There’s always a truth imprint left over. Truth can’t be erased, if you’ve noticed; it finds ways to show up and tell its story. And the stories just keep changing.
If you loved a girl, you wouldn’t think she’d become a tree. The Minstrel didn’t anyway, and how could he have guessed that after his love became a tree, the girl in her would grow into a woman. Her sister wasn’t a woman till she had wings, but she was always flighty, if truth be told.
“They all want you to go,” Plum says. The breeze clatters her leaves.
On the horizon, a roiling, bruised battleship of a storm front sits across the valley just above the blue mountains, threatening an early killing freeze. For days, The Minstrel has watched the birds’ exodus from this fertile hilltop woods, and the elk trooped away between the aspens yesterday. The rabbits remain, and therefore bobcats, too.
The Minstrel finishes mending the blanket he’s been holding close before his eyes and picks up a stack of heavy linen wrappings, shaking them to straighten their folds. “Nah, not now. Not a good time.” He crosses under Plum’s branches to her other side and walks up a short ladder till he can reach her wounded branch. Unlike her other sleek, strong limbs, this one is gnarled, with gray bark segmented like an old puzzle. Where some puzzle pieces are missing, spongy dark rot now grows. He winds a taut bandage over one of the slick, crumbling wounds to keep out the cold.
“It hurts,” Plum says. “But I think it’s a good hurt.”
“Sometimes it’s like that,” he says and ties a knot. The wind stirs faster and faster, tugs at his clothes, till it yanks his stepstool sideways. It crashes down as the Minstrel catches himself on Plum’s weak branch, and his thumb sinks into an oozy pit.
Her moan is like splitting timber.
“Sorry!” The Minstrel drops and twists his ankle on landing. His green hat shivers on his head, then shoots away in the wind, lost to the wood’s tangled bushes.
Plum’s branches clack together. She yells at nothing, throwing twigs. “Let me go!” she echoes.
“O, my Plum.” The Minstrel rubs her resonant trunk, ducking out of the way. “You’re okay.”
Gradually, her branches settle; another red leaf falls. “I got confused,” she admits.
“About what?” He spots his wool hat, limps over to retrieve it from a prickle bush, and gratefully ties it back on.
“You stuck your thumb right in a memory,” Plum says. “I don’t touch those ones. For a minute, I didn’t know which story I was in.”
The Minstrel grimaces, remembering the squish. “The dark rot is your memory?”
“I don’t know about your body,” Plum says, “but mine is full of memories and selves. And that’s my branch full of pain. There was a lot of pain left …after the goddess transformed me—when I escaped. It was like black sap blocking the light. I couldn’t remove it, so I sectioned it off; then the rest of me got to be strong and healthy. That’s what I did.”
A bunny races off the path, followed by Miss Ursula shuffling around the bend of thin ash trees, a basket of jams and dark bread on her arm, calling, “Hello, young man!”
The Minstrel’s beard is half-snow, his hair long and hands tough as gloves, but Miss Ursula still tells stories featuring him as one of the village children, back before he got his name, when he was soft and mini, climbing on her back and tightwiring trees and fences, along with the lost beautiful sisters, “married now,” as she says it, “the both of them, to the God of Force & Magnitude. (Give thanks.)”
Miss Ursula stops before a small hole in the path, basket clutched. A hollow snakeskin trails from the opening, sloughed off when the molting snake slipped underground. She finally steps around it.
“Miss Ursula!” The Minstrel bellows regally and sets the linen wrappings on his stool.
“My dear, the weather’s about to snap,” she says. They kiss cheeks. “At the meeting hall, they said it would be the coldest winter in twenty years.”
The Minstrel grumbles conversationally, but doesn’t speak his worries.
Miss Ursula is a keen mimic. “The Old Bastards said, ‘It was a vengeant weather witch in the valley sent it.’ But the Old Bitches said, ‘No! It’s a god unlucky in love and furious. ”
A bird shrieks and Ursula darts a look. “I did hear rumors of a god taken with Tailin.” She waves a hand. “You’ve seen her, the valley blacksmith’s blond daughter.”
Robin swoops down and lands at Miss Ursula’s feet. Her dark wings flare; she screams three times, rustles her neck, then charges off, only to spiral above Miss Ursula’s scarf-wrapped head. Maroon leaves shower them.
“This bird!” Miss Ursula swats, and Robin screams. “Is it always like this?” She rubs her ear.
“Only with you.” The Minstrel removes a pair of upright leaves perfectly positioned on Miss Ursula’s head like horns, as if she’s dressed up for the harvest dances. “It seems she likes you quite a bit.”
“For all my luck,” she scoffs. “Come on now, Minstrel.”
“Why would I go? This is my home,” he squeezes her thinning shoulders, “but thank you for the delicious gifts.” He twines a cord through the handle of the basket he hoists above his head to dangle beside the other supplies belted around Plum’s trunk (in The Minstrel’s form of cupboard), knotting it with a double half-hitch.—Two half-hitches, it’s been said, will hold even the God of Warfare. It’s in one of his hero ballads.
“I wish you’d quit your stubbornness and come back for the winter. I have that extra mat. It’s not lavish but I could use the help.” Her eyes slit. “Hey!”
Robin perches on the basket, stealing bites of bread. She shrieks rudely at Miss Ursula, flies away, then returns for more.
“That’s okay,” The Minstrel says. “She can have some.” Miss Ursula purses her lips and watches the bird tear off a good loaf corner. Mid-feast, a twig falls and knocks Robin off the branch, and her midair wings go crooked as knees before she rights herself. Miss Ursula snorts and breaks into chortles.
“Puts me in mind of the wee robin I nursed right after he chose our girls. At first, you know, I thought my heart would break, but then I busied myself with that foundling, kept it in a blanket under my bed that festival week for the sisters’ wedding. Nursing that bird helped me mend.” She shakes her head.
“Life’s unfair, but at least good things happen too; they can happen to anyone. Why, I helped raise two beautiful girls who are now divine brides with the gods in the sky.”
Her chin dimples. “Only eleven and twelve. That’s the gods and their tastes for you.” Wind sings around a nearby boulder. “I wasn’t much older myself, though it wasn’t a god who wanted me.” Miss Ursula tilts her head. “Wouldn’t that be something if this were the same robin?” Her eyes widen and for one moment, she looks six years old.
The Minstrel waits.
“But of course it couldn’t be. That must’ve been decades ago, eh? Half a century.”
By now, The Minstrel is used to leaving out important parts of the story. Sometimes that’s the only way people can understand changes.
Like a dart, an amber bobcat bounds across The Minstrel’s camp on tufty paws, aimed at the robin. A low Plum branch cracks off and smacks the bobcat’s nose. Robin swoops up to a tree branch, lecturing, and the annoyed bobcat shakes her head and leaps away.
“Strange things seem to follow you, Minstrel. Just like in your songs,” Miss Ursula calls on her way out, right before she passes the raucous band of arriving visitors.
Long ago on The Minstrel’s nineteenth birthday, his Uncle Rank came through town. For seven years, The Minstrel’s gaze had been deadweight, ever since that god abducted his true love, a village girl, along with her sister. To Uncle Rank, seven years was an unnaturally long time to grieve a girl, divine-captured or not, so on that visit, his merchant cart held only a sulking young woman with walnut-colored skin.
“Here’s your bride, nephew. From me to you.” Uncle Rank took a step back from the laden cart. “Take a look; she’s a beauty.”
The Minstrel loved Uncle Rank enough to guard him from his deep offense to the human gift. “O Uncle, she’s not my bride. Please take this woman somewhere safe.” He rubbed his eyebrows, swallowed, and resolved to commence a journey, an aimless escape which a week later had taken him across the valley and back, before dropping him in the dappled cove beneath the region’s lone plum tree.
He sat in tree’s shade and leaned against its trunk and found it so comfortable; he took up the folk harp slung on his back and plucked out a silvery song like a windblown silken glove.
Ripe fruit dropped in his lap in applause. When the Minstrel looked up, he saw the face he knew best. There, just above him was his twelve year-old true love, drawn precisely by the plum tree’s branches—her little smirk and pointed chin and hair so long and wild.
“Is it you?” He inhaled half of the question.
The ridges in the tree’s bark swelled like a bellows, and a breathy voice said, “O yes.”
Like a fawn he skittered, knees and feet in all directions. Once he recovered, their conversation commenced, which was so interesting; it’s gone on fifty years now.
“Are you okay, m’dear?” The Minstrel asks Plum during the moment they’re alone. The coming storm has shaken her up, or maybe it’s her chilling wounded branch, cracked like clay. She keeps falling back into the past.
Throughout the woods drop gold and green and red leaves. The wind grabs fistfuls of her ruby leaves, and Plum says, “When I was eleven, it was like my body became magnetic; all these hands kept reaching for us. I never got a chance to get comfortable with my own bloom. And that’s actually something I’ve wondered over the years, if women ever do get comfortable.
“I’ve also wondered about a question Robin asked me: ‘Do you think he’s handsome in his human form?’ I was so mad when she asked, I hit her. Secretly, I’ve wondered if it’s her fault he chased us so hard, if while we ran, Robin sometime turned back to curl her finger at him, maybe mouthed, ‘Come closer.’ Or not. It doesn’t change anything. But she did wonder if kissing a god would make her a goddess. She’s always been vain. All birds are vain, I’d say, even the common robin,” and she laughs with love.
One by one, the arriving rugged travelers walk single-file along the path, sharing woops and booming hellos as they pass Miss Ursula, coming from her village in the west, on their way to the east valley’s full moon bazaar, dressed in cloaks and dark hides, with lutes and drums tied round them. They bustle into The Minstrel’s camp and shrink it instantly.
“May seem mad, us heading straight for the storm, but that’s why we have to get to the valley before the freeze,” says a portly man with a horn-flask. He shakes the long plum-wood flute he bought from The Minstrel, last visit. “Why aren’t you packing? Going to stick out another blizzard in your camp, Minstrel?” They laugh like their crowd is three times as large. Robin shrieks and escapes. “Well, let’s squeeze a quick tune in to lighten our journey. Play us a song before we all get blown away, huh?”
“Yeah, come on, Minstrel!” calls a muscular, fresh-faced man, his voice still high—a countertenor.
“Play us your famous one!” a throaty woman calls from under her hood. “I grew up with that one; my father sung me to sleep with it.” The crowd roars agreement.
The Minstrel says, “That’s not a happy bedtime tale, if you father didn’t notice. No, ‘Sister Roots & Wings’ is too grim for outrunning a storm. I’d rather sing a song about love, because if anything will save us all, it’ll be love.”
The Minstrel sits with his stool pressed against the tree trunk where it fits his back perfectly, takes up his folk harp, and makes his worries into inspiration, writing a new song on the spot. The rowdy group quiets as he plucks them a song like a billowing spider-web in the early morning. His voice like shined mahogany sings the tale of his one true love, whom he loved not for her eyes or her hair or the way she pressed against him, but because she always seemed to know his mind. He’d follow her anywhere, because whatever else he’s been offered, he’s just too lonely without her understanding, and so, when they’re together, it’s a good life.
But of course, he says all this in that way only The Minstrel’s songs can, and by the end, the smiling travelers are touching their eyes, and Plum’s branches keep swaying to the faded song’s beat, and, “Well, what happened to her, Minstrel?” the husky woman asks, hand to her chest. “That’s a shame to have love like that and lose it,” she tisks.
The Minstrel gives a saintly smile. “But I didn’t.”
“O no?” calls a bald man with an eye-patch. “Are you hiding your maid in your bedroll? Maybe she’s stored in your cart?” He runs and checks, shakes his head. “Not there. Is she a spirit, Minstrel? Does she live in the clouds above your head?”
A stern man, tall as one and a half regular men, puts a hand on Eye-patch’s shoulder and barks, “Quiet.”
“I’m blessed to live a life filled with love,” The Minstrel says, raising a wooden goblet. Red leaves fall around him, and he takes a sip of mint-water.
“Get the wine!” three men cry on cue, and four uncorked bottles are offered. The Minstrel drains his glass, and it’s refilled with crimson wine.
“To love!” an adolescent boy cries. Wearing a huge leather cap, he balances on a boulder with glass held high. The crowd roars.
“Wherever you find it!” the woman hollers and musses the boy’s hat.
He swats her off with an “Aw, ma…”
Everyone slurps and drinks and accepts more. Some men drum a rhythm, others stomp accompaniment, and a flute licks out a tune of wild play. Flush-cheeked in the cold, they all dance to the riotous tune, cramped in The Minstrel’s camp clearing. Eye-patch wildly twirls the Giant till his elbow clocks The Minstrel, who stumbles back, arms pinwheeling. He’s saved by a Plum branch that bends to maternally right The Minstrel’s balance, before bouncing back up into place.
That’s about when the song ends. Most of the travelers saw the arboreal save and shuffle feet now, eyes darting. “Well, this has been a good warming up. We’d better move on before the cold sinks back in our bones. Huh, crew? Let’s get going.”
Murmurs and bickers follow. The travelers’ group is like a collective creature that complains and acts as one. “Take care now, Minstrel! You do whatever you can to stay warm. There’s no shame in it!” And so they leave with laughter, and as they clomp down the wood’s path, the strong, effeminate young man says, “Did you see the tree move?”, which brings back a “Hush it, Monty!”
Like so, the many-legged animal of the travelers’ crew winds down the forest path, bickering and yelling, as rabbits dart away from their approach and the dark battleship of a storm cloud sails closer over the mountains.
“I’ve seen that storm ship before,” Plum says. “That’s him coming again.”
Fifty years, they’ve danced around this sore secret that Plum has kept from her village and him like a poisonous love gift. “Tell me what really happened when you changed,” The Minstrel asks and quiets his breathing, waits.
A cloud of red leaves floats off her branch like a sigh. Amid the rattling wind, she says, “Well, the god had been hunting us a while, like a cougar after prairie dogs? But he called it love. The God of Force & Magnitude. He called us twins of the perfect maiden and loved that he couldn’t tell us apart.
“Three times he attacked us—first he burst as lightning from a ship like this, then he became a red bull, and then he was a puddle in the path. How mild is puddle? We stepped in and the puddle became a sea, deep and wide and icy. Then his hands were everywhere and there was no escape. My body numbed and went away, and I learned it wasn’t mine after all.
“But here’s the key: I still dared call for help even while I broke, and that’s when the goddess came. She fell as the evening star, landed in his puddle-sea and evaporated the water till it was a cloud of steam rising from our arms.” Plum sounds half-asleep. “The Goddess of Children & Childbirth. And that was when I flew. The goddess blew a wind gust that swept me and Robin away from him and carried us to this hill, right here. The woods were thinner then. She changed Robin into her name, and Robin flew away; she was gone two years.
“My childhood was running down my legs, and even divine efforts couldn’t repair the girl I’d been. Instead, the goddess showed me how to thicken my skin into bark and root myself into solid ground, and I became a tree. Dreams showed me how to grow, and light made me huge and beautiful. It wasn’t till the next fruiting season, when my arms filled with sweet child hearts, that I learned I was a plum.
“Rescue never does give you what you really want, though,” she adds.
“What’s that?” he asks.
“To undo what happened. But she gave me the next best thing.”
Wet drops land in the dirt, sap leaking from her rotted spots. The Minstrel rights the ladder and climbs up to inspect.
“I can’t talk about this. Now my wounds are leaking, aren’t they? This is why I don’t touch them. The rest of my limbs are fine.” Her voice is like dead twigs against ice.
The Minstrel shivers and pokes his small fire. He hitches up his woolen leggings, snaps wide the mended blanket, then wraps it around Plum’s trunk, tucking and folding the fabric for a good fit.
“Might’ve guessed you’d give the tree your best blanket.”
The Minstrel stands to find the roaring wind has muffled his uncle’s approach, but there he is wheeling his cart down the path, swerving around the hole with snakeskin attached.
“Hey there!” The Minstrel cries.
A gust blows off Uncle Rank’s crooked peaked hat, teases it above his head, and he goes on tiptoe reaching for it—a spry, many-jointed man. By his feet, the snakeskin breaks free and blows into the bushes. The Minstrel grabs his uncle’s released, rolling cart with one hand and catches a spilled green plate before it can shatter.
Uncle Rank steals his hat back from the wind and with both hands on its floppy brim, shoves it back on, corkscrewing a tight fit. “This storm is a god’s anger, all right.” He reclaims his plate and parks the cart next to The Minstrel’s hut. “Damn their lust.”
“I’m always happy to see you, Uncle, but where are you headed? The freeze is coming quick.” The Minstrel guides Uncle Rank to a stool by his small blustery fire and throws on another log. Uncle Rank nods and accepts his familial honors.
“Don’t I know it. I’ve come about your stubbornness, to see if I can break it and convince you to come with me to the village. When I last came through, the redhead widow invited me to stay the night, and I’ve waited long enough. Come walk with me. You can stay at Silver Willy’s, or Ursula’s, or if they get up to trouble, you can stay with them both.”
The Minstrel leans against Plum, his hand planted on her subtly ornate trunk. No one else has noticed her bark’s fine pattern of dark arcs and dashes, as if she’s covered in a handwritten story.
“It’s not a good time,” he says. “Plum’s got the dark rot again. But if I stay here, I can keep her trunk and burls wrapped. Otherwise… The dark rot’s never gotten her this bad before a freeze.”
Uncle Rank sighs in disgust, pushes himself upright and fiddles with his cart. “I thought you’d say something like that.” He comes back with arms full. “Like I said, I came about your stubbornness. Last month, picking up coastal trade, I talked to a far-seas orchard man, told him your situation. Got you this.” He pushes a stoppered clay bottle into The Minstrel’s hands. “You see black bumps on the branch, cut them out right away. And apply this ointment everywhere you see the fungus. It’s made with real copper. Should fix that dark rot right up.”
The Minstrel nods, chin wrinkled with tenderness. “Thanks.”
Uncle Rank snarls, “Yeah, yeah. You’re a fool to stay out here. And here are some horsehair blankets I brought for you, stinking but warm.” A maroon leaf whirls down and lands on his boot. “These are for you, mind. You’re who I don’t want freezing; I don’t care how much you admire that tree.” He shoves the blankets at The Minstrel, glances at Plum’s trunk and nods in greeting, then sits back down and warms his hands.
Growing up, his Uncle Rank was the kindest influence The Minstrel knew. Early on, The Minstrel lost his parents to the tankards, though his mother and father stuck around and continued to ransack their shared hut, and he became adept at dodging chaos.
His Uncle Rank was a traveling merchant and, from shore to mountain, pushed a cart of miscellany including anything from glazed bowls to bear pelts, imported peat to purple linens, silver broaches, bronze helmets, conversational parrots or fine ink. You never knew what he’d have, and he was always on the run from a madman, so his visits were necessarily unpredictable.
One fateful night decades ago, Uncle Rank had intervened on a crossroads fight and proved unable to stop the knife that killed the madman’s son. Though the madman’s logic wasn’t clear, which was expected by his tendencies, he then grew fixated on Uncle Rank, tracking him across territories, was shaped like a grizzly, and had similarly strong and insane friends. Once, Uncle Rank also half-mentioned bedding a strawberry-haired woman who happened to be engaged to the killed, crossroads son.
In any case, Uncle Rank could show up with almost anything in his cart, whatever would fit. After returning from the foreign merchant ships, he let his nephew pick his thirteenth-year birthday present from his wares, and the boy chose a wooden thing like a half-moon with a flat road leading to it, lined with thirteen strings that showed the ways to travel. Like so, The Minstrel gained his first instrument, a cross between an oud and a lute, and soon after, his true name.
“Well Minstrel, I should hurry on,” Uncle Rank says. “Want to arrive before she serves dinner.” He arranges his cloak-pin and cinches his belt tighter, reclaims his cart handle. “Take care, now,” he says. “You know I love you like a son.” He hawks up phlegm and spits into the bushes and trots off before the moment wrestles out more emotions.
“You have my love and thanks, Uncle Rank,” The Minstrel says after him and lets his uncle choose to hear or not. They have their differences, but their intentions are always kind.
If it weren’t for his uncle, he wouldn’t have gotten such a fine instrument as his first, or have run from home and found his life and love waiting in the woods.
He’s just applied the salve to the first wound when Plum shrieks, “Get out of here,” and The Minstrel quickly hops down off the ladder. Then he spots the two emerald eyes behind him, shining with the sunset. Plum hurtles a hollow branch their way, but the wind tosses it the wrong direction.
The seated bobcat in the path gives a long blink. “She helped me too,” the bobcat says. The Minstrel is fascinated that her sharp chewing teeth can make smooth words. She has the voice of a teenage girl, with a soft rumbling underneath.
Robin swoops over. “Go away!” She teases closer to the bobcat and flutters up again. “You better run!”
“Shh now,” The Minstrel says, and faces off with the newcomer. “What are you wanting?”
The bobcat yawns and licks her teeth. “For you to hear me. Can you hear me? I’m new.”
“I hear you,” The Minstrel says and waves Robin to a high branch.
The bobcat strides closer, sneaking a glance upward. Robin cries, “You’ll never catch me! I have the wings, and you have no wings. Stupid cat! Never!”
Plum bounces Robin’s perch. “Stoppit.”
“He’s after me also,” the bobcat bites out.
“Who?” ask The Minstrel and Plum.
“He arrived in a storm cloud like a battleship above my village. And my family—”
“Who?” Robin demands like an owl.
The bobcat’s eyes slit, her ears flatten. “The God of Force & Magnitude!” she yells in an earsplitting bobcat roar.
The Minstrel grabs an axe handle.
“They handed me over,” the bobcat growls. “They thought it was a family honor.” She hisses, and The Minstrel’s grip tightens; he checks his stance. “They have no idea.” She yowls a many-syllabled moan and lays her head down on her paws, panting.
Robin drops to a lower branch, hops back up, flares wings and steps left and right, but stays unusually quiet. Plum sways the branch closest to the bobcat up and down in a gentle rhythm. Nearby, the windblown aspens murmur and their remaining leaves tap like hands on backs. The Minstrel thinks, I want to write a song about this kind of togetherness. Then his ladder is yanked out from under him. All the trees bend diagonal, and the wind grows icy. The bobcat squints her eyes, her fur pushed in all directions. “He’s coming,” she says, and bounds off down the path.
One side of the tarp unties from The Minstrel’s woodshop area and slaps against a nearby tree. His tools rattle on the table, and he rushes to gather them before they fly.
“It’s true!” Robin sings, shivering. “I can see the bow of his ship now. But Plum, I can’t stay. I’m just too cold.”
“Get in your nest, Robin,” Plum commands like the older sister she is. Robin swoops a pretty design in the air, and, “Too cold,” she sings as she flies away. Two robins rise to join her, and they sail off into ellipses.
“You should go too.” Plum quakes, her trunk and limbs bending in sharp angles.
The tarp takes off like a dragon, only to slam into a thick aspen, wrap around it, then dance like a headless giant, flapping and groaning. With a crack, the tarp is freed and soars into the dark sky. A huge aspen branch crashes into the bushes, broken from a trunk left jaggedly exposed.
“I won’t go without you.” The Minstrel braces his feet leeward and anchors against Plum’s trunk.
The trees and path illuminate. The Minstrel is struck right in the chest, by a BOOM like a cracking mountain. He falls to his knees. A destructive sizzle follows, cracking across the sky every-which-way.
Again the woods light up, and this time he sees the lightning reach across the eastern sky, shot from the nightmare battleship, black steely cumulonimbus hanging over the valley, almost to their woods now.
Plum’s hollow upper branch cracks off and flies. The air is dashed with variegated debris. When a green limb breaks from Plum’s weak branch and whips into the sky, The Minstrel’s stomach caves at her scream.
“It doesn’t have to hurt this much,” he yells. Dirt scrapes his face and he tries to blink it from his eyes.
A young pine tree crashes through the aspens, and then lifts above the woods, roots and all. The rain begins.
Water drops hit so forcefully; they send up fountains of dirt. “O just run, Minstrel. My gods!” The Minstrel’s latticed hut smashes into the junipers, and then spreads into pieces like migrating geese.
Visibility fades into a crosshatched sketch, and The Minstrel couldn’t have found the path even if he wanted to. “Can’t you drop that weak branch?” This is The Minstrel’s wild guess of a plan—he keeps thinking about that snakeskin, about molting.
Debris crashes against Plum’s spongy branch, and she wails, “Isn’t this bad enough? He’s back. Why bring up impossibilities?”
The sky splits, spilling light, and amongst the orchestral rippling thunder, a booming voice demands, “COME!”
The Minstrel says, “But I’ve seen you move branches at will, aim where you grow. You have more control than you think.” He’s encircling her trunk, trying to shield himself as much as possible as the rain turns to pellet hail.
Plum’s quaking like a tuning fork. “O, that branch is overfull, Minstrel. Black sap’s been leaking into my core. –Please just go!” Her lower limbs fight the wind to embrace The Minstrel’s back.
His voice muffles under the hail, but he and Plum know how to hear each other. “That branch is filled with your pain? With the memories the village rewrites into happy wedding tales, all the ways you’ve been sacrificed? Stop holding onto the poison.”
All Plum’s leaves are gone and rolls of bark fall from her wounded branch and trunk, each accompanied by a moan.
“COME,” booms the air. The downpour stops and leaves ice patches ticking on the ground. Above, the gray sky is like dented metal waves, holding the mountainous battleship with its bow pointed their way, mainsail spread, and far figure flashing at the helm.
“I DEMAND IT. WHERE ARE YOU?”
“I need to get away from him,” Plum chatters, her bark wrinkling, withering.
“He doesn’t know where you are. Deep down, you know how to do this—you’re changing all the time. Just like a song—look at ‘Sister Roots & Wings.’ A song’s always sung one way, until someone changes it. Then that’s the way the song goes.”
“TAILIN…” is the word the god actually says, but on the ground, the noise is an earthquake. Three burled rocks bump down the path.
“The girl in the valley,” The Minstrel says.
“I want to be a new song,” Plum whispers.
Pebbles hop on the vibrating ground, her branches are bouncing, and then the god’s low frequency growl swells into a violent, sad roar.
Plum has dreamt many times of being a song and, of course, being a tree, she dreams constantly. She’s told The Minstrel about being melodies slow and tricky, and fine orchestrations. In her dreams, she’s also been a cat, a creek, a lizard, a man, and a bird like Robin; throughout it all, she’s learned what stays the same in her and how to ride her body’s changes.
“NONE CAN ESCAPE ME AND MY WILL IS ALL.” With this decree, the ground holding Plum cracks, splitting her foundation.
Bubbles of black sap foam from her joints and then disappear, seeping down into her trunk. The Minstrel can feel the moment her system seizes. His connection to her turns off like a rung bell stopped, and he imagines her cells closing like fists.
A couple of years ago, the woods suffered from beetle blight. The Minstrel discovered he could actually see the moment a tree died. Plum’s bark sags in that same way and her edges curl.
The Minstrel stands by his beloved’s body, with no knowledge that Plum dreams while she dies, and now finds herself in a dark tunnel. “I’d like a new song, please,” she says, which becomes an echo, and then she understands she is actually very tiny and inside the tunnel of one of her own capillaries. A blue and red spiral ladder floats past, and she catches it, unwinds one springy ladder rung, trades two others, and lets the weightless ladder go, to float away down the hallway. That’s it.
Then a knothole close to The Minstrel’s head opens and releases a puff of air. The puff says, “I know who I am.”
With a small creak, Plum’s gnarled, wounded branch swings loose at the trunk, dangles, and then thumps onto the broken ground.
“Love, you did it!” The Minstrel pats her bark.
The ground juts beneath them. “GIVE ME,” the bushes start rolling, “WHAT I,” the wind returns, “WANT!”
Plum breaks with the sound of pottery shattering, and her tallest branches come swinging down. One scrapes The Minstrel’s cheek. Then, her trunk juts diagonal. The Minstrel runs around to her lowest side and tries to hoist up her weight with his shoulder.
“Watch out,” she says, and her trunk changes direction so violently, she’s almost horizontal, knocking into the pines. By The Minstrel’s feet a hairy tangle of roots—her life source—bursts through the soil. In his peripheral vision, the bobcat darts between the trees.
The god yells like a mountain cleaving. When The Minstrel dares a look, he witnesses the god’s leap from the battleship’s bow, arms and legs thrashing throughout the drop. He’s surprised he doesn’t hear the god land.
Dirt sprays The Minstrel as Plum jerks back and forth in unpredictable directions, and he runs to shelter by a juniper. Branches and shards fling from her; long roots thrash free from the ground and demolish his work table. The Minstrel lifts his cloak to shield his face. A minute later, all that remains in her place is a pruned hunk of wood.
Plum is gone. Time seems to end, and all is still.
Then a drenched, pale whale of a man sticks his head from behind a splintered aspen. “You there,” he grunts.
The Minstrel rushes over to where she was, stepping carefully and searching the ground for anything besides kindling.
The pale man lumbers over, crouching as if it invokes invisibility. “Got a question,” he says. He manically brushes rain from his bearskin cloak. “Know a man, Rank?” His left eye is huge.
The Minstrel inspects the hewn trunk from all sides. “Plum?”
“Hey!” the man yells, kicking at Plum’s mulch. “I said, I’m looking for Rank. You’re not talking to me?” And he hoists a log of rotten wood over his shoulder, taking aim.
The Minstrel finally turns. “You’re in the wrong place!”
“No, you’re—” The man throws the log, but at the last second his aim falters as a hollow wail geysers from Plum’s trunk.
A bundle of roots lifts from the soil and quickly braids together, and another bundle of roots lifts and braids, and they are like tapered feet at the end of legs. With a sharp creak, the top of her hewn trunk divides in half like a seed, opening in a V, and then there is a twelve year-old girl standing there with eyes closed and arms lifted.
She opens her eyes and smirks just like she did in her branch’s drawing. Lowering her arms, she says to the man, “Yes, I know Rank.”
The once-angry man retches, stumbles over a log, and runs away, and for a good while, The Minstrel can hear each footstep accent the man’s extended shriek.
“O my beautiful love,” The Minstrel says, noticing the fine wrinkles covering Plum’s face and human body, the pouch over her brown belly, her drooping rugged knees on her heavy legs. Gingerly, she shakes out her arms and feet. She isn’t still twelve, but an old woman, his age, though something in her face is forever girlish. Her skin is thick and worn, subtly ornamented, but skin none the less. Long, silver hair hangs down her back, tangled with red and purple leaves.
As she stands on the mound of sticks and wood chips, her low round breasts move with her breath, and she inhales and exhales like it is a fine treat to savor. Her eyes sparkle and whatever her details, she is beautiful. “Now this is a good song,” she says.
The bobcat darts beside the path and veers into the pines.
“TAILIN,” the god roars, rounding the corner. Seven feet tall, naked, with shoulders wide as an ox, the bearded god stomps down the path. “YOU MUST—” Upon seeing The Minstrel in the wood-strewn clearing, the god strides over. His ears are thick as tankards.
“AH,” he announces. “YOU’LL GET ME WHAT I WANT.” The god raises a finger and an electric current shoots from it, branching into the air. “NONE CAN ESCAPE MY WILL.”
The Minstrel’s boot rolls on a branch. He catches his footing again and clears his throat.
“I did,” Plum says. She folds her hands before her belly, and a crimson leaf tumbles down her silver hair.
The god turns to her and, “Rubey,” he does-not-shout. His bare stomach bellows quickly with his breath.
“I got away from you,” she says.
“HOW COULD YOU LEAVE ME?” he aks. “YOU WERE PERFECT AND MINE, AND YOUR SISTER WAS MINE, AND THAT WAS GOOD… BUT THEN YOU WERE CRUEL AND TURNED TREE. YOU TOOK AWAY MY GIRLS AND HURT ME, WHEN IT WAS ME WHO GAVE YOU YOUR FORCE & MAGNITUDE.”
Plum nods humbly. “You did.”
“RUBEY, LOOK WHAT YOU HAVE DONE.”
“That name fell from me long ago. And you destroyed those girls, like you destroy all you love. That’s why you’ll never have what you truly want.”
The god’s head hangs like it’s been turned to granite. “BUT I WANT EVERYTHING,” he moans.
The bobcat darts from the aspens, spots the god, and vanishes.
The god staggers forward. “TAILIN!” he cries, black horn-tips appearing from his curls.
A green cat eye peers from behind an aspen.
The god bellows to see it, like he’s been hit. The bobcat shows her face, striped with dashed markings like ritual ornamentations, eyes lined, and her ears’ tips tufted with fur.
“BUT YOU WERE PERFECT,” the god moans, and the bobcat walks closer. “NOW, YOU’RE AN ANIMAL.”
Tailin sits in the path, her head regal. “I had to get away from you. It was worth it.” She yawns and bares her canines, curling her tongue.
“YOU ARE THE CRUELEST CREATURES. YOU HAVE NEVER WANTED LOVE LIKE I HAVE. I GAVE YOU MY GIFTS, AND ALL I WANTED WAS YOU AND YOU AND THE OTHER ONE. FOR YOU ALL TO BE BEAUTIFUL AND LOVE ME.”
Plum says, “That’s not how it goes.” She scratches her wrinkled belly and coughs. The god curls his lip at this, then surveys Tailin, who lies with her back legs kicked to the side, mouth open and panting.
The god scoffs. “UGH, WHO WOULD WANT YOU?” He shakes his head in disgust, scuffs his feet, and then turns into a lightning bolt and shoots into the sky.
“Me,” The Minstrel says. A breeze picks up, blowing away the god’s stink of burnt hair, and the battleship cloud takes off, quickly sailing over the woods. Thunder ripples overhead. The Minstrel flares open his cloak and wraps it around Plum.
She says, “I want to sing you my new song.”
“Let’s get on to the village, my love. Then all I want is to hear your song.”
Later, after the storm passed, the freeze melted, and The Minstrel and Plum rebuilt their home in the woods, they share the song around like communion wine. The woods’ crowd of changelings, who had each used transformation as protection against gods and suitors, lean around the two singers in a horned, thorned, furry, plumed circle.
Plum raises her arms, The Minstrel shakes his bearded chin to the beat, and they sing a harmony like braided gold that winds in curls between them, spiraling lit tendrils through the air that branch into forty tips, and like so does the transforming song wrap ‘round and enter each willing listener. For, if you listen right, each person contains a song of self, and we’re all singing ourselves into being. Once inside, the catchy tune guides the listeners’ songs into new, untried harmonies.
Soon, Plum’s song is sung by a choir that includes Tailin the bobcat, Robin, and a long black snake, the aspen grove, the pines, a herd of deer, a gaggle of geese, and a cottontail who used to be a beautiful boy. As they harmonize and weave their melodies into the song, the trees and animals stretch and contract into bodies half-human, half-wild, fully themselves.
“We are not perfect,” Plum’s song begins, “and we are true. This is my beauty. This is my strength. Listen to me.”
This is how the woods fill with walking myths. Wanderers swap tales of a handsome man who strides the path humming, his tall rabbit ears swiveling towards sounds. Children hear of a svelte, brown girl who dances in the flowers, tossing her head and waving her small rack of horns. A woman with tufted cat ears and a bobbed tail sits in a clearing’s sunbeam with her green eyes slit. A lady with crow wings clings halfway up a pine’s trunk, singing raucously. Bards sing of a tall contortionist girl with slanted snake eyes who stands on one leg and twists her body—swear to the gods—into a double half-hitch knot.
One day, a respected matriarch from the valley races up the path, mid-escape from her husband’s private abuses, in such a state, she can’t trust her eyes that gape the glittering aspen woman, gold-leaved, with white branches down her back like hair.
The matriarch ducks behind a thorn-bush to watch. The woman has a thin trunk-waist and swelled trunk-hips, and long root-feet like braids. A pattern of dark eyes or yonis decorates her pale skin, with the largest eye design over her chest, weeping red sap. The aspen woman is beautiful and wounded, the matriarch thinks, yet there is nothing in the world exactly like her. She is a walking poem, true and beautiful and devastating.
Then the tree woman dances alone in the path with a silent grace that steals the breath of the crouching matriarch, who gives a gasp and begins to weep because she finally feels understood.
The Minstrel builds enough instruments for a musicians’ guild, long flutes, harps, drums, and lutes, and then he lets the woods’ denizens each choose their own. Plum, with her dexterous long fingers, sews them leaf capes with ruffled collars and embroidered stones and seeds. By the time the band of musicians is finished dressing, they comprise a prodigal kaleidoscope of gauze and fur fabrics, animal eyes and unfurling branch hands.
The valley matriarch is the first to invite them to sing at her village’s mid-spring ritual. After their last song, a familiar-seeming elder-woman with walnut skin lays her woolen wrap at The Minstrel’s feet with a “My thanks” before slipping into the night.
From then on, as the seasons turn, The Minstrel’s band travels from their eldritch woods to each of the nearby villages for the eight annual ritual celebrations, along with certain other celestial alignments, to sing their songs for the people, dance their otherworldly dances, and tell their truths. About what happened to them. About the miracles of how we change, and keep changing.
“And that the horrors are real, and also the healing magic,” Tailin says to Robin as they parade down another foreign path. “For some reason, people deny both, and it makes things worse.”
Robin smiles like a noblewoman, fluffs her cinnamon chest, and shrieks, “All you can do is sing your song.”
That miraculous dawn, when they woke in their old village mere hours after Plum almost died, transformed instead, and then scared off the God of Force & Magnitude, The Minstrel asked his beloved, “How do you feel?” and offered up more pillow.
“My knees ache,” Plum told him, “and my vision is blurry, but other than that—Yes! I’m alive.”
The Minstrel stroked a leaf in her hair. “That’s just age, my love,” he said, and they laughed like any old couple in the morning about to stoke the fire and get breakfast going.