I’m trying another photo prompt, this one from MindLoveMisery’s Menagerie. Thank you for hosting the prompt.
The photo immediately made me think of fairy tales, of Little Red Riding Hood running through a forest. Instead of going down that path, though, I wanted to try something different. A tree who wants to become a person. Pinocchio with roots rather than strings.
As I started writing, the story’s idea flourished. And the story grew much more than I anticipated. So it’s a bit on the long side. It’s not exactly flash fiction. I hope you enjoy it…
Tree Made Into Flesh
The eldest in the grove of druids heard the tree’s wish as he strolled the woods. Years of meditation had gifted Aelfraed — and a handful of other druids — with the ability to hear trees. But only when the trees spoke loudly enough. Their murmurings were never heard by humans.
This afternoon, a tree directed its voice to Aelfraed: I wish to become a person.
Startled, Aelfraed stood still and tried to figure out which tree had communicated.
Tis me, an oak said.
Why? Aelfraed projected his thought to the particular oak. Why not remain a tree?
I wish to move. Really move. The wind plays with me, and I can move my branches when I concentrate hard. I want more. I walk to walk and run and jump and dance. I want to see other places.
Aelfraed couldn’t remember hearing or reading about such a request from a tree. His heart’s sympathy shone toward the tree, yet his mind chose caution. He thought, I cannot give you an answer right away. I must mull on this dilemma. I don’t know if it can be done.
It can, the oak said. Stories have been passed down of trees becoming people. The druids made a magic to transform them. The tree-people were spotted by other trees who knew they weren’t real humans. Word spread of the journeys of the tree-people.
But that could be legend, Aelfraed thought. Made-up stories of old.
It was real, the oak said. Much more has passed in the lands than you humans know of and can even imagine.
Aelfraed nodded slowly. I will think it over and ask the others for advice.
Don’t waste your time, another tree said. It’s a foolish wish.
Stay a tree, yet another tree said to the oak. You are lucky to be one. Humans live the lives of twigs. We are of sturdier stuff.
I don’t expect you to understand, the oak said. I’ve been wanting it for years, and finally have expressed my desire.
Rather than continue his afternoon ramble, Aelfraed returned to the home of the druids — a circle created by several small cabins and a large dwelling, all log-walled, the trees of which had been prayed over for three days before felling for construction. The circle was centered by fruit trees and a garden of vegetables and herbs.
As Aelfraed called out to his fellow druids for a meeting, they stopped their tasks to assemble in the large dwelling’s main room. The elder spoke of his experience in the woods. The other druids listened with growing wonder, and flicked glances at each other. When Aelfraed finished relaying the tale, the fellows gave their opinions.
“We can’t offer assistance to this tree,” said a druid with long, gray hair. “It goes against nature.”
“Aye, that it does,” said one with an especially bushy beard.
“If we did it,” another druid said, “other trees could want the same treatment. Think of the consequences. The forest would lose trees.”
The long gray-haired druid (which, truth be told, described several of the gentlemen) said, “That would be a tragedy. And all the extra people walking about would need extra resources. More food, more houses.”
“That would throw the world off balance,” said the one who always had foul breath, no matter how many mint leaves he chewed.
Aelfraed said, “But that wouldn’t happen if we agreed to help the oak and stopped there. We could refuse other trees if they asked for the same metamorphosis.”
Many druids chirped their agreement with the elder’s statement.
“Why can’t the oak wait?” said a druid. “When it passes on — which will hopefully be years hence, God and Goddess willing — it will go to the Otherworld. It can move about there. Perhaps it will be reborn as a human.”
“No one knows if spirits have a choice in the Otherworld for their next life,” said one who sported a braided beard.
Aelfraed said, “Choice or no, the oak could be reborn as a moving creature. Doesn’t have to be a human. Could be bird, bear, or bug. Any of those would answer the oak’s wish.”
“I hope to be reborn a bird,” one druid said.
Many others chirped their agreement with that hope.
The druids voted on the topic of the oak, and the overwhelming majority chose against helping it turn into a person. One of the two voters on the other side was Garrick, the youngest in the grove.
That night, Garrick waited until his roommates were snoring, then quietly left the cabin and went into the large home. To the small library. Lighting a candle, he searched the crowded shelves for a tome that might include the spell. After a few tries that didn’t offer the answer, a book offered it on a page topped with the title, Transmutation From Tree To Human. The lettering curled ornately on the capital letters. Garrick read the spell once with enthusiasm, realized he didn’t comprehend, then read it multiple times until he memorized the incantations.
Garrick wolfed down breakfast the next morning, amid gentle reprimands of others who said his stomach was sure to gurgle. He paid them no mind. He volunteered for the chore of collecting nuts, so he could head deep into the forest.
There, Garrick whispered, “Which one of you wants to become a person?”
He closed his eyes and concentrated on sounds. Bird song. Wind. Rustling on the ground, perhaps a squirrel or chipmunk. Garrick had been jealous of the elders who could hear trees, and he wondered how many years of contemplation were required for him to accomplish that goal. Now, though, he had to gain the ability if he was to carry out his want to help the oak. Garrick found nothing wrong with the oak’s wish. Let the tree have its dream before shifting to the Otherworld.
However, no tree’s answer alighted on Garrick’s ears — that he could detect. Possibly, the trees talked to him, yet he didn’t have the power to listen. He continued walking, asking the same question in his normal voice. Shouting would’ve spread his query farther, and would’ve raised the risk of another druid overhearing Garrick, then telling the others.
Still no answer came for several days in which Garrick searched the woods, repeating the question. He ventured into different parts of the forest. His mind said this was a fool’s quest, to give up and carry on with his life. But he argued back that he should keep trying.
One afternoon, Garrick’s mind took a break from its debate, and he thought of nothing in particular. The kind of entrancement one gets while giving oneself to the moment, not concerned with past nor future. When one is lured by the rhythms of striding legs and fresh-air inhalations.
Amid the forest’s typical music came something different for Garrick. Tis me, a voice said. The two words appeared in Garrick’s head. But he figured someone had uttered them out loud.
“What?” Garrick asked, turning around and looking for the speaker of the words.
Me, the voice said. I’m the tree who wants to become a person.
It worked! Garrick thought, then he said, “Which tree are you?”
Here. As branches rustled, Garrick kept turning until he saw the trembling branches.
“I can do it for you!”
You don’t have to speak aloud, the oak said. Think on what you want to say, and I can hear it.
I’ll try, Garrick thought. Can you hear this?
I can. So you know the spell?
I used to, Garrick thought. But I can’t remember all of it. I have to study the book again.
Please do, the oak said. And please bring clothes. I doubt my bark will turn into some manner of clothes if the spell works. I hope it works.
As do I. Good idea about clothes. I had not thought of that.
Garrick sneaked into the library again that night, more excited this time about opening the book and reading the transmutation spell. After reading, he closed his eyes and mentally repeated the incantations. Opened his eyes to check if he was correct. Since a few words were wrong, he did the eyes-closed test a few more times to ensure he knew the words. On the way back to his cabin, Garrick took a set of robes from the room of supplies.
The next day, right after breakfast, Garrick set off into the woods. The extra robes were secreted underneath the robes adorning him, so he looked as if his belly was fuller than usual. He followed the trail he had prepared the day before. Two small stones next to trees served as markers for the path he needed. He smiled at the lesson gleaned from a children’s story. The last marker was a circle of pebbles at the base of the oak, now seeming as a necklace to Garrick.
I’m glad to see you, the oak said. I worried that you wouldn’t come back.
“I wouldn’t do that to you,” the young druid said, then realized his mistake and thought, Sorry. I’m not used to this way of talking.
It takes a while to get used to. Do you remember the spell?
I do, Garrick thought as he set the extra robes on the ground. Are you ready? Do you still want to become a woman?
After the oak answered both questions, Garrick drew in a deep breath and slowly let it out. He envisioned the spell book’s page, the careful writing. He spoke the words, focusing on the specific words for female, not wanting to make an error for the gender.
The oak blurred, as rainfall can blur the edges of things. Except now, only one tree was affected. The oak’s blurriness grew in intensity. Garrick watched in fascination as the branches, leaves, and trunk could no longer be distinguished. The blurry mass lowered in size. Its edges began to sharpen. A silhouette came into focus. Then details, then no more blurriness remained. There stood a woman. A handsome woman with brown hair. A nude woman.
“Sorry!” Garrick cried out, whapping his hand over his eyes, which had snapped shut. Two layers to block his vision.
The woman let out a guttural yowl, as if she was suddenly in pain. Garrick asked what caused her the pain, but she still yowled. Garrick braved a peek. The woman was bent over and clasping her head with both hands. She fell, landed on her side. Garrick looked at the ground and went to the robe bundle and placed it on the woman, who had thankfully stopped yelling.
“Put on the robe,” Garrick said, hoping her pain had ended, not that she was getting accustomed to it.
As the druid replaced his hand as blindfold, he heard the woman grunting and the sound of fabric rustling.
“How?” The voice was feminine, with its owner suffering a sore throat. The woman coughed, cleared her throat. “This … this is your talking?” Her voice had smoothed a bit.
“Aye,” Garrick said. “Are you hurt?”
“The trees. They shouted. Shouted I am stupid. Shouted I make a mistake.”
Garrick had not heard the other trees in his head, and he felt sorrow for the woman to endure the punishment. He said, “I’m sorry. Are they still shouting?”
“No. This talking feels strange. And the clothes. I do not know how to wear the clothes.”
“Look at how the robes fit on me.” He tugged the bottom of his robe. “Put this part over your head, then pull it down yourself. Move your arms into the sleeves.”
The woman’s grunts mixed with rustling fabric again. Finally, the woman said she had finished. Garrick released his self-given blinder. Enrobed, the woman stood as if she was drunk or on a frozen pond. She trembled, and her arms windmilled.
“May I hold your hand, so you won’t fall?” Garrick asked.
She consented. Since the woman looked so off balance, Garrick held her left shoulder and her right forearm. His grip helped steady her. Garrick walked slowly, telling the woman to put one foot in front of the other. When she got the hang of it and walked by herself, both of them cheered. She said she was tired, so they sat with their backs resting on trees. The woman said she wanted her name to be Clover. Her tree name was quite long, so she preferred something simpler.
Clover kept looking down at herself. Raising her hands and wiggling their fingers. Sliding her legs to extend them, bending her knees to slide them back. She placed a hand on her belly and said that part felt uncomfortable. Garrick, assuming she had a stomach ache, stood and gazed around to see if mint grew nearby. The idea dawned on him that Clover might be hungry. He offered that as a possible explanation.
“What is hungry?” Clover asked.
Garrick was stunned into silence. Clover looked as a woman, yet her mind was as a toddler about being human. Garrick had been focused on the spell and had spent no consideration to what might happen afterward. While Clover continued to rest, Garrick hunted for edible plants and returned with wood sorrel and chickweed. Clover had no problem with chewing her first meal as a human. The motion came automatically.
The druid took the mantle of responsibility to begin Clover’s education. As a tree, she had never needed to move for nourishment. It was delivered to her. Now she had to work for food. As they walked hand-in-hand, Garrick pointed out which plants could be eaten. They followed a stream’s sound and soon came upon it. Garrick demonstrated how, while kneeling, to scoop up the water and drink it. He told Clover that he had to get back to his home. He would visit her tomorrow. In the meantime, she shouldn’t stray far from the stream, as she required its refreshment. Clover promised, and said she remembered the safe plants to eat. They were already well known to her, from her tree years of witnessing the cycle of growth and death.
In the days afterward, Garrick plunged into the forest and walked to Clover whenever he had the opportunity. He brought her bread, which Clover always ate with fervor. Her confidence and ability in movement grew quickly. Clover laughed as she jumped, skipped, twirled. Showing off her new skills for Garrick. Her excitement was infectious, and Garrick could not help but laugh with her and clap for her progress.
An unexpected feeling bloomed within Garrick. An earnest love for Clover, brighter than what he had felt as a teenager for a few maidens in the village, before he left and became a druid. That ardor differed greatly from the adoration Garrick had for nature and the camaraderie for other druids.
While walking alone and lying in bed, Garrick entertained visions of running off with Clover, stopping at a village where he was a stranger, and starting a new life. Husband and wife. They’d have children. Every day, Garrick would feel the warm glow of Clover’s light. Each time, however, he got after himself. That was a selfish dream. Clover should experience the world beyond him. Let her roam without him. She deserved that.
And so, Garrick didn’t suggest joining Clover as her impatience strengthened to leave the forest. From him, she had learned about village life, what to be careful about when around other people. The lessons helped to prepare her.
Clover had one last request. More comfortable clothes than the druid’s robes. Garrick scorned himself for not thinking more than the kind of Eden he enjoyed with Clover now, and a variation on Eden they could have in a town.
“I will have a dress made for you,” Garrick said. “It will take days to get made, though.”
“It would be worth the wait,” Clover said. “And I’d like it to be lavender colored, please.”
Garrick went to the tailor in the nearest village, and they sorted out a trade. A dress in exchange for many deliveries of fruits, vegetables, herbs, roots, and leaves. Some, Garrick would steal from the druids’ garden. More, he would find in the woods. Plants for eating and plants as medicine. Garrick would have to work for a time after the dress was finished to pay off the debt. Yet he was willing to expend those efforts for Clover’s happiness.
Happy she was when Garrick brought the lavender dress to Clover and held it up. She called it beautiful and marveled over its softness. Far softer than the robes. Garrick turned to face the opposite direction as Clover changed clothes.
When Clover said she was done, he turned back around. Here was a princess from fairy tales. Also a wood fairy from those tales. A combination of magical creature and human. Garrick was at a loss for words, and even more astounded when Clover hugged him.
“Thank you for all you have done for me,” Clover said. “I shall never forget you.”
A storm lashed within the druid. Joy and love for this woman. Shame for his thoughts. The embrace was a sanctuary and temptation.
After a moment, Garrick broke the embrace and stepped backward, saying, “And I’ll never forget you. You should go now. Go and have adventures.”
Tears slid down Clover’s cheek, toward her wide grin. She nodded and began to walk.
Branches reached for Clover, the ends sticking into the bodice and sleeves of her dress. This time, Garrick heard the trees yelling: Stay here! You belong here! You are not one of them! You’ve had your fun, now make him turn you back into an oak! That is your proper life! You defile nature!
Shock held Garrick in place. As if he had become a tree.
But Clover didn’t need a dashing prince to save her. She spun, like in her bursts of dancing, and freed herself. She ran faster than Garrick had seen her run before. Other branches reached, but could not snag her. Seeing the rips in Clover’s dress angered Garrick. This was her first time wearing the lovely garment. Even though it could be mended, the dress would never look the same.
He would never be the same, either. The lavender dress diminished as Clover extended her distance from him. When the lavender spot disappeared, Garrick went home, burdened by a heavy heart.
Several days later, he followed the trail of pebbles leading to the stones that once encircled an oak tree. The circle’s middle was dirt. Garrick found a patch of clover and, with his hands, dug up clumps of it and replanted them inside the circle.
Frequently, Garrick returned to the growing clover with its necklace of stones. He sat by it and spoke of his wishes for Clover, for rich experiences and a life of wonder. The trees did not say anything to him.
copyright © 2021 Dave Williams