Once upon a time, deep into the woods, nestled in the heart of the land, was a tree. He sat crouching on the grass, misty blades brushing against his skin. Whiskers protruded from his legs, bundled in a tangled heap at his feet. Ridges in his skin were as deep as rivers. He leaned forward, cradling his knees while resting his tired head and his weary eyes. A deep, empty cave formed at the hollow of his stomach. Day after day, the tree sat in his solitude, perhaps thinking, or sleeping, or wallowing in his loneliness. He begged the heavens for a sign that other life was out there. Each night, he prayed for a friend.
Three weeks, three months, and three days later, the tree’s isolation ended all too suddenly. A poor girl covered in soot and tattered clothes appeared in front of the tree. It was almost nightfall, and a shroud of darkness would soon settle over the land. Her sudden arrival startled him. A gust of wind blew leaves into his eyes and blinded him, so the girl snuck past his watchful eye. The girl was a pitiful thing. Her hair was as dark as the earth after rainfall and her pale eyes were tainted with fear. Draped across her frail body was a torn cotton cardigan.
“Hello? Somebody help me…” she whispered timidly into the night. The tree’s heart warmed because his prayers were finally answered. He shook his arms, rustling the leaves, and sent the sound of maracas into the silent night, beckoning her to close closer. As she neared, he saw that she was cradling a single candle in her arms.
“Hello tree, will you help me?” she asked again.
“What’s wrong? What’s your name?” The tree was alarmed at the sound of his own voice, as he had not used it in so long.
“I don’t know my name.” She stared at him with unmoving eyes. She looked as fragile as a leaf like the wind could soon topple her over. “My parents abandoned me here, they didn’t have enough food or space for me. Will you be a friend and give me something to light a fire with? It’s so awfully cold tonight.”
Now, he would come to regret this, but the soft cadence of her voice slurred the tree’s thoughts, and all he wanted in this world at that moment was to make her happy. “There’s a spacious hole in my stomach. You can gather some leaves for kindling and light a fire where you can sleep. But you have to promise to wake up and put the fire out when I call out, or else I will turn into ashes.”
“I promise.” The little girl seemed sincere.
So that night, when the sun retreated west, the little girl rested her head on the tree’s legs, warm and safe for the first time in a long time. As she fell into a deep slumber, she was transported back home. Her family surrounded a table overflowing with the most delectable feast. She tipped her head back, laughing with her mother who cradled her daughter’s rosy cheeks and ran her fingers through her lustrous hair. However, the scene was quickly interrupted and the little girl was back in the woods, alone and awake. A faint, but persistent yelling
floated in the back of her mind, and when it became too loud to ignore, the little girl stirred from her slumber. “Quick, put out the fire!” the tree panicked.
The girl woke with a jolt, looking frantically around, seeing nothing that could be used to extinguish the flames. In the spur of the moment, she shrugged her sweater off and beat at the flames until they faded away.
“Thank you,” said the tree.
The girl nodded and smiled a slight smile. She wished she was back in her slumber, eating and laughing with her family. An anger arose in her gut. But the girl stayed with the tree, sitting at his feet and talking with him.
The next night, the girl asked, “could I sleep in your cave again?” The tree was skeptical since he had called out for minutes before the girl had put out the flames.
“Alright, but you have to promise that you’ll put out the fire immediately this time,” the tree agreed.
“I promise.” She seemed genuine.
Once again, the girl gathered leaves from the forest floor and lit the pile with her stubby candle. That night, a lucid moon hung in the sky, and the crackling flames kept the girl safe from creeping frost. As she drifted off, she arrived at an extravagant mansion. Its walls were glass and the ornate crystal chandeliers that hung from tall ceilings were visible from the outside, sparkling in the sunlight. She roamed around the halls for hours, exploring each impeccably furnished room. But like the previous night, her fantasies ended far too soon. She heard the tree’s cries before she had even seen half the rooms in the house. She had promised not to ignore the tree’s wishes, but she lingered in the fading visions of polished marble floors and plush velvet sofas.
That little spark of rage inside her grew. She lay awake, staring at the darkness of the tree’s stomach. The emptiness. The hollowness. The flame was put out, but an idea flickered inside her innocent little head.
On the third night, when asked about their promise, the little girl swore to put the flames out immediately.
That night, stars littered the sky, illuminating the outline of her sleeping figure. She was brought back to the mansion. Only this time, piles of precious stones and towers of gold adorned the floors. Admiring the grandiose, she was in awe and unable to even move. Suddenly, wrapped in a warm embrace, she whipped around to see her parents smiling and praising and hugging her tight. She never wanted this to end. Now reunited with her family in a magnificent mansion surrounded by riches, she was truly happy.
“Help!” Cried the tree. “Put the flames out now!”
The girl danced across shiny floors, letting out a squeal of joy.
“Help! Save me!” The girl grabbed a fistful of golden coins.
“I’m burning away… Please!” The girl draped a diamond necklace across her mother’s neck.
It was morning. The grass was adorned with minuscule droplets of dew. The air was crisp and the smell of fresh earth lingered in the breeze. The girl rolled over onto the grass, her eyelids slowly fluttered open.
The tree, however, was nowhere to be seen.