As I believe I’ve mentioned, we are a clever and industrious folk. As the idea of living in the branches of The Oak was accepted–and it was taken up enthusiastically by almost everyone at once–a frenzy of activity was unleashed. Led by dynamic meddlers like Underscore and Plus, skilled artisans like At and Equal, and strong-minded homebodies such as Tilde and Backslash, the project of colonizing the heights (and possibly catching and reclaiming our own young) swept our imagination.
Greater Than and Point dug deeper into the StagPak, laying out what tools it provided for use by workers. I was quite impressed at At and Equal’s solution to the need for more line. They dragged in great sheaves of long green “needles” from the same tree that produced the cones I’d admired, split them in to three equal strands with a small cutter from the Pak, and braided them together into sturdy, fragrant rope. One the process was perfected, they cozened some kits down to help with the braiding, overseen by Carat, who volubly adored kits unless they did something disgusting enough to cause her to flee.
The Ascension, fired by spirit and emotion, provided in sheer work what they lacked in expertise and planning. I squatted apart from the hubbub, sipping water from one of the ingenious red cups, and watching my fellows dig at the bark, string lines, sharpen spurs, gather material from the nearby woods, and generally babble their way towards a new colony in the tree.
I must have seemed a bit forlorn; sitting aloof , obviously stuck on the ground and unlikely to join the party in the leaves, because Paren approached me shyly, as she seemed to approach life itself. She was a rather unnoticeable little doe whose patchwork fur gave her a dowdy appearance and made her hard to take seriously. You would probably call her “calico” or “tri” if she were a cat, all splotches of beige, black and pumpkin orange. Her eyes were wide, even for one of us, and slightly lopsided, giving her a distracted, somewhat addled look. Like most of us, I had paid her very little attention until she crept up to me and chirped almost apologetically for my attention.
I looked at her and she seemed ready to scuttle away at the slightest unreceptive hint, but instead blurted out, “Older… I mean, Professor… If I could show you something… Or rather, if you would be so kind to inspect my find…”
She stopped and took a breath, then sighed and said, “May I show you?”
I tried to radiate kindliness and approval as I stood and bowed my head to her, “I’d be delighted, Younger. You were at the Omniversity, correct?” I actually invented that word halfway into my tenure and itching to put my personal stain on things; an attempt to convey an academy that is interplanetary in scope and embraces all knowledge. Well, I had thought it embraced all knowledge until finding myself standing on an unknown world.
“Yes, Older. At the Library. Just a clerk, of course. I was continuing my study, but…” She seemed to regard tapered-off sentences, a trait I find undisciplined and annoying, as an artform.
“Well, here we are then. Colleagues marooned together by the fickle jests of fate.” I could see that the word “colleague” had triggered what I feared would lead to a gush of self-abnegation, so I quickly asked, “And what do you have to show me?”
“Well, it’s… Just a very short walk around this…” She pointed at one of the large roots that radiated out from the central trunk of The Oak and started walking around to it’s other side. I followed, bemused by what revelation this meek creature could have for me.
We had built our fire and slept in a large “V” of these exposed roots. These woody tentacles spread out from the Oak and were much taller than my head where they joined the main trunk. The way they sprawled out like wallls that disappeared into the earth struck us as baroque and alien. We had kept the kits and water jugs in the crotch of the roots, and confined most of our activity to that one sector. But Paren led me around the tree to another wedge of ground bounded by two even thicker roots. Leading me to the crotch where they met, nodding so deferentially she was almost bowing, she pointed out a cavity where the massive ridges of wood converged at the main tree.
“I found this yesterday,” she mumbled. “While the rest of you were dancing.”
And of course nobody, even Greater Than, had noticed her slip away to her own solitude: I sensed a rather lone, sad soul in Paren. But when I glanced at her she was smiling and animated as she showed me how we could squeeze through the scarred slot into an interior cavity, eroded into the flesh of The Oak by, I assume, rot or infection or fire.
It was an irregular chamber sufficiently high that I couldn’t see the “ceiling”, and almost as large as my quarters at the Academy. It was even divided into two “rooms”, an offshoot cavity further back in the tree being accessible through another opening larger than the “front door” through which we’d entered. The feeling inside also reminded me of my study back home, a quiet, shadowy space with a very pleasant odor of wood in decay.
I congratulated Paren on her find but asked why she hadn’t mentioned it to the group in general. She cast her eyes down and muttered, “Well, I didn’t… I didn’t think anybody would… You know, every time I try to tell people things they just…” She broke off with a hapless shrug that got her point across succinctly.
“It’s a wonderful discovery and you were very enterprising to find it,” I told her, trying to layer on extra warmth and approval. “You can be nice and safe here and with a few improvements…”
But she was shaking her head. “Oh, no. I thought you… Since you’re…” She paused, embarrassed.
“Old and decrepit with no head for heights?” I leaned forward as she shook her head again, stammering. “And getting a little of tired of the company of my fellows?”
She stared at me, startled, then gave a little smile. “You’re wise, Older. You need some solitude to be able to…”
She stopped again, suddenly reminded of the fact that I was able to do very little in our current situation. No need for scholars on this frontier.
“So you are offering me these quarters you found?”
She nodded her head bashfully and scuttled towards the “back room”.
“That’s very generous of you, Younger. But there is plenty of room for both of us here,” I said, examining the dusty corners of the wooden “cave”.
She turned, her tufts writhing in embarrassment. “Oh, thank you, but I want to live up in the branches with, you know, my generation.”
“Of course, of course. Thank you very much for this wonderful find and gift. I think it’s exactly what I need and you will certainly always be welcome here.”
“That’s very kind of you, Older. I hope you enjoy your new home.” She backed away, nodding, then turned to bolt for the “door”. But turned suddenly, looking at me as if evaluating the decorum of further remarks to me. I did my best to look kindly and receptive: I was quite touched by her thoughtfulness and the impression I was getting of her as a bit of an emotional waif.
She looked around helplessly then blurted, “Do you think I can go up there? Live in the tree? Be one of…”
Ah. Perhaps her half-sentences were more eloquent than complete thoughts. “Of course you can,” I told her. “You can climb up there as easily as Stroke. You’re obviously an adventurous type. Nobody else explored the area and found this nice little cottage right under their noses, did they? You’ll have a fine life up there. And I think you’ll find more friends in that setting than on the ship.”
She started to speak, but turned and shimmied out through the fissure instead. A sweet female, I thought, as I examined my new home with a growing pleasure. It would require some work, of course. I’d need a broom first. It suddenly occurred to me, with a sharp but pleasant shock, that I could probably figure out how to make one. Amazing idea! I crept out into the sunlight and started browsing what the environment had to offer in the way of broom-making materials.