The day promised fine as they set off to seek peace in the countryside. They chose to stop at the top of a hill where they could survey the land around them. After hot soup and rolls, each went their own way, one to travel along the Roman road leading behind them, another to sit and paint the deserted barn, while the third set out to explore the road ahead.
The woman took her willow basket, telling her friends she would search for autumn fruits. She climbed over the stile into the wet, muddy field, the gusting wind tugging at her cloak so she was forced to wrap it around her as she set off across the huge field. Her sights were set on the horse chestnut trees growing in the top corner of the field. Their leaves, coloured with gold and red told of withdrawing life. The wind had blown many onto the wet grass, so branches stuck out bare and ragged against the horizon.
She searched for a while amongst the bed of leaves and was rewarded with the dark brown spikes of outer casings, which fell open to her touch, revealing the shining brown nut within. She curled her fingers around each conker, feeling the smoothness of it against her skin, before dropping it into her pocket, ready to play with later.
It was the crab apple tree which caught her attention next. Small yellow fruits still clung to the branches, although its leaves were long gone. Most of the apples lay under the tree where the wind had blown them. She bent to pick them, placing them in her basket to take home and make into jelly for the winter.
As she gathered, the wind grew stronger, whipping the hood from her head and blowing her hair about her face as the first few drops of rain stung her cheeks. She looked up and saw the gap in the wall leading into the woods and thought she would seek shelter amongst the trees until the shower passed.
Once inside, the air was still, yet she could hear the gale raging outside and see the outer branches of the trees waving from an unseen force. She stood under a great ash tree, its leaves shivering their circular dance as if trying to ward off the storm. Without thinking, she laid a hand against its trunk making soothing sounds as she would to a child. The leaves ceased their dance and were still.
As fast as it began, the rain stopped. She ventured further into the wood, the silence making her tread softly, stopping frequently to watch or listen to small animals and birds who lived within. Through the canopy she could see the sun returning, each single raindrop shining as they fell to earth, shaking the blades of grass.
She walked deeper into the woods, sensing a watcher. A large oak tree stood before her. She knew it was time to turn and retrace her steps. Although she thought she chose another path, each time it seemed to return her to the oak. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of a brown cloak blowing in the wind, but when she turned, she saw no one. A gust of wind caught the branches of the oak and it shivered with mirth.
The woman tried again to follow a path leading to the entrance gap. She sang softly to herself, snatches of tunes strung together in a soothing melody. Her song reverberated against the trees and echoed back to her.
Once more she found herself at the largest oak. Putting her basket on the ground, she approached the tree with her arms outstretched, placing both her palms on its trunk. The oak breathed a deep sigh as she felt energy flow into her hands, the warmth building against the knotted bark.
"Can you help me find the way out?" she asked politely.
"You ask a tree for help?" a deep voice rumbled in her mind, "a mere plant, fodder for humankind?"
"You are the Guardian of the wood Your leaves glow with the brightest colours as you fall asleep," she replied, "You have never been a mere plant for me. I have honoured your wood, I have made chalices and lamps with your branches to guide me."
Beneath her fingers, the tree seemed to breathe, the warmth spreading.
"You have not forgotten," came the rumble again. "Why have you not forgotten when so many of your kind have?"
"I don't know. I have only done what seemed right. I don't know why I'm here."
The woman spread her arms to encompass as much of the tree as she could, resting her head on its trunk. She felt the tree's branches wrap around her in a comforting hug, but it no longer felt like a tree.
"Do not worry, child," came the same voice, but this time she heard it with her ears. The woman stood very still and did not speak. She dared not even look at what might be holding her.
"You wish to be led in safety from these woods, to rejoin your own kind?"
She opened her eyes and stepped back. "Yes, if you please."
"You do not wish to remain among us, to learn more of us?"
"I have always wanted to learn, but my friends will be worried about me." A massive hand, or branch, gently stroked her hair.
"Very well, I will guide you to them."
"Thank you." She reached down to pick up some acorn cups at her feet. "May I?" she asked, finally looking up at where the tree had been
"To remember us?"
"Yes, I have a box I would attach these to...." her voice trailed off as she saw the tree was no longer a tree, but a tall dark man, almost the colour of the tree, clad in clothes like autumn leaves. His beard and hair hung like ancient moss, but his brown eyes were kind. The woman looked at him, wide-eyed. "Am I asleep?
"It is possible."
She put her hands in the pockets of her cloak and felt the conkers. She held them out to him. "I gathered these. I did thank the tree. May I keep them?"
"Of course," He moved slowly towards her, his footsteps silent on the fallen leaves. "You are . . . our child."
"Thank you. My name is Claire."
"Claire," he repeated, his voice rustling like leaves.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, just as your sleep time is coming."
"You have not. You have shown us not all humans are blind."
"There are some of us who try...."
"How could we help? If I came back, what should we do?"
"Some are trees and have chosen to serve others. Some of us are guardians; but those who come to our woods like a storm and cut all down do not spare the few who guard."
"Guardians of the wood or of the land itself?" Claire was confused.
"There are guardians of all parts of the land; guardians of animals, of the seas, of the rocks, of the rolling fields. There are few of us left to help. There are human guardians too, but they are usually killed by those who do not understand or who fear them. A tree would NEVER kill one of its guardians."
Claire shivered, hugging herself against his wind of hopelessness.
"Listen to all the guardians," the deep voice continued, "you know of whom I speak."
"I do try, but ...I don't hear anything."
"We are all part of the One, as are you, little one. You hear me."
"Yes, I hear you, but you are the first."
The guardian closed his eyes and sighed. He shook his great head slowly, "You have heard other guardians, so have others. They call them gods or enlightened ones or good people. Everyone has a spark of a guardian within, just as every tree does, because we are all part of the One."
Claire reached out a hand and touched his sleeve. It felt soft, like suede. The Guardian smiled down upon her.
"How can I help? What should I try to learn?"
"Before the earth sleeps, put one of those acorns into the loving soil and sing for it. When the earth awakes, one of our children will grow to shelter you and your children. Plant it where you live, where he will be loved and seen. Trees need to be loved as much as humans."
"Come, I will guide you to your friends." He began to move forwards with a measured tread. Claire followed by his side, her basket on her arm. Then he looked up at the sky.
"The darkness falls," he said, "your friends will be concerned."
He took her hand, his palm smooth like new bark against her skin and guided her to the edge of the woods. She could see her friends returning to the car across the field and waved to them. When she turned to thank him, he was gone, leaving only fallen leaves to mark his passing. She made her way across the field, the tiny acorn clasped tight within her hand.
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