Short Stories

Short Story: The Ritual

The deep rising rumble surged up the tree. Lewis could hear it as he pressed his ear against the bark. He held his breath in search of that popping sound when the water filled the tree. There it was, and he smiled. It was like a heartbeat. Lewis pressed his hands tighter around the oak, closing his eyes and being in the moment before the others would come. Time slowed down, and he let his mind wander from the tree’s hundreds of thousands of leaves to the branches spreading kilometers if they were ever put together. There he moved down to the roots entwined in the fungal network underneath his feet, connecting the ancient oak to the other trees in the forest. This was peace. This was happiness.

Then the others came, holding to their flashlights to guide them through the thickening woods to their sacred spot; to this tree worshipped by their ancestors, the first druids who walked this earth they called home.

Lewis let go of the oak to welcome the others. It would be his first ritual to run. This was for the midsummer festival to ask for a plentiful harvest and hopefully see the future. A year before, it had been his father who had stood in his place to welcome the others in. Being a scientist and researching material physics had made Lewis skeptical of many of the mystical aspects of his father’s teaching. Still, he had never for a second doubted the wisdom of nature and its ability to speak. It was a poor man who didn’t listen. In Lewis’s book, you didn’t need equipment or years’ worth of education to hear what the nature tried to tell. You had to only notice; to be ready to listen and press an ear against a tree trunk, see animals and plants and how they behaved as the seasons changed. It was immersing yourself in the surroundings and understanding how the land and one were connected.

In his mind, science and hard facts weren’t apart from the natural world. On the contrary, it was there to enchant his understanding. So when he had accepted that he had promised his father, he would carry on their line. A line that went past his grandfather and his mother, and her mother. Past them, the memories faded, and the stories began. All of them had been here under these same branches he now stood, waiting and teaching their wisdom onward.

Lewis watched as the others gathered around the tree, leaving their offerings to its roots and joining their hands. The scent of freshly baked loaves, the last Autumn’s cider bottles opened, and the first harvest of peas mixed into the blooming forest floor of fresh grass took over. When he saw the others had taken their places, he began his liturgy for the season taught by his father before cancer took him. Lewis lifted his head to gaze at the branches as he spoke. The diminishing light and the first stars became distant as he took him and others to a trance. There he saw the past. His father and grandfather and grand grandmother and beyond her as they sought advice from the oak. They asked for the future; they demanded what was just. Lewis saw people burning as the druids were shunned, but he saw the druids burning to ensure good fortune. Shivers ran down his spine when he bore witness to what the oak tree told him. All of it had to be seen. The history the three-hundred-year-old oak had seen and the one before it and one before it. All carried in the soil, in the connections, the making of the forest.

Lewis gasped for air as the words he had been saying ended, and the sky had turned from blue to black. If the others had seen what he had seen, they spoke none of it. The baskets at the root of the tree seemed small to the blood which had once run deep there. He lifted his head to meet the eyes of the others, and behind them, he saw his father standing and mouthing words he didn’t hear, but then his father was gone before he would ask anything. Lewis forced everyone to leave, he amongst them. His heart raced as he escorted them to the clearing where their cars waited.

He barely slept that night. The next morning, after the longest day of the year, he headed back into the woods. He begged the tree to speak to him, but it stood there silent. No words or blood of his made him see what he had seen. Lewis collapsed against the tree and reached for the offerings, eating them and planning for the winter solstice, when once again they all would meet.

Thank you for reading and have a mystical day! And do hug a tree if you see one.

© K.A. Ashcomb

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