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The Flute Player and the Dancing Tree
She tries to run as fast as she can, ducking under the tree branches and clutching the stitch in her side. Her pursuer’s footsteps thump the ground, their owner’s laughter echoing behind her. Her legs are going numb, and every step is a battle. Her arms twist for the sky, turning hard and growing up. She trips on her own feet and pitches forward, crying out in pain.
She looks up at her arms. They have turned to branches, long and spindly with peeling bark, leaves budding and unfurling in a glossy green. She tries to stand back up, but her feet are stuck in the ground, roots reaching down for water. Someone grabs her hair and yanks her upright. Immediately her legs start to turn into a trunk, bark unfurling like a blanket. Her pursuer smiles.
She tries to scream, but her lungs have changed to wood. He leans in and kisses her, sighing when he pulls away. She gasps as she feels something leave her in a rush. She reaches for it, grabbing at its tail before it slips away. The man in the dark cloak whispers where her ear used to be, “Welcome to my wood.” Then he disappears.
The bark closes over everything, the wood stretching and growing sweeping branches. She curls up at the bottom, close to the roots, knees pulled up to her chest. She can’t remember anything before the man kissed her, as if her life started then. She falls asleep.
She uncurls and tries to kick the trunk. Her foot goes through, so she follows it outside. Trees crowd around her, whispering inaudibly. She catches a glimpse of a face in a nearby oak before it disappears. She looks at her own tree.
It’s tall and thin, whip-like branches brushing the ground. A river birch. A small black stone glimmers in the center of the trunk in the shape of a kiss. She tries to yank it out, but a something squeezes tight inside her chest. She pushes the loosened corner back in and steps back into the tree.
She takes small steps away from the tree every day, traveling slowly outward. She stumbles upon a pool and studies her image until the need for energy calls her back to the safety of her tree. Her hair is green, hanging around her face like the branches of her tree. Her skin is pale brown and covered in swirling white marks and mossy green patches. She knows she didn’t use to look like this, but she can’t remember what her image used to be.
She continues from her tree until she reaches the edge of the wood. She tries, but she can go no farther than the fringe of branches and foliage without her chest squeezing painfully. A village lies in the valley, people like tiny leaves on the ground. From then on, she sits everyday and watches them, wishing she could remember who she is.
The seasons change, and so does she. Her hair changes from bright yellow and orange in the fall to green-tinged in the spring and then to glossy green in the summer. In the winter the dark-cloaked man returns. He goes through the wood, kissing all the trees. As soon as his lips touch their bark his gray hairs and wrinkles fade and the trees shed their leaves and fall asleep until spring. The years blur together.
She wakes up on the first of spring and steps out of her tree to go watch the village. Music floats around her tree, something sweet and quick she’s never heard before. Her feet start spinning, her body following. Images swirl in her mind. A man and a woman leaning over her bed. The taste of a red-skinned fruit. Running through the grass. Laughing. The music grows and grows, the images swirling faster and faster as her body dances to try to catch them. She throws back her head and laughs aloud.
The music stops. She stops dancing and opens her eyes. A boy stands next to her tree, a wooden flute in his hands, around the age to be leaving gifts at a lover’s doorstep. She steps back, fear widening her eyes.
“Who are you?” he asks.
A name rises up from the emptiness, brought back by the music. “Layree.” She cocks her head. “Who are you?”
“I’m called Ensel.” His fingers idly cover the holes on the flute. “Are you a druid?”
She blinks. “I don’t know.”
He smiles. “Whatever you are, you’re a beautiful dancer.”
She smiles back. It feels strange, like something vaguely familiar that shouldn’t be. “Your music is beautiful.”
He shrugs, then asks a strange question. “Why do you think so?”
“I can’t remember anything about who I used to be. It helped me remember.” She doesn’t know how she knows, it just feels like the right answer.
His smile returns. He settles cross-legged against her tree, lifting his flute to his mouth. “Let’s see if it can help you more.” Then he begins to play again, and she dances her heart out.
The other villagers think Ensel is strange, the way he goes to the wood on the hill every day.
“You’re old enough to get married, Ensel. Go find a girl!” His mother says in exasperation.
“You need to learn the business, son,” his father says, worry in the creases in the corners of his eyes.
“What is in the wood that brings you back?” the neighbors ask.
Ensel just smiles mysteriously. “Something special.”
Layree loves to dance, the music floating around her. Every uncovered memory is a precious treasure. Once her feet are sore and Ensel’s breath is short, they sit together under her birch, just talking. Ensel tells her about the world, and she tells him about her memories and the trees.
One day, Ensel plays a different song, slow and lilting. She bends and twirls to it, images floating with the music. A frozen river. Tears on cheeks. A baby with pale skin and a weak cry. A grave. Sadness floods her chest, overpowering her. She falls to her knees, tears on her cheeks and sobs stuck in her throat.
Ensel stops playing and runs to her side. “Are you alright?” She nods shakily and lets him help her to her feet.
“She died,” she whispers, more to herself as a way to give this flood of sadness somewhere to go.
“Someone I knew, someone I loved….a baby. I can’t remember her name.” She looks at him. “Can you play something else?” He nods and starts playing a bright, joyful melody.
The year fades away, full of music and laughter and dancing. Winter starts to nip at their heels, reminding Layree of the man in the cloak.
“You have to leave for the winter,” she tells Ensel.
He plays a few notes then replies, “Why?”
“There’s a man who rules the wood. I think he’d kill you.”
He plays some more before answering, “I’m not afraid.”
She doesn’t argue, but the anxiety haunts her, making her dancing faulted.
One day, the wood settles into a hush and a cold wind rattle branches. Ensel shakes off Layree’s warnings and continues to play. She lets the music flood her and pull her away from her worries. Then her head is yanked back by her hair, and a cold voice whispers in her ear.
“You dare to defy me, my little tree?” Tears spring in her eyes as he pulls her head against his shoulder.
“Leave her alone!” She wishes Ensel hadn’t spoken, had just run and stayed safe. This man has no morality, no heart. She has no doubt now that he’ll kill without hesitation.
“You’ve made a friend, have you? We’ll see how brave he really is.” His breath tickles her ear. Her lungs constrict as the swirling marks on her skin start to burn bright. A spindly branch of her tree lashes out and wraps around Ensel. He drops his flute. She tries to pull the branch back, tries to make it stop, but it lifts him off the ground. He kicks and twists but the branch only tightens. She can feel it crushing his ribs.
The man, though she’s not sure he really is one, pushes her into her tree. She pounds against the bark, throwing her weight against it, but she can’t go through. It shimmers, transparent so that she can watch what the price of her memories is. The white marks keep burning and the branch slithers around Ensel’s neck.
He chokes, trying to fit his fingers underneath the branch and give himself room to breath. He closes his eyes as it tightens, waiting for the air to stop. He starts humming a lullaby, one his mother used to use to get him to sleep when he was a tireless boy. Death is just sleeping, just sleep that lasts forever.
Music, rough and broken and barely audible, floats around her. The burning on her skin fades. Her tree is her own, her body is her own. She closes her eyes and orders the branch to release Ensel. He tumbles to the ground and picks up his flute. She steps out of her tree and runs to his side, helping him to his feet while he fights for air through hacking coughs. The branch had left marks on his neck, indentations of near death.
“Can you dance?” he asks, his voice raspy.
“Can you play?” Her feet are poised to follow any rhythm.
He takes a deep breath. “I’ve never been more able.” Then he lifts the flute and starts to play, weakly at first, but then it grows. This song is fast and desperate, a battle cry. She spins and bends to it, her feet moving so fast she can barely feel them touch the ground. She looks up to see people stepping out of their trees, young people with fading hair and white marks on their skin. She’s never seen more than glimpses of them, these other people imprisoned like her. One of them, a boy with spiky red hair from a maple, starts to sing.
Slowly, others start joining in with their own music; dancing, singing, instruments pulled from the wooden hearts of their trees. The world becomes music.
Hands grab her from behind and turn her around. Ensel stops playing and the music ends, echoing where it used to ring. The cloaked man towers over her. “You are too much trouble,” he growls. He grabs her face in his hands and kisses her.
She freezes as something deep inside her starts to be tugged out, something precious she doesn’t want to lose. Someone shouts behind her, but all senses fade as the man lets her go, and she crumbles to the ground. Everything is so cold, lost and cold.
“Layree?” She struggles to turn her head to the voice. Someone lifts her head and places it on something warm and solid. Something rough scratches her cheek. The voice is familiar, one she knows she should know, but she can’t remember who it belongs to. She can’t remember anything.
Ensel leans beside Layree on the ground, her head in his lap. Her skin is ashy, her body limp. All the life that used to be in her eyes is gone. He reaches for his flute, praying that music will bring her back, will fix this. But his hand closes around dying grass.
“Looking for this?” a voice asks, the voice of the man who did this. Ensel turns to see the man smiling with his flute in his hand. “Such a simple instrument, who knew it could do so much damage?” He smiles wider then brings the piece of wood down on his knee. It splinters on the first attack, shatters on the second. He tosses the two pieces aside. “This is my wood, boy, run home before I make you live in it too.”
Ensel looks down at Layree. He knows he can’t leave her here to fade away. “I’m sorry I made this happen,” he whispers. Then he kisses her, knowing that it would be for the first and last time.
Something warm spreads in her chest, something alive. She gasps as the warmth spreads down to her toes and into the roots of her hair. She sits up, smiling at Ensel, who stares at her with shock written across his face. She looks at herself, the white marks have disappeared and her skin has become like Ensel’s.
“How is this possible?” The man shouts.
She and Ensel clasp each other’s wrists and pull themselves up. “Can you play?” she asks.
“My flute is broken,” sorrow flickers in his eyes as he says the words.
Something pulses in her chest. “I can make you a new one.” She runs to her tree.
“What? How?” he asks as she pulls him along.
She ignores him and reaches her hand into the trunk. An image of a flute pulses behind her eyes as her fingers close over something smooth and thin. She pulls it back out and hands it to him. He stares at the perfect flute in his hands. “Now can you play?” she asks again.
He smiles widely. “Can you dance?”
She smiles back, “I have never been more able.” She raises her arms and starts to spin as he plays the song again. This time, the other trees don’t hesitate to join in. The wood echoes with their music, and the villagers stop their work and listen.
The man of the wood screams and falls to his knees. He pulls at the edges, layers of black dust being slowly tugged off of him by the music. Every year he ever stole so that he could live another. Every life he ever ended so that his would last forever. Every soul he had ever turned to wood. Soon, there’s nothing left of him at all.
The layers turn white and enter each stolen person. The white marks on their skin fade away and their natural coloring returns. Laughter rings through the wood as people stare at their hands in wonder of their freedom and uncovered memories. Tears fall as realization of years wasted sets in. The trees that had held them captive for so long crumble to dust, until the wood is gone.
Every villager remembers the day that Ensel came home with all the people ever lost walking behind him. It was the biggest celebration they’d ever seen, still celebrated to this day. Layree found her family again, old and heartbroken, and there was a wedding that summer.
If you ever visit, you might see a flutist and a dancer in the square, making their music. You might wonder why the dancer has green-tinged hair, or why the flutist have strange scars around his throat. But if you ask them to tell their story, they’ll just smile mysteriously and say, “Watch and listen.” Then he’ll play, and she’ll dance. And if you listen closely enough you’ll see the story told in the silence and the music. And it will be the most beautiful thing you’ll ever see.
Because music is the language we can all speak. It can make the broken heart whole, and break it again. It can mend a wounded mind, but also hurt it more. It can make tired feet dance. It can heal the broken and break the mended. It can make the forgotten be remembered and the remembered be forgotten. Music is the language given to all life. And if done with the heart, it can even make the trees dance.