by Serena W. Sorrell
Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom, was a castle with a garden. It was there—in the soil, in the garden, in the castle, in the faraway kingdom—a seed was buried. Like most seeds, it was very small. So small in fact, even earthworms paid it no mind as they wriggled by. Nevertheless, it grew and twisted through the dirt. It burst through the crust and into the light. But even so, it was still so very small. Passersbys thought it a twig; the castle gardeners thought it a weed. No one and no thing noticed its tiny existence at all. No one and no thing except the queen. She had come from a kingdom farther away than the sprout was small.
She first met the seedling as she wandered out from dining with other court ladies. She happened upon the small seedling and noticed it. She thought it very lovely indeed. She liked its heart-shaped leaves, and the branches beginning to form. She liked the sapling so much, she visited it every day after her luncheons or tea parties, for her husband, the King, was almost always gone. His heart not at all shaped for queens, but for war. The small tree itself was glad to be seen and liked by at least one person, and of such noble esteem!
Each day she visited she brought along gifts. On dry days she watered it. On hot days she fanned it. On cold days she warmed it. And always, every day, she talked to it. Oh! The things she would tell the tree. She did not mind this new kingdom, so far from her home. She liked its people and how green it was. She didn’t mind her husband, though he often was gone. She didn’t mind that she went each day unloved. She liked the green world, the nature and flowers. She dearly loved spring and summer in bloom. The autumn and winter, though lovely, were bleak. She parted each meeting with well wishes ‘til tomorrow.
Years passed, and the young queen became older, a woman now, no longer a sapling herself. Still, she visited the tree every day. They had grown into the beauty of their respective species. The tree loved every day she visited, except the time the King found her there. He home from a conquest and unquestionably bold had taken his Queen under the green’s fold. The King hadn’t noticed, but the tree felt her horror and tried in vain to move. The King laughed at her tears and, not noticing the tree’s fury, carved the Queen’s into its brown bark. This, however, the tree did not mind. The pain of the blade and the sap of its blood. It was her name, and so it was right for it to be carved in its skin. The tree rejoiced nonetheless when the Queen slapped the King. For how dare he do something to harm her dear tree. The King raised a hand, but it dropped to his side, and he never returned to the shade beneath the tree.
But neither did the Queen.
It was sudden and at first the tree thought perhaps she’d got sick. It had often heard humans could. But after a month, and two, and still even three the Queen didn’t come, not even one day. More months passed, the tree now an adult. It had the best shade and no longer needed the Queen to survive as it had in its youth. But, the tree knew something. It knew from its roots to the top of its canopy. No matter how much water it drank up from the dirt, it would be thirsty. No matter how wind blew and cooled its leaves, it would be in a festering heat. No matter how much sunlight played on its leaves, it would be starved. And, no matter how many creatures nestled in its branches, or people came to its shade, it would be heart-breakingly lonely.
The tree loved the Queen.
And so the tree waited. She would come the next morning. The tree whispered to the fireflies at night.
“Tomorrow. She will come tomorrow.”
But she did not.
It waited through spring rain which brought it to life. It waited through summer heat which made its bark itch. It waited through autumn when is leaves turned to brass. And it struggled to stay awake through winter which made the carved name ache in its heart.
“This cannot be right.” It said to no one but the snowflakes, who, as everyone knows, are much too vain to listen to others. “The Queen must be terribly ill.”
Things remained the same through spring. This worried the tree greatly. It decided, at last, it was time to take action. It stretched its great roots, and creaked its great branches. But no matter what it tried nothing happened. It was stuck. It was, after all, no matter how strong-willed, still just a tree in love with the Queen.
And so the tree wept. It wept loudly for days. So loudly, even the wind couldn’t out-howl it. Soon, the whole garden filled with the sobs of the tree. All the other plants worried that this weeping would rip off their petals or leaves and make them quite bald. Still, the tree wept. Until, something finally noticed.
“Oh, lovely green tree, why are you mourning?” An early firefly, its glow almost gold, called out to the tree, “It is spring, and soon summer. Rejoice! Be alive! There’s no reason to cry.”
“I care not for my branches, my roots, my leaves, or my bark. I care only for the Queen, whose name is carved in my heart. But she has been missing, how long I don’t know. Something is wrong. I simply must know, must see, if she’s safe. Without the Queen I will wither away.”
The firefly beheld the carved name, and felt the love the tree felt. And, even though rather dramatic, the firefly’s heart was touched. The tree wept anew, until finally, even the firefly could take no more.
“I will fulfill your wish.” The firefly traced the Queen’s name with its light. “I will give you the light of life.” Then, the firefly warned of the price to be paid, “You are a tree and have only ‘til winter, as you do every year. You must return to the soil before the first snow. If you do not, you will die as a man.”
The tree was overjoyed. It earnestly thanked the firefly. Three seasons with the one it loved most. The tree agreed to the bargain, and then was a man. And the firefly gone. In just a few hours the sunrise would bathe him. He knew the palace garden, but nothing much further. He was clothes in the browns and greens that had once made his clothes as a tree. The rays of the sun peered over the mountains. The light spilled over the castle, and into the garden. The tree looked at his hands, his legs, and his feet. He was transformed. And he took a first step.
He felt a tug on the name yet carved on his skin. He knew at once. This gravity was taking him to the Queen! He stumbled forward and clumsily walked. He followed the direction his heart said was right. He wandered the wide, awakening garden until finally he stood at the base of the castle. He recalled stories the Queen had told him. He was at the threshold. He just had to walk to the open window to see her.
So, he did. She sat in a golden chair before a tall mirror, and brushed her cascade of dark, mud-colored hair. She was even more lovely than he remembered. He did nothing but stare from the window. The Queen of his heart just right there. Time stopped and eternity passed, until her eyes caught his in the glass of the mirror. She faced him and neither one moved. The tree felt infinity inside her dark eyes.
“Who are you?”
She spoke to him again, at last. Her voice clear, almost holy, like last he had heard it. The name emblazoned on him burned. He bent in half slightly, trying to bow, as he’d seen others do in the garden and courtyard.
“I’m from the garden.”
His voice found at last. It felt strange to speak words humans understood. He hoped she’d remember, and perhaps stir her heart. But her eyes didn’t recognize him without foliage and bark. He did not despair.
“It has been a long time since I saw you spending happy days in the garden, dear Queen.”
To his dismay she wiped away a tear. “I am banned from the garden. By order of my husband, the King. I am to focus on the needs of the kingdom while he is at war, and when he returns he will give me an heir.” Her eyes became distant. The tree remembered that night, “I am sorry to bother you with complaints, gardener.” She shut the window.
His spring-green eyes shone with verdant energy of life. And though just a tree he understood he must save his beloved Queen. Not for himself, but because she so reviled her place in the kingdom, in the castle, her prison. His heart pounded. The Queen needed his help, as he had once needed her care. The tree called to the grasses, the mosses, and flowers; he begged one and all to help save the Queen. For the Queen, who had always been kind to the plants, they decided to stop being lazy and do something to aid her.
The grasses grew high and spread far. The mosses covered every stone of the castle. The flowers burrowed their roots into the walls. Every leaf, every twig, every bush, every berry, every flower, every thorn, every root strained to help their friends, the tree and the Queen. The whole castle was covered in a blanket of flora. The tree called to those living in the moat. The lilies and algae heeded at once. Every plant in the garden and surrounding the castle weakened the walls. The place ruptured like an overripe berry. Daffodils, roses, asters, foxgloves, and daisies swarmed the castle on grassy rivers. They stormed the castle like a massive green monster.
Through the panic of people fighting the plants the tree raced for the Queen’s chamber. The Queen simply sat and marveled at the plants spreading through corridors and rooms. He broke her trance by calling her name. She looked to him and smiled at last. He took her hand and together they fled the castle, the people, and the all of the plants. They ran through storms of marigolds, past veils of morning glories, and over herds of lilies. Finally, the sunflowers covered their tracks.
They ran and ran. They ran such a long way. Night had fallen, and the mayhem of the castle far behind them. She cast a glance over her shoulder, her eyes didn’t linger. She squeezed his hand tighter and on they still ran. They ran out of the city surrounding the castle. The ran over rocks littering the land. They ran through scraggly bushes who spoke in an accent the tree could not understand. Until, at last, they reached a forest the King sometimes hunted in. It was a ferocious forest, full of horrible beasts. The trees here were warped and bent. But she was free, and he with her, and so the wayward couple entered the dark forest. He felt no alarm, for he was a tree; nor was she frightened, for he held her hand tight.
“Thank you, gardener.”
She smiled at him and his human heart thumped. He wondered a moment if perhaps woodpeckers had found their way inside him.
“I am not sure what kind of gardener is so well-versed in speaking to plants, or freeing a Queen, but here you are. And, I don’t know why.”
He stopped for a moment to ponder. It didn’t take long. He wanted to be the reason she smiled, he had something like greed. He wanted to monopolize her heart and her smile. He kept the words inside, unsure how to say them in this new human form.
In the distance the baying of the castle dogs faded. It was night, so the tree led her to a copse of those twisted trees. He asked them for safety, peace, and a place to hide the Queen’s sleep. The wild trees of the forest were touched by his heart. They decided, just for a night, they’d be tame, just a bit, and tell all the beasts as well.
And so in the forest, dark and foreboding, the Queen slept by her gardener, the tree. He soon succumbed to the pull of sleep, too, not knowing that men, even if they were trees once, all needed the stuff. The two dreamed of the other. In sleep they clung to one another, in comfort and warmth. Soon came the morning, the Queen woke with an idea. She looked at the gardener and studied his face, the lines and curves, so odd and familiar. She stirred him at last. He woke to her smile, to her clinging to his chest. The heart inside him beat so he shot up at once.
“We should leave this kingdom behind. Go far away together, back to my homeland. For now that the King knows I am free he will search and collect me.”
She said these words so plainly to her transformed tree who, though he believed he could keep her hidden forever in the forest, agreed. They left the woods where he felt safest, to travel to distant lands where she felt safest. He would not complain. She wanted him to stay when he’d only meant to free her. They traveled on foot, and they traveled on wagons. They traveled by day, and they traveled by night. The crossed many oceans, and they crossed even a desert. It soon became so no one would recognize them.
At the end of spring, they crossed lush, rolling hills. The trees here bore leaves the color of his eyes. They had reached her faraway country, and at once knew where they’d stay to spend the rest of their days. There was a small town by a lake, and so that’s where they lived. The people here were few and welcomed the weathered strangers. The tree found work as a farmer, for he was unusually adept at growing seeds late. His lady tutored children and taught them to sing. The two lived happily into the middle of summer. Yet, the tree still did not know how to tell her the feelings he had realized fully. Feelings still carved over his chest. The heart he hid beneath his clothes, the heart beating under her name. And so life continued, until she finally asked.
“Gardener,” she called him, and he loved to hear it, “your eyes. They are darker now than when we first met. In spring they were light, and when summer began they grew rich green. Now autumn approaches and they golden at the edge. You aren’t ill, are you?”
“No, not ill.” He said, dizzied by her touch, “My eyes only reflect the change of the seasons.”
She laughed. Her twinkling laughter and sparkling smile filled the room and his heart. She quenched his soul like a gentle rain of sweet water.
“You make me think you’re a plant.”
“If I were?”
In response to his question her eyes became dreamy.
“I might ask, what kind of plant you had been?”
“If I said a tree?”
“I might ask, what kind of life it had been?”
“And, if I said I had a good life as a tree? Where I grew in a faraway kingdom, in a faraway castle, and in a faraway garden. Where I was cared for by the Queen there herself, who watered me on dry days, and fanned me on hot, and even warmed me in winter. Then what might you ask?”
“I might ask, if it all was so good, why was it then you abandoned the soil?”
“And, if I said for love? For the name carved in my skin?”
He showed her the clumsy strokes where a knife had once dug. She traced the lines, letter by letter. She kissed his human lips, and he held her tight.
“I was certain I would never see you again.”
They spent the remaining summer in love and in bliss. The tree took care of her, and she took care of him. Nothing bad or wicked existed in their world made for two. The town they had chosen was as peaceful as any. After work each day finished they met on the patch of grass in the center of town. There at the park they sat and they laughed. Sometimes the tree would whisper her the secrets of plants; sometimes she would read stories from pages of books. The world around them all but disappeared. Even the townsfolk knew those two could never be bothered.
Had they been paying attention though, the she might have known. One face in the town was not a new stranger. Her kingdom’s jester, long retired, lived there. When she was a princess she had been the subject of his want. The old jester was not as foolish as one might expect a jester to be. He instantly saw through her poorness and dirt, he saw her and knew her almost at once. The girl he had wanted turned runaway queen, no longer so lovely, but he didn’t care.
The old jester crossed lush, summer hills. He traveled a desert, and many seas. The jester traveled night, and he traveled day; he traveled by pig wagon, on foot from there. He went through a gnarled, dark forest, and came out alive. At last the old jester had finally arrived. In that faraway land, where the tree’s lady had been queen, the foolish, old jester reported to the King. The jester promised to tell where the King to take his army. The jester would happily place an X on the map where the small town past mountains, seas, and a desert lay. The King promised the jester all the gold he requested. When the town was revealed, and the jester executed, the King set out at once, bloodlust still raging.
Meanwhile, the tree and his love spent their days happily. Unaware of dangers abroad, the tree thought of those closer. It was already mid-autumn. His eyes now brass, became ever golden. His love looked day after day, checking their color. He feared she would ask, because he knew now four seasons would never be enough.
“Your eyes are gold. Your eyes change with each season. My love, my heart, what happens in winter?”
Oh, how he wanted to lie. How he wanted make some excuse about magic and love. How everything would continue after the first snowfall. He wanted to quell her fears. But he did not, he could not lie to his queen.
“My dearest, you know what I am. You know trees change with the seasons, and in winter die, reborn every spring. I am a human, though still my soul is a tree’s, and such a soul will wither at the year’s first snowfall. I must return to the soil, or die as a man.”
Though she had guessed long ago, to hear it be said, she wept in his arms. What could be done? Neither had any answer, and so, though bittersweet, they continued to live, loving each other more sweetly with each precious day. However, their kaleidoscope world of fantasy would be soon broken. The tree had made his decision.
“I will die as a man.”
“Then I will die with you.”
“No, you can’t. What can I do to entreat you to live? Do you wish me return to my rooted self and leave you alone?”
“I am alone nowhere you are, my heart, not so long as you live in some form. I will know you are thinking of me, and I will be thinking of you. I will be here to water you, fan you, warm you, and love you.”
The tree was not satisfied with this outcome. He had known her lips, her taste, and her warmth. What comfort were dirt and worms compared to that? They kissed and all seemed decided. He loved her though. When he became a tree how would he embrace her? He had known her as a lover. He could not go back. But there was no other option.
Time continued, and soon autumn passed. Winter came quickly, like spite to the lovers. Each day grew colder. Each day she urged him return to the soil. And after each entreaty, he repeated to his lady, growing more worried.
“It won’t snow tonight. Tomorrow! I will return to a tree tomorrow.”
His answer was the same the night the King found the town. The tree had a high and terrible fever. The lady, desperate, cared by his side. His eyes were turning again, this time almost blue. How could she return him to the earth before it froze? Just as she felt she was close to an answer there was a heavy, loud knock at the very late hour. She opened the door, only a sliver, but the King forced open the door. He grabbed the Queen quickly, but before had turned the tree leapt from bed. He pulled his love from the King’s clutches and called for reinforcements.
But none came. Winter was too far. Snow was coming soon. All the planets lay under the soil, already dreaming of spring. The tree was alone. He made for the door, but the King had recovered and unsheathed a sword. A brushstroke of red splattered their floor. The King stepped forward to finish the job, but the Queen came behind him and slit the King’s throat. Then, the two ran.
They raced, chased by the dead King’s army. The tree’s eyes began to frost over. Blinded by winter, the Queen held his hand tight while blood streamed from his wound and made a nice trail. She lead him to the park. She ran in a trance. The wound would be nothing to a tree. But, her love was no tree now, he was only a man. To a man, such a fever and wound lead to one outcome.
He knew where she was running, even as the first snowflake of winter melted on his fevered forehead. He collapsed on the ground. They both in a fit of gasps and a mess of blood. The two lovers huddled on that small patch of earth. The shouts came closer, and soldiers ran faster. They followed the tree’s blood, and would soon be upon them.
“Hurry,” her voice quivered the plea. “Return to the soil.”
He smiled, though he could barely see her at all. His eyes had turned gray, all death and cold. He squeezed her hand and pressed it to his lips.
“It’s too late, my love. The soil is frozen solid.”
He touched her warm cheek, and the lovers embraced. He kissed her, and held her. And, the lay on the ground. How long he did not know when finally he roused. But he could feel his last moments had arrived as promised. He felt for the Queen’s hand, only to discover every bit of its warmth gone. He touched her lingering smile with weak trembling fingers. Her body had melted the soil. The tree choked and he sobbed. The pain of fever and sword meant nothing to the pain in his heart. He raged, wild and loud. The town woke to his heart breaking. The soldiers were upon him at last. The townsfolk looked on to witness what creature could create such a sorrowful wail.
In the center of the town, on the patch of winter soil, stood a tree. Its branches were barren, but its splendor and might were easily seen. The knights searched, and the townspeople too, but no one could find the source of the sobs in the air. Nor could the citizens gather how such a resplendent tree had grown in just one night. They found only a heart, carved long ago, around the name of a farmhand’s lover. The tree’s root and the soil were drenched red with blood. But nothing remained or offered a clue. The townspeople returned to their homes, the snow falling heavy all around. The soldiers returned to their faraway land, much more peaceful at last.
In spring the tree fountained to life. Its leaves vibrated life. Its trunk showed its heart. Though, any knife which tried could not pierce, not stab, even an inch. It was well understood the tree had only one person inside of its heart. And, in the evenings, just before dark, people heard the whispers and laughter of lovers. They stayed high in the branches, hidden from sight. And, on very dry days a rain fell over the tree’s roots. On very hot days wind fanned the tree’s leaves. And, on cold days, during the winter, a lady the people recognized embraced the tree’s trunk, warming him from deep inside, until she disappeared.
And so it was, forever.