Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Winter Tree

a short fairy tale by Charles Goatley

Once in a long forgotten corner of old Europe there was a tiny piece of woodland known as the Forever Forest -- the name sounds even more magnificent in the tongue of the locals who gave it this name, though that language has long since died out. The forest had been around long before humans settled there or anywhere else on Earth and it harboured many secrets to those who cared to look for them.

Every winter the snow would arrive so thick that it was impossible to see more than a few feet ahead, and the trees, like many of the animals there, would sleep. During one bitterly cold snow storm a man was passing through. His life had changed so quickly over the past three days. The first he was a bachelor, the second a husband and the third a widower, and the men who had made him the third were intent on him not even lasting the night. They carried pitchforks and flaming torches, as angry villagers often do, and rushed into the forest screaming out his name to scare him into submission.

The poor man was not as well prepared as they were for the blizzard he faced. Soon their words faded into distant echoes that blended with the howls of the wind through the oak trees and he lost all sensation to the chill. He knew this was to be his last moment and settled down beside a barren young oak, less than a century into his its life, to spend his final hour in peace. He wept for his beloved wife as he thought of her and his tears ran down his face onto the roots of the tree.

Every tree in that forest ignored the man's cries for they were tired and did not care for the troubles of men, for men often troubled trees more. But as the man drifted into his final sleep he thought he saw the tree he lay next to cling onto his body like a mother would hold her baby in the cold. And as his vision faded he believed he saw the tree crying tears for him, though he was sure he was hallucinating by then.

But what the dying man saw was the truth. The tree had been awoken by the warmth of the man's tears falling upon its cold roots and sensing a weary traveller was beside it it did its best to comfort him. Trees are not known for their intelligence or their compassion, but when the tree realised that the creature resting beside it was not long for this world it cried tears of tree sap for the man's passing.

From that point on the tree realised that winter was not a time for it to sleep like all of the other selfish trees, but a time for it to be awake. And so it made a solemn vow to sleep in the summer and wake in the winter, unlike all of the other lazy oak trees, so that any creature that needed warmth or comfort would find it under the tree's branches.


For many years the tree did this, becoming lonelier and lonelier. As all of the other trees were asleep during the winter it never had any friends to talk to, and few creatures wandered about the forest during the winter. And during the spring and autumn the other trees shunned it for being so silly. They believed that the Winter Tree, as they called it, would soon come to its senses and enjoy the warmth of the summer instead of standing alone by itself covered in snow.

The tree was becoming tired of its loneliness and beginning to doubt that it had made a wise decision. And then one day a weary woman, desperate to cross the forest in winter to get to her family and almost about to give up hope, saw the tree through the blizzard just as she was feeling lost and helpless. She was the first person to see the tree and couldn't believe the sight ahead of her. The leaves were a lush green and reached out farther than any other tree in the summer. Under the tree the grass was dry and flowers blossomed. It was like she had discovered a small part of paradise tucked away in that forest.

She sought shelter from the snow under the branches of the Winter Tree until it cleared, she ate from the mushrooms that grew under it and made a promise to return to the tree and tend to it every year, as it had very likely saved her life.

And so she did this, year upon year until her death. But she did not take the secret of the Winter Tree to her grave. She told her daughters and they continued the tradition, as did their daughters' daughters and so on. Very soon everyone who lived around the Forever Forest knew about the Winter Tree and its defiance against the traditions of the other tree folk. The forest was never quiet during the winter after that as people always knew there was somewhere to rest in the winter. This would have been perfect were it not for some unwelcome attention it received.

There were a group of men who travelled the continent, far and wide, searching for things that were different. They found women with crooked noses, animals with extra legs and vegetables that grew too large, and they saw to it that they were all destroyed in a manner befitting things that defied the strict laws of nature. They decreed that anything that was different would be burnt alive and that afterwards they would celebrate by drinking and dancing around the charred remains.

Because news of the tree had spread further than the edges of the forest these men immediately knew that the tree was wrong and must pay the price. They claimed that the tree did not belong in the forest or anywhere on this Earth and they wanted to burn it as they did every other thing they disagreed with. And so over many weeks they rode to the forest and asked the villagers where they may find the tree. They told them to follow the snow till the grass began to show, which they did. When they saw the unusual green leaves surrounded on the tree they knew they had found the Winter Tree and began to light their torches. They threw them upon the tree and waited for it to burn and the tree believed that it would not live much longer in this world as it could not run away and hide. But as suddenly as the fire had begun it was put out by the snow, which continued to fall.

The men tried a different approach. They went back to the villages and asked for saws -- the most powerful saws to cut the toughest of trees. But when the villagers asked what trees the saws were for they replied, 'To Destroy the Winter Tree, of course, for it is an abomination.' The group of men were promptly chased from the village and told never to return.

They encountered this in each of the surrounding villages and knew that they would have to destroy the tree in the summer instead, when the snow couldn't stop the fires.

The winter turned to spring and the rains arrived. Then the spring turned to summer and the forest was warm and dry. And this was when the men returned.

They had not believed it would be difficult to find the Winter Tree but they were proved wrong. The path that they had followed in the winter did not exist any more because there was no snow anymore and the villagers would no longer help them for they knew the men's' intentions. The forest looked different in the summer and every tree looked the same and because of its size they could wander forever before finding the tree they were after. With the wild wolves and bears prowling nearby the men did not want to take their chances.

So, with no other option they lit every tree on the edge of the forest and left for home, content in the knowledge that if they couldn't make that one tree suffer then they would make every tree suffer for its crimes. You can be sure that when they arrived back in their home town they drank and they danced, content in the knowledge that there was one less abomination in the world.

The forest burned wildly that day. It burned all day and all night for seven days in fact. The villagers cursed the men who did this as they could not stop the flames from spreading from leaf to leaf and from branch to branch for the nearby lake did not hold enough water to put the fires out.

When the fires eventually stopped the villagers walked across the wilderness and saw nothing but ashes, and so they cursed the evil men once more. But then they believed a miracle had occurred when they passed by the spot of the Winter Tree. It was still standing and did not even have a single scorch mark upon it.
What they did not know was that the tree had been saved because it had been asleep. Its leaves were barren and the tree was full of water to keep it fed over the summer while it slept, while all the other trees were greedy and drinking the water from the spring so quickly that they burned easily. Because its branches stretched so far all of the other trees had stayed clear of it and so when the fire tried to jump from the burning trees to the Winter Tree it found nothing to burn and left the entire area untouched.


The forest never grew up around that lone oak tree but it never knew any different. The winters were still silent and it was always there for any traveller, man or beast, that sought its shelter.

But unknown to the tree, the villagers had been bitter about the burning of their forest and went to the men who had committed the act for vengeance. Soon man turned upon man and a war began between the two sides. The evil men now realised they had not destroyed the Winter Tree and wanted to settle things once and for all and destroy it for good, and so they gathered an army and rode for the spot where the Winter Tree slept during a quiet summer exactly one year after the burning.

The villagers stood on one side and the soldiers on the other with the tree in the middle. If the tree were awake it would wonder what the fuss was about, because it had only made its choices for the intention of saving lives. It had surely not wanted anyone to die for its sake.

The men battled each other like wild animals on a hunt, out for blood and nothing else. Few people survived that day, but the villagers had succeeded in protecting the tree. When the tree awoke from its long sleep it saw new flowers growing under its wide canopy. There were bright red poppies all around. It had no idea why they had grown there suddenly, but welcomed them and provided them shelter as it did every other visitor to its tiny realm.

As the years turned the past into the present, the fields surrounding the tree changed. The forest looked different with each passing winter, but the poppies always remained and the tree always slept in the summer and woke in the winter. The villages became towns and the towns became cities but no matter how far they stretched they respected the tree and never once harmed it. It still stands to this day.
Anyone who passes by the spot where the battle took place will claim that they fought for one reason or another, but nobody will say it was because of a tree. In fact, I think you will find it difficult to hear mention of the tree at all, for the tree has had children of its own who are awake all year round and is not quite as unusual any more. Whether anyone knows the truth and is hiding it or all memories of it are lost may never be known. Though, everyone around still looks after the tree just as they did many years ago.

Of course, if you asked the tree about its life it would give you an entirely different tale.

The End?


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