There is no memory of how the orchard began, or if it was planted, which is not to say that it wasn’t. What is known is this:
Once, a long time ago, the orchard was young, a mere garden patch. A collection of skulls and bones that laid in the ground for so long that they forgot they were not of the ground. And so they grew, and they found a new kind of life, reaching up and up and shining in the moonlight.
Sometimes it would hear from a god, or two. They would always say the same thing: This is not the way things are meant to be.
Look, said the orchard, the words whispering through the leaves that were not leaves. Look how fine this is. Look at my great branches, and the little seedlings below. And a slender limb reached up to let the light caress it. I am the way I mean to be.
The quiet woke Shadow. Sometimes the quiet was good, bordering on peaceful; the natural result of exhaustion and the late hour. But it wasn’t just quiet, it was silent, a waiting silence. This quiet was like a plastic bag over Shadow’s head. He sucked in a deep breath, just to make sure he still could, and regretted it when he heard how loud it was.
After a moment of lying still, breathing deep and silent through his nose, Shadow sat up. Not bothering with shoes, he walked lightly to the tiny window.
At the right angle he could see the sky, just a sliver of clear black with the occasional star. For some reason he had thought it was cloudy out, rain gathering in the clouds. As he stood, neck craned awkwardly, the wind changed, sending a breeze through the window, carrying with it the sound of tossing leaves. It was cool but soft somehow, like velvet on Shadow’s face. Shadow closed his eyes until it was gone, and then laid back down in bed. As soon as he stretched out, he could feel sleep coming over him. Shadow fell asleep, and he dreamed.
He was in the woods, and things were growing out of the ground. Trees, he thought, but he had never seen trees that looked like this before. Were they white, or was that just the moonlight? Shadow reached a hand up to touch one of the low-hanging branches, but withdrew it before he made contact.
“How do I get out of here?” Shadow asked no one in particular.
Why? asked something that wasn’t a voice.
“Who’s there?” Shadow turned and saw nothing but the trees. If he could remember how he got here, he could get out, he thought. Maybe there was a path somewhere around here. He couldn’t see any from here, but he could climb a tree, get the lay of the land.
But there was something wrong with the trees.
I am not wrong, said the not-voice.
“This isn’t how trees generally grow,” Shadow said. “Not where I’m from.” He hesitated, and then said, “I didn’t mean anything by it.”
What are you?
“Shadow,” he said. “I’m a man. A human.”
You don’t grow how humans grow. Not where I’m from. There was a distinct note of humor in the not-voice.
You grow inward.
“What does that mean?” Shadow asked, and there was no answer, and he was in bed, cold winter sunlight outside. The small of his back slick with sweat and the blanket sliding off the bed.
Shadow sat up and stared at his hands. I could be a tree one day, he thought. He shook the sleepiness from his head. Too bad Low Key was gone; he probably would have liked to hear Shadow’s dream. Always wanted to be told weird stuff like that. He stood, shivering in the morning chill.
I’m cold, said the saplings, and the tree said nothing, but let its roots spread far to intertwine with theirs. It was thinking of a man, shaping him from the raw clay of its perception. Hands – hands like it had once had, or still had, maybe. Bony fingers on the end of a branch flexed restlessly around the fruit they held, wringing some juice from it.
The tree could almost see the man, as much as trees can see. The man was doing things. Walking, talking. When the orchard was not the orchard yet, but was something else, it had known things like that.
What is it? asked a sapling.
A storm, I think, said the tree.
I like the rain, said another. I like the growing that comes with the rain.
Branches shuddered in the absence of wind. This storm will be bad. This storm –
Elsewhere, Shadow was getting on an airplane. The orchard wondered what it was like to fly, and it reached up, trying to touch the stars.
Shadow went to the orchard after it was all over. It was easy to find strange things from your dreams when you had good sources of information, though no one had seemed pleased that he wanted to find it.
“I brought you something,” he said. He took the stick, still stained with his blood a little, and stuck the sharp end into the ground.
Thank you, said the orchard, and this time he could truly hear it. It will grow well here.
Shadow sat on the ground under the biggest tree. He wrapped a hand around a thin, low branch, his fingers meeting around it. “I wish I knew what to do,” he said after a moment.
“With my life. With the world.”
The branches tossed like a shrug. You’re alive, aren’t you?
“I’m not sure if I am,” Shadow said. “I died, after all. I was done with it all.”
We were dead once, said the orchard. But we found a way. There’s always a way.
“There’s always a way,” Shadow said, and he leaned his head against the bony trunk of the tree, and he looked at the sky.