While at the cliff city of Jiorodu, the local monks told me of a Forest God, an immense talking tree thousands of years old who could see into the blackened depths of the future. It occurred to me that I would have questions for such a being. When I tired of balloon diving I climbed on my horse and set out into the lowlands, with a few couplets of an old song as my guide, to find it.
Fall had come, and it had been a hot and dry summer. The grass was yellowed, the creeks and streams mere trickles. Travel was hard, but I am well accustomed to hard travel. Even so, when I came to the forest, I rejoiced for the shade. The going was easier after that.
The forest path began to slope gently upward, and soon I came to a small village. I asked a small boy if he knew of a great and magical tree. He grinned, gap-toothed, turned, and pointed up.
Through the forest canopy I could just see a great mass rising above the village.
“Don’t forget to water him!” the boy advised, and then continued about his carefree business.
I followed the path through the little village and onward uphill, the incline growing steeper as I progressed. The mass of the tree loomed darkly above, never quite clearly visible. When the path became too steep for the horse, I tied him to a black poplar and continued on hand over foot until I came to the great tree itself.
The trunk was as big around as some inns I have frequented in my travels. When I looked up to try to see the top, I grew dizzy.
I remembered the boy’s caution, and watered the tree. As I refastened my belt, I heard a deep and booming voice from all around me say, “What is your question, traveler?”
“Great and noble Forest God, when and how will I die?”
There was no response for a time. The only sound was the faint rustle of the forest canopy around and below us. Eventually, the Tree pronounced, “I cannot see when you will die, but it will be in a fire.”
I felt a sudden wash of terror. A fire… “You don’t know when?”
“No. It may not yet be decided.”
“How can I avoid this death?”
“You cannot,” the Tree said, and then added conversationally, “I once told another man he would die in a fire. He found a powerful sorcerer who made him invulnerable to flame. When his house burned down around him, he stood inside and laughed, until the fire took all the air and he suffocated. Yet another man used the same spell, but was luckier for a time. Then he went to sea: his ship burned to the waterline and he drowned amongst the ship’s burning wreckage. You cannot escape your fate.”
“But if he drowned…”
“I told he would die in a fire, not that he would burn to death.”
The soft patter of raindrops had begun to fall. From far off, there was thunder. I said nothing, overcome by the knowledge of my doom.
The Forest God offered, “I sympathize. I too will die in a fire. But for me, it will be tonight.”
That snapped me alert. “Tonight? But why? How?”
“The rain will be sporadic and light, but lightning will strike my branches five times. This has happened before, of course, but it has been so dry… I will burn.” The Tree’s disembodied voice was full of resignation.
If the Forest God’s fate could be averted, then so might mine. “I will go to the village,” I said. “They will come with water to fight the fire…”
“Too many fires, too far up my branches, not enough water, not enough villagers… I will burn.”
“I will burn. The smoke and ash will blot out the sun. The villagers will cook with charcoal for generations. I cannot escape my fate any more than you, traveler.”
“We can try!” I began climbing down.
Before I got very far, the Forest God called after me… “Traveler!”
“I can see the when, now. When you will die.”
I stopped in my tracks for a moment, that feeling of dread beginning to return. Did that mean I would die here, fighting this fire? Or did it mean that the decision to try somehow set in motion some other sequence of events that would result in my death, many years from now? The Forest God had the answer.
The Tree asked, “Do you wish to know?”
The climb down to my horse would take time, and organizing the villagers would take still more. I resumed my progress down the hill. “No.”