1244 words long
Things that have been buried should buried remain.
Notes from the author:
Three things, once buried, should remain so: Sleeping wizards, sleeping kings, and nuclear waste.
Problem is, I had a hard time deciding which of these directions to take. I wound up trying to go all three directions at once, which resulted in something of a mess. Writing fiction is about infinite choice, yes, but not infinite choices: you can have anything, but you can’t have it all. Not all at once, anyway. You certainly can’t put it all in a single story, I can tell you that much.
The story’s founding image, a lone tree on a patch of grass surrounded by and protected from an urban construction project, was something I saw in downtown Boulder last month. Some sort of drastic renovation activity was being perpetrated near the library along the Canyon Street parking lot, and that one tree appeared intended to survive the bulldozers. The destruction around it was so complete, I couldn’t even imagine the park as it used to be, so I couldn’t see the tree as all that was left. Much easier to visualize some careless giant having picked up a piece of some other park, as a child might pick up a rock, and dropped it on top of a mud field when they got tired of carrying it around.
At first I thought it was only subjective, that earthquake, like when lovers ask each other, “Did the earth move for you, too?” But my feet and knees reported, after the shock and grief played their opening gambit and left my senses temporarily clear, that the floor had indeed performed some unexpected gymnastics. My stomach’s churning wasn’t just emotional; it was a sudden attack of motion sickness. But at that moment the emotional source was all I could pay attention to.
My tree had been killed. It had been a direct strike to the heartwood. The lightning flash had left me half-blind with afterimages, but I’d seen enough to know my tree wouldn’t survive.
The blow left me reeling. I’d grown up with that tree and loved it deeply. I’d watched over it from this very bedroom window, and I played beside it in the park every chance I could. Rain or shine or snow, I wanted to be close to my tree, close enough to touch. I hugged it a lot. I had deep conversations with that tree, and I endlessly regaled my parents with the witty and wonderful things it said to me.
My father griped about it regularly. He worried I’d catch my death, going out in all weather like that. He was concerned that I hadn’t outgrown this imaginary friend by now and made some real friends to play with. He groaned when my clothes turned up in the laundry spotted with pine sap. “Why couldn’t she become infatuated with an aspen,” he moaned, “or maybe a birch? Something clean, for crying out loud.”
As often as he’d start up, my mother would shut him down. “And how long did you play with your toy soldiers and your squirt guns? Right into your teens, yeah? What makes your daughter’s games any less acceptable than the ones you played?” So I knew Mom was on our side, mine and the tree’s.
And the summer that I was eleven, I knew which parent’s arms to run to when the chain-link went up around the park and bulldozers appeared like yellow vultures. “No,” my mother soothed me, “your tree will be fine, Nina, I promise! Come on, I’ll show you.” And she led me by the hand across the street so we could peer through the fence. The top of my head just brushed the bottom of the yellow sign thanking Meadstone Construction for their help in modernizing Central Park.
“See how they’ve fenced off the area around your tree? That great pine is hundreds of years old. It’s a registered historical landmark! The city won’t let anyone hurt it.” Then she gripped my shoulders with a curious intensity and knelt to whisper in my ear. “Neither will we. It belongs to our family—you knew that, didn’t you? Deep down in your heart? It’s our sacred trust, and we will protect it.”
Despite Mom’s assurances, the following weeks passed in apprehension as I watched the soft green grass of the park get churned into an apocalyptic mud-froth. The orange netting around my tree seemed too flimsy to ward off disaster. Some clumsy bulldozer was sure to rumble a few feet off course, and that would be it for my tree. But the machines’ ravening stopped right at the borderline every time, leaving the great pine standing safe on an island of green that was so clearly separate from the surrounding destruction that it might as well have been floating miles above.
Once or twice I saw my mother inside the construction area without benefit of either hard hat or business suit. She was walking the boundary of the tree’s little island, her mouth moving and arms waving as though she were engaged in some energetic argument. She might have been chanting a spell of protection. I knew what that looked like; I’d cast a few spells of my own from time to time, whenever my tree asked me to.
The day the park was reopened for community use once more, I ran to my tree and threw my arms around its rough and sticky trunk. “I love you,” I told it. “I’m sorry I couldn’t come visit for so long. I’m glad you’re still here.”
Of course I’m still here, it replied. We will uphold our sacred trust together. With your love to strengthen me, I will keep the sleeper safe and quiet for all the years I live.
Our sacred trust. I had failed it. That’s all I could think now as I hurtled down the stairs and out the front door. As on that day long ago, I ran to fling my arms around the stricken pine, heedless that lightning might well strike twice given a sufficiently tempting target. “No,” I heard myself saying, “no, no, no, no. Please don’t die, please don’t die—” I’d been a grown woman for more than twenty years, but that thunderbolt had made me revert to a pleading child.
And, as when I’d been a child, I heard my tree speak. I am dying, it whispered, its voice tight with pain and despair. I can no longer keep the sleeper from waking. It falls to you now to stop him, else he wake the king, and the king grind the queen into dust. I am sorry. Niniane, I have loved you—
I wasn’t imagining it. I had never been imagining it. All my life, all my childish conversations with that tree, they were real. My tree was speaking to me now as it had always spoken to me. And it would never speak to me again.
Between the pummeling of loss and the pummeling of the rain, I didn’t hear my cell phone sounding off, not at first. My mother had probably hung up and redialed at least five times before I snapped to it. “Nina? Nina, the great pine—”
I didn’t question that she knew, just croaked an affirmative. “Yeah. Lightning. It’s dead, Mom, I felt it die—”
“Not yet, not all at once it doesn’t. I’m heading your way now. You just hold on to whatever’s left, just as hard as you can. You got that?” I knew—maybe it was the way she said it— that it wasn’t a metaphor. I pressed myself against the tree, the phone awkwardly sandwiched between my ear and my shoulder. “Your grandmother’s coming, too. Maybe between the three of us we can do it.”
“I don’t understand.” Nothing was real. Everything had been real. “The tree said, keep the sleeper from waking—”
“Merlin. Nina, the sleeper is Merlin. I thought you knew—all that time you spent—I’d have thought it would have told you. I should have told you. Listen, if Merlin wakes up, he’ll go raise Arthur, and the poison will just spread and spread until it all starts all over again, all the violence and warfare, fanaticism and—shit!” Cacophony blotted out all sound for a moment, some of it because Mom had dropped the phone and was scrabbling to pick it up again, some of it because my ears were suddenly ringing. “Sorry. Honey, I have to hang up and drive. But you just keep holding on, OK? Hold on. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
I held on. But I could feel it through my palms, some strange new/old current stirring among the tree’s dying roots, and didn’t think she’d get there in time.
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