The backyard was a magical place. There was a picnic table that was also a ship or a desert island or a tent. On the swing set her feet could touch the clouds. Roses grew along the fence and every time she came into the back yard she checked the bushes to see the progression from bud to bloom to blown. On the peach tree a cabuchon of sap sealed a wound and now and then she poked it to see if it had hardened into amber yet.
The peach and cherry and maple trees that grew in the backyard were her friends, but she especially loved the poplar tree. The poplar guarded the neighborhood, watching over brick ranch houses arranged in crescents that looped off of larger crescents, over kids riding bikes and catching bugs and crayfish, over unfinished Monopoly games that no one really knew how to play, over tin toys rusting in sandboxes while cats surreptitiously buried their poop, and marble pits scratched into the hard, dry clay. It was a hundred years old and when she was big enough she would climb it to reach the clouds and bring back the goose that laid the golden egg.
The poplar called her Leaf. It told her about the squirrels, which were all named Squiffy, because squirrels have very little imagination. He told her about the baby birds and their squawking, and how nice it was to have woodpeckers to pull out itchy bugs. It told her about how it had once stood in a farmer’s field, and how animals like her had built their brick burrows all around and sealed their pathways with noxious black stuff.
She talked to the peach and the cherry and the maple trees too, but they were young and didn’t have much to say. The cherry was vain of its smooth burgundy bark, the peach tree was depressed, and the maple was really a bit simple. The roses would only talk to each other, and that in buzzing whispers like bees.
As she grew up the magic of childhood waned. She learned that most clouds float between 2 and 18 km above the surface of the Earth, and that she would never be taller than her mother. The goose that laid the golden egg turned out to be nothing but a fairy tale, and fairy tales weren’t real.
But the trees continued to talk to her. That was real.
When she realized that the sandbox and the picnic table were made out of the bones of dead trees, she stayed away from them. When she was old enough to understand the relationship between trees and paper, she stopped playing Monopoly. Paper was anathema to her, and art class made her cry. She was the first student in second grade to do her schoolwork entirely on a tablet. Her parents took her to a psychiatrist, who told them it was just a phase, and that she would grow out of it.
But she didn’t.
After the visit to the psychiatrist she didn’t talk about talking trees any more. It felt like there was a wall between her and her mother and father, not being able to tell them what the trees said. It felt like there was a wall between her and everyone.
She got a degree in forestry, and moved to North Bay, where she worked for a Conservation Authority. She despised loggers, lived in a concrete block apartment house and owned nothing made out of wood. Even other foresters didn’t understand her aversion to all things wooden. They could see the stark beauty in the skeleton of a dead tree, but they didn’t understand why it made her cry.
Boyfriends didn’t understand either. Her parents eventually stopped hinting about grandchildren and adopted a yappy little dog instead.
She had the companionship of the trees, and she tried to let that be enough.
Trees never lie. They are incapable of it, like toddlers. And they never tell you things they aren’t sure of, either. They don’t pretend to be smarter or worldlier than they are–there isn’t a lot of ego in a tree.
That made it all the more disturbing when a Norway spruce whispered to her, “Leaf! War is coming. You must go to Yggdrasil.”
“Where is that?”
The tree waved its branches gently, like a breeze had rippled them, which was the tree equivalent of a shrug.
She shrugged it off, too. Yes, she knew war was building, but it was out there–the Middle East and Africa. Russia was taking over Eastern Europe bit by bit. But here in northern Ontario? No. She heard planes tearing the sky overhead now and then, but they were on their way elsewhere.
Two days later when she sat down to eat her lunch on a bluff with a view of the forested valley below–one of her favorite spots–the patch of creeping juniper next to her said “Yggdrasil needs you.”
It took her a while to figure out how to spell it. None of the trees, after all, could spell it to her. She started out with egg- and ig-, but eventually Google cracked it and pointed her to a page about Norse legends. Yggdrasil was the tree at the center of the Universe. It supported seven worlds, including Heaven and Hell and Earth.
She left her office and walked over to a sleepy old birch at the corner of the parking lot and asked it, “Where can I find Yggdrasil?”
“Yggdrasil touches all our roots,” was the enigmatic reply.
She sighed. Birches were a bit obtuse.
There were two places she might get better answers to the question of Yggdrasil’s location. She had vacation time coming, so she booked it off and rode the train south to visit her parents.
She borrowed their car and drove around to her old neighborhood. The poplar was old and wise and it might know where Yggdrasil was. She was not sure how she was going to explain to the new owners why she was in their backyard talking to their poplar tree, but it turned out she didn’t have to. As soon as she turned the corner onto her old block, she could see that the poplar was gone. She parked in front of the house and stared. It was so much smaller than she remembered. The silver maple, grown tall and sturdy, waved a cheery hello from above the roof.
She left her parents and trekked up the Niagara Escarpment to visit the oldest living tree in Canada, an ancient dwarfed white cedar. It was very slow-spoken, and she found its company calming. After a formal introduction, and some small talk about the weather, which stretched on for an hour, she asked it where she could find Yggdrasil.
It was silent for a long time, and finally said, “I do not know.” As she was getting up to leave it added, “But it is important that you go.”
“But I don’t know where to go.”
“Ask the younger trees. They know little, but they talk to each other.”
As she walked down the escarpment the younger trees, who had been listening to everything, chanted, “Yggdrasil! Yggdrasil! Leaf needs to find Yggdrasil!”
Their chant rippled out, tree to tree, over the whole continent.
When she got home the trees in the ravine below her building were rustling. “Midnight sun,” they told her in an overlapping, overenthusiastic chorus. They were quite proud of themselves to have found this answer for her. “It’s about the father of your children! It’s the end of the world! War is coming! He is looking for you!” Not much of what they said made sense to her, but the tall, old oak that grew halfway down the steep slope cut through their chatter: “Go to the midnight sun,” it said.
But where was the land of the midnight sun? She knew Yggdrasil was a Norse legend and she had a vague idea that that meant northern Europe – Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Holland? She got out her old grade school atlas and sat in her beanbag chair looking through the maps. The midnight sun shone on the whole Arctic Circle. It could be Siberia or Greenland.
Heavy metal music began thumping at her floor from downstairs. She groaned. She was trying to think. Her neighbors were particularly fond of Led Zeppelin. She’d heard The Immigrant Song before, but this time the lyrics caught her ear.
We come from the land of the ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow.
The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands,
To fight the horde, singing and crying: Valhalla, I am coming!
It was a sign.
When the song changed she ran downstairs and asked if she could borrow the CD.
“No CD,” said the scruffy guy in a greasy T-shirt when he answered the door. The two and half couples and three dogs living in the apartment stared at her. They were draft dodgers from the US. They all thought she was a little loopy, especially the dogs. “It’s on my iPod.” He held it up, a smug little twist of a smile amidst his stubble.
“Then I’ll borrow that!” she said, and snatched it out of his hand.
When he banged on her door she couldn’t hear him: she had her noise cancelling headphones on and was tapping away on her phone to find explanations for the lyrics.
The next day she took a leave of absence from work, paid up the rent on her apartment out of her savings, turned down the heat, packed up her hiking gear, took the train to Toronto and a cab to the airport, where armed soldiers in khaki camouflage were patrolling.
She got on a plane to Iceland.
She arrived in Keflavik almost too tired to stand after an overnight flight against the path of the sun. On the cab ride to Reykjavik, where she had booked a hotel, she despaired over the landscape. It was all sharp black rock and sturdy clumps of purple lupines.
“See the steam there,” said the cab drive in his accented English. “That is the Blue Lagoon.”
She looked. Stream was rising, far away across the rocky landscape. It didn’t look like the Blue Lagoon supported any trees either.
How was she going to know where to go from here with no trees to point out the way? Did the Icelanders know where Yggdrasil was?
She tried the cabbie. “Have you heard of Yggdrasil?”
“Yggdrasil? The tree at the center of the world?”
“Yes! Do you know where it is?”
There was a long silence. “We are Christians here in Iceland now,” he said. He didn’t say anything else.
She slept around the clock and woke to find the sun no lower or higher in the sky that in had been. It was June in Iceland and the sun rolled around the horizon in what seemed to her to be a permanent late afternoon.
There were trees in Reykjavik, to her relief. They were not large, but they were sturdy and healthy.
“Skagafjorthur,” the tough little trees told her. She hadn’t thought about the trees only speaking Icelandic. But then an older one said to her, in perfectly clear English, “Go to Skagafjorthur.”
So, Skagafjorthur was a place, a fjord on the north coast. She found it on the map on her phone at lunch, where she ate smoked lamb on a buttered pancake of rye bread. Then she rented a car at an exorbitant price and hit the road.
It was easy to find. There is only one highway in Iceland.
When she got near Skagafjorthur she stopped at a sheep farm with a sign saying “Guesthouse” in English and Icelandic. There were rolling green pastures and grey mountain faces and dirty sheep, who looked nothing like the sheep from her old nursery rhyme books. There was no sign of a tree large enough to support the world. No sign of any tree at all. She had never felt so alone in her life.
She set her alarm for the time they told her breakfast was, and when she had slept and woken and stepped out of doors into the fresh air, she saw a startling thing.
It was a man in an Icelandic sweater and an Icelandic fur-lined ear-flap hat, but he was as un-Icelandic as she could imagine. He was tall and thin and as dark as baking chocolate. He was staring out at the sheep. She wondered if he was as disappointed by their appearance as she was. When he heard her behind him he turned and smiled with very white teeth.
“Good morning,” she said, to see if he spoke English.
“Is it morning?” he asked in an African accent tinged with British. “I cannot keep track here.”
“How long have you been in Iceland?” she asked.
“A week. I have walked from Keflavik.”
Over a breakfast of smoked meat and fish and buttered rye flatbread and sheep cheese they compared histories. He had worked for the Forests National Corporation in the Sudan until war drove him to England, where he eked out a living as a translator. She smiled at him while he talked with affection of acacias bursting into life in the rains, and of how, in many places, a tree was the only one for miles around, standing majestically on its own. “A tree supports its own little world,” he said, his eyes sparkling.
“Like Yggdrasil,” she answered.
“What is Yggdrasil?” he asked.
She told him. She thought about telling him that she had come here to find it, but he was handsome and intelligent and he smiled at her so sweetly, she didn’t want to scare him off.
They walked together to the ocean, to see Skagafjorthur. He carried his gear on his back, planning to camp out to save money. They shared a box lunch on the gritty black beach. There was no tree to be seen, except a scraggly spruce half burrowed in the cleft of a rock, no bigger or healthier looking than Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, and she felt she should be upset, but she wasn’t. She thought she might have finally found a man who could understand her, and that was worth a trip to the end of the Earth.
He told her how he had fled to England, which he called Eng-a-land, to get away from the fighting in Darfur, only to have war come to England, too.
“It is not an invasion, it is terrorists. Not open war, but all these car bombs and people blowing themselves up, and the police and the army, they are almost as dangerous, particularly if you have dark skin, like me. Everywhere there is war, war, war. Why do people want to kill each other?”
“There’s too many of us,” she answered.
He nodded. “I am happy to be here. It is so-so peaceful. But…so few trees….”
They spent the night together in his tent. In the morning, there was a boat.
It had lodged itself on the beach. It was not made of boards; it was all one piece, as smooth and brown as a chestnut, and inside shallow symmetrical ridges divided it into cavities, like a heart.
“Where did it come from?” she asked.
The spruce croaked, “Take the boat.” It was the only thing it had said since they arrived.
They looked at the scraggly tree and then at one another. “Did you hear that?” he asked.
“Then you are Leaf,” he declared with a broad grin, “and I am Lifthrasir.”
She blinked at him. “Only the trees call me that.”
“It was the trees who told me to find you.”
“What does Lifthrasir mean?”
“I have no idea,” he answered, still grinning. “It is what the trees told me: I am Lifthrasir.”
She pulled out her phone and tried to connect to Google.
“What does it say?” he asked.
“That I am in the middle of nowhere and I have no signal.”
“Well, then, throw it in the ocean,” he said, and laughed with delight when she did.
“We’re beyond technology,” she said. “We’re beyond looking things up and trying to make sense.”
He nodded. “Agreed.”
They snuggled down in the bottom of the boat, with his sleeping bag to protect them from the cold of the North Atlantic, he in his brogues and Icelandic sweater and hat, she her in her hiking boots and down vest. The ridges inside the shell formed chambers that they fit into perfectly, side by side, and they watched the clouds drift overhead and held hands.
“I was in Hyde Park one day, and a plane tree told me that I was Lifthrasir, and I must find Leaf, and follow her.”
“They told me to find Yggdrasil.”
“The tree at the center of the world? Is that where we are going?” he asked.
“You have gotten into a boat with me, with no oars and no sail, and you don’t even know where we are going?”
“We are beyond technology,” he said, “but we are not beyond belief. Belief is all I have left. Besides, you are here, too,” he pointed out.
“Yes,” she sighed, looking up at the clouds. Her faith felt as light and fragile as the little boat.
They floated for a day and a night, and the next morning they were woken by the boat gently bumping a shore. They opened their eyes to find a giant tree standing above them, it’s branches reaching into the clouds. One of its enormous roots was plunged deep into a spring that poured out clear, fresh water. Despite the flow of the spring, the boat stayed tight against the root-shore, as if it was tethered. They drank from the spring, and splashed their faces, before disembarking onto the rough grey root itself. It was so large a forest grew on it between the water and the trunk of the great tree.
From where they stood on the root-shore they could see stumpy prehistoric-looking palms and a clonal mangrove that stretched along the edge of the ocean for miles. Towering redwoods stood beside Japanese maples and magnolias. Fruit and nuts hung from other trees. Some were familiar to one or both of them and some were not.
“Welcome, Lif! Welcome, Lifthrasir. I am Yggdrasil,” whispered the giant tree, and although it was a whisper its voice was so old and deep that it vibrated their bones like an earth tremor.
For the first time she realized it was not Leaf, but Lif, as if she could see Yggdrasil’s words in print in her head as well as hear them. And she understood the meaning of the Old Norse, too: Life.
“Come, come into Mimir’s Grove,” invited Yggdrasil.
“Come!” clamored the trees of the grove. “Welcome!”
“Yggdrasil!” Lif said raising her arms to the giant wall of bark that rose above them and disappeared into the clouds. “Why are we here?”
“The year dies in winter and is reborn in spring, and the old tree dies and the new seed sprouts,” rumbled Yggdrasil. “You are the new seed.”
Lif and Lifthrasir frowned at each other. “We are not trees,” she said to him.
“What does that mean?” Lifthrasir shouted up at Yggdrasil.
“Ragnarok is coming,” Yggdrasil rumbled like thunder.
“War,” whispered the trees, trembling as if in a breeze. “Fire.”
“What is Ragnarok?” asked Lif.
“Death and fire and war,” the trees continued murmuring like an agitated crowd.
“Ragnarok is the war that will end the world. I have brought you here to keep you safe.”
“You are Lif and Lifthrasir.”
“Life,” chorused the trees. “You are Life and you are Life’s Lover.”
“When Ragnarok is over,” rumbled Yggdrasil, “your descendants will repopulate the Earth.”
“But, why did you choose the two of us?” pressed Lifthrasir.
“I did not. You chose yourselves. You chose each other. You chose to listen to the trees.”
“What if we choose to leave?” demanded Lif. She was just a little miffed. If Yggdrasil could send her a message over an ocean and 2600 miles, he could have told her what he wanted.
“Stay in Mimir’s Grove,” urged the trees. “Stay!”
Yggdrasil was silent for a minute. “Why would you do that?”
“Yes,” Lifthrasir muttered, “why would we do that? There is no war here.”
“But….” she protested.
“What do you have to go back to?” asked Lifthrasir. She had told him about the cold cement block apartment building and her parents’ yappy dog and the downstairs neighbors. “War will come to Canada. It is just a matter of time.”
“The seed is already sprouted,” added Yggdrasil.
And she felt it, in her belly, tiny as a seed: new life. She put her hand over it.
“But we were careful!” protested Lifthrasir.
“Stay,” whispered the trees, “stay.”
He took both of her hands and pressed his lips to them. “Stay here with me.”
She looked into his eyes and weighed them against her old life. “If you are staying, I am not leaving,” said Lif.
“You are safe in Mimir’s Grove,” sighed the trees. “You are among friends.”
The world burned and the rivers boiled. While the radioactive fallout settled into its half-life their children and their children’s children lived in the forest on the root of Yggdrasil. They ate fruit and nuts that the trees gave them. Some were sweet, some tart and some bitter.
Nothing harmed them.
They found amber on the forest floor, beneath the ancient trees. Wild roses went from bud to bloom to blown in endless succession. There was a swing that swung so high that their feet could touch the clouds. And there was a half a giant nut shell that was also a ship and a marriage bed.