Willow marched through the woods clasping his offering tightly. He cradled it confidently, but still, a trickle of water seeped between his thin fingers and onto the floor. His path was well-trodden, although he knew it was only walked by him, his friends from the fringes were too scared to come this far into the woods. Fear, it seems, is the most powerful of deterrents. But unhappiness is an equally powerful antidote. Willow no longer felt fear. And anger was starting to overcome his unhappiness.
He felt the temperature drop another degree and knew it was only a short time until dawn. He had become so attuned to the ways of the woods but could never fathom out why the temperature dropped just before the moon disappeared and the sun rose. Maybe the old man could answer this for him as well he thought. Maybe today he would finally get a glimpse of him.
Willow had spent eight months, every Sunday treading this same path. And just as the storytellers had told him to, he always brought an offering. He followed their advice in every detail, but still, he had not had even a glimpse of the old man. Let alone talk with him. Maybe the legend wasn’t true. Maybe he was a myth after all. But the truth Willow had seen in one of the elder storytellers was enough to convince him not to give up. The elder's voice trembled as he recalled to Willow he had seen the old man once himself, with his very eyes. He warned of the old man’s temper.
“He’s a hermit! A recluse! A mystery! He’s a thousand years old! It’s said if he chooses to, he can answer anything. Any question, he has all answers, ‘cos his wisdom is deep. No one in this wood has seen him for decades. But he’s real alright. Mark my words, I’ve seen him. Looked right into his eyes. As black as midnight they were, he searched my soul, I felt it. I’ve seen his temper. I’ve felt his anger”. The elder leaned down and stared into Willow's eyes. Hesitating for a moment he pulled back the leaves that covered his face to reveal a long dark scar. Willow flicked his gaze at it.
“See this boy?. . He did this to me . . . The old man did this to me!” He grabbed Willows head forcing him to look at the scar. “Look at it! My advice to you is to stay away. Forget your questions. Questions will earn you nothing but trouble.” Willow pulled his face away and stared at the floor. “I was young and foolish and full of questions once myself . . . look what it got me. Just accept things as they are. Trust the storytellers.”
Willow felt warm chinks of sunlight penetrating the gaps in the canopy as he approached the great oak. His pace slowed. Its huge trunk was all Willow could see. The mysterious dawn half-light made everything feel just that bit more magical. Willow knew the magic would only last a matter of minutes as the dawn light would change and it would be lost for another day. He knelt and placed the water-soaked moss into the hole between the roots at the base of the trunk. The same place he always put it. Just as the storytellers had said. His long thin legs relieved to be still at last . . . If only for a while.
He gazed up through the vast branches. The top of the canopy must have stood a hundred meters above him. It spread out as far as Willow could see in all directions. Willow felt tiny and insignificant, as he always did. He felt confused and angry, as he always did. He stared at the bark in front of him. The deep dark crevices looked like they could swallow him up. Maybe that would be good, he thought. His anger began to rise through his body. He knew this time he couldn’t contain it. He thumped his pale clenched fists against the gnarly old trunk. Rage rose uncontrollably in his throat. He let out a noise that came from deep within him. It sent startled birds to the wing, shocked from their roost high up above him as it echoed through the empty wood.
“WHY WON’T YOU HELP ME?! WHERE ARE YOU? I KNOW YOU’RE REAL, WHY WON’T YOU HELP ME?! I NEED YOUR HELP!
He collapsed backwards on the ground, tears running down his pale cheeks. He lay sobbing, looking up through the branches which blurred with his sadness.
“I GIVE UP! STUPID OLD MAN! I GIVE UP!”
He rolled over and lay with his face to one side on the ground letting himself cry. Turning the dirt dark as his tears flowed. Above him, high up on the trunk of the mighty oak, two eyes slowly opened. They were as black as midnight. Morphing from the bark, a man’s head started to appear. Blinking in the new dawn, he leaned forward and looked down at Willow. Gradually, leaning forward, shoulders started to appear. Then a chest calved from oak. Two muscular arms reached out and stretched.
The old man stepped out from the tree, his features still only partly formed, indistinguishable from the bark. As he slowly descended to the floor his features sharpened. As his feet gently touched the earth he was perfect. Beautifully carved from oak like a god. Willow blinked, wiping at his blurry eyes he sat up sharply. The old man said nothing, just stared at Willow. His dark eyes, unblinking. Unnerving. Willow scrambled to his feet holding on to the oak tree. His pale skinny legs threatening to buckle under the stare of the old man.
“Please don’t kill me!” Willow heard his voice as if it were someone else’s. The Old man said nothing. Did nothing. Just stared.
“I’m sorry I called you stupid, please don’t kill me.” Willow stared at the floor not daring to look into the old man’s dark eyes. “I came for your help. I’ve been coming for months. I brought you water just as the storytellers told me to. But . . . But you never came.” Willow raised his head and looked at the old man. The old man nodded slowly. He raised his hand, gesturing for Willow to step forward. Willow, still one hand on the oak, froze. He could feel his spindly legs buckling just at the thought of moving them. The Old man gestured a beautifully calved finger towards Willow. Willow felt the oak tree move slowly away from his hand. He looked down and realized his feet were six inches from the floor. He was moving, not the tree. He gently bobbed along until he was standing right in front of the old man, then he felt his feet touch the dirt again. He stood, hardly daring to breathe. The old man looked him up and down. He walked all the way round him. Looked at him from every angle with those dark eyes. Then took a step back and stared. He said nothing.
“I . . . I . . . I have a question. That’s why I came. I have a question. And the storytellers said you know all the answers to all the questions. So that’s why I’m here.” The old man silently sat down cross-legged on the earth. His stare fixed on Willow. He waved his finger and Willows legs gave way, silently sitting him cross-legged on the earth, facing the old man. The old man nodded.
Willow took a deep breath and settled himself. The fear lifting from him. He looked straight into the old man’s eyes for the first time. They were as dark as midnight.
“Why don’t I fit in? That’s my question. I’m different from my friends. They don’t say anything, but I can feel it. I know they can feel it too, I’ve always felt different. I’ve tried to ignore it but the feelings getting stronger all the time. I think about it all the time. And . . . Well, I can’t carry on feeling like this. I won’t carry on feeling like this . . . I need your help . . . Please.” Willow tried to stand up but his legs ignored his request. The old man sat, and he stared. But he said nothing. Willow could feel his anger rising again. It was too much to contain.
“Well say something then! You owe me that much at least.” Willow straightened up, his confidence growing. “There are some that think you’re a fake. Most people think you’re a myth. I believed in you . . . The least you can do is say something, anything . . . But say something!” Willow struggled to stand up again. The old man gestured him to sit down. Then he spoke.
“You are a mystery to yourself, but you are no mystery to me.” The old man’s voice was as deep as thunder. It rumbled through the woods making Willow shudder. He spoke slowly, thoughtfully. Willow, eyes wide, sat as still as he could, barely daring to breathe.
"I will answer your question, Willow. You have shown persistence, determination, courage. Your answer will come a year from now. You must continue bringing water every Sunday. For now, return to the fringes with the other saplings.”
Willow could feel the ground vibrating as the words left the old man’s mouth. The old man nodded. The ground beneath him starting to cover his legs. He sank slowly into the earth. The last thing to be swallowed up was the old man’s head. His unblinking eyes fixed on Willow’s, as dark as midnight. Then he was gone without a trace.
Willow sat for a while in the silence, not trusting his shaking legs. To his surprise, his anger had gone. He felt calm. And for the first time ever in his short life, he felt like he had a purpose. He was to return every Sunday for a year . . . That was his purpose. For now, it was enough.
A year passed quickly. Willow told no one of the old man. He returned every Sunday with water. He would sit at the bottom of the great oak and see in the new dawn. He grew. His spindly legs became thicker, stronger. His skinny fingers grew longer. He got taller. After a year had passed, Willow could run to the oak without stopping.
The day Willow had been waiting for finally arrived. He sprinted through the woods with his offering of water without spilling a single drop. He arrived at the great oak before dawn. He sat and waited, watching the light change slowly. He had grown to love this spot in the woods. He felt at home.
Willow could feel his patience starting to wear thin. He paced around looking up through the branches. Waiting.
The old man tapped him on the shoulder. Willow spun around and stood face to face with him. He seemed smaller than last time. Not as imposing.
“You have grown . . . Willow . . . You have done well.” The Old man looked him up and down in admiration. “You have become a fine specimen . . . As I knew you would. Do you still need an answer to your question or are you no longer a mystery to yourself?”
The old man stepped back, folded his legs under himself, but remained three feet from the floor. He remained perfectly still and awaited Willow’s response.
“I don’t understand, of course I need an answer. We had a deal. Today is the day . . . Please tell me.”
The old man stared. He allowed a huge smile to take over his face. Then he started to laugh. Gently at first, then louder and harder. The noise was immense. Small woodland animals scurried back into their burrows, birds took flight. Willow covered his ears.
"WHAT'S SO FUNNY?" Willow screamed, partly because of the noise, partly because his fury was taking hold. The old man had his eyes shut, tears rolling down his wooden cheeks. Willow rushed forward, fists clenched. In a blur, the old man grabbed his wrists and held him tightly. His strength was like nothing Willow had ever felt before. Willow struggled briefly then a calmness took over his body. The old man slowly stopped laughing. He stared into Willow's eyes.
"You really don't know, do you? You really don't know who you are?"
Willow slumped his head . . . He had nothing left. The old man reached out, raising Willows head so they stood face to face.
“You are no more a Willow than I. You feel different from the other saplings because you are different from the other saplings. You are not a willow, you are not a mystery.” He smiled. “You are an oak tree. One day, you will be a great oak tree . . . Just like me.”
Willow felt his legs starting to give under him. The old man pulled him close and held him. He whispered into his ear.
“That is the answer to your question.
You are my son, Willow . . . You are my son.”