1. The tree is still growing and with every new branch we are closer to the end. When it flowers we will be the first to know. My nightmares are full of bodies falling down to feed its hungry roots.
For a time it was a tourist attraction. We all made money from the wide-eyed strangers pouring from jumbos and overloaded busses. When it grew big enough in six months to begin toppling nearby houses with its roots, there were rumours about the mile high branches blocking TV reception and interfering with radio waves at the airport. We couldn’t believe our pot of gold could be a threat.
Later that year the tourism committee and the town council decided to petition the state government for the town to be moved. The flowing roots that climbed and engulfed every solid object they met had already swallowed up several blocks of houses. George and I were at the tree every day. I wrote what happened in my notebook at first, but soon bought a proper journal. Doctor Beverley, the botanist who arrived ten weeks after the tree began to grow, showed me how to record facts and observations properly.
Bill Wallis, the crop-dusting pilot bought a six-seater plane, and visitors paid top dollar for a trip around the crest of the three-mile wide tree. George and I went up on a tour once, as representatives of the committee, and I was sure I spotted a shadowy creature flowing between boughs. It stayed at the edge of my sight for a minute or so then was gone. Bill said it must have been low cloud, but the icy vision left in my mind had nothing to do with altitude.
George was the first to notice the change, as the glistening leaves began falling, each a beautiful saucer-sized disk of rainbow colours. We collected them for sale. That’s when the fun began. It was weeks before others realised what was happening, but by then we could all feel the roots of fear creeping into our lives.
2. Ting Lao Choi is not the first guardian of the tree spirit, with its secret portal to the other world. Many times in the past souls have attempted to venture beyond the tree crossing into the unknown. It has been said that it is a world of beings so dense, that not even leaves of the great tree could pass through; a land of who had drawn souls from this side through the portal, entrapping them in solid pain.
It is said they feed on a soul’s life force so thoroughly that it could never be reincarnated. Others like father Choi, believed the other world to be a heaven, the true Gondoro, where we shall meet the Budda and complete enlightenment.
Since childhood, Ting had questioned her teachers about the role she would play in tending the great tree, to keep the gate closed and the world free from harm. Now that she had lived 100 seasons and was no longer an infant, her day had come. Her training had been strenuous but she was confident in her abilities.
The lesson of total vigilance was the most difficult, and she cheated once, magically acquiring the promotion to second apprentice. There were threads of ether to be interpreted, more than two thousand demon forms to be memorised and their counter-measures to be learned. She meant to confess her deception, but as time went on, the training intensified. The incident slipped past her mind into the great pool of karma beyond conscious thought, and was gone.
As a guardian of the tree spirit her responsibility was to protect it and administer nourishment that endowed it with power to keep the portal between worlds closed. Ting sensed a great disease within the spirit. Change was coming. The elders refused to believe reports of a great warming within the tree. It was prophesied that some day the door into heaven would open, but none expected it to be in this lifetime.
Ting was proud of her position and enjoyed the silk robes of office. It was an honour to be a guardian, for few could perform the duties required of a devotee of the great tree. Life, however, was not all duty and sometimes Ting would focus he mind to travel the astral plane for family visits. This day, she had left her station for only a moment, when a demon appeared, pouring the contents of an ornate flask onto the roots of the tree, which began to grow with supernatural speed. As its trunk broadened, an interlocking pattern of symbols grew in the form of a portal, from which emanated an ominous glow. It was only later, when the leaves began to fall, that she began to fear for the life of her people. The demon attacked.
3. It was a Thursday when the army arrived. George nudged me awake with his elbow. With a rumble you could feel, the trucks and tanks rolled past our little demountable house. I slid from the bed into a warm gown and reaching the front door, saw Elisa Moreton standing in her doorway across the street, milk bottle in hand, mouth open. I asked George what was happening, as he came up behind me. Along the row of weathered fibro cottages an odd glow was building. I turned, stepping onto the porch to look over the roofs toward the tree. My breath stopped. Our tree was burning. Sheets of red, orange, black and green soared upward into the low winter sky.
Rushing back into the bedroom I threw on the first clothes I could find then had to change because the slacks I’d put on were blue and I mustn’t have anyone think I am dowdy. George was backing the car out as I reached the front gate. I fumbled with the key to the security screen. Damn thing never did work properly. “Come on dear!” called George, revving the engine. I clattered down the gravel path and yanked the door open, throwing my bag in ahead of me. The gold-chrome clasp with matching strap hit George right in the ear. As I tumbled onto the saggy vinyl bench seat, he punched the pedal to the floor and we burst out onto the road.
Dodging people who ran crowding toward the spectacle, we skidded to a halt beside a big kaki truck. A dozen committee members were already there so we pushed through to join them outside the tourist information booth. I wondered how so many soldiers could arrive so fast. The air was filled with smoke and ash, and the mayor was shouting at a hard-faced military type with three shiny stars on each shoulder. Outside, fire shot from fat, dragon-like tankers, in liquid streams toward the tree.
I was angry. How dare they take away our dreams with cannons and black, white and tan soldiers? I was winding up to give the officer a barrage of my own, when a new noise burst into the chaos, sending onlookers into a new frenzy of action.
4. In the green half-dark, Ting Lao tumbled away in a turmoil of silk like pounding surf as the demon hurled javelins of energy toward her. Her complacency had endangered the tree. She and the book of sutras bound against her breast were all that stood between her world and the crimson abyss glowing behind her. Ting began tearing at her outer robes, reaching for the weapon within, unconscious of harm her scything fingers did to the paper beneath.
A single page of writing freed itself and began the descent to her feet. She watched it fall. Her hands twisted forward, shooting the silk of her sleeve ahead to block its path and shield the powerful text from the demon’s sight. As Ting evaded the incoming spears, she saw too late, their ultimate destination and they struck the forming portal with tremendous force, exploding into floods of brilliant orange.
Ting retrieved the page, exposing it toward the evil being as she intoned a prayer. There is goodness in all, and evil can only survive in ignorance. Seeing its true self reflected in the holy text, the ghost conjoined with its innocent soul and transcended in peace.
Ting was pleased that the soul could now continue its life quest. It was no longer held in the thrall of the demon master, but more urgent matters required attention. A wind began to blow towards the portal carrying with it great loads of substance. Homes, decorative pavilions and ships of the ether were dashed to powder, as the maw of the otherworld consumed them. Guardian Ting Lao wept.
5. The hard shooshing of flamethrowers had been replaced by a series of harsh pops. The crowd of spectators was in a running panic, yelling as they rushed toward their cars. Many fell and were trampled. The noise reached a crescendo.
The general woofed a string of commands to his assistants, and gas masks were passed around. A neat young man helped me with the straps of my mask, then bustled us out of the shelter to a van parked at the side of the building. Before stepping up into the vehicle I caught a glimpse of the tree.
A charcoal patch had been burned on the trunk, and from the crackling bark great clouds of noxious looking powdery orange dust were spurting in popping puffs. I associated it with sneezing; it was as if our puny efforts had irritated the giant and made it sneeze.
The orange dust, which fell like Doctor Zeuss snow, burned into everything it touched, causing hair and nylon shirts to shrivel up and then dissolve completely. Murky sap began flowing from the fissures in the tree trunk, washing downward to eat car tyres and alloy wheels, like sugar in a pancake batter.
It was time to leave, and the van jostled through crowds and barged its way through cars trying to flee the awesome scene. We raced toward the airport, and were escorted through barriers to where a line of green planes sat, waiting for us. With soldiers, a few town dignitaries and hundreds of people in white lab coats, we were ushered up ramps into the belly of the aircraft.
After waiting in these sweaty confines for twenty minutes, the trapdoor was closed and the lumbering craft made taxied down the runway. We were airborne. The flight lasted for hours and I woke after an uncomfortable doze against George’s shoulder. I hate flying.
The descent began. I ruined my good hanky wiping wetness from the window to see where we were landing and to our amazement, there stood a space shuttle strapped to it’s rocket and fuming impatiently amid scores of technicians. In the distance the sky was orange through a towering forest of green.
6. In that moment the future of her world shifted as another piece of the arcane door shattered into fragments, exploding into the vacuum of the other world. Ting had failed. The future of her village and her existence now rested in the hands of Budda. The realisation frightened her.
The teachings had always affirmed change as good, and though she knew all things must grow, Ting could not understand how the death of her world could bring enlightenment. She saw the green of her world sucked out the aperture into a vast blue of beyond. She could only watch as the hideous solid beings burned all that passed through. Even the demon masters were engulfed dispassionately. Only the spores of the great tree went unharmed, until their dragons ran out of fire and the masters fled into the darkness above.
Those they left behind were mad. They locked themselves away inside walled places until the mighty trees consumed them. Some of Ting’s people tried to go to their aid, but they were feared that more than death, so watchers were set to protect the poor creatures and chant for their souls.
Eventually their screaming ended. The newcomers began to make the best they could of the New World. Gone were the soft skies and textured dome of their homeland. In its place, a harsh spectrum of rays from a huge orb hung over the land. In time, the great trees spread over the land recreating what had been lost, and in the way of all life, balance was restored. Ting Lao learned of other great trees and of the thousand portals opening across the world.
Ting often wondered what had become of the odd beings that fled into the upper reaches. Were they still out there? Were they souls like her own people or phantasms conjured by the masters of evil in their final hour? Ting did not have the answers. So much about this place was strange and yet it was beautiful in a way she would not have thought possible. She felt grief for the past and thrilled at the prospect of undiscovered future. She had learned much. Here she would reach maturity. In retrospect, it was the best thing that ever happened to her.
7. Now it seems more like a bizarre dream than a memory, looking out of the space station window at the green and orange world below us. I’m told we were designated as survivors, because of our detailed knowledge of the tree and its growth stages. Using the vast array of television cameras that were set up before the exodus, we can see the tree and its seedlings spreading across the horizon of our old home. By telescope we can see their crowns poking up into the stratosphere. Will they stop there?
None of the scientists can explain what happened. Beverley whispers about biological warfare, and a soldier I met says it was God wiping sin from the earth. I remember the tree ghost and ponder privately. The biologists have found a coating of spores clinging to the outer hull of our sanctuary in space, and there are plans to move us further out, perhaps begin the trip to Mars a few years early.
George has become quite the scientist during the twelve months since we arrived in such a fuss with not a thing to wear; not that fashion is an issue here. Everyone wears a jump suit in company colours with ‘Sony Corporation’ emblazoned across the back.
There’s no competition. No beauty routines required. The few hours each day when the centrifugal gravity is turned off takes care of sagging skin. I love it. Space flight would have been developed a lot sooner if women had been told about the benefits of zero gravity.
I dream about those poor souls who were left behind, but in retrospect, it was the best thing that ever happened to us.