Episode #69: Baby Trees in the Holidays
That first day began a month of basic training that all recruits were required to go through. Nobody told us why the King had sent for us, and when we asked, we were told to just shut up and stop trying to think. I had some trouble with the training in the beginning, but after that, I surprised myself by being able to keep up just fine. I was used to physical labor, and this wasn’t much different. A few of the older men, though, unused to climbing, running, and crawling on the ground, collapsed after the first week and had to be carried off the field on stretchers. This happened to one of the Aquarians a few days into our training. He happened to be not far from me, and when I saw him collapse on the field, I went over to see if he were okay. But he pushed me away and, spitting out some mud, said something that sounded like “piss off.” I think he also spat out something about going back to the orphanage, but I couldn’t make it out. Whatever it was, it wasn’t friendly, and I left him to the medics.
Every morning at six sharp, we had to line up for morning exercises. Then came the obstacle course, which was pretty hard at first because the old soldier babysitting us – fat, half–blind, and unable to do half of the things he made us do – didn’t feel like showing us how to do it. He was also frequently hung–over, which didn’t help.
His first lesson, dare I even call it that, was on marching. I was a miserable failure at marching, and, to be honest, never did learn to do it right. Our marching exercises consisted of an endless and, in my opinion, rather pointless array of drills. March left. Now right. Spin left. Then right. Whatever! I always ended up in the first row since I was the shortest, and although I could manage forward and backward, every time we had to turn left or right I got all mixed up. My right or the instructor’s right? If I had eyes in the back of my head, I could have cheated by seeing which way the other recruits turned, but inevitably, I screwed it up and got glares and whispered threats from the proud Aquarian men.
So you might be wondering, what about the good stuff? Well, the drill instructor was technically responsible for teaching us how to use weapons – things like swords, spears, and bows. The problem was that there were never enough to go around, since the “real Army” got preference over us recruits. So we often spent most of this time sitting around waiting until someone else was done with the rusty sword or whatever we were supposed to be using that day. Not that it really mattered in the end; after one of the men accidentally shot himself in the foot with an arrow, the old soldier in charge of training us didn’t trust us with live weapons. He was afraid he might accidentally–on purpose be in the way the next time. Can’t say I blamed him; morale was pretty low, even in the “real Army,” and no one felt like extending himself any more than he had to, especially if there was danger involved. After the arrow incident, all we got were branches chopped off a tree.
“Here, pretend this one’s a spear,” the drill instructor would say, handing out the wobbly saplings. “But that’s no damned excuse for not put the ol’ killer instinct to work!” he would yell. “Stop thinking these are sticks. Like I told you yesterday, they’re spears, damn it! Spears! So when you thrust, yell! When you charge, yell! I want some spirit! All together, now, lemme hear it! Kill! Kill! Kill! Hey, why am I the only one shouting?”
Really, I’m not kidding. The old man was nothing if not cracked. And, true to form, every day, he had us line up at the western corner of the training field, where there was a thin row of midget–sized trees.
“Come on, ladies, one tree to a man, just like yesterday. Now watch the master.”
He delighted in this demonstration. He’d take a stance about ten feet from some poor shrub and begin to twirl his stick around. Then he’d stop, look menacingly at the pint–sized tree, and, with a blood curdling whoop, charge forward and begin smacking the trunk, each time, shouting his “Kill! Kill! Kill!” routine punctuated with an occasional, “How do you like that, huh?” One time I swear he even said, “Not so tough, now, are ya … tree!”
After a bit, he’d get tired and, turning to us while leaning on his stick and sucking in more wind than a geriatric racehorse, he’d explain that was the kind of energy you needed to attack with.
“Now you!” he would bark, and a recruit had to repeat what had just been demonstrated.
The instructor had been satisfied only once, when an unlucky recruit had hit a patch of mud on his charge, and instead of hitting the tree with his stick, hit it full force with his sliding body instead. The young, slender tree simply recoiled from the blow, sending the recruit flying back into the mud. Tree: 1, human: 0.
“Yeah!!! That boy has the kinda attitude I want!” He even went over to help the dazed boy to his feet. “That’s what I’m talkin’ ’bout, boy. Next time you just make sure to show that tree who’s the damn boss. Watch and learn from the master.”
Then he took a swipe at the errant shrub himself but missed and, cursing and spitting, fell flat on his ass. That was the end of the lesson for the day. Tree: 2, human: 0.
Logan and Aurora look up at the night sky near the trees referenced in this passage near the end of the book.
Thanks for listening, and happy holidays!
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