Imagine a tree. A lonely, gnarled specimen that’s knotted and twisted and cloaked in dark brown bark. Bark that is cracked like an old man’s skin, but not dry and not thin.
The tree is not much like an old man at all, in fact. It is big, it is solid, and it is timeless.
There are leaves on the tree. Green leaves that never fall and, for as long as anyone can remember, are said to contain the souls of dead men. They are said to contain the souls of dead women and children too. But no one really knows if any of that is true.
It is a tree, they say, that exists out of normal time. It is part of this world, but also not part of it. Which doesn’t make much sense really. Like saying I have a tooth that is and isn’t part of my mouth. But that is what they say.
What is known for certain is that battles have been waged around it. Lovers have courted and made love at its base. Murderers and innocent men alike have hanged and choked and died, woven into ropes tied to the trees lower branches.
Now imagine a young man approaching the tree. He is lost and tired and seeks shelter. He has made a poor decision at some time in his life. We know that because he is here. Alone.
We also know he must be a stranger to this part of the world because he looks at the tree in wonderment – this solitary, ageless tree that sits in the middle of a vast field on the crest of a hill – and does not know to leave the leaves undisturbed.
Instead, the young man takes a leaf, turns it in his palm, and admires the beauty of it. He admires the veins that run and fork and crisscross through it: a unique, intricate and unparalleled pale green patchwork.
Look at the young man as he admires the leaf. See his face change from wide-eyed wonderment to something less bright, something less certain.
See him fall to his knees, yielding to an invisible force that demands that he kneel.
And now observe how his chin rests on his chest, his arms fall into his lap, as he appears to fall into a deep wakeless sleep. Observe how he does not move, not even to breathe.
Statuesque in all but material, the young man kneels. Motionless.
He remains as he is for a lifetime, still, but organic and susceptible to the elements, like the tree that casts a shadow over him.
It is not long before word gets out that there is a man who seems dead but does not decay by the foot of the solitary tree, and people come to see him. They stare in amazement, and some are brave enough to prod a poke him. They do this to make sure he isn’t one of those street performers who move when a coin is thrown at their feet. And when their curiosity is satisfied and they have prodded and poked him more than any man could feasibly bear (with moist, licked little fingers in the ear, no less) they then go to tell their friends of the man who won’t breathe but doesn’t appear to be deceased.
And more people come.
At first, most believe that he will only wake when mankind has proven it is worthy. So people perform their most extravagant works of art before him and write songs and stories to demonstrate their wisdom and culture. Others sacrifice animals and poor men and women and children to show how enlightened they are.
Some send their most beautiful daughters to kiss him in the hope that this will bring him to life.
Some come to revere and idolize him, others fear and despise him. Some claim miracles in his name, and others tragedies.
And then, frustrated that this man will not respond to their prayers and their passions, people grow tired of this man who will not move. A man who does nothing when he is left alone, and nothing when birds come to use him as a perch and a privy. A man who does nothing.
And, like most things that do not change, he is forgotten.
Now imagine a day many years from now, a day much like the last one the young man experienced, and imagine that the man awakes.
See how his head slowly lifts, how his eyes open and focus and fix on something. His eyes do not fix on something external and present, for there is nothing but him and the tree, the ageless and consistent tree.
His eyes seek out an internal thought and target an idea.
Now watch as in a flurry of frenzied activity he digs up the earth at the base of the tree. With his hands alone he churns up the sod and disperses the soil.
The young man digs long and tirelessly until there is a hole wide and long and deep enough to contain his body.
Watch as he takes off his clothes and lays them neatly to the side of his makeshift shallow grave and, naked, walks to the trunk of the tree. See how he traces the ravines created by the bark that is cracked like an old man’s skin but not dry and not thin. He traces the gaps between the bark with brown, dirt-stained fingers and smiles and sighs and a tear moistens his cheek.
Then the young man takes another leaf and turns it in his palm and admires the beauty of it.
He lies down in the earth he has toiled with his hands and feels it cool and moist on his back.
He lays one hand over the other and, underneath the lower hand, between his palm and his bare chest, is the leaf.
There, relaxed, smiling, he waits for the earth the swallow him whole. He waits to be reborn. He waits.