
Although Asim had seen pictures of trees in the tattered pages of his father’s crumbling books, he had never seen a real one. The scrawny sapling bore little resemblance to the majestic giants from those pictures, but he knew that it took many years, perhaps even a lifetime, for a tree to grow to such heights.
Much of Asim’s life was fraught with boredom. Bereft of human companionship, he found himself spending whatever time he did not devote to hunting or gathering water to tending his little tree. Some days he stared at it for hours; he watched the narrow trunk bend under the force of the wind and watched the dust swirl through its scrawny branches. He wiped away the fine layer of dust several times a day and watered it regularly.
He obtained a thin canvas tarp from a trader who wandered by his house one day and used it to cover the tree whenever a powerful windstorm swept across the land. Some of the storms were quite fierce and Asim was certain that the tree would not have survived without protection.
After a year, the tree was nearly as high as his knee. It grew above his waist in the course of another year and by the end of the third year, it stood as tall as he. By the middle of its fourth year, Asim was spending much of his day lugging water from the nearby river back to the house. Not a single drop of rain had fallen since he arrived at the house and so daily water fetching was necessary for his own survival as much as the tree’s. But the tree now demanded so much water that he found there was less time to hunt and gather food, to maintain the house, or to tend to his clothing and other supplies.
There was a ruined building a few miles north of Asim’s house that had collapsed long before he arrived. The only things of value there were the wooden boards that had once formed its walls and roof. Asim walked off the distance from his house to the river and made a note of how much wood he would need to span the distance. He spent months pulling rusted nails from the boards at the old building and then laying out strips of wood to map a path to the river.
When he had gathered enough wood, he started nailing boards together using the old nails. He started at his house and worked his way towards the river, carefully elevating the crude wooden trough every dozen yards or so with a haphazard lattice of supports. His calculations were far from perfect, though, and by the time he reached the river after nearly a year of labor, he needed to scavenge more wood to build a ladder to climb up to the trough’s mouth.
His first attempt to send water to the house was a disaster. He had done nothing to seal the trough’s wooden seams and the first bucket of water he poured in traveled less than ten feet before leaking out the bottom to be soaked up by the dry soil. After a few frustrating attempts to tighten the seams failed, Asim went back to the house and spent several days thinking of solutions.
First he tried to melt the rubber soles from a pair of old shoes, but the fumes made him sick and the soles usually charred and burned before they melted. Next he tried stuffing bits of cloth into the seams but he’d nailed the boards too tightly together for him to get a strip of cloth into space between them. Finally, he resorted to packing handfuls of clay from the riverbed into the seams. The clay quickly dried and, while not entirely reliable, made the trough watertight enough to be useful. It took nearly a month to complete the job, but when he was finished, Asim had a crude, but working, irrigation system.
Where he had once spent several hours a day hauling water back to the house, he now simply poured a few bucketfuls into the trough and let the water run down to collect in a large metal tub outside his front door. Freed from the tyranny of his water needs, Asim found more time to gather food and repair sections of the house that had deteriorated over the years. The tree, now nearly six years old and thirsty as ever, had suffered a great deal during the construction of the trough but it soon recovered and by the end of the following year it stood nearly ten feet tall.
Sometime during the tree’s seventh year, Asim noticed that more travelers were passing by the house than had done so in the past. Not all of them stopped to stare at the tree, but all of them gave it at least a long, considered glance. Asim watched them carefully from behind locked doors, his rifle at the ready.
One day he returned from the river to find a man chopping at the tree with an axe. Asim, who always carried his rifle with him, shot the stranger dead. He never knew what purpose the man had in mind. The axe had inflicted serious damage to the tree’s trunk and when it became clear that it would soon have difficulty supporting its own weight, Asim used his few remaining nails and wooden boards to fashion a set of supports.
In the early months of the tree’s eighth year, Asim returned from the river to find a woman seated in the tree’s ample shadow. She sat hypnotized by the movement of its branches in the wind and took no notice of Asim’s arrival. He said nothing to her and went into the house, but he continued to watch her from the upstairs window. Several hours passed and she did not move. Asim did not leave the house to hunt that day.
When the sun rose the next day, the woman was still there. Asim fetched a bucket and offered to let her water the tree. She accepted and he left for the day to gather food. When he returned, she was still there. She remained there with him from that day forward.
With Lillian’s arrival, Asim could finally venture farther away from the house without fear of thieves or another madman with an axe. He taught her to shoot and gave her his spare rifle when he traveled to collect food or trade with nearby settlements. Asim rarely visited the small village to the west, but he did make lengthy journeys to distant trading posts that peddled artifacts of the old world. On one journey he found a book that contained information on trees, but since neither he nor Lillian could read, it was of little use. He always looked for seeds, but the ones he found were useless, dried out husks.
The tree was over twenty feet tall by its tenth year. Every spring, it produced small seed petals, but they always dried out under the scalding sun before they could find any purchase in the soil. Lillian suggested planting them, but Asim feared that they could not spare the water to sustain another tree. During that year, more travelers stopped to marvel at the tree than ever before. It was no longer possible for anyone to pass by without taking note since the tree was nearly as big as the house beside it.
At Lillian’s insistence, Asim finally greeted and spoke to the travelers. Some of them asked how such a thing could survive in the barren wastes and Asim explained how he had constructed the irrigation trough and reinforced the tree’s trunk after it was attacked. Others simply stared and said nothing before continuing their journey. Lillian began giving a seed petal to anyone who asked about the tree and Asim eventually took to offering a drink of water to every traveler.
By the tree’s fifteenth year, it was taller than the house and nearly as wide. Where travelers had once stopped to gawk at the tree before continuing on their journeys, a good number of pilgrims now arrived with the sole purpose of laying eyes upon the towering giant. Many of them brought offerings in the form of food and supplies and, much to Asim’s surprise, they asked for nothing in return. When the aging irrigation system was damaged in a severe storm during the tree’s seventeenth year, many visitors offered their assistance and the repairs were completed in less than a month.
Lillian fell ill near the end of the tree’s twentieth year and Asim spent the rest of the year tending to her worsening condition. He never discovered the source of her illness and could do little more than comfort her with his presence in the final weeks of her life. After she died, he buried her beneath the shadow of the tree.
With Lillian’s passing, Asim became more reclusive. He no longer spoke to visitors, though every day he set out a bowl of the petal seeds that Lillian had joyously passed out to anyone that happened by the house. One day blurred into the next and Asim no longer bothered to keep track of them. More than ever, the tree became the sole focus of his daily routine. He no longer traveled to distant settlements to trade, leaving the house only to send water down the irrigation trough and to gather enough food to survive. When there were no visitors about, he sat under the tree next to Lillian’s grave. Sometimes he cried.
The tree was over fifty feet high when Asim, now white-headed and wrinkled, developed a painful, rasping cough. His labored breathing and sore joints made it difficult to carry out his daily tasks and, for the first time, he considered what might befall the tree should he become incapable of caring for it. He spent many weeks considering what to do, but he knew from the beginning what Lillian would have suggested. Finally, he relented under the weight of her memory and set off towards the old village to the west where he had once received a handful of seeds.
The journey was more difficult than he remembered. When he reached the town, he could not believe how greatly it had changed. Defended by a sturdy, mudbrick wall, the settlement was no longer a ramshackle collection of vagabond traders and predatory wanderers, but a living, breathing community. There were families and children, wells that brought water up from the earth, and gardens filled with a brilliant array of plants.
And on every corner of every earthen street, there was a tree.
Asim recognized the characteristics immediately, the thin-winged petals, the narrow leaves, the rough bark. He thought of Lillian and the petals she had handed out to everyone who stood in wonder before their living monument of the glory of a world they had thought lost forever.
At first, the townspeople only stared at him. Then there were whispers, starting among the older folk and spreading to the youngest. When Asim introduced himself, he was met by a mixture of gasps and cheers that left him bewildered. The townspeople surged forward and embraced him like a long lost relative. Overwhelmed and scarcely able to speak, Asim wanted nothing of the praise they heaped upon him. He explained that he had but a simple request, that someone bury him next to his beloved Lillian and care for their tree when he died.
Satisfied, Asim returned to his house alone. It was nearly dark when he arrived and after sitting beneath the tree for several minutes, he went inside and fell asleep.
A few days after his return, a boy from the town visited the house and found Asim’s dead body in the bedroom. He was buried the next day beside Lillian and the town’s entire population attended the funeral. After the service, the town elders selected a group of young men and women and charged them with the care of the massive tree that loomed over the now crumbling house.
In the years that followed, the townspeople gathered to commemorate the Asim’s life on the day of his death. A few people suggested planting flowers on the graves or planting more trees in the area, but the older townsfolk, those who recalled the wonder of laying eyes upon that lone sign of life in a barren landscape, rejected such notions.
The tree may stand by itself, they said, but it had never been alone.
If you enjoyed “The Tree,” you can get this story and others in the Distant Worlds vol. 1 anthology!