The Ash Tree

“We are remembered for what we have built, not what we have torn down.” -Ansauan Proverb

Kinav island
48th day of Leved, 471 AC

Dekkan Traaski sat on the stone bench outside the Council chambers, watching for the last time as the sun rose over the barrier island of Korsem. The fact that he had been preparing for this moment for years was of little consolation, it still felt years too early, and he was reluctant to leave his seat underneath the ash tree that had given him shade every day of his tenure. He checked his polished wood and leather document case to make sure that his papers were still there, and made his way into the chambers, where the rest of the council was waiting for him.

He walked down the center aisle, between the rows of desks, the chatter dying down to a murmur as the room became aware of his presence. Through his years in the council he had worked with, for, and against most of the people in the room at one time or another, and he had to be careful to keep his face stern and his gaze fixed in order to avoid having his determination drained by small conversations.

When he reached the front, he made his way up to the chairman’s table, moving past the junior chairman’s place which he had occupied only the month before. The wood of the document case clicked when he set it on the table, and that sound was amplified so that it carried across the whole room like a gavel strike. The room went silent.

He sat down in the chair that still felt too big, and opened his document case, pulling out the two files that it contained, setting them side by side on the table, the cream colored paper contrasting against wood so dark that it was nearly black. He knew what he was supposed to do, but the knowledge made the task no easier.

Throughout the chamber, Dekkan could see the eyes of the council focused on him, waiting for him to stand up and begin the day with words that had been leeched of all meaning by time and use, but he would not. If he stood up and said those words, immediately the day would begin, and it would only be a matter of minutes before it had gathered too much momentum for him to stop. Instead, he stood up and spoke the words that he had rehearsed dozens of times over the previous weeks.

“Members of the council, I am calling an emergency session.” A moment later, the Council chambers were still, with all eyes focused on Dekkan. He took a deep breath and continued, “You may wonder what emergency I am referring to, wondering what news may have come from the Watchers or farmers, what enemy or blight we may have to face. I am not calling this session for any of those reasons, but rather for the long, slow emergency that looms before us yet is invisible due to our well practiced blindness.”

Dekkan had talked with almost every member of the Council at one time or another about the issue he was about to raise, and he could see some of them turning back to their paperwork. Others watched him intently, waiting for the political suicide that they were sure would come. He paid none of them any mind, and continued.

“The emergency I am referring to, of course, is that of our continued viability. Our island is large, and supports us all, but will not always do so. Eventually, our limited resources will dwindle, and once that happens, it will be too late to act, and we will fall into an inexorable decline. I am not explaining this to you so that you may help to shape the future, as you have already abdicated from that responsibility. Rather, I am presenting this so that you may best deal with the future as it has been shaped.

“Our island does not maintain a stationary position upon the ocean, but moves with the currents in a pattern that is too complex for us to fully comprehend. The eccentricity of our location has served to keep us safe, but it has also served to keep us isolated, and isolation is now our biggest threat, as it keeps us from forging the relationships that would preserve us.

“In this room, I know while I am not alone in my thoughts, I am alone in action. Some of you feel that the benefits do not outweigh the risks, that we will be looted by those who would, by force, take from us that in which we have invested so much. Some of you feel that we will never reach the point at which our resources are proven to be finite. The rest agree with me, but are unwilling to impose the costs on your constituents, choosing rather the politically expedient course of taxing your constituents’ children, and hoping that it will be enough. Each of you have valid points, but rather than using the opportunity to find the best course of action, you have allowed those fears to keep you from action entirely.

“I will not say more as to your responsibility for what I am about to do, but merely wanted you to understand the reason for my actions, and understand that there is no option to recuse yourselves from this path that I have chosen. That being said, I am invoking my right as Council Chairman during an emergency session to put for the following legislation. We will build a beacon that will allow us to have relations and trade with the outside world. This Beacon will be powered by a general tax on the people, as well as tariffs on all goods incoming.”

Dekkan went on to read the specifics of the bill, which he had drafted over the course of months into a monolith of legislation that would nearly impossible to undo. As he talked and the minutes turned into hours, he watched the faces of his fellow council-members move from shock to anger and finally to acceptance as the provisions were laid out. After he finished, Dekkan just stood there, half expecting one of his peers to attempt to kill him, but no one spoke and no one left their seats. He had their full attention as he pressed the spike on the Council seal against the matching tattoo on his forearm, pushing until it broke skin and was covered with a thin film of blood. He pressed the seal onto the paper of the master copy of the legislation and lifted it to see a picture of the floating island of Ansau in blood that dried instantly to black as the law was Sealed. With the council now Bound to accept the legislation, felt the stress begin to lift, but he had one more matter to take care of. He gave the master document and four copies of the bill to the recorder seated at the table to his right, and took a second piece of paper from his document case, and again spoke to the council.

“There is a second order of business that must be attended to before this session closes. Just as many of you were unwilling to act against the dictums of political expediency, I understand that I have violated those same dictums. Rather than allow the controversy of what I have done as well as its inevitable backlash to occupy otherwise valuable time and resources, I hereby resign, effective immediately.” He repeated the Sealing process with his resignation letter, and watched the Council Seal on his arm immediately begin to fade as the order took effect and he was stripped of his power as a Council-member.

Dekkan left his resignation with the recorder on his way out of the chamber. None of the other council-members would meet his eye, much less confront him, and of that he was glad. He walked out and down the wide paths that led from the capitol compound and down into the city below. A small part of him felt free, with the burden lifted from him, but he hardly noticed it as the weariness in his tendons and muscles flared to life, as though years had been taken off his life and all that held him together was the thin skin stretched over his skeleton.

----------- Kinav -----------

Dekkan expected controversy over the Beacon, and it came. Everyone was talking about it, everyone had something to say. What he hadn’t counted on was how quickly the excitement died down. After a few weeks, no one was talking about it, and after a few months it had been subsumed by the next crisis, a plague of leaf jumpers that was affecting the barrier islands’ rice crops.

Dekkan was used to looking at the world through the eyes of a council member, and life as a civilian was like living in the dark. A project was commenced, a decision made, and then nothing until the project neared completion or the decision went into effect. The middle was full of slow, unglamourous work, but without seeing it firsthand, the process felt like a series of random events. They were not made to happen, they just did.

The sun stung Dekkan’s eyes when he stepped out of his apartment in response to the sound of the peddler’s bell. It was still early spring, and the cold air clarified the light into a glare. He pulled his robes tighter around him, but even doubled, the fabric was too thin to retain much heat. He rushed out into the alley where the peddler was waiting with his hand cart stacked with casks and jars, but there was no line, and he felt awkward, like the first customer of a shop in the morning.

“Good morning, what can I get for you?” the peddler asked.

“Just a small cask of rice, please,” Dekkan said, pulling a two Ve coin out of his pouch.

The peddler picked a small cask off the side of the cart, holding on to its rim with the tips of his fingers.

“That’ll be five Ve,” he said.

“Five?” Dekkan asked.

“Five,” the peddler replied. When Dekkan didn’t reach for another coin, he continued, “With the new leaf jumpers, rice is going to be expensive this season.”

Dekkan’s mind immediately jumped back to his time with the council. The barrier islands were planted almost entirely with rice, terraced fields cascading down their interior slopes. Combined with a poor winter harvest, it was shaping up to be a lean summer.

“At least once the Beacon is up we’ll be able to import things in times like these,” Dekkan said.

The peddler snorted. “Right. After the beacon is up, we’ll have to import food to cope with the blights and pests from everywhere else.”

Dekkan had heard the same arguments being made in the council, and he knew from experience how difficult it was to argue with fear. He fished out another coin and the peddler gave him the cask.

On his way back to his apartment, he noticed the things left undone in the communal area. It was subtle, ornamental plants left unpruned, the stone walkway unswept, but it was there. Families were spending more time working to make up for the rise in food prices, and things were getting left undone. He had seen it before, and knew that it would pass. Dekkan took his mind off the subject as he climbed the steps to his apartment.

----------- Kinav -----------

The next morning, Dekkan was woken by a crash and yelling outside. When he pulled aside the curtains he saw a woman precariously perched in the upper branches of the ash tree, filling a basket with undersized apples. On the ground below her a basket had fallen and broken open, leaking smashed fruit. Her husband was standing next to it, hauling on a rope that was looped over one of the top branches to send an empty basket up to her.

Dekkan looked out at the tree. It was similar to the ash tree that filled the courtyard of every residential block on the island, providing shade and food, but to him it was much more than that. He remembered playing and climbing on it when he had stayed with his uncle during the summers of his youth. Old Mr. Yarai had caught him climbing on a fresh persimmon graft one time and he remembered thinking that his uncle would kill him. Instead, his uncle had made him help Mr. Yarai every morning for the rest of the summer.

From Yarai he had learned about trees, how they lived and died, what they needed and how to supply it. Now he looked at the ash tree through his mentor’s eyes. Until Yarai had died, the tree had been as carefully nurtured as any bonsai, with each branch kept in the proper proportion and proximity to its neighbor, as well as to the rest of the tree. The new growth, on the other hand, had grown without guidance, so that entire sections of the tree were unbalanced, and the fruiting branches were so closely bunched that their fruits were stunted from the deprivation of nutrients.

Yarai had said that for a tree there were two paths. Either it could be left alone to grow along the inivisible lines etched by wind, rain, and sun or it could be managed by people, according to their needs. Once one branch was cut by human hand, the tree was forever a human thing, unable to return to the primal instinct of its youth.

Dekkan waited until the afternoon, when most of the block’s residents had left for work or errands, to reacquaint himself with the tree. As a child, he hadn’t really appreciated it, but when he grew older, he learned how lucky he had been to learn from the old man. Yarai had been a master arborist, with all eight slots on his Skill Graph filled with with the Seals of his profession, allowing him to interact with the tree in ways that Dekkan could only imagine. As a result, the ash tree rivaled anything kept in the botanical gardens. All residential blocks had their own ash tree, and all but the newest of them had at least a graft or two, but Yarai had grafted apple, persimmon, fig, hazelnut, cherry, lemon, and breadnut branches onto the five trunks of the hundred year old tree and provided food for the entire block.

The tree had been encouraged to spread out rather than to rise vertically, and its branches provided light shade for nearly the entire courtyard. He climbed up onto one of the trunks and found many of the the branches too covered in new growth to venture out on. He went back into his apartment and found the chest of tools that he had kept when his uncle, a carpenter, had passed away. They had all been sharpened and oiled before being stored, and the tools would have been at home in a shop display. Dekkan picked out a couple of small saws and went back out to climb the tree to start pruning away some of the unwanted growth.

He started at the bottom of one of the trunks, following it up and sawing off the smaller branches so that they wouldn’t sap resources from the larger ones. If he were going to do this with any sort of regularity, he would have to get a Seal that would allow him to heal them. It would be expensive, but worthwhile. The trunk had grown out at an angle steeper than a staircase, but not dangerously so.  As he worked his way up it, he felt the agility and balance of his youth gradually reassert itself until he was able work with both hands while braced in the crook of larger branches.

When he had cleaned the trunk of all the smaller branches, he went to work thinning out the fruit bearing ones, trimming off the least productive. He was about halfway through the trunk, in the middle of a patch of figs when he heard a woman yelling from below. He couldn’t make out what was being said due to the wind in the leaves, and he couldn’t see due to the large fig leaves blocking his view, so he began to descend.

One of his neighbors was waiting for him among the pruned branches. He had seen her around, but had never actually met her. He smiled, the pleasure of working on the tree compounded by the experience of meeting an attractive woman. His smile faded when he got closer and saw that she was glaring at him.

“What are you doing?” she asked. “Can’t you see that there is fruit on the branches that you just cut?”

“Yes,” he said. “But the branches were too crowded, they needed to be thinned.”

“Just because they’re just scenery to you doesn’t mean that we don’t use the fruit,” she said.

“If you had taken care of the tree, it wouldn’t be necessary,” he said.

The woman looked at him, then stormed off, leaving Dekkan sitting in the tree, confused. He jumped down from the tree and took the cut branches to the communal firewood bin. He considered going to her apartment to talk to her, but he doubted that anything good would come of it while she was still angry. Since there was really nothing she could do about it, he decided to let it rest, and went back to his apartment.

----------- Kinav -----------

Dekkan didn’t see his neighbors again until the following evening, at the monthly block meeting. When he walked in, the large room was unusually full, with almost all of the seats taken even though he was early. A quick count revealed nearly a hundred people in attendance, and it seemed as though all of their eyes were focused on him as he looked for a seat, a feeling reminiscent of his early days in the Council.

When the meeting finally started, he felt his stomach knot up as the woman who had yelled at him the night before took the podium. Her black hair was gathered and tied into a tail, giving her a predatory appearance. He told himself that it must be just a coincidence, but when she looked directly at him, he knew what was happening. She looked back down at her notes and took her time in arranging them in an effort to unnerve him. With her intent clear, his mind became calm even as goosebumps raised on his arms. He had been through this sort of thing before, and knew that if he could handle it from the Council, he could handle it from these people.

She began to speak, introducing herself as Tewika and talking about the rising price of food. As she spoke, he was careful to assume the look of someone threatened, sitting low in his chair with his shoulders slumped, careful not to look directly at the woman behind the podium. His time on the Council had taught him that no one was so sloppy as someone who thought they had the advantage.

“Everyone who lives here understands that all of us, not any one, own the communal gardens as well as the tree, and therefore each is entitled to their fair share of the products. None of it has been formally regulated, as the good people who live here are easily bound by social custom. And up until recently, that has worked well.”

Dekkan listened and waited for the accusation that was about to come. He hoped that she came to it quickly, as he was ready, and waiting would only dull his mind.

“But things have changed. Most notably, Mr. Dekkan has begun to prune the great tree in the courtyard.” Dekkan felt a rush from the direct accusation, and began to stand. “Will you defend yourself?”

“Yes, I will,” Dekkan said.

He had taken a seat by the aisle, and was glad of it, as it meant that he would not have to suffer the indignation of making his way over the knees of those seated next to him. He walked forward, and Tewika stepped back and to the side as he approached. He was tall, taller than her, and moved with a practiced casualness, a combination that had served him well in the Council.

“I have pruned the ash tree, what have I done wrong?” he asked. As he had done nothing wrong, any accusation that they came up with would be necessarily flimsy.

“You cut off branches that bore fruit, fruit that belonged to all of us, not you alone,” Tewika said. “And although it is understood that any of us may take from the tree, to do so for the purpose of ornament is obscene.”

Many of the heads in the room were nodding along with his accuser. Dekkan opened his mouth to tell them about why the tree had needed to be pruned, but his anger got the better of him. Their ignorance wasn’t his fault, and he had no obligation to rid them of it.

“Fools,” he said, and walked out of the room.

----------- Kinav -----------

None of Dekkan’s neighbors bothered him for the next few days, although when they noticed him their conversation would come to a halt, leaving only awkward silence. He stopped pruning the tree, confident that they would come back with thanks when the fruit on the branches that he had trimmed around grew large.

Then he found the note on his door. He stopped and looked at it, confused, before he realized that it was a rent slip, which was even more confusing, as his rent was paid through the end of the year. He pulled the folded piece of paper from the spike in the door frame, and opened it. It listed his rent as being paid, but there was an additional hundred Ve that was listed as “punitive charges”, equal to a quarter of his rent.

A few minutes later he was at Tewika’s door, pounding it hard enough to rattle the shutters in their frames. The door opened and Tewika stepped out. Her hands were covered with flour and her impatience was plainly written across her face.

“You can’t do this!” he said.

“You’re right, I can’t. But we can.” she gestured to the entire block, “After you left, a vote was taken and it was agreed that you should bear the cost of what you have done, not your neighbors.”

“You’re crazy, you know that?” he said. She sighed, and stepped forward, shutting the door behind her. Dekkan felt pushed back, their positions reversed from the night before. Dekkan half turned, so that he didn’t block her view of the tree. “Ever since old Mr. Yarai died, has anyone taken the time? How can the tree produce fruit if its branches all compete and choke the life from one another? You might be happy with apples the size of plums, but he would not have, and nor am I.”

Her eyes widened, and Dekkan knew that he had gotten through to her. He straightened his spine and was about to press his advantage when suddenly his face was jerked sideways and his eyes teared up. She had slapped him.

“You want to tell me about my father?” she asked. She raised her hand and Dekkan stepped back to avoid another blow, but she only pointed at the tree. “He cared more about that tree than his own family.”

“I-I’m sorry,” Dekkan said. “I didn’t know.” He felt ashamed. He had spent so much time working that he didn’t even know his neighbors’ names. His accomplishments in the Council suddenly didn’t feel so impressive.

“If I could, I would, but he always said that an arborist’s place was in the trees, and a woman’s was in the home,” she said. Her anger spent, she relaxed.

“That’s terrible,” Dekkan said. He searched his memory, but could not find any memory of Mr. Yarai talking about his family. He had always assumed that the man had lived alone and died alone, and perhaps that was the truth of it.

“Listen,” he said after standing in silence for a few moments. “I wasn’t pruning the tree for ornamentation, I just wanted it to be healthy, to feed the block. I’m sorry.”

“This was all avoidable. You know that, right?” she asked.

“Yeah, the worst kind of mistake,” he said. “Thank you.” He turned to go back to his apartment, but he didn’t want to be alone. He didn’t want to be with Yarai’s daughter, either, so he just walked out into the city.

He replayed the events of the past week in his head, and thought about how arrogant he had been. He would have to apologize to a good many people, the whole block, actually. He smiled when he realized that it could all be rectified, but another thought wiped the smile off his face. His attitudes towards his neighbors hadn’t been that different from the way he had treated his constituents and fellow council members. Rationally, he knew that there was a difference, that had someone had needed to act, but in his memories he was no longer illuminated upon a pedestal, but rather a bully who had commanded from atop a short hill. He had passed legislation, yes, but had he built the social infrastructure necessary to sustain it? The thoughts plagued him and did not go away.

----------- Kinav -----------

The next week, he started to prune again, this time prepared to answer the questions of his neighbors. He was up in the high branches, and by midday he needed a break and made his way down. Expecting to find piles of branches everywhere, instead he found the ground clear. Two older children were pretending to fence with pieces of wood. Tewika was sitting outside her apartment, but stood when she saw him.

“Good morning Tewika,” he said. “Your children?”

“I don’t look that old, do I?” she asked, smiling. “You can call me Wiki.”

“Of course not,” Dekkan said, chagrined.

“I’ve been talking with our neighbors, and I think that if you talked to them, you could convince them to drop the fine,” she said.

“Thank you, but no,” he said. “Me being apologetic doesn’t excuse my actions.”

“Can you afford it?”

“For a while,” he said.

“And then?”

“And then I’ll go back to the council,” he said.

“You can do that? I thought that the resignation was sort of permanent,” she said.

“It was. I’ll have to run again, but I think that I can win,” he said. “In the meantime, I’ll relax and work on the tree. I forgot how much I like building things.”

“That sounds nice,” she said.

“Would you like to learn how to do it?” he asked.

“I would,” she said.

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This short story is just one part of a larger story, use the links above or the navigation at the top and sidebar of this page to see the rest.

Notes: When I first started writing this story, I had in mind a character like Dennis Kucinich, specifically his role in the Cleveland public utility issue.  After writing the first scene, I realized that Dekkan was kind of an ass.  From there the rest of the story took shape, it was at this time that I realized that Ash Tree was my personal favorite of the stories that I’ve written, but also that it was completely unsellable in the current short story market, which has a lot to do with how I’ve set things up for the series.  Although many will probably interpret the story as being about environmentalism (which is true) the story is also about politics in general and a system where the politicians are more interested in reelection than actually doing the right thing.