Special Trees

    My cousin Tamirah promised to show me where the wood for her leg came from, as long as I didn’t tell her mom.  
    She was four years older than me, and knew everything.  I promised instantly.  
    We told the adults that we were going to pick mushrooms and berries in the forest.  This was normal enough, so they just smiled and waved us on our way, busy as they were with the boring conversations that adults always have together.  They’d still be on that porch with glasses of gross juice hours later; they did it every time we visited.  
    I followed Tamirah down the path behind the house, wanting to ask dozens of questions, but knowing that she wouldn’t answer until we were out of sight.  Instead I focused on keeping up with her lopsided stride.  She’d always been faster than me, despite the missing foot.  I figured it was because she was that much taller, and she’d had a long time to get used to the peg.  She could dance on it too.  Aunt Kest had carved it for her years ago, and I’d never wondered where the wood came from until this week.  
    “They can’t hear us from here,” Tamirah said as soon as we stepped into the shade of the forest.  “At least during the day.  Sound travels farther at night, because the sunlight heats the ground and the hot air rises, breaking up the sound waves.  Did you know that?”
    I pretended that I did, while inwardly marveling at my cousin’s knowledge.  She talked more as we walked, moving deeper into the woods along deer trails that got less familiar the farther we went.
    “We’re almost there,” she said abruptly, pointing through a screen of undergrowth.  “See the huge boulder?  The way in is behind that.”
    “The way into what?” I asked, bursting with curiosity.  Everything still looked like forest out here.  
    “The hidden grove,” she said.  “You can’t tell there’s anything there from the outside.”  She looked down at me with a serious expression as we threaded our way through the bushes.  “The way in is too small for an adult.  I can still get through, but eventually I won’t fit.  I’m showing you because there should always be someone who knows how to get in.”  
    I stood up straight and nodded solemnly.  Tamirah trusted me with this secret.  I wouldn’t let her down.  
    The boulder was suddenly right in front of us, towering and coated in moss.  I was surprised to see that it extended out to both sides, its full size hidden by dense brush.  I couldn’t even tell how tall it was, since it sloped away; all I saw was sky.  
    “Over here.”  Tamirah was a few steps away, pulling bushes away from a tree that hugged the boulder.  There was a large hole in the tree.  Big enough for a kid to climb into.  
    “What made that?” I asked, moving close.  The bark curled over the edges of the hole like the tree had tried and failed to heal it.  The inside was black.  When I got near enough to pick out details, I could see that the hollow trunk was patterned like charcoal; something had burned this tree once.  
    “It was hit by lightning,” Tamirah said.  “A long time ago, so the leaves and everything have grown back, but this part’s burnt out.  There’s just enough left for the tree to live on.”  She plucked a frond of scrub brush.  “And as soon as we encourage any spiders to get out of our way, we can climb down.”  She vigorously broomed out the inside of the tree, then declared it safe.  
    I wasn’t about to go first.  
    Thankfully, Tamirah didn’t make me.  She tossed the brush aside and swung her leg up — the one with the shoe — then stuck it into the hole, followed by the wooden one.  With practiced ease, she grabbed onto the edge of the hole and turned so that she faced me while she slid down into the tree.  It looked like a close fit.  
    “You can press your feet against the sides so you don’t slip,” she told me.  “It’s not far.  I’ll get out of the way so you can get past.”  Then she disappeared from view, and all I heard was slight scraping.  “Come on,” her voice echoed.  
    Scanning for spiders, I stuck my head into the hole.  Tamirah looked up at me from below ground level, deep in a hole that was somehow lit up.  
    “Where’s the light coming from?” I asked.  
    “Come on and see,” she told me.  “Feet first is easier.”  
    I did as she said, following her lead in clambering through the hollow tree.  There was more than enough space for me to get through, but it was still tight enough to make me uneasy.  
    “There you go, good job,” Tamirah congratulated me as I landed awkwardly next to her.  “And here were are.”  She gestured toward the light, which proved to be improbable daylight.  I looked back and forth from the dirty hole that we stood in to the colorful grove of trees in front of us.  A couple steps forward showed me an overhanging rock face that had concealed the drop in ground level.  Weird.  
    “So this is where your leg came from?” I prompted, looking out at the trees.  They all had different colors of leaves like it was fall, only it wasn’t.  And now that I was looking closer, some of those leaves were very strange indeed.  
    “Yeah, from a fallen log over this way,” Tamirah said with a grin.  “I’ll show you.  You’ve got to see some of these.”  She led the way forward into the grove, which held the strangest trees I’d ever seen.  
    This one had blue leaves that tinkled like windchimes made of glass.  That one had black leaves and bark the color of fire, which twisted and moved whenever I started to look away.  Those two were grown together into an arch, trailing thin branches that twined around each other like snakes.  That one was a miniature apple tree made of gray rock.  There were little stone apples on the ground and everything.  
    “Here it is,” Tamirah said from ahead of me, and I hurried to catch up, wide-eyed.  “There was another branch broken off right here, and that’s the one I took back for my leg.”  She was pointing down at a tree that had fallen across a cow-sized boulder; it lay in several pieces where the wood had broken at the impact.  
    The bark was the same dark brown with reddish highlights as Tamirah’s leg.  I had always assumed that Aunt Kest had varnished it with something to get that shine, but it looked like all she’d done was smooth it.  
    “How did it break so clean?” I asked, crouching but not touching.  One branch lay separate from the tree, its exposed end as flat as a gemstone.  
    “It’s because of the rock,” Tamirah said with confidence.  “Hitting anything else won’t even scratch it.  I tried.  See?”  She picked up a branch and whacked it against the trunk, then several other trees.  It made a variety of interesting clacks and clatters, but didn’t so much as knock a leaf free.  Then she leaned down and gave the normal-looking boulder a rap, and the branch popped into a half-dozen pieces that rained onto the grass.  
    “That’s amazing,” I breathed.  Something occurred to me.  “Make sure you don’t kick it with your leg!”
    Tamirah laughed and agreed, taking a large step to the side.  “I wouldn’t even touch it, to be safe,” she told me.  “And it’s just this one rock; I tested it on others.”  
    I nodded like I understood, then stopped and spread my arms.  “So where did all this come from?” I asked.  “It’s nothing like the rest of the forest!”
    “You’re right,” Tamirah said, flicking a triangle-shaped leaf off another tree, which spiraled to earth.  “It’s completely closed off, too.  You can’t see it from here, but that rock wall goes all the way around it.  With the bushes and everything, it looks like a really steep cliff from the outside.”
    “Did somebody plant this?” I guessed.  “A wizard’s garden?”  The thought made me glance around nervously, hoping we weren’t trespassing somewhere dangerous.
    “I think it’s stranger than that,” Tamirah said solemnly.  “Let me show you something else, and see what you think.”  
    I followed her swinging stride eagerly, wondering what other marvels she could have to show me.  We passed a tree with orange fur that I couldn’t help petting, and I almost tripped over a truly massive root that lay on the ground like a python of terrifying proportions.  It disappeared between the other trees in both directions; I had no idea what it was attached to.  
    “Here,” Tamirah said.  “What do you see?”
    In a small clearing there was a lumpy-looking tree trunk in two parts, one slender and straight as an arrow, and the other misshapen and springing from its side to root separately.  I cocked my head and tried to make sense of it.  The thing was all brown wood, with its branches far overhead, a distant puff of green.  Ordinary colors, but the shape looked like something…  
    Tamirah silently took up a position on the opposite side from the lumpy part, and stood with her hands against the trunk and feet spread.  She looked at me.  
    “Is that a person?” I blurted.  The shape was the same: someone holding onto the narrow part and grown into it.  “It looks like a person!”  
    Tamirah nodded.  “It does, doesn’t it?” she said, lowering her hands.  “Have you learned about the end of the Mage Wars in school yet?”
    “A little,” I said, my heart beating faster.  “I know that most of the magicians crossed the sea afterward, and that hardly anybody has the talent for magic anymore.”  
    “A lot of them died,” she told me frankly.  “The survivors left, or at least most of them.  Some people still use magic, but they keep it hidden — any sign of the talent these days is dangerous.”  She looked at the human shape.  “Aunt Kest says that that should change someday.”
    “But was this a person?” I insisted.  
    Tamirah waved me over to the far side of it.  “What do you think?”
    She was pointing at the part where the hands gripped the trunk.  Colored glints of light sparkled there, and I leaned in for a closer look.  
    They were gemstones on rings, tarnished and partly enveloped by the bark.  One for each finger of the magician’s left hand.  
    At the sight of the colors, a half-forgotten nursery rhyme echoed through my mind.  “Red, brown, blue, and clear,” I recited slowly.  “Tell me what I want to hear.”
    Tamirah reached out to touch the blue one.  “Brown, red, clear, and blue, show me a vision true.”  
    I gasped as blue light shone where she touched it, spreading into mist that briefly held an image of someone jamming the end of a staff into the ground.  Then the light flashed bright and disappeared.  
    Tamirah removed her finger.  “It’s almost out of power,” she said.  “When I first found it, it used to show more.”
    Questions were bubbling over.  “What was that?” I asked.  “Was that this person, turning into a tree?  Did that turn this part of the forest magical?  Is that nursery rhyme really a spell?  How did you know to do that?”
    Tamirah smiled and answered one of the questions.  “It didn’t turn the forest magical,” she said.  “There wasn’t a forest here before.  This was a battlefield, and this was someone from the losing side.  He turned everyone else’s staffs into trees.”
    I looked around with fresh eyes.  “Did you see that in the visions before?”
    She nodded.  “I haven’t found this fight in any of the history books.  Probably because there were magicians on both sides, and we’re supposed to forget that part.”
    “This is amazing,” I said.  “Shouldn’t we tell someone, so they’d get history right?”  But I knew the answer to that before Tamirah shook her head.  “It wouldn’t be safe, would it?”  
    “Nope.  But it’s not completely forgotten as long as we remember.”  She rapped a knuckle against her wooden shin.  There was a shimmer in the air around it, much like the one I’d seen a few days ago when she’d broken firewood with it when she thought no one was watching.  
    My gaze followed the motion.  “Aunt Kest is the one who used to sing that rhyme, isn’t she?”
    Tamirah nodded with a smile.  “Good memory!  She knows more than she lets on.  When I brought her the wood, she knew right away where I’d gotten it, and she told me to keep it a secret from the other adults.  They wouldn’t understand.”  
    “Is she coming this year?” I asked hopefully.  “She couldn’t last year, but—”
    “She’ll be here tomorrow,” Tamirah said, grinning from ear to ear.  “Now, you don’t need a leg, but I’ll bet she can make you a great bracelet.  Maybe one that senses danger, or repels bees.  Let’s see what we can find!” 

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