This story is by Laura DeGuelle and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The wind is biting today, making my limbs ache. You’d think I’d have gotten used to it by now, or that I wouldn’t feel it, the way I am now. But I do. Even though I have been transformed into a tree and given a heart of stone, some evil of the enchantment still allows me to remain sentient. I still hear the voices of those who come to this forest clearing, and I long for the sweet sound of Emma’s voice saying my name. I still see the contrast of vibrant leaves splashed against the deep blue sky, but I wish I was seeing the smile splashed across Emma’s face when she laughed. I had thought having a heart of stone would mean that I am frozen, uncaring, unyielding. Yet my senses and emotions are sharper than ever, my grief permanent and everlasting.
Emma and I first met under spring’s budding boughs. She came across me while I was washing watercolor onto my paper and was fascinated as the colors bloomed and blended beneath my brush. I let her have a try. She laughed as the brush left unsightly streaks and blotches. I laughed, too, and we started talking. At first, we met weekly, and before long, we were seeing each other in the clearing every day.
I knew it was dangerous to see her, but something about Emma made me feel heard, understood. We told each other our struggles, our histories, and what we wanted for our future. She came to know what made me smile, laugh, and roll my eyes. And I came to know the same about her.
It was a little more than a year ago, on a sun-kissed September afternoon, when I told Emma my deepest secret—how the Queen of Faeries had tricked me and stolen me away to Tir Na Nog to paint landscapes for her court. The clearing was a magical part of the forest that I could reach, half in and half out of Tir Na Nog. I told Emma, too, that my time was limited, and that after six more years, I would be sacrificed, but that to escape now was to invite certain death. Between kisses, Emma told me how she would research it and find a way to save me.
When I returned to Tir Na Nog that day, the Queen informed me, cold as ice, that she knew about Emma. She couldn’t continue to nourish my creativity if all the power of it was only going to be stolen away by some human girl one future Samhain. Best to deal with me now, she said, so she had time to cultivate new creativity for their harvest. She dragged me back to the clearing and said some words that sounded older than stone, her hands performing an ancient series of movements, and I became what I am now.
The aching cold seeps through me. But worse than that, worse than the whispering of the slowing down of my sap, the falling of my leaves, the half-dead haze of winter, is seeing Emma enter the clearing with Jack. I should be glad she’s happy again, but I cannot bring myself to feel that way. My stone heart is heavy and aches with cold, pulling at the rest of me with its deep grief.
Last year, when Emma had come to the clearing for our usual meeting and did not find me there, she waited, her fresh face falling into disappointment, until she finally left with her shoulders slumped. She came again, the next time, and when she could not find me, she berated me, swearing, calling me all manner of foul names, stomping around, kicking at saplings. I wished she’d kick me just so I could feel her again, but I was no little twig.
And then the tears came. Her sobs shook her as she lamented how I abandoned her and how she thought our love had been real. She couldn’t believe I’d leave her without saying anything, but it just proved what type of man I was and she was better off without me. She didn’t notice my tears, a flurry of leaves pelting down. Why would she think I left her? Why didn’t she realize the Queen of Faeries had done some evil to me? A scream of frustration rises within me whenever I think about how she views me now and of how powerless I am to do anything to change that. But my scream has nowhere to escape and echoes inside of me.
I don’t know why she started bringing Jack here. Maybe to prove something to herself. Maybe because it’s peaceful in the clearing. But they’ve been coming here for months and my heart grows heavier each time.
Jack leads her over to me, though he is unaware of what I am. His eyes are intent on Emma’s face, flushed as if someone has brushed her cheeks with pink watercolor. But Emma is distracted by something and I know what has caught her gaze. She turns to Jack. “Look. There’s something that’s grown into this tree.” She moves closer. “A rock!”
My sap stops and my bark feels taut as I wait for her to realize what she’s seeing. If she did the research, she might know what has happened to me. She brings her hand up, and I feel the warmth of her palm and fingers on the chill of my stone heart. My sap runs furiously and my leaves tremble. Then she takes her hand away. “Nature’s so fascinating. How it keeps growing, even around impediments.”
Jack takes that hand and pulls her to him, then leans her against my rough bark.
I don’t feel like I’m growing. I feel like I’m dying.
“Emma, I have something to ask you.” My branches sway in distress, creaking and moaning. Jack’s voice is tender and soft, and I don’t hear his question. But I can tell the nature of it by how she looks at him.
She looks at him the way she used to look at me when we’d talk about our future together, all love and excitement and just a little trepidation. I am still and silent now. She whispers, “yes,” and melts into him, a kiss igniting and warming them while a painful frost crawls across my stone heart.
It is such a long time they lean against me, lost in the heat of their love. I am reminded of the long, cold days of winter, when it is so cold I am barely sentient, except to feel a haze of pain and a yearning for the renewing life-force of spring. But in this situation, I know no spring will come.
When they finally pull apart, Emma shivers. I think she has somehow felt the chill within me, like how she used to notice the way I felt almost before I did. She looks over at my stone heart. This is it, this is where she realizes she’s read about something like this before, this is where she realizes where I am. What I am. Her brow furrows, a question forming on her lips. But she doesn’t say what I think she will. “Was this crack here before?”
She runs a finger along the fissure in my heart. My leaves rustle again and my sap flows quickly. Then she shrugs, puts her hand in Jack’s, and they turn away.
I see the days stretching out in front of me, stark and lean like my branches in winter, straining for the light of the sun, but never feeling its warmth. Will I be left here, silent and still, with my heavy, aching heart splintering inside of me as Emma and Jack return here, year after year, with their love, their futures, their children? There is nothing I can do but wait and watch. Though the seasons change around me, each day is the same.
Hundreds of leaves, blood-red and flame-orange, fall down on them. One lands in her hair, but she just flicks it aside, not even noticing.