To Hear Them Sing

Illustrated by Christina Chung |  Edited by Danny Lore

Copyedited by Chelle Parker

April 2021

1377 words — Reading time: around 6 minutes

Raven fidgeted in her hard wooden seat, waiting to be called to her final exam. The seat was cold and dead. No living wood was allowed in the University’s examination centre, the only stone building in the whole of the City.

Ironically, the home of the arbitects was the only building they hadn’t grown from seed. The Great Trees that comprised all other buildings in the City had all been brought to life by the arbitects, sculpted carefully to meet the needs of their occupants. Everywhere except here.

She couldn’t even distract herself by reading on her hand-comp. Her local data had been sealed by the examiner on arrival and there was no carrier access to the City Library. The threads that ran through every tree, connecting every part of the City, root to root and branch to branch, were absent here. She was cut off from the world.

Not that it would help. The practical and written exams were done. This final assessment was to determine whether she had developed her innate talents enough to supervise the trees’ growth, not a test of what she knew.

Or, at least, she thought that was the point. The exams were endlessly discussed and analysed, but this last assessment was the one that really counted, and yet no one ever talked about it. Strange rumours circulated among the candidates when their teachers were out of the room — that it was the trees who made the final choice. But that was ridiculous.

Raven shivered. The stone walls held in the cold and the waiting room was dimly lit and unfriendly. She had been here for hours. All ten arbitect candidates had arrived together, but each was examined alone. There was only her and Skarn still waiting to be called into the exam room while Trefoil was being tested, and he didn’t seem in the mood to talk.

There had been a thousand of them on the first day of class, five years ago. After today, one or two of them might make it and become a Master Arbitect. And perhaps none of them would.

For Raven, plants were easier than people. She had grown her own small window-box garden when she was four, preferring having her hands in the dirt to the rough games the other children played. Green-blooded, her grandpa called her.

When she saw an arbitect grow one of the Great Trees for the first time, she’d been entranced. In her memory, the tree danced to music no one else seemed to hear. The song pulled on her until she gave in, dancing with the tree. Arms thrown wide, she spun in circles until her parents came to take her away, telling her to “stop bothering the arbitect while he’s working,” but she had never forgotten the feeling. She’d dreamed of becoming an arbitect ever since. If she failed now, she would only ever be an assistant, monitoring the seedlings in the greenhouses or preparing land for new trees. She wasn’t sure she could bear it.

Trefoil emerged from the exam room, her mouth set. She didn’t return Raven’s smile, or make eye-contact, as she almost ran from the building. They weren’t close, but the other girl’s demeanour rattled Raven’s nerves. And now it was her turn.

Raven walked to the door, legs like lead, and turned the handle.

“Come in, come in,” a voice called from within. “Don’t dawdle, girl.”

“Sorry, examiner,” she replied, moving to join them at the table in the centre of the room. A huge lamp hung over it, hot and bright, to provide the light needed for plant growth.

On the table sat a small terracotta pot full of earth and a tiny green seedling with one minute leaf.

“This is a special seedling adapted to miniaturisation. Your task is to complete its growth following the specification in that folder.” The examiner nodded to a brown envelope lying on the table. “You have five minutes to study the paperwork and fifteen to work with the tree. Your time starts now.”

Raven’s heart was pounding, but she wiped her hands on her trousers and tipped out the contents of the envelope.

The plans looked simple enough — a basic house-tree design but on a tiny scale. A doll’s house, almost. And no kitchen or bathroom, not for a test this short. Most of the preparation had been done for her — this test was purely of her connection to the tree, and the beauty and utility of the result.

To steady her nerves, she ran through the five branches of arbitecture, checking them off on her fingers. The first two, design and genome tweaking, had been done for her, and the third, ground preparation, wasn’t needed here. Her knowledge of all three had been tested extensively in the previous week.

For this test, she only needed to worry about the last two — growth and completion.

With only a slight tremble in her hand, Raven reached out and touched a finger to that one diminutive leaf which the seedling had managed to put forth. Closing her eyes, she reached out to the plant, coaxing it to allow her in.

She’d never done this before, only ever shadowed an experienced arbitect — a ghost in their link to the plants, not a participant, dimly aware of the play of emotion that flowed between arbitect and plant. For a moment, her nerves threatened to overwhelm her. But she shoved them away, locking them in a far corner of her mind where they couldn’t disturb her. She could do this. She had followed along a dozen times as Professor Marten connected with a tree to grow or heal it. This was just the first time she had to forge the link herself.

Please, she thought to the seedling, please let me in.

In the darkness behind her eyes, a soft gleam, a glint of light, shimmered into being. It waxed and waned as the seedling resisted, trying to push her out, and Raven called louder, putting all of her hopes and dreams into the sliver of connection that ran between them, begging the tiny tree to allow her in. A small silvery bell chimed in her ears and, suddenly, she was there; she and the plant were one.

Sounds and scents overwhelmed her, far more powerful than anything she’d felt as a ghost in Professor Marten’s link. She gulped down air into her lungs and through her stoma as she struggled to find the point where she ended and the seedling began.

Gradually, the strangeness of her new senses grew familiar, and she could start to sort through them, focussing on those which were useful and ignoring the rest. She needed to focus, to remember the reason she was here. To remember the task she had been set. The taste of the earth between the seedling’s roots told her what minerals were available to the growing tree and the warmth of the grow-lamp warmed her own skin. They were ready to begin.

Raven held the image of the finished building in her mind, small enough to fit within her cupped hands, and fed it slowly to the growing tree. It chimed in response and she could feel its stem, their stem, reaching for the light, growing up and up, spreading and widening to meet the specification she was giving it.

A peal of bells greeted the sprouting of half a dozen leaves, but they were all on one side of the stem. The young stalk started to bend, threatening to snap, and she rushed to support it, pushing strength through their bond to hasten lignin biosynthesis in the weak side and form a supporting framework, and the plantlet straightened again in response.

Once it reached the right size, she began hollowing out the rooms, pushing a branch of the xylem wider to fill the trunk and cutting it off from the roots so that the new rooms wouldn’t flood with water. Smaller channels wound around the living space to make sure the living tree still had access to the water and nutrients it needed to thrive, forming a tracery of light in her mind.

At last, it was done. She was exhausted, but she had done everything she could.

Raven staggered back from the table and stood for a moment as she regained control of her own human limbs, one hand pressed to her lips, savouring the feeling of the tree’s singing, the thousand silver chimes that had rung in her head and her bones.

The examiner coughed. “Are you well?”

“Y-yes.” Her gaze flicked up to their face and away again. “I just wanted to hold onto it, you know? The way it sang…. It was beautiful. I wasn’t expecting that.”

The examiner’s face broke into a smile. “Well, that’s good. That’s very good.” They scribbled something on their clipboard, and Raven took the opportunity to admire the tiny tree that she was responsible for growing. Even if they failed her, she would still have created that.

“The exam is complete.” The examiner’s voice interrupted her thoughts again. “Please send the next candidate in on your way out. The results will be posted to your hand-comp by noon tomorrow.”

“Thank you,” Raven murmured, gathering up her bag and coat and slipping out of the door, back into the dim waiting room. There was only Skarn left, and she gestured to him to enter, wishing him luck as he passed.

Stepping outside of the cold stone building, it was a relief to feel the afternoon sun on her face again. The towering Great Trees of the university district rose around her, tinting the sun a luminescent green as its beams traversed their leaves.

As she walked home, Raven realised that she could hear an echo of her tiny tree’s singing all around her. She could hear the sonorous tones of the great pines that housed the libraries and the tenor rhythms of the spreading willow which contained the student dorms.

Closing her eyes, she could see the rooms and conduits within each of the surrounding trees, sounded out by their chimes. She could tell where an arbitect had strengthened and shaped the wood and where they had let the tree express its natural growth.

A laugh built up inside her chest, and she let it ring forth, an echo of the trees’ songs.

She didn’t need to wait for the results. She already knew. The trees had chosen her.

© 2021 Rebecca Burton

About the author

Rebecca Burton

Rebecca Burton is a queer, neurodivergent writer from the UK who disappears into the fantasy worlds in her head to distract herself from helping people complete their tax returns. She has previously sold short fiction to Abyss & Apex Magazine, but this is only her second sale, so she is wildly overexcited on main. When not writing, she can be found on Twitter at @TyGrammarRex, muttering about hair dye, pottery, and K-drama.

About the artist

Christina Chung

Christina Chung is a Taiwanese-Hongkonger-American illustrator, raised between Seattle and Singapore, and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. She graduated from the Pratt Institute, with a BFA in Communications Design and a concentration in Illustration. Her work focuses on intricacies, color and symbolism, drawing inspiration from the natural world and powerful storytelling.