This free fiction is part of The Infinite Bard project. A new story will be linked to the IB site every other week, so be sure to check back often!
I opened my eyes and stared into the leafy canopy so far above my head it might have been—What was the word? I searched my consciousness and delved into our collective memories. Ah. Yes. There it was—the sky. I pulled air into my tissues, refreshing the cambium layer running just beneath my bark. The air was crisp and clean and tasted of family. My grove.
I stood quietly, drawing strength and understanding from the life of the root system below me. I was Soft-Bark, a redwood dryad. I had made the leap from growing sprout to sapient being.
Glancing around, I saw other dryads stirring. Hundreds of us littered the ground at the feet of our elders. Tall stripling youths whose seeds had drifted to earth seasons earlier. We had germinated in the needle-strewn soil of our grove, sending rootlets down, questing for the life of our communal roots, while unsteady stems shot our cotyledons into the air.
We would carry the spark of redwood life into the future. And those of us who had successfully made the leap to sapience were now known as dryads. We had reached the second phase in the life-cycle of a redwood. We were conscious … and capable of movement.
Welcome to our grove, little dryads, whispered the ancient titan at the center of our grove. We are pleased you have safely awakened. Pull in your rootlets and explore your world.
Yesssss, sighed the surrounding giants. Explore the world, but beware of the rootless ones.
I shivered as though buffeted by a strong wind. Memories of humans, the strange beings who roamed the surface of the earth like moving groves, drifted through my thoughts and stuck there, like pollen collecting on cones. I nodded, the warning internalized.
Carefully, delicately, I experimented. Flexing my roots, I withdrew a filament. Nothing happened. I hardly noticed the decrease in water and nutrient flow. Emboldened, I pulled in all my filaments, separating myself from the life of the grove.
For a moment, I wobbled, my tender trunk unsteady, unbalanced, but then I divided the base of my trunk into twin stems capable of independent movement. I widened my stance, trying to compensate for my loss of anchorage. The exercise left me vaguely dizzy. Quickly I sank my roots back into the security of the grove’s interconnected system. Peace flooded my cambium like sap.
Well done, little dryad, said my mentor tree, the one near whose bole I had sprouted. I remember well my own dryad days, the giant redwood sighed. Dancing in the moonlight with my fellows, creeping through stands of aspen and big-leaf maple, searching for the perfect place to plant myself permanently. Heady days await you, Soft-Bark. Enjoy your wanderings.
I will explore with care, elder, I replied, bowing my leafy head in respect. I will bend, but not break.
The elder sighed its approval, and I withdrew my root filaments once more. Separation anxiety pulsed through my cambium, but this time I knew I could reconnect whenever I chose, so I stood firm and endured. After a moment, the disorientation passed and I stepped cautiously from the bole that had supported me through my life thus far.
From deep within a chant pushed its way into my awareness, like a sprout pushing up from nutrient rich soil.
Seedling so small, mindless you grow.
Dryad, awaken! Withdraw and explore.
Cone-bearer, choose: new grove or old?
Elder, advise; teach and strengthen.
Fallen, be proud; in decay, you nourish.<
The entire life-cycle of a redwood reverberating through my cambium, I marched from the grove on tender-barked stems, leafy head held high. The world was mine to explore. It was time to find my place within it.
If you enjoyed Soft-Bark Awakens, you might want to read Needle-Green, a related story.