Island of the Giant Tree by Alexander Ray
An excerpt from Alexander Ray’s new book, Island of the Giant Tree, for the first time in English, exclusively for The Russianist readers.
Alexander Ray is a popular Russian psychologist and author. His first book, The Blank. Confessions of a Man Who is Not, has received flattering reviews from both critics and the public. Island of the Giant Tree is Alexander Ray’s second book for children (following the successfully crowdfunded Tales for Indigo Children. Why Do We Live?) and the first one translated into English (by myself).
Island of the Giant Tree follows the adventures of a boy named Ike, who did not stop asking the question asked by children all around the world — “Why?” — and risked to break an ancient prohibition when no one dared to give him a reasonable answer. But so much for spoilers — you can read the first half of the book yourself.
Island of the Giant Tree
We humans know so much about the world around us that it seems sometimes that all its secrets have already been unraveled, all mysteries solved, all obstacles left behind, and no place in the whole universe left unpoked by our curious human noses. But it was not always like this. Very long ago people knew very little. And only the rare brave ones—those who ventured to challenge the unexplored—were opening more and more knowledge for the rest, until we had finally become the masters of the Earth.
This story is about one of those brave ones—one who could overcome senseless prohibitions and his own fears to discover one more secret of the universe.
* * *
The lonely island was lost amid the boundless ocean. Each islander knew that this was the only scrap of land in the whole big world. A single town covered the island’s small area—from coast to coast, from north to south, from east to west. Its narrow cobbled streets with tiny two-story houses squeezed along them looked like a giant maze where you could easily get lost if not for one thing—a giant tree on its central square, a tree so gigantic that you could see it from even the most distant parts of the island, while its wide, spreading crown was only visible on sunny days, concealed by the overcast sky at other times.
Imagine walking on a warm day, enjoying the sun’s rays tickling your skin, and all of a sudden seeing a colossal pillar reaching to the skies, as if keeping the firmament from falling down under its weight.
“What in the world is this?” you could ask in disbelief.
“This is the world,” any local would proudly answer.
The tree was so large that it took eight hundred and forty-three people to enfold it in one giant ring of arms. The gargantuan plant was known as the Tree of Life, not only due to its size—a vivid testimony to the grandness of nature—but also because the islanders’ very lives depended on it. As the island was quite small and could scarcely fit all its dwellers, each patch of land was priceless, and no one could dream of having their own garden or even a tiny backyard.
“But what did they eat, if there was no land to grow fruits or vegetables?” you might ask.
And the Tree was the answer, for it provided the citizens with all they needed.
There were four seasons in a year. The first one was called the Loud Waters. It began when the cold ocean winds ceased their gusting and the thick cloud cap disappeared, exposing people to the warm sunshine. As the air was getting warmer and the islanders were taking off their heavy sweaters, a deep, resonant rumble rose inside the trunk—hardly audible at first, but growing louder and louder—
whomp, whomp, —
like a huge woodwind section rehearsing under the tree’s bark.
The first person to hear this long-awaited sound would dart off and run through the streets at full tilt, yelling, “Waters! The waters are on!” And just a couple of hours later the whole town would know that the Loud Waters had finally come! The tree was now absorbing everything it could make use of from the soil beneath and pumping it up the trunk. Ascending under great pressure, the waters made an odd humming sound, thundering on all day and night long, so that people had to shout to hear one another. But they had long got used to it, and no one complained.
The Loud Waters meant a great responsibility for everyone. As soon as the booming started, people would drop everything, take barrels, and rush to the square, where huge taps stuck right out of the trunk. Once opened, they began spouting out the Sap of Life. All one had to do was keep bringing new empty barrels, waiting until they were full, and carrying them back home. Every islander had to stock enough sap for a whole year, and long lines spread out from the square, filling up the streets.
The sap was an essential. Mothers cooked all kinds of jams and compotes and jellies and sweets out of it. Apothecaries turned it into healing powders, ointments, and tinctures. Builders used it as a durable adhesive and a raw material for making glass. And children knew how to dry the precious substance into a resin from which they could make balloons and bubbles to gambol with in the gentle ocean waves.
Soon the rumbling would subside and the taps run dry: The Tree had had enough of the reviving juice, and its leaves could now sprout and fruits ripen. Once the last drop fell into a barrel, a command was shouted out, and the taps were closed for precisely one year.
The Loud Waters were followed by the second season, the Big Cleanout. It was getting hotter, and people were taking off everything but their shorts and undershirts. The town was now living a quiet, slow-paced life: Fathers were at work or tinkering in their workshops, mothers were tidying up and cooking, and kids were playing in the streets or swimming in the blue waves on the beach.
But on one of those ordinary days the town ruler would go out to the balcony of his mansion and solemnly proclaim the beginning of the Big Cleanout. No one had ever wondered why it was now that the time had come or why it was that particular day that the governor had picked.
After hearing the call, all the men had to go to the main square, where spears and torches were already waiting for them at the Tree’s roots. Once the arsenal had been collected, a gate was opened in the trunk, leading under the bark. They entered and searched the tree’s entrails, looking for beetles—some small and some as big as a grown-up man. They had to clean the sacred tree that nourished the whole island of the pests who could destroy it.
The Big Cleanout was considered a dangerous job, suitable for grown men only: Children, women, or the elderly would not be able to cope with the huge insects. The quest went on for weeks and did not end until each and every beetle had been caught. When the Cleanout was over, the men were greeted as heroes, who had risked their lives for their families.
Nothing went to waste on the island, and the captured beetles, too, were tamed. The larger of them were used for riding and carrying things, while smaller ones were kept as pets, cared for and looked after.
Thus passed the warm time of the Big Cleanout, and came the third season, called the Hanging Fruits. When the sun was no longer scorching and the ocean was becoming colder, long vines came down from the skies, with giant red apple-like fruits hanging on them right above the rooftops. People would climb onto their houses and cut the fruits, while trained beetles would bring them down. The apples were the islanders’ main source of food, so people stocked them up for the whole year, carefully stacking them in storehouses next to the sap barrels.
Once the crop had been gathered, the Harvest Festival began. Laudatory hymns and resounding toasts filled the air, blessing the Tree of Life for its bountiful harvest. Everyone was rejoicing and celebrating and laying out long tables along the streets, heaped with viands and drinks.
The festival culminated in the Race of the Brave: On the third evening of jubilating and feasting, when people had had enough of the jollies, every boy who saw himself as a brave would climb atop the roof of his house, grab a vine where a fruit had hung, and, at the command, started climbing up. High above, there was a red line painted on the trunk. He who reached it first would be proclaimed the Bravest of the Brave and receive all kinds of honors throughout the year—so the boys gave it all they had.
“But weren’t they afraid of losing their grip and falling down?” you might ask in horror.
And I’ll explain: They weren’t afraid, because each of them had a leaf of the Tree, large as a chute, folded behind his back. It would unfold whenever a boy lost his hold and gently waft him down to the ground. Of course, it was a bit scary to climb to such a height, but, then again, they weren’t called the brave for nothing.
The boys had a tradition: When the winner reached the finish line, he would freeze in place, admiring the view of the island from above and waiting for the others to catch up. Then he would count out as loud as he could—“One, two, three!”—and all the boys would unclasp their fingers at once and plunge down, waiting for the leaves to spread out behind their backs like giant fans. Their parents would burst into applause, cheer, and whistle, watching their children glide down like little angels. They would point their fingers to the sky, proudly exclaiming, “Look! there’s my boy!”
And once their offspring touched the ground, they would run to their braves, embracing and kissing them. It was the happiest day of the year, and every boy anticipated it with great excitement.
A couple of weeks after the red fruits had been reaped and the Bravest of the Brave chosen came the fourth season—the Falling Leaves—portending the oncoming wintertide. Once again, cold ocean winds were pummeling the streets, making the islanders hunch down into sweaters and overcoats. Soon the vines would fall off and withered leaves glide down from the overcast skies in a beautiful swirl. People would turn vines into threads and pipes, and leaves into clothes, linen, and all kinds of other useful things. When the fall was over, they would carry on with their daily chores, waiting for the Loud Waters and the warmth they would bring.
It seemed that they would live like this forever, squeezed on this cozy islet and neither changing nor aspiring to anything, but just enjoying every day of their lives.
But nothing stays the same. In our story, it was a curious boy named Ike who changed the fate of the whole island.
* * *
It happened during the full pride of the Hanging Fruits, when the vines had just descended from the sky and the harvest had begun. Just like the other kids, Ike was helping his parents cut down the apples. As they were half as big as Ike and just as heavy, his family used crawlers to take them down from the roofs. Deftly climbing up the trunk, these beetles would grab a fruit with their mandibles and dart back down, moving their legs in an amusing shuffle.
“Ike, look over there,” called his mother. “All the roofs are full of people bringing in the harvest!”
“Right,” nodded the boy, absorbed in his thoughts. His concern didn’t go unnoticed by his mother.
“Anxious before the race as usual?” she asked.
“Not at all!” lied Ike.
In truth, the prospect of the climb terrified him. Ike was pretty agile and strong enough to be among the first—albeit not the first—to reach the red mark. And he did enjoy floating down under the huge leaf dome. There was another thing, the only thing that could give him a turn: the Height. As long as he could remember, he’d always had to climb the vine with his eyes shut, cocking his ears to the panting of his rivals and trying to guess the distance to the finish line. And even as the winner counted to three, Ike couldn’t overcome his fear and jumped down without raising his eyelids. The height horrified him, but he could not admit this to anyone, not even to his mother. What if they just laughed at him? “Fancy that, a coward among the brave!” And so he kept silent, climbing with his eyes closed, year after year.
Gloomily, Ike looked up at the red mark and heaved a sigh: He knew that he would never be able to see how beautiful the island was from the air. He raised his head even higher and tried to make out the outline of the Tree’s crown, but it was so high above, and the sun shone so brightly, that he could hardly see anything.
And then he uttered a question that would turn the island’s fate.
“Mom, why is it prohibited to climb above the red mark?”
Mother froze for an instant, holding a freshly cut fruit.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe it’s an optimal height for the race—not too high for you boys to get exhausted, but high enough to be able to pick the winner?”
“Might be,” nodded Ike. “But why aren’t we allowed to climb higher just for fun? Just out of curiosity? Or to get to the boughs? No one has ever climbed that high, have they?”
Mother gave it some thought.
“Well,” she said finally, “why don’t you ask your dad? He should know better than me. He too used to be a boy and take part in the race. Yes, go and ask him. But not now—wait for the harvest to end.”
* * *
“Dad, has anyone ever tried to climb above the red line?” asked Ike when his father was finally free.
Father gave him a hard look.
“Of course not. You know it’s prohibited, don’t you?”
“And why’s that?”
Father scratched his head.
“Hum,” he said. “No idea. It just is, and that’s it.”
“Dad, but all prohibitions have a reason! Like, it is prohibited to swim too far from the shore, because you might not have the breath to make it back. Or, it is prohibited to tease stinkbugs, because they might blaze up and pass their foul gases. All prohibitions are reasonable, but this one I cannot understand at all!”
Father raised his head and eyed the thick red mark painted on the trunk. Then he looked back at Ike.
“Listen, son. Get this nonsense out of your head. If something is prohibited, there is a reason. What the reason is, is none of our business—which is to simply obey the rules and not ask unwanted questions. And the governor’s business is to keep an eye on us obeying them.”
Of course! thought Ike. If it was the governor’s business to enforce the prohibition, then it was he who knew the real reason for it.
The boy jumped up and darted away.
“Where are you going?” cried out his father.
“The square,” replied Ike, and rushed off to the governor’s house.
The ruler’s residence stood on the central square and was the closest to the Tree’s roots. It was a splendid white mansion with large windows and a small garden in the backyard. Only such a prominent person could afford this unheard-of luxury.
The entrance was guarded by a tall, broad-shouldered watchman holding a lance in his hands.
“What do you want, kid?” he asked haughtily.
“I just— I just wanted to talk to the governor,” answered Ike.
“To talk?” the guard raised his eyebrows, as if he had never heard this word before. “About what?”
“I had a question.”
Ike was already regretting that he had dared to disturb such an important person. But just as he was about to apologize for the inconvenience and leave, the watchman stepped aside and let him pass.
“Go and ask. Head straight to the garden, he’s in there. But don’t distract him until he calls you. He’s having a very important council meeting.”
Ike slipped inside before the lancer could change his mind. Just as ordered, the boy went straight ahead, sidled into the doorway, and, lo and behold, found himself in a real garden! What a marvelous place it was: Colorful flowers and miniature trees covered its every inch, and its jade-green grass looked like a soft carpet. But the most wonderful thing was the heavenly odors of exotic flowers permeating the air.
The council sat amid the splendor—right on the grass. The governor towered above the rest and was declaiming something of utmost importance.
“If it goes on like this, we’ll run out of leaves. There are fewer and fewer of them every year, and almost none without holes in them. Suggestions?”
The councilors started yelling all at once, their voices blending into one unintelligible babel.
Ike did not care much about grown-ups’ problems—he just wanted the answer to the question that was troubling him. So he quietly sat on the lawn, leaned against a wall, and watched the beautiful garden, while waiting for the meeting to end. He fell asleep before he knew it.
“Boy! Hey, boy!” Someone’s voice was breaking through Ike’s slumber, and a hand was shaking his shoulders. Ike opened his eyes and saw the governor.
“Why are you sleeping here?” he asked with annoyance, clearly unimpressed by the sight of a stranger taking a nap in his dominion.
“I was waiting for you—and fell asleep,” replied Ike.
“Why did you want me?” asked the governor, suspiciously.
“I wanted to ask something only you know.”
“I’m all tied up,” grumbled the man, “but as you’re already here, ask.”
To show his manners, Ike stood up, shook himself off, and gathered his thoughts.
“Why is it prohibited to climb above the red line?” he asked at last. “How come no one is curious to get to the Tree’s boughs?”
Maybe it was just Ike’s fancy, but it seemed to him that the governor’s face had turned red and his eyes had narrowed.
“What is this nonsense you’re talking?”
“But I really want to know—”
“Listen here!” the governor cut him off rudely. “Get this rubbish out of your head! And don’t you say it ever again—not to me, not to anyone—got it?”
“But I—” Ike tried to protest, but the old man interrupted him once again.
“If it’s prohibited, that’s how it is to be!” shouted the old man. “Don’t be asking questions that are not to be asked! And don’t even think of climbing above the red line—that is dangerous! If I find out that you’ve violated the prohibition, you’ll be punished! Understood?”
“Understood,” Ike whispered under his breath.
“Now off you go! And don’t be stupid!”
* * *
When Ike got home, it was already dark and his mother was setting the table.
“Wash your hands, honey, the supper’s ready,” she said.
Ike did as he was told and sat at the table. But neither during the meal nor later did he find the courage to tell his parents about his visit to the governor. Perhaps, he just didn’t want to upset them. Or maybe he was afraid that they would scold him.
After dinner, Ike played with his pet ladybug Mimi, trying to clear his mind of the distressing thoughts. But even as he went to bed, he could not get rid of the anxiety. Sleep did not come for quite a while.
* * *
Ike was climbing up the Tree—absolutely free and unafraid of the height—and observing the island from above. Calmed by the spectacular view, he looked at the trunk and saw that there was no red line there anymore. He lost all fear and continued his ascent. But when the luxuriant crown was just a few yards away, the town ruler appeared out of nowhere and grabbed him by the arm.
“I warned you, didn’t I!” hissed the old man spitefully. “All you had to do was get these stupid ideas out of your head!”
He yanked the boy by the hand and threw him off the vine. That would not have been a big deal, but there was no leaf chute behind his back!
Ike screamed in horror and leapt from the bed in a cold sweat.
* * *
For the next three days, the town was celebrating the harvest. As usual, the streets were full of festivities. Children and adults alike were singing at the top of their lungs and stuffing themselves with delicacies, rejoicing over the bountiful crop. And only teenagers—Ike among them—were restless in anticipation of the race.
But this time everything was different for Ike. The oncoming competition did not terrify him. He was engrossed with the question, almost to the point of obsession.
“Why? Why can’t we get up to the boughs? It must be so great there!” he thought aloud, Mimi being his only listener. “Of course, no one can climb that high all at once: This needs time and sweat.”
And while the other kids were getting ready for the race, Ike was inventing a device that would allow him to stop to rest during the climb. The solution turned out to be ingeniously simple: Ike would tie the edges of a large leaf in a knot and attach it to the vine with a thick thread, making a sort of cradle.
“So what?” he sighed to his pet ladybug. “The governor told me not to even think of climbing to the crown! Why is it that whenever they tell you not to do something without explaining why, it becomes something you want more than anything else?”
Unsurprisingly, Mimi didn’t reply and just kept on frolicking around her master.
“And even if it weren’t prohibited,” Ike continued thinking aloud, “this still would get me nowhere, because I’m afraid of heights! Of course, I could try climbing with my eyes closed—but once I reach the boughs, I’ll have to look down anyway.”
Ike’s ruminations continued until the very day of the race. And even as he was standing on the roof and waiting for the signal, he couldn’t stop dwelling on these thoughts—as though an imp was hovering beside him and inciting him to commit the forbidden.
“Ready, set, go!” resounded the command—and the boys, as one, grabbed the vines. As usual, Ike shut his eyes and started shinnying up. Down below, people were yelling; parents were rooting for their children. Ike knew that two of these mingled voices belonged to his own mother and father. Feeling their support and love, he was darting up as fast as he could go— but still failed to come in first. He did not see the winner, but he heard people cheering him by name. And it wasn’t his name.
The only thing left to do was to slow down, focus on his friends’ voices, get abreast of them, and then, on “three,” unclench his fingers.
Side by side, the boys fluttered down under the huge leaf domes. And as they touched the ground, it no longer mattered who had won, for each was in the arms of his loving parents, who hugged and praised their brave—and, of course, treated him with all kinds of sweets made from the Tree’s sap and fruits.
It was nighttime when Ike finally decided that he would disregard the prohibition—and his own fear—and climb to the boughs.
“I will make it. I promise I will!” he thought. “I will set off tomorrow night, when everyone is sleeping, and come back in the morning. No one will even notice!”
With these thoughts on his mind, he fell asleep.
* * *
The next day, spent in anticipation of the great adventure, seemed like a torment. Time dragged on unbearably slowly, as if trying to make the boy change his mind. But Ike was adamant. As soon as Mom and Dad kissed him goodnight, he opened the window and descended down the drainpipe and onto the street. Not far away, there was a spot where he could start the climb without being seen.
Sneaking along the cobbled streets and slipping from house to house like a shadow, Ike was carefully measuring his every step not to get caught by grown-ups at this late hour. One wrong move, and they’d bring him home—go try and explain your escapade to your parents then!
He managed to make it to the place unnoticed. Breathing a sigh of relief, he gripped the waterspout and was about to start climbing to the roof, when a voice startled him from behind.
“And what are we doing here?” the speaker inquired.
Ike turned around and saw a middle-aged woman in a fancy broad-brimmed hat and a purple gown. She was eyeing the boy and the leaf chute sticking out of his backpack. She said nothing more, and the silence was getting awkward. Ike’s first impulse was to make up some innocent story, its outline already emerging in his mind. But at the last moment he remembered what his father had always said, “Lies are for cowards,” and he was not going to be a coward—not on a night like this.
“I want to climb up the Tree,” he said and removed the leaf from the backpack as a proof.
“I want to see what’s above the red line. This is very, very important!”
Ike waited for her to grab him and drag him home. But she just looked up and gave a sigh of regret.
“I always wanted to know what the town looks like from above,” she said, “but they wouldn’t let girls climb the vines.”
She came closer and leaned down toward him.
“If you think that something is really important, do it, and come what will,” she whispered, as though someone might overhear them. And then—without another word—she was gone.
Not daring to waste another moment, Ike grabbed the gutter pipe and started climbing up.
Thus ends the first part of the book. If you liked it, follow The Russianist, and we will make sure to let you know once it comes out from the print.