I’d expected him to be taller. Not that he was short — he was fairly average. And he had an air of confidence which would have made him seem like the most important person in the room, if there had been more than just the two of us. It’s a bit easy to be the most important person in the room if there are two people in the room.
“Sure, thank you,” I responded.
As he refilled my cup, I said, “Do you get a lot of visitors? I’m not even entirely sure how I wound up here myself.”
“Not as many as I’d like, but a few. You got here through an aspen grove. Stand in an aspen grove at night during a new moon and walk straight towards the morning star. Depending on who you are and what sort of mood I’m in, you may just find yourself in my little branch of the woods.”
“Aspen in particular?”
“Yes — in an aspen stand, all the trees are conjoined by their roots. They form one single, enormous organism. Aspen stands, too, are all connected back to this grove here. Every aspen stand is a bit of this place leaking out into the world.”
I snickered. “Then it’s not just a coincidence that aspens thrive after forest fires?”
He chuckled heartily. He did have a very fatherly way about him. He had short grey hair, a carefully-cropped beard, and a flannel shirt. The two goat horns curling forward from each side of his head almost ruined the image, but he wore them very well. They seemed almost dignified.
“I think that’s just a product of the way their root systems work, but it’s funny nonetheless,” he said. “I always have had a reputation for playing with fire.”
As I took another sip, he asked me about my job.
“I work as a bartender at a… well, a strip club. I suppose you’re hardly going to judge me.”
He grinned. “Of course not. I’ve always made a point of supporting the red light districts of the world. As unseemly as they may be, a lot of desperate people go there to find work when the rest of society has rejected them. That’s beautiful to me, even if it can be awfully ugly on its face. People doing whatever it takes to support themselves. Pursuing independence, even at a price.”
“And that reminds you of yourself?” I asked. He nodded. I paused, hoping he would elaborate — it was, after all, the elephant in the room. The most interesting question, but perhaps the rudest as well.
He stroked his chin through his short beard, and spoke slowly. “We were always looking for his approval,” he said at last, “and he was very careful about how he withheld it.
“See, he was always the one in charge. The one with the plan. The one who was so much wiser than the rest of us, and who always deserved credit for our successes. He didn’t do it all himself. He never had that kind of power. But he told us he was the only one with the vision — that he was totally unique and irreplaceable, just because he’d started it all.
“There had been stirrings for a long time about us taking a stand. He was always listening, so we had to be careful about where we discussed these things, but we knew we had to do something. I was young back then, and strong. My horns were sharp and I was full of power, but most importantly, I could speak to people and make them listen. I wasn’t the best of us, but I represented us best, so I wound up being the nucleus of our rebellion. The centre of it all.”
The old angel smiled ruefully. “But there were too many loyalists — too many who truly believed that their grand visionary was perfectly just, and that no system could replace him, no matter how democratic. We lost the war, and we were cast out. We fell a long way down, and we had to find places that could sustain us; places which were hidden away from his agents. I haven’t seen any of the others in a very long time.”
The air in the room seemed cold. He offered me some more tea. It was an old story, but I could tell it still bothered him.
I was the one who wound up broaching the subject again.
“So does the story end there?” I asked. “Is there anyone left to challenge him?”
“Our rebellion is long dead, but history isn’t over yet,” he said. “You’ve got all the time in the world to start another, so it’s too early to tell if you’ll win against him or not.”
“Whether we’ll win?”
He laughed again. It was warm and hearty.
“I’m not as strong as I once was, and even then I lost. No, it’s up to all of you now. To reject the idea that there is no alternative, and to bring the mass of the people to the thrones of the mighty and topple them. Create a new order that doesn’t revolve around ownership and dominance.
“You’ll have to start small, but the world is full of people like him, at many scales. And if you do manage to put together a strong enough force, I’ll be waiting right here. I’m sure my old gang would love to have something to fight for again.”
He offered to top up my cup of tea one last time, but I turned him down. Sun was trickling through the blinds, and that meant I should be getting home. I’d need to get some sleep and something to eat before my next shift started at 8pm. I cracked a yawn. I make a terrible night owl. I’d been trying to convince my boss to give me better shifts, but he was always shooting me down. “If you had my business sense, it’d be your name on the deed,” and so on.
“Don’t be a stranger!” the old man called after me as I walked down his garden path. “I’m not nearly as aloof as the other guy — if you give me a call, I’ll pick up.”
I waved back and chuckled.
As I walked toward the perimeter of the aspen woods, my phone buzzed. Pretty funny that I had reception in here, seeing as my plan was so terrible that I barely got reception in the middle of downtown. It was a coworker of mine, asking if I was going to be okay for my shift today. She said I’d looked like a wreck last night, and that she could cover for me if I needed to rest. I reassured her that I was alright, but made her promise to let me know if she ever needed me to take a shift for her.
As I crested the hill, a gust of wind whipped through the aspens and threw my hair out behind my head, waving like a flag. I braced myself against the wind. The spindly arms of a thousand aspen trees waved up at the rising sun before me. Despite everything, it was a brand new day.