In the days when nothing knew what it was.
Things didn’t know what they were. That’s what he constantly concluded. He looked at a rock and shook his head, embarassed. He looked at a park bench. It wouldn’t know what it was. He would have to tell it. That was how he remembered being a child. But the sense of it had faded. Now he looked about and didn’t care one way or the other whether things knew themselves. He didn’t even think about it. He had even gotten to the point of forgetting this old habit almost entirely when one morning he was ambushed by a memory. It was very early. A sound outside his window had woken him. Lying in bed half awake the memory flashed into his mind; not just the image of it but the full pungent sense of his life at that age rushed back to him, and was gone nearly as fast, before he could grasp it.
He had been young, maybe nine or ten years old. He’d been in the courtyard of a house in the city, listening as city noises washed over the walls and through the slats in the wooden gate. What house was that? When on earth had he stayed at such a house? There was a tree in the center of the courtyard surrounded by a ring of stones. He looked at the tree and saw at once it was curious of him, as he was of it. He’d grown up in the country. The thought of a tree surviving here in the middle of a stone courtyard, in the center of a city of concrete and pavement, had struck him as highly odd. He went up to it.
"You oughtn’t to be here," he told it. "You are a tree. You belong in fields and on the sides of mountains."
The tree hadn’t known it was a tree. It wasn’t entirely certain what this revelatory new information might mean. He sat with it in the courtyard and proceeded to explain all the ins and outs of treeness to the tree. The tree listened attentively, sometimes nodding back and forth as a breeze swept through the courtyard. Soon the stones, that had sat demurely by while this exchanged played out, wanted in. What were they, they wondered.
"You are rocks," he told the rocks. "You belong in caves and cliffs, hillsides, creeks and riverbeds."
The rocks seemed even more surprised, if possible, by this information than even the tree had been. He could see them pressed together in tacit conference, as rocks are wont to do, discussing the import of their newly discovered rockness. He waited patiently in case the rocks or the tree should have any further questions for him. Soon a bird alighted on a branch of the tree. The tree, the rocks, and he greeted the bird.
"And do you know what you are, my winged fellow?"
The bird seemed no better informed than the tree or the rocks had been. He heaved a sigh but it was feigned, for he derived a great joy in discussing such things. He then set out at once to disabuse the bird of any such notions that it might have been, for example, a fish, or a cloud, understandable impressions, both likewise swimming through seas of blue; that it was in fact a bird. The bird was very grateful of this information, though like the tree and the rocks he too seemed quite unsure what to make of it.
The sun soared overhead, casting its rays. Soon the bird flew away, the rocks fell asleep, and the tree fell to the silent contemplation, deep in its roots, that is the habit of trees everywhere. It was just as well, since his mother at that point stepped out into the courtyard and called him in for lunch.
When he thought back on this memory it struck him as incredible. Yet he knew it was the utter truth. He had been there. He remembered it all with clarity now.