Trees of Heaven

The ravine winding among the crags near the party's yurt encampment provided the only access through the sharp-edged ridges encircling Dragon's Heart. The steep trail, carpeted with loose gravel, clambered down from the top of the escarpment, a wall of basalt plummeting sixteen hundred meters, or an American mile, to the valley floor.
The ridges around the crater effectively shut out the world except for this one entry. Even that was closed during the season of heavy snow. The naturally enforced isolation had nurtured interdependence not only among the people it sheltered, but also among the animal and plant life it screened from the harsher elements of Siberian Asia.
Damba, as a native of this volcanic basin, guided the party down the torturous track, speaking volubly to distract Romelle from the danger.
"Our valley is a garden of flowers and grain. Trees grow here that are unknown elsewhere in the country. We have birds of every description that never desert us for the customary migrations. There are flowers that grow all the year round. Snow leopards have been found living in caves around the escarpment. We have large flocks and herds of domestic sheep and goats, but none are ever taken. The leopards do their foraging among the wild mountain goats foolish enough to wander near their lairs."
Brad spoke up. "The temple over there on the opposite wall of the escarpment is interesting to me. It appears to be sitting on a promontory projecting from the wall."
Damba nodded. "You are right. A legend has it that the present lamasery evolved from a Nestorian Christian monastery built by Prester John, a missionary some say also Christianized Ethiopia. A great schism was created in the Church when Nestorius, a fifth-century Patriarch of Constantinople, declared the coincidence of the human and the divine in Jesus - effectively denying that Jesus was God, thus negating the Holy Trinity. A large body of his followers, calling themselves Nestorians, set out to spread this heretical doctrine through the world. Their number included Prester John.
"During his travels through Mongolia, he was overtaken by a snow storm in these mountains and took refuge in the ravine. In this way he found our valley, converted its inhabitants, and decided to erect a Christian monastery and church on that terrace of volcanic glass. The site had been a place of pagan worship for thousands of years even then. Steps carved in the face of the escarpment leading to it have been worn down by the tread of pilgrims since the dawn of time."
Romelle fancied she could hear the voice of Alexis echoing in Damba's words. Superimposed on the child's, she fancied she also heard her father telling the story.
Father, we are your children, Alexis and I. To each of us you have given life. His, you have sustained. Mine, you are about to share. There, in that broad valley where I see flowers, fields, and trees, that is where you are. From here, where I see the red flower beginning to bloom, where the grass begins to edge the trail, I am coming to you.
She urged Fate to a canter as the track widened and became a gentler slope. Damba hastened his mount to catch up with her.
"Madame," he called to her, "your father occupies the old caravansary beyond the settlement at the center of the valley. You will know it by its resemblance to the wooden stockades you saw in Urga. It is painted white. We are stopping at the new caravansary on this side, behind the stalls of food and merchandise you will pass. Do not be afraid. Valley folk are a kindly lot. May your god go with you, Madame. Mine will be with you, as well."
She turned in her saddle.
"I have a feeling," she smiled, "that our gods are the same."
He returned the smile and reined back to rejoin the others.
Dressed in black jodhpurs, boots, and a black woolen shirt borrowed from Brad, but with the fox cape slung over her shoulders to safeguard the ruby, she made an arresting sight. Astride the black mare, she rode with her coppery hair swinging free. Everyone she passed gave her a look of surprise, and then a welcoming smile. Even the dogs, mostly ragtag browns and blacks, accommodated Rebel with a wide berth for passage. He trotted ahead of her self-confidently, as if he knew the way.
Directly, they came to the wooden palisade. The gates stood open.
She rode in.
A small wooden building stood inside the entry, marked by a French flag fluttering on the roof. Neatly printed on a sign over the door were the words, Pasteur Institute of Dragon's Heart. No one seemed to be inside.
Still mounted, Romelle continued through the compound. Another building, long and low, abutted the eastern wall of the palisade. The Stars and Stripes flew above it. Over its door hung a sign inscribed, American Hospital of Dragon's Heart.
Outbuildings of various sizes, and several yurts, were sprinkled about the plot of ten hectares or more.
At the rear, she saw a white wooden cottage of simple design, fronted by a picket fence covered with honeysuckle in bloom. Sheer curtains hung at the windows.
She sprang down from Fate and rushed through the gate. Catching her excitement, Rebel loped up a short flight of steps to the porch where a rocking chair sat near a double swing suspended from the ceiling. Potted plants lined the edges. There were screens at the windows.
The door was unlocked. She threw it open.
"Father!" she cried. "Father, it's Romelle!"
There was no answer.
She stood in a comfortable parlor with a sofa and overstuffed chairs. A piano sat in a corner with old sheet music on the rack. On a table near a window stood silver picture frames with facing silhouettes of Bart and Beth cut when both were children, a gift to them from Annie when she went to Paris to sing at their wedding.
A glass door led from the rear of the parlor. She saw clusters of Old World primroses, butter yellow in the sunshine. Drawn to them, she stepped into a garden of fragrant blossoms and trees with a sundial at its center.
A brimstone butterfly fluttered among tall spikes of blue larkspur and showy red gentian. The white woolly down of Aaron's Rod nestled against shrubberies of lavender that sheltered the ground nest of a resident green plover. The tall-crested bird preened her iridescent wings only a short distance from Rebel's inquiring nose, but the dog caught sight of the butterfly and dashed away.
Roses and lilacs, dyer's rocket and daffodils, purple loosestrife, cinquefoil, lords-and-ladies, white alyssum climbing a wishing well - Father, have I found you in Eden?
There were clumps of wood violets in pink, white, lavender, and deep purple, forming a mélange of color beneath trees with feathery leaves. She touched the leaf of a tree. It was soft as the feather it pretended to be, stemming upward from a branch aimed at the sky.
She had never seen trees like this before.
"They are Trees of Heaven, Miss," a masculine voice behind her said, "so called because they point to paradise. I have given each the name of someone I loved, who has already found the way. The one you are touching is called Beth."
All her plans to overwhelm him, all her cries of joy, settled into tears that filled her eyes.
Frozen in place, she could not turn around, but managed to indicate another tree.
"That one?" she asked hoarsely.
"And those?"
"Roma, and Will."
She gathered her breath, her back still toward him. "I see there are several more."
"Not all have names as yet. I pray God will let me meet again their human counterparts before they, or I, leave this earth."
A silence fell between them. She could sense a question rising in his breast. Before it came, she reached into the pocket of the cape and cupped the ruby in her palms.
He asked it then. "You are most welcome, miss, I assure you, but may I know just who you are?"
She turned.
Before her stood a tall, slim, still handsome man. His auburn hair, salted with gray, was the color of hers..
His green eyes stared at her. He shook his head as if to reset his vision, and looked again. His cleared gaze drifted to the ruby in her hands and flew back to her eyes, as his own clouded anew with disbelief.
"" Bart's voice broke on every word.
She smiled, the tears overflowing on her cheeks. Too choked up to answer, she could only nod.
He went to her in halting steps, unsure his feet would touch the ground. He extended his hands and lay them over hers. Their flesh touched warmly across the stone. The ruby seemed to pulse in unison with their hearts.
She drew away to replace the ruby in the cape, then took his hands again.
He gazed with increasing wonder into her eyes.
She sighed with a measure of contentment she had thought she might never know, and lay her head gratefully against his chest when he enfolded her in his arms.
Bart looked over her shoulder through misted eyes at the Tree of Heaven named Beth.
"She is here, my love," he murmured. "My prayers have been answered. Our little girl has come to me."  

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