The autumnal light shown gold and rose through the branches of the alder and birch as the group appeared. Despite his weak eyes and failing hearing, the old Druid needed no notice of their arrival—the young are never inconspicuous.
“You’re here for a tale?” he called out, startling them.
After a moment of confusion they all noticed him, and one called out in return. “Yes–We’re from the earth-school.”
The old man laughed. “Sent more of ye’? History?”
A well-figured, confident woman amongst them nodded. “Sorry to disturb you. We were told we were expected.”
“Yes, yes,” he chuckled. “You were sent to ask me for a story.”
He enjoyed this part. “Well?”
The students looked at each other, discomfort and nervousness evident on their faces. “Uh,” said the woman after a long pause. “Our professor told us we should ask you about this place, about how banks become groves, and…” she shifted, quite uncomfortably. “How we used to clean our…um, anuses with paper?”
This never failed to make him laugh.
He sat under the oldest of the Alder, young by most standards, but the first which was planted in the ruins, the first which became this grove. Only 30 years ago next Imbolc, he mused. And he suspected he’d be under earth not long after.
The others sat on the ground around him and looked at him, curiously. He could tell they weren’t sure what to do next, what to ask or say, and he saw no reason to hold them longer in such uncertainty.
“This place was a bank,” he started, leaning his back against the tree he’d helped plant. “Not like the edge of a river, though. More like a storehouse, but instead of grain and useful things, you filled it with money. And also not like a storehouse, you couldn’t just go get what you put into it whenever you wanted, and you needed a plastic rectangle to get it back. Which is ironic, I think, since plastic seems to like banks, like all those bits of plastic we are still cleaning off the banks of rivers.
“And there was so much plastic in those days, you know. Plastics on and in our food. Plastic holding our water. Big plastic rectangles that we called ‘smart,’ named after fruit, but of course fruit doesn’t have little screens that distract you from the world.”
He looked at their faces and saw they were staring at him with that look. He’d given older folks that same look when he was their age. Politeness, certainly, and a I hope this doesn’t last long. He stopped. “Too much poetry?” he asked, grinning wryly.
They smiled in return.
“No patience for poetry,” he muttered, and ever lower, “some things never change.”
“You were telling us about how this became a grove,” one of them said.
He laughed, remembering how he’d try to guide the old and wise along the meandering stream of their words back to their intended destination. He was old now, too. They were guiding him.
“Ah, yes. I was telling you about the grove. But I was telling you about plastic, which doesn’t belong in a grove or a river. And we had so much plastic, you know, because we had so much oil. Well, we thought we did.
“Then the oil began running out, black wounds in the earth finally bled dry. And so much water poisoned just to get that last bit out, and then horrible wars when we all began to know there was no more oil. And we needed oil, you see, because no one wanted to stop thumbing plastic rectangles to see what other people’s faces were doing. And people wanted to get in metal death boxes to go really fast between places so they could stare at more plastic rectangles. We had very little oil left, and instead we had poisoned water, diseased animals, suffocating air, and people started fighting so they could have more poison and disease and suffocation.”
The old druid paused, pretending to nod off. It was another favorite thing about these tales, the startled silence. He even pretended to snore.
“Excuse me?” came a timid voice.
He looked up, and for a moment found he wasn’t certain he hadn’t fallen asleep.
“Oh, oh yes. Where…?”
“The grove,” said a heavily-accented youth.
“Oh yes!” he exclaimed.
“This was a bank, but not one on a river, and it was full of money that you could only get with plastic. Banks were everywhere, and they kept going even as things started to fall apart. Guards and soldiers protected them as if they housed kings or sacred artifacts, not green pieces of paper. Green paper made from green trees that we cut down all the time, just like the paper we used to clean ourselves after we shat.”
The group laughed uncomfortably. More than anything about the world that used to be, toilet paper seemed to be the most difficult for the kids to understand.
“And so there were fights and wars, and all those people scrambling in fear and sorrow and anger to hold on to everything they thought was important. It was very sad time, and too many people died trying to hold onto what they thought they needed.” Then, remembering the unseen around him, he added, “some very good people have gone under earth.”
The students sat, silently, nodding solemnly. He muttered a prayer quietly to those honored dead, and then continued:
“But that was also a good time, despite that sadness. That’s when the gods came back.”
An auburn-haired woman–hair streaked with fiery red, her eyes burning with recognizable light of Lokean chaos– interrupted him. “But they were always there!”
He sighed, but smiled. Something in her ferocity reminded him of all those old arguments, mostly on those pale screens. They’d called it “the web,” he remembered, and he always shuddered when he thought on how much it’d been just like struggling against sticky spider threads in hopes of becoming free.
“Yes. I know. They’ve always been here. But not like they are now. They were in the in-between, out of our sight. Pushed out by our stubbornness and belief in our own cleverness. And back then we used to fight about who they were and how to find them and what they wanted or if they even existed at all.”
He gazed upon them, giving them time to take that in.
This time one of the men spoke. Bespectacled, attractive in that wiry way, the sort who spent so much time thinking they’d forget to eat. Decades ago, he might have been described as a “geek,” a word the Druid didn’t miss one bit.
He looked at the youth, glaring for a moment before softening his glance and grinning. “Are we in feudal times? I’m old but not that old. None of this ‘sir’ stuff.”
The speaker’s face flushed for a bit, but he kept his composure. “Not all of us worship the gods as you do.”
The Druid shrugged. The man was a skeptic, maybe, or a follower of the book. “Ah, yes. We need not all worship the gods. But this grove and shrine is one of theirs, and anyways, you’re here to hear the story of how it came about, right?”
The man nodded, and the others sat in anticipation.
“Good. Have some patience, then. It takes a bard awhile to tell a tale, if it’s worth telling. I’ll tell you what we built from our ruins.”