Pilgrimage. Short Story.

Sarah reached the top of the hill and unshouldered her pack. There it was, the locals called it the Tree of Life. It stood in the middle of a large clearing. The trees bark was a deep brown, it stretched up into the sky, at least three hundred feet tall, the base was wide, about forty feet across. She could see the opening in the bark from here, a long split that was about seven foot wide at the bottom and about ten foot tall. She sipped her water and just gazed at it, the canopy of leaves were a bright green, the locals said that it bloomed with hundreds of thousands of red flowers once a year, making it look almost as though the top of the tree was burning. Sarah rummaged through her bag and took out her camera, she snapped a few photos then put it away again. Then she sat down and rested, staring at the tree.

When she’d gotten her breath back Sarah stood and put on her backpack, the hill was less steep on this side and seemed like it would be easy to get down. The journey so far had been difficult but not impossible, a reasonably fit person wouldn’t have too much trouble doing it. She looked up at the tree again, though maybe it would be best if this tree remained a secret, hidden from the world. It was only luck that she herself had heard about it, overhearing two locals on the bus talking about a pilgrimage. She’d used that knowledge to glean more from people throughout her trip. She knew the locals didn’t like talking about it with her, even though she tried to pretend she knew all about it already. Sarah started to walk, the descent was easier than she had hoped and she found herself at the bottom in an hour, the hill was rocky and there were plenty of places to walk down without too much danger of slipping. At the bottom she paused and took another sip of water. She had to be careful and take her time, it wouldn’t do to become over excited, that was when mistakes happened and a mistake out here could kill her. Sure the locals visited, but it seemed that they only did so every few months to make offerings. God only knew how long she’d be out here before someone found her.

The walk was longer than she expected, from the top of the hill it looked as though it was only a short distance from the base, the lack of other, smaller trees helped with the illusion. As she walked she occasionally stopped and snapped some more pictures. There was something peaceful about the open field, almost reverential, like stepping inside a church. The wind blew but it was a quiet, soothing noise, she could hear a river somewhere in the distance, though she hadn’t spotted one from the hill.

Sarah stood at the base of the tree, she reached out and gently touched the trunk, it was surprisingly warm. The bark itself felt smooth underneath her hands. The opening looked natural, the bark either side of it was undamaged. Inside was dark and shadowy but she could make out the remains of previous offerings, flowers, some mostly rotted fruits. A faint scent of damp earthy decay emanated from it, but Sarah found it oddly comforting, it reminded her of digging through the rich soil of her grandmothers garden as a girl, when they would plant flowers together on sunny days. She realised that she had already decided to keep this place a secret, she’d share photos of it but she would make something up about its location. This was a place of peace and solitude, it wasn’t meant to be filled with hundreds of tourists milling about. There was something deeply spiritual about it, Sarah reached out and touched the bark again, it was though she could feel faint vibrations, like the slow, steady beat of a giant heart. Sarah closed her eyes and breathed deeply, feeling her heartbeat begin to sync with the vibration, she released her breath and felt completely content. She took her hand away from the bark and stumbled forward slightly, she reached out and steadied herself on the tree, her head felt a little fuzzy, the world seemed just a little skewed. She shook her head and then went to her bag to grab a snack, the journey must have been more tiring than she realised. As she ate she walked around the base of the tree, only truly grasping the size of it after completing a circuit. Back at the opening she stepped inside, shivering slightly at the dip in temperature. Inside the tree was cool and slightly damp, the deep smell of earth was stronger, almost uncomfortably so. Another wave of dizziness hit, Sarah reached out and steadied herself against the wall of the tree, instantly she felt better. That steady beat was stronger here, she could feel it through her whole body. She felt herself relaxing and then suddenly she was sitting on the cold ground, her legs were numb and her body was cold. The sun had shifted outside, the shadow of the tree stretched out from her. Part of her knew she should get moving, that she needed help but she couldn’t move. She felt a deep sense of relaxation through her body, her limbs were heavy and moved ever so slowly. She felt her head dip forwards and her eyes start to close. She tried to move herself and just collapsed forward. Sarah lay on the ground, eyes closed and her breathing slowing.

Outside the moon cast a bright, silver light on the tree as a gentle wind whispered through the leaves. One by one flowers began to grow, a deep purple in the silver light. When dawn stretched across the horizon the flowers opened, their deep red petals revealing a golden centre that seemed to glow in the morning light. Sarah’s bag lay to the side of the opening, there was nothing else to show she’d been there.

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About Alan James Keogh

I am a 26 year old writer who somehow tricked U.C.D. into giving me not only a degree in English and Classical studies, but an Hons Masters in Creative Writing too. Visit my blog where I post short stories twice a week (Monday and Wednesday) and an installment of a serialised novel on Fridays. I did consider writing this in the third person, as though it was written by someone else, but Alan is not comfortable writing in the third person as it seems kinda creepy and unbalanced so Alan decided it was probably best to write in the first person. He hopes it went well for him.
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