Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Enchanted Tree - a Free Story for the Holiday

Instead of an excerpt, I decided to post a whole story - it's short - which is my favorite of the stories I've written. It's the lead story in my new collection The Enchanted Tree and Other Stories. This story was first published in Cricket Magazine, although it was almost published in Pulphouse, the small literary sf magazine. (Unfortunately, like so many such magazines, Pulphouse folded, and the story never got printed - however, I reached a much greater audience with Cricket. Plus, kids send you fan mail. Sophisticated grownups don't.)

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The Enchanted Tree
by Camille LaGuire

They cut down the enchanted tree the other day. Sad, but it was old. Most of the branches were dead and we all admitted it was becoming a hazard.

We stood on the sidewalk across the street from it and sang songs about Coral Simmons, and about other people touched by that tree. We didn’t sing a song about me, but then nobody knows how the tree touched me.

Some people say that Coral Simmons was a runaway slave who’d almost made it to Canada when the slave catchers caught up with her. Some say she was just some white farm girl being chased by drunken loggers (or soldiers or trappers). Some even say her name wasn’t Simmons at all, and that she was a Chippewa girl running away from the French or the English or warriors from another tribe. Whatever she was, she was running for her life when she came upon a leafy young tree. She hid among the leaves and spread her arms among the branches, and wished herself hidden. The bark spread over her arms and body, and the tree absorbed her.

So when you have troubles, you go and tell Coral, because she knows troubles.

I went to the tree one Christmas when I was thirteen. There was a terrible snowstorm that year. I was in foster care, and I waited for my mother to come visit for the holiday. I kept telling myself that the storm had delayed her. Then the day after Christmas the present came. If she’d have been coming, she’d have brought it herself. She wouldn’t have mailed it.

It was wrapped in a grocery sack, postmarked from Las Vegas. She did not live in Las Vegas, so she must have gone there for Christmas rather than visit me. Still, maybe she got a job, you know? So I opened it.

It was a little kid’s makeup kit, the kind with glitter eye shadow, smelly perfume, and red lipstick—all bubble packed to a piece of cardboard. I hated makeup, and she knew it. She even made fun of me because of it. She really liked make up, though, so I might have forgiven her if it had been good make up. I held in my disappointment and started to open it. But then I saw the price tag on the back. “$2.95” crossed out with a big red marker. It had been marked down to fifty cents. She had got it out of a remainder bin.

I just knew she left that price tag on purpose. She wanted me to see how cheap it was, because I wasn’t the kind of daughter she wanted. I knew it because she’d actually said it to me before. I felt a raging chill boil up inside me. I ripped up that paper and that Las Vegas postmark and I threw it across the room. Then I threw the present after it. Mrs. Price yelled at me, so I grabbed my coat and mittens and I ran out of the house.

It was already dark, but the night was clear and the snow was bright as a lamp. I plowed through it up to my knees. The tiny crystals flew up like sand and turned my tears into slush. I kept plowing for three whole blocks, all the way to the tree.

It stood there, naked and spidery, the stars showing through its dark branches. It looked so cold, I burst out crying. I threw my arms around the trunk and felt the rough bark and smooth ice against my cheek.

Oh, Coral, I said, oh Coral Coral. Nobody loves me and nobody ought to. I’m ugly and stupid and clumsy. I can’t do anything right. I can’t even get my own mother to give me something I like. She sent me make up, Coral. And the Home just gave me mittens knitted by the ladies’ auxiliary because I’m too old for toys. Can’t I just come into the tree and be like you and be nice to people and just not have anything happen?

I probably said a whole lot more, but all I remember is after a while I heard something buzzing and cracking overhead. I pushed away from the tree and wiped the tears and ice and bark dust off my cheek. Just above my head, a little branch, a twig really, was shaking, and it was shaking real funny. Like a person shakes down a thermometer. Like it was trying to shake something out of itself.

After a minute, I could see a little bud at the tip. A little green bud. Green in the middle of winter, and it kept shaking and getting bigger. I crouched back against the trunk, my hands behind me, and I watched it. It stopped shaking, and then it started to open. It was white, and then pink, and at first it looked like a lily. Then it seemed fancier than a lily, more like an iris. The color started going red and blue and purple, and the blossom got more and more exotic. Maybe that’s what an orchid looks like. I wouldn’t know, but it grew to the size of my hand, and the colors were just wonderful. Just then the smell came out, and it was like a cross between roses and raspberry pie. I stood up straight to get a better look, a better whiff.

Then the fruit started growing out of the middle, but the petals didn’t wither and die. They just got smaller and seemed to grow back into the fruit. By the time it was the size of a walnut, I could tell it was a peach. It got bigger, and golden and fuzzy with a bright red blush. It smelled so good, I reached up and cupped it in my hand.

It was warm. Warm as an August day. It fell off into my hand so I bit into it. It was soft and sweet and juicy, and the syrup dribbled down my chin and made me all sticky. I ate it down to the pit, and as I sucked the last bit of juice from it, I realized that the pit felt funny. It was cold. I took it out of my mouth and looked at it. It was made of brass, or something like that. And it had a loop on the top like.... It was a locket!

It was shaped exactly like a peach pit, except that it had that loop, and a hinge and a hasp. I opened it and the inside was polished so smooth, I could read the inscription by the light of the snow.

Believe in yourself.

I leaned back against the tree and sank into the snow, holding the locket to my heart and not thinking, just feeling. Feeling that I was worth a miracle for Christmas.

So, when the tree was too old to survive the cement and pollution, and it posed a hazard to traffic and power lines, the city took it down. A bunch of old friends decided to go and sing, so I went along.
The thing that surprised me was the number of people who came up silently and looked on. Town leaders, teachers, the janitor over at the department store. Some of them took their hats off, some just looked. Then they went away.

It was the mayor who suggested that we do something more. He stood and watched them drop another branch and shook his head.

“Maybe we should make a monument out of the wood,” he said.

“No,” I said. “We should bury her. Or maybe cremate her.”

“Yes. More respectful.”

They rolled the logs into the park and held a bonfire. Everybody in town came. We sang the song about Coral Simmons again, as a kind of service, and then we all stood and watched the smoke rise.
And for a moment the haze seemed to form the shape of a woman. She was both dark and light, short and tall. Her streaming hair both curly and straight, her fluttering skirt was of calico and lace and buckskin all at once. For a moment, as she flickered up, she even looked like me.

“Goodbye, Coral,” I whispered before she disappeared. At least a hundred voices whispered with me, and I knew she’d touched them all. Her shape rose and spread, and she raised a hand to wave. Then she grew, fainter and larger, until she seemed to fill the whole sky. Until she seemed to have her arms around the world.

But by then she had faded, and we watched the fire burn down to embers, and in the morning we buried the ashes.

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If you want to read more of the stories in The Enchanted Tree, you can buy the collection (seven stories in all) for 99 cents, at Amazon Kindle, Amazon Kindle UK, or or Smashwords. (Smashwords carries formats readable by nearly any ereader.) Also read some of my comments about the collection on the book page here on The Daring Novelist.



Jamie D. said...

Wow - fabulous story, and wonderful imagery. Your collection was already on my to-buy list, and now I'm doubly looking forward to it.

Thanks for sharing... :-)

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks, Jamie.

I've gotta write more holiday stories. It's fun to post them around this time of year.

Kathydid47 said...

I read this last week and meant to leave you a comment about it. I am a very NOT sophisticated adult, but rather a kid in a 48 year old's body...the consequence of being the youngest of 11 kids I suppose. I really enjoy kid's stories more than anything, so I really enjoyed this! Short stories are always brilliant anyway for people like me with serious ADHD issues, make it a kid's short story and it's a win win.

The Daring Novelist said...

A lot of people these days like shorter fiction, especially those reading on handhelds and e-readers.

I'm going to work on more short stuff this year - although I'm thinking about novellas and short novels right now.