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They favour grasslands, where they might find moisture deep below ground. Not much cover though, not when some might reach the height of twenty feet. Not much cover for me either, and the sun is fierce. Heat pounds on my bare head, through the shirt stretched across my shoulders.
I’ll be lucky to find any. Once people started hunting them they were good as done. Grew so big, men like me spotted them a mile off. Men armed with hatchets, not cameras. Men who hunted them thinking there was value in a strip of unshaded land.
What I wouldn’t give for a spot of shade. Should have stayed underground, in the cool darkness of the earth. Only, I wanted an image to prove it was no mere myth. I wanted to tell stories. That they grew here once, in great numbers. They sucked the poison from the air, giving us oxygen. We cut them all to pieces, and now we struggle to breathe.
The sun’s harsh, but I must get back before sunset. When the world turns dark and frosts, I’ll be the one hunted. Some men still use hatchets, but for new victims. Desperation makes monsters of us all.
I walk on, footsteps thunderous on the hard ground. I cover empty miles, chest rattling as I strain for breath. No other sound, no other living thing to make it.
The sun falls low and wind rises. It brings clouds but blows dust in my eyes. I turn for home, but then see it standing on the horizon, mocking me with arms outstretched, fingers growing towards the sky. Or maybe it hasn’t heard my stumbling steps and wretched breathing. Maybe it’s only trying to reach the clouds to part them, and see stars.
I crawl, ridges of earth sharp against my hands, dry grasses scraping my cheeks. I smell smoke, know there’s a camp somewhere near. I’ve strayed too far, might meet folk. Only I see that jagged, grasping shape ahead of me and must get closer.
Once, I’d have taken a cutting. Tried to grow a clone, a thicket of them, a grove, a whole army. Snagged a few in my time, but nothing ever grew. Not enough life left in this world. Nothing left now, but to remember.
I get close enough to see the texture of the bark, thick and cracked like the ground under me. Pocked like my own, sun-worn skin. I get close as I dare, reaching for the camera in my pocket. I’m clumsy, my tired fingers numb. The camera slips and turns over with a clatter. I grab it, but too late. The tree tears its rope-like roots from the ground, great branching feet rising, spraying dry earth and stones over me, and runs.
I scramble to my feet and pursue, but its creaking stride is long and it throws its great branches out like arms for balance, so it seems to fly over the trembling ground. I lift my camera and try to catch it there, leaping over the earth, driven by the need to survive.
No one knows how it happened, how trees learned to walk, to run. We drove them to it, maybe. Those we didn’t chop apart just rose on their own, and fled.
My quarry runs on, and I can’t match its pace. I fall to my knees and pant for breath, lungs burning, watch it disappear into the growing gloom. Dark is coming; I’ve left it too late. I’ll freeze, or be hunted. Perhaps both.
Before me lies a break in the ground. A dark space with a maze of fibrous roots, or wires left from long ago. Hard to tell in this light, with vision fading. I’m too old to hunt. Soon, I’ll go below ground and not emerge again.
People say I’m foolish to hope, but I caught a look, saw a tree one last time. I push my booted feet into that gap in the ground, feel it give. Perhaps there’s moisture there still, just within reach. Maybe there could still be life.
I rise to stand and stretch out my arms, reaching upward as the tree did, in that moment before it knew it was hunted. When it was alone, praying to the sky for rain, or stars, or whatever trees dream about.
If trees can become more human, can we also change? I imagine moisture seeping into my boots, and roots burrowing through leather and skin, merging with veins and arteries, exchanging nutrients with my flesh. I’m part of the earth, and it’s part of me.
If I’m hunted tonight, I might tear my feet from the ground and run. Or I might stand still, and let them take a cutting. After all, I’m old and foolish enough to hope.