I walked into the small courtyard that separated the walls of the Lower Keep from the towering spires of the Duke's Palace. Standing in his place at the center of the yard, as always, stood Laracin. Although the courtyard was filled with many beds of plants and small shrubs, the tall form of the tamarack dominated the square. A constant observer of all that passes through his little corner of the universe, the tree-morph immediately noticed my intrusion into his domain.
"Good day, Dan. What brings you here today?" came his strange, ghostly voice as it filtered though the air.
"What makes you think that I have a purpose in coming to see you today?" I answered as I stepped up to Laracin's bed. "Can I not just stop in to say hello to an old friend?"
"You know that you are always welcome here, but I sense that you are here to say more then a simple hello."
My antennae drooped in guilt as I regarded the tree. At times, Laracin's ability to see through me was amazing. I slipped the leather satchel I had been carrying off of my shoulder and placed it on the ground in front of Laracin's earthen bed.
"You caught me." I admitted, as I undid the buckle that held the satchel closed. "I have found myself with some free time, so I came here to do something I have been putting off for too long."
"And what would that be?" asked the tree, an uncertain quality entering his voice.
"It is time for your annual checkup. Sometime in the next few months you're going to begin your hibernation, and I want to be sure you are healthy before you go to sleep for the winter." I responded.
"Are you sure this is really necessary?"
"Shouldn't you have a healer be present for this?"
"I don't think Coe would be able to help very much. After all, I don't think he has too many other patients who are trees."
"Look Laracin, we go through the same routine every year. I know you these hate checkups, but it will not take me long. As I am sure your mother used to tell you: 'This is for your own good.'"
Though no verbal assent was given, a sense of resigned acceptance emanated from Laracin. Reaching into the pack, I began placing some of the instruments I would be using out on the bricks. A hand magnifier, a ruler, a note book and piece of writing charcoal, a small blade, a pair of calipers and a clinometer were laid out in a neat row.
At first it was the basics. Started with his height, I took several measurements of different parts of his wooden body. What before had been a tedious job, involving either scaling the tree or using complex mathematics that I barely had a grasp of, was much easier with the help of a relatively new device. The clinometer was a simple device, really just an angle gauge similar to those used by the Keep's engineers. The scale was all ready calibrated, so I did not have to worry about the math. Just sight the top of the tree, sight the bottom, subtract the two numbers and multiply by the distance.
"You've gained a few inches this year." I told Laracin as I recorded the results in my note book.
Working my way around his trunk, and using a pole to probe the branches that were out of my reach, I began a thorough examination. I looked over every whorl of branches, carefully examining each one for the slightest defect. This was not something you normally would do to a tree, but then this was not just any tree I was dealing with.
The only thing I had noticed were a few buds that had not sprouted to form the seasons growth. They were relatively few in number, so I was not too concerned with them. The buds had probably just been killed by the winter's frost. In a few years, the growth of the secondary branches would make up for the lost buds, and anyone looking at Laracin would be hard pressed to notice the difference.
After about half an hour, I had almost made my way all of the way around my friend. That was when I saw the first sign of anything that was out of the normal. There was a small patch of yellow half way up his crown, hidden among the dark green of his foliage
"Laracin. Can you feel anything wrong with the branch I am touching?" I asked, as I nudged the branch in question with my pole.
"It feels a little stressed." came the tree's reply. "Why? Is there something wrong with it?"
"What does that mean?"
"It means that the leaves are turning yellow."
"I can see that." was Laracin's response, " Is it serious?"
"I'm not sure. It doesn't look as bad as that dwarf mistletoe infection you had a few years back." I re-assured him. "I don't know what is causing it, so just to be on the safe side I'm going to prune the branch."
"You are going to amputate."
"Prune, not amputate." I said as I reached back into my satchel, fishing out one of the tools I had not planned on using. The iron felt cold, even through the hard chitin that covered my hands. I examined the small spring loaded cutter, making sure the mechanism was working before fitting the end of the pole into the bracket on its bottom. Untieing the leather thong that held it in a neat coil, I unwound the cord that was attached to the mechanism's lever.
"This is a pruning pole, Laracin. It is used to cut the branches off of trees. Cutting a branch off of a tree is pruning. You are a tree."
" I suggest you head down to the library, ask Fox for a dictionary and look up the word 'amputate'. I don't want you going around cutting off my limbs just because they look funny. Tell me that you are sure there is something seriously wrong with that branch, and I will consider allowing you to continue. Until then, I will not consent."
"Are you afraid it is going to hurt?"
"I do not feel pain anymore." answered the tree, "The closest human sensation I could use to describe it is a feeling of stress."
"Then why not let me remove the branch?"
"Because I am tired of being treated as nothing more then a plant. I was, and still am, a human being. Even if it is only in spirit and not in body. Do you know that I do not have many friends? Besides you, very few people will stop in to talk with me. Even those that I have known for years avoid me now. People rush through here, ignoring the fact that this little stone yard is my home. Not even a 'hello' or a 'good day' from most of them. I am ignored, treated as a piece of the scenery, an aesthetic decoration, not a living, thinking being."
"Laracin, what does this have to do with my wanting to prune a branch?"
"Everything. If I were still human, would you cut off an arm or a leg just because you saw an unusual mark upon it? No, I think not. You would try to identify the cause of it before removing a limb. Why am I any different?"
"Because," I answered, choosing my next words carefully, "you are a tree. If you were still entirely a man, or even an animal, then someone more knowledgable then I would be treating you. Chlorosis can be caused by many things, my friend. Some of them are minor, but it can also be a sign of something dangerous. I cannot determine the cause, so I do not know if it is serious or not. If it is serious and spreads out of the branch, then there will be very little I could do to stop it. I need to remove it now to insure it cannot get worse."
I waited for Laracin to consider what I had just said. In the time that I had known him, I had never seen him make a rash decision, and I hardly expected him to give me an immediate answer. While I waited, I began to clean up my tools, placing them back in their places in the satchel. The only tool I left out was the pruning pole, leaning untouched against the bricks, awaiting his final decision.
"Are you sure?" I asked.
"Yes. I was being foolish. You say it needs to be done. I can trust that, so do it." confirmed Laracin, speaking quickly.
With a nod, I reached down and retrieved the pole from its resting place. Gripping the pole in my two left hands and the cord in my right, I began to slide the cutting head through Laracin's crown. With a bit of maneuvering, I managed to get the yellow branch between the two blades. A pull on the cord and the blades came together, severing the offending branch from Laracin's body. A quick twist of the pole's head pushed the cut branch away from the tree, allowing it to fall to the ground unhindered by his other branches.
"There. That wasn't so bad, was it?" I said, as I retrieved the branch.
"I guess not." was Laracin's uncertain response. "What now?"
"Other then keeping a close eye on you to make sure it hasn't spread, there isn't much to do, but later on we're going to have a little talk about this little self-esteem problem you seem to be having."
Getting no response, I left the xylo-morph to his silent contemplations and made my way back to my workshop. Dropping the satchel of tools into its customary corner, I walked over to one of the less cluttered work tables and placed the yellowed branch next to a bunch of other stuff I was in the process of getting around to.
Looking around at the clutter that seemed to cover all of the available flat space in the room, I began to reorganize some of the piles. Papers, books, dirt, various plant parts and other such stuff found their way into their proper places. While putting a stack of pressed plant samples back into their drawer, a tag on the cupboard beside it caught my eye.
It was the cupboard where I had been storing various samples and notes that I had collected from Laracin over the years. The drawers held cones, branches, needles and any other material I could find that had fallen from my friend. There was even a small core sample of his wood, the only time that Laracin had allowed me to cut something from him for anything other then medical reasons. I had spent a good deal of time looking at the samples, and if I had not have known they had come from Laracin, I would have never been able to tell that they had come from anything other then a genuine tamarack.
Sliding the paper label from its holder, I took it over to my writing table. I once again read the words I had written on the card when I started my little collection all those years ago. At first, the words seemed innocent enough, a simple label with Laracin's name and a short description; 'Tamarack (Larch) / Human Hybrid'.
Picking up a pen from the desk, I neatly scratched out the old description and wrote in a new one; 'Human / Tamarack (Larch) Hybrid'.
If was a subtle difference, but once I felt would mean the world to my friend. After all semantics could be everything.