Sunday, November 23, 2008

Passenger Tree

The cold is still new and sharp in the air, only a few days old. No one is used to it yet. Most of the Train's passengers spent the day snug and warm in their compartments, sleeping or reading, talking to friends and relatives and random strangers. The Train had been quiet all day. It was getting dark when we pulled into the station at Filligan, a little wooden shack next to the tracks, and there was no one awake in the car except the Conductor and I. The platform in Filligan is a small field on the outskirts of town. The snow had melted there, and the ground was dark and muddy.

The Train always stops for at least a minute or two at every station, even the completely empty ones, in case someone wants to get off. No one had gotten on or off the Train all day. There was no one waiting outside the door. The Conductor was about to give the all-clear to the engine when I noticed something standing farther off on the platform (I was coming back from a quiet dinner in the dining car - just me, a plate of pasta, and Herveli Pipe's Lifted Engines) and pointed it out.

There was a silhouette in the dark, a slightly lighter brown than the darkness around it. At first it looked like a woman, then like a tree trunk, and then I realized it was moving. Not a tree trunk, then. It came slowly closer while we watched.

When it reached the light from the open door, we could see slowly moving limbs and the shine of light on wood. It was a Drae.

Drae are one of the few species of intelligent plants in Hamjamser. Their origin is a mystery. They are trees, leafy and wooden, but they're shaped (sort of) like humans. I've only seen two or three of them before, and never this close. It was surprising to see one at all this time of year. Most Drae are motionless through the winter, lost in sleep or whatever it is that trees do until Spring. This one was quite awake. She wanted to ride the Train.

Her torso was a trunk; her trunk was a torso. Drae look like trees and like women at the same time, and it's impossible to separate the two.* Her arms were branches. Her fingers were twigs. Her body split at the waist into two legs, like a double-trunked tree in reverse. There were knots at her knees.

Her head was little more than a knob of wood on top of her trunk. Being plants, Drae have no mouths or noses; they don't eat and they don't breathe. Her ears were wrinkled knotholes in the sides of her head. Her eyes were similar, two dark holes in the wood of her face. They were completely black inside. A tangle of vines hung like hair from the top of her head, framing what there was of her face. They rustled softly as they moved over her shoulders. She'd lost her leaves, like the other trees. Two skeleton-tree branches sprouted from her shoulders. She kept them folded behind her back, like wings, and the twigs rattled as she walked.

Drae don't walk on top of the ground. They're plants, after all; they prefer to stay in it. She waded across the field instead, plowing up little waves of dirt in front of her ankles. Soil is about as solid to Drae as water is to other creatures.

"Good evening, Ma'am," said the Conductor, with his unshakable catlike elegance. "Would you like to come aboard?"

Drae don't talk. They understand spoken words, and speak to each other with a slow language of moving branches, but they have no mouths to speak with. She nodded her head, slowly, and reached out with both hands. The conductor took the Train ticket she held silently in her wooden fingers. He waited for her to climb the steps, but she just stood there, arms lifted to us. Her feet were completely still below the ground. The meaning was fairly obvious: she wanted us to lift her into the Train.

It took both of us. Drae are trees, creatures of solid wood, and it takes more than one slender Conductor to lift one. Her arms were as stiff and heavy as branches. Drae don't exactly have muscles; they move using water pressure, like venus flytraps. They're incredibly strong. When a Drae moves her arm, it's not a motion involving separate pieces, like the bones and muscles of an animal. The arm is a single piece of wood. One moment, it's one shape; the next, it's a different one. To any outside force, a drae is as rigid as a tree trunk, even when she's moving. They can crack stone with their fingers.

She held our hands with exquisite care. Her own were as hard as carvings and as cold as the air outside. She pulled down heavily as she lifted one foot out of the ground.

It wasn't a foot. Below the ankle, her leg branched into a tangle of thick roots, like the trunk of any other tree. Clods of earth fell from them as they emerged. The roots kept coming, the thick primary ones branching into smaller ones the thickness of a finger, then into tendrils no thicker than string, and finally into huge masses of fine root hairs. There were as many roots sprouting from her ankle as there were twigs on one of her wing-branches. Normal trees have as many roots below the ground as they have branches above it; apparently, Drae are the same way. It's no wonder they don't walk on top of the ground. They have no feet.

She put the tangle on the lowest step of the doorway, the roots twisting and grasping for purchase like an octopus on land, but she kept most of her weight on our hands as she pulled her other set of roots out of the ground. The ground sagged as she left it. There was a fairly large hole below the door when she finally had all her roots spread on the steps. She climbed them, still leaning mostly on us, and walked slowly to the nearest seat. Her roots left a trail of dirt on the floor.

She sat perfectly still as the Conductor called to the engine and the Train started again. Her wing-branches framed her in rattling twigs as we moved on. At the very next stop, the station in Sellendendra, she stood up and we helped her back off the train. Her roots made the ground ripple as if she was stepping into water. She walked away into the night without a backward glance.

We watched her go. When she disappeared in the dark, the Conductor called to the engine, thanked me politely for my help, and said goodnight. I went back to my compartment. Flishel was asleep already, as (of course) was the other passenger. No one else on the Train had noticed the Drae at all.

I still have no idea where the Drae was going, or why she decided to get there by Train. I'm just glad I had a late dinner and happened to be walking by at the right time. If I hadn't, neither the Conductor nor I would have met her, and she would have had a long way to walk.

* Technically, Drae have no gender, but they've made it known (somehow) that they prefer to be called "she." They do look more female than male, even if it's just because of the hair.

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