It had been twenty-four years since she’d last seen it, but the place looked exactly the same. It was surprising, when the world around it had changed so much. But here it was, untouched, unchanged, as though time didn’t exist here.
Perhaps it didn’t.
I could feel something here, something I had felt as a child. It was a warm feeling, a soft, soothing feeling like a warm presence was wrapped around you and holding you close. The place seemed to be held in a curious crossing of all the seasons. Vibrant flowers danced around the edges, bordering the place in a halo of reds, blues, violets and yellows, their fragrance lending to the warmth of the place. A small, dark pool of water lay almost breathless to the side, a silently flowing waterfall breaking the surface then making it as smooth as a mirror again. From memory, I knew that the waters were as still and icy cold as the rivers were in the dead of winter. It tasted of diamonds and deepness. Flanking the pool were two tall trees with deep green leaves and upon them nestled the largest, most perfect looking apples as red as rubies. These apples were not in the blossoming of spring, but in the full bloom of summer, ripe and ready to eat. I wondered if they would still taste as magical as they once had.
The embodiment of autumn though, that was what I most remembered gazing up at as a child all that time ago.
At the end of this secret grotto, towering above everything, a lawn of green stretching towards it, stood an ancient oak tree.
It’s twisting branches towered up in great branches of deep shades of brown. The tree was in the full throes of autumn, an umbrella of oranges, golds and reds glittering like fire in the sunlight streaming down. The space around the tree was blanketed in a thick carpet of leaves that I knew would be wonderful to roll in.
I remembered doing that too.
I forced myself forward towards the big tree, my distant past warring with my present. It felt as though I didn’t belong here, yet there was some wordless voice, some whisper that compelled me forward.
Finally, I stood before the tree, feeling dwarfed by its presence, unsure of what to do.
“Hello,” I said hesitantly, then slightly flinched as the memories of cuts and bruises came back to me.
Nothing moved but the wind.
I shook my head. Perhaps I had been imagining it after all. Perhaps I had needed to be trained to accept reality, not fairytales.
I began to turn and trudge away when suddenly the wind picked up. The leaves at the base of the tree began swirling around, rotating around me. The wind whirled my strands of long dark hair around my shoulders and I could’ve sworn it felt as though someone had caressed my face with cool fingers.
Greetings, dear heart, came a whispered voice, and not just any whispered voice. This one I knew, I had always known.
“Are you really real? Or am I imagining things?”
Is the sunshine real? Is the wind and the rains it carries? Are the flowers as colourful and as sweet as you see? I am here, heart. I am everywhere.
“How come I can’t see you?”
You can see me, all around. You feel me now, my touch.
I clenched my fists, digging my nails in deep, a reflex to try to wake me up when I had a walking dream.
“If you are real, come out so I can see you,” I demanded.
The wind hummed, a sad, almost angry melody.
You are broken inside, dear heart. Like an autumn leaf underfoot. What has happened while I have slept?
I shook my head, trying to shake the voice, the presence from me. Hadn’t they all told me it was not real? When I had spoken of the voice that spoke to me in the forest, of the tall figure I had spoken to and drawn and written about, they had looked at me with thunderous looks and hard hands.
No child of theirs would fall into delusions and speak of such things.
“You’re not real,” I intoned and turned once again to go.
Drink. Drink of the water. It will free your mind of the shadows and bring it into the light.
For so many years, uncertainty had clouded my mind, uncertainties made worse by hard hands and people in white coats and bright lights. Sure, I had grown up into a “well-adjusted adult” living in the real world, but the scars still remained.
I knew I was not who I was meant to be.
I went to the pool and stared at my reflection in the mirror-like water. Long dark hair, brown eyes, a round face - perfectly normal. But I did not look happy. I never have.
I drank deeply and an icy clarity rushed through me.
My parents had never approved of me wandering through the forest alone. But at 10 years old, I needed an escape from boring maths problems and strict parents who seemed to colour everything in life grey. I did not like grey. I liked the blue of the sky and the green of the trees.
So I ran to my secret place.
I remember first finding it, greeting it with the wonder that a small child holds. All the colours back them seemed brighter, more vibrant, but everything was where it still was.
I found myself magically drawn to the tree in the centre and I remember scooping up the leaves and throwing them in the air so they danced, giggling away.
That is when I felt the presence, felt the same cool fingertips.
Welcome, dear one, the voice had whispered.
Wide-eyed, I looked for the source of the voice and for a split moment, I saw a tall slender figure clothed in fiery orange and earthy brown emerged from the trunk of the great oak.
Then there was nothing, but the memory had remained, so much so that I had drawn it again and again. When asked about the figure I had said that it spoke to me, taught me of many things, many stories. The more I told them my tales, the harder they became.
Finally, my father, a world-renowned doctor, sat me down and told me to stop making up these stupid imaginary stories and imaginary faces. We had a reputation to uphold in these parts and my “senseless prattling” were an embarrassment. While my father spoke, my mother gripped hard on my shoulders as though her fingertips would imprint the force behind the words.
Scared, I mutely nodded, wishing desperately to go back to my place and forget about the cold grayness of my parents.
The next time I was there, I sat before the great oak tree and wept, telling it of my parents.
Not once did I think that the figure and its voice were not real.
Drink, dear one. Drink of my waters and see.
I had done so and was filled with the same icy clarity as now. I do not remember all the thoughts that crystallized in my mind back then, but I do remember one thing that did.
Magic was here.
With a gasp I returned to the present moment, crouched on my knees before the still pool, the great oak towering above everything.
You are healed, dear heart?
I tried to control my breathing.
“No!” I shouted.
The leaves and the wind swirling them seemed to pause for a moment, as though in confusion. All was still for a moment.
My waters reveal the truth, for truth is at the heart of all nature. Nature can only be what it is, no more and no less. What still is wrong?
“Everything! I remember everything now!” I shouted, although I was not sure who I was shouting to - the obscure figure in the oak, my parents, the doctors, the world.
I remembered how, after drinking the waters here, my “delusions” had gotten worse. All I wanted to do was be outside, in the forest or surrounded by nature. My stories grew wilder, yet always steeped in reality, and steeped in the magic of the oaken figure and the stories it told. Sometimes I would even talk to the trees or the flowers like they were people, and I would dance with the butterflies and sing with the birds.
I was happy. I was a child, bursting with sunshine and rainbows and magic.
My parents thought I was deluded, that something was seriously wrong with me.
So, they’d sent me away.
“They are friends of your father’s, Anna. They will look after you and make you less…excitable,” my mother had said as she packed me up into the car with father.
I cannot say I was particularly sad to leave the house, but my heart broke as I watched the forest not far from the house vanishing slowly into the distance, it’s vast greenness fading away to flat, yellowish fields.
I had seen while coming here, that the forest was not as vast anymore. Reality had eaten away at it too.
I am here. Pain is a part of the truth. Just as weeds must be pulled out of the ground for goodness to grow, pain must also be pulled or else it turns all to decay. Tell me.
I still not know from where the voice came from but I directed my full attention to the oak.
“My parents thought I was deluded. When I spoke about you, they said it was a figment of my imagination. When I drew pictures of the beauty here, they tossed them in the trash. When I tried to follow your love of nature, I was mocked and ridiculed. Then, when it was clear that I was hopeless case, they packed me up and sent me to the looney bin for two years until I was ‘well adjusted.’ I learned to keep secret my thoughts, to lock away all memories of you and this place between iron walls. It was hard, so hard. It was like those people had eyes like piercing drills could read my mind if I thought of it. Then they would do something to make me forget everything. I think, sometimes, they enjoyed it. But I learned. I learned what to do and before long I was out of there and back with my parents,” my voice broke off here.
I didn’t know if I felt intense anger, bitterness, sadness or happiness at the thought of my parents. I had left them as soon as I turned 18 and had never looked back. I could never forgive them for what they had done.
I never even attended their funeral. They were ghosts to me long before they passed from this world. There were times when the regret seeped in, and the sadness, but all I had to do was remember how both my parents had let me go into a world of fear and coldness alone.
You have known much suffering. I have felt your suffering from afar, dear heart. When you left, for a while there was nothingness. My brethren have long faded from this world and I, perhaps soon, will follow in their wake.
I looked up at the oak.
“What are you?” I whispered hoarsely, dying for an answer to that old question.
When nothing happened for a long moment, I felt a deep well of disappointed resignation within me.
It had all been for nothing.
Suddenly, the oak tree gave a shudder, and even more leaves showered down.
A figure appeared from the oak tree, almost indistinguishable from the tree at first but becoming more distinct.
I took a step back as the figure fully formed.
It was a woman, yet it was not.
Tall and voluptuous she was, with a crown of branches rising from her head like the antlers of a stag. The base of it was nestled in long, flowing waves of deep, muddy brown and the gleam of golden wheat. A patchwork of coloured leaves wrapped around her body, the same reds, oranges and golds that the oak tree bore. Her feet were bare and you could see the dappled brown of her skin.
She smiled at me.
My full name you could not pronounce. Such words have been lost for many centuries. You may simply call me Ek.
I gazed in awe at the creature before me.
“What are you?” I repeated.
I am what was once called a dryad, a spirit of the forest. We form from the consciousness of trees, the ancient ones. This oak is my home, is part of me.
She gestured to the magnificent tree behind her.
“And all of this?” I asked, gesturing to the natural beauty all around.
This is my grotto. Dryads like to surround ourselves with nature, with beauty.
She paused as a halo of butterflies fluttered towards her, their black and orange wings blending in with her.
“So, you’re real?” I asked, still not quite comprehending it all.
I am real, dear heart.
I sat down heavily.
“I was right! All these years I was right! You are real!” I crowed, then started laughing, deep joyful laughs.
The mind picked up and swirled around me as Ek reveled in my happiness too.
I could feel the shackles of my childhood lifting. I had not been delusional, or caught up in wild imaginings. I remembered the feelings of peace and joy I had felt here, feelings that had eluded me ever since. It had always felt like something had been missing in my life. I had touched magic, held it in my hands, felt its warmth and then I had lived for years without it.
It was like living in the shadows where no sunlight reached.
As I looked all around me, the vibrancy returned and I felt the whispering of the wind whistle around me, both with Ek’s voice and the voice of the wild.
No-one would ever believe my stories of the dryad who lived in the forest, of the magic she held in her hands, in the roots of her tree or the cool stillness of her water. But I knew, and I believed.
And that was all that mattered.