“And this is a double berry,” said Noel as she grabbed a round red berry with small green hairs.
“Are these good to eat?” I asked.
“No, they’re poisonous,” said Noel, “we use them as bait for Farro Birds.”
“Wonderful,” I said as I grabbed some and tossed them into the little hide knapsack I had tied to my torso.
I was out foraging in the woods with the other women and children. You might be wondering: wasn’t I supposed to be out on the plains with the hunting party? Yes, yes I was.
“There’s some more over there,” said a shorter elf to a tall, muscular elf. The tall elf had a few scars crawling up the arms he was using to pluck berries from a tree. He was on the hunting party too.
“Is Sharun going to be alright,” I whispered to Noel.
Yes, the reason the hunting party was out foraging for berries and grasses was because Sharun, the greatest hunter in the tribe, was sick. The elders reckoned he’d eaten monster meat that hadn’t been cooked long enough, but decided to be extra cautious with the other hunters just in case the meat had somehow gone bad. Better for the hunters to fall sick while plucking berries than while being chased by a bunch of Sativus hogs.
“Yeah, the elders know how to deal with a little food sickness,” Noel said. “More importantly, we have something very important to do!”
I tilted my head. “What?”
“Hey,” said Noel, tapping another elf on the shoulder, “we’re going back to the camp for a bit.”
Then she pulled me away from the group. A couple berries fell out of my hands, but she didn’t let me pick them up. Once we were farther away, she pulled me to the right, and we looped around the foraging party.
“So we aren’t going back to camp?” I asked.
“Of course not,” said Noel, “you can learn about double berries and chateau melons later. Since we’re going to be on the hunting party from now on, and won’t becoming back to this forest anytime soon, I need to show you my favorite spots today!”
“Wait,” I said, “is that why you still gave your uncle under cooked meat even though we didn’t need to run away anymore?”
Wow. I guess despite being over a hundred years old, she was still just a kid. Only a kid would go this far just so she could go for a walk through the woods. And looking at her gleeful face, not the least bit troubled by her mischief, I couldn’t help but wonder why I’d considered her even the tiniest bit grown up. Then again, when we first met, wasn’t she trying to run away from home? God, I had become a babysitter without even realizing it!
Noel dragged me through the trees and underbrush, all the way to a small stream that ran in the middle of the forest. She looked around carefully before stepping out into the open. Despite being young for an elf, she knew how to take care of herself in the forest. A watering place like this would attract all kinds of beasts. This wasn’t the Forest of Three, where the threat of The Terrible kept monsters away. We were in a smaller forest where the elves felt more comfortable foraging for food, even though there would be monsters nearby. After the inexplicable dread I experienced outside The Terrible’s cave, I couldn’t blame them.
“This stream is great for cooling fruit,” said Noel as she brought out a couple of golden fruit. She made a small hole in the pebbles in the stream, breaking the speed of the flowing water as it flowed into the depression. She dropped the golden chateau melons into the hole, where the cold water gentled lapped past them, making them bob up and down.
It was early in the morning, with the sun having just broken past the horizon. A weak breeze rustled leaves and swept past our bodies, ruffling our brown tunics. Last night, I’d found out that we’d be leaving this camp a little after the first rain of the season, since that would give us enough time to reach the highlands for the summer. After the rainy season, the Plains would be too hot for the elves to live and hunt comfortably, so most of the tribes moved to the highlands. But there was less food in the highlands, which was why foraging and hunting before the rainy season was so important.
Still, slacking off for one day wasn’t too bad.
Noel and I spent some time with our feet in the water, downstream from our fruits of course. We talked a little more about our families, things we liked to do, things we thought were funny. Honestly, despite the distinct lack of talk about baseball and card games, I felt like I was in middle school again. Noel got up to grab the fruit, and showed me how to open it up. The melon had large black seeds with small amounts of light-gold flesh that was surprisingly sweet. It tasted kind of like honeydew, but with a slightly mushier texture. And I could tell it definitely tasted better after being chilled in the stream.
We washed our hands in the water and went further into the woods. Noel showed me all her favorite places: a hill full of flowers, a den of small rabbit like animals, a cliff where you could see for miles around. Before going back, she said she’d show me her favorite place of all.
“I’m always sad when the rainy season comes,” she said, “because it means we have to leave the Plains and I can’t come to this forest anymore.”
I asked her where we were going, but she refused to tell me anything. “It’s a surprise,” she said.
Lovely, I hate surprises.
We were pretty far from the foraging party by this point. I asked Noel if that was okay and she said it was. I knew it was pointless asking a question like that to a kid, but Noel had way more experience than me with forests and monsters. I had no choice but to trust her judgment.
The trees were getting thicker and the canopy more dense. If I didn’t have those crude shoes on my feet, I probably would have gotten stabbed by a billion tiny stones and tons of bramble. Insects buzzed in my ear, though it didn’t seem like any of them wanted to suck my blood. Man, it really took an other world reincarnation for me to escape mosquitoes, huh?
A thick wall of trees appeared in front of us. Noel brought me around, climbing over knee-high roots and hanging branches that drooped from the treetops onto our faces like beaded curtains from an oriental movie. Eventually, we came upon a massive tree that had fallen over and was now being consumed by large swaths of fungi and insects. Noel carefully stepped on top of the tree and pulled me up. We walked along the fallen tree’s trunk all the way to the hole its fall had left in the wall of trees.
We brushed past what felt like a mile of branches and leaves. Sometimes, Noel would move a branch and let it go as soon as she walked past, smacking me in the face. After the first dozen or so times, I realized she was doing it on purpose, and kept a hand in front of my face. A few minutes later, Noel grabbed my hand and pulled it aside.
A giant tree stood proudly in the middle of a clearing. It stretched far into the sky like a mountain. Clouds broke against it like a river breaking across a large rock. Birds flew around it, nowhere near the canopy. Its trunk must have been hundreds of feet wide, almost stretching from one end of my vision to the other. Barely any light hit the ground, and I realized why; the wall of trees we had come across weren’t actually trees at all, they were branches that stretched across the sky to loop around and dive into the earth like roots. Shadows passed over our bodies like waves, as the sunlight broke through the treetop, wrestling with the leaves on the branches that came back to the ground.
I don’t know how long I stared at this place with my mouth wide open. I must have looked stupid as hell, because Noel chuckled and said: “So, what do you think? Impressive, isn’t it.”
I nodded. I couldn’t think of what to say to describe this massiveness of scale. The way this thing, this tree, made me feel insignificant, weak, pathetic. Yet, the awe, the power that came with being able to perceive this thing—it made me weak in the knees, but tough in the eyes and mind. For some reason, some lines of poetry came to mind. My literature major roommate had said these lines when we went to Meteora in Greece one summer, paraphrased from a famous piece of romantic poetry. Something about massive, spherical rocks jutting out of the ground but appearing as if they had come as meteors onto the Earth, had made him pull out the lines that now flowed unbidden from my lips:
“Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood, in which the burden of the mystery, in which the heavy and the weary weight of all this unintelligible world, is lightened. That serene and blessed mood,
in which the affections gently lead us on, until, with an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things.”
Noel stared at me. She opened her mouth to say something, but then closed it again. She definitely had no clue what I’d just said. I didn’t break the silence either, so we stood there, in the shade of a massive tree, wind ruffling our hair and clothes, doing nothing, saying nothing, staring intently at something so well and truly befitting the word sublime, as beloved by Longinus, Burke, and Wordsworth—whose lines I had repeated somewhere in another world.