I’m delighted that I just heard that I got a highly commended for a short story I submitted to this year’s Winchester Writers’ Festival. I’m not posting that story yet so here’s another old one. As ever comments are welcome.
There is a tree in our garden. Just three times the height of a man it is dwarfed by the golden pines that surround it, yet it dominates its clearing. No other plant encroaches on its space and the bare soil surrounding its smooth trunk is covered only by the soft matting of red fern-like leaves that fall throughout the year. The supple branches cascade from the trunk from just above head height and form a fountain of red. The tree resembles a weeping willow I saw once in the Earth Park at Settlement but the leaves are thicker and form an interlocking, circular curtain. The bark is slightly elastic, almost spongy, golden brown and unmarked except for a vertical crease about a metre above the ground. The tree is clearly not a native of my home; the leaves are a red not seen in any other living thing on the planet. The tree stands apart and despite its obvious health and vigour remains a guest, a visitor, on the landscape. In fact it was planted before my birth, by my father on his return from his interstellar wanderings. He planted it as a sapling and tended its growth.
As an infant, my father took me on walks around our estate always paying a visit to the tree to examine its progress. It grew with me, if somewhat faster, and as a child I played in and out of its thickening fronds. As a youth I sought sanctuary within its circle relishing the peace and tranquillity it generated. I sat with my back against its trunk shielded from the world by the cascade of branches and leaves. As a man…
Some years ago my father told me his story of the tree. He was the leader of the initial exploration team to the planet. Long distance scans had suggested it would habitable but they were surprised to find it inhabited. Intelligence is rare in the universe but the people, while primitive, were certainly intelligent. Basically humanoid in form they were smaller and slighter than humans and they seemed simpler in their desires and aspirations and hopes. Their existence meant the end of the colonisation plans that my father had hoped to set in motion. Nevertheless the expedition stayed a while to collect samples, catalogue the organisms and investigate the race. The team made camp near a village of the people and were soon accepted as welcome visitors. The hosts lived peaceful lives cultivating crops and building and repairing their wooden huts using only tools of stone, wood and bone. Their climate was pleasant, food plentiful and disease and danger apparently non-existent. They communicated by a language that was easily learnt and they conversed freely with their guests but showed little interest in the technology and artefacts that the scientists carried with them all the time. They were far more concerned with tending the Trees that grew in small groves around the village. The devotion with which they made such frequent visits to the Trees seemed to suggest a religious significance and thus they were christened the Tree-people.
The one mystifying fact about the Tree-people was that they seemed to be hermaphrodites. Clothing was unknown and unnecessary for them and so it was visibly obvious that every one of the Tree-people that the exploration team met, from the youngest child to the oldest adult, possessed male genitalia. To the humans the size of the adults’ apparatus seemed out of proportion to their slender bodies. The mature adults also possessed mammary glands, a pair of nipples in the centre of small swellings in the middle of their chests. The scientists were never offered the opportunity to examine one of the Tree-people closely and never abused their hosts’ hospitality by doing so illicitly, but examination from a distance failed to reveal any sign of female reproductive organs.
Around midsummer, the Tree-people became excited and for a few weeks showed just cursory interest in their normal occupations. They began to make preparations for a festival, collecting extra supplies of food and weaving garlands of flowers to decorate their homes. They made even more extended visits to the groves of Trees. A sparse crop of fruit, no more than half a dozen per Tree, appeared and ripened in the warm sunshine and gentle night-time rain. Golden yellow and resembling large plums the fruit look extremely succulent. The scientists surmised that the festival would coincide with the harvest and so it turned out. One afternoon in early autumn the whole village gathered together and processed, singing joyfully, to one of the groves of Trees. Ceremonially each fruit was carefully plucked from each Tree then the whole crowd moved off to the next grove. As the sun sank towards the horizon the villagers returned bearing baskets of fruits, still singing. Then the party began. The explorers had not been invited but watched from a distance. Adults and children danced around the heaps of fruits that had been laid out on trestle tables. Each took a fruit and consumed it with great enjoyment. It was almost as if the flesh of the fruit was intoxicating such was the joy with which each ate. Every single fruit was eaten, none was left or stored but despite the carefree atmosphere each stone from the centre of each fruit was collected and placed in a large wooden bowl. Then other foods and drinks were brought out and the carousing continued into the night.
Aftermidnight, when only the stars provided any light at all, the villagers fell silent. But they didn’t disperse to their huts. The watchers cranked up the gain on their night vision goggles to follow what happened next. The Tree-people formed a circle around the table bearing the bowl of fruit stones. A small number of the young adults came out of the crowd, walked up to the bowl, chose a stone and placed it in their mouths. The rest of the inhabitants cheered and clapped and then they returned to their homes. The gathering was over. The explorers were mystified but decided that it must have been an initiation rite, a celebration of entry into adulthood.
The following day the Tree-people once again formed a procession out to the groves and planted the remaining fruit stones in freshly cleared patches of soil. Then they returned to their normal occupations and life carried on as before. Some weeks later when the stones had begun to germinate and the first seedlings pushed up from the soil, the scientists began to notice changes in the young adults. Their stomachs developed a swelling which became a growth that expanded into a balloon-like sac connected to the abdomen by a narrow but tough umbilicus. At first the young men continued with their duties but as their sacs became larger and more cumbersome they gradually gave up activity and spent most of their time sitting, chatting with each other and drinking the local beer. One of the scientists finally realised what was happening – the men were pregnant and the sacs were exterior wombs. They waited to see what would happen next.
Soon after midwinter one of the men’s sacs split, fluid spilled out and a perfectly formed child of the tree-people was revealed. The father/mother put the child to their breast where it took nourishment contentedly. The sac dried and crumbled to dust. The umbilicus also dried out and simply snapped off leaving barely a mark on the adult or child. In the days that followed all the pregnant adults gave birth in the same way to healthy male babies.
The exploration team were dumbfounded. Was it parthenogenesis? Had copulation occurred somewhere, somehow, unobserved? How could it be understood? The expedition’s time on the planet was drawing to a close. Preparations were being made for their departure. The scientists desperately asked the Tree-people for an explanation. The only answer they received translated as
‘We pour out seed.
The fruit ripens.
On the last day of their stay my father was presented with a tiny sapling of a Tree. The Tree-people presented it with intense ceremony and my father reported a feeling of great honour. The botanists took cuttings and samples but cell cultures revealed little. The Tree seemed to be a typical photosynthesising, fruit producing, woody plant. On his return my father proudly planted the sapling in a clearing on our family estate and tended its growth. Despite the different soil and quality of sunlight it grew well and indeed reached an above average height while I was still a youth, but to my father’s disappointment it never flowered nor produced fruit.
I have been away from home for two years studying at the university in Settlement. I returned at the start of summer for a few weeks vacation before following in my father’s footsteps. Soon I will take up a position on a starship and set off to look for more planets to colonise. In the meantime I relished the prospect of the peace and serenity of our long-established house and gardens.
One day, soon after my return I was sauntering alone in the garden. I came to the Tree. It had been a long time since I had seen it and it was like greeting a familiar old friend. As I entered its patch of clear soil a ripple passed through the cascading fronds though I was aware of no breeze. A strong perfume hung on the air, unlike anything I had experienced before and with an unfamiliar but musky odour. It stirred powerful emotions and my heart beat faster. The sun was overhead and the heat began to feel quite oppressive. My clothes clung to my sweaty skin and irritated. On an impulse I tore them off and stood naked. It had been years since I had run unclothed through the garden but now it seemed the most natural thing to do.
The sunshine burned my skin so, gently, I parted the red branches and stepped onto the soft carpet of fallen leaves. Entering the Tree’s domain I found the scent even stronger, almost overpowering. Surprisingly I found myself developing an erection, my scrotum tightening around my testicles. I stepped forward to the trunk, bathed in a crimson glow as the sunlight filtered through the canopy of leaves. The odour was so heavy on the air my head began to ache. My cock stood out straight and hard as a rod of iron. It throbbed with anticipation, but of what? I looked at the trunk and saw what seemed to be the source of the perfume. The small crease in the bark had become a gaping vertical fissure some fifteen centimetres long. Ridges of soft tissue bounded a central hole and drops of syrupy liquid oozed from the aperture.
My head was pounding and I fell against the Tree. My cheek pressed against the spongy bark and I flung my arms around the trunk to support myself. I felt the tip of my cock touch the moist crack and then desire or some primitive instinct took over. My pelvis drove my penis into the Tree. The soft tissue parted and I slid in easily. The Tree seemed to welcome me. There was no end to the hole but I felt a pulsing grip on my tool. Long, flexible branches embraced me, the leaves caressing my bare back and buttocks. There was suction on my prick and I responded, thrusting rhythmically and powerfully. My head was filled with sexual fantasies, nubile young women, legs wide apart, inviting me in, their breath on my neck, breasts rubbing against my chest, thighs gripping my hips, their vaginas welcoming every thrust. The women became mature fruits with succulent flesh that I bit into, their juices flowing down my chin. I swallowed the stone and my head filled with the image of a foetus growing in a bag dangling from my abdomen. The first orgasm exploded in my loins and my head and I felt my semen gush into the Tree. Once was not enough for the Tree; the narcotic perfume held me in a sexual trance and the Tree massaged my penis quickly to a renewed erection. It held me so strongly that I couldn’t, wouldn’t withdraw and soon I was pumping energetically again and longing for the release of another climax. It came, as powerfully as the first, my seed sucked into the orifice, and still the Tree would not release me. A third time the Tree’s embrace excited, encouraged and drew an emission from me and then I slipped into unconsciousness.
I awoke to find myself slumped at the base of the Tree. The sun was lower in the sky and the air was cooler and fresher. The branches no longer pressed close but swayed in a breeze. What had happened to me? My cock felt sore, over used and my legs ached but when I looked at the trunk of the Tree the hole had closed up leaving just a small crack. I crawled out of the enveloping leaves and retrieved my scattered clothes. Slowly, thoughtfully, painfully I made my way back to the house.
Some weeks have passed since my experience. I haven’t told anyone what happened and I am due to embark next week. But can I leave? The fruit is ripening on the Tree.