This is the first new chapter of the Tree Song series since February 2019. But this story in many ways stands alone. The unnamed protagonist lives upon a mountain in a hermitlike existence. Some years ago he discovered a beech sapling growing amongst towering dead trees above it. Then the magic began…
It was May Day. Dusk was nigh.
I was scything weeds and small brush with the machine that spins a plastic whip at ferocious speeds. I was getting tired. I had labored all day—down in the valley with my books and then for the last couple hours up here.
I looked up and saw her. She was donning her green mantle. Spring attire. When last I’d looked, the dun leaf cloak she wore all winter was covering her. When had she dropped them? When had she budded?
I had been too preoccupied to pay close attention, though she drew my eye most every morning and evening. I had looked often but had not seen.
I had neglected an old friend.
Well, not so old. She was young in years. Still lithe.
But I had learned she was an ancient one. A spirit from the old times. Before man came to this mountain. Before the first book was written.
I strode up to her, skirting the fern brakes that were now just thin strands of lime green, fragilely threading upward from the forest floor. Tiny croziers at their tips. They would slowly unfurl and then fill out. Soon there would be carpets of these graceful fauna covering large swaths of the mountainside.
‘What is that?!’
She was scarred. Her smooth gray skin was slashed a couple feet off the ground.
‘What happened!? A bear? Or a buck? I will get my rifle and kill it,’ Did I speak it or think it aloud?
She heard and replied. Did I hear her? Or did I just know her thoughts?
(A Dread Stag. I surprised me as I dozed in deep winter. I fended me off but not before…what you see.)
“I will kill him!”
(You cannot. It cannot be destroyed by weapons of metal or wood or stone. It was heading to you—your home. But I…I have a spe…you are protected up here by something you cannot see or sense. It is my duty…and my pleasure.)
“I have not seen a deer this close to the house for a long time.”
(It was no native mammal. It came on a clouded moonless night. The only light was its eyes. They glowed a dull dark red. I am so embarrassed. I should have been alert. But it was the dead of winter, cold and black. I must have dozed. I am thankful I awoke in time.)
“In time for what?”
(To prevent fire and storm and destruction. It is an evil beast. I do not know why it came here. That worries me.)
“I’ll have my gun by the door. I’ll make sure the outdoor lights are triggered by movement.”
(Bullets would not harm it. The wired sensors would not note its passing.)
“I am so sorry it harmed you.” Tears welled as I thought of the assault on her.
(I used to be young and beautiful.)
“You are both. Look how slender you are!” My eyes rose higher and higher. “But you have grown. Six feet this year?”
(Thank you. When my skirt fills out, perhaps the slashes will be covered. But I am afraid they will never mend completely. Our skin, once marred, never smooths over again.)
I thought of young lovers carving their initials in beech bark in city parks. Doing that, their love is eternal in a way. I shuddered at the thought of defacing this beech with a “tattoo.”
“Will you blossom soon?”
(Not this year. I am not ready yet for that. The time and my mood must be ready for chi…to bear that.)
I put my hand to her smooth gray skin. It was warmer than the air. The sun was behind her, up the mountain. At this time of day with the forest all around, it could not strike her trunk. I slid my hand down—to the slashes.
There were seven of them. Each three to five inches long. Each a half inch wide and deep at their maximum.
I gently drew my hand across them. The boughs trembled at their tips. High above me, she seemed to shudder a bit.
“Do they hurt?”
(The pain comes and goes. It is worst on a moonless night when the wind is from the north and east. When moonlight bathes me, it is comforting.)
“Does my touch hurt?”
(Ahhh…no. I am very glad you have come to me. It has been…a long time.)
“I am a very poor friend. To ignore someone who has done so much for me. You saved me from…her.”
(It is what I am here to do. To stand and watch. I see you most every day. And night. And I know you know I am here. That is enough…almost always.)
“Is there anything I can do? Can I get anything to treat your wound? Down in the valley there are vast stores full of medicines for…your kind.”
(Nothing made by man’s hands can do a thing for me. Rain and sun. Moonlight and the good soil I stand in. But you could get me something up here.)
“What? Anything! Water from the well. It is 350 feet deep, I was told.”
(Your water comes from down in the heart of this mountain. But no. I’ve plenty to drink. I am at least as deep as I am tall.)
My eyes again surveyed her. Up, up and up.
‘She must be 30 feet tall now. She was only a dozen when I dropped the dead ones threatening—overhanging her.’ I shuddered, recalling the fright we both had when the biggest dead one fell in the wrong direction and nearly crushed me.
(I am seventeen now. It is four years since you rescued me. I wasn’t much more than a sapling then. Those big trees were killed for a purpose. When it was discovered I had taken root here, plans were made to crush me. I was too young and weak then to protect myself. I had not learned what could be said and done in my own defense.)
“But why? What brought you here? And what is the meaning of the things that have happened to me? Us?”
(I don’t know. I cannot see how the story goes from here. Nor how it ends. If it ends. I only know my work here is important. And that perhaps your work will mean something some day.)
(There is something you can do for me. That great oak that was toppled by the hurricane that rushed up this mountain a decade ago…)
“It was huge. Over 150 feet tall.”
“But that was before…you would have been just a seedling…”
(Just after I sprang from beneath the forest floor. Yes. But there are legends up here. He was one.)
“That was a dreadful night. The trees were whipping like stalks of wheat in that storm.”
(He is melting back into the earth. Pouring his nutrients back into the soil from which he sprung hundreds of years ago. Along his trunk resting on the soil, he has become as soft as soil. If you could bring a handful or two and spread it upon my wounds, it might help.)
“Yes! Certainly. I will go get a shovel and dig a bushel for you!”
(NO! No. Just use your hands. And do not take more than will fill your cupped hands. It is very soft there. We mustn’t take more than we need.)
I did as I’d been bidden. Indeed, the organic material between the decaying fallen tree and earth was somewhere between moist sawdust, leaf mold and soil. I reached into earth and cupped my hands. It was golden brown. Years ago, this material had been 75 feet up in the air.
I returned to the beech. When I pressed the moist soil-like material into the gashes, I felt I heard a long sigh. It was a high lonely sound that seemed to come from far away—far away in distance and in time.
(Thank you, thank you.)
“Can I do anything else? Water?”
(Oh my, no. My roots go deep. There is an ocean of moisture beginning just a few feet below us.)
“I’m sorry I’ve been so neglectful. I’ll come up this evening, and we can catch up. I can gather more of the golden soil. Is it helping? “
(It is cooling the fire on my skin. I hope it heals the wounds. I feel so disfigured.)
“You are beautiful. Stunning.”
I went inside to prepare my evening meal and change from the dirty wet work clothes.
Later, I returned to her. I sat on the stone I’d placed on the ground before. I pressed my back against her. She was indeed warm.
Looking eastward—down the mountain—I saw in the valley the first shadows of night. The sun was just beginning to drop over the top of the mountain to the west—up the slope above them. As the sun went further, the shadow would spread further and further east.
I rested against her and dozed a bit. I dreamt of ancient times when men were just a new race. The ancient trees were all wise with their experience of the ages. And they could change their shapes when they wished. I dreamt one became a fair maiden. Tall and lithe. She wore a silver gray gown. Her hair flowed down over her shoulders a spread around her to her waist. It was a soft nearly golden brown. It was bedecked with thousands of small leaves of silver. They were incredibly thin and were the color of jade.
Then dusk settled in. I awoke and was chilled—all except my back.
But I felt refreshed—in my soul. Things that had been pulling me apart inside had been mended. The tapestry that was my life, whose fringes had been frayed, was repaired—rewoven.
(You should go inside. You will catch sick.)
“I am tired. I will heat up my sad supper and then read and write and then go to sleep.”
(Rest well. You will dream tonight. You will visit the city of elves in your sleep. Perhaps you will find some answers there.)
“Good night, and thank you for your words and comfort and protection. I wish I could serve you in some way.”
(You saved me as a sapling. You see to it I have space and light. I may live here 443 years from now. I shall be a matron of the mountain and help keep the evil things at bay.)
“I shall soon be a distant memory to you by that measure.”
(Perhaps not. Time is measured in different ways in some places. You will be shown some of them. This stone which you brought and set at my feet three years ago. That stone is older than us. Far older than men. It was made by he who bought the elements together. First the stones and water. Then season after season, the world was enriched by his new creations. And here we two are—each of us is one of those creations.)
I walked down the slope and turned toward my home. The lights inside got warmer and warmer as the night deepened.
I made a meal of soup and bread. I read and read. I picked up pen and paper. I wrote and wrote. Then my pen stopped moving. My papers slide off the bed to the floor in a sprawl. My breathing changed, and I was somewhere else.
I rode over mountains and through valleys. A landscape of sharp black stone and dull green moss. Water fell over mountainsides—sometimes gushing in torrents—sometimes threading its way down like a thin silver vein—bending this way and that. Then I rode over another mountain pass. This one blanketed in fog and cloud, mist and rain—so thick I could only see a few feet of black scree road before me. When I crested it, I could see the unmistakable silver glow of the sea in the far distance. My road wound down and down. Soon I was below much of the mist and fog which shrouded the high mountain. I could discern a long thin bay. A fjord, it must be. A tiny village was alongside it. Small homes of soft-yellow and red and off-white. A tiny gray wooden church. Warm lights glowed from the windows of each one. A mound of basalt columns rose just beyond the village. It was a kind of castle made by nature’s hand.
What did I see?!
Soft lights glowing from with in that solid rock. Tiny windows, there must be dozens. Pinpricks in the distant dark stone. As if there were candles inside the rocky mound.
Down, down I rode. I entered the town as the sun was just breaching the sea far to the east.
And then I was awake. My hand still held my pen. My bed was soft and warm. The dawn was a soft glow to the east down in the valley far below.
I prepared for my day at work far down in that valley.
I stepped out my door and looked up the mountain.
The Beech, she was basking in the golden dawn. Her silver skin was a soft golden glow.
I strode up the mountain to her.
“I had the strangest dream.”
(I did as well.)
“It was far to the north and east.”
(It was Iceland. The northeast coast where the Arctic Ocean meets the Atlantic.)
“What did it mean?”
(I will ponder and perhaps reach out for the opinion of others. Come visit me when you return this evening. I will tell you what I have learned—if anything.)
I turned down the slope and stepped around the stones and boulders that littered the mountain floor.
I climbed into my truck, turned it around and began the long descent. She watched my red taillights as they seemed to rise up as the vehicle tilted down before disappearing below the crest.
When I returned that evening, I went right up to her.
(It was a beautiful day. I basked in the spring sun all these hours.)
“Would you like me to get more of the tree soil for you?”
(Yes. Please. It cools the fire on my skin.)
I did as I was bidden, and as I gently spread the soft moist mulch upon her scars, she spoke to me.
(We did indeed dream of Iceland. Perhaps there are early books there for you to discover. You should go. It would be good for you to get away and see and learn something new.)
“But where should I go? I have visited a few times but always stayed in the southwest.”
(I will learn more, I am sure. Voices are coming to me from far and wide. Iceland was once covered with trees. Millions of my cousins—the birches—five families of them. One small—no taller than you!) She laughed, and it was as if her leaves were made of thin silver and chimed as softly as a breeze in the nighttime breathing through thousands of wind chimes.
(We do not disparage them. All trees have a soul. We all serve a purpose where we live and grow. Iceland. It is a legendary place for you and us. There are tales of the forested isle long ago. The birches lived in harmony with the land and…others. Then men came. Vikings. They cut the trees for firewood and homes and ships and charcoal. They cut it all til there were no more.)
Her voice caught, and I heard a soft sob-like trickle of a tiny mountain spring dripping through moss-covered stones.
(Now men are replanting forest there, but it will take lifetimes for things to be as they were. So much was eroded and washed to the sea when my cousins were no longer there to bind the soil to the rocky island.)
We spoke into the evening, and when the sun was dropping behind the mountain, we parted. She was standing at her station in the forest. I going into my home and moving around the rooms in my evening routine.
That night I read and wrote and fell asleep pen in hand.
My dream was much the same, but this time I got closer to basalt stone mound. It was still and dark. A solid mound—nature’s castle.
The next morning I woke before dawn. I went out in the starlight and stood before the tree.
“What does it mean?”
(You should go and find what you can find.)
Weeks passed. And a few months. Spring became summer and summer warmed and then heated.
I took a plane to Iceland. It landed on the southwestern peninsula. I took a bus north and then west. Maps showed me magical areas. The northwest peninsula had the volcanic cave where Jules Verne had reported there was a route to the center of the earth beneath the subglacial stratovolcano in the Snaefellsjokull glacier. His explorers had found their way in and down, down, down to a world within the world. Dinosaurs had still lived in a verdant land, and other magic things happened as well. Alas, those explorers were the last to find their way there. An eruption had pushed them on stone plug up from the bowels of the earth. They had emerged astonishingly in Italy and were safely thrust from Stromboli to safety on the surface. No one had believed their tales except Verne, and he had recorded the events faithfully.
I then crossed the northern wastes. Well, they were not “wastes” but miles of beauty. Mountains and valleys and plains. Green and gray and black. For vast distances no humans dwelt—even in these far future times. On the area east of the middle there was a long, long fjord. Beyond that, the plains became even more barren. Big piles of stones were mounded here there. They were not stones, but rather trolls who had failed to make it back into their caves or eternally dark valleys before the suns ray’s struck them, and they were turned to stone forever.
The most recent victims I found were near Lake Myvatn at the Dark Castles. Dimmu borgir. Trolls are not nice creatures. I didn’t pity their dire straits. Indeed, I almost felt they were watching me—locked in their stone shells.
I continued east and came to the Lagarfljot. It was a long deep glacier lake and home of the Wyrm—a long serpent of many humps. A maiden was given a fairy ring of gold long, long ago. She had put it in her treasure box in which lived, unbeknownst to her, a tiny woodworm. The ring passed some of its magic into the worm, and it grew and grew. When next Herad opened her chest, the worm had grown large and fearsome. In terror she tossed her chest into the lake where the Wyrm has grown, and woe be to anyone crossing the long thin body of water alone and in a remote area.
I had been advised of these things by books I had found and the advice of my friend of the forest. I was told I should visit each, as each would imbue me with some of the country’s spirit.
And then I went further east. As in the dream, I came to a mountain pass. My road wound up and up, and the world disappeared into fog and mist. I could only see the black volcanic scree road a few feet before my feet. I sensed I had come to the top when my steps began to go downhill. I was soon walking faster. Soon I was able to see the sea. A wide fjord—the Borgarfjordur—spread before me far below. A tiny village lay on the southern shore. The road wound and wound down and down, and soon I was in the village. A tall man, mostly bald, met me at the entrance to the town. He wore a long loose handwoven woolen sweater hung below his waist, almost to his thighs. It had no cinch at its bottom hem and looked incredibly warm and comfortable.
I thought, ‘I must find one of those before returning to the west.’
“Godden dag,” the man greeted me broadly. Welcome emanated from him.
“Good day! I have come far. I was told I should visit a special rock here.”
“You came to see a rock! Ha, ho, ho!”
“I saw it in my dreams—many times over the last few months. It is like a castle of basalt.”
“Ahhh! Alfaborg. You don’t believe in such tales in Ameerica do you?”
“I was told I might leaned something if I visited there.”
“Told? By whom!?”
“A forest friend,” I mumbled softly.
“You have a friend in the forest!? That is different. You are welcome here!”
“Can you lead me to it?”
“For certain. But first, let me ask your plans.”
“I was hoping there might be an inn or a B&B.”
“You made no plans? No reservations?”
“I can sleep under the stars if necessary. All I need is in my knapsack and on my back.”
“Well, we can do better than that in this town! I know an old woman who keeps a little house of grass. I’m sure she would help a man who has come so far and has a friend in a forest. But first, let me feed you at my home. We always have a fine fish stew on the stove. My wife bakes bread most days. Come along, and we shall have a schnapps to start!”
It was a cold blowy evening outside, but the hearth was warm in the tight little cottage.
“Are you a fisherman?” I asked the big man.
“Why? Do I look like a fisherman? No, no, I am a poet and a singer of the old songs. Perhaps I shall sing you one after dinner.”
The evening was warm and cozy.
The last song was long and in an ancient tongue. But I found I could understand the story of ships and friendships and rivalries. Murder and redemption.
“Well, shall we get you set up for the night? Bjoirkhildish doesn’t stay up too late.”
“You are sure it is ok? Will she be upset with a surprise guest?”
“My dear fellow, you have no choice! This is the hospitality of the town. Hildish’s home was made centuries ago for guests such as you. Come along.”
We walked down the street past a half dozen homes and then the little gray wooden church.
Then we stopped before one of the oddest houses I had ever seen. Big mounds of tall grass rose up from its corners and made a turf roof. The center was red wood with white eaves and a brown black door.
We made our way toward the front door. The tall man opened it and ushered me inside. I noticed a darkened room off to the side. Inside it were dozens of pieces of luggage of vintages ranging from wooden chests to leather bound trunks to upright rectangular bags of cloth or leather or even plastic with clasps and handles atop them…and backpacks ranging from off white duck cloth canvas to olive drab army surplus type material to more brightly colored modern vinyl and other man-made materials.
“Who have you brought, Stephan Bjornsson? Another lost soul?” a voice creaked from a corner in the darkened parlor.
It was a tiny bent woman with a gnarled gray cane made of sea driftwood clasped in her right hand.
“No, Hildish, he is a forest friend and was advised he should visit this town.”
“Well, a surprise visit relieves the monotony from time to time. Did he feed you cod stew? That’s all he ever offers.”
“It was wonderful, as was the bread.”
“He liked the schnapps best of all! Ha! Ho, ho!”
“Well, it is getting late. Let me show you your tiny lodging.”
The door creaked like a raven’s caw at her tug.
The room was tiny, and there was a mattress on the floor that looked as if it was filled with straw.
“There’s a pitcher of water on the shelf. Your necessary is that little wooden closet out in the back. You may hear bird calls in the night. You must not go out and look for them. There are places you can fall into in the dark, and it will be the devil to get you out!”
They left, and I slipped my gray and black backpack from my shoulders. I laid on the bed and began to write in my journal by the light of my iPhone.
I had just dozed off when I heard a tapping on the door.
I rose and pushed it open. It creaked like a raven’s caw.
It was Hildish. Only now her long gray braids piled atop her head were wrapped in a garland of rosemary.
‘Odd,’ I thought. ‘You can’t grow rosemary in this subarctic climate.’
“You came to see our rock, I am told.”
“Yes. A friend told me I should see this place.”
“Here our forest friends are all birches.”
She knew. She knew Iceland was a land of birches.
“My friend, she is a beech.”
“Ahhh, silver skinned and beautiful, I don’t doubt.”
“Y-y-yes,” I stammered.
“Well follow me. This is a good time for us both.”
She led me down the narrow road. She had silver badges with rune-like markings on the back of her cane. They were in shapes at once familiar, but at the same time, shapes I had never seen before. The silver seemed to glow softly of its own light.
“Here we are,” she said.
We stood before a tall rock.
“We need to walk round it. You go clockwise. I will circle the other way and meet you on the other side.”
I did as instructed. As I approached halfway on the other side, I saw there was no one there.
Then there was a tap on my shoulder. I turned and found my eyes level with a stunning young woman. She was lithe and tall and wore a silver gown. Her hair was long—it fell over her shoulders and to her waist inside each arm. It was the color of gold blended with the tender dun tan of dry autumn leaves. Hundreds of tiny silver green leaves were woven into a net of filigree silver metal. Her features were long and her cheekbones high. Her eyes were emerald green.
She reached her hands out toward me beckoning me to take them.
I raised my hands and took hers.
Her hands slipped up and clasped my wrists.
She backed toward the rock, pulling me gently but inexorably with her.
She slowly disappeared into the solid rock until only her forearms, wrists and hands were visible.
I was pulled more and saw my own hands disappear into the stone.
Then I was inside. It was a room with walls 37 feet high lined with silver glass.
She still had my arms in her grasp.
“Come. I will show you my realm.”
She backed through an archway of carved birchwood. The design framing the portal was knots and swirls and mazes.
When we passed through it, she turned and stood by my side.
A vast space spread before them. A forest and thousands of lights flickered and flew amongst its branches.
“Welcome to my lands. Alfaborg. My elvish city. Come see. We have things I am told are of interest to you.”
“Am I dead?”
She laughed like silver bells.
“No. You are no prisoner either. You may stay or leave at any time. But come see my lands and waters. We shall drink from waters that rise from the very center of the earth. There is no rush to make up your mind.”
And so I was led down, down, down a long grassy path and into a vast forest.
To be continued…