the ancient fortress
solid sustainer of life
his viridescent finery,
while unseen fingers
entwine his heart
crumbling stately stone to ruins
For one thing, tight ranks of enormous trees grew on all four sides of the place like some kind of living fence, pierced only by a single wrought-iron gate with a lightening bolt marked in the middle. For another thing, Jack had actually seen the man on that very first night, slipping out of the gate just as darkness fell, wearing a hood that covered his face but not the long grey beard that fell from his chin. The man had been carrying some sort of rod with a metal tip, probably a wand or magic staff, but in the darkness, Jack hadn’t been able to make out the particulars.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Jack’s father the next day as they set up the tools in the new blacksmith shop. “There are no such thing as wizards.”
“But his gate has a lightening bolt right on it,” Jack argued. “Did you see it?”
“I did,” said his father. “It was a very fine gate, high quality materials and workmanship. Rich folk like fancy decorations of that sort, and if this neighbor is as rich as he seems, I expect he’ll be a regular customer, so see to it that you don’t say anything impertinent.”
“He’s just an old man, out for his evening walk,” said Jack’s mother when he tried the subject again with her after dinner.
“But he had a hood and a wand and a beard longer than Opa’s!” said Jack stubbornly.
“Lots of old men have beards and most lean on staffs, too. And as for the hood, it’s getting chilly enough these nights, it’s about time you brought out your own winter cloak.”
Jack hated his winter cloak, made of a scratchy wool that itched his neck, so he quickly dropped the subject.
He didn’t stop thinking of it, though, or keeping his eyes open for another glimpse of his new neighbor. Through constant vigilance, he was able to discover that the old man went out his gate each night at the exact moment the light disappeared from the sky. Jack tried several times to stay up late enough to see the man return, but he always fell asleep without seeing a thing.
It wasn’t until his father asked him to come into the blacksmith shop early one day to help that Jack finally saw why he had been missing the old man’s return. Jack’s mother had woken him up while it was still dark, and he was standing by his window splashing water on his sleepy face just as the sun peeked up over the horizon. Just then, he saw his neighbor, hood still drawn approach the lightening bolt gate. Something sparked from his hand and the gates opened. Jack’s jaw dropped and water dripped off his chin. Had he just seen a spell being cast? Quickly he rubbed his eyes, and when he looked again, the old man disappeared behind the trees. The gate was closed again.
He couldn’t help but mention it to his father later as he pumped the bellows for the roaring fire.
“Like as not he was just out for a morning walk and not all night as your imagination is telling you,” said his father between blows of the enormous hammer onto the anvil in front of him. “And even if he was, it’s no business of ours. You’re best served focusing on your work and learning your trade. There’s no good goggling at every oddity you see, for you’ll find that life is full of them and it takes no magic to make it so.”
Jack did focus on his work. He loved the smithy, with its roaring fire radiating heat and the sparks flying up from his father’s hammer. He wanted to be just like his father, to have strong arms and skilled hands. Jack already knew how to fashion simple things like nails. He was eager to learn more.
Still, he didn’t stop watching the wizard’s house closely. He was sure something mysterious and wonderful was going on there, and he wanted to know more. He worked hard but his mind wandered to that shadowed place across the street. Of course he would finish his apprenticeship, but he would not let this mystery go unsolved. He didn’t see any reason why he couldn’t do both.
Jack started waking up early in the morning. From his bedroom window, he saw his neighbor return home each morning just as the sun came up. Always that little flash caused the gate to open, but Jack could never see what caused the little flash. Finally, one day he determined to get a closer look.
Just before sunrise, Jack crept across the town square and found a convenient shrub to hide behind. He pushed deep into the leaves to be sure he couldn’t be seen. Then he waited. It didn’t take long.
Soon the old man came up the street, carrying his dark staff. He paused as he approached the lightening bolt gates and took a large silver key out of his robes. The sun peeked over the horizon just as he slipped the key into the lock. The light reflected off the silver, flaming out for just a second, and then the old man tucked the key away again into some inner pocket.
Jack was disappointed. There was no magic here after all. Just a key glimmering in the sunlight. His mother and father had been right. He had let his imagination run away with him.
Just as he was about to turn and creep home, though, something caught Jack’s eye. The old man had now stepped through the gate and was passing under the trees down a path that presumeably led to his front door. As he walked past, each tree bent its trunk, leaning forward in a most unnatural manner, as if bowing to their returning master.
A spurt of excitement coursed through Jack. The trees were enchanted! The old man truly must be a wizard!
Over the course of the next week, Jack couldn’t stop thinking about the wizard and his magical trees. Jack’s father kept him so busy at the smithy that he couldn’t stay awake at night or get up early enough in the morning to continue his spying, but that didn’t stop Jack from imagining what other wonders might be inside that house or from dreaming at night of walking through the gate and having those forbidding trees bow in greeting.
At last, Jack could take it no longer. He asked his father for a day off from the smithy to go fishing, and his father, pleased at how hard Jack had been working, agreed. Jack rose early the next day, gathered his fishing gear and slipped out of the house. It didn’t take long to find a good spot in the square for hiding his fishing pole, and then Jack slipped across the road and approached the lightening bolt gates.
Cautiously, he reached out a hand and touched the iron lightening bolt. Nothing happened.
Braver now, Jack grabbed hold of the bars. He only had a few minutes before the sun would come up and the old man would return with his shining key. Jack intended to be inside the gate before then. With a burst of terrified energy, Jack scrambled up the bars and threw himself over the top and onto the path on the other side.
He landed with a crunch of dried leaves and looked around. The giant trees that lined the fence also stretched in long rows up toward to the house. Jack stepped forward on the path, holding his breath.
The trees bent. Their tops dipped toward the earth.
They were bowing!
But instead of bending low and then straightening again, the tree tops ducked down and and down. The branches stretched out. They reached Jack and wrapped around him. Jack struggled in terror as they lifted him off the ground, completely enmeshed in their limbs and suspended him high in the air. No amount of writhing could free Jack. He was well and truly trapped.
A glimmer of light and a clanging of metal. The crunch of footsteps. Jack stopped his struggling and looked down into the upturned face of the old man on the path below.
“Hello, neighbor,” said the man.
“Help me, please!” Jack squeaked. “Make them put me down! I’m sorry I sneaked in! I’ll never do it again!”
“I will help you, of course,” the old man said calmly, “but I’m afraid I cannot make the trees to do anything they don’t wish to do.”
“But you’re a wizard!” Jack cried. “They bow down to you!”
The old man smiled. “I’m no wizard,” he said. “And as for the bowing, if they do it is only from common courtesy. After all, I live here. This is where I belong, and even trees know a man deserves courtesy in his own home.” He raised his eyebrows at where Jack hung tangled. “You, on the other hand, are not where you belong.”
Jack nodded miserably. “I’m sorry,” he said again. “I was just curious, and my curiosity got the better of me.”
The old man smiled. “Curiosity can do that. It’s always wise to get the better of our curiosity before it leads us into trouble. I confess, though, I have often been unwise in this myself.”
The trees slowly began to lower Jack toward the ground.
“And as you can see,” said the old man, “trees also understand curiosity. I don’t think they’ll hold your discourtesy against you this one time. But you might want to be on your best manners from here on out.”
Jack gasped with relief as his feet touched the ground and the branches slowly pulled away and left him free.
The old man cleared his throat and nodded significantly upward.
Jack turned red. “Thank you for letting me go,” he said very politely to the trees. “I’m sorry I broke in so rudely.”
The treetops rustled gently. Jack couldn’t help but feel that his apology had been accepted.
“Well done!” said the old man. “And now, as your curiosity has brought you here, perhaps it might also induce you to come inside and share my morning cup of tea.”
Jack followed his neighbor up the path, each tree bowing to its master as he passed. From up close, the house did not look so forbidding. Large, of course, and shaded by many branches, but also very clean and with many flowers growing in baskets and barrels.
The old man boiled water in an ordinary kitchen and made tea in a simple white teapot. He served it to Jack with little raisin buns on the back porch looking out at the lawn. It was all so unmagical that Jack began to be rather disappointed, even though the raisin buns were delicious.
After tea, the old man yawned, and Jack realized that after being out all night, he must be ready to sleep now. Jack wanted to ask what the man did all night, but now that he had seen the consequences of rudeness, he worried it might be impolite to ask.
“It’s nearly time for my morning nap,” the old man said.
Jack swallowed his questions and nodded. “Thank you for the breakfast,” he said. “I can find my own way out.”
Jack shook the old man’s hand and turned to go.
“You’ve learned your lesson well,” the old man said.
Jack turned around with a question on his face.
“You’ve mastered your curiosity and remembered your manners. I think that deserves a small reward.”
Jack’s heart began to beat as the old man drew out his metal-tipped staff.
“You are a wizard,” he said before he could stop himself.
The old man laughed. “No, at least not in the sense that you mean it. I am only a man with as much curiosity as a boy. Come with me.”
The man led the way into the house and up several flights of stairs to a locked door. He unlocked it with his shining silver key and opened it up to a tiny attic room.
Inside was giant telescope, pointed up through a window in the roof toward the sky.
“You won’t be able to see as much in the light of the sun,” said the man, “but perhaps it will be enough to be worth the effort.”
He fitted the metal tip of his staff into a hole in the telescope and began to make adjustments. “Come look,” he said when he had finished.
Jack stepped forward and put his eye to the tiny hole.
What he saw, dimly, through a slight haze of sunlight, was a star. A star in all its glory, brought close enough that he could almost touch it.
Jack lifted his head in wonder.
The old many’s eyes twinkled at him. “Not magic, but perhaps just as good?”
Jack pressed his eye to the glass again. The universe within reach. He didn’t care what the old man said, this was magic and the man was a wizard.
“Your next lesson must be in the night,” said the wizard as Jack left. “Bring your father. I’m in need of new fittings for my telescope.”
So Jack did. He and his father and his mother went often to the old wizards house, sometimes to drink tea and sometimes to work and more often to look at the universe beyond. Jack’s father showed him how to use a smith’s tools to make delicate instruments and the wizard showed Jack what those intruments could do.
Jack was very careful to always knock politely at the gates, though, and wait to be let in. He was very careful to whisper a thank-you to the trees each time he left.
And in time, when Jack had spent so many hours at the wizard’s house that he, too, belonged, there came a day when he received his own silver key. It glinted in the sunlight as he unlocked the gate and went in all alone..
And the trees bowed to greet him.
On Tuesday, my baby turned six. I wrote about that here. Today, a story in her honor. Because if anyone were ever going to turn cuteness into an evil superpower, it would be her, but I’m still hopeful she’ll take a different path.
Once upon a time there was a little cotton-tail bunny with soft white fur, sweet pink paws, and big brilliant blue eyes. Blue-eyes bunnies are the rarest of all bunnies, so everyone who saw her stopped short and gasped at her beauty. And, of course, they called her Bluette.
It didn’t take long for Bluette to discover the power of her extreme cuteness. Her power worked on her family, who gave her the snuggliest spot in the bunny pile each night. It worked on her friends, who only needed one blink of her big blue eyes to give in on any argument and let her have her way. It even worked on humans, who shouted when they saw her in their garden but then gasped when she looked up at them and let her hop away with extra lettuce in her mouth.
There was only one rabbit who was not susceptible to Bluette’s power, her best friend Ralph. Ralph was born on the same day at Bluette, and they grew up together, but he could not have been more different. Ralph was plain, dull brown. His tail was scraggly. His paws were always muddy. His eyes were so dark they were almost black. No one ever looked into them and felt like doing him extra favors.
Maybe this was why Ralph didn’t always give Bluette her way. Or maybe it was because he had known her from the beginning. Maybe it was because he was secretly against her. Or maybe it was because he was her truest friend.
In any case, Ralph would always say to Bluette, “You could do anything you wanted with your powers of cuteness.” And then he always followed it up by saying, “Be careful.” And he would often mention all the great things she could influence people to do: dig deeper and safer tunnels, be kinder to the weakest bunnies, plant more lettuce.
Bluette would always mention to Ralph that he was terribly boring.
Then she would follow that up with a powerful blink of her big blue eyes, but Ralph just turned away.
Bluette knew the power of her cuteness and she did not want to be careful. She wanted to have fun. She wanted to be loved. She wanted to be obeyed. She wanted all the lettuce.
As she grew into an adult, Bluette did not use her power to influence people to great things. She used it to get compliments. She used it to get the best rooms in the warren. She used it to get the greenest lettuce.
Then subtly she began to use it for more and more. She used it to take over a human’s back yard. Then she used it to gather an army of rabbits. Then she used it to take over a town.
Before long, Bluette the Bunny was the cold-hearted Blue Diamond, ruler of three states, with rank upon rank of bunny soldiers who fought and died at her command but were so quickly replaced that none could conquer them.
Those blue, blue eyes that once melted hearts now froze them. Everyone obeyed, either because they were enchanted by her or afraid of her.
Everyone, that is, except one.
Ralph still lived within the rule of the Blue Diamond, but he did not stop speaking his mind to her and he did not stop turning away when she fixed her piercing stare on him. Bluette often threatened to banish him or even to have him killed, but she never did.
Maybe it was because she liked a challenge. Maybe it was because she had known him from the beginning. Maybe it was because she was waiting for the right time to make an example of him. Or maybe it was because somewhere in her nefarious heart she wanted to believe him when he said it wasn’t too late to change, to begin using her powers for the good of others.
But change is hard. And the Blue Diamond was not used to doing hard things. Instead she conquered more land and piled up more vegetables in her hoard and brought more rabbits under her dominion. And as always happens with tyrants, eventually some bunnies began to rise up against her and she began to be afraid and then she began to be paranoid about losing her power.
Then her sister had a baby bunny. It was a girl bunny, white as snow with tiny pink paws and blue, blue eyes. The Blue Diamond saw instantly that this bunny was a threat to her own power. She was paralyzed with fear.
As she sat in her throne room, deep in the warren, worrying over this adorable new baby, Ralph came in to see her. He congratulated her on her new niece and watched the fear in her eyes. He began to be worried for the bunny’s safety. So Ralph proposed a plan. He would take the baby and her mother far away from Bluette’s kingdom. He would take good care of them and keep them from being a threat to Bluette (and, though he didn’t say it, keep her from being a threat to them). The Blue Diamond leaped at this chance to be rid of her problem.
So Ralph went away, sad to be leaving his friend, whom he had never quite given up on, but happy to be able to save something from the mess that Bluette had made. He helped raise the baby (Blanche) far away from other rabbits and even humans who might be influenced by her great beauty. He did not want her to suffer the same fate as Bluette.
Blanche grew up knowing that she was loved, but never imagining that her white fur or blue eyes could be used to gain her own way. It certainly never worked on the rabbit she called father. She was a sassy bunny, full of life and energy, and she brought light into the life of everyone she met, few though those people were. And if from time to time she heard stories of The Blue Diamond, they were only as cautionary tales.
Ralph followed the news from a distance. He heard of the uprisings that the Blue Diamond ruthlessly quelled. He heard of the day when the humans decided they had had enough of this upstart rabbit and solved the problem once and for all. He heard of Bluette’s death, and he mourned for his friend. Then he put all his energy into teaching Blanche about the power of beauty and how it could be used to do great things and help many people.
And one day, when Blanche was old enough, he sat her down and told her the story of her aunt, how once upon a time there had been a cotton-tail bunny with soft white fur who had become a hard diamond and who could never find her way back again but who had never quite let go of her friend and so had given her neice the chance to take a different path.
Sarah didn’t like many things. Books took too long to read. Movies were all either boring or ridiculous. Running was way too much effort. Swimming was far too wet. Only Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No. 2, played loudly on her headphones, made her feel alive.
Sarah didn’t like many people. Her mother was too exhausted to be interesting. Her little brother was too energetic to be tolerated. Her step-father was too rude to be listened to. Her teacher was too sweet to be believed. Only her best friend, Frankie, made her feel understood.
Sarah didn’t like many places. Her bedroom was narrow and confining. The bus stop had oil stains and smelled of exhaust. The park was too full of sad squeaking swing sets. The beach was too full of sad, squawking people. Only the spot on the end of the pier made her feel free.
Sarah was in that spot today, earbuds in her ears, Rachmaninoff in her head, butt seated on hard cement, legs dangling over the end of the pier, cheek pressed against the wooden railing, eyes on the endlessly rippling horizon. She was, for just one moment, perfectly happy.
Then the song ended, and she remembered.
Frankie the brilliant. Frankie the weird. Frankie the genius of comedy who could make Sarah laugh so hard milk came out her nose. Frankie the loyal. Frankie the kind. Frankie was moving to Iowa.
Iowa was so far way Sarah wasn’t sure it was real. Lots of corn, Frankie said. Not much in the way of hills. No ocean at all. Sarah couldn’t even imagine it.
Symphony No. 2 started up again, but now Sarah wasn’t listening. She was trying without success to picture a horizon filled with cornstalks and the sixth grade filled with girls who weren’t Frankie, while she watched the progress of the giant sea turtle that was swimming toward the pier.
There was a giant sea turtle swimming toward the pier.
Visions of Frankie drowning in waves of grain disappeared in a flash. Rachmaninoff swelled as the turtle raised its head and looked right at Sarah. He was just below her now, patiently treading water.
“I don’t like to get wet,” Sarah said.
The turtle was unmoved.
“I have my iPod with me,” Sarah said.
The turtle didn’t even blink.
“It’s not safe to climb down from this spot,” Sarah said.
The turtle waited.
Sarah took out her earbuds and set her iPod on the cement. Rachmaninoff was silenced, but her heart still beat the strong, steady rhythm of Symphony No. 2.
Sarah left her spot on the end of the pier and climbed down the wooden struts toward the cold water. She had never been to this place under the pier, but the rippling horizon remained in its place.
The turtle met Sarah where the water lapped against the pier. It turned its back to her and she climbed on. Quickly and quietly the turtle took her out to sea.
Sarah knew that she should have felt afraid, but she didn’t. She felt alive.
The water stretched out on every side. The shore was just a smudge on the horizon. It was so very far away. Sarah lay her head on the turtle’s ridged shell and cried so hard her whole head ached. Then she told the turtle all about Iowa.
Sarah knew she should have felt ridiculous, but she didn’t. She felt understood.
The sun was sinking into the water, setting each ripple on fire as it slowly disappeared. The turtle turned back and carried Sarah back through a golden wonderland to the real world, to solid ground, to the continent that would soon swallow Frankie whole. Sarah clung to the wooden pier as the turtle swam away.
Sarah knew that she should have felt abandoned, but she didn’t. She felt free.
Sarah climbed up to where Rachmaninoff waited in that perfect spot at the end of the pier. She put the earbuds in and slowly walked down the pier, in the general direction of a sixth grade classroom that had no Frankie in it and of a state called Iowa, which Sarah still couldn’t imagine but now felt sure was real.
Once there was a rough and tumble, rattle-trap, loud and lively house, and everyone said it looked like a fire-cracker. It was true that its perfectly cylindrical shape, bright blue color, and red-checkered cone-shaped roof made it look like it could shoot into the air at any moment, but in reality it was firmly attached to the earth.
That didn’t mean what was inside it wasn’t explosive, though. Indeed, inside its rounded walls, lived four of the brightest, fieriest, most intense children the world had ever seen (and their parents). Their sparking brains teemed with ideas which their active bodies were quick to carry out, and of course, every one of their multiplying ideas was combustible.
Not content to built forts out of blankets and chairs like most kiddies, these children invented ways to hang sheets from the ceiling and tie ropes to the chandeliers, creating a super fort that covered two levels of the house and could be navigated by swinging like monkeys from room to room.
Simple games such as Monopoly and Clue were too boring for this crew, so instead they combined all the boards and pieces into one massive new game with rules so complex that no one could keep them straight, and every round ended in a knock-down drag-out fight.
Soap on the floor for ice skating, leaping from the bannisters onto enormous piles of stuffed animals, Lego towers that reached to the ceiling and caused serious injury when toppled, massive science experiments that involved baking soda and vinegar filling the bathtub. The house trembled with the sounds of their shouts and laughter and glowed with the heat of their incessant activity.
With such constant friction inside, you can imagine that the house needed some form of release, and like any clever house it eventually found the perfect solution. Late at night, when the little power-houses were finally asleep in their beds, storing energy for the next adventure, the house opened up the chimney on its tippy top and sent up all the sparks and steam that had been gathering in its attics all day. No doubt the neighbors would have been quite alarmed if any of them had seen it, but they were so thankful that the round blue house was finally quiet that they were always fast asleep themselves, and if any passing strangers happened to notice the strange sight, they always imagined that someone was celebrating an important occasion with a particularly sparkly bonfire.
All was well, then, until the year of the terrible bitter winter. Temperatures all over the country reached unheard of lows. Mounds of snow piled up everywhere. People both old and young were forced to stay indoors, huddled around a fire and frantically boiling water for the gallons and gallons of hot tea necessary to survive. Except of course, for those who generated their own heat by the sheer force of their existence. For example, the occupants of the fire-cracker house, who scarcely noticed the cold outside their frosty windows, so busy were they with sparkling schemes of all sorts.
Such heat indoors while the world outside is frozen may seem like a tremendous blessing, and in many ways it was, but it also brought unforeseen problems. After a full day of brilliant, crackling, wall-bouncing activity, the little house was quite filled with sparks and smoke. It waited patiently for midnight as usual, but then, to its utter dismay, when it went to open its little chimney, it discovered that it was frozen quite solid. Several inches of ice covered over with a thick blanket of snow and wrapped in a world of frigid air were too much for the huffing, puffing little house. After a great struggle, it was forced to give up and settle down to a slow all-night simmer.
Several days passed in this fashion, the heat building by day and banking up by night. Slowly the house filled with the tension of pent up energy and unreleased heat. The air was thick with steam and the temperatures reached unbearable levels. At last, the pressure became simply too much. It started as a tremble, then a squeak, as tiny cracks around the ceiling began to let out bits of super-charged air. At last, with a terrific CRACK, the ice burst away as the entire cone of the roof burst away from the house and flew up into the air.
The column of steam could be seen for miles around, and no one can say exactly how high up the roof was blasted before it began its descent. The neighbors were all drawn to their frozen windows in awe as the steam spread out, melting snow in its path. As the first heat they had felt in weeks touched their own walls, the surrounding families breathed a collective sigh of relief. Then they all watched in fascination as the odd, round roof slowly drifted back down and settled into place.
The terrible bitter winter didn’t relent, of course. Months of frozen bleakness still had to be endured. But now the whole neighborhood knew that every few days a new explosion of steam would come to break the monotony and remind them of what warmth felt like. And no one ever complained of the noise from the fire-cracker house again.
At least, not until the summer.
It ain’t easy being a shrub.
The droughts in the summer, long days of baking in the sun and the constant thirst that ten minutes under the hose at night can never even touch. The snow in the winter, heavy weight that only gets heavier as it turns to ice, dragging your branches down into a mangled mess.
It’s a rough life, but I’ve done my best. I’ve sucked at the dry earth and held on tight to my leaves each summer. I’ve shivered away the winters and done my best to pull my branches back into shape with the coming of spring. I did all this and I didn’t whimper once. I didn’t even complain when those kids moved in and started picking at my leaves. At least it was fun to hear them laughing while they did it.
That’s all done now. I can no longer be silent. This creature…this, this….dog….is too much.
Five times a day the door opens, and five times a day that creature comes bounding out. And what is the first thing he does? He pees all over me! Listen people, I get it. This is a part of nature. I’ve had bird droppings falling on me since I was a sprout. But do you have any idea the acid level in that dog’s pee? It’s killing me. Literally.
It gets worse. For some reason, the beast has decided that his back is itchy and his incompetent paws can”t reach around to scratch it. His solution? He sits right down, wiggles as close to me as he can, and then throws himself backwards and writhes around, breaking branches and knocking off leaves willy nilly. I now have a dog-sized hollow in one side, and it doesn’t improve my looks.
It’s time for this to end. Enough is enough. I am not a violent shrub, nor do I mean to alarm anyone, but perhaps this short story will help you see the situation.
Once upon a time there was a shrub. He lived with his mortal enemy, the dread hound. The dread hound attacked the peaceful shrub over and over until the shrub became desperate. Seeing that no one was going to do anything about it, the shrub decided to take matters into his own branches. All one night, the shrub worked at pulling his roots free from the ground. In the morning, when the dread hound came out for his daily bullying, the shrub was ready. He whipped his root around, beating the dread hound around the ears, until the hound ran off yelping. The shrub gave chase, pursuing the dread hound around the house to the spot where the creature hid himself in terror under the swing set. There, the shrub stood watch over the trembling dread hound until nightfall. Then, of course, the shrub died because shrubs can’t live for long with their roots out of the ground. But he died happy, and his last words were, “It was worth it.” The people were heartbroken when they found him, for, even though they were grateful for how suddenly well-behaved their hound was, they could never replace the hole in their landscaping left by that lovely shrub.
This is not a threat. Merely a rough sketch of one possible future. Feel free to draw your own conclusions.
Just don’t wait too long.
Once upon a time there was a river that tumbled along between two forests. The forest on the west side of its banks was old and shaggy with moss. The forest on the east side was light and airy, with strong, graceful trees. The river admired the separate beauty of each forest, but it was a passing admiration. The river had so much to do each day, with his constant cycle of rushing toward and emptying into the ocean far away, not to mention gather waters from the mountains high above, that he had no time for looking around.
As time went on, the shaggy old forest began to grow dark. Vines crept over the trees and grew up through the branches, keeping the sun from shining through down below. The trees themselves creaked and groaned as if they were uncomfortable in their new clothing. New animals came, animals that liked to hunt in the perpetual gloom. The men and women who lived in that forest began to be pale from lack of sunlight, and their faces were set with fear. The river noticed none of this. Nothing could grow across his wide, rocky bed. The sun shone down on him as much as it ever had.
At the same time, the forest on the other bank was thriving. Men and women scattered seeds, and fruit trees sprang up among the smooth trunks of the older trees. The new trees filled in the forest but did not crowd it, and their fruit attracted birds that sang among the branches. The birds built their nests in the strong, graceful trees, and the men and women of the forest grew strong with so many sources of food and their faces wore contented smiles. The river noticed none of this. He could not hear the singing of birds over his own gurgling song, and, anyway, what difference could twittering birds possibly make to a mighty river?
Inevitably the time came that the men and women in the dark, fearful forest saw the men and women in the young, fruitful forest and wished that they could cross the river. They first tried swimming, but the river’s strong current carried them away before they could cross its vast width. Then they tried to make a path across by hurling stones into the water. The stones, too were swept away. Desperate, the men and women thought to empty the river. They exhausted themselves with bowls and buckets, scooping out water and hurling it up under the trees. The river never seemed any less, and all that water only made the vines grow more quickly and the forest turn even darker. The men and women cursed the river and blamed it for all their misery. The river scarcely noticed. He had tumbled many rocks into the sea in his day and many men and animals had taken water from him. Water always came back in the end.
But the river knew nothing of the determination of men. The men and women hated the river now and were desperate to conquer it. So they began gathering branches. They discovered that the vines which made their lives miserable were very strong, strong enough to hold together even under great strain. They tied together branches with vines and discovered a way to make boats. Many boats failed and many men and women failed in their attempts to guide them on the river’s rough waters, but they did not give up. Eventually they learned. Eventually they made it to the other side. The river didn’t mind. The men and women may have felt that they were taming him, but he rolled on, scarcely feeling their scurrying back and forth across his surface.
Now that the men and women could cross, it was not long before bridges were built. Seeds of fruit trees were carried across the dark old forest and planted. Vines were cut back to let them grow. Seeds of vines made their way across the bridges as well. The young, strong forest had to fight against the quick growing tendrils. Men and women on both sides worked hard. The forests changed. They grew more alike. The battle between the beauty of the wild and the cultivated beauty of men was being waged on both sides. The river noticed the changes. He admired the beauty of the struggle but only in passing. Struggle was something he didn’t understand. The sun shone, the storms came, he gathered in both the light and rains and the winds and rolled on.
As time went on, the men and women grew more advanced. They built factories to burn the vines and mills to process all the new food they could grow. The factories dumped filth into the river. He did not like these changes, but he found he could sweep along, even if there were less fish than before and an unpleasant smell. After a time the men and women got sick from drinking this new unpleasant water, and they found a way to change their factories, to make them cleaner. The river was glad to be clean again, but he only thought about it in passing as he rushed toward the ocean. The men and women built large wheels and put them into the river to use his strength to run new machines and make light in the darkness. They blessed the river and bragged that they had made his strength their own. The river thought no more of their blessings than he had of their curses. He had pushed through obstacles much larger than their wheels and to him it was only a pause on his constant journey.
So the men and women went on growing. They cut down the forests and replanted them. They built monuments to their achievements. They looked up at the stars and named them all. They called the stars a new challenge and, forgetting about the river, they constructed ships to visit the stars. And the river tumbled along between two forests, never noticing that no more men and women walked beneath the branches.
The evening was cool and lovely, a slight breeze rustled the trees, making the leaves ripple and carrying that wonderful woodsy scent to where Angela stood in the doorway enjoying the sunset.
“Shut the door! You’re letting the air conditioning out!” snapped Aunt Lou from the family room where the television was yammering.
Angela stepped out quickly, closing the door behind her. Aunt Lou’s voice followed her. “Don’t you stay out there in the dark! Last night you came in covered in mosquito bites!” Angela walked faster.
It was only a few steps through the neatly clipped yard to where the forest waited. It crowded up against the wire fence, vines growing up the posts, branches leaning over and dropping leaves onto the lawn. Angela slipped out the gate and took a deep breath. Under the trees it was already night, cool and mysterious. Angela made her way to her favorite spot, enjoying the way the old leaves crunched underfoot. When she reached the decaying log, she sat in the hollow that was just the right size and leaned against the crooked branch that seemed made for her back. Here she was completely alone but never as lonely as she was inside that house crowded with people. The trees made companionable noises, creaking and rustling and scratching.
Angela let herself relax, trying to forget another long day of frantic vacation activity. It had been a long string of guided tours and souvenir shops, of scuttling from air conditioned bus to stale overcrowded restaurant. Angela wasn’t sure why Uncle John and Aunt Lou had chosen such a remote vacation spot if they never wanted to be outdoors. Their idea of spending time in nature had been taking all the children down to the city pool, to lounge in chairs set up on fenced in concrete while the children splashed in overchlorinated water.
The crickets started up their nightly song. Angela sighed. She had better get back. Aunt Lou would expect all the kids to be in bed soon. “I wish I could sleep out here with you,” Angela whispered, running her hand over the smooth bole of a young tree. She thought of the stifling room she shared with three of her young cousins. Stella slept with a fan constantly running, and Izzy snored. The hanging vines brushed Angela’s dark hair as she made her slow way back to the house. “See you tomorrow night,” she said.
In the darkness, Angela couldn’t see the vines waving at her as the trees above leaned together to whisper.
It was hard to fall asleep in the tightly sealed house. So it was that Angela was the only one awake, lying in bed wishing she could open a window, when the front door banged open. Stella snorted and Izzy rolled over, mumbling, but no one seemed to have woken up. Angela crept down the hall to see what had happened, her white nightgown fluttering around her in an unexpected breeze. In the living room, moonlight was flooding in through the open door. Leaves had blown in and were now littering the floor. No one was around. Angela thought what a strong wind it must have been to have blown open the door. She slipped across, thinking to shut the door and lock it this time. If Aunt Lou found out she hadn’t locked it when she came in, Angela would have to endure an hour’s lecture. She sighed. She was going to have to clean up all these leaves, too. For a moment, Angela stood in the doorway enjoying the air. Then she reached for the door. Her hand found leaves instead.
Angela looked closer. The door was wrapped in vines. For a second, she just stared at the leaves. Then a tendril of ivy swayed forward and caressed her cheek.
When local authorities answered the 911 call, they had to cut their way through a thick stand of trees only to find a house that looked as if it had been abandoned years before. The windows were all broken. Flowering plants grew in the halls. Vines tangled through the cabinets. Dried leaves littered everything. If it weren’t for the muffled sounds coming from the bedrooms, the emergency workers wouldn’t have known anyone was still there. A family of mice skittered away as the workers moved down the hall. On the beds, they found the family, wrapped up tight in vines thick as ropes. They were all unharmed, though terrified. The oldest girl still gripped the cell phone she had used to make the call, though it, too was now hidden by the leaves.
The family were all cut free and carried from the house. They were already in the ambulances when the mother called out, “Wait! Angela! Where is Angela?”
“Who is Angela, ma’am?”
“My niece. Her parents are gone. It was our turn to have her this summer. She was in the room with the other girls.”
But no one had seen Angela. And even a thorough search of the house and woods turned up no sign. The police eventually concluded that she had run away before the unexplainable “event”.
The “event” was something no one wanted to talk about. Certainly no one ever visited the quickly rotting house now surrounded by forest. But from time to time, adventurous kids came close, and sometimes they came home with stories of a ghost who lived among the vines and branches. A ghost with a white dress and long dark hair.