“The Birds and the Trees” by Albert Berg

The Birds and the Trees

Once upon a time, a songbird winging its way through the Wood of the World chanced to light in the branches of a wise old oak. There it sang a lilting ditty, and said to the oak (as was the custom of the birds in that part of the wood), “I thank you for the comfort of your branches.”

“And I thank you for the song,” replied the oak in turn. “Though I have heard it often, it is still as beautiful than ever. Do you know its story?”

“Story?” chirruped the little bird. “How can a song have a story?”

“Every song has a story,” said the tree. “Though most of them are sad.”

“Even the happy songs?” asked the songbird.

“Especially the happy songs,” said the tree.

“Tell me the story,” said the bird, bobbing his head with excitement. “Tell me, tell me, tell me! Please?”

And so the ancient oak began. “Once at the center of this very wood there fell a seed. It was not a special seed. Thousands just like it fall every day in this wood. Most of them fall on hard and stony ground where they cannot take root. Some are overshadowed by the trees that tower above them so that the the sun never warms them and the rain never waters them. And others are carried away for food by the animals of the forest. Like you birds.”

At this the bird hopped from one foot to another and ruffled his feathers with pride. “I can eat ten whole seeds in a day,” the bird said (though truth be known he had eaten ten whole seeds only once and afterwards he had been quite sick).

“And think how many other birds there are in this wood, not to mention squirrels and other animals that might carry off such a small thing as a seed. It is a small miracle that any of them survive long enough for you to find shelter in their branches. And yet the world is full of small miracles when you know where to look.

“So the rain fell and the sun shone, and the seed grew into a seedling, that grew into a sapling, that grew into an oak, not so different from me.”

“Do you mean to say that you were once a seed?” interrupted the bird.

“Yes,” replied the tree.

“But how can that be. You have always been here. For as long as I can remember.”

“You little birds only live for a handful of seasons, so time looks different to you than it does to us, but believe me, there was a time when I was not, just as there comes a time that I will be no more.”

The little bird thought that this sounded quite silly, but he did not wish to be rude, so he said, “And what happened to the tree?”

“Well, little by little, season by season, it grew and grew and grew. It grew taller and taller until it’s boughs reached up to embrace the heavens. Stars rested in its branches. Rivers sprang up from the tangle of its roots, and in the shadow of its leaves all other trees stood as saplings. All the birds of heaven rested in its bows, and the sound of their singing was the sweetest thing the wood had ever known.

“Now I told you that there was nothing special about the tree,” said the oak, “and that was true. But over the long years of its life the tree began to forget that once it had been a seed that even the smallest bird could have carried away. It forgot that once it had been a seedling and then a sapling. It forgot that once it had stood among the trees of the wood as equal.

“The tree said, ‘I have stood in these woods forever, and forever I will stand.’ Of course he said the words very quietly, so he thought that no one heard but himself. But there is always someone to answer the quiet words of the heart.

“And so the fame of the tree’s greatness spread beyond the borders of the wood and into the worlds of men until at last they reached the ears of a great king. This king had conquered all the nations of men, one by one, each falling before his mighty army and his tactical brilliance. Until one day the last nation surrendered to his will and he was supreme ruler of all that he surveyed. From that day forward the king had been listless and uneasy. He longed to take up the sword once again, to ride forth into battle, but there were none left for him to battle against.

“When that king heard of the tree whose branches overstretched the whole world, from whose roots rivers of waters flowed and who housed all the birds of the air in his branches, then the king began to make preparation. He prepared his great army to march and put an axe in each of his men’s hands in place of their swords. They marched across the Lands of Men. They crossed the Black Desert where even the sun and stars do not dare to shine.  They forded the River of Lost Souls. They built bridges over the Chasm of Cassilda. Until at last they came to the Wood of the World.

“There the king made camp with his army at the base of the great tree, and began to hew away at the trunk. The tree laughed in scorn at the men and their axes for its ancient trunk was hard as iron, but the will of the king was harder still. For the space of a full year his army chopped and sawed and hacked at the base of the tree day and night, until at last, creaking, cracking, crashing, it began to fall back to the earth from which it came. The tree was so tall it took seven days and eight nights to fall to the earth, and in that time the birds that nested in its branches took flight and broke into song, the same song as a matter of fact that you just sang to me little songbird.”

The bird hopped back and forth impatiently from one foot to the other. “What happened then?” he asked.

“When the woodsmen heard the song their hearts of stone melted at its melody,” said the tree.

“They lured the birds into cages of gold and made them sing the song over and over. They sang it as they stripped the once-mighty tree of its branches. They sang it as they crossed the Chasm of Cassilda, and the River of Lost Souls, and the Black Desert, and at last they sang it in the Land of Men; and there the song grew and multiplied.”

“What happened to the tree?” demanded the bird. “What happened to the king?”

“The tree’s wood was used to build houses and barns and fortresses. But eventually the wind blew and the rain fell and the sun shone and houses and barns and fortresses rotted away and had to be replaced. As for the king, he died. His sons fought over the empire he had worked so hard to win, and soon it was splintered into pieces. And as the generations passed his name and all the works he had done were forgotten in the land of men.

“Thank you for the story,” said the bird. “I’m sure I shall tell it to everyone I meet.”

To this the tree said nothing, and so, after a while, the little bird flew on.

But the birds of the world are a forgetful lot, and soon the story of the tree and the king had vanished from the little songbird’s head entirely.

The song went on forever.

 

 

 


 

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Albert Berg was born in the swamps of Florida and quickly developed a gripping writing style by wrestling with crocodiles. It is said that he hypnotized five gators in a row by the age of nine with his melodic prose and infinite imagination. Albert is a true menace in the arena because of a steadfast ability to remain true to his roots of thoughtful contemplation despite the hurricanes that pass all through his state. You never know what you will get from Albert, be it sentient paper products or religious squirrels, but you do know that behind the flash there will be a well thought out story that will make you reflect on your own life.  Albert is the author of The Mulch Pile and A Prairie Home Apocalypse or: What the Dog Saw.

photo credit: Bird Silhouette via photopin (license)

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4 Comments

  1. Albert Berg never does what you might expect him to do. I like that about him, even if it can take a while to wrap my head around at times.

    So here, instead of a character being ensnared or enraptured by a song we get a gentle meditation on the nature of subjectivity, mortality and the unexpectedness of what survives us after we’ve gone.

    It’s so gentle that if you’re not careful you’ll miss the point and you’d be forgiven for thinking this is an artless piece of Disneyness, or a scene from the life of Treebeard the Ent.

    Nope. It’s better than that.

    Albert also gets Points for unknowingly writing something diametrically opposite what his opponent has written in style and substance, so I now have no idea what to vote for.

  2. Agreed with the Doc up there. It was a true arduous decision on which story to read based on the page where I saw the first few lines of both stories

    There’s a ballsyness to using such a, and I use this word with such complimentary inflection, simplistic style to a story. These days, you get your attention rankled when you see ‘once upon a time,’ especially on this site, because you know there’s something interesting at the least coming.

    It’s just so dang refreshing to see what amounts to a fairy tale here. It’s, again, a ballsy choice. But, what writhes through this story is that it never feels like Al sat down and went, “I’m gonna do this as a fairy tale, or an Aseop’s fable, right after I watch the latest Asylum movie.” This feels like the structure, the style of it all came about while firing through that initial spark. And I love a story that takes s a chance with its style and structure, especially from an author that has displayed a wide diversity with his stories.

    Since I know this always comes off with a tinge of assholery, although I mean it with much sincerity, I continue to hate what Mr. Berg regales us with in the Arena.

  3. I have to disagree with the previous comments. I found this too simplistic. I like when Al goes simple and fairy tale-ish, as in The Stars Also. And, some of this did work for me. The bird for example. I could SEE the bird hopping around like a spazz.

    But otherwise the point was too buried. There’s a difference between subtlety and not being there at all, and I left this story feeling like I had read a budget version of Ozymandias that was also ten times longer than Ozymandias but still didn’t get across what Ozymandias does…also I know how much Al likes Ozymandias.

    Also for me this didn’t fit the prompt at all. Who is charmed by a song here?! And this is coming from someone who often bullies the prompt to fit his story in not very follow-able ways. But I still couldn’t quite make the leap to fit this with the prompt.

    Again, the bird made me laugh, but otherwise I felt let down by an author who I know can do so much freaking more.

    I appear to be in the minority here. I’m quite curious to hear what the judges say.

  4. Jon Jones @DVWhat

    I WANTED to like this more than I did. But I feel I’m somewhere in a mix-ed up grey area between the above comments. I loved the overall premise, and how the stage was set with a familiar parable format, and then foraging deeper into the depths of mystical legend, all while keeping the narrative approachable so as to appeal to the likes of the impatient little bird. I really dug how the character of the bird and the wizened old oak were conveyed.

    And if I must, yes – I gravitate to, and hang on to sentences that really stand out. “But there is always someone to answer the quiet words of the heart.” was that one for me in this story. That’s a wonderful sentence.

    But still…..although I feel I “got” the point of this story, I just don’t think I was satisfied with how it played out. Some of the elements that were cast about (like outlining the waypoints of the journey of king and his men traveled) felt extraneously wedged in. And perhaps that all of the grandiosity of this notable tree, and of the king and his vast holdings was quickly dispelled through a single, dismissive, fairly impersonal type of eulogy…..it felt a bit deflating.

    Becoming more and more familiar with the literary genius of this author, using this format to underscore the concept that ‘so much is truly for naught’, it is just as likely that the way this story has left me may actually be entirely the point. Risky, perhaps, and I certainly respect that. But in the end I admit to feeling a little bit undecided about how this story, as a whole, sits with me.

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