Once there was a girl, and she lived in the roots of a tree. That is, no-one ever saw her leave her spot, nestled in the base of a vast oak, in a hollow just big enough to curve around her and provide a woody, earthy nest.
Yet they knew that leave it she must, because she still appeared to live. No-one in the village brought her food or clothes, yet she was not starved and seemed to be wearing clothes. In fact, no-one in the village dared approach the tree, so no-one had really ever seen her up close, but they swore up and down she was there – even if they never saw her move.
The problem was, the village was extremely prone to thunderstorms and lightning strikes. Not a single other sapling seemed to survive more than a few years before wilting or dying of some rotten disease, so this tree was the only one in the entire area; more crucially, it acted as the sole lightning rod for the village. Whenever there was a thunderstorm – once a month in winter, at least once a week in summer – the inhabitants of the village felt safe because the tree continued standing. While it was battered by strike after strike, barely a leaf was shaken to the ground. And as the rain fell in torrents that rattled roofs and flooded streets, no-one could see the girl in her tree. But when the skies cleared and the people ventured out again, someone – usually a child – would run past the last house, to the point by the last fence, where it felt safe to stand and observe. And they would see that the girl was there, appearing peaceful, in the roots of the tree that protected them.
It was winter, and the last thunderstorm had been at least three weeks ago. The children were skittish, and could smell the change in the air, the thick weight of the water in the atmosphere. The adults went about their tasks a little faster and a little more nervously, keeping the roaming packs of playing youngsters a little closer to home. They were checking the watertight doors on their bolt holes, and ensuring the shelves were stocked. Even though they had absolute faith in the tree’s protection from lightning strikes, every year for as long as anyone could remember there had been at least one tragedy in the rushing waters. Only the substantial vigilance of the nervous parents had prevented this, for many years, from being a child.
The rain tended to start deceptively gently, and this storm was no different. As the first drops eased down, the streets gradually fell silent. The youngest were swept into houses within seconds, older children issued dire warnings if they did not follow within minutes. Babies were welded to the breast – as much to calm their mothers as themselves. One by one, doors slammed and locked, and finally the cluster of houses, stalls and stores and the blocky, battered village hall became totally still. All except one.
In the little blue-doored house at the furthest point south of the central street, two parents were slowly losing their minds. Their son, a small-built, tousle-headed boy with hazel eyes and long, nimble fingers, had vanished without a trace, and the time was coming when the door needed to close against him to prevent them all being swept away.
Under the tree, the girl sat, as ever, with her eyes closed, as the rain’s rhythm began to beat stronger. No-one had ever seen her move because most of the time she didn’t. No-one had ever seen her eat, because she had no need to. No-one had ever stepped close enough to examine her clothes, or they would have realised that they weren’t exactly what they might have imagined.
At length, the first rolling rumble echoed in the sky, and with it the deluge began in earnest. In short order, the downpour formed a curtain around the tree, shielding it from view – were there anyone left trying to see it. With hearts more shredded than broken, the boy’s parents had barred their damaged family into walls that had never before seemed to press so hard on their skin. When the tree was almost completely invisible under sheets of hammering water and as the first fractured bolt came zig-zagging from the sky to slam, sizzling, into the canopy overhead, the girl opened her eyes. And looked directly into a pair as clear and hazel as her own were clouded and grey-green.
The girl didn’t move, but her eyes widened, just a fraction. The boy was pressed as close as he could be without touching her, crouched awkwardly in the circle of completely dry ground that extended just a foot from the roots of the tree, all around it. For a moment, the pair stared at each other, without exchanging a word, and then the boy wobbled on his narrow ankles and fell, so that his head slipped out into the storm.
In a moment, the rest of his body slid forward, ready to be sucked away. He gasped and his mouth instantly filled with water, his eyes blinded by the cascade and his ears filled with a roar that rapidly deafened him. As he tried to breathe his nose flooded. His fingers clawed and his legs shuddered; his chest buckled and his back arched. And then, as suddenly as it all began, everything went black.
The storms were violent, but short. Once the rain stopped, it was usually necessary to wait for an hour or so until the waters receded from the streets; though the ground never fully dried out, they eased away as easily as they arrived, streams that sped away south and carried the fears of the crowd with them until the next storm began to build. This time, the blue door opened before the waters had fully ebbed away, and they swirled across the floor of the house as two parents burst out, one with a baby strapped to his back, the other with a young child clutched to her hip. They began to call out a name – the children, even the baby, uncharacteristically silent – repeatedly hurling it into the air as if the sound itself was a hook that could drag their lost cargo back to the shore.
Bit by bit, as the ground around them cleared, doors opened, and sad-looking adults and wild-eyed, overexcited children joined the parents. They kept perhaps a foot’s distance from the frantic family, but moved in concert with them, flowing like a shoal of fish around each building and easing first north, then south, until all the ground in the village was covered.
At last, there was just one place left the group had not searched. One by one, the children looking up first, each one turned in the direction of the tree, and a gasping ripple swept across the crowd, reaching the parents on a wave of incredulity. The whole village fell into a shocked silence as they gazed on the their monolithic protector.
The tree stood as tall as ever, and one side was as proudly untouched by the storm as had ever been seen before. On the west side of the tree however, a deep scar had been gouged into the leafy canopy, and a thick branch was hanging from an open gash where it had snapped under the force of the winds, partially obscuring the roots as it draped down. Leaves littered the ground beneath the damage, and the only thing that could be discerned from this distance was that the shape at the base of the tree was bigger than it had ever been before.
It was the boy’s father that made the first move towards the roots, but it was his mother who was the first to cross the furthest point that anyone had ever stood at before. As the pair of them raced towards the tree, still clutching their youngest children, a breeze shook the branches and another small shower of leaves hit the ground to the western side.
At the roots of the tree, the girl was finally fully visible to the villagers who felt brave enough to approach. Her arms, flaking and rough as bark, were wrapped around a small, wet figure, who shivered with his eyes shut but was clearly breathing. Her fingers were locked under his ribs, and her eyes were clamped shut. As their footsteps approached and the mud churned, the hands slowly let slip from around the boy, and she seemed to gently push him away from her onto an oddly dry patch of ground. He instinctively turned towards the girl, but his mother pulled his arms towards herself before he could complete the movement.
In the fuss to bring the boy home, revive him and heal him, no-one looked at the girl. A few children who tried to gaze, frankly, on her were ushered away in embarrassment by their parents. The day was rapidly darkening into night, and the villagers wanted to return to their homes and count their blessings. Without a word, without another glance, they turned away from the girl and scurried back to where they belonged.
In the morning, the sun rose on what promised to be a dry, cold day – a typical lull of a fortnight or more between storms. But in spite of the promise of respite, a few villagers did look towards the tree to reassure themselves that when the storm did come, they would be safe from lightning.
And perhaps they would have been, if the tree had still been there. Instead, all that remained was a circle of rough, dry ground and a single, perfectly green oak leaf.
This is the second attempt in a writing challenge I have set myself.