So this week the prompt was Trees and my mind went into a very offbeat holiday mode. This is actually part of a longer story I just cranked out in a fit of inspiration so we’ll see what happens with that!
The folks had kept a patch of land reserved for pine trees since I could remember Christmas. It wasn’t officially the holiday season until we were harvesting some to donate to different community functions and selling the rest. The mini-woods closed in around me immediately and I shivered at the whispering scratch of needles across my arms. When I was a little girl I’d heard rumors of other farm kids fighting those who made fun of them with pine needles, driving them under fingernails and once into someone’s eye. I couldn’t fathom using something so clean-smelling, so vividly green as a weapon. My feet were muffled by the mattress of old and discarded needles that covered the ground like a complicated game of pick-up sticks. They tickled and pricked the bottoms of my feet pleasantly; I only really winced when I stepped on a half-buried pine cone. Ever since I could remember I’d been coming to the half acre that was covered with the prickly green lives that would never die. The heady smell wrapped around me and I breathed deeper. Here there were no late nights without overtime that would lead to diddly squat, no sultry ‘I love you’s’ murmured between pillows while hands that wandered would inevitably be wandering over someone else the very next night. There was no buzz and screaming competition of the city. It was quiet, peaceful, lasting. Somewhere a robin trilled its song and for a very brief moment I was seven and pretending I was a lost princess in the woods.
“I knew you’d come back.”
The voice was a high chirp that was perky as dawn sunlight. I whirled and backpedaled, yelping when my foot collided with the blasted pinecone a second time. “Who’s there? Sammy?” I called, though why the neighbor’s kid would have hiked a half mile to be nosey didn’t make sense. “Rexy, is that you?” Sure it is; because dogs can talk now. In the man-planted seclusion my thoughts were foggy with the scent of natural pine and the sticky residue that was coating my feet the longer I walked.
“Nay, silly! Tis me!” the voice chirped and as I stared at the shuddering branches that reached out and up, the needles suddenly flattened and turned into thin little arms.
I screamed and bolted back into another tree, barely caring about the sharp branch that jabbed me in the small of the back. I’ve lost it. I’ve well and truly lost it. They’ll find me out here foaming at the mouth and screaming that the trees are talking. My hands clamped over my mouth to spare myself a little dignity.
“You don’t remember?” The voice drooped as the arms lowered and an eerily thin girl stepped right out of the branches. Her tunic was the color of pine bark and was even sticky with the needles’ gum. Her hair rustled and was bristly thin and pale yellow, though in certain angles it looked almost green. She was eerily thin and tall in a way that made her look stretched out. Even her fingers and arms seemed ill-proportioned in their length. Her delicate face was screwed up in dismay and her large green eyes stared down at me in disappointment. “You’ve forgotten about me that easily?”
The city smog, the years spent trying to cram myself into a size smaller of jeans than I should, the pep talks to always “work hard to get ahead,” the years of late nights spent studying and partying at school dissipated in the heady scent of Christmas in summertime. “Nya?”
I’d been four or five when I’d stumbled upon her during one of my marathon adventures. Those were the days when kids were allowed outside to play by themselves. An only child who liked stories that featured fantastic lands and thousands of characters, I found it hard to entertain myself when the only things left to play an arch nemesis and a prince were the family dog and a cow. I’d been playing at being lost in the woods when she’d stepped out just as she did now, skipping and looking for a playmate.
Her elfin face perked in a broad smile that was a little too big for her slender features. “You remember!” She threw her long arms over my shoulders in a hug. As delicate as she was the dryad still enfolded me with her long appendages and stretched torso. “How good it is to see you! How beautiful you are!” she gushed in my ear.
“Nay, I mean no,” I huffed and pulled back. When had I last seen her? Twelve? Thirteen? It was at around the point when I began to assume that I’d made her up in a fit of loneliness, when chores and parental expectations began to take up my consciousness. When getting homework done on time and pining away for boys took precedence over a pine forest. “It’s good to see you.”
Her smile was sunshine on the forest floor as she looked me over. “Why did you not come see me sooner? You said you would. I’ve been waiting for you.” Her green eyes were struggling to understand and it was then I remembered why it was so hard to be a Good Folk’s friend. They were ephemeral and knew a mortal only by what they saw. She knew me as a child, as the girl who helped her make clover chains and crowns, who played tag between the trees, and danced across the hill when I could sneak out on full moon nights.
“I moved away years ago,” I explained gently. She was far older than me, but since our first meeting I’d felt the need to protect her. Maybe it was because she looked so frail. Maybe it was because I liked to smother people – at least according to what I’ve been told. “I’ve been working for a corporation in…” She’d have no concept of geography or status. All she knows is the woods and she doesn’t even realize that that’s not real. “I’ve been working in the city,” I edited.
“Do you like it?” she asked and immediately plopped down onto the blanket of pine needles. Despite my sulky mood I followed suit, though it took me longer to get down.
“I did. I…I’m not working there anymore.”
She frowned and her delicate brows furrowed together. “Did you ever marry that boy you were talking about? The minstrel you liked that sang such strange songs…Donnie of Wahlberg?”
Heat crept up the back of my neck and I quickly busied my hands tying two dead needles together. They were soft in my hands and pliable, easily controlled unlike everything else in my life. “Uh, no. I just liked him. I was seeing someone, but…that didn’t work out either.” My eyes burned and I wiped them with the back of a hand so the sap wouldn’t burn them more.
“You’re so unhappy. What happened to the girl-child I used to play games with?” Nya asked and gently placed one delicate hand on my knee. I hope she can’t smell me, I groaned when I became distinctly aware of sweat droplets falling from under my arms the side of my breast when I raised my hand to place it on hers. If she did she didn’t say anything, and although she was polite any sort of Folk were notorious for being honest when you least wanted them to.
I shrugged lamely. “The world didn’t turn out like I expected.”
To my surprise she echoed my sentiment with a fervent nod that sent her bristle-hair flailing in the heavy air. “Aye. I understand that. So many of my sisters have grown strong only to leave me. I’ve had to change trees so many times in the past years.” Now that she mentioned it, it did seem odd to see her so close to the house. Usually I’d have had to walk another fifteen minutes to get to our accustomed meeting place.
“What happened?” I asked before my logic caught up with my concern.
“They harvest the trees,” she hissed and her nails briefly dug into a hole at my knee and stung the flesh there. “Once a year when winter comes, as a sacrifice. Sometimes they leave bird food on the branches of those that are left in penance, and sometimes they plant more in offering, but always they come back and take more! Why can’t they leave us alone, Lynne? Why do they do this to us?!”
I tried to find some way to answer her. I searched for words her simple logic could understand, tried to make my tongue work in my dry mouth. I should’ve stayed and had the lemonade. Nya’s voice was so plaintive in the seclusion of the little woods that it nearly broke my heart. No – my heart was already broken. Her words simply reminded me of the fact. To my embarrassment hot tears stung my eyes and dotted my cheeks. “Do you know who does this?” she whispered and cupped my face. “Do you weep for us?”
I nodded against her sunshine warm palms. I wanted to run and play, to circle dance around the steady trunks until time turned back and I didn’t have to worry or feel about anything. “I weep for everything lately,” I muttered and wiped my face on my sleeve. “They earn a living by selling the trees, Nya. It’s for a mortal celebration of Chr…solstice.” She backed away as if I’d slapped her and jumped to her feet. The movement was so quick and graceful that she looked like a long green blur in the light filtering through the branches.
“Why would they have a death festival?! Why here? We’re a peaceful people! Why would they do…” Nya trailed off when I couldn’t stop sobbing. My hands left sticky trails against my hot face. The sheer helplessness of the whole awful situation was the last pine needle to break the camel’s back. “Oh, Lynne! Sweet friend!” she breathed in her old-fashioned way. “I should not upset you further! Tis alright, truly! I’ll survive safe and well,” she insisted and pulled me into her sweet-smelling hair. “They’ve cut your soul down, too. That’s what happened when you tried to transplant to somewhere else. It takes time to get used to it. I’ve had to move many times these past years to stay alive. Tis not easy but it gets better, I swear.”