One autumn day, long ago, a willow seed played and lost several games with her brothers and sisters. She became cross and jumped up and down until she was caught up by the wind and borne into the high hills — a heavy dew set about her and through her, weighing downy filaments earthward.
She landed on the cold ground and watered the soil further with her tears until the clouds parted and the sun rose to kiss her. The willow seed swelled and put forth roots to begin a solitary life.
By spring, the willow had grown beautiful and lithe, with silver-green leaves adorning her crown. Her trunk, buffeted as it was on the barren hilltop, grew supple but strong — her thirsty roots spread deeply. Although she wasn’t entirely unhappy, she was alone.
“Return the acorn, and I will change you back.” A witch, disguised as a fox, yelled, chasing a mouse toward the tree.
“Come swiftly,” called the willow, “and I will hide you!”
And the mouse, carrying a golden acorn, ran in among her roots.
The fox paced orange and angry beside the willow.
He snarled, “Thieving boy — I’ve changed your outsides to match your cowardly insides, and I’ll do worse…”
The willow said, “Leave, witch — you’ll reap no spoils today.” And she used her whip-like branches upon the fox, who then changed form into a crow to escape the thrashing. It was wroth as it took wing, and cursed the pair:
‘Discern the truth amidst my lies:
You will find not your compromise.
In thirteen years with your true love
Fleet Death will claim him from above.’
When the crow had retreated to the far side of the hill, the willow spoke again to the mouse, “I am queen of this hill — you may live with me as my son, for I desire a family. Plant your golden acorn, that we may have some company.”
The mouse buried the acorn nearby, but not too close, so its roots would not compete with the willow’s.
On the morrow, in place of the acorn stood a sturdy sapling, and in a regal voice it announced, “I am the oak, king of all trees.”
The willow answered, “I am the willow, queen of this hill — we shall rule together.”
The oak tipped his crown to her and said, “I would be honored.”
And that is how they began.
The willow was larger than the oak for a while, and always thirstier — the oak chastened her often to drink not more than her share. The willow rebutted that she drank so her branches would grow long enough that the two might someday embrace.
Growing straight and tall, soon the oak surpassed the willow — sometimes the oak would chide, “You put yourself too much at the mercy of the wind, bending hither and thither, losing your leaves. The wind will strip you bare! Hold tight to your leaves and grow tall and mighty like me.”
The willow, who had grown to love the oak, replied, “Perhaps you have grown too rigid. Learn to bend and sway like me, or the wind will pluck you from the earth!”
Even as their crowns stood apart, together with their mouse-son they laughed often and watched the stars and loved each other.
Over the years, the willow grew wider, but the oak grew taller — still their crowns stood apart (their mouse-son did not grow at all).
When thirteen years had passed since their meeting, they heard again the curse of the witch-crow:
‘You have not found your compromise.
Now death rains down, and your love dies.’
Clouds knit together and a torrent fell upon their crowns in great sheets, blown by a merciless wind. The oak and the willow could scarcely see or hear each other over and through the din. The mouse-son clung to the willow’s trunk, for he could do naught else.
The oak shouted, “My queen, you are losing your beautiful leaves! You must hold tighter to them!”
And the willow cried, “My king, you must release your leaves! They catch the wind, and in your magnificence, you will topple!”
But the oak could neither let go nor bend, for it was not in his nature.
By morning, the willow stood bare, her raiment stripped and scattered — her precious mouse-son peeked from beneath exposed roots which held fast, stretching deep into the soil.
The oak, whose roots grew shallow, had given up their purchase in the night — the proud king lay dead, pulled entirely from the ground.
The crow cackled into the departing storm.
As the mouse dabbed his willow-mother’s tears, the sugary sap was enchanted and instantly transformed him back into the young prince he once was. With recovered strength and sword, he slew the surprised witch-crow before it could speak again.
From his fallen oak-father, the prince would craft a fantastic bench to surround his willow-mother.
When the circle was complete, the oak spoke. “Our first embrace,” he said.
The willow wept for joy, and moving only with the wind, they are hugging still.
Robin Quackenbush lives between the mountains and the sea in the Piedmont of Virginia, USA. In 2003, she graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, and in 2008 she earned her Advanced Horticulturist certification from the Virginia Nursery and Landscape Association. Robin is excited to be featured in Fiction War Magazine, Issues 1 & 2. You can find her on Twitter @rtquackenbush or Facebook at fb.me/rtquackenbush
The Oak and the Willow Tree is a Fiction War Champion entry.
Please do not reproduce without permission from the author.
Originally published at fictionwar.com. Image credit: @mmm91492