If a Tree Falls
Saving the human race is a frantic business. Or a tedious one.
It all depends on what stage of the process you’re taking part in.
• • •
Rigg and Father usually set the traps together, because it was Rigg who had the knack of seeing the paths that the animals they wanted were still using.
Father was blind to it—he could never see the thin shimmering trails in the air that marked the passage of living creatures through the world. But to Rigg it was, and always had been, part of what his eyes could see, without any effort at all. The newer the path, the bluer the shimmer; older ones were green, yellow; the truly ancient ones tended toward red.
As a toddler, Rigg had quickly learned what the shimmering meant, because he could see everyone leaving trails behind them as they went. Besides the color, there was a sort of signature to each one, and over the years Rigg became adept at recognizing them. He could tell at a glance the difference between a human and an animal, or between the different species, and if he looked closely, he could sort out the tracks so clearly that he could follow the path of a single person or an individual beast.
Once, when Father first started taking him out trapping, Rigg had made the mistake of following a greenish trail. When they reached the end of it, there were only a few old bones scattered where animals had torn the carcass many months ago.
Father had not been angry. In fact, he seemed amused. “We need to find animals with their skins still fresh,” said Father. “And a little meat on them for us to eat. But if I had a bone collection, these would do nicely. Don’t worry, Rigg.”
Father never criticized Rigg when it came to his knack for pathfinding. He simply accepted what Rigg could do, and encouraged him to hone his skill. But whenever Rigg started to tell someone about what he could do, or even speak carelessly, so they might be able to figure out that he had some unusual ability, Father was merciless, silencing him at once.
“It’s your life,” said Father. “There are those who would kill you for this. And others who would take you away from me and make you live in a terrible place and make you follow paths for them, and it would lead to them killing the ones you found.” And, to make sure Rigg understood how serious this was, he added, “And they would not be beasts, Rigg. You would be helping them murder people.”
Maybe Father shouldn’t have told him that, because it haunted Rigg’s thoughts for months afterward—and not just by giving him nightmares. It made Rigg feel very powerful, to think that his ability might help men find criminals and outlaws.
But all that was when Rigg was still little—seven or eight years old. Now he was thirteen and his voice was finally changing, and Father kept telling him little things about how to deal with women. They like this, they hate that, they’ll never marry a boy who does this or doesn’t do that. “Washing is the most important thing,” Father said—often. “So you don’t stink. Girls don’t like it when boys stink.”
“But it’s cold,” said Rigg. “I’ll wash later, just before we get back home.”
“You’ll wash every day,” said Father. “I don’t like your stink either.”
Rigg didn’t really believe that. The pelts they took from the trapped animals stank a lot worse than Rigg ever could. In fact, the stink of the animal skins was Rigg’s main odor; it clung to his clothing and hair like burrs. But Rigg didn’t argue. There was no point in arguing.
For instance, this morning, before they separated, they were talking as they walked through the woods. Father encouraged talking. “We’re not hunters, we’re trappers,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if the animals run from us right now, because we’ll catch them later, when they can’t see us or hear us or even smell us.”
Thus Father used their endless walks for teaching. “You have a severe case of ignorance, boy,” he often said. “I have to do my best to cure that sickness, but it seems like the more I teach you, the more things you don’t know.”
“I know everything I need to know already,” Rigg always said. “You teach me all kinds of strange things that have nothing to do with the way we live. Why do I need to know about astronomy or banking or all these languages you make me speak? I find the paths of animals, we trap them, we sell the furs, and I know how to do every bit of it.”
To which Father always replied, “See how ignorant you are? You don’t even know why you need to know the things you don’t know yet.”
“So tell me,” said Rigg.
“I would, but you’re too ignorant to understand the reasons why your ignorance is a fatal disease. I have to educate you before you’ll understand why it was worth the bother trying to tan your brain.” That’s what he called their schooling sessions: tanning Rigg’s brain.
Today they were following the trail of an elusive pench, whose pelt was worth ten otters, because penchfur was so thick and the colors so vibrant. During a brief lull in Father’s endless teaching, during which he was presumably trying to come up with another problem for Rigg to work out in his head (“If a board fence is nine hands high and a hundred and twenty yards long, how many feet of four-inch slat will you need to buy from the lumbermill, knowing that the slats come in twenty- and fourteen-hand lengths?” Answer: “What good is a nine-hand-high slat fence? Any animal worth keeping inside it can climb it or jump over it or knock it down.” Then a knuckle on the back of his head and he had to come up with the real answer), Rigg started talking about nothing at all.
“I love autumn,” said Rigg. “I know it means winter is coming, but winter is the reason why people need our furs so I can’t feel bad about that. It’s the colors of the leaves before they fall, and the crunching of the fallen leaves underfoot. The whole world is different.”
“The whole world?” asked Father. “Don’t you know that on the southern half of the world, it isn’t even autumn?”
“Yes, I know that,” said Rigg.
“And even in our hemisphere, near the tropics it’s never autumn and leaves don’t fall, except high in the mountains, like here. And in the far north there are no trees, just tundra and ice, so leaves don’t fall. The whole world! You mean the tiny little wedge of the world that you’ve seen with your own ignorant eyes.”
“That’s all the world I’ve seen,” said Rigg. “If I’m ignorant of the rest, that’s your fault.”
“You aren’t ignorant of the rest, you just haven’t seen it. I’ve certainly told you about it.”
“Oh, yes, Father, I have all kinds of memorized lists in my head, but here’s my question: How do you know all these things about parts of the world we can never ever see because they’re outside the Wall?”
Father shrugged. “I know everything.”
“A certain teacher once told me that the only truly stupid man is the one who doesn’t know he’s ignorant.” Rigg loved this game, partly because Father eventually got impatient with it and told him to shut up, which would mean Rigg had won.
“I know that I know everything because there are no questions to which I don’t know the answer.”
“Excellent,” said Rigg. “So answer this question: Do you know the answers to the questions you haven’t thought of yet?”
“I’ve thought of all the questions,” said Father.
“That only means you’ve stopped trying to think of new ones.”
“There are no new questions.”
“Father, what will I ask you next?”
Father huffed. “All questions about the future are moot. I know all the answers that are knowable.”
“That’s what I thought. Your claim to know everything was empty brag.”
“Careful how you speak to your father and teacher.”
“I chose my words with the utmost precision,” said Rigg, echoing a phrase that Father often used. “Information only matters if it helps us make correct guesses about the future.” Rigg ran into a low-hanging branch. This happened rather often. He had to keep his gaze upward, because the pench had moved from branch to branch. “The pench crossed the stream,” he said. Then he clambered down the bank.
Vaulting over a stream did not interrupt the conversation. “Since you can’t know which information you’ll need in the future, you need to know everything about the past. Which I do,” said Father.
“You know all the kinds of weather you’ve seen,” said Rigg, “but it doesn’t mean you know what weather we’ll have next week, or if there’ll be a kind of weather you never saw before. I think you’re very nearly as ignorant as I am.”
“Shut up,” said Father.
I win, said Rigg silently.
A few minutes later, the trail of the pench went up into the air and kept going out of sight. “An eagle got him,” Rigg said sadly. “It happened before we even started following his path. It was in the past, so no doubt you knew it all along.”
Father didn’t bother to answer, but let Rigg lead them back up the bank and through the woods to where Rigg first spotted the pench’s trail. “You know how to lay the traps almost as well as I do,” said Father. “So you go do it, and then come find me.”
“I can’t find you,” said Rigg. “You know I can’t.”
“I don’t know any such thing, because no one can know a false thing, one can only believe it with certainty until it is contradicted.”
“I can’t see your path,” said Rigg, “because you’re my father.”
“It’s true that I’m your father, and it’s true you can’t see my path, but why do you assume that there’s a causal connection between them?”
“Well, it can’t go the other way—you can’t be my father because I can’t see your path.”
“Do you have any other fathers?”
“Do you know of any other pathfinder like you?”
“Therefore you can’t test to see if you can’t see the paths of your other fathers, because you don’t have any. And you can’t ask other pathfinders whether they can find their fathers’ paths, because you don’t know any. So you have no evidence one way or another about what causes you not to be able to see my path.”
“Can I go to bed now?” asked Rigg. “I’m already too tired to go on.”
“Poor feeble brain,” said Father. “But how it could wear out I don’t know, considering you don’t use it. How will you find me? By following my path with your eyes and your brain instead of this extraordinary ability of yours. You’ll see where I leave footprints, where I break branches.”
“But you don’t leave footprints if you don’t want to, and you never break branches unless you want to,” said Rigg.
“Ah,” said Father. “You’re more observant than I thought. But since I told you to find me after the traps are set, doesn’t it stand to reason that I will make it possible for you to do it, by leaving footprints and breaking branches?”
“Make sure you fart frequently, too,” Rigg suggested. “Then I can track you with my nose.”
“Bring me a nice switch to beat you with when you come,” said Father. “Now go and do your work before the day gets too warm.”
“What will you be doing?”
“The thing that I need to do,” said Father. “When you need to know what that is, I’ll tell you.”
And they parted.
Rigg set the traps carefully, because he knew this was a test. Everything was a test. Or a lesson. Or a punishment from which he was supposed to learn a lesson, on which he would be tested later, and punished if he hadn’t learned it.
I wish I could have a day, just a single day, without tests or lessons or punishments. A day to be myself, instead of being Father’s project to make me into a great man. I don’t want to be great. I just want to be Rigg.
Even taking great care with the traps, leaving them in each beast’s most common path, it didn’t take that long to set them all. Rigg stopped to drink, and then to empty his bladder and bowel and wipe his butt with leaves—another reason to be grateful for the autumn. Then Rigg backtracked his own trail to the place where he and Father parted.
There wasn’t a sign of where Father went. Rigg knew his starting direction because he had seen him go. But when he walked that way, Father had left no broken branches, no footprints, nothing to mark his passing.
Of course, thought Rigg. This is a test.
So he stood there and thought. Father might mean me to continue in the direction I saw him go when we parted, and only after a long time will he leave a mark. That would be a lesson in patience and trust.
Or Father might have doubled back as soon as I was out of sight, and left in another direction entirely, blazing a trail for my eyes to see, but only after I had walked blindly for a while in each random direction.
Rigg spent an hour doubling back again and again, so he could search for Father’s signs of passing in every direction. No luck, of course. That would have been far too easy a challenge.
Again he stood and thought. Father listed the signs he could leave; therefore he isn’t going to leave any of those signs. He’ll leave different signs and my job is to be creative and think of what they might be.
Rigg remembered his own snotty remark about farts and sniffed the air, but he had only the ordinary human sense of smell and he couldn’t detect a thing that way, so that couldn’t be Father’s game.
Sight and smell haven’t worked. Taste seemed ludicrous. Could Father leave a clue using sound?
Rigg gave it a try. He stood in absolute stillness so that he could truly hear the sounds of the forest. It was more than holding his body still. He had to calm himself and concentrate, so that he could separate sounds in his mind. His own breathing—he had to be aware of it, then move past it so he could hear the other sounds around him. Then the near sounds—a scurry of a mouse, the scamper of a squirrel, the jarring notes of a bird’s song, the burrowing of a mole.
And then he heard it. Very distant. A voice. A human voice. Impossible to know what words it was saying, if any; impossible to know if it was Father. But he could tell what general direction it was coming from, and so he moved that way, trotting along a path used by many deer so he could make good time. There was a low rise on the left that might block sound—he wanted to get past that; he knew there was a stream to the right, and if he got too close to that the babble of the water might drown out the voice.
Then he stopped and went into stillness again. This time he was reasonably sure the voice was Father’s. And he was more certain of the direction.
It took two more stops before he could hear the voice clearly enough to run continuously till he reached Father. He was saving up some choice criticisms of this tracking method when he finally reached the spot where the voice was coming from, a clearing where a large tree had recently fallen. In fact, the path of the falling tree was still sparkling blue. There was little occasion to follow plants, since they moved so little, except a bit of waving and bending in the breeze, but this tree must have fallen only a few hours ago, and the movement of its fall had marked a bright path through the air.
Rigg couldn’t see Father at all.
‘“Where are you?” he asked.
He expected some remark with a barbed lesson in it, but instead Father said, “You’ve come far enough, Rigg. You’ve found me.”
“No, I haven’t, Father.”
“You’ve come as close as I want you to. Listen carefully. Do not come any closer to me.”
“Since I don’t know where you are—”
“Shut up,” said Father.
Rigg fell silent and listened.
“I’m pinned under the tree,” said Father.
Rigg cried out and took a step toward the tree.
“Stop!” cried Father.
“You see the size of the tree,” said Father. “You cannot lift it. You cannot move it.”
“With a lever, Father, I could—”
“You cannot move it because I have been pierced by two branches, completely through my belly.”
Rigg cried out, imagining the pain of it, feeling his own fear at Father’s injury. Father was never hurt. Father never even got sick.
“Any further movement of the tree will kill me, Rigg. I have used all my strength calling to you. Listen now and don’t waste what life I have left on any kind of argument.”
“I won’t argue,” Rigg said.
“First, you must make your most solemn promise that you will not come look at me, now while I’m alive or later after I’m dead. I don’t want you to have this terrible image in your memory.”
It couldn’t possibly be worse than what I’m imagining, Rigg said silently. Then he silently gave himself Father’s own answer: You can’t possibly know whether what you imagine is worse than the reality. I can see the reality, you can’t, so . . . shut up.
“I can’t believe you didn’t argue with me right then,” said Father.
“I did,” said Rigg. “You just didn’t hear me.”
“All right then,” said Father. “Your oath.”
“Say it all. Say the words.”
It took all Rigg’s concentration to obey. “I promise solemnly that I will not come look at you, either now while you’re alive or later after you’re dead.”
“And you will keep this promise, even to a dead man?” asked Father.
“I recognize your purpose and I agree with it,” said Rigg. “Whatever I imagine might be awful, but I will know that I don’t know that it’s true. Whereas even if the reality is not as bad as what I imagine, I will know it is real, and therefore it will be a memory and not my imagination, and that will be far more terrible.”
“So because you agree with my purpose,” said Father, “following your own inclination will lead you to obey me and to keep your oath.”
“This subject has been adequately covered,” said Rigg, echoing Father’s own way of saying, We have achieved understanding, so let’s move on.
“Go back to where we parted,” said Father. “Wait there till morning and harvest from the traps. Do all the work that needs doing, collect all the traps so you don’t lose any of them, and then carry the pelts to our cache. Take all the pelts from there and carry them back to the village. The burden will be heavy, but you can carry it, though you don’t have your manheight yet, if you take frequent rests. There is no hurry.”
“I understand,” said Rigg.
“Did I ask you whether you understand? Of course you understand. Don’t waste my time.”
Silently Rigg said, My two words didn’t waste as much time as your three sentences.
“Take what you can get for the pelts before you tell anyone I’m dead—they’ll cheat you less if they expect me to return for an accounting.”
Rigg said nothing, but he was thinking: I know what to do, Father. You taught me how to bargain, and I’m good at it.
“Then you must go and find your sister,” said Father.
“My sister!” blurted Rigg.
“She lives with your mother,” said Father.
“My mother’s alive? What is her name? Where does she live?”
“Nox will tell you.”
Nox? The woman who kept the rooming house they sometimes stayed in? When Rigg was very young he had thought Nox might be his mother, but he long since gave up that notion. Now it seems she was in Father’s confidence and Rigg was not. “You tell me! Why did you make me think my mother was dead? And a sister—why was this a secret? Why haven’t I ever seen my mother?”
There was no answer.
“I’m sorry. I know I said I wouldn’t argue, but you never told me, I was shocked, I couldn’t help it. I’m sorry. Tell me what else you think I should know.”
There was no answer.
“Oh, Father!” cried Rigg. “Speak to me one more time! Don’t punish me like this! Talk to me!”
There was no answer.
Rigg thought things through the way he knew Father would expect him to. Finally he said what he knew Father would want him to say.
“I don’t know if you’re punishing me with silence or if you’re already dead. I made a vow not to look and I’ll keep it. So I’m going to leave and obey your instructions. If you’re not dead, and you have anything else to say to me, say it now, speak now, please speak now.” He had to stop because if Father wasn’t dead he didn’t want him to hear that Rigg was crying.
Please, he said silently as he wept.
“I love you, Father,” said Rigg. “I will miss you forever. I know I will.”
If that didn’t provoke Father into speech, nothing ever would.
There was no answer.
Rigg turned resolutely and walked back, retracing his own bright path among the trees and underbrush, along the deer path, back to the last spot where he had seen his father alive.
© 2010 Orson Scott Card