(Content note for incest and child death.)
Well, Your Honours, it is true that I killed your child king, indeed it is true.
You asked me how I came to know your tongue, before you put me in this cell. You broke my twig fingers one by one and asked me what I am, and what my reasons were, and how these events transpired.
Shall I tell you a tale?
The first king taught me your English. I still remember the day he stumbled into my forest, shivering like a sapling in a sudden frost. Both his knees were skinned beneath his schoolboy’s shorts, ruby scabs as rough as bark. He made little mewling noises. His face shone as white as birch beneath the moon.
Help me, help me. I knew what he was saying, even though his voice was thin and reedy, even though I’d never seen such a branchless creature as he before. The language of entreaty is all the same, no matter where you are. We once spoke many languages in my land. The trees whispered the language of the sky, and the sky hummed the language of the birds, and the birds of course sang all three.
All that changed, when the first boy-king came.
It is not true that we only lived in perpetual cold, before. He came in snow and sleet, yes, but it was the very last of the winter storms. The jewel-green grass of spring already waited beneath the melt. It is not true that a witch ruled our world, unless witch is the word Your Honours use for all beings who are so powerful and so free that they can rule themselves. We knew no kings and no queens before him, and we shall again know none.
It is particularly untrue that he forgot his home and then wept when he returned to it, years later, back in his little boy’s body.
Are you shocked, Your Honours? I know you have a story in your world about a boy who lied and lied until finally the beasts of the field could no longer stand his falsehoods.
Time passes differently in our world than it does in yours. Your boy-king returned home many times, and the first was on the very same night he found us. I’d sheltered him in my branches as best I could, small, huddled thing as he was. I pitied him, yes. So I called together badger and beaver to warm him, an entire clutch of rabbits to lay in his lap and curl about his cold hands. I lifted him from the icy earth and pressed him close to my heart until his shaking limbs stilled. When the storm subsided, I sent a deer to lead him back home. Perhaps the way through was a puddle or a wardrobe or a painting back then. I do not know.
He came back to us weeks later. He brought his sister. I suppose only an hour or two had passed for him. I was glad to see them both. I waved my branches and shook my leaves for joy.
What followed was a happy season, or so I thought. The boy brought his schoolbooks and read them to me, the pages nearly translucent, like the skin of your eyelids. He loved your Kipling, your Defoe, and your Stevenson. What grand stories of adventure the men of your world wrote. His sister wove garlands of flowers to drape among my budding leaves. She laughed at my first clumsy attempts to speak to them, trying to shape your consonants and vowels with limbs and hollows that before knew only the language of leaf-rustle and twig-snap. Her delight was like the glimmer of the first star of evening to me.
She taught me that your words for sap-rise-and-soft-warm-rain are spring is coming. That season-rings meant years, or maybe stories. That once-winter is sleep and forever-winter is death.
Home, she said. England.
The battles were all in your world, then. The boy told me of a war, still being waged, that had made orphans of them both. The girl spoke of hiding in a dark cellar as fire fell from the sky. She was afraid down there, amongst the dirt and crabbed roots of things. I thought it strange to be frightened of mere soil, but I suppose for your kind there is no comfort in the ground or in the grave. You cannot taste the sunlight in the loam, all those small sparks of life.
Little wonder that we took them in, told them to stay here where the days were warming and the nights were safe. I thought nothing of it when the boy declared himself a king in my world. Mere play and pretense, I thought, like the pirates and the explorers of the books he loved, that he had taught me to love as well. What harm could there be in it? They both still seemed so small and fragile to me. And besides, they missed their England and their English kings. Little harm in a title that reminded them of their old home, or so I thought.
Little harm in letting them carve their names into my trunk, when they were teaching me how to write in your English. Little harm in any of it.
The war in your world raged on.
They stayed, and grew, and grew up.
I rejoiced to see them so tall and strong. His voice deepened like the rumble of an ancient tree crashing to the forest floor. She was fair of hair and long-limbed, and wilder far than he. On full moon nights, she would throw off all her clothing and run beneath the sky with the hares and deer, the pale skin of her heels flashing among the darting animals. He watched her inattentively at first, then with more notice.
Her belly grew large and round with child. Of course it did.
Your Honours find that far more shocking than we do. I know this from the English books she used to read to me, about mad wives locked away, madness bred sap-heavy into the blood by brothers and sisters. Beasts of the forest have no laws against siblings pairing, nor do we marry or give in marriage, in my world. We have no word for what they did, because one does not name unremarkable things.
Your war ended on the night their first son came into the world, squalling like a summer storm. They placed him in my branches and asked me to give him a name in the language of the trees.
I loved him. Oh, how I loved him.
There was much to do in your world, after the war, much to rebuild. They spent more and more time there. Our king told us how the land had been devastated, how homes had fallen into rubble and fields lay cold and quiet. We listened to these stories and led him to hidden quarries where he could cut stone in our world, to fertile fields for harvest, to the hidden caches of squirrels and birds to find seeds for planting. He thanked us for these gifts. He said they would gladden the hearts of the rulers of his world and that, if those personages were pleased, perhaps there could be a treaty between us. Perhaps we could even pass through into your world like he had done into ours.
What did we care for treaties, we whose pacts were made with sun and seasons? But oh, to enter another world. That would be a marvel to behold.
I, shameful to tell, preened beneath their attention then. I, whom they named Dryad, advisor to the king, chosen from all the beasts of the field and forest to know their secrets and raise their children. I longed to see England with my own eyes. It was like a myth to me, or the memory of a dream recounted. I thought that if they returned to it forever, I would gladly root myself beside the door of their home. I could be glad never to speak or roam the forest again, if only I could be with them.
Time passed on your side of the door between our worlds, but it passed more swiftly on ours. Did Your Honours never wonder how they had such a ready supply of timber and wheat, cotton and flax, in those months and years when your people needed it most? Did you never question how they got their fine jewels and their gold, where their skeins of wool came from? No one, as far as I know, looked into their origins, this man and woman who came from nowhere. Perhaps no one ever questioned how their many visiting cousins looked so like them, like enough to be their children if they weren’t all of an age. And if they sometimes stepped back into a room too quickly after they’d left it, or if you sometimes heard the sigh of ocean waves in their hallways, or if the puddles by their country home sometimes reflected more than just the sky above, well, the eccentricities of the rich are readily forgiven, particularly if the rich share their plunder.
I don’t know which of them first had the idea, but on the day that my forest began ringing with the sound of axes, it was their oldest child, their firstborn son, my beloved boy, whom they sent to me. He was now as tall as his father, and nearly as old, for he’d spent most of his life in our world, whiling the years away as his parents charmed all of England. I was aghast, pacing to and fro in the forest, biting down on my twig fingers so I wouldn’t scream as his siblings cut down tree after tree.
“Dryad,” he said to me, “these trees are not as you are. They cannot feel. They are not alive. We need them, Dryad. Don’t you see? The people of England need them.”
I should have banished them all that day, but I looked down into his face, into those eyes that had first opened and looked out at the world while I held him, and I could not bring myself to find any guile in them.
The younger tree-beings of the forest scoffed at my distress. They had only ever known the rule and language of humans. Obedience to our kings and queens came as naturally to them as leaf-fall.
“They are not killing any of the talking animals or the walking trees, Dryad,” they scolded me. “You can hardly even call what they are doing killing.”
So I remained quiet, though I could still remember a time when the forests swayed with dancing, and when every tongue spoken by every animal was considered its own language. Slowly, such speech had fallen out of favour, replaced by our king’s English, and now there were many creatures whom the younger generations scorned as unable to speak at all. They did not understand how thick the silence of the fields and waters and skies had grown through the years.
What more is there to tell? They took and took and took, and there was no gainsaying them, not when they began to bring your guns into our world. War, it turns out, is the easiest thing of all to make anywhere.
Our war began on a winter’s evening, with the snow blanketing the fields and making lumpen tree stumps of rocks and bushes alike. The air rang clear and cold, and the sun sank behind the horizon in a twilight haze of blue and purple. My beloved boy, now bearded and bronzed like a summer acorn, with children of his own, came to me and placed his arms about my trunk as far as he could reach. His cheek rested warm and alive against my bark.
“Dryad,” he murmured, voice low and soft as a lover’s, “are we hated here? I’ve heard rumours, that the birds have been whispering, that the bears are not sleeping in their caves, that the beavers are diverting a river to flood the valley where the door between our worlds stands.”
I was shocked, and told him so. If there was such sedition, I had heard not a word of it. I came to know later that of course I wouldn’t have. The conspirators had kept it all from me, every word, because they knew that I was England’s creature, not one of their own, not any longer.
“I do not believe you,” he replied, just as quietly, nearly as dreamily as before. I was still slow to understand. Too slow to understand the threat as he hefted the axe from his belt. Too slow to run.
He buried the axe into my trunk with a single stroke that sounded like a struck bell. He hacked and hewed until the place where his parents once carved their names was a gaping wound, sap-shiny and blank.
You may think, Your Honours, that creatures from our world have wild minds and no hearts. I do not know if our hearts are made of the same stuff as yours, but I know that I have one just as surely as you do, and that mine broke that day.
I was to serve as a warning, thus always unto traitors, but perhaps I served too well. The anger that had been gathering steadily but silently broke like a thundercloud. For, the beasts of the fields and forests reasoned with each other, if they could treat even Dryad thus, our masters would spare none of the rest.
It was a terrible time. Such weapons your armies have created, through all the wars your world has waged. I would dream, for decades after, of the sound of gunfire like lions roaring and the stench of gunpowder hanging heavy in the air. What story they told themselves of what they were doing, I do not know. But surely they made themselves the heroes of those tales.
What saved us in the end was that they were few, our kings and queens, and we were many. They had never trusted anyone in England with their secrets. And so when they mustered against us, it was only with their children and grandchildren, the very girls and boys we ourselves had raised to adulthood, and the few trees and animals who could not bear to part with them.
Still, it took a year and a day to drive them out. And many more years to reckon with what they had taken from us.
When the floodwaters receded from the door to your world, I rooted myself beside it. I stood sentinel. There were still those who missed being ruled, though fewer and fewer with each season, and I would not let them pass.
Legends of another world grew on your side of the door, but they also grew on ours. The curious began to come to me, begging for stories. Was it true that we were once the jewel of a shining empire? Was it true that all the forests once rang with joy and all the beasts of the field had been tame when we’d had a king and queen? What lay beyond this door, and why could they not see it?
I did not forget. I could not forget, and I saw to it that they did not forget either.
I taught saplings the old language of the trees, taught them how to whisper with leaf and branch. The birds had sung their songs all along, and the bears still spoke in their half-snuffle, half-growl, but the bees and the fish and the fireflies had all lost their powers of speech entirely.
I grew tall and old, and older still, and all who’d once known our king and queen died.
My vigil began to appear strange to those with no memory of our war. There were rumours that my mind was going. Mad Dryad. Sad Dryad. Animals skirted my valley and tree-beings ceased their visits. I became as forgotten as England was.
But still I watched, and still I waited, as season after season whirled overhead. I wondered, sometimes, if I had indeed become Mad Dryad. Mad with grief and regret. Poisoned with longing.
Then there came the day when I saw what I was waiting for.
It shocked me that they sent a boy so small. His legs were unsteady as he toddled through the door, arms windmilling out for balance. Perhaps they thought this was the best strategy. Perhaps they thought old Dryad’s heart could still be softened as before.
I’d been rooted for so long that I’d nearly lost the memory of how to move. The effort peeled off great gashes of my bark and splintered bits of my trunk, but I reached out to him. He, trusting fool, reached back for me.
I bound him within my branches and I pressed him to my heart. He thought it a game, at first. My bark reached and spread, until his breath came in sharp gasps, until the wood crept over his face and he could breathe no more. I held him long past the moment his struggling limbs stilled and the sound of his crying was no longer tangled with mine.
And then I stepped over the border between your world and ours, and I laid his small, sap-drowned body at the threshold on your side. I waited and waited, and then Your Honours came and brought me to this cell.
I know now why my girl-queen hated the dark beneath the earth here. There is no sunlight in this soil. It is rank with dead and dying things.
I do not want your mercy or your forgiveness. I do not know what I will be, when you find me in the morning, with this story I have carved into my own trunk and my branches. Even now I feel my leaves droop and wither, the sticky, slow seep of my sap. I will not move nor speak again. A mere tree in England, at last.
Perhaps you will cut me down and take me to be burnt, as you once did to your witches. But you will not be able to prise my roots up from this cell. I have sunk them too deep. And you will not find your way back into my world. I broke the door behind me and sealed the way from this side. You will never find it again, not even if you searched for a thousand summers and a thousand winters.
You taught your boy-king that our world was his to shape to his own image. He thought we were but characters in his grand story, but I know now that our story was always ours, and it shall be again.
Farewell, my root-place.
Now for one last dreaming, and then my forever-winter.
(Editors’ Note: “And All the Trees of the Forest Shall Clap Their Hands” is read by Joy Piedmont on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, Episode 32B.)
© 2020 Sharon Hsu