The air was crisp with the promise of winter, and I mourned for the Treesingers. Brother Ash was already mute, his tree always the first to color and shed its leaves. He would not speak again for many months. Sisters Maple and Birch still spoke, but less and less every day, their voices scratchy as dry leaves crunched under foot. Soon, they too would spend the long, cold season in silence.
“Do not fret, young one. You will hear them again. When spring returns, the village will be as lively as it ever was.”
Grandmother Sycamore stroked my hair with long fingers, knuckles knobby as acorns. Her voice was soothing and slow. Back when Brother Ash could still speak he told me she lived at a pace different than most. She would still be speaking long into the winter, but eventually even she would turn silent until the spring rains and warming sun returned her voice.
“But what if they don’t?”
“They will. They will.”
I pushed away, not wanting to be comforted. Tears burned my eyes. It was not my first winter, of course, but it was the first since the blight took my parents. Now I understood that nothing was guaranteed in this world. Adults don’t always speak truth. I didn’t want to let anything go because I feared it would be gone forever.
“But you don’t know that though, Grandmother. You can’t. They might not—”
“We do not get to make that decision, child. The Great Mother decides which trees will live and which must return to the Earth. But, I can tell you one thing…”
She took my hand in her own. Her skin was cool and dry, like the peeling papery bark of a birch. Her mossy eyes were so full of wisdom and patience.
“The trees will return. Maybe not each and every one, but most. That is the Great Mother’s promise to us. She provides us with a voice. In exchange we care for her land, the animals, the flowers, and the trees. But everyone needs a rest. A time to sleep. This is not too much to ask, is it?”
“You’re growing so big, my girl. Soon, the trees will speak to you. You will understand. You will be a Treesinger.”
The idea of it frightened me. I knew I should embrace the chance to grow up. My friends spoke in excited voices, desperate to leave childish things behind, to find their trees. Some already began to hear whispering last summer, when the trees were strongest. Faint voices carried by the wind, the first sign of selection. When spring returned, many of my friends would be chosen during the explosion of new life.
I had a secret; one I had kept from my friends, from even Grandmother Sycamore.
“I hear them.”
Grandmother Sycamore smiled broadly and rubbed my knee. Brother Ash grinned. I blushed, embarrassed to talk about such things in the presence of the adults. Sisters Maple and Birch shared a knowing look. They still had voices, but hoarded the words left to them.
“The whispering you heard in the summer is your tree calling to you. In the spring you will hear it louder. You will understand what it says. It is a special time in your life. You should embrace it.”
I picked at a loose thread on my apron. My face burned from the attention. I wished my mother still lived.
“Not in the summer,” I whispered.
Grandmother Sycamore didn’t speak. I looked up and saw puzzlement transform into wonder in her old eyes.
“When did you hear them?”
She understood. She wanted me to say it. They would laugh at me, think me silly, but I couldn’t disobey her.
“I hear it now, Grandmother. All around us. And every day a little bit louder.”
“Louder?” It was Sister Maple, her voice raspy. She hadn’t spoken for days, not since her leaves had transformed from vibrant yellow to the orange of roasting embers. “That can’t be.”
Grandmother Sycamore held up a hand, silencing the others. Brother Ash’s mouth hung open as though he wished to speak, but nothing emerged except a soft wheeze of air.
“You hear the trees now, my girl?”
“And what are they saying? Can you understand them?”
I closed my eyes and concentrated hard on the words. They were faint, but when I turned my attention toward them, the words grew louder. They swirled like a tiny sailboat tossed about on the great sea. The words were unclear, but the meaning shone through on the larger swells.
“Snow and cold. The crunch of footsteps. Animals slumber.”
I opened my eyes. Brother Ash’s mouth worked wordlessly. Sisters Maple and Birch looked to each other. Even Grandmother Sycamore appeared startled.
She placed her knobby hands on my shoulders and gave me a gentle squeeze. The firelight glistened like stars on her long teeth.
“Do you understand what this means?” Her voice was gentle, but prodding. I shrugged my shoulders, frightened to acknowledge the truth, the responsibility I faced.
“You are Evergreen, my girl.”
The words took root in my heart and began to flower. I had known, but couldn’t believe. It was impossible; a fairy tale told to children. But it was true.
Brother Ash and Sisters Maple and Birch came over and rested their hands on me; I was the trunk of a tree, the others my branches. They looked at me with love, but something had changed. There was something of respect, of reverence in their gazes. I returned my eyes to Grandmother Sycamore and was startled that even her green eyes glistened with tears, a recognition of the woman I would become.
“My child,” Grandmother Sycamore said quietly, “When the winter comes, you will speak for us all.”
About the author:
Shawn Kobb is an American diplomat by day and writer by night (and sometimes the other way around.) He has lived, worked, and traveled around the world and uses this experience to fuel his writing. His short fiction has been published in Hybrid Fiction, Novel Noctule, New Reader Magazine, and other fine publications. He is the author of the “Mystery In Vienna” series of novels as well as the sci-fi noir novel Collection.