From the author: An elder dryad passes on her wisdom to her much younger (and slightly foolish) neighbor.
It was quiet in the big woods these days. From atop her great pine, Zenza could see over most of her neighboring trees. Holding two branches for support, she leaned out, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. She smiled as fallen leaves, wet from a recent rain, filled her senses.
“Don’t do it!”
The horrified shout broke her out of her reverie and she looked around for the source.
“For the love of maple sugar, don’t do it!”
She knew that voice. She looked down into a young maple that had barely begun to change color despite the season. Darja stood on one of the uppermost branches and, even from the distance, Zenza could see fear on the girl’s face.
“Oh Zenza, it’s only autumn.”
“What are you talking about?” she demanded. Why did she always have to get the nervous neophytes?
“It’s not worth killing yourself,” she said gently. “You’d be missed far too much.”
Zenza rolled her eyes. “Darja, hasn’t anyone ever told you that dryads can’t fall to their death?” Apparently not, she thought when the girl’s expression changed to one of surprise. No wonder she’d had trouble with heights once her tree reached a reasonable size. Gripping her branches more tightly, Zenza pulled herself back and quickly climbed down to a branch level with Darja’s. The maple would never reach the stature of her great and beautiful pine, few trees ever did. She’d learned to be accommodating in associating with her neighbors. When you lived as long as a tree, it made sense to be friendly.
“Are you sure?” Darja asked uncertainly.
Zenza smiled when she could have taken offense. She was willing to ignore the young one’s skepticism for now. “I have been around the forest a time or two.”
Darja blushed with embarrassment. “Oh, of course you have… I didn’t mean… I’m so sorry.”
“Do try to think before you speak, dear. A polite dryad will get a lot farther with those of us who’ve been here a while.” She stretched, letting the pine needles caress her skin. They must surely be the softest in the forest. “And what are you still doing up?” The young dryad’s honey colored hair hadn’t begun to change tone, which meant she hadn’t even started preparing her maple for the long sleep.
“I wanted to see autumn.” She lifted her chin in a defiant pose. “I’ve been hearing about it for years and have never seen it.”
“Your kind aren’t meant to see autumn but once. You know that.” She let an edge of authority creep into her voice.
“Everybody else is doing it,” Darja complained. She gestured expansively toward the forest, where there were other trees whose leaves had barely begun to turn.
“Red maples are notorious for cutting it close,” Zenza said, disregarding many of the unchanged trees. “Their leaves rarely change, and they hold on to many of them until the first snowfall.” She quickly swung down to the next branch. “Come with me, I want to show you something.” Her bare feet hit the ground so lightly they hardly made a sound. Dryads were naturally able to walk through dry leaves and pine needles without making much noise. Some were better than others, and she was proud of her silent step. It had taken decades to perfect, but was well worth the effort. She’d been able to sneak up on more than one man that way, and by the time they saw her, she’d already woven her magic around them.
Darja dropped down out of her tree, making considerably more noise. She patted the sugar maple’s trunk before approaching Zenza. “What is it?”
Zenza grabbed the younger one’s hand and pulled her through the woods. “If I told you, it wouldn’t be a surprise.”
Darja squealed in delight. “I love surprises!”
Zenza grinned at her. “All dryads do.” The trees swayed in the gentle breeze, sending leaves in varied shades of red, gold, and rust floating and spiraling down to the forest floor. It was her favorite time of year to run through the forest. So many dryads were already into the deep sleep, and many others were preparing their trees for the cold to come. As an older, wiser dryad, Zenza kept her tree ready most of the time. And she managed to do it without missing a single party.
The deciduous dryads often complained about not getting to see the splendid autumn colors that her kind was privy to. Zenza had always believed in balance, and she suspected that autumn was compensation to her kind for the disrupted winter sleep they endured. Winter was not necessarily a joy to be awake through, although it also had its advantages. Perhaps if the weather was right this year, she could catch a man for solstice. What a lovely gift to her tree.
Darja’s hand was clammy despite their exercise. “Are you all right?” Zenza slowed down and looked at her companion.
Darja nodded. “I didn’t realize how cool it gets this time of year.”
“Autumn’s the transition to winter, which is cold enough to kill. Of course it’s chilly now.” They were nearly to the place.
“Do you have many parties in the winter?”
Zenza laughed. “Afraid you’re missing out on the fun while you sleep?”
Darja blushed but didn’t answer.
“We’re dryads, of course we have parties. They’re not as big as the summer parties, and we don’t have them as often.” She wouldn’t mention the dancing or the songs to the winter stars. Darja didn’t need anything else to add to her indecision about the deep sleep. “We’d get pretty lonely if it weren’t for the parties and occasional travelers.”
“Humans travel in the winter?”
Zenza giggled. “They’re not like us. They can’t sleep through the winter. They’d starve.”
“Ever seen a human?”
“Well yes,” Darja said quickly. “They look a lot like us.”
“But they age,” Zenza said. “And they have such short lives.” She’d stopped counting the years at 300. Appearance was irrelevant when gauging a dryad’s age. It was all in the attitude, which seemed to grow as the trees did.
“Age?” It was clearly a foreign concept.
“Their bodies change over time, becoming fragile after only a few decades,” she explained. “You know there are two kinds of humans, men and women?” At Darja’s nod she continued. “The women are a little like us.” She ran one hand down the side of her body, emphasizing the swell of her breasts and curve of her hips. “The men make good lovers, though you’ve got to catch them first.” She grinned in delight. Men were almost better than parties.
Darja froze and tried to pull her hand away. “Are you crazy?”
“You’ve got tree-love,” Zenza replied with a laugh.
“Don’t you love your tree?” Darja looked horrified, as if Zenza’s words were blasphemy.
“Of course I do,” Zenza said. “But I’m not blinded by his beauty anymore. We all go through it, so don’t think I’m teasing you.” She squeezed the younger one’s hand. “But when you grow beyond that, you’ll see that there are many ways to help your tree.”
“Doesn’t he get jealous?”
It took all her effort not to laugh out loud at the girl. “Oh goodness no. He likes anything that makes me happy. Besides,” she continued with a shrug. “With no other pines nearby it’s one of the few ways for us to propagate.”
Darja just stared, her face a mixture of horror and awe. She’d evidently never been told this either.
“You won’t be interested in humans for a while, I think,” Zenza said gently. “But believe me, they can be very nice.”
“But aren’t they dangerous?” Darja whispered. “I’ve heard they kill.”
She sighed. “Sometimes they do. And some are very dangerous.” In her youth, several dryads had been captured and taken away by humans. They must have been treated quite badly, although they clearly weren’t killed outright. The tree was the reflection of the dryad, and the reverse was also true. One could not survive if the other died. Those trees had languished for years with no one to care for them. Zenza had been required to cut one tree down to end his suffering. It killed his lost one wherever she’d ended up, and he wanted to end her misery. It had been very difficult, but a dryad couldn’t refuse a tree’s request, even if it wasn’t her own. She shoved the memory back down where it had come from.
“I only go after the ones who travel alone, and I always bind them first. Our magic works well on humans.” Zenza tugged on Darja’s hand to get her moving again. “We’re almost there.” She tightened her grip all but hauling the young dryad into the grove. “Here we are.”
Darja shrieked and tried to pull away.
“Oh, now stop that!” Zenza snapped. Young ones were so flighty and quick to panic, but this was a lesson she needed to learn if she wanted her tree to live to fifty.
Scattered about the grove were a number of maples, all stunted and badly damaged. Great sections of the trees were dead, while other parts continued to live. Dead branches hung loosely by the fibers of the bark. Others rotted in their original positions on the tree, as if the dryads had been unable to perform appropriate maintenance to remove them.
“Zenza, take me home!” Darja wailed as she slapped at the older dryad’s hand.
Zenza grabbed the scruff of the girl’s neck and gave her a shake. “I’m your elder and you will behave yourself.” She released Darja once she stopped struggling. “This is very important, and you’d do best to pay attention.”
“This is a terrible sickly place,” Darja whimpered. “What happened?”
“Four years ago the dryads of this grove decided they needed to see the leaves change.” She pulled Darja over to the nearest tree and gently lay her free hand on the trunk. “It takes time to prepare a tree for the deep sleep, and they waited too long. The frost came hard, and the dryads were hurt as much as their trees. Some died outright.” She glanced over her shoulder to one of the unlucky ones. Or perhaps it was lucky to have been spared this continued misery.
“But some lived,” Darja said quickly. “These trees are still alive.”
“Yes, some lived.”
“Why don’t they take care of their trees then?”
She met the girl’s eyes. “How well could you trim your tree’s damaged limbs with only half your fingers or one hand?” She let go of Darja’s hand, certain she wouldn’t bolt now. “They do the best they can, and for the stronger ones there will eventually be recovery, but the scars wihttp://s-n-arly.tumblr.com/Fictionll always be there.”
Darja sniffled. “Why doesn’t anyone help them?”
“Some of us do,” Zenza said with a nod. “But there are others who feel it is not their job to look after foolish dryads who make decisions that threaten their trees.” She turned and climbed one of the damaged trees. She reached into a hollow of a dead branch and pulled out a bit of honeycomb. She dropped to the ground and held the sweeting out to Darja. All sugar maple dryads loved sweet things. The sweeter the sap, the happier the tree, the more vibrant the leaves would be.
“Oh, I couldn’t take their honey.” Holding up both hands, she shook her head.
“It’s all right, really. I put the bees there last spring so they would always have sweet things nearby.” She put the honeycomb in the younger girl’s hand. “Besides, these dryads have all gone to sleep for the winter, and honey doesn’t last long in the forest.”
Darja nibbled at the honeycomb as she continued to look around. “I should get back,” she said after a long pause. “I’ve so much to do.”
“Yes, you have.” She turned to guide the younger one out of the grove. “I’m sorry if it upset you, but this is something we all need to face sometime.”
“You’re right of course.” They walked in silence a few moments. “Thank you.”
Zenza turned to her and smiled. “If I won’t teach you, what good am I as an elder?”
This story originally appeared in Practice to Believe, edited by Shareen Mann and published in 2015.
No one sets out to be a villain, and in many cases this role is assigned by the storyteller, who may have been misinformed or carries her own bias. In the shadowy reaches of these eight stories, good and evil is not always clear cut, and initial perceptions can be misleading. Several of these short stories originate within a popular fairy tale prior to leaving the familiar path to explore new territory.
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