On a summer evening I was helping myself to some honeysuckle cuttings from my brother, Matthew’s garden. My twelve-year old nephew, Oliver, was keeping me company. He’d been banging on about Ents ever since he read Lord of the Rings. “There are no such things as Ents, Ollie,” I said. “Tolkien made them up.”
“But I met one in Savernake forest, Auntie Jooles. It looked like a tree but it was alive.”
I laughed. “Of course it was. All trees are alive. How else could they make leaves and blossoms and saplings? You do biology in school, don’t you?”
He gave me the scathing look that clued-up kids give to adults who’ve said something stupid. “I know all that reproduction stuff, but trees can’t talk.”
“It spoke to you?”
“Yes. Inside my head.”
That pulled me up sharp. I dropped my secateurs on my foot, and yelped. A childhood memory stirred and prodded. I reached for it. It retreated.
I took off my sandal, rubbed my toes and gave Ollie my full attention. “What did the tree say?”
“I was sitting in its branches and it told me to move over because the branch hurt. I looked at it. There was a flat mushroomy thing growing on it so I moved.”
“Yeah, that’s the word I was looking for.”
“Let me think about this. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
“You believe me?”
“I’m not sure exactly what I believe. Don’t mention it to anyone else.”
I didn’t know why I said that but I knew better than to ignore my instinct. I also knew that when something puzzled me I often found the answer in my dreams.
I lay in bed that night, sifting through my childhood recollections for the elusive memory. Sleep crept up on me and I dreamed. A beautiful woman leaned over me and whispered, “Remember the trees, Julianae, and remember who you are.” She vanished. I held up my hand to reach out for her. It was a baby’s hand.
I awoke and the childhood memory resurfaced. In my head I’d heard a voice like the night wind’s whistle through leaf-laden branches. “Remember us, Julianae. Remember who you are.” That voice had been part of my early years. How could I have forgotten?
Next morning I visited my mother, well, my adoptive mother. Matthew’s birth had been difficult, leaving her unable to have more children. She’d often told me how she came to adopt me but I had a feeling she’d left something out, and I needed to hear it.
She opened the door. “Hello, Juli. Not working today?”
so we’ve closed the studio for a few days while he sits around and mopes.” My boyfriend Chas and I, both art school dropouts from Chippenham Campus, were aiming to make a living enriching the world’s stock of artistic masterpieces. We were probably destined to fail, but it was fun, most of the time.
My mother led me into her kitchen and put the kettle on. “Well, it’s gratifying that you’re using your free time to visit your old mum. We’ll have a coffee while you tell me what you want.” She knows me so well.
“I want information. Tell me about the day you and Dad found me, and don’t leave anything out.”
She sighed. “I can understand you being curious about where you came from, sweetheart, but I can’t tell you what I don’t know.” She poured the coffee and sat down. I waited. “We were walking around Leigh Hill, at the edge of Savernake forest, when we found you, abandoned, at the foot of a tree. You couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old. Dad wrapped his jacket around you and we took you to hospital for a health check.” She paused, added two spoonfuls of sugar to her cup and took a sip. “The police couldn’t trace your family and we’d been planning to adopt a baby anyway, so your dad, being head of Wiltshire Social Services, pulled a few strings, and you were ours.”
“Lovely,” I said. “Now I’d like the unedited version, please.”
She blushed. “Oh Juli, it was twenty-five years ago, and so weird, I probably imagined it. If I tell you I doubt you’d believe me anyway.”
“I spent yesterday evening with Ollie. I’m used to weird.”
She laughed “Is he still muttering about Ents?”
“Never mind him. Stop procrastinating and spill.”
She ran her fingers through her greying hair, and nodded. “Alright. Forget the bit about being left at the foot of a tree. A woman walked out of the forest carrying you. She whispered something to you and then she passed you to me, and said, ‘Her name is Julianae. She’s yours now.’ Then she seemed to melt back into the trees.”
I felt a tingle down my back. “What did she look like?”
“She had a lot of hair, like those Pre-Raphaelite floozies Holman-Hunt and that crowd used to paint.”
To my mother, bless her, any woman who posed for a painting, plucked her eyebrows, or didn’t know how to knit, was a floozie.
“What was she wearing?”
“Hard to tell. I’m not sure she was wearing anything. She was sort of shimmery.”
Shimmery? It was a bad as Ollie’s mushroomy. “And what was Dad doing while The Lady of Shalott was presenting you with a baby?”
“He says he didn’t see her. He just saw you appear in my arms.” She grasped my wrist. “There’s something else, Juli. I’d seen the woman before, nine years earlier, after Matthew was born. I was still in hospital. I’m not sure if I was awake or asleep. She said, ‘You have your son. Someday I’ll bring you your daughter.’ Then she vanished.”
Off the scale in strangeness, but I believed her. I finished my coffee, kissed my mother, said, “Thank you,” and sprinted to Matthew’s house.
His wife Zahra opened the door to me. I said, “Hi Zee. Mind if I take Ollie for a walk?”
She whooped, cupped my face, and gave me a friendly slap on both cheeks. “Please do, Juli, Get him from under my feet. School holidays are far too long. Lock ’em in the classroom and throw away the key, is what I say.”
Over her shoulder, I saw Ollie hurling himself down the stairs, his trainers undone, his toothbrush in one hand and his phone in the other. He said, “Thanks Mum,” and handed her the toothbrush. She waved to me, retreated into the house and closed the door behind her.
Ollie said, “Where are we going?”
“Before we go anywhere, fasten your shoelaces, I don’t want you breaking your neck, and turn off your phone. Then you can introduce me to your Ent.”
He punched the air and shouted, “Yes.”
After adjusting his footwear he led me along Postwives Walk and onto the footpath that stretches into the heart of the forest, rich with oak, beech and Scots pine. I noticed blotches of white fungus on their bark.
The trees called to me. “Welcome home, Juliane.”
Ollie’s eyes grew wide. I asked him, “Can you hear them?”
“Yes. How do they know your name?”
“I think I might be a dryad.”
“I knew there was something spooky about you.”
“You’re twenty-five but you look eighteen.”
“So do lots of people who are twenty-five.”
“But you don’t have to try.”
We stopped at the foot of an ancient oak. “This is it,” he said. “Look, there’s the sore spot.” He pointed to the growth on one of the tree’s lower branches.
I held out my arms to the forest, inviting its memories to flow through me, awakening my own.
Artemis was goddess of the forests, protector of women’s virtue and comforter in childbirth. I was her handmaiden.
The giant, Orion, was stalking me. He was a dangerous nuisance and I was afraid. He cornered me in a lonely, wooded grove. “You cannot fight me, Julianae,” he said. “I am a son of the god Poseidon and I claim you as my own.” Pompous pignut.
I sensed the trees’ anger at my distress and I heard them call to Artemis. She appeared, raised her bow and shouted, “Take your hands off the dryad, you fly-bitten fig-leaf.”
He leaped away from me in surprise. She fired two arrows. The first one pierced Orion’s heart, the second found its mark below his belt. I averted my eyes. The dead giant hit the ground with a thud.
She pulled me into her arms. “The Olympians will demand vengeance for that lecherous luttock’s death,” she said. She and I were both fond of alliteration.
“So you’re in trouble for saving me?”
“No. They can’t hurt me. I’m their equal. It’s you they’ll blame.”
“But, that’s not fair,” I sobbed. “What will they do to me?”
“If they run true to form they’ll want to turn you into some kind of vegetation, but don’t worry. I have a plan.” She pulled a dock leaf from the undergrowth and handed it to me to dry my tears and blow my nose.
I did so, and dropped the dock leaf on the soil so the earth could reclaim and recycle it. “What’s the plan?” I said.
“’I’ll take you far into the future, to a time when the Olympians no longer exist because nobody believes in them, and I’ll transform you into a human baby.”
“You remember us now, Julianae?” The ancient oak’s voice brought me back to the present.
“Yes, but how do you remember me? Even you can’t be that old.”
“Our ancestors passed your story down, tree to sapling, through the generations.”
“And how can this boy hear you? He’s human.”
“There’s enough of the child left in him to believe in a talking tree. You heard us when you were a human child, but you stopped believing and forgot us. Make sure the boy doesn’t do the same.”
Ollie spoke up. “I won’t stop believing in you, and my name’s Ollie. Do you have a name?”
“No, I’m a tree.” He spoke again to me. “The purpose of the dryads is to care for the trees. If you’re prepared to do your duty you can start by ridding us of this parasite that clings to our branches. Ollie will show you.”
“I can see it for myself but I don’t know if I can cure it. I’m human now.”
“You are, for one lifetime, but you will always be a dryad. Search your soul for your power.”
I let my consciousness lose itself in the forest and feel the trees’ pain. Many fungi lived in harmony with the rhythm of the trees, but the malevolent parasite was a discordant note. I lashed out at it, but it was tenacious. I added my own voice to the natural harmony, increasing its strength, drowning out the discord. I heard it howl in protest.
I was winning, but before I could finish the job a voice boomed in my ear. “You have taken the bait, nymph. I am Poseidon and I claim vengeance for the death of my son.”
Terror overcame me and cold sweat trickled between my shoulder blades. “I didn’t kill him,” I whimpered. “He attacked me.”
You tempted him,” he roared, “and then you caused Artemis is kill him. You ventured back into this forest, now you can stay forever, as a tree.”
I screamed as I felt my limbs start to stiffen. Once again the trees sensed my distress and I heard them call to Artemis. She spoke in my head. “Poseidon is an illusion. He has no place in the human world, Julianae. He is trying to invade your life. You have a word for such beings.”
“Yes. He’s a scammer.”
“Then you know how to be rid of him.”
She was right. I knew what to do. I visualised the god’s image on a laptop screen and I said, “Delete”.
My power returned, and with renewed confidence I flung it at the fungus until I dropped, exhausted to my knees. The forest nurtured me, restoring my strength.
Ollie helped me to my feet. “You’ve done it, Auntie Jools. It’s dying. Look.” The fungus was shrivelling. It turned to dust and the wind carried it away.
The ancient oak said, “The trees are healthy again. We need our dryad. Don’t desert us.”
“I won’t, but I have a human life too. I can’t stay here.”
“I understand. We’ll call you when we’re in need. Answer our call.”
“Agreed. Tell me, am I on my own or are there other dryads around these days?”
“There are some, but we need more. Artemis will provide them. All the Earth’s forests are in danger. Humans are destroying them. Fools. Without the trees the planet cannot breathe. You’d be doomed.”
I sighed. “We’re probably doomed anyway. The polar ice is melting, the atmosphere is polluted and the oceans are choking on plastic.”
“Your science can find solutions and this boy’s generation will start to undo the damage.”
Ollie said, “You’re right. We will. We’re sick of all this mess.”
“I believe you, Ollie,“ I said,” but it will take a long time and a lot of people will die before the Earth heals.”
The tree said, “True, but many will survive. The Earth will need them.”
“Talking of survival,” I said, “if I’m a dryad I’m immortal. My human body will grow old and die, although if Ollie’s observation is accurate I’ll age slower than other humans. When I’m finished with my mortal flesh I’ll return to the forest in my true form.”
“You will be welcome, Julianae, and there will be no lecherous Olympians around to annoy you. Take Ollie home now. He’s beginning to feel bored.”
I suspected his phone was vibrating in his pocket, telling him he had dozens of missed calls. We walked home in silence, until Ollie said, “This is the start of a new age. We need a logo. You should get Chas to paint you as a dryad protecting the trees.”
My mother would have something to say about that. Maybe I should learn how to knit.
BIO: Maureen Bowden is a Liverpudlian living with her musician husband in Wales. She has had 142 stories and poems accepted by paying markets. She was nominated for the 2015 Pushcart Prize, and in 2019 Alban Lake published an anthology of her stories, ‘Whispers of Magic’ available from Hiraeth Books. she also writes song lyrics, mainly comic political satire. Her husband has set these to traditional melodies and performed them in folk music clubs throughout the UK. She loves her family and friends, rock ‘n’ roll, Shakespeare, and cats.