The Tree


Author’s Note: I wanted to take a small break from writing my current book to write another short story, which in this case turned out to be more of a fairy tale.  I didn’t know it would be that when I started writing it of course, as my writing always tends to evolve organically into whatever it’s going to be.  I hope you enjoy it.

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It was a tree, much like any other tree.  It had roots that delved deep into the ground to provide it with not only nutrients, but a strong defense against the raging storms that would pass through now and again sending biting winds whipping through its branches.  It had leaves, bark, the occasional hole where an insect had burrowed in and made itself to home, and it even had a nest where a pair of squirrels whose love hate relationship often seemed to be more hate than love had made their nest and loaded it with whatever nuts and other scraps of food they could gather for the long winter ahead.

This tree however had something that its brethren lacked, for you see, it wasn’t always a tree.  It had little in the line of remembrances as far as its former life was concerned, for it had been nearly two centuries now since the change had occurred, and the life of a tree is after all incredibly boring.  Day after day of complete and utter solitude, with naught but your own thoughts to comfort you.  You become your own companion, and you begin to look for things of interest to entertain yourself, or to hold your interest for even just the briefest of times.  A lost bird of a species never before seen was a rare treat indeed, though it usually had to settle for the small, brown variety that often frequented its branches.

Regret is a horrible thing, and to live with it for nearly two centuries with no one to hear the lament you feel in the depths of your very soul can become unbearable beyond words, as was the curse he’d brought upon himself the day his betrothed was buried.  They were to be married but a few days after a pair of spooked horses and an out of control wagon laid her down in the street, her body trampled by falling hooves and wooden wheels.  The night they buried her, he wept on her grave, curled into a little ball as his heart pounded in his chest.

At the stroke of midnight he rolled over on his back and stared up at the sky through bleary, tear soaked eyes, and with a shaky voice, he made his plea to the heavens, or to whatever greater power would take pity on his broken soul.  His plea was a simple one.  He wanted to be with his love forever.

It was on this night that a small little fellow happened to be wandering past the graveyard.  He was a queer little man, not more than three feet tall in his boots.  He had a rather bulbous nose and his larger than normal ears, one of which had a large, gold earring dangling from it, sort of stuck out a bit more than one would expect.  It was he who heard the man’s plea, and it was he who granted his wish.  Puffing his churchwarden pipe furiously a few times, he suddenly stopped, and then pulled in a long draw of smoke, which he then released in a lengthy exhale.  The wisp of smoke extended farther and farther, working its way out into the cemetery until it slid up over the man’s face and into his nose.

Coughing, the man sat up and wiped the tears from his eyes.  The smoke had to have come from somewhere, but he couldn’t seem to locate the source, and now that he’d sat himself up, the air suddenly seemed clean and fresh.  He did seem to sense a rather earthy smell that he hadn’t noticed before, but other than that, everything seemed as it should.

The little man smiled to himself and then continued on along his way, while the sorrowful man laid back down on the grave of his love, and eventually cried himself to sleep.

The next morning when the man awoke, his whole world had changed…because he himself had changed.  It wasn’t his heart that had changed, or his way of looking at the world.  This was a far more tangible transformation.  He was surrounded by dirt, but that was all he knew.  He couldn’t move, and knew nothing about his surroundings other than what he could presently sense.  He was in the ground, surrounded by dirt…and he was no longer human, though truth be told, he had no idea what he was.  He only knew that the arms and legs that he’d once used to dance with his betrothed at their pre-wedding party no longer existed.

Weeks later, it suddenly became all too clear to him what had happened, and what he had become.  As his green stalk broke through the surface of the ground and emerged into the sunlight, he now knew what he’d dreaded to even consider up to now.  Somehow, he’d transformed into what he now realized was an acorn, and he was now growing into a tree.  Unable to speak…unable to breathe in any normal way, he couldn’t even curse the gods for allowing such a thing to happen.

Seasons passed, and as they did he continued to grow, both in height and girth.  His trunk widened, his branches extended toward the heavens, and his roots dug deep into the ground.  It took many years for them to reach down into the coffin of his love, and when they finally made contact with the remains of her body, he wept silently, for it was then that he understood the true nature of his transformation.  He’d brought it upon himself through a wish that was uttered not as much through desire, as it was through sorrow and desperation.  His wish had been granted, and once again he could lay his roots upon his one true love, though after so many years of decay and decomposition, there was little left to comfort him.

Years passed, and throughout those years he held a silent vigil over her grave, with none to keep him company save for the random bird or squirrel that would take up residence in his branches.  Even the bugs that gnawed little holes in him here and there were a welcome respite from the incessant loneliness.

In the spring of the one-hundred and ninety-seventh year after his transformation, there came a day when a beautiful young girl came wandering through the old cemetery.  She had tears streaming down her face.  Tears that left black trails in their wake as they washed away the mascara that she’d so carefully applied earlier that day.

His heart went out to the girl, for only those with no heart and no empathy at all can see a young girl in distress without feeling a sadness that reaches down to the soul.  Almost as if she were drawn to where he stood, she veered off the path and came directly toward him, which sent a tingle of excitement from the tips of his branches, all the way down into his roots.  Was he to have some actual human company, after all these years?

In the early days, a few of his love’s relatives would come to see her graves, but they’d dissipated as quickly as leaves would on a flowing stream.  He’d barely broken through the surface when they stopped coming, so none were even aware of his presence, and even if they had been, none would have mourned him in any case.  He had no family of his own aside from the kindly inn keeper and his wife that had taken him in when his own family had died of the pox.  Since he’d simply disappeared one night, everyone assumed that he’d run off in a fit of grief, and as such, they’d all assumed he’d simply return one day when he’d worked through the anguish he was feeling.  Sadly however, that was not the case.

When the girl reached out and touched his bark, a shudder ran through him that she could never perceive, nor understand.  It was the first human contact he’d had since before his love had died so tragically, and it awoke something in him.  A feeling of humanity that had long since been forgotten.

She slid her hand down his trunk slowly, and then turned to sit down on the ground, leaning her back up against him.  He could feel her shaking as she pulled her knees up to her chest and sobbed quietly. Desperately he struggled to move his branches; to wrap them around her in an attempt to provide whatever comfort he possibly could…but alas, it was no use.  His curse precluded him from such things, and as such, he was left helpless and frustrated.

When she got up and wandered away that afternoon, his heart was left broken once again.  He didn’t know why she’d been so sad, though she had muttered something about someone she loved who’d run off with some other girl, and then she cursed him in ways that were unheard of from girls back when he was young.  Whatever happened, it had left her feeling much the way he had when he lost his own love two centuries past.  He knew this not from her words, for no words would ever be enough.  Rather, it was a feeling she radiated like an aura that penetrated his bark and seeped its way down into his very core.  Their losses were of a different nature, but the hurt they left behind was one and the same.  Now she was gone, and that connection they shared was something he’d never experience again…or so he thought as he wept in silence all throughout the night.

He was surprised when she returned the following day, this time with a sketch book.  The redness in her eyes was enough to tell him that she’d spent the whole night crying, but there was something more to her now than the sadness that had filled her only hours before.  There was…hope?  Yes…maybe that was it.  There was something hopeful in the way she looked at him.  Not just hope, but a desire to be strong in the face of adversity.  To move on with her life rather than allowing the man who’d hurt her so cruelly to take away her desire to live and be happy.  This was her way of denying him the ability to hold such a power over her…and so she sat.  She sat and she sketched throughout the day and well into the evening.  She looked at him as though he were an old friend, taking in every detail, which she painstakingly recreated with the gentle strokes of a dexterous hand.  It was like therapy for her, and when she went home that evening, she propped her sketch book up on her night stand and stared at it as she fell asleep, for she still had much work to do, and she would need her sleep in order to complete it.

Day after day she returned, and she’d even taken to chatting with him as she meticulously sketched out every last detail.  She told him about her childhood and the trouble she used to get into with her friends in high school.  She told him about her parents and the way they used to argue over even the smallest things because they’d let all the stresses of life destroy the love they once had for each other.  She told him of the love she once had, and how it had been so cruelly destroyed by a man who simply didn’t care about how badly he’d hurt her when he left…and the tree wept silently for her.

Spring turned into summer, and summer transitioned seamlessly into fall.  It was the second week in September when she came to him with a gleam of excitement in her eyes.  He wasn’t sure what she was so excited about, but it all suddenly became clear when she held up the sketch book to show him.  She asked him what he thought of it, though she knew she wouldn’t get a response.  He wanted desperately to tell her that it was the most amazing thing he’d ever seen…and to tell her how much he’d grown to love her as well over the past several months.  He knew that the days were getting colder, and that soon she’d no longer come for her daily visits, and again he wept, for she was his only link to humanity, and the man he once was.  She’d given him a gift…the gift of feeling.  The gift of experiencing love, just one last time…and soon she would be gone.  She’d leave him and return to her life, and he’d remain right where he’d always been, standing like a sentinel over the grave of a love that was long since lost.

She sat down and leaned her back up against him, and the longing he felt to hold her…or even just to be able to look into her eyes so she’d know the love that he felt for her was tearing him apart.  He cursed the day he’d ever made such a foolish wish, and in a rage he demanded to be set free…only there was no one there to hear his cries.  No one but her.  No one but the one he’d come to love as much or more than the girl he’d once loved so very long ago.

With a yawn, she pulled off her sweater, rolled it up and used it as a pillow as she laid down on the ground facing him.  Silently she reached out her hand and traced her finger down the cracks in his bark.  He’d become so special to her, and yet she knew as well as he that the cold weather would soon separate them, and unbeknownst to him, that thought broke her heart as much as it did his.  She’d grown to love the tree more than anything she’d ever loved before.  It had been her friend and her companion through some of the darkest days of her life.

A thought suddenly creeped into her mind as she lay there right on the edge of sleep.  Grabbing her sketch book, she drew a simple little self portrait of herself sitting on the ground next to the tree, and then she drew a little thought balloon between them with a heart in the middle of it.  As soon as she was satisfied with her work, and too drowsy to make it any better than it was, she smiled and showed it to the tree.  The moment he saw what she’d done, he wept once more.  What he could still sense as his heart, even though it didn’t exist in his present form, hurt in a way that he’d never experienced before.  Not even the loss of who he’d thought had been his one true love had caused him pain such as this, and it was then that he sensed something emanating up from his roots.  Something he didn’t understand.  Awakened by his anguish, she spoke to him for the first time since he’d last seen her nearly two centuries ago.

You have stood watch over me for long enough.  You must go to her now.  The love we shared is eternal, but now you must go and find the happiness that you’ve denied yourself for so very long, and live the life you were always meant to live.  She needs you my love, just as I needed you.  I can only hope that in the coming days, you’ll forgive me for leaving you.  Perhaps one day we’ll be together again, but for now you need to live…for both of us.

Silence filled his being, as did the knowledge that she was now truly and forever lost to him…and again he wept.

Nearly an hour passed before he could bring himself to look down at her once again.  She’d bumped the sketch book with her hand when she turned over, several minutes earlier, and he stared at the heart she’d drawn between the two figures longingly.  He did love her, and now he’d been freed of his curse by the words of his past love.  He no longer needed to stand sentinel over her, for now she was truly gone from this world, and it was time for him to live again.

When she awoke, she felt a hand on her side.  It took a few moments for her still sleepy mind to realize that she was no longer alone, and with a start she spun over to see who’d so rudely imposed himself into her personal space.

He laid beside her there, bare to the world, just as a newborn baby that had finally left the warm comfort of the womb.  Immediately she noticed that the tree was no longer there, and then as she looked deep into his chestnut eyes, she suddenly knew why.  Reaching out to pick up her sketch book, he held it up and pointed at the heart she’d drawn between the two figures, and then he smiled at her.

Her mind reeled for a moment as she tried to process it all, but then suddenly, before she even knew what she was doing, she wrapped her hand around the back of his neck and pulled him to her lips.  She didn’t need an explanation, nor did she need to deny the truth.  He was her tree, and it was her heart that he would now stand sentinel over…and he did stand sentinel over it until the end of his days.

They lived a full life together, and in the end he was the first to pass.  In her grief, she planted an acorn on his grave and watered it with her tears.  They found her body there the following day, and buried her next to him.  In his will, he had one final wish that was never made known to her.  It was a wish that the funeral director carried out personally when he planted an acorn on her grave, and then instructed his groundskeepers to care for it always.

The trees eventually grew to be tall and strong, and their branches intertwined with one another.  They became known as The Lovers’ Trees, and couples from all around would come to declare their love for one another beneath their boughs.  No one knew why the trees had been planted on the graves in such a way, nor did they know the story behind the love that was shared between the couple that were buried there, but it didn’t matter.  The love they shared was eternal, and for generations to come the symbols of that love would inspire new love to grow and flourish.

In the end, no one lives to see the legacy they’ve left behind, but what greater legacy could one hope to achieve than to inspire the love in others?  This was the gift they left us in their passing.  This was their legacy.