by Stanley McFarland
Leif curled against the cold. His circulation was sluggish. He drooped. His energy was low. Moisture flowed so slowly up the stem that it almost stopped. Were it not for the dew gathering across his body, he might have wilted.
"Will it freeze?" asked Brother. "Will there be frost?"
"There will be if this night doesn't end," said Neighbor.
"The night must end," said Leif. "The night always ends."
"Always?" asked Blossom. "What is always? I have seen the night end twice. Twice is not always."
"We are much older, Blossom," said Leif. "We have seen the sun again and again. The night always ends."
"Though sometimes the cold doesn't end," said Brother.
"Or there are clouds," said Neighbor.
"But the night ends," said Leif.
"It ends?" asked Blossom sounding vulnerable.
"It ends," answered Leif more confidently than he truly was. What if he was wrong? What if this time, the sun did not rise in the sky? What if it was eaten by a beast, or a great bug, or even a caterpillar?
"Just the same," said Blossom, "I will keep my petals tight."
That would not save you if the night never ends, thought Leif, though he said nothing. There was no point. If the sun was eaten, or if it wandered to another garden, there would be no hope. There would be nothing but cold and death.
Brother inched closer. Together they clustered.
Do we wait for death? wondered Leif. Dew ran down Brother and fell to Leif's stem.
"Thank you, Brother," said Leif.
"We are all one," said Brother. "The sun is for all. The dew is for all."
Brother's philosophy was beyond Leif's understanding. Some leaves dried and shriveled as others thrived on the same stem. Bugs or beasts ate some and left others whole.
"You are all for me," said Blossom. "I am your reason. Without me, you are nothing."
"What's this?" asked Neighbor. "We were before you!"
"Exactly," said Blossom. "You were here before me. You came to bring me here."
"We are not here for you!" said Neighbor. "Before us there was the stem. If we are here for anything, it is the stem!"
"Or the stem is here for all of us," said Brother.
"Sun!" came a cry from far above them.
"Where?" said Blossom. "I see no sun."
"Son comes to tree first," said Neighbor. "See? It is not for you, Blossom. See the stem on tree? It is stem that matters!"
It was still so cold. Leif could not see the sun, though above him, more were calling. All that were calling were on tree. Maybe Neighbor was right. Maybe the great stem of tree made the others that were calling now greater. They had sun, when he did not. It was so cold. Leif was so tired of the cold night.
More of the others called to the sun further down the great stem of tree. Leif envied their joy, their energy. What if sun only came for tree today?
No, he remembered, tree was always first, but sun came to him after. Night will end soon."
"Sun!" cried Blossom. "I will spread my petals!" Before Blossom's petals moved, Leif felt a thrill of energy tickle him, then bathe him, just as delicious as the first time. Leif's fears melted.
"Sun!" cried Brother.
"Sun!" cried Leif.
"Sun!" cried Neighbor.
"Sun!" cried the whole garden now. "Sun! sun! sun!"
Food and water surged from the stem. Leif stretched and reached. A dangerous bug flew near. Leif did not hide. He could not cower. "Sun!" he cried. It was so much better than he remembered. How could he have forgotten how this felt?
As the morning wore on the joy of the sun melted in the baking heat.
"Moisture," cried Neighbor. "I must have moisture." Neighbor's surface puckered around the tip of his reach.
"Help!" cried one on another stem. Beneath that one, a caterpillar crawled.
"Oh my!" cried Blossom. "You don't think that thing will come here, do you?"
"Not that one," said Leif, "but there are others."
"You must protect me," said Blossom. "Surely you can see that that is why you are here."
"I don't see," said Leif. Leif did not know why he was there. He heard what Brother said about being one. He did not understand it. Nor did he understand what Neighbor said about the stem. Even if Blossom was right and he was there for her, what could he do for her? How could he protect her, or do anything other than accept moisture from the stem and light from the sun? Was it enough to simply be?
Leif heard the warning filter across the garden. The snip beast was the most feared of all the predators, and the most unpredictable. A snip beast might bring water on a hot day, or even nutrients for the root, but it was also known to cut plants at the stem, several at once, not eating the plants, as other beasts might, but to take away. Why the snip beast acted as it did, no one knew.
Snip, snip, the snip beast great claw cut swaths in the air. The stem trembled, making Leif shake.
"Sacrifice yourselves!" commanded Blossom. "You must protect me!"
The ponderous beast dropped to a knee, shaking the earth. It leaned and bent plants with its massive bulk. It extended a limb to the stem with the caterpillar and detached the much smaller beast.
"Perhaps the beast is here to help," said Brother.
"Not when it brings the claw," said Neighbor. "It seeks the stem. Only the stem has meaning, and so the snip beast attacks it."
Leif stretched himself toward the sun, trying to remember the joy he felt as it returned. Perhaps the sun could save them. A shadow blocked the sun. The snip beast leaned over the plant.
"Protect me!" shouted Blossom.
A beast limb encircled the stem. It touched Leif's underside. Its texture was soft and oily.
"It seeks the stem!" shouted neighbor, and a great rush of fear rushed into Leif through the stem, and then was silenced by one deafening snip.
"No!" shouted Neighbor.
"Protect me," whimpered Blossom.
Leif and Brother were silent. It was death, but not complete death. There was no connection to the earth. It was as if Leif had become a creature of the air. He flew up in the beast's limb above the garden and watched as other stems were snipped. The severed stems with their leaves and blossoms joined him in the beast's grip.
"And what now, Brother?" asked Leif. "What is there after the garden?"
"I don't know," said Brother.
"The sun has changed," said Neighbor.
It was true. The sun remained above. Leif could feel its heat and see its light, but it no longer sent him life. "The sun's life is for the uncut," he said.
"It was for the stem," said Neighbor. "How will the sun go on without the stem?"
"There is something more," said Blossom. "This cannot be all there is for me. I am meant for more!"
Other blossoms agreed or disagreed. Leaves from other snipped stems murmured, but their voices were muted, half alive, half dead, as the gathering of cut stems grew in the beast's limb.
The beast stood and lifted them all high above the garden. Leif had never imagined that there were so many leaves, stems and blossoms. In great lumbering steps, the beast moved them over vast spans across the garden, and then beyond it. The leaves around him were silent. Even the blossoms said little as the beast came upon a steep hill, then opened a passage to enter the hill.
Inside the hill were suns, many of them, but not as warm. The beast put the stems on a mound and walked away.
"Why!" screamed a blossom.
"Tree," whispered a leaf.
"What do you mean?" asked Blossom. I see no tree.
"This mound," said the leaf. It was a tree.
"Will we be mounds?" asked Brother.
"Only the stem," said Neighbor. "The beast will make mounds of the stem."
"No!" said Blossom. "I will be saved. I will not be a mound."
"A blossom could not be a mound," murmurred a leaf quietly. "It lacks what trees have."
All the blossoms started screaming at once at the quiet leaf.
"Brother, do you know?" whispered Leif.
"We are all one," said Brother.
Leif felt comfort in Brother's words, though he didn't understand them. He tried to draw closer to Brother, but without the life of the stem, he could not move.
The mound shook as some great object landed on it. A moment later, the snip beast gathered all the stems in its limb and raised them into the air, then pushed them into the object.
"I feel something," said Neighbor. "I feel something through the stem!"
It was true. Something came through the stem. It wasn't the life Leif had known, but it had moisture, and food.
"Yes!" shouted Blossom. "It IS for me. I feel it making me stronger!"
"No," said Neighbor, "it is for the..."
Whatever Neighbor was going to say stopped. The beast tore Neighbor from the stem, and cast him to the tree mound.
"Brother!" shouted Leif, "I don't under..." Leif could not finish. He was torn from the stem and could not talk. He fell near Neighbor, and other leaves that formed a pile on the tree mound.
Leif's vision became cloudy, but he could still see Brother standing out from the stem beneath Blossom.
"This new life is for me," said Blossom. "Only for me. I will live forever!"
Perhaps she will thought Leif as he began to curl. I wonder if she will miss the sun.