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Tree Sap Portraits
She stood at the door, peeking at the mass of clothes she had to pick up. The door was red, with a rusty oval handle, she noticed. Her mother was away, away from her for the first time in months. When summer began she was in the driveway saying goodbye then no seeing her until the end of the day; six or seven. She was running out of things to do. Alas, she was feeling rebellious today. Her mother expected her to finish a list of things she had written down but there was always something that wasn’t done right. The dullness she felt today was maddening. All she did was linger, look at the list, and think what’s the point. What was the point? It only satisfied her mother and was never necessary.
What was outside her door could be most satisfying and could be to her mother also if she would only look. The woods: an entire kingdom of beauty behind her house, an entire country for her to rule over. She must claim it. She slipped on a dress as if playing dress-up. Lifted her legs, seeing nothing but her knees and lowered them into rubber boots, then let her brown curls fall down her back. Popping up from her chair in one spastic hop she walked to the back door, twisted the knob, and flung it open.
It was a grey day, beautiful, windy. It took hold of her heart and she swayed with the trees. She loved the trees. She respected them as people. Most of the time she enjoyed the sun as it blew through their limbs and bounced on wet leaves, putting diamonds in the trees. Some days it would rain when the sun was out and gold topaz would fall through them. Something George MacDonald once described in The Wise Women. She had imagined the Wise Women lived in these woods, watching her, and being pleased with her.
She had known a wise women, she had given so many years of her life to remembering everything the wise women said but one day the wise women didn’t show any sign of kindness or any sign of friendliness, only sensibility, and she could no longer trust her. All that mattered now was that she became the wise women and stayed that way. The grass was a soul-satisfying green, crisp and perfect from the morning rain. The leaves were also. The trees looked happy. Their wonderful branches waved to her to enter. They smiled and welcomed her. “Hello,” said a Sweet Gum, “I believe someone was looking for you.” “Really?” she replied, “Are you positive.”
“I believe so,” the Sweet Gum said, “…maybe. Is your name Eliza?” “Yes, it is.” Elizabeth said. “Then I am positive. Yes, the Mother Oak was whispering that she was expecting you.” The Sweet Gum nodded creaking as he stretched his narrow body. “Uup…I’ve got to be careful, there is a nest of birds on the top layer of my limbs.” He became very still but continued to talk. “Do you have a name?” Eliza asked. “Well, not an individual’s name. I am only Sweet Gum.” He said, limbs drooping a bit, his eyes looked down at his roots. “Do you desire a name.” she persisted. “Well sure. I’ve always thought the name Phillip suited me well but what’s the use of a name when no one can call you by it? Will you call me Phillip?” “Of course!” She replied, “I shall visit you since you are so close to where I live.”
“You are very kind.” He said smiling. He bent one of his branches toward her and she shook it in friendship. She took a step past him. “Oh,” A branch had halted her journey. “Before you go I will tell you how to get to the Mother Oak and things to know. It is fairly easy: walk through the wood and when you see the Dogwoods, be polite to them and they will take you to the Mother Oak. Now, there are evil trees that will hurt you very badly.” The girl’s eyes grew wide. “Not to frighten you but I believe you would like to know. Some Sweet Gums, like me, are not as friendly as I am. See these.” Gesturing toward the Sweet Gum balls on the ground. They like to throw these at you. You can never know with my kind. Any tree that allows bees or wasps to reside in their limbs is not to be trusted. For he or she will shake their limbs waking the bees and wasps to run you out of the wood.”
“Phillip?” Eliza said after a pause. “Is it worth going through the wood?” “Oh yes, you will enjoy yourself, I am sure. I do apologize if you get hurt but I have watched you for a long time and I believe you are clever enough.” “Well…thank you.” She said. “You know, my father’s name was Phillip. It will be nice to have another one around again.” “Where is he? I have never seen him.” Phillip said peeking into the window of the house. “He died…in a war.”
“I’m sorry. I do hope I bear the name to your expectations.” “I think you shall. I think I should go now.” Eliza said taking another step. “Yes, I’ll be here when you return.”
Eliza began to walk into the body of the woods now, tracing the limbs like words on a page. “Hello, excuse me, I couldn’t help but over hear your conversation with, um, Phillip. Well actually I hoped you might call me Alan.” Said a tree not far from Phillip. “Ah, and could you call me Max?” said another. “Ooh, and call me Penelope.” Said a higher voice next to Max. “Yes, yes, very well. You choose your names and I will try to remember them, but couldn’t you call each other these names?” Elizabeth said. “Well yes, I suppose we could.” Said Alan pondering this statement.
Eliza continued to tread. She imagined she was Winnie Foster about to come across the Fountain of Youth with forever-young Jesse Tuck drinking from it, alas there were only trees asking for their names. They were so nice. Many of them would tell her where the evil trees were rooted and told her ways to dodge them but after hours of walking and hiding, Eliza was warned once more. The tree’s name was Jacob and he did not have good news. “There is no way around the evil trees from this point. Just beyond that old coot,” pointing at an old tree, asleep and snoring, “you will need to crawl as quietly as you can until you reach a Hickory tree. She will keep you safe and beyond her are no more evil trees.” “Thank you Jacob.” Eliza whispered.
Hesitantly Elizabeth took a few steps forward. She tiptoed closer to two identical trees but before she walked between them she heard a hiss from Jacob. “Eliza! Now!” Stressing a whisper Jacob’s face wrinkled as he winced the words out. She did so and started to creep slowly past many dark trees with eyes like the black of night. She was hidden in the brush so the trees could not see her. Things got brighter and she looked straight ahead. There was a beautiful tree, strong, young, and in its prime. “Hello.” said the tree. “Please come a little further and you will be able to stand.” Eliza did so then stood to face the tree. “My name is Hope, I’ve decided.” She said bowing. “but I can’t chit-chat, you must hurry. The Mother Oak falls asleep much earlier than the rest. She has told me that if you do not show soon she will sleep. Go now.” Eliza did so. She began to run she had to beat the old Oak’s sleep. There! Dogwoods revealed themselves. “This way, Eliza.” “Over here.”
She ran faster until the sky became a grey blue and a canopy of vines laced her way to circular haven. She suddenly felt sleepy but refocusing her eyes and saw a beautiful sight. A small ray of sunshine slipped from the clouds putting a spotlight on the old Mother Oak. “Hello dearest.” Cracked an old woman’s voice. “Come here child. Before you go, there are some things to know.” Eliza sat on the old tree’s biggest root. “Ah, there. Now Elizabeth, I have brought you here for two reasons: one, that I wished you to give me a name, and second, well this may take a little explaining. We trees haven’t spoken to a human for hundreds of years.
“The person we choose is the most worthy of all. Phillip knew that and he is very fond of you. I told him you had made it through the black wood. We trees whisper it along. We could move but most of us have learned to grow where we are planted, something you humans could do a bit of. So in honor of you we ask that you stay a little longer and let a tree paint you portrait.” Eliza looked puzzled. “Yes, you’re wondering how. Trees paint with sap, it is a beautiful art. Few humans have come across them. So will you do us the honor?”
“Yes of course, but will I be home in time?” “Yes. I will make sure of that.” Said the old Oak. Now for my name, I have always admired the name, Aurora.” “That is a beautiful name!” said the bright eyed Eliza. “Good, Henry here will paint your portrait now.” She helped Eliza up and Eliza walked over to a stump in front of him. Henry was a skinny Maple with a very wide grin. “Now keep very still.” Then he began using his leaves as his brush.
“That was my partner, that you’re sitting on, Bill was his name.” Eliza felt weird sitting on his remains but tried hard to keep still. “He betrayed us. Tried to throw a hive of bees at Aurora.” After a few more minutes he had finally finished and he turned it around to show all. Trees leaned as much as possible to see. A lot of them lost their bird nests and didn’t seem to notice. What a beautiful painting: her hair was curled around her young face and neck like leaves and branches do a tree, a weeping willow with a smile. “Well,” said Aurora, “I believe that will suffice.” Come with me dear. Hope is going to take you home.” Aurora gritted her teeth as she began to lift her roots. Her strength hadn’t gone and she was successful. She led Eliza down a newly made path guarded by trees. “Hope, come forward for I am very tired.” Hope did so and very speedily. She looked like a running octopus. “Now Elizabeth, you will climb Hope and she will escort you home. It was wonderful meeting you and I am sure to see you again. Good bye dearest.” Eliza hugged the old tree and lifted into the air by one of Hope’s limbs, she was set at the top holding tightly.
Exhausted from her journey, the little girl soon fell asleep in the arms of the tree. All went black and dreamless. She felt softness all over: covers wrapped around her, a pillow under her head, and the chirping of a bird at her window. She sat up, puzzled. Was it all a dream? She could not remember when she arrived back home. A voice broke this quiet ponder; her mother called her to dinner. Walking into the kitchen she looked out the window. The trees stood still, their bark expressionless. She looked at her mother then frowned at her plate, but in the corner of her eyes she swore she’d seen the Sweet Gum, closest to the house, wink at her.