Susan held the straw for the core. “You know, in the Semitic languages – Arabic, Hebrew, and Akkadian specifically – the word for tree sap is dem. It’s also the word for blood.”
(This story first appeared in Temporary Skeletons, 2014).
THE MUSIC WAS like a one-handed cyclopic Chopin. It was simple music, or seemed that way, but it stirred something infinite and unpredictable and tracked time more honestly than any calendar. No gridded day-in-day-out blocked in black ink, but hundreds of concentric rings spiraling in and out of each other, each year interacting with the ones before and after it, each year connected through scars from fire and lightning, drought and wind, early and late frosts that sent the delicate lignin fibers into hibernation behind the cellulose walls of their microscopic caves. It was those miniscule frost rings that made the almost inaudible tinkling sounds, snowflake fairies with frostbitten toes, and then suddenly, without warning, that faintest echo of a chime would be destroyed, waylaid, massacred when the needle fell upon the gaping demoniac wounds left by some apocalyptic storm. Fantaisie impromptu. Tempo rubato: stolen time.
A turntable that plays tree-rings like a piano concerto: wood for vinyl, growth for groove patterns. Jesus, Frank thought, only a German would come up with something like that.
He must have been at about 5000 feet since it was getting noticeably harder to breathe, but then again, he was also getting older. His breath came out a little wheezy and white, and it made him want a cigarette. The forester, Khalil, was up ahead of him, working through a mouse trail between the ferns and loose gravel. Frank sidestepped some rocks that came spilling down the path when Khalil stepped aside and pulled out his tobacco pouch to roll a cigarette.
“Dr. Frank,” Khalil smiled, breath barely strained, as Frank grew nearer. “We stopped here last night. You want smoke while we wait for the women?” He held out the cigarette he’d just rolled. The old guy was like a chain-smoking mountain goat, impervious to low-oxygen altitude and carbon monoxide alike.
Frank tried to make a habit of only smoking when he was half-lit, and he tried to make a habit of not being half-lit when climbing mountains. “Leh,” he shook his head, albeit reluctantly.
“So beautiful here, no?” Khalil took a long deep drag of the local Byblos tobacco, a blackened little tuft of it hanging out the end of the glowing paper.
Frank scanned the forest in front of him. The great old cedars sprang from sedimentary bedrock and stretched up into a sky that seemed lower here, reachable just through the fog. It was as if you could climb one of the trees and be able to tickle God’s foot. “Yes, it is.” He took off his backpack and took a swig of water from the canteen. “It’s not too hard to imagine why the ancients desired wood from this forest. Beginning with the time of the legendary Sumerian king, Gilgamesh, the Cedars of Lebanon were coveted by the entire Middle East and most of the Mediterranean.”
“You say ‘Cedars of Lebanon’, Dr. Frank; we say ‘Cedars of God’.” Khalil looked out approvingly at this dense, old-growth forest, as if God and Lebanon were interchangeable in the minds of everyone but American professors. “Explain me, Dr. Frank. Why you want to sample these trees?”
Frank swallowed another big gulp of cold spring water from the brook that snaked down the mountainside, eventually emptying in the Qadisha Valley, and then into the Mediterranean Sea. (A river issues from Eden to water the garden.) “Two reasons, Khalil. Dendrochronology can be used to date ancient artifacts, for one, and secondly, it can be used to reconstruct climate.”
From further down the path, there was the sound of girlish laughter, muffled between the Jurassic-sized tree trunks.
Frank patiently continued explaining, as though it were a guest lecture. “The annual growth rings of a tree are like the bar code on something you buy at the store. Each one is different, except that instead of registering a price and label, the measurements of tree-rings register climatic cues and local identity based on the rate of growth during a specific year. For example, if it was a dry year, the ring is narrow, and if it was wet, the ring is wide. We want the oldest trees because their growth rings go back furthest. We detect the ring pattern, or bar code if you will, by counting the rings and measuring their widths backward from the current year behind the bark to the first year of life at the tree’s pith. Then we can use that known ring pattern to match with those of undated wooden artifacts to find out when they were created.”
“And why you care when something so old was made?”
“For history, for archaeology. So that we can better understand our past.”
“The past is gone, Dr. Frank. I do not see why it matters anymore.”
“Civilizations rise and empires fall. Climate changes, and people migrate or die out. We have much to learn from the history of humanity, Khalil. If we can learn the patterns of the past, we can predict the future. There is great power in history.”
“Oh please, Frank.” His wife and colleague, Susan, called from about 20 feet away. (Bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh.) “Don’t give the man a shorthand answer like that.” Her hiking boots crunched the rocks as she approached the men, and her most promising graduate student, Tina, followed behind her.
“The truth, Khalil,” she said, as she lay down the black plastic poster tube slung across her shoulders, “is that people are fascinated by history because they’re terrified of the future. The future is death. Worse than that, it’s uncertainty; it’s non-existence because it’s never been. The past, however, is survival. We know that no matter what plagues and wars and natural disasters have struck humankind throughout the millennia, we lived. The only power studying history gives us is a reason to keep on doing so: to reassure ourselves that we will survive as a species.”
Khalil dropped his cigarette on the rocky forest floor. He meekly shook his head and said, “Mrs. Susan, you are very wise. But I believe more in the future than in the past. Allah knows the things to come, and that is why he allows the events of the present. It is not for men to know such things.” He nodded in affirmation. “Alhamdulillah.”
Frank smiled and patted Khalil on the shoulder. “Indeed habibi, Alhamdulillah. Praise be to God.” He was suddenly grateful for a change in subject. “And what held you ladies up for so long?”
“We found a charming boutique about half way down the mountain. Oh, they just have the cutest earrings.” Tina chuckled at her adviser’s sarcasm, knowing that it stemmed partially from the fact that Khalil didn’t call her ‘Dr. Susan’ but always ‘Mrs. Susan’. “What do you think? We were taking core samples of the trees you missed yesterday. We got two more, about 600 years old apiece.”
They split up into teams of two: Frank and Khalil, Susan and Tina. Each team took a poster tube holding an increment borer and a few long paper straws to hold the fresh samples. They shoved permanent markers in the pockets of their cargo pants to label the straws with numbers identifying the wooden data inside. Frank and Khalil had odds, and Susan and Tina took evens.
Susan and Tina selected a tall, straight cedar tree growing between two limestone boulders.
“How old do you think this one is?” Tina asked.
Susan looked up and estimated based on how far the tree’s limbs spread out and dangled over the slope behind them. “Oh, it’s probably not so very old, maybe 300 years. But it’s still a fine specimen that we can use to detect post-Industrial climate fluctuations.”
Susan unscrewed the two ends of the increment borer, a long thin cylinder of blue metal, and then reattached them so that they made a cross. She found a place in the trunk of the tree where there were no limbs or knots and aimed for its pith right in the middle of the trunk. The thin shaft of the borer was hollow, like a corkscrew, so that as she pressed into the bark and turned the cross-bars clockwise, the shaft would bore into the tree, collecting a narrow core of cross-sectioned rings inside it. Once the borer went past the cambium and into the wet sapwood, she could turn it like a screwdriver, left arm over right. When it hit the denser, dryer heartwood though, it took more effort to crank the borer around and keep driving it deeper. A croaking, ratcheting sound disseminated from the tree’s xylem and echoed through the forest with every grating half turn of the borer.
They could hear the ratcheting of Frank’s borer digging into a tree to the west. Rre-e-e-e-e-e. Rre-e-e-e-e. Rre-e-e-e-e. He’d also hit heartwood.
When Susan hit the tree’s pith, she stopped to rest her arms. Tina asked if she’d like her to take over. Susan declined the offer, saying that it was a better workout than doing push-ups. Before the sap had a chance to seal its wound and solidify the intruding metal, she proceeded to crank the borer counter-clockwise, right arm over left, slowly removing the long, narrow core from the tree’s trunk, hidden inside the reemerging metal tube.
A higher-pitched whine resonated from the extraction wound in the tree’s side. Every crank, left arm over right, issued an awwwww – awwwww – awwwww.
The forest fell silent when the borer came back out the hole in the bark where it had gone in. Susan removed the cross-bars and the core slipped out of the metal tube. She held it carefully balanced in her hands while Tina prepared the paper straw where it would be inserted and labeled with the code HEL 238: Horsh-Ehden Lebanon, tree number 238.
Susan observed how the rings became tighter in the recent years of the tree’s life as it slowed down its growth, but toward the circular pith, the growth was juvenile and the pattern sporadic. Alternating wide and narrow rings reflected the tree’s sensitivity to weather, water, wind, and even wars.
“It’s beautiful,” Tina said, as she gently slid the core into the paper straw. The thick, copper-colored sap stuck on the paper, and she had to gently jiggle it to get the core to go in, pith to bark swallowed in bleached, white paper, made from the pulp of some other unlucky tree, probably in Michigan. It seemed cannibalistic, that act of wood swallowing wood.
AT AROUND NOON, the morning fog long burned away by the Middle Eastern sun, the four of them gathered their cores into the poster tubes and sat down for lunch. Susan and Frank took notes in their journals while munching on crackers with Laughing Cow cheese and dried fruit and nuts from the village. Field food, they called it.
When Tina was finished eating, she unzipped her backpack and took out a pair of binoculars.
“I’m just going to walk around a little, but I’ll be back in a few minutes,” she said.
“That’s fine. Meet us back here in about fifteen minutes, and we’ll work for a couple more hours before the sun starts heading down,” said Frank.
Tina climbed further up the mountain, scouting out the oldest trees until she reached the top of the ridge. The view of the valley below was spectacular, and on the other side, more cedars coated the limestone bluff with a layer of something akin to emeralds in the rough. The deciduous oaks growing between them had the appearance of small campfires lit across the escarpment, as the chlorophyll drained from their November leaves and left orange and yellow embers burning the ends of branches.
With the binoculars, Tina followed the ridgeline where she stood out to the right, eastward. There wasn’t much up this high, so they would have to go down the opposite slope once they were finished with the trees on this side.
When she took the binoculars away from her eyes, she spotted an outcrop, a precipice on the downward cliff-side overlooking the valley. It hung there like a Turkish balcony, defying gravity. Growing from that crag was what looked like a very old cedar.
She brought the binoculars back up to her eyes and gasped. There were rumors of cedars being over a thousand years old, lives lived longer than Methuselah himself, but no one had ever attained proof. She’d just found it.
The branches were long, tarantulic arms that draped over the valley a thousand feet below, curled down under the weight of a thousand snowfalls. The gnarled trunk was wizened and twisted from the eons of wind whipping up from the sea to the west. It had survived there, isolated on that rocky nest, away from parasite outbreaks, forest fires, and loggers for God only knows how long. And yet, as isolated and high up as it was, the trunk bore no marks of lightning strikes, no split or half-charred limbs. It was a perfect specimen.
This was the tree that was going to make Tina’s scientific career. She could write her entire dissertation about this one tree. With a core from this one tree, she could date all the cedar artifacts made since the Romans. Maybe since the Phoenicians.
She turned and skidded down the slope back to where her professors were packing up the remains of lunch, and Khalil was putting his tobacco pouch away.
“Find anything interesting?” Susan asked.
“You’re never going to believe what I found!” Tina’s excitement was uncontainable. Flashes ran through her mind of congratulatory conference presentations, a prestigious Fulbright fellowship, and generous offers for post-docs at Heidelberg and Oxford.
“You know the mythical millennia-old cedars that no one ever finds?”
Frank looked skeptical, but Susan’s eyes opened wide. “Did you …?”
Tina just nodded her wide-smiling head in rapid short bursts, trying to restrain herself from running up to Susan and throwing her arms around her.
“Just one. It’s all by itself on this crag on the other side of the ridge.”
Khalil said, “Yes, I know the one you speak of.”
“And?” Frank asked, still skeptical.
“It is deceptive,” he said calmly, pensively. “It looks very old, but it is not. Do not take the sample. It is too dangerous to climb down to it for a tree of just a hundred years or so. There are many others that are older.”
“But you can tell,” Tina protested, her dream bubble visibly burst. “You can tell by the limbs.”
“No, it is quite young, that tree. It appears old because it finds no water or food there, and the wind from the valley has bent it.” (I know what you reveal and what you have concealed.)
“Sorry, kiddo,” Frank said, as he pulled his backpack on. “We’ll get plenty of data from these others. Let’s head out and see if we can finish this side of the ridge by mid-afternoon. Still have to make it back out of these woods before dark.”
Susan and Tina put on their backpacks, heading northeastward and upward.
“It’s actually better for the chronology to have multiple old trees than one single specimen,” Susan tried to reassure the hope-broken Tina. “It strengthens the database by equalizing eccentricities.”
“Yet it’s those very eccentricities that make dendrochronology so beautiful. They are like a tree’s individual story, like a diary.”
“But if it’s not old, like Khalil said, then we get only the introduction to a story.”
“Susan, can we please just go have a quick look?” Tina pleaded. “Then we can get cores from a few of the other older ones I spotted on the way up to the ridge before we meet back up with the guys.”
Susan stopped and turned around to face Tina, thinking. She admired Tina’s ambition; it reminded her of when she was still a student. It was that passion for science that had made Frank, her adviser, fall in love with her. (They were naked, yet they felt no shame.) She pursed her lips and nodded. “Okay. I trust your instinct enough to give you that. Let’s take a look.”
When they reached the ridge, Tina pointed and gave the binoculars to Susan.
“Hmm,” she mused. “You’re right. It does look pretty old.” She took the binoculars away and handed them back to Tina. “Do you think we can get down there safely?”
“Yes, I think so. We can tie a rope to the tube’s shoulder strap and anchor the other end on a rock so it won’t fall off the cliff. I’ll go first and tie off the other end, and then you lower yourself down.”
Rocks skidded underfoot and tumbled down into the crevasse a thousand feet below. They made no sound when they hit bottom. Tina was at the pinnacle of the cliff face and turned so that she could edge herself down to the precipice with her back facing the void of the valley. When she reached the crag safely, Susan lowered the tube with borer and sample straws down to her student, who removed the tools and anchored the other end of the rope onto a rock. Susan eased herself down, using the rope as a guide.
Both safely positioned on the outcrop, it became clear to Susan that the tree was as ancient as Tina had suspected. “Would you like to do the honors?” she handed her the borer, and Tina smiled with appreciation.
The tree creaked and groaned with ratcheting that echoed through the valley below, making it seem even more loudly protestant of this violation, and as though all the other cedars on either side of the valley joined its moaning in a sympathetic symphony.
When Tina withdrew the borer, a torrent of resin rushed out of the hole, viscous and sticky.
“My goodness,” Susan said. “I’ve never seen sap that color before, even in a cedar. It’s so red.”
Tina tilted the borer and the core slid out. The rings were saturated in a ruby-colored resin, and they were so close together that it was almost impossible to tell them apart. She looked up at her adviser.
“Oh, Tina. This is very old indeed. It’s been growing these minute rings for centuries, maybe millennia. You’ll have a semesters’ worth of work at the microscope measuring all these ring-widths.” She smiled. “Congratulations. And I hope you have a good masseur.”
Tina kept looking at the core she held in her hands, sticky red sap drizzling down her fingers. “It’s so odd-looking. They’re so close together that they don’t even look like rings. They’re almost like veins, like raw meat.”
Susan held the straw for the core. “You know, in the Semitic languages – Arabic, Hebrew, and Akkadian specifically – the word for tree sap is dem. It’s also the word for blood.”
In that instant, a flash went off in Tina’s mind. She saw Susan’s body burst apart upon the rocks, skewered with branches, blood and brain matter spattered across the ferns. (Your eyes will be opened.)
“Oh, be careful, Tina. You almost dropped it.” Susan got the paper straw safely sealed around the ends of the core, and then she noticed Tina’s whitewashed face and empty eyes that gazed deeply into nothing. “Why don’t you sit down and rest for a few minutes before we climb back up. I’ll get this labeled and the borer packed up.” She pulled out the marker and wrote “HEL 266” on the paper straw. “Dendrochronology is hard work; it’s is not for the faint of heart.”
While Susan was climbing up the cliff face, Tina waited on the precipice, looking at the tree like it was some gnarled ancient beast, terrifying and fascinating. Almost expecting it to sting or bite, she carefully extended her index finger and touched the hole where the ancient tree was still draining its sanguine pitch. It ran down the knotted bark and puddled at the base before spilling over the roots and dripping off the rocks into the valley. She licked the resin from her fingertip like it was a bleeding paper cut.
By the time Tina reached the top and began pulling up the supply tube, the sky had darkened and clouds rushed in from the east and west, prepared to conjoin in an overhead swiveling black mass. The evening wind rustled the treetops, and the ancient branches creaked like old floorboards as they swayed, to and fro, ebb and flow, the primeval slow dance of naturally occurring binaries. Up and down, heaven and earth, life and death, good and evil, creation and destruction.
“That’s so strange,” Susan remarked. I just wrote in my notebook that you took the sample at 14:27, and now my watch says it’s nearly five o’clock. What does yours say?”
Tina glanced at her wrist and said, “4:56. We lost two and a half hours somehow, and now it’s getting dark.” There was no hiding the agitation, even hostility, in her voice as the wind whipped the hair out of her ponytail.
“We need to find the guys and get out before we can’t see anything anymore. By the looks of those clouds, there might even be a fall storm brewing. We didn’t bring flashlights or raincoats.”
They walked briskly westward along the ridge, listening for the sound of voices or footsteps, or the creaking of one last core sample being taken.
There was nothing but needles and leaves grating against each other, acorns falling down 30-foot drops through dry fiery leaves, cones blown from heights of 150 feet, scattering around their ankles, and whispering branches swaying and conspiring all around them.
“MY GOD, IT got dark and cold all of a sudden,” Frank observed.
“Yes, Dr. Frank. We must leave the forest now,” Khalil urged.
“Oh, it can’t be that late already. Must just be a rain cloud passing over. Between that and the forest canopy, it seems later than it is. We’ll do one more after this, then head on up to the ridge and wait for the girls. If it is rain, we don’t want to be at its mercy.”
“Yes, Dr. Frank.”
By the time he’d labeled the core and placed it in the tube, the cloud had only darkened, and Frank was feeling increasingly uneasy the more the trees swayed above his head. The wind knocked cedar cones to the ground, which rolled aimlessly down the mountain slope. It didn’t help that Khalil didn’t say a damn word. He’d rather skip that last tree and get back to the village. A lamb chop, a glass of wine, and a cigarette sounded much more enticing than HEL 275, even though he did like to end a day on a nice round number like that. He checked his watch to write the time of sampling in his field notebook. It was 17:02.
“That can’t be right. Khalil, do you have the time?”
“No, Dr. Frank. I only know that it is time to go.” (Those will be companions of the fire. Fear me.)
“All right, Khalil. Let’s get up to the ridge and find the ladies before the sun goes all the way down.”
At the top, the sun was quickly sliding behind the western slopes. Trees creaked, and that banshee of a wind reeled between the branches, surrounding them. Frank called his wife’s name, but the wind picked up his voice and threw it away.
SUSAN AND TINA were carefully making their way along the ridge, westward into what was left of the sunset. Susan’s voice was hoarse from screaming her husband’s name into the wind. Acorns, dry twigs, dead leaves, and loose stones were crushed under rhythmic footfall.
“We’re running out of time,” Susan said coarsely and picked up her pace. As she planted her left foot down, she stepped right on a cedar cone that spun out underfoot, taking her ankle with it. The cracking bone sounded like a dry branch. She shrieked in agony as she fell to the ground and clutched her leg, the black tube falling from her shoulder and sliding down the cliff. A rockslide followed it, making sure to push it into the blackness of the crevasse.
“No!” Tina screamed and nearly threw herself off the ridge after it, but Susan grabbed her leg, and Tina stopped at the edge. “Oh, what have you done? You’ve lost everything! How could you be so stupid?” she shrieked, the angry tears nearly boiling out of her eye sockets.
“Tina! The samples are replaceable. Focus on getting out of here. Go on and find the men, and then bring them back here. I’m going to need help getting down this mountain.”
When Tina left Susan, the last vestige of sunlight slipped away, and everything went black.
* * *
HUFF. PUFF. MOAN. Groan. Was it the wind or her breath? She couldn’t tell, but it felt good. Her clothes were being raked from her body, and her hair ripped from her head, and it felt good.
Lightning cracked open the sky, and she was fucking Frank. She was fucking her adviser’s husband in the middle of the forest, and she couldn’t remember why. A thousand gigantic serpents slithered through the tops of the trees, catching her eye. Rustle. Shuffle. Hiss. The wind caught her bawl and sent it skyward, and as the serpents smelled her scream with flickering forked tongues, another bolt of lightning illuminated the forest.
There was someone limping a few yards away. (They perceived that they were naked.)
“Frank? Oh my God. Tina? What the hell is going on?”
Frank froze, and Tina stood up. Searching through the blackness of guilt, she found nothing but derision.
“Susan?” Frank called, terror in his voice. “Is that you? Susan! What – What – I don’t know how this happened!” He started stumbling through the trees to where she’d been. She backed away, bumping into a fallen log and crying his name; she fell backward. “Please, Susan, come here. Come here, please. Forgive me, Susan, please. I don’t know what happened. Please wait.”
A roar of thunder bellowed through the sky, the sound echoing through the boulders beneath their feet. The trees shuddered, sending branches plummeting to the ground.
They were on the ridge, and she could see his naked, sweaty body glistening from whatever weird light was reflecting off it. He kept coming closer. She was crying, limping, crying, backward, arms held out to keep him at bay. The wind was baying, wailing in the trees, in the valley, everywhere around her. She stepped back with her right foot, and there was nothing. Her outstretched arms tried to reach Frank, but he was too far away. She was impaled with branches before she hit the fern-covered chasm and her body broke apart.
Frank screamed, and the wind took it and bashed it against the rocks.
Tina was running through the forest as fast as she could, panting and ashamed, naked and barefoot, feet leaving a trail of bloody footsteps that led down the mountain.
Frank stood on the ridge, disoriented and crying in desperate gasps, tugging at his hair, completely at a loss as to what was real and what was not. This is a nightmare, this is a nightmare. You just hit your head on a limb or a rock and you’re having a horrible dream. You’re going to wake up, and everything will be back to normal. Then he realized at once, knew without doubt, that he was old, fragile, and irrelevant. That he would die.
Just then, Frank heard the first one. His breath fell short and his eyes tried to focus in the darkness. It was like the sound of a cannon or a shotgun going off in the distance. The smell of gunpowder wafted out of the valley, riding on the back of the banshee wind.
A few seconds later came the second, a little closer this time.
The boom sent a small avalanche of rocks spilling onto Tina’s bleeding raw feet, and she stopped in the midst of the quaking trees, halfway down the mountain. They heard the sound of יהוה moving about in the garden. (Where are you?) “Oh God, what have I done?” she screamed into the black.
A flash blasted across her mind: she lay in the stream that snaked down the mountain, limbs askew, a single rib arching out of its cage, eyes milky and open. A trail of blood drifted downstream.
As the booming, tree-rattling drumfire came closer, the ridge where Frank still stood, stupefied, began to crumble away, releasing the unbreathable stench of sulfur. Closer still, it walked as a sledgehammer erratically banging on steel piano strings. And finally, as he dangled over the valley, holding onto life with only one hand, the footsteps drew very close. They tapped with a mallet the sweetly hammered dulcimer, arrhythmic yet intentional, tapping strings and strumming rings, closer and closer.
(Return to the ground.)
© Sara Rich, 2014
Sara Rich, author of Ligatures, was born in Norfolk, Virginia, and grew up in rural Kansas, where she started writing short stories and poetry at the age of six. Her dark fiction shorts have been featured by publishers of literary journals and anthologies based in the UK, Belgium, US, and Cyprus. After eight years abroad, she now resides in the Appalachians with her wily Alaskan Malamute. @wracksandruins