The Tale of Four Seasons

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic
This is one of my earliest pieces, written in 2013. The main character is an anthropomorphic tree during one seasonal year, and explores the lines between independence and loneliness, wisdom and naivety, childhood and maturity.

Submitted: March 27, 2017

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Submitted: March 27, 2017

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Opening

Once upon a time, there was a vast forest of tall pines, dark ashes and thick chestnuts, and occasionally interspersed with several ancient oaks. Nests of songbirds could be found on high branches; squirrel dens within hollowed out trunks; and burrows at the base where mice, foxes, badgers and other beasts made their abodes. Herds of deer roamed these lands, followed closely by the wolf pack. Sentient owls kept vigil while haughty eagles patrolled the skies.

It was spring. There was a joyous kind of music within the forest: cheerful melodies of chirping songbirds, gurgling barks from a pair of frolicking badgers, and plentiful squeaks from various kinds of rodents.

A short distance from the forest, a lone tree stood atop a small hill like a solitary sentinel. It was neither pine nor ash, neither chestnut nor oak, not even birch or yew, mahogany or acorn. It was not as tall as the ancient oaks, thick as the chestnut or elegant as the yew, yet it was still impressive to behold.

Its strong branches held several bird nests, and its lowest branch served as a perch for a solemn owl. A lone squirrel had made his own crevice within its trunk. Among its intertwining roots, a pair of foxes had burrowed a network of tunnels, they were expecting pups.

The tree itself was not that old and certainly no young sapling. Yet there was wisdom within it that many others of its peers do not possess, and a deeper understanding of itself and those around it.

It was a solitary being. While the forest was filled with the sounds of millions of rustling leaves, the branches of this tree remained stiff and its leaves barely waved in accordance with the wind. That was how it prefers to be.

Many, many seasons ago when it was a mere seedling, its siblings had chosen to grow near the other saplings. Initially they grew together happily, sharing the sun and rain and earth. But as they grew taller and wider and their roots became longer and burrowed deeper into the earth, friendships turned stale and admiration turned to jealousy as they competed for the very same things that they used to share.

Soon, the weak ones were left under the shadows of the strong ones that grew tall and strong. One by one, they withered and died.

But not it. From the very start, it had been alone. Not by its own choice, but nonetheless it had been alone. Since it had no competition, it grew faster than any of its siblings and endured well.

Yet… during the times when the wind howled endlessly for hours, it stood alone, forced onto its knees as if to pray for the storm's passing to come soon. Loneliness was something it was intimately familiar with. In fact… other than the birds and owls and squirrels and foxes that lived in or around it, loneliness had always been its other companion.

 

 

Spring

One day, during a cool spring afternoon, a little girl came to the forest for the first time. The spring weather was nice and cool, and she became drowsy. She approached the closest tree, that lone tree at the fringe of the forest, and fell asleep at the base of its trunk.

The foxes watched her warily for a while, the curious squirrel squeaked once and alerted the owl which glanced at her briefly before disregarding her. The birds ignored her and continued chirping away. As for the tree itself, it pondered for a moment, and then slowly shifted its branches just a little to better shade her from the sun.

Day gently passed into evening. As it did, the girl woke and was greeted by the scent of fragrant flowers. It was spring after all, the trees were flowering by the hundreds and this tree was no different. Yet the scent of this tree's flower was different, unique. The girl was familiar with flowers of all shapes and colors and sizes, yet this flower she could not recognize. She said to the tree- "who are you?"

It chuckled lightly. A human who speaks to a tree? Now that was a first! It replied- "a being of wood and leaves and roots, nothing more and nothing less."

The girl did not look surprised in the least that she had been answered by a tree. On the contrary, she smiled and kept speaking to it as if it were another person. It listened to her the entire time, leaves rustling when amused, bark groaning when sympathizing.

Once evening turned to night, and then to midnight, it halted their one-sided conversation. It felt their presence. They were near. The tips of its roots were stretched far into the forest and felt their paws padding softly on the soil. It heard the foreboding groans of the trees nearby that warned of their approach. When the owl perched on its highest branch hooted sharply, its' suspicions were confirmed. A pack of wolves was approaching, drawn by her scent.

"Stay close to me." It ordered. The girl obeyed and went to stand beside its trunk, eyes wide with fear.

A single low-pitched howl pierced the sky.

In response, it began to groan and moan while waving its branches to and fro, signaling the call to arms. The forest was relatively silent now, so every sound it made caused any living creature near and far to stir and awake. The alarm was raised when the wolves were spotted.

Birds, owls and eagle began screeching like sirens. Squirrels and rodents emerged from hiding to add their high pitched squeaks. Badgers growled angrily with fur raised on ends.

The wolves knew they were unwelcome. Nearby trees' lower branches were creeping down to tangle their paws, while roots seemed to rise and fall in an attempt of tripping and twisting their ankles. They continued to advance despite that and emerged from the forest, approaching the tree and the little girl that stood beside it.

"Do not fear. No harm will come to you." It promised. At the same time, the wolf pack charged.

A solid branch crashed down on the nearest wolf, sending it sprawling and whining pitifully. At the same time, thick roots wormed out of the ground and tangled others' limbs, immobilizing them and squeezing tightly. All the while it waved back and forth, shrieking angrily at them. The remaining wolves backed away from the raging tree, their lust for meat replaced by fear. When they were far enough, it released their trapped companions.

The wolves regrouped and looked hungrily at the little girl and warily at the tree that stood protectively over her, leaves shivering menacingly like thousands of needles. It warned them- "you will all die before you can touch her". They decided that the risk is too great. As one unit, they turned and left.

"They will not return tonight. You should go home." It kindly suggested to her.

"… Thank you." The girl said as she stepped back. She smiled with gratitude, turned and ran home.

When she was gone, the squirrel came out. "This so isn't like you. You've spent so much energy protecting her, look at yourself!" Many of its leaves had fallen, leaves that will create the sugars it needs to store to keep it alive through the winter. "She'll come back, but one day she will leave and never return, you know?"

"I know." It replied. It can live for many centuries, but humans can't even reach one. Even so, it continued solemnly.

"I know the day will come… when all of this is past, and it all becomes a memory. But I know I will remember it."

"The cool breeze of springtime." The owl hooted down from above. "A time for new beginnings. And, summer is just around the corner. A time of passion and life."

 

 

Summer

"- So the cycle of life continues… a continuous chain of birth and death." It finished. Seated on one of its roots, the little girl listened with great fascination.

Since that spring day several months ago, the girl visited it every day. The tree told her stories about the forest and things that lived in it, it also told her about the seasons and the weather. On the other hand, she told it about life on the ranch, the vast farmland that her father owned, and about a place called school.

There were so many differences between them. One was pragmatic, stoic, unsociable and quiet while the other was optimistic, innocent, lively and trusting. Yet the two got along well, as if they had known each other for countless years. They rarely had a two-way conversation. Usually one would speak while the other listened. Most of the time it was the girl that spoke, telling it countless stories of her life, of her family and friends. She told it of the times she was happy and the times she was so very sad. Sometimes the squirrel and birds shared their stories, which it translated for her. Once even the owl decided to share one too.

It, on the other hand, rarely told her about itself. She was young, innocent and pure. The stories that it had were cold and harsh. From the time it was a sapling, all it knew was solidarity and bitterness. It had no stories that could make her smile or laugh. So it told her about life in the forest, teaching her the wisdom it had obtained over many seasons. She listened attentively.

On one hot summer day when the girl came to visit, she spotted some kind of fruit on the tree. It was gnarled and dented like a dried pear, dark green in color with smears of lime green. It looked as if it were poisonous. She asked if she could have one.

"It is very sour… so sour that none of the birds could eat it. I doubt you would like it."

Despite its warning, she asked for a fruit again. So it consented, and presented her with one and she bit into the fruit. It had expected her to cringe with disgust and spit it out, or at least put away the fruit. Instead, she smiled and said it was delicious. That surprised it. Neither animals nor birds nor insects could eat it, yet here she was eating it as if it were a common pear. Something moved within it… something warm within its cold body of fibers and bark.

"Can you teach me the language of birds?" She asked one day.

The tree considered her question. Sure, it could teach her, but should it? Since time immemorial, only a handful of humans has ever learned the language of birds. It was a knowledge that had to be kept from man, for with that knowledge, man will only abuse it to suit their own selfish goals. Yet the girl was not like man, it believed. So it consented to teach her. When it did, the birds that nested in its branches screeched in protest. But it ignored them and taught her anyway.

The next week, the birds and their nests were gone, leaving the owl and squirrel. The foxes had left a couple of months ago, since they believed that having a human girl around every day was not suitable for the litter they were expecting. For a few days the girl wondered where the birds had gone, for she no longer heard them chirping in the tree.

One day, she finally overheard some birds conversing nearby and leant why. She apologized sincerely to the tree. Her selfishness had caused its friends to leave. It waved aside her apologies.

A few weeks later, she asked for several thick, strong branches for her father to carve into dolls for her, and its finest leaves to decorate her baskets, both of which were for a school project. The squirrel and owl protested that she was asking for too much, since it needed them to survive the coming winter, but it argued that winter is still a whole season away. It gave her a pair of its finest, strongest branches and two baskets of its freshest leaves. The girl was elated.

That night, both the squirrel and the owl confronted it.

"You can teach her all you know, give her all you have, but will the flower in her heart bloom for you… that's a different story." The squirrel openly warned. The two have known each other for a very long time, and thus speak openly to each other.

"… I know." It replied somberly, tiredly, before looking upwards.

"But all I want is for this moon, floating serenely in the dark night sky… to look yellow, and round, and gently tranquil… to her, the way it does to me."

The owl cocked his head to the side curiously. "She has changed you. You were never like this before. But autumn is near. You better prepare yourself for the winter to come… for it will be a hard one."

 

 

Autumn

It was a cold autumn night. The little girl wore an extra cotton jacket over her usual dress to ward off the chill. The owl was off hunting for mice while the squirrel was foraging for any nuts and acorns and berries that will last it through the cold months.

On the other hand, the tree was losing leaves rapidly in preparation for winter. More than half of its branches were bare, and the brown bark of its trunk were peeling, revealing a pale white interior. Suffice to say, it was unprepared for winter. Despite that, it was spending every day with the girl. Tonight, the two were alone.

That was when it told her.

The words just slipped out is just like the way water spills over the edge of a cup that is full to the brim. Even though it knew what her reply would be, it simply felt… like its heart was bursting with happiness. It was filled with gratitude, but had nothing left to give besides its heart, so it tried handing that to her. Maybe it shouldn't have? But oddly enough, it didn't feel any regret at all. How weird. It had always thought that if it told her, it would definitely come to regret it. So why doesn't it?

For the very first time, she did not return the next day, or the day after that. When she finally came on the third day, there was nothing to say between the two. She left before the sun had even begun to set, leaving it with the owl and the squirrel who then realized what had happened.

"So… what's the deal? You're ready to give up just like that?" The squirrel asked.

"I already know her answer. There is nothing more to be said. She can leave if she wants to."

The owl hooted as if to scoff at it.

"She was always right here with you. And you've gotten real close to her, which is amazing because you're hard to get to know. Sorry, but it's true. She got you to trust her… little by little, over a long time. Surely, that must be worth fighting for."

I find myself staring up at the sunset instead, thinking how beautiful yet sad it seems.

Days passed slowly for the three of them. All around, the other trees were getting ready for winter by shedding their leaves to conserve water and store the products of their hard work during summer and spring within their trunks.

It, on the other hand, was fighting to conserve what leaves it has left to compensate what it had failed to do during the previous two seasons. But the wind was becoming stronger and colder by the day, forcing it to shed its leaves before they cause it to be uprooted by the wind, or lose too much water due to the cold and be sentenced to a withering death.

Before, the other trees used to mock it for being so isolated. Yet when it grew stronger than them due to being alone and passed each winter easily, they came to admire it instead. Now, seeing it becoming weaker and weaker, they whispered to each other.

"Will this winter be the end?"

The girl came to visit once a week now. She said that it was because her father does not want her to go outside since it was becoming colder. But it knew… it was not just her father, but the girl herself, who did not want to come. She was dressed in many layers of clothes, yet shivered whenever a gentle breeze blew.

On one of the days when she visited, she overheard birds commenting about its' ill health. At that moment, all those memories… of her asking and it giving freely, started flashing in her head and suddenly made the most awful sense. Because of her selfishness and its generosity… it was unprepared for the winter to come.

She returned the next day and every day after that. Each time, she brought a little bottle of water and some medicine she called 'fertilizer'. It was grateful for the water, but the fertilizer it could not use. It would help make new leaves, but by now making new leaves will only drain its energy further.

It was too late. It will have to survive the winter with what it has. And the effort of each journey was taking its toll on her too… and seeing her becoming weaker and weaker each day, was too hard for it to bear.

One day, a few weeks before winter, it said to her the truth of it all.

So sweet… the words spilling from him were the kindest, sweetest words ever. His voice too, sounds so gentle, so tender… and so terribly sad… almost as if he's calling out from someplace far, far away. She had never heard him sound like this, never heard him sound like this before.

It told her to stop coming.

That night, there was a mournful groan while all of the other trees were silent. Only the owl and the squirrel on its bare branches understood. Truly, winter has come early for it.

 

 

Winter

It was cold… so cold. The animals of the forest were hibernating in their homes, or had migrated a long time ago. The trees seem to have shrunk since hardly any leaves remained, and their trunks were pale white. Yet they were all alive, merely deep asleep. Also, their branches were not barren because since they were tightly intertwined, falling snow had collected into a thin layer, creating a forest of white instead.

As for that tree at the fringe of the forest, it was struggling to stay alive. It was much thinner than before and bent slightly as if in agony. It was hungry and thirsty, and that made it weak to disease. There was no blanket of snow upon its spindly branches, making it truly a skeleton of its former self. Rather than pale white, its bark was sickly pale. Only the squirrel and owl that remained knew of its suffering, but there was nothing they can do. As for the girl, since the day it told her to leave, she never came back.

It spent endless hours watching the tall oak trees that jutted high up in the forest, devoid of all leaves but still very much alive and strong. In about two hundred years or so, it will be the same age as that oak tree. It wondered… what it would be like when it was as old as that oak.

Right now it seemed so far away, but… from here to there is just one long string of days and an endless cycle of seasons.

One day, it will be a fully matured denizen of the forest. The day will come when it will look back to now, and think, and reflect, and hardly believe… how it had fallen so low.

A few weeks into winter, it was visited by a pack of wolves, the same pack that it had chased away three seasons ago. There were fewer of them now. Initially they were wary, their memory of this violently protective tree still fresh in their minds. But they soon realized that the tree was too weary to strike them like before, so they dared to approach. They felt neither resentment nor harbor any grudges against it. Instead, they questioned what had happened, and where was its human friend.

It made no reply. Yet, like all beings of the forest, they shared a bond that went deeper than words. The wolves knew that the main reason why it was so ill was because she had stopped coming. It takes more than physical or mental stress to break any animal, and the same went for trees. Yet this one has more than physical or mental hardship… this one's will to live is slowly dying.

Realizing that, they howled mournfully at the full moon that shone so brightly in the midnight sky. They howled their sympathy for it, their anguish for their fallen pack members, and finally… for the end of this harsh, cold, bitter winter and their hope for warm… sweet spring.

The weeks that passed seemed so slow… even though most of the time it was asleep. Days seem to shrink shorter and darker while nights seem to grow longer and colder. It snowed constantly, piling up higher and higher with each passing week. It was during one of these days, during the hour when everything was so white and so bright that it was blinding… that it saw her approaching from far away - a little figure slowly making her way through knee-high snow towards it.

The girl arrived before the tree, panting slightly from cold and exhaustion. Thick white mists of perspiration bellowed from her mouth and her cheeks were flushed red. "Hi," she greeted with a wide smile.

"… Greetings" It cooly replied.

"Um… tomorrow I am moving to the city to start secondary school, then college… and then university." She said hesitantly. "I will probably not return for ten to fifteen years…"

It calmly digested her words. "Then… this is goodbye?"

She smiled sadly at it, yet there was also so much gratitude and happiness. "You were my best friend, my only friend. You were there to listen… and gave me strength to believe in myself. What you said to me during autumn… made me really happy. I'll never forget it. Wait for me, I will return one day."

It was an empty promise and it knew that. Even so, its empty branches swayed back and fro, no longer groaning mournfully and creaking with fatigue. The tip of its lowest branch brushed her cheek lightly, gently, lovingly. "Then go… and I'll always… I will always be watching you."

She stayed to watch the setting sun a few hours later, with owl and squirrel too, before departing.

We looked up at the glowing orange, yellow and pink sky and say "that is so beautiful". That sunset I watched with you beside me… was so beautiful it made my heart seize up. It was so beautiful. The season is changing with us on it… and soon, it will be spring again.

 

 

Closing

Fifteen years later, the forest is much different than before. Around ten years ago, a wildfire had burnt down much of the old forest due to a particularly hot and dry summer. Be they pine or ash, chestnut or oak, birch or yew, mahogany or acorn, none was exempted.

Only a pitiful fraction of the old forest had survived the inferno. From the ashes of death and decay, new saplings grew fast and grew strong. Within a few years, a new forest had grown. Much thinner and much clearer than before, but there it is.

It is spring. Birds are busy building nests to lay their eggs and foxes are digging out mounds of dirt to make chambers under the ground, while squirrels foraged fervently for nuts, berries and acorns. A doe and her newborn fawn are grazing in a little pasture, overseen by a plump little owl nearby. Further away, a litter of newly born wolf pups are wrestling in the dirt whilst the rest of the pack sunbathed on several large boulders that served as their den.

At the fringe of the forest, a young mother and her little girl are having a picnic under the shade of a large tree that is not pine or ash, chestnut or oak, birch or yew, mahogany or acorn.

It is the same girl from fifteen years ago. She has grown to become a beautiful young woman, intelligent, humorous and kind. Beside them is a large painting canvas, a wide paint pallet and a little stool. The painting is half-complete.

The forest itself welcomes her and her little one. They are always at ease here, no matter day or night. For several years they have visited this place, never venturing further in and never threatened by any wild beasts.

The two humans have a clear emotional connection towards this forest, one that causes them to visit this place… and in particular this tree, day after day.

It is a wise tree, wiser than any of its peers and wiser than even the old oaks that still stand. There are several more of its kind some distance away, yet it is at least twice as tall and three times larger than them.

Every creature in the forest knows and respects it. Only its owl friend remained, now a truly sentient owl that has lived past its second decade. Their friend the squirrel passed away many years ago and his home now belongs to his oldest daughter, who is very much like her father.

Unbeknownst to the young mother, this is the same tree that she befriended and who loved her, fifteen years ago.

Within the fifteen years, it had gone through both hard and enjoyable times. It was by luck that it was unscathed by the wildfire since it was separated from the other trees. It would be accurate to say that it was one of the few that was the least affected by the flames.

And in the years that passed it grew tall and strong from the ashes, and wise from watching, supporting and guiding new saplings and scarred survivors of the fire through the seasons.

Two years ago, she came during one autumn day with her little girl in tow. It recognized her straight away. On the other hand, she looked right and left, not recognizing the place at all. Well… the fire had changed more than the living things here, even the landscape had changed slightly.

Yet as if by fate, she led her child towards it and from that day they were always spending time below the same tree. She would paint while her child played, they would have lunch under its shade and eat the fruits it bore during summer - which were sweet and juicy - then she would paint some more while her little one explored nearby, never far from her mother or from its' protection.

I have been wondering for a long time, if a love that never bears fruit means anything. If something that vanishes and is gone, is it the same as something that never was? Well, now I know the answer.

It does mean something, and that meaning is right here. As time passes, I will be here and she will not. Neither will her children or her children' children, but I will. I guess the day will come that all of this will become just a memory. But, the day that we met… the seasons we spent together, the time we are spending now… in fact this whole miraculous time in my life, is going to keep playing, nostalgically… somewhere far away, deep in my heart… accompanied by a sweet pain, forever.

We said goodbye fifteen years ago on a cold winter evening… so I feel I shouldn't call out to her anymore. So I just watched in silence. This scene before me, of her painting and her child playing… all bathed by the warm spring sunshine… is like a favorite photograph pinned on the wall… so beautiful, just so beautiful.

All the luck… and happiness there is… I wish them on you. Wait for me. One day, I too will cross that wide river, that endless moonlit expanse. I will meet you there… on the other side… at seasons' end.

 

The End


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