A Sympathetic Ear
The only sounds in the dark and blasted landscape were wind and the quiet crunching footsteps of a single person. He walked gently, not like he feared what he might awake by blustering forward, but like he was reluctant to harm the ground. Black rock crackled under his feet.
He reached the top of a low rise, slowing as he caught sight of the offering pit before him. Coins, stolen goods, and food covered in dark mold sat in the depths. The man did not approach.
“I greet you,” he said, “O god of Black Smoke. I humbly request an audience.”
A dark cloud swirled up from the pit, with eyes like angry embers. “You do not present an offering,” the god observed. “A poor start.”
The man kept his calm as the smoke drifted towards him. “I bring an offering of another kind. Therapy.”
The cloud slowed. When the god spoke, it seemed torn between amusement and offense. “You would offer THERAPY to a GOD?”
“I would.” The man spoke gently. “How are you feeling?”
The smoke moved again, twining around him like a snake. “I am angry,” it said. “I am anger given form. I am fury, and vengeance, and a hatred echoed back and forth until it bursts into sparkling power.”
“Your worshipers have done much in your name,” the man said, unruffled. “It has only gotten them targeted by the law.”
“I have given them vengeance!” the god exclaimed. More eyes glowed to life in the cloud. “They strike back at those who have wronged them!”
“But does it help?”
“Revenge always helps.”
Instead of debating this, the man looked past the smoke to gaze across the blackened wasteland. His eyes followed the spill of darkness from the peak of the mountain to where it met the sea. Only porous rock remained. And the offering pit.
Stepping forward through the smoke as if this was a simple thing and not the height of blasphemy, the man looked closer at the hole in the ground. Again he spoke gently. “This is where your tree stood, isn’t it?”
“Yesssss,” the black cloud hissed. “Until I burned. Like the town burned. Like my worshipers’ livelihoods turned into ash and broken promises.”
“Hm,” the man said, craning his neck to look past the mountain to where the rest of the kingdom lay, unaffected by any such devastation. “Can you tell me about it? I’m from another land, visiting with the trade convoy. I don’t know all there is to know.”
The god spoke, voice thrumming like fire, telling the story of the small village built in the only place allowed: at the foot of an active volcano. Those in power had different ancestors from this cluster of peasants. Those in power had not followed through on vague plans to open a site for relocation when the earth rumbled with the coming disaster.
The volcano had erupted; the villagers had fled with only what they could carry, and the entire village was wiped out by a wave of molten rock. That included this hillside, where the town’s beloved wishing tree had stood for generations.
All that remained was a trunk-shaped hole in the ground, an impression of the tree that had burned into ash as the lava cooled.
The valuables and moldy food in its depths were a poor trade for the colorful ribbons and paper notes that had once fluttered from every branch.
“One tenet of therapy,” the man said, lifting his eyes, “Is that the patient has to put in an effort to change themselves.” He raised a hand as the smoke thickened angrily. “But another tenet is that some problems require outside help.” He regarded the god before him. “I’ll talk to the head of my trade convoy. If the king of this land refuses to make this right, I can promise you that the queen of mine will no longer trade with him.”
Ember-bright eyes closed, leaving just two as the smoke thinned. “That is a great gift you offer,” said the god. “What do you wish in return?”
The man smiled at the phrasing. “Just for you to find your way back to being the god you once were. I will do what I can to help.”
“Why do this, asking for nothing in exchange?”
“I may be a therapist now,” he said, “But I was a cleric once. I traded one calling for another. I consider this to be nothing less than my purpose in life.”
“If you succeed,” the god said, “I will see that you are blessed in whatever manner I can provide.”
The man thanked the god, and spent a few minutes more in discussion before taking his leave. As he walked away across the crackling rock, the smoke cloud did not sink back into its hole. Instead, it spread into the ghostly shape of a tree.
* * * * *
Within a year, the new village was well underway on a nearby island. Former vigilantes and drifters were gainfully employed in building their new homes. Temporary shelters housed those still waiting for proper roofs. The list grew shorter all the time.
On the highest hill, surrounded by a low wall and an offering plate, grew a sapling that already bore ribbons streaming from its slim branches.
The head of a new school of therapy looked out at the town of Wish Tree, and smiled. A breeze rustled the tree’s leaves and ribbons alike, smiling back.