In my many travels I have met many people, more than I could ever remember, but one of them I will never forget, one man who stood out amongst all the others.
It was during my visit to the far north where the ice is thick and the snow ever lasting that I came across this particular individual living in the wilderness.
An old man, from what I assumed at least 65 years of age, who lived in a small wooden cabin amongst the thousands, neigh, millions of trees, all alone.
Or well, not quite alone for you see this man told me that every tree in that mighty forest, from the smallest sapling to the towering giants, had a will of its own.
Now, we can all agree that plants, like animals, are very much alive.
They feed, they drink, they live, they die and some, dare I say it, have a semblance of a ‘will’ even if they are rare and often not very advanced but what was different about the old man’s trees was that he swore they spoke to him.
Every day from the moment he awoke to the seconds before he closed his eyes and ventured into the land of dreams he could hear the trees talking to him, very faintly, millions of voices whispering at once.
As you can imagine I thought the man mad, an old, lonely fool whose mind had long been on the decline but, nonetheless, I decided to play pretend and accepted his invitation to stay with him for a day or two so he could prove to me he were telling the truth.
He seemed like a kind man, incapable of harming even the smallest creature with his fragile physique and gentle nature.
His cabin lay far within the woods, at least a five hour walk through the thick layers of snow before I could see the log building standing amongst the trees.
It was a humble home, no bigger than a large shed with a bed room, a living room and a small stove which was used to cook food and stay warm.
The great outdoors was the man’s bathroom, his toilet, his bath and shower, his sink, all were there if one knew where to look.
Once inside he asked me if I were hungry where upon my stomach started growling louder than I would’ve liked.
He laughed and went to the stove, placing a few logs inside and lighted them before venturing outside.
He returned with a large piece of what I assumed to be deer meat and placed it on the wooden table that stood in the centre of the living room.
A large sheet lay underneath it, presumably to keep the table nice and clean as he cut it into small strips.
I was quite amazed with the ease at which he cut the thick, frozen meat, like a knife through butter.
It took him about twenty minutes to procure the meal which consisted of the afore mentioned deer meat, mashed potatoes and a handful of small carrots.
All in all it tasted very good, though that may have just been the hunger that had pestered me while the meat was cooking and its smell filled the room.
I thanked him for the dinner and asked where I could spend the night as it was already dark outside.
He told me I could take his bed and he would sleep on the couch.
I refused at first as I did not want to abuse his generosity, his kindness, but he insisted and before I was able to convince him he had already grabbed a pillow and sheets and placed them on the couch.
That night I slept better than I had ever remembered doing.
People are often restless sleeping in a foreign bed, myself being no exception, but it was so quite around me and so dark outside with only the soothing light of the moon and stars shining in through the curtainless window on the wall, it was mesmerising.
The next morning I was awakened by the smell of beans and toast, a peculiar combination but I can tell you that it hit the spot just right.
He asked me how my night was and I told him what I had experienced, what I had felt.
He laughed, telling me to never forget that moment, to cherish it for it would soon seem like no more than a dream.
I did not understand at the time so I simply smiled, thanking him for the breakfast he had made.
For the remainder of the day I underwent the man’s daily routine by his side, helping him in the process.
He left his home, checked his food supply, making note of the meat and vegetables left frozen outside in the snow, ventured into the woods to forage berries and plants and returned home.
There we sat, we talked, we drank some tea when suddenly the man sat himself upright and listened very closely.
I sat in front of him and looked at his face which had become twisted in a manner akin to worry for reasons I did not understand, not until I heard it too.
A soft weeping, very faintly, very far in the distance though very much audible.
The man looked at me and I at him when he told me we had to go, go outside and find the source of the sound.
I followed him into the woods, followed him past the trees and through the snow, followed him as he madly wandered to and fro almost as if he did not know where to go.
After at least an hour of walking and searching we came to three trees standing close to one another.
Two were tall, reaching high up into the sky, but they were dead, their wood clearly infested with rot.
The third tree was but a sapling and, upon closer inspection and to my surprise, was the source of the cries.
The few leaves that grew on its small, fragile branches waved sorrowfully in the wind, producing what I had first thought to be the cries of a little girl.
The man walked up to the sapling and gently placed his hand around it as if aiding a wounded critter.
With his other hand he carefully began stroking the leaves.
It was a strange display, one I witnessed in silence for I did not know what to say as the man seemed to be soothing the young tree as one would sooth a child.
The sobbing grew quieter, more distant and eventually vanished all together leaving only the sound of my thoughts lingering in my mind.
I asked the man what had just happened but he refused to explain this to me and we returned to the cabin.
We sat inside for the remainder of the day, the man with his tea and me with the voices that became more, voices that became louder, like an approaching parade or even an angry mob.
The man simply sipped from his porcelain cup while looking at me without saying a word.
I did not sleep that night, even with my belly full and the night lights still shining in through the window I could not close my eyes for I kept hearing the voices coming from outside.
They grew ever louder and more clear by the hour to the point where I could make out what they were saying.
At first it seemed as though they were just talking, shouting, yelling gibberish but as time passed I could make out what the sounds really were, what the voices were trying to tell me.
They were prayers.
Hundreds, neigh, thousands of voices praying to God, Allah, Jehovah and many more names all asking for different things, wishing for different things.
Some asked to look after their loved ones, their brothers, sisters, husbands and wives in all manner of dire situations while others begged to be shown the light, to be guided off the path they had found themselves on, one they longed to abandon but were unable to.
It was horrifying.
So much pain, so much suffering, so many wishes never to be granted, so many dreams heard only by me and the old man, just two people who were unable to help.
I wept that night, shedding my tears for the people who had turned to their last resort, for those poor souls with no way out.
The next morning I asked the man, neigh, almost threatened him to give me an explanation but he only laughed.
He knew as much as I.
He did not know why these voices kept talking to him, kept asking him for things he could not give, things he could not do, but they never stopped.
They begged, they pleaded and wished incessantly even if their prayers were never answered, only heard.
I asked him about the sapling the other day where upon he told me that there was but one way to silence the cries, to stop the pain and suffering which was by tending to the sorrowful tree, embracing it, comforting it.
Its success varied for there were cases where the pain was rooted to deep, too well protected to cure but for some, particularly saplings, it would bring relief and silence them, giving a brief moment of respite.
I was shocked at hearing this, knowing that these voices would never cease, would forever haunt my thoughts when the old man told me if I wished to go.
He asked me, gently, calmly, if I wished to leave the woods, leave the trees and their prayers to return home.
I told him I do, that I was losing my sanity, my grip on reality, that I could bear these voices not much longer where upon he told that he would guide me back to where I had first met him, at the southern edge of the woods.
There was but one catch, he asked me if I would stay with him for the remainder of the day, stay and wander amongst the trees, wander amongst the many voices and sooth them to the best of my abilities.
Initially I was outraged, refusing to comply to such a ridiculous request but, as time passed, I began to see that I had no other choice were I to ever leave that accursed place.
I told him I would follow him, would aid him in his attempts to bring peace to the trees.
We ventured far, tending to many and with each one calmed a moment of beautiful silence befell us, silence more meaningful than any I had ever or since experienced.
The old man would sit in the snow, his eyes closed and a smile on his face, enjoying the peace until the voices returned and we were forced to aid them further.
When night fell he kept his part of the deal and led me back to where he had found me.
As we walked, further and further from the cabin, the voices grew softer and softer until they vanished completely as I walked beyond the tree line and onto the snow covered plains that lay around it.
I turned to the man and thanked him for guiding me out, apologising for my rudeness.
He did not mind, he understood what I had been through.
As he turned around to walk back to his cabin I stopped him and asked why he wished to return, why he would put himself through the ordeal we had only just escaped.
“Were it not for me, friend, who else would hear these prayers and bring comfort to those who need it most?”