Anna first found her tree on her eighth birthday. By the end, she had forgotten who was there, which friend delivered which object of ephemeral value, or who ate what, but she never forgot finding the tree.
Hours after the party had ended, after the paper was torn and the secrets revealed, when her friends had eaten their fill and exhausted themselves with their games, her parents tucked her into bed and turned out the lights.
She often wondered, later, what would have happened had they drawn the blinds before wishing her goodnight. Perhaps it would have made no difference; the stars were old, older than the very bones of the Earth which supported and nourished her tree. They were so old that many of them had died long before that night, and yet they were still strong enough to reach across the void and touch her mind.
Like the will-o-wisps of old, these ghost-lights in the sky reach out to her. What their purpose was, none could say, for ghosts keep their own counsel. They reached their light into her room and into her mind, as unimpeded by the thin membranes of her eyelids as they were by the glass of her window or the trackless space between. They reached deep into her, caressing her thoughts with their twinkling music, and she dreamed of a forest.
It was a forest in the same way that a mountain is a stone… its trees ancient, gnarled, and heavy with moss. The clawing branches could have been sinister and terrifying in the darkness, but she felt no fear. Instead, she was drawn to them, as if their gently swaying was beckoning to her.
So deeply was she dreaming that she was unaware of her physical body rising from her bed, slowly crossing the room, opening the window. As she picked her way through the bracken at the verge of the forest, she also climbed out the window. She worked her way deeper and deeper into the forest, a path always present before her but always quickly curving out of sight. She had no idea how long she walked before she came into the clearing.
The tree was there.
It spread out above her, filling the sky. Its ancient, clawing branches divided again and again, until trying to find where one ended and another began made her mind reel. Dizzy, she forced her eyes away from the heavenward tangle, looking to the ground for stability.
There was none to be found. Reeling with vertigo, she realized that she could see through the earth at her feet as if it were the clearest crystal. The roots of the tree multiplied and spread below her, as infinitely dense and complicated as its branches. The longer she looked, the more the spreading tendrils began to fill her vision until, blinded and disoriented, she slowly toppled against the tree. She could feel the rough, weathered bark catch her, biting into her exposed skin as it eased her to the ground. Through the bark, through the earth, through the very air around her, she could feel the warm pulse of life rising in waves from the finest root-tendril to the smallest new shoot in the spreading canopy.
With each pulse, she could feel herself being lifted out of the fog of panic which had threatened to engulf her. She could feel her thoughts slow and calm as the ancient tree’s essence reached out and engulfed her own, a small, bright flame nurtured and shielded with a parent’s tenderness. As her mind’s eye slowly closed and the depths of sleep claimed her, she saw clearly for an instant into the tangle of roots and branches and she knew that at the tip of each and every tendril lay a star, and that every star had a place amongst the chaos.
And then she knew nothing more until the morning, when she would awake far from home.
And the tree would still be there.
It would always be there.
It always had been.