© 2000 by Kate Halleron
Spring came, and life slowly seeped from the pregnant earth through branch and leaf and twig. Oak stirred from her long sleep, water and wind playing their inconstant tune through her branches and roots. She put forth the first tentative buds of the season, and waited for the returning sun to draw life, singing, through her veins.
Spring turned to summer, and Oak sang with full voice, a song heard by few but herself, but which found its echo in birdsong and rainfall. Summer showers beat their syncopated rhythm and formed laughing rills that soaked the earth with music and joy. Over and around her song, she felt another music entwine - distant at first, but drawing nearer.
She spread her now leaf-laden branches and, peeking through the green, spied a young man, scarcely more than a boy, dancing through the rain. He was clothed all in homespun, wetness streaming through his black hair and shimmering his dark skin. A flash of lightning lit his face like the brightness of noon and the thunder’s crash boomed a resounding period to the tune he played upon his flute.
He danced among the trees upon the hill, laughing at the rain and the lightning and the thunder. Oak smiled to see him so, and laughed in imitation, shaking her branches in the wind. He turned and spoke, and his voice was as warm and sweet as the melody he played.
“Show yourself, Laughing One,” he said, gazing high among the branches where Oak hid. She laughed again and sprang down, her wet hair, verdant as oak leaves in spring, swirling around her. The storm passed, thundering off into the distance, and the two danced and laughed and sang under the boughs of oak. His name was Gem, and he often returned that long slow summer, coming early to the grove to watch as Oak held the morning sun, fiery and golden, within her branches. She taught him the songs of wind and water and bird, and he taught her the songs of men.
Summer slipped into autumn, and Oak was crowned with the splendor of crimson. “Come away with me,” Gem begged of her.
“I am rooted here,” she replied, the languor of approaching slumber overcoming her. She left him standing alone under the great oak tree at the center of the wood.
Spring returned, and leaf and bud, but not Gem. Oak waited all that long dry summer, and as autumn returned in its season, her leaves were shed as tears.
All through the long winter’s sleep she dreamed of him. When winter storms assailed the wood, thrusting branches to and fro, she dreamed of dancing upon the hill. When the snows came, burying the world in cold and glittering ice, she dreamed of summer rain and warmth and laughter.
Spring yet again, and still he came not. Water and sun and wind were kind, once again bearing their promises to the world, but Oak could not believe them. Waiting became unbearable grief, and though it was not yet midsummer, she shed her new-grown leaves as though winter were always at the heart of the world.
She put forth no buds next spring, nor the spring after, standing alone in all the wood leafless and bare.
Yet spring returned once again, for the cycle knows neither lasting grief nor joy, and Oak was powerless to resist the temptation of life returning, of water and earth and air. Earth was sweet, as it dissolving flowed through her veins, and she once more stretched her limbs toward the singing winds.
Years passed, in the slow thoughtful way of trees. Birds built their nests in her branches; squirrels stored their food and raised their young in her bole. Ofttimes she strained to hear a far off music which she came to doubt had ever been.
One night as the moon shone silver on the frost, she thought she heard an echo of an almost forgotten melody, and although her sleep was nearly hard upon her, she stirred herself from slumber to answer. She stepped out upon the frozen hill, her bare feet flinching against the unaccustomed cold.
A child huddled against the cold hard night, weeping and singing softly to herself. She was dark, and the tune she sang was familiar, one Oak had taught to someone many years ago. Oak knelt next the child and wiped her tears. The child looked into Oak’s tree-green eyes and said, “I’m lost. Will you help me?”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The searchers found the child the next morning, curled up asleep among the roots of the great oak tree that thrived at the center of the wood. She seemed no worse for her adventure - miraculously, for the frost had been black that night. None heeded her babblings about a green lady in whose arms she had slept, crediting such nonsense to dreams and cold.
None heeded; none but a bent old man whom they had been unable to restrain from the search - an old man, dark of face and eye, but whose hair was now winter white. None noticed as he lagged behind the searchers who trudged home now rejoicing.
He rested a withered hand on the rough bark of Oak. “I had almost forgotten,” he whispered. “Forgive me.” He paused, finding no words. “She’s my only daughter’s only daughter. Thank you.” He listened a moment to the silence, then turned to go. Oak smiled quietly to herself, and slept.