As Winter Falls

Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver
Ellen Wright

Wake up. The sun is peeking over the mountaintop, and gentle fingers of sunlight probe at you, awaking again feeling and thought. Stretch your limbs toward the sky, let the wind rustle your leaves.

It is harder to wake, now, as the season grows cold. That was always the case, but once I did not reach as high as I do now, and once I could warm myself.

I have always felt an affinity with those creatures of the wood—that is how I think of them—that stand calm and unmoving, passive regardless of what happens around them. When I was five, I planted an acorn in our backyard. My mother and father insisted that it would not grow, that acorns and seedlings need devoted care if they are going to survive. I ignored their protests, and eventually they gave up in exasperation. I had watched, after all, many acorns fall from their parent trees and sprout without the slightest bit of human interference. But I thought that maybe little trees needed attention from their parents just as I needed attention from mine, so I planted my acorn in the shadow of a great oak.

If my parents hadn’t convinced me that growing things need plenty of ground and water, I might have dug it up and potted it in my room as soon as the tiniest hint of green appeared with the first hint of spring and rebirth. Instead, unhappily, I settled for a pot of roses my mother bought at the grocery store. Flowers were for girls like my sister Lily, who loved them; only the great oaks had that sense of majesty I admired.

Feel the insects buzzing around your trunk. They seek shelter, or food; either way they mean no harm. Feel the few leaves that remain grasping at air, longing to be afloat, even if their journey to the ground will be short and their life after that even shorter. Feel the knives bite into your skin, tracing patterns that will be there long after their designers have abandoned this place.

“Can we build a treehouse?” Lily asked, following my gaze out the window. “Or a swingset? Please?”

My mother, bemused and distracted, said, “We’ll think about it, honey. Here, have some cereal.” I was ten, and Lily was 6, and just starting school that day. She was anxious, but trying to hide it. Our parents’ eyes were blind to the clear signs on her face, but I reached over and offered a hand. She took it gratefully.

“Maybe I would be able to concentrate on my schoolwork better if I had a swingset to play on,” Lily baited. She was concentrating out the window at the great oak and the sapling growing below it, my sapling.

“I’ll have to ask your father.” Of course we did get one. Both, actually; a treehouse first and then the swingset a few months later, once the snows started to melt. By the time Lily’s first year of school had ended, and she and I were playing in the yard with Rob, my 8-year-old brother, there was a solid rope ladder extending down the trunk of my oak, on the opposite side from my sapling. Rob stayed almost entirely on the swings, but Lily and I climbed up into the tree.

“Do you think it hurts the tree?” Lily asked, her childish fingers caressing gently the place into the trunk where the boards had been nailed.

“I don’t think so,” I said, and wondered. Would I want boards nailed into me? I decided that if it were for these children, to give them something to play on, I would gladly make the sacrifice. I smiled, and Lily’s worried expression disappeared under a smile of her own.

Lily never wondered what I was doing when I wrapped my hands around the big trunk and closed my eyes, breathing in the scents. I stood perfectly still until one of my parents called us in for dinner, or until Rob, scoffing, yelled up at me.

“What are you doing?” he yelled from his post on the swing, trying to get his feet as high in the air as he could. Sometimes I thought he wanted to be a bird.

“Being still,” I said back, my voice muffled in the trunk. When I stepped away, I would have marks on my cheek from the parts of the bark that stuck out. They never lasted long, no matter how I tried not to touch them, not to push them back into my skin. Every time after that, when Rob yelled at me, Lily would defend me; the first time she was confused, too, though she no doubt would have jumped to my defense if she’d known how.

“Being still is boring,” Rob said with perfect authority. The swingset groaned with his weight, insignificant though that was, as he flew off it, through the air, to land just on the other side of the sand pit that had been filled underneath it. He stumbled, landed on his knees, and pulled himself up again. “Let’s go inside.”

I obeyed, but turned back to gaze wistfully at the paired trees as we slid the door open; I let a sigh escape my lips, and Lily looked at me oddly. “Come on,” she said, and pulled on my arm. The door slid back closed and though I wrenched my neck around backwards, I couldn’t get that last glance that I longed for.

Listen to the birds calling as they fly away in search of a warmer place. Listen to the last flowers wilting, unable to stand firm in the face of what cold awaits. You would shelter them if you could, but you will have enough trouble withstanding it on your own. Listen to the children calling out their happiness as they come home from school for the last time.

I was never very popular at school. I suppose I was lucky to have Lily, for she understood me more often than not, and more often than anyone else did. The year I was fourteen, there was a girl named Sarah. I think I liked her most because she was so unlike me, graceful where I was clumsy, energetic where I was calm, pretty and articulate where I was unnoticed, tongue-tied. For some reason she latched onto me, and so I invited her to our house.

Mostly I just wanted her to see the treehouse, to see if she would feel the same kinship with that place as I did.

“You still play in a treehouse?” she said, a faint amusement flitting around her mouth and eyes. “How cute.” I felt inadequate.

“Mostly with my brother and sister-” I tried to say, but she was already ahead of me, out the back door and running across the lawn. I stumbled to keep up.

“How do you get up?” Sarah asked, staring with her big brown eyes at the treehouse, towering above her heads, and the rope ladder, dangling at her waist.

“You have to take the rope ladder.” I demonstrated, hooking one foot on the bottom rung and swinging myself to standing. Here I was in my element. Here I could find for myself some of her grace. Sarah held out her hand and grasped mine, and I thrilled at the touch.

>From inside the treehouse, most of our large lawn was visible—everything that wasn’t hidden behind other trees. I felt the distance, looked out over it, clasped in my fist a thin limb that was just suited for my hand. Sarah was crouched in the corner, inspected the flowers Lily had planted. I thought she was standing behind me.

“Pretty,” she said.

I glanced around, startled, and relaxed when I saw that she didn’t mean my view. Pretty—what a word to use to describe that. “Lily planted those. She likes flowers.” The words fell flat even on my own ears.

“You don’t like flowers?”

“Not really.” I scowled. “I prefer trees.” Sarah laughed. Maybe she thought that was cute, too.

Whatever she thought, she didn’t come back to my house.

Oh, it is hard to wake up. Harder, too, now that the leaves have left without looking back. More will grow again in the spring, but what use is waking when your only companions are scattered on the red muddy ground, their colors fleeting in a last triumphant orison? They still celebrate, the wind encouraging them to fly, a whirlwind of fading color. You remember pulling warm blankets up around your neck after waking to the cold, and would shiver if you could.

Rob grew up quickly. He forwent the pleasures of flying through the air as soon as he realized not everyone shared his passion. Though Lily and I would still often be seen digging in the dirt at the base of that great tree or climbing in the treehouse, Rob would be staring at us out his bedroom window, occasionally making faces as if to prove that he was much happier where he was. He discovered books, which were foreign to me and seemed artificial. I preferred living wood to the dead.

Then he discovered girls. Once he could drive, he started bringing them home. They were twittery, bright-colored; none of them could bear the outdoors.

“Oh, I don’t like to go outside,” they would exclaim. “I like to get tanned, but only at the beach.” They ruffled their feathers, and Rob watched them like that proverbial cat.

“Don’t you want a boyfriend, a girlfriend, anyone?” he asked me, his current whim hanging on his arm and complaining loudly about inserts, swatting violently in front of her face.

“Not really,” I responded, looking down on him from my perch in the great oak. Lily dug busily at his feet, fourteen years old and wishing that boys didn’t exist. She had confided to me that there was a boy she liked at school, but he’d laughed at her when she left a rose on his desk, pruned off the bush that had once sat in my room but now graced our front porch.

“You don’t know what you’re missing,” he said, and we watched them return to the house. I glanced down at Lily, and she smiled up at me uncertainly.

Winter comes quickly.

As I got older, my grades declined, and my parents worried. Lily was ever-studious, and even Rob passed every class that he took. I couldn’t make myself care, and instead sat at my desk, which faced the window, books open in front of me, and stared outside with my head propped up on my arms.

The moonlight made the great oak shine like a jewel. I had a sudden urge to go outside, and with only a twinge of guilt slammed the books shut. Lily’s door, across from mine, slammed shut. I snuck past it, hoping she wouldn’t hear me and come out; she did sometimes.

The shine was even more striking the closer I came, and I caught my breath in awe. Before I realized it I was running, and all clumsiness in my limbs disappeared.

I enfolded the great oak in an embrace, letting my heartbeat slow against the much deeper rhythm I felt there. As my breath quieted I became aware of another sound behind it, something whispering and calling to me.

“What do you want?” I whispered, suddenly afraid. The whispering became soothing, calming. Reluctantly, I allowed myself to be drawn in. I let go of the great oak, walked farther toward the small forest that divided our lawn from the rest of the surrounding land. The cajoling whispers grew louder with every step I took.

Taking a deep breath, I raised my hands above my head and tilted my head back. The change began almost at once; my skin grew rougher and greener, my limbs multiplied and stretched toward the sky.

Across the lawn, the sliding door slammed shut. Lily was running across the grass, calling to me, but her words fell on ears that were covered no longer with skin, but with bark. She slammed against me, her arms circling me as mine had circled the great oak, her sobs echoing within me. In vain I tried to wrap my arms around her, but my branches merely rustled; all of my efforts made a movement much like the lightest breeze could, though the air was still.

Brace yourself, for every cold spell chills more fiercely than the one before it. Brace yourself, for as winter falls, you will be alone.



Ellen Wright lives in Virginia and is a full-time college student and an aspiring full-time writer, though at the moment she’s compensated monetarily for neither. Her dream career is “freelance everything,” since her other hobbies include website & graphic design and translation. She’s never really wanted to be a tree, but thinks it might be fun for a day or two.

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