there was a girl approaching the flower of maidenhood, who lived in a
little town near the foothills of a large mountain range. She might
have been named Alexis, or Brenda, or Gertrude, or Drusilla, but we'll
call her Olivia, just to simplify things.
Olivia loved to
spend the afternoons after she had finished school exploring the area
around the town where she lived. In the springtime it was especially
beautiful, as I'm sure it is in your town. Olivia would run hither and
thither through the wooded hills, climbing the oak trees there, and
smelling the exotic scent of the freshly-washed eucalyptus that spread
throughout the land after a rainfall. Sometimes, when she was very
lucky, she would find a willow tree, and spend the hot afternoons of
the summer months sheltered under its cool shade. The willow was the
tree she liked the best of all, for there weren't very many of them.
One day in the late
late summer, right before school was scheduled to start, Olivia found
herself far away from her town, at least three hills away, on a knoll
that she had never been to before. She was climbing the red rocks there
looking for lizards to bring home to her brother. Then, among the large
boulders of volcanic rock, she spied the mouth of a cave in the
hillside! Well, Olivia was never one to leave a cave unexplored, so she
trundled up to the mouth and peered in. And do you know what she saw?
Yes, of course it was dark, but there, far back in the deep shadows of
the cave was a light! That's right, a light! As if a train had stopped
in the tunnel, or a miner had got caught coming home for lunch. This
was too much for Olivia's adventuresome spirit, and she bounced --
literally bounced! -- into the cave and toward the glimmer of light
deep deep inside.
Now, as you know,
caves are dank and dark, with lots of echoes and things that drip on a
person... but let's not worry about that for now.
When Olivia reached
the glow deep deep inside, can you guess at all what she found there?
No, it wasn't a leprechaun with a pot of gold, but that would have been
a good guess! Olivia found a gate there -- an old, finely crafted gate
of some metal that had long since been covered by cool damp moss. The
light was in fact another opening, which led to a beautiful lush garden
on the other side of the gate. It was the sort of garden that
aficionados of horticulture would envy. There were flowers -- purple
and gold, scarlet and royal -- and vines heavy with different fruits,
and... trees! Olivia pushed the large metal gate and you know what? It
swung open easily with a sssswissss. So easily did it swing on its
hinge that Olivia was able to ride the gate as it slowly followed its
path to completion. Then she ran, willy nilly through the garden,
jumping at the butterflies that tried to rest on the flower petals,
started getting into a deep conversation with a Japanese Maple when out
of the corner of her eye she saw it. About a hundred yards away, in
what seemed to be the middle of this enchanting garden, the most
sorrowful of all weeping Willows stood, sighing in the wind. Olivia
stopped her conversation with the maple in mid-sentence, and ran as
fast as she could toward the Willow.
"Always the way
with the younger set," said the Maple. "No respect for their elders."
When Olivia reached
the Willow, she grabbed one of the branches that fell to the cool grass
below and she twirled until she was caught up in the leaves. The Willow
let out a very surprised gasp, and then shook all its branches in
delight. That afternoon, Olivia played with the Willow for hours,
climbing in its branches and telling it stories and braiding the long
tendrils together in pig tails. In this garden, it seemed as though the
daylight lasted forever, and the afternoon became very hot, and Olivia
became very tired. When the Willow finally invited her to take a nap in
the cradle of its trunk, she curled up and fell fast, fast asleep....
2 Back to top
The next morning
Olivia awoke and bounded up the branches of the Willow with glee. She
leapt from arm to arm, bouncing as if she were on a diving board.
Sometimes she caught a branch, and yelled her best Tarzan yell!
"Chit chit chit!!!"
And then, being
hungry, she clawed down the bole of the tree at a rapid pace, and raced
through the garden looking for a nut tree.
You know why, don't
you? Because, while she was asleep in the arms of the Willow tree, she
had magically been transformed into a squirrel! You'd think she'd have
noticed that right away, but I think she was too sleepy and too hungry
to notice anything quite yet, for she had just awoken.
Olivia found a
large English walnut tree and zipped right up the trunk, her new bushy
tail giving her great balance indeed!
Back under the
canopy of her friend the Willow, as she was eating the meat of a walnut
she had successfully cracked open, Olivia felt the ground shake.
"WHAT are you DOING
here?!?" screamed the witch who marched menacingly toward the Willow.
"Get out of my tree!!!"
Olivia had never
seen a witch before, but she immediately assumed that that was who the
woman was, for she wore a long flowing dress that caught the breeze
every time she moved. And she looked angry. Very angry.
"The Willow said I
could rest among its branches," Olivia tried to explain, but the witch
would have none of it.
You... you squirrel-girl!!! How dare you come into my magic garden with
your candy-covered fingers and eat my walnuts!"
"I... I am a
squirrel!" exclaimed Olivia, who had by now woken up enough to figure
explained, which was kind of her to do, since she was not asked for an
explanation, and she was rather cross with Olivia for being there, and,
well, she didn't have to.
enchants anyone who sleeps in its branches. It turns the person into an
"But... but the
Willow must have been lonely," Olivia stammered. "That must be why! He
likes to be talked to and played with. Do you talk to him or play with
The witch glared.
(You know how they do that.) She spoke very slowly in a low tone to
"You like my
garden, do you? You like my tree? Well, then you can stay with the
Willow and keep it company for as long as you are in my garden.
And with that the
witch whirled around so fast that her dress looked like a green and
And then she was
gone. Just like that.
"Excuse me" to the Willow, Olivia bounded down the trunk of the tree to
the gate. She pulled and pulled, but her little squirrel body was not
able to open it this time. It was ornately decorated, and though she
could see a little ways into the dankness of the cave beyond, she could
not find any hole in the gate large enough through which she could pass.
She looked back
into the garden and saw the Willow far off in the distance. It sighed
Olivia sighed in
response, and slowly crawled back to it, her tail dragging on the
For Olivia the
squirrel, it felt as though the last few weeks of Summer had flown
by. And yet, the sun continued to shine in the garden,
keeping the flowers in full bloom and the trees heavy with
fruit. Each day, as sun would reach its highest point in the
sky, the clouds rolled in to cover the sky, and poured rain on the
thirsty garden. Oh, how good it felt!
It turned out that
Olivia liked being a squirrel in the enchanted garden. She
could talk to all the plants and animals there, and came to know each
of the plants and insects in the garden by name and
disposition. There was Linda, the mud dauber wasp who lived
on the side of a poplar. Olivia would always say a cheery
"Good morning!" to her as passed by her searching for breakfast, but
Linda usually grumbled something about her aching back. The
peonies always greeted Olivia warmly as she strode by them.
They laughed and laughed to see her cheeks full of nuts!
She rarely saw the
Witch visit her garden. And when she did, she hid high in the
branches of the Willow. The Witch did not seem angry as she
had during their first encounter. She stopped to smell the
roses, and listen to the bees buzzing inside their hive near the orange
grove. She checked the leaves of the pumpkin patch for signs
that the caterpillars were being gluttonous. She did not
visit the Willow in the middle of the garden very often. She
seemed to avoid it, in fact, and only walked by its great trunk when
she was on her way to the pond where the egrets bathed, down the slope
from the Willow. She didn't usually stop unless she heard
Olivia make a noise in the tree. Then, she'd pause a moment,
peer through the leaves into the upper branches, give a harrumph and
continue on her way.
Though she could
talk to all the plants and insects, Olivia found that they weren't the
best conversationalists in the world. She found it downright
lonely at times. The roses were always arguing over who was
loved more, who was the prettiest, and who the most fragrant.
The Queen Anne was the loudest, and declaimed on a regular basis that
she would win top honours at the Imperial Rose Festival, should she
ever be entered in competition there. The snapdragons were
ornery, as flowers go, and jeered at all the plants surrounding
them. The daffodils were the sweetest of flowers, effusive
each time Olivia loped by. They were a wonderful audience,
and were full of compliments for her fine, bushy tail and acrobatic
prowess. "Good show!" they'd trumpet each time she
somersaulted in the air as she sailed from branch to branch of the
nearby bay tree. But they never seemed interested in talking
about anything of substance.
And Olivia missed
Sometimes she would
trip down to the pond and watch the graceful egrets bathe themselves
and take off into the air as the sun hung low in the
afternoon. She wished that the Willow had turned her into a
bird or a bat, or anything that could fly, for that seemed the only way
out of the garden...
One morning, as
Olivia rolled in the fresh dew that hung heavily on the clover of the
glade, whispers of another trespasser came to her ears.
Olivia stood on her hind legs and sniffed the air. A
strange-but-familiar scent wafted to her nose on the morning
breeze. It seemed to remind her of something, though she
could not properly recall who or what.
Then she heard the
light thunder of feet tramping through the verdant landscape of the
garden. They seemed to fall heavily, and Olivia thought that
the Witch must be angry again, storming through the garden.
Olivia leapt to the nearest branch of the nearest tree, and scampered
high into its sheltering arms.
Far below on the
garden floor she spied a young man traipsing over the grass.
He was tall, and had broad shoulders. The sun overhead had
dappled his face with little freckles, and caught his hair afire every
time he turned his head side to side as if he were searching for
something. He stopped at the base of the tree from which
Olivia peered down.
It couldn't be....
"Jason?" she asked,
There was no
"Jason, is that
really you?" this time imploring the redheaded man to listen to her.
He looked up at the
sound of the squirrel's chatter. It was him! It was Jason,
her brother! And how he had grown since the last time she saw
him. No longer the little pipsqueak of a little brother, but
now, almost a man!
"Oh, hello there,
little fellow. I thought I heard something. Say,
this is quite a home you've got here. I couldn't believe it
when I found this garden stuck behind that cave back there!"
cave! Olivia had almost forgotten about the cave and the gate
and the entrance to the garden. She had become so entrenched
in the day-to-day routine of the garden that the idea that she had ever
lived anywhere else had nearly disappeared from her head.
"So, is this your
beautiful garden, little fella? I was on a spelunking trip
with my class at college when I found your secret cave. Gosh,
my sister would have been so excited if I brought her here.
But she ran away so many years ago...."
Why, it had only been a few short weeks since Olivia became trapped in
the garden... hadn't it?!?
"I didn't run away,
Jason! I didn't! I've been trapped here by a
witch!" she chatted excitedly.
laughed. "My but you have something to say, fella!
Why don't you come down here and tell me what it is."
understand perfectly what Jason said, having been human once, but he
had no idea what she was speaking, for he had never been a squirrel and
could not speak her new language! Still, Olivia knew that if
she were to leave the garden, it would be with Jason, so she bounded
down the tree and landed right on his shoulder.
Aren't you the friendly one? Well, come along and show me
Jason started to
walk further into the garden, toward the Willow, but Olivia sprung from
his shoulder to the ground behind him, and chatted with urgency,
pointing back toward the gate.
"Jason, but I just
came from there, fella. You want to go back? Don't
you want me to see your lovely flowers, and trees?"
Olivia shook her
head wildly, and then began to tug on her brother's leg.
right. We'll go this way first. My, but you are
And with that he
turned back toward the gate. Olivia pounced back to his
shoulder and hummed merrily as Jason strode over the grass.
Then, as suddenly
as when you blow on a dandelion, a wind rose and nearly knocked her off
Jason' shoulder! In front of them a blur of purple and green
swirled up from the flowers at their feet. And what do you
know, the Witch was standing there before them, a grimace on her face!
Well, you didn't
think Olivia was going to escape so easily after the Witch had told her
that she would be trapped with the Willow "Forever!", did you?
"Thief!" cried out
the Witch. "Thief and trespasser! How dare you
break into my garden and try to take my squirrel!"
"I'm sorry, I
didn't mean -"
"You're not leaving
your friend the Willow, are you?"
"My friend the
Willow?" Jason asked, plainly confused.
"Not you, you
upstart trespasser. The squirrel-girl."
"Oh, I thought it
was a boy squirrel," he said, blushing. "Look, I don't know
who you are or what your problem is, but we're leaving. Me
and this little squirrel here."
The witch became so
angry that her face turned the same shade of purple as the honeysuckle
down at her feet.
"People who find my
garden and enter do not leave." She waved her arms and her in
her eyes a thunderstorm raged.
"Though of flesh and blood thou wert made,
You'll now change in this wooded glade.
By Ishtar's eyes, by Hagar's tooth,
Where now thee stands, thou wilt take root!"
And with that, Jason froze where he stood, and his skin became harder
and darker.... and his clothes fell off as his arms turned into
branches and the little hairs on his arms turned into little leaves,
and in less than a minute, a red ash tree stood where Olivia's brother
can't do this too him! Please change him back and let him
go! I'll stay here in the garden, and keep the Willow
company, and never leave, nor try to -- I promise! Please
change him back and let him go, you mean horrible old witch!"
The Witch, who when
she was not angry did not look especially mean, and certainly did not
appear to be ancient, thought a moment.
"The offer of
self-sacrifice is an attractive one, and I might have let him leave...
if you had not called me mean and horrible... and old!"
Olivia blurted out
"I'm sorry!" at once, but by the time she started forming the "ess"
sound of "sorry" in her mouth, the witch had already disappeared in her
little green-and-purple tornado.
Olivia curled up in
the crook of the branch she was on after her brother had been turned
into the red ash tree, and she cried.
Now, the thing
about trees is that even though they can talk, the speak very, very,
very slowly. And the larger and older they are, the slower
they talk! Where you might say, "Hi there! How are
you?" in about one-and-a-half seconds, it would take an oak tree nearly
a week to make the same greeting. So, even though Olivia
could talk to the trees in the garden, she didn't get much feedback
from them, including her special friend, the Willow. But like
any tree, he was a good listener. Talk to one sometime, and
you'll see what a good listener your tree is. Honest!
The Willow listened
to Olivia tell stories for hours and hours. He would shake
his branches with laughter when Olivia told him how she would get in
trouble at school for bringing insects to class that she had found on
one of her trips in the hills. Her teacher Mrs. Hanley was
extremely afraid of bugs, and there was that one time when the
Jerusalem cricket got out of its little cardboard box and flown around
the room, finally landing in Mrs. Hanley's hair -- wait, let's get back
to this story.
Now, even though it
was difficult for the trees to talk fast enough for Olivia to pay
attention, the could talk to one another very easily, and over great
distances. So it was that Jason the Red Ash and the Willow
became very well acquainted. When Jason realized that Olivia
was indeed his sister, he wanted to pick her up and hug her and whirl
her around over his head! But he couldn't, because he was a
tree, and his movements were limited.
The Willow told the
Ash his story.
Like Jason, he
hadn't started his life out as a tree at all! He had been a
young man named William. Now, I know you have been waiting
for this part -- William was in fact a prince from a far-off
land! But, though he was a prince, he wasn't a crown prince
or anything, and had at least a dozen brothers ahead of him in line for
the thrown, and he himself had no land nor money of which to
speak. So he had come to these hills, far away from his home,
searching for the gold that he had heard was locked away
inside. And that is how he had met the witch. He
had been pan prospecting in the river nearby when he saw the witch
gliding through the tall grass and disappear into the mountain through
the cave mouth that was normally so difficult to spot. He had
followed her, and nearly frightened her out of her wits when he came up
behind her in the cave. But he had struck up a conversation
with her, being rather taken with her looks and aire of
mystery. Her name was Janessa. She was rather taken
with him, too, and invited the young prince to enter her garden and
enjoy the fruits there. They spent several days together in
the garden, splashing each other in the pond, and lying together at
night, counting the stars and making up their own
constellations. Then the Witch -- Janessa -- told him about
the treasure that she kept in the middle of the garden. I
know! A treasure, can you believe it?? Right there
under a secret door in the very middle of the garden. She
wanted to share her treasure with the handsome young prince, and help
him build his own tower.
But, the prince was
not what you'd call a person of strong character. One
morning, very early when the sun was only waking up and peaking out
with one eye from under his covers, William took the treasure from its
hiding place, and was just about to steal it....
But, as we have
seen, no one who enters the garden has an easy time leaving it, do they!
The witch had
awoken, for she felt everything that went on in the garden, and she was
so angry at William's betrayal that she turned him into the Willow tree
to guard the spot where the treasure lay. And now he stood
right over it. She also enchanted his branches so that anyone
who slept in them would become a small woodland creature, to prevent
them from leaving the garden.
William was very
sorry he had tried to take the treasure, for he had cared for the Wi --
for Janessa, and realized that if he had to do it all over again, he
would never had betrayed her like that. But then, he was a
Willow tree with a lot of time on his hands to regret things, wasn't he?
Olivia noticed that
the Witch started to come to the garden more frequently than she had
before she had turned her brother into a tree. She still
stayed away from the Willow and still watched the egrets. But
she would also visit the Red Ash. Sometimes she would aerate
the soil around it, or bring food to its roots. Sometimes she
would check to see that the insects in the garden weren't eating the
leaves. And sometimes, she would sit under its branches, and
play a little lute, whose music would waft through the garden so
beautifully that all the plants and creatures there would stop what
they were doing and listen.
Even Olivia was
captivated by the notes that the lute sent out. After the
Witch had come to sit under the Red Ash a few times, Olivia crawled
warily toward her. Finally, she crawled quite close to the
Witch's skirt and got the surprise of her life -- he Witch, Janessa,
reached down and scratched Olivia right between the ears!
This made Olivia's tail furl and unfurl.
"Your music is
beautiful," Olivia said after she found her voice again.
you. I haven't played in a long, long time," the Witch
"I didn't have such
a lovely spot to sit before."
"You like my
brother, don't you?"
"He's very nice."
Olivia decided to
make her offer again. "You know, if you change him back into
a boy again, I would stay here in your garden, and watch over things
"You don't want to
be a girl anymore?"
"Well, I liked
being a girl, and it's fun to be a squirrel, but if I became a girl
again and had to leave the garden, I'd have to leave the Willow behind,
"You like him,
don't you like him?"
"He tried to take
something from me once."
"I'm sure he's very
sorry that he did that."
The witch stood up
and stretched her arms and gave a slight yawn. She turned to
look at the Red Ash and reached out to touch its bark gently.
"What do you
think?" she asked quietly.
Olivia wasn't sure
how to reply. "Well, if you --"
I'm talking to the tree."
Olivia flicked her
tail side to side and said, "Oh."
The Witch made a
gesture in front of the tree and sang this chant:
"When once a man of flesh you were
By Osiris' crown here's now the cure:
From bark and leaves, my words repair,
Return to blood and flame-red hair."
The leaves of the Red Ash shivered for a second, and then the branches
twisted, and the trunk split up the middle and became legs
again. In the space of time it takes to read this paragraph,
Jason stood in front of the Witch and his little sister. He
cracked his back and then bent down to lift Olivia to his shoulder.
"She doesn't have
to stay for me, Janessa. I'll stay here in the garden in her
place. That is, if you stay, too."
The Witch looked at
him very strangely for a moment. Her eyes went from green to
purple and then back again. She spun on her heal, and the
brother and sister thought she was going to whirl into a tornado again,
but she merely trod off to the middle of the garden. They
stood nonplussed for a bit, then followed quickly.
When they got to
the middle of the garden, the found Janessa waving her arms in front of
the Willow. They couldn't hear her, but they thought she was
chanting. They saw the Willow shake violently and there was a
loud CRACK! as if it had been struck by lightning! The great
bole of the tree split down the middle loudly and fell apart, the
branches crashing to the ground. There in the middle of the
tree, crouched a man. He was just about Jason's age, though a
bit taller when he stood, with dark wavy hair and curious hazel eyes.
He rose to his full height, and blinked. He looked at the
Witch as his eyes began to focus, and then at Jason, and then at the
little squirrel on his shoulder.
Olivia leapt off
her brother's shoulder and stretched out on the grass. Her
arms became longer as her tail shrunk into her body, and the fur that
covered her receded as she became a girl once more.
"I... I don't
understand..." William began.
"These two," said
the Witch as she thumbed at them over her shoulder, "reminded me of
something I had forgotten a long, long time ago. Sometimes
it's good to give up your most prized possession for someone you love."
again. "I don't want your treasure."
"You're not getting
it. But you are getting something else before you leave my
garden, never to return."
Olivia's hand and put it in William's.
handsome," she said quietly.
whistled. "Gosh, sis, you sure have grown up!"
And indeed she had,
for what had seemed like mere weeks to her had in fact been several
years, and Olivia had grown into a woman.
Janessa put her
hands on her hips. "Now, if all of you would leave my garden."
Jason. Olivia turned to her brother, tears welling up in her
eyes. "I'm not leaving, Janessa. I meant what I
said. I'll stay with you and help you tend the garden, if
you'll have me."
"But I'll never see
you again, Jason!" Olivia cried.
Janessa looked up
at the small white clouds and then back at Jason. "This
garden has needed some good tending for a long time. The two
of you should leave now before I change my mind and turn you all into
Jason embraced his
sister. "You won't forget me, Sis. And who knows,
maybe I'll get to come visit."
Olivia's hands to his lips. "Come, we have many adventures
ahead of us." He began to lead her toward the gate.
Olivia stopped and
then ran back to the Witch and hugged her. "You take care of
him, or I will come back!"
And then she ran
back to William and they walked hand in hand through the gate, through
the cave, and back into what you and I might call the real world.