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The Tree Guardian – a short story for Christmas

I wrote this story for a Christmas anthology with proceeds going to Make a Wish.  If you wish to donate after you have read it, I would be most grateful.  Here is a link: http://www.make-a-wish.org.uk/fundraising/donate/?gclid=CI7suP3uwbsCFWTnwgodqhEA8A

Tree Guardian cover

 

 

 

 

 

The Tree Guardian

by Rose Jones © 2013

Kallie sat on a toadstool in the fairy ring that grew in the centre of the great sacred grove and wondered what Lady Aine and Lord Foster would say to her this time. She was young for a guardian but why did they always treat her like a naughty mortal child. It wasn’t her fault that those human picnickers let their barbeque get out of control. She tried to call for help but her actions made matters worse. Her charge was now a charred stump in a stand of more charred stumps, their guardians now returned to the Source from whence all life came. Her tree called to her in its distress but she did not return in time. Why was she still here? She should have moved on like the others. Was her tree lost to the Source? Was she? She felt depleted by the pain of separation and did not know what to think.

A tree and its guardian were a symbiotic partnership that began when the seed breached the soil and normally ended when the tree died. The guardians faded with their trees; eventually returning to the Source. Some were thousands of years old, some mere saplings. The oak Kallie was created to protect was young, merely a couple of decades old. It was a replacement for an old tree blown down in a gale, so she was one of the youngest guardians in the copse. She liked it that humans came to visit; especially the children who kicked through the leaves in the autumn and played hide and seek behind the trunks. The other guardians were wary of the human animals; and of animals in general. They kept aloof and distant, communicating only amongst themselves about lofty tree concerns that mainly involved the weather.

The older guardians did not approve of Kallie’s youthful energy, of her curiosity and willingness to leave her tree and explore beyond its boundaries. Robur was a fine, strong oak and should have lived for many hundreds of years. She was looking forward to many days and nights shared together. He did not mind her excursions as he looked forward to her returning to tell him stories of what she had seen. His last feelings to her were not of blame but of love. To see his charred remains made her essence want to shatter with his loss.

Since the fire no one spoke to her. The trees bent their branches away as she flitted past and the other guardians whispered disapprovingly about what kind of punishment she should be given for her abandonment. Not one of them thought it a miracle that a guardian could survive the loss of its charge.

So here she was, summoned to the sacred grove by the local rulers of her world; rulers, who previously chastised her for being different, for being curious about the wider world, for daring to ask questions.

The ancient oaks whispered around her, their leaves golden with the change of the seasons. Small animals snuffled and foraged in the litter and birds went about their business preparing for winter. Everyone ignored her and Kallie felt so alone. She wished the Source had reclaimed her and that she and Robur could somehow be together again. Although she relished her times away from him, she missed their togetherness. They were created, each for the other, and his absence left a gaping hole in her heart.

The grove stirred and was infused with light as the entourage of Lady Aine and Lord Foster materialised within it. Kallie sank to the ground in supplicance, the tiny light of her existence a mere flicker to their bright energy.

Elementals had no true form that a human could discern. They were the energetic expression of the four basic elements; earth, air, fire and water. To Kallie, Lady Aine was a light entity that changed colour according to the seasons, while Lord Foster always chose the greens, gold and browns of Earth. Their energies constantly mingled as the one completed the other. Together they ruled over the woodlands here. In turn, they reported to the king and queen of what the humans called faerie, and so on towards the Source itself.

“Guardian Kallie.” Lady Aine communicated her name as she settled in front of her. “You know why you have been summoned?”

“Not really, My Lady.” Kallie replied with brusque honesty. “I do not know why I am here. I should be with Robur.”

“Yes, you should.” Lord Foster did not seem pleased to see this errant tree guardian.

“Am I being punished?” Kallie wondered. “I tried to save my tree. I tried to save them all, but none of the other guardians would do more than bemoan their fate. Why should I be punished because I tried to do something?”

“Your energy and explorations encouraged the humans to visit your copse.” Lord Foster grumbled. “You brought this fate upon your charge and upon the others.”

Lady Aine’s energy rustled and pulsed as if she did not agree with her partner’s interpretation of events.

“You are young and you did the best you could.” She consoled. “And I believe it is good that the humans spend time with us. Too long have they exploited our resources without care or understanding; they need to learn how to appreciate us for what we are.”

“But why did I not suffer the fate of the other guardians?” Kallie wanted to know.

“Because you abandoned your charge.” Foster told her.

Kallie looked up, indignance in her expression. She chose to help the humans escape, calling on the spirits of air and water to assist her against the fire that threatened everything. She knew she was too weak to act alone. At least she tried.

“I was at some physical distance, but I did not abandon Robur.”  She explained. “Erro Wind promised to pass my message on his breath to Jina Rain. I hoped that water would put out the fire, but Erro and his friends were then seduced by the flames and ignored my plea, fanning the fire instead of helping quench it. It’s fire and air you should be calling to justify their behaviour, not me.”

“Fire and air spirits do what they were made to do.” Lord Foster reminded. “You were made to stay and protect your tree.”

Kallie looked downcast. Foster did not approve of tree guardians doing anything but guarding. Lady Aine hovered closer, a more conciliatory vibration that flashed pink in amongst her current autumnal shades.

“I am sorry for your loss, Kallie.” She soothed.

“And you should have followed Robur back to the Source.” Foster added with irritation.

“But the powers above have given instruction.” Aine continued with the antithesis of his annoyance. “You are to be given a second charge.”

Kallie shimmered with surprise. A guardian was born with a tree and stayed with it. A guardian did not get another charge.

“You are very young.” Aine said.

“And apparently it has been decided that you should be given another chance.” Lord Foster said. “The choice has been left to me, so I have decided that since you like the humans so much, I will partner you with the kind of tree they grow and harvest. You will be given a fir tree.”

“A fir tree?” Kallie queried. “But they are grown by the humans in plantations that no animals like to live in and few humans come to walk, unless they are cutting the trees down.”

Lord Foster gave a pulse of satisfaction. “I was only told to give you a second chance. This is it. Take it or fade away. The choice is yours.”

Lady Aine was suspiciously quiet as her partner laid down his terms.

“All trees deserve a guardian, Kallie.” She eventually responded as the little tree spirit wondered how to respond. “Someone has to care for them however they come into being or whatever life they live.”

Kallie sparked with renewed energy for a moment, her decision made.

“I will accept your offer, Lord Foster.” She said, determined to make the best of this.

Foster pulsed with a nod of acceptance. “Very well. Prepare yourself.” And his energy vanished back into the sacred forest of the ancestors.

“Is this a punishment, Great Lady?” Kallie asked, as Lady Aine was leaving.

“It could be considered a punishment.” Lady Aine stopped and replied. “Or it could be an opportunity. I leave the interpretation to you.”

With no further communication, she too was gone and Kallie was left alone in the grove to await her fate. It was going to be a long and lonely night without a friend to comfort her but she was determined not to let this break her spirit, however heartbroken she was to lose Robur, her fine oak tree.

***

It was early December and the golden glow of autumn was nearly extinguished. Amanda sat strapped in the back seat of her parents’ 4×4 and tried to ignore her annoying little brother Keith, who at three years old had yet to emerge from the terrible twos. She was seven and mature beyond her years. The cancer saw to that.  This time she felt it was different. Her parents seemed less optimistic these days, although no one told her anything but positive news. She fought it before, but now it was back; what was left of her blonde hair covered again by the bright scarves her mother bought after the first batch of chemo.

The endless treatments and trips to the hospital, the chemicals in her body not just killing the cancerous cells, the not being able to do what normal kids her age could do, now began to weigh her down. She was tired all the time and she hurt, not just physically but mentally as well. Her parents tried not to show their concern but the strain was beginning to take its toll on everyone. Everyone except Keith.

Today was a treat day;  the day the family chose their Christmas tree. Normally they found something closer to home, but Amanda’s Dad decided to drive them all out to a plantation in the countryside so they could pick something special. Amanda once made a passing comment about wondering where the trees came from, so this was for her. The tree plantation was on the edge of a lake where there was a little cafe and opportunities to feed the ducks, so they went there first and placated little Keith with an activity he enjoyed.

At the entrance to the plantation there was a Portacabin surrounded by stacks of trees already bound in white netting, cut and ready to go. Some of them were on display and there were people in bright scarves and warm coats checking for size and shape. The sales staff all wore high viz jackets accessorized with Santa or elf hats in red and green. The elf hats had little bells on the end that tinkled when their wearer manhandled a tree to be sized for pricing.

“It seems a shame that the big ones don’t still have their roots.” Amanda remarked. “Can’t we have a small one in a pot that we can put in the garden after Christmas?”

Mum and Dad looked at each other. All the potted trees were tiny and far too small for their home. They had a big living room that could take a big tree. Keith curtailed any further discussion by making a grab for a large bunch of mistletoe in an attempt to eat the berries.

As her parents fussed, Amanda looked around. She noticed a tall man wearing a green waxed jacket, brown trousers and green Hunter wellingtons, standing alone on the footpath that led to where the trees were grown. He seemed to belong with the place and was probably the forestry manager. She smiled at him and he smiled back. He seemed to want her to follow him, but she knew better than to wander off alone with someone she did not know.

The ruckus with Keith finally subsided as Mum was now certain the toddler had not eaten anything. Dad apologised to the assistant for the fuss and then gave his attention to his daughter, who was tugging at his jacket pocket.

“Daddy,” Amanda said. “I’d like to go in there and pick my own tree.” She pointed to the plantation.

“I don’t think that’s allowed, sweetheart.” He looked down and replied.

The assistant heard them. “I can ask the manager.” She said with a smile. “We do let people choose a live tree if they intend to try and keep them.”

She vanished into the Portacabin to find out and emerged a few minutes later with an armful of sacking and a large ball of twine. A burly man with a spade followed.

“Let’s find you a nice tree little lady.” The man looked down at Amanda and smiled. “Something about your height maybe?”

“That would be great.” Amanda’s father said. “Thank you.”

“I’ll stay here with Keith.” Her mother volunteered. “We can’t take a buggy over rough ground and I don’t want him running off.”

Amanda reached up to grasp her father’s hand and they followed the forestry staff. She wondered where the tall, nattily-dressed man had gone.

The tall pines stood sentinel and dark in their straight rows. The ground was soft underfoot and smelled fresh and invigorating. These trees were destined for the saw mill, but beyond were the stumps of the trees grown especially for Christmas and recently felled. There were stands of different sizes, from new plantings to next year’s crop.

The forestry staff led Amanda and her father into an area where the trees were around four feet tall.

“Would you like to look round and choose?” The man with the spade asked.

Amanda was already looking. She discounted all the trees her father picked and instead found one herself. It was a pretty shape but slightly smaller than the others. It seemed sad, as if it needed a friend and she felt drawn to it in a strange kind of way. This was the tree for her, she decided.

“I’ll have this one.” She said.

Kallie clung on to the branches of her little tree, determined not to let go this time, as the humans dug a hole to extract it from the ground. She could feel her tree under stress as its outlying roots were cut by the sharp metal blade and it was levered from the ground.

“I will not leave you, Abie.” She assured her charge. “Whatever happens I will stay with you and protect you as best I can.”

Already she had tried to dissuade the humans by making Abie look too small for their needs, but that seemed to have the opposite effect. The other guardians made no attempt to assist her; they were trying to protect their own trees. The guardians here were not like those of the natural forest. They knew the inevitability that the humans would come and cut down the pines. There was not the joy or camaraderie here that the native woods usually enjoyed. There was a fog of quiet despair that their existence would be shorter than nature intended.

Eventually, Kallie and her tree were strapped to the roof of the human’s vehicle and were being driven to where this family lived. She knew they lived in clay and wooden boxes called houses, but had no idea what it was like inside one. She would soon find out.

The humans left them in their back garden while they went to find a suitable pot and extra soil, so Kallie had the opportunity to look around. It was a pretty garden, not too formal, with a pond and several small trees. She went and said hello to their guardians, receiving a guarded response in return. The birds rarely came to the plantation, but here they were plentiful and a particularly friendly robin came to say hello. She would happily have stayed in this garden, but that was not the current plan.

Abie sighed with relief when settled in some new earth, but did not like having her lower branches pruned and tidied. Then these horrible coloured shapes and glittery stuff was festooned all over her. Baubles and tinsel they called it. There were also coloured lights, which Kallie rather liked. What she did not like was the human-looking toy creature they tied to the top of the tree. It had wings and was supposed to be a fairy, but it was not like any fairy Kallie knew. She was the only guardian this tree was going to have. The false fairy was going to have to go.

There was a battle of wills for a while and every morning the family found the fairy lying on the ground beside the tree, along with some of the other decorations Kallie did not like. The little girl blamed her baby brother to begin with, but how did he so carefully remove the fairy from the top? There was no way he could reach it without launching himself at the tree. He was threatened with no presents if that happened.

As the festive season grew closer, brightly wrapped parcels were left under the tree and Amanda began sneaking downstairs after everyone else was in bed. Kallie wondered if she was waiting for something to happen, for the fairy to miraculously fly off the tree again. Sometimes the little girl just sat there quietly, but one night she came into the living room with what looked like a bunch of twigs in her hand. She laid it on the parquet flooring and looked up at the tree. The fairy was again leaning perilously, as if it was about to fall off.

“I think I now understand why you don’t like the fairy.” She told the tree. “Why don’t you show yourself? I know you’re there. I’ve seen you.”

On the floor was a star made of twigs. There was a hole in the middle as if she expected something to fill the space.

“You’re supposed to wish on a star.” She said. “I wish I could see you properly so that I know the magic is real.”

Kallie consulted with her tree and they both agreed she should grant the child’s wish, especially as she had made such a lovely replacement for the fairy.

Amanda’s eyes widened and she nearly dropped the star as a golden sphere of light began to glow in the empty space.

“I’m Kallie.” Amanda heard in her head. “I am the guardian of your tree. Please look after us and keep us safe.”

“I will for as long as I can.” Amanda whispered so that no one from upstairs could hear. “I’m sick and I don’t know how much time I have left.”

Kallie’s energy left the star and hovered above Amanda’s upturned hand. The little girl was enchanted and they sat there sharing information about themselves until they were sure they would become friends.

In the morning, Amanda was drowsier than usual, not just because of her sickness, but also lack of sleep. When she did wake, she felt better than she had in a long while, but the effect was only transitory. The family also noticed that the treetop fairy was now relegated to sitting on the edge of the pot and in its place was the home made twig star that Amanda made. No decorations on the tree moved after that night.

Every night after that, Amanda crept down to see and talk to Kallie. Even the friendly robin from the garden came in through an open window to sit on Amanda’s finger. The little girl’s inner light was shining, even though her life force was getting weaker. Kallie wondered how she could be seen, as the majority of the humans no longer saw the spirits of the trees when they walked in the forests. In ancient times they moved with the seasons, but now they had little awareness of their connection with the land. She asked the robin to visit Lady Aine and ask for advice. The reply was upsetting. The little girl was dying and when this happened, humans were more aware of what was truly around them.

On Christmas Eve, Amanda did not come down. Instead, her parents were in the living room arranging more colourful packages around the bottom of the tree. They seemed sad, as if they believed they would never have a Christmas like this again. They obviously loved their daughter very much.

Before dawn on Christmas morning there was a panic in the house and a vehicle with blue flashing lights pulled up. Amanda was rushed to the hospital and a neighbour was called in to look after Keith. Before they left, Amanda’s father came into the living room and took down the home-made star. Kallie wanted to go with it but felt torn between her responsibility and her friendship. Abie told her to go and the robin promised to fly messages between them.

In the intensive care room there was beeping sounds and flashing lights and Kallie had little opportunity to let Amanda know she was there because of the people in white coats fussing around. Eventually there was some respite as the doctors came to speak with Amanda’s parents as they briefly left her side. Kallie let her light glow inside the star so that Amanda would know she was there, but she had another visitor as well.

“Who are you?” Kallie asked the glowing creature now standing at the end of Amanda’s bed.

“I am the little girl’s guardian.” The young boy apparently about Amanda’s age replied. “I have come to guide her home.”

“But she’s too young to leave this world.” Kallie pulsed angrily, leaving the star and hovering protectively over Amanda’s heart. “Can’t you do anything? Give her a second chance?”

“It is not my job.” The angel replied. “Besides, my energy is far too strong to help her, even if I wanted to. It is her time and it is my duty to take her away from here.”

“Could my energy heal her?” Kallie wondered.

The angel looked pensive. “You are an earth spirit. I have never heard of such a thing.”

“I would gladly give myself to save this human child.” Kallie decided.

“At the expense of your charge?” The angel queried. “Your tree will die without your energy to connect it to the Source.”

“This little girl deserves another chance.” Kallie said. “I was given one. I would like to pass it to her. She will look after my tree. I know she will. Humans have energy too.”

The angel looked thoughtful, as if in conversation elsewhere.

“I have asked.” He eventually said. “We will see.”

For what seemed like an age, nothing happened. When her father returned, Amanda came to enough to make it known that she wanted Kallie’s star close to her, so the rough twig weaving was put on her chest. Her mother had red rings around her eyes and was trying not to cry. Both parents sat beside their child and held a hand each, both for mutual support and connection, Amanda’s father stoically holding back tears of his own. The doctors told them there was nothing more they could do but make their daughter comfortable and that what remained of her life would be measured in hours rather than days.

Kallie hovered close to the little girl, unseen by her parents and the doctors, willing her new friend to get better. A few hours later the medical machinery went silent for a moment before all kinds of alarms went off. In the confusion and the cacophony Kallie lost all sense of herself in the disorientation of light and sound. When she became aware again, she was looking at the world from a different perspective. At the end of the bed stood a tall man dressed in the green and brown tweeds of a country gentleman. She recognised him as Lord Foster. Amanda’s memories recalled him as the man in the waxed jacket and wellingtons she saw at the tree plantation.

“You are a brave one, Kallie of the Green.” He told her. “I look forward to seeing what you do with this opportunity. You have been tied to this human for her lifetime and together you must protect your tree.”

Kallie tried to speak, but it was Amanda who opened her mouth.

“Thank you.” They both said.

***

The doctors said it was a miracle, as a barrage of tests showed that the cancer had suddenly vanished. Amanda was released from hospital in time for New Year and the family arranged a belated Christmas celebration. Kallie found it strange to be looking out of Amanda’s eyes, feeling what she felt, but Amanda had nothing but joy in her heart, even for her annoying baby brother. When it was time to put away the decorations, they both chose where in the garden Abie would be planted. The robin stayed close and made its territory close by.

The little girl grew up and became a botanist. She refused to let the family house be sold, so that the little fir tree could be protected. Kallie, Amanda and Abie all grew up and grew old together until Amanda’s great grandchildren found her collapsed in her beloved garden late one autumn. The big fir tree shed its needles and died that winter, so in its memory another was planted to take its place. And so the cycle of life continued.

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