It was beautiful land.
Whether the person seeing it was a local or a visitor, distant kin or lost tourist, whether they loved or hated the people, the small town sins and virtues, the space and the quiet, the winding and slender roads, whether they were born with good earth under their feet, or whether the humming electric heart of the city beat in their chest, they would always say that it was beautiful land.
It was a land of high ridges and mountains cut through with rivers, creeks, and brooks that formed fertile valleys and lowlands. There were wide, clear patches of green and gold where corn, wheat, and soybeans grew or where cattle and horses were out to pasture, dotted with lines of fences and gates. Forests blossomed up here and there, as if sprung up between the fields though in truth they were far older than the cleared, tamed spaces. Some were small groves, others thin lines, others vast and deep swathes of green that hid secrets in their hills and dells. Thin ribbons of roads wound around hills and property lines in a haphazard seeming way that all in the area knew by heart; most were even paved though that had been done long ago and in many places the road was in need of repair. Houses, barns, and garages rose up against the landscape as though part of it, not intruding but as natural and normal as if they had grown instead of been built. The flowing waters cut deep enough and were small enough that only their channels could be seen but the flow could be heard as part of the steady background soundtrack of the natural world. The rest was wind and birdsong, the stirring of branches of newly sprouted leaves, and the occasional distant bark of a dog or far off lowing of livestock. Now and then a car would pass along the road; the thrum of its' engine almost disruptive but seeming to be cut off and coming as if from another world overlapping this one, rather than a mere few hundred yards or handful of miles distant.
It had always been that way to him, Don thought as he climbed up the tallest hill in the valley and adjusted the heavy pack on his back, a wicker basket older than himself swinging in one hand. As though this whole area were some other world; separate and apart from the ugliness and dirtiness of the city where he lived and the town he'd grown up in. He was no fool and knew that this world had its own ugliness and sin...but there was no stain on the land in the same way as there was in other places. It was not built into the place and part of its structure and organization as it could be in the city. The wickedness here was all of men and when man passed, it would be fully pure without them.
Don was not a local but not a stranger either, depending on who you asked. His father had grown up here on the farm before going to college. The family had spent some time here when he was just a child but his father's career had ended up taking them far away. But they always returned. Christmas, Easter, long weeks and even months in the summer, they came back. And so he'd grown up in a suburb in a small college town but still on the farm. He'd fed calves, mucked barns, bedded beasts down, helped with haying, cleared stumps, and while also going to school in the heart of town, having his first job at a shop on Main street, hanging out in the mall. He learned how to drive on an old International tractor though his first car was a tan colored 1990 Cavalier. He loved to read and study, enjoyed fantasy and science fiction, watched cartoons like a true geek but also walked lonely roads and trod forest paths, chopped wood, lifted and heaved, knowing how to use his body's might as well as that of his mind. The town and the country were both part of him and he'd always felt part of both in return, a foot in two close but vastly different worlds. But this was the world that always called to him when he was away from it. This was the one he always wanted to come back to.
He had left the town for college and gone away to the city. Don went back to the town to visit his family, but he did not miss it. College, the city, was home now really and the town felt strange and small. But here...he felt welcome, he felt right, and he loved to turn into the driveway of his grandparents farmhouse and hear the gravel crunch under his tires and then get out and feel the land under his feet; alive and pure and real in a way the city simply was not for him.
It was Spring Break and he was off from his classes. While many of his friends were heading off to Florida or California, he had come back here to visit his grandparents and uncle, to see and work on the farm, and to spend some time just being in this beautiful land. Normally, he'd be staying in the farm house and waking up to do work, but he'd begged off to camp out for a day or two and really get away from the rest of the world.
And so he was coming to the one place in the county, barring some of the property of a few families that his didn't know well or weren't on good terms with, that he had never been to. The tallest hill in the valley could be seen from his grandparents' house, as it could from many places though other hills and trees sometimes cut off the view. It was part of the land his family owned and was mostly cleared of any trees or large bushes, covered in green grass, clover, small violets and other wild flowers. All except the apex where the slope turned into a more or less flat sward that was dominated by a single large, many branched tree. The tree was old and massive; even from afar it looked bigger around at the base than a man was tall and many of its sky reaching branches were as thick as the trunks of lesser trees.
Don had looked out the windows and up at that ancient tree his whole life, wondering what the view would be like from the top of the hill, whether the old tree could be climbed, and had thought about going up there many times. But something had always come up or pushed the thought aside. As he got older, he noticed odd things about the tree and its hill. The tree never flowered or put forth new leaves. The cattle, nor the hands, nor his grandparents or uncles or any of the people who lived thereabouts ever went up there. No one said anything bad about it or seemed to really pay it any mind at all. But they never went up there, never spoke of it, and when he brought up going to the hill or asked about the tree, the topic was always brushed aside.
It was when he'd come down the road towards the farmhouse and looked to the west to see the hill and the tree that Don had made up his mind to finally go up there and see that ancient survivor of the long years of the world. When he told his relatives about wanting to camp, he'd said it'd be on the farm properly but not specifically where in case they would try to discourage him. And so it was now that he toiled up the sharp incline of the hill towards the flattened crown with a well laden and packed hiking frame pack on his shoulders. The slope had been gradual at first but increased dramatically over the last hundred feet or so, which explained why the cattle never ventured up here, at least.
Leaning forward against the slope and the backward pull of gravity, he struggled up to the top and felt a palpable relief as his right foot stepped onto the flat. Smiling, he heaved himself up and then sighed as he straightened up and took a few strides ahead before he turned to look out from the high hilltop. "Now that is a view worth a little climb," he said in a soft, solid baritone.
He could see for miles, for forever it almost felt like. The surrounding farmland was all in his sight and even the other hills and ridges that cut through the area did little to shield anything from his gaze. He could see old Rocky Top to the east where the McDermott's lived, all of his family's land and that of their neighbors, the Ellis farmland and their matriarch's white Plantation style house with its carefully manicured grounds and appearance were close enough that he felt he could almost reach out and touch the roof, and the small figures of their horses could be seen running in the fields. In the far distance he could make out the outskirts of the nearest town lurking against the hills and past that the power plant reared above it all and sent plumes of white, puffy steam into the air from the cooling towers. Further still, off away from it all were the blue rising ridges and mountains that rose to meet the rosy color of the sunset streaked sky.
The warm spring wind whirled and the top of the hill and over him, bearing the scent of fresh leaves and grass, the sweetness of wildflowers, and a faint hint of the stink of manure. He laughed and unbuckled the straps of his pack and then swung it to the ground; even that bit of stink was nice in the air. It was smell of the beasts of the land and of men working it and that was a fine thing in and of itself. The wind ruffled loose, short cut hair the color of drying hay; not so short as to be a buzz or crop cut but a professional length that just fell to his ears. Don's face was handsome and strong, his features neither fine nor rough but nonetheless clear and distinct. His eyes were a deep and rich brown; the color of fertile earth if a lamp could shine through it. He was a tall man, a few inches over six feet in height and he had a powerful, broad shouldered build with his light skin taut over his strong body. Were it not for the glasses perched on his nose and the t-shirt with the original Avengers on it, he would have looked far more like a linebacker than a science major with a lifelong minor in geek.
Don rolled his shoulders and stretched and then pushed his glasses back up his nose with his right hand before turning back and approaching the tree. "My God, look at you," he murmured as he drew near. It was huge and gnarled and magnificent; with smooth bark that was only jarred up around the places where branches had once sprouted that were now lost and grown over with the protective skin of the tree. It was unmarred by the usual graffiti one found on large, old trees; there were no initials in hearts, dates, or names scratched into the bark. There was a nest high up, though whatever bird had made it appeared to currently be out and there was a bole up, up well over his head that would have served a squirrel or owl well as a home.
He had half thought that once he got up here, he would find the tree dead and slowly rotting. Why else had it never put forth leaves or flowers? But it wasn't. He wasn't sure how he knew but he could. The trunk and the branches all looked healthy and on closer inspection...there were buds on the branches. So it could put forth buds, but why had he never seen them become leaves?
No leaves made it much harder to tell what kind of tree it was. Don had been in Scouts most of his life and spent a lot of time camping and learning about the plants and trees in the outdoors; he liked to think he was a solid forester. But even with his knowledge and familiarity with this area in particular, he couldn't tell what kind of tree the massive thing was. Its bark wasn't craggy, knobbled, or scale-like which discounted most of the kinds of trees that grew around here. The smoothness made him think of a beech, but the texture wasn't right, or a young maple or pine but this was clearly not a young tree.
Standing next to it and underneath the spread of those long, towering branches made him aware of the vast age of the tree before him. How many centuries had it stood here and looked out as the world around it changed until it alone of the old growth stood atop this place? There was an odd scent under it as well that he found hard to describe. It was a woodsy, green smell that was alive and vibrant. It made him feel both peaceful and restive and he thought ruefully that it was too bad he didn't have a girlfriend to bring along for this. The thought of making love in the shadow of this tree, with the world spread out below and around sprang into his mind and made him shiver, his manhood twitching in his jeans. God, that'd be incredible...even if the whole neighborhood could hear what you were up to if they were outside at the time.
Don reached out a hand and rested it against the trunk of the great plant. "Well, old man, I'm not sure what kind of tree you are, but you are magnificent. The stories you could tell if you could speak would be amazing." He sighed and then shrugged apologetically, "You won't get too much of a show though, I'm afraid; it's just me this trip. Maybe next time I can bring a girl and give you something to see." He patted the trunk and grinned up at the tree, feeling a bit foolish at talking to it, but also that it deserved being addressed and given its due.
With homage given to the great tree, Don set about preparing his camp. He had a small tent in case it got cold, rained, or there was heavy dew but he set up his raised camp bed and sleeping bag outside of it. Spring here was a fine thing; with the river so near it was warm and balmy even at night and with the few scattered clouds in the sky it promised to be a night with a remarkable sky. He hung the wicker basket on a branch that was as high up as he could reach, "Hold on to this for me for a little while, would you? Thanks." Then he went off and gathered rocks first, taking care to make sure he didn't get any sandstone, and returned to place them in a circle in one of the spots that was not so grassy to form a fire ring. Once he was sure of its soundness, he set off to find fodder for the flame with a pair of his older flannel shirts slung over a shoulder and a hatchet tucked into his belt. He went further afield now, down the hill into the valley and then up into the narrow copse of trees halfway up the nearest low ridge. Don found plenty of dead and fallen wood there to load up both shirts as make shift bags; he broke some of the longer pieces up into smaller bits but he neither broke nor cut nothing that lived.
The sun had been starting its descent when he first climbed the hill and as he returned to the summit with the night's firewood the fiery orb was sinking below the far off mountains. Don set the wood down by the fire ring and stretched again, then paused and looked around. Things were...off, just a little. The stones of the fire ring looked like some of them had been shifted about. The basket still hung on the branch he'd set it on but the angle was different, though that could just be from the wind, and his sleeping bag was partly unrolled. Had he done that? He didn't remember doing so but it was such a small thing that he could have well done so without really thinking. A quick inspection showed nothing missing from the basket or his pack in the tent. Still, it left him feeling a bit unsettled as he set to work on getting a fire going as the last light of the sun faded and died around him.
The incident had faded to the back of his mind an hour later as he sat on the ground by the small fire dancing merrily in the stone ring, looking up at the stars and drinking from one of the bottles of Danny Ellis' homebrewed blackberry stout that his grandmother had packed in a small travel cooler for the wicker basket. He was a year short of legal but out here he'd probably be all right. The night sky was stupendous here; the best he'd ever seen. In the town he'd grown up in, and even more so in the city he lived in now, you just couldn't see that many stars because of all the lights. Here the night was darker than dark and the tiniest pinprick of light in the endless canopy of the sky above could be seen. It always reminded him of the expression that the night sky was like "a sea of stars" and he wondered if whoever had first spoken or written that description had ever seen a sky like this. If not, it was mere hyperbole. But here, it was the best metaphor. The cold, bright lights soared overhead and gleamed and glowed, broad and fainter swathes of the Milky Way passing through and behind them. Looking up too long, you almost felt as if you were falling up towards them, head swimming in optical illusion vertigo.
The moon was a waxing half that night, casting enough silvery light to give some illumination but not to significantly shroud the stars. But beyond the little bit of light cast by his fire, though he knew it was visible for probably ten miles or more, the night was still staggeringly dark. The sun had taken some warmth with it but not a great amount, the night air was still warm and pleasant. Don was glad for the fire all the same; both for the heat and the light it gave him. He still felt very relaxed but that same restive, well, horniness that he'd felt earlier but beneath that there was a tingle of eerie awareness that there was something unusual about earlier.
It was likely just his active imagination and the nature of a darker and more silent night than he was used to. Outside of the sounds of the wind and the insects, the most profound sound of the night in this country was the silence. It was deafening at times in absolute stillness and quiet and any sound that broke it, even that of your own breathing, sounded as loud as a gunshot. It could make for a very scary environment if you let it get to you.
But Don knew this land and he knew that it was like this. It had never bothered him before. So why was it bothering him now? He looked up not at the stars but at the branches of the great tree that seemed to reach out to try and pick them out of the sky. Time passed and he nursed the bottle of booze and the feeling of strangeness grew in the back of his mind. There was an odd itch between his shoulder blades and he felt as it eyes were boring into him from somewhere out in the dark.
Finally, he felt like he had to say or do something. Don stood abruptly and picked up his flashlight from where it lay beside the camp bed. He clicked it on and shone it about the top of the hill, "All right, if someone's out there, let's get this axe murdering or whatever over with already. Otherwise, fuck off and let me enjoy the night in peace."
"But I don't have an axe," said a confused, silvery feminine voice directly above him, "and I wasn't thinking of murdering you, not that you didn't tempt me with that fire. So let's start "or whatever" then, okay?"
"GAH!" Don jumped back in shock, almost stepping into the fire as he did so, stumbling as a result, arms windmilling as he regained his balance just short of falling onto his back and down the hill. The voice laughed; a sound that was amused without malice and was like the rapid rustling of leafy branches but at a higher pitch. "Who's there?" He shone his light up and then gaped as it fell across the unseen speaker.
She made no attempt to shield her eyes from the beam of his flashlight or showed any indication that it bothered her at all as it passed over her figure or even over her face. She, for that shape was most certainly female, was perched with her pert heart-shaped jewel of an ass sitting on a branch about twenty feet up, her long, bare legs kicking in the air as she looked down at him. Her skin was dark but not like an African-American or a Hispanic or an Indian or any shade of skin he'd ever seen before; it was the color of the outside of an acorn from a healthy oak and it seemed to gleam and reflect the light shone on her a little. Her hair, what he could make out of it, was dark and long enough to reach just past her shoulders and she appeared to have an uncountable number of beads woven into her tresses. Her face was young and beautiful, with fine features that made her almost look like a lovingly carved and polished wooden statue of a young woman. Her lips were the light pink of apple blossoms and her eyes were large and expressive, her corneas the light tan color of freshly exposed pine and her irises a startlingly vibrant green. He could see no pupil in them as they looked down on him with merry curiosity.