Several days into a slow and arduous journey he found himself at the edge of an ominous looking forest. From a distance, the trees looked massive and strong, towering against the sky. Their branches spread out wide and high, supporting leafy crowns that appeared healthy and full of life. Coming closer, however, he noticed that the ground among the trees was completely barren. Nothing grew there; no grass, no weeds, no shrubs. All he saw was bare and rocky soil, as if the trees had been planted in the middle of a lifeless wasteland. Adding to this sense of desolation was the fact that he heard none of the usual sounds associated with a forest. There were no insects chirping, no birds singing, nothing rustling through the treetops or across the ground. As he came closer, he noticed that what he had taken for leafy crowns were in fact thick clusters of perfectly round nut-like seeds or fruits. They were so thickly packed together they didn’t move or rustle, even when the wind moved the branches they were hanging from.
Having reached the outermost trees, he wanted to sit down and get some rest. He chose a sturdy looking tree that had just the right shape to form a comfortable back-rest for a weary traveler. But when he sat down and leaned backwards against the tree, instead of the solid support he expected, he felt the tree’s bark crumble and give in, and he toppled backwards into the tree’s interior. Feeling around in the darkness, he realised the tree was completely hollow inside. What had looked like a strong, sturdy tree was nothing but an empty shell, a cardboard effigy of a tree, constructed from a thin skin of bark just strong enough to hold the whole thing up.
He crawled out of the hole he had fallen into and tried another tree next to him. It was exactly the same. With barely a push, his hand broke through the tree’s skin to find nothing but emptiness inside. Every tree he touched was the same. The whole imposing looking forest was composed of hollow trees, as far as he could see. It was a depressing sight. Instead of resting, as he had planned, he decided to push on and get away from this place as fast as his feet would take him.
A few hours later – with the forest disappearing from view behind him – he found himself entering what looked like an abandoned town. It contained dozens of old and crumbling houses, circling a cobbled square, with a spring-fed fountain in the centre. For some reason every house he saw had a tree growing out of it. Several houses had been pushed apart by the expanding trunk and branches of the tree inside and were little more than heaps of rubble. Other houses were still more or less intact, except that their roofs had been lifted off and shattered by the crowns of the trees growing through them. It occurred to him the whole town was in the process of being consumed by trees. A few more decades and there would be nothing left to indicate a town had ever been here.
He quenched his thirst at the fountain and looked around for signs of life. One of the buildings looked more structurally intact than the rest, so he went to see if anyone was there. The building was adorned with a badly painted sign showing a hand with the words “The Invisible Hand” written in shaky letters above it. Underneath, in smaller letters, it said “Free food and stories inside”.
He went in.
The gloomy interior was laid out like a typical bar or saloon: some tables with chairs around them, and a single large slab of timber functioning as a bar. The wall behind the bar was covered with shelves containing some bottles, some small vats with taps, and – somewhat unusual – large glass bowls filled with nuts. A woman he presumed to be the proprietor stood behind the bar, listlessly moving a cloth around the surface in a pretence act of cleaning it.
“Good day mister” the woman said, without much enthusiasm. “What brings you to our once glorious village?” He hesitated. Something in the woman’s voice made him shiver. The words were harmless enough but there was more than a hint of darkness and danger in the way they were spoken. “I am but a traveller looking for some food and a place to rest before I continue on with my journey” he said, sounding more cautious and formal than he had intended. “I found this town by accident” he continued, “as no map I know indicates its existence. Your presence here surprises me greatly, as there seems to be nobody else left.”
“You are not wrong there,” the woman grumbled, “I am, indeed, the very last human to live in this godforsaken place. Except for me, all that remains is trees, rubble and shadows of the past. When I am gone, all that was good and great about our town will be forgotten forever. Vanished without a trace, as if it had never existed.”
“If that’s the case,” he said, “and it appears, indeed, to be thus, why have you not left like everybody else? What keeps you here, in this desolate place?”
The woman stared at him and sighed – a deep and hopeless sigh that made him shiver again. He knew something was very wrong here. If only he could put his finger on it.
“Why didn’t I leave like the others?” she at last replied. “Who says they left? They vanished, for sure, but their shadows remain and keep growing larger and darker. I suppose I should have left when I still could, but let’s just say I’ve grown rather attached to this place. Over time, my roots here have grown too deep.” She chuckled; a joyless, bitter laugh that almost sounded like a cry.
“Besides,” she continued, “if I’m not here to tell the tale, how would anyone ever find out about our village? We would soon be forgotten forever. That wouldn’t be right. But where are my manners? Let me offer you something to eat.”
She straightened up and reached behind her. Her movements were a bit strange, keeping her lower body completely still and instead twisting her upper body around at an almost impossible angle to reach one of the shelves behind her. From there she produced one of the glass bowls with nuts and put it on the bar between them. “Here, the finest nuts in the world. On the house. Enjoy.”
He hesitated. Over the years he had learned that seemingly free gifts seldom were completely free. Almost always there were some strings attached; some expectation of a favour returned; a debt incurred; an obligation implied and silently assumed. But he did feel rather hungry and those nut looked appealing. They were perfectly round, perfectly smooth, and they had a high polish that made them look as if they were giving off light. And he didn’t want to be impolite, either. So he reached out and took a small hand of nuts from the bowl, popped one into his mouth and started chewing.
The nut was delicious! From their sheen he had expected a hard shell but instead the exterior melted away as it touched his tongue, to reveal a tasty, crispy yet eminently chewable kernel that filled his mouth with a sweet and almost fruity flavour, while filling his nose with the smell of nuts that were softly roasted over an open fire. This was, indeed, the finest nut he had ever tasted, quite possibly the best nut in the world. He couldn’t help himself and popped the rest of the handful straight into his mouth.
Still chewing he already reached out for his next handful but the woman grabbed his hand to stop him. “Woah there, stranger. Not so fast. What’s the rush? There is plenty more where those came from. Why not take it slow, enjoy the moment, and listen to my story first, before you eat yourself silly?”
A little bit ashamed at his own greediness he pulled back and nodded. “Of course” he said, “I apologise. I don’t know what came over me. I must have been much hungrier than I thought. No offence intended, and hopefully none taken. I will gladly listen to your story.” He leaned back, wondering what the woman had to tell.
“It all started many, many years ago.” She began. “Before I was born, to be sure, though nobody knows exactly when.” She leaned forward to rest her arms on the bar. For the first time he noticed how gnarled and wrinkled those arms looked, more like branches than like human limbs. “She may be older than I thought,” he thought, “to have arms this withered and aged.”
She continued: “All I was told when I was deemed old enough to hear was that the first nuts were brought in by a mysterious stranger. He arrived one day, handed out large bags of nuts to the people he passed on his way through the village, and then disappeared without a trace. Nobody ever saw him again, but we cursed his name for many years after.” Her face darkened. “As I am sure you will one day curse him, too, when you realise the suffering he has caused.”
Again that dark and threatening undertone; the implication of something sinister and dangerous. Maybe he should just get up and leave? But that would be very impolite to the woman. Having eaten from the nuts she served, the least he could do was wait for her to finish her story. After that, he would make his way as soon as possible. He no longer worried about possible obligations coming with her freely given food. Whatever it was, he could handle it. Of that he was sure.
“At first the nuts were taken in as a welcome gift by the people receiving them. Nobody had ever eaten nuts so fine and tasty. They seemed to be invigorating and healthy, too. Anyone tasting them felt energised and ready to do great deeds. Eating a handful of nuts would leave one with a feeling that nothing was impossible; that anything could be done. It was a powerful and seductive feeling and it swept through the village like a fire through a desiccated forest.”
“Yet, even though the sacks the stranger had doled out were large and plentiful enough to last them several years, people did realise they would one day run out of nuts if all they did was eat them. So – while the rest of the population was using the nuts’ energy to build larger houses, wider streets, and a monumental fountain – the more prudent amongst the villagers rationed their nuts, keeping a portion apart to try and grow new trees from.”
“All their efforts produced were sickly, scrawny shrubs, most of which died before they were mature enough to bear fruit. The nuts produced by the few surviving shrubs were few and tiny. They were edible, but only just. They lacked flavour and texture. Though they were somewhat filling, they failed to deliver that wonderful feeling of energy and drive the original nuts did. It had to be concluded that growing new nuts was a futile endeavour.”
“So the villagers sent out runners in all directions to go look for the stranger and the source of the nuts he had brought. After a few weeks, some of the runners returned with wonderful news: even though they had not found any sign of the stranger, they had discovered stretches of forest consisting entirely of nut bearing trees. Though the trees turned out to be hollow and brittle, the nuts they bore were as good as those the stranger had delivered. The only worrying things about the runners’ news was that none of them had found any trace of the villages and towns that were known to be near. Instead, everywhere they had expected to find a settlement of any kind, they had found a patch of hollow trees instead. Runners coming in later from further away reported the same: wherever people used to live hollow trees now stood; tall, brittle and full of nuts.”
“The villagers barely stopped to wonder about the fate of all those other people, happy as they were about having so many sources of the energy-giving nuts around them. No longer worried about running out of nuts, they consumed more nuts than ever before. Most people switched to a diet of nuts only, supplemented with fresh water from the newly built fountain.”
“It was a wonderful time for the village and its inhabitants. The village flourished and grew. People built, designed and embellished every part of their environment. Their energy and creativity seemed to know no bounds. That there were no other people living within reachable distance did not bother them: as long as there were nuts to be harvested nearby they didn’t need any other people.”
“Having little reason to do so, most people stopped venturing outside the bounds of their village. As time progressed, people would hardly ever leave their houses anymore, except for a nut-gathering mission once or twice a year. The initial rush of activity the nuts’ energy had caused gradually faded away into passivity. But for the smoke rising from the chimneys, a passer-by such as you would have thought the village to be abandoned.”
“It all happened so gradually, people barely noticed the change; neither to their village nor to themselves. When they did, it was already too late to do anything about it. What had started as a growing aversion against leaving their houses had become an inability to do so at all. Those that noticed realised they had stopped moving altogether, their feet growing root-like tentacles that had tethered them to the very ground they had stood still on for months and years. Try as they might, they had lost the power to move their lower body. At best they had just enough movement in their torso and arms to reach for the nuts they had gathered around them. Though some of the more aware ones may have panicked for a moment, and then despaired, I believe the vast majority never even noticed the loss of their human faculties as they were being transformed. They had turned into trees, and trees don’t seem to worry like people do about being anything other than themselves.”
“Once the transformation into trees was complete, the poor creatures couldn’t ingest the nuts anymore, having no arms and hands to grab them. Deprived of this energising food source, they started to consume their own bodies from the inside out. Yet they all grew an abundance of nuts, perhaps in an instinctive but futile attempt to feed themselves. In the end they will all become what you saw in the forest you passed by before you found us: hollow trees, laden with nuts they can’t themselves make use of.”
The woman paused for a moment, staring into the distance. She was motionless for so long, he almost believed she had turned into a tree before his very eyes. But then she shuddered briefly and turned her gaze on him again.
“I am one of the last of the people here to be mostly human still. My mother, may she stand in peace, was one of the very few people who resisted the lure of the nuts as long as she could. She rationed herself and us, her children, making sure we kept eating other food for as long as other food was available. She forced herself to move around and leave the house. She was the last soul ever to leave the village to forage for food and nuts.”
“But even her iron determination couldn’t stop the process of transformation. She slowed it down considerably, adding decades to her and our active existence, but in the end she and all her children got stuck to the ground and lost all mobility of body and mind. I was very poorly as a child and could never eat much of anything. That must have delayed my transformation even more, as I am now – and have been for years – the last person to still be somewhat human. I would almost say I am the last one standing if it wasn’t for the fact that they are all still standing. They are just not people anymore.”
She spoke those words with great sadness and fell silent again.
He didn’t know what to say. If he hadn’t seen the forest and the trees growing out of the houses here in the village; if he hadn’t seen her strange movements and the wood-like appearance of her arms; if he hadn’t felt the energising effect of the nuts himself, he would never have believed her. But he had and he did.
She looked at him and smiled a sad little smile.
“Now you know our story. Maybe you can find people to share it with, so we won’t be completely forgotten by the world. Thank you for listening. Here, have some more nuts.”
She moved the bowl in his direction. Before he could stop himself he had already grabbed another handful of nuts and put them into his mouth. A part of him wanted to stop chewing and spew them out but the nuts were too delicious and tempting. He swallowed them all, feeling a terrible fear rising up.
“Yes” she said, “I can see it’s dawning on you now. Once you have eaten of our nuts your fate is sealed. It may take decades, depending on your inner strength and self-control. But eventually you will become a hollow tree like all of us. No matter how far you run and how long you manage to keep moving, one day your feet will bind you to one spot and that spot will be the last place you will ever see.”
He jumped up in horror. “But why?” he cried “Why have you condemned me to this terrible fate, having suffered it yourself? Why couldn’t you have just chased me away and leave me be?”
She shook her head and smiled that sad smile of hers again.
“Do you know what it feels like to be the only human in the midst of trees that used to be people? Do you know how lonely I’ve been these past decades? I can bear the knowledge of what I am turning into. What I can’t bear is to be the only one knowing it. So, whenever someone like you passes through – and its been years now since I saw a living soul – I simple have to share my fate. So I know I’m not alone.”
He turned around and ran as if his life depended on it. He crashed through the door and disappeared from sight.
The woman stared at the door as it fell shut behind him. A single tear, thick and slow like resin, flowed from the corner of her eye. “At least I’m not alone.” she whispered, “At least I’m not alone anymore.”