...you wound light spiral stairs
placing bundles of light in our arms
railings of vines
a wreath of bright air
~Cora Vail Banks
The tree stands a little out of alignment with the rest of the orderly orchard rows, like a soldier briefly stepping out of formation from sheer stubbornness, and she thinks, sometimes, that this is why it's her favorite.
It's also the biggest and tallest, as though it had stepped out because it knew that patch of ground a little to the left was the richest and the best. Its gnarled limbs branch out early and low, making easy notches for her feet; she'd memorized them over the past summer and autumn, their sturdy steps a ladder so sure she could ascend with her eyes shut. Climbing up and up, through rustling green and dangling cool globes slowly turning to russet and gold, she had visited nearly every evening, stealing a few precious moments for herself after a long day of work. Just high enough to be thrilling, there was a hollow that perfectly cradled her hips and legs; arranged just so and she could recline as though in a chair carved just for her, her head propped by the bole of the trunk, swaying softly amidst the leaves. Dangling secure in the blue air and the ruffled green, she had breathed in the silence of rustling leaves and buzzing insects, content merely to be, as happy there as in any place she had ever known.
All winter the bare branches were slick and treacherous, and her heavy wool skirts and thick boots and bulky mittens had made climbing impossible, but she had reached out and touched the cold trunk every time she'd had occasion to pass near it, and felt as if she were promising it something, or perhaps it was promising her.
Now it stands, a frame of dark bones misted in clouds of pale, delicate pink. She's been watching it for a week, waiting, her arms and legs itching, but the muck from melting snow has made shoes an irritating necessity, and it seems sacrilege, somehow, an assault, to place a leather sole upon those friendly limbs that have only known the intimate grip of her bare hands and feet.
But today is the fourth of full sun in months, and the air feels warm and bright and alive, its very essence singing in her ears, a chorus composed of chirping birds and buzzing bees and some silent, joyous whisper from the unfurling green that veils every growing thing. And when Coll says it's almost time to break the ground and orders Taran into the smithy to sharpen the ploughshares, she knows there's not much time left to do as she pleases; she's been warned that once planting starts there'll be work from dawn to dusk, ever-increasing as the days lengthen again.
So she strips off shoes and stockings and disappears from the scullery after gathering the eggs, before Dallben can set her any new tasks; she'll get to them later, but just now, her tree is waiting.
The ground is cool with thin young grass and its soft freshness leaves her unprepared for how rough and prickly apple-bark is under bare feet gone soft over months of being wrapped in wool stockings, and she grimaces a little as she pulls herself into the lowest branches. It's harder than it was last year; perhaps she's lost some of her strength over the long winter, but no matter; the hard labor ahead should take care of that quickly enough. Pull, and heave, and throw her arms around the bole, her cheek pressed against the solid wood, and there - she's panting but safe in the lowest crook, and the rest should be easy, a return to the familiar and beloved.
Except it isn't, exactly.
The notches and branches are all where they should be, of course, but it feels different, now, the weight and heft of her balance all off-kilter, and she must pause often to re-evaluate her next move. Her elbows and knees seem to stick out too far, fold in too much, and she's glad no one's watching, for it feels clumsy and awkward, not the careless flush of lithe vitality she remembers. What is this new twig, shooting out at such an odd angle, stabbing at her? Surely it had not grown over the winter, but she has no memory of it being in her way before.
She's tempted to feel annoyed, but she's surrounded by apple blossom, spilling airy perfume like wine for drunken bees, and filling her vision with fluttering pink and white. It's not possible to be annoyed in the midst of such magic, no matter how breathless she is or how many times she barks her shins on the hard branches. The clutch of her fists upon the living wood is real and good and sure, and she wonders if the tree, waking up, feels anything like she does, exultant in the satisfying stretch of her too-long-dormant limbs.
Up, and up, into the sparkling blue, and here is her triple-limbed seat, just where she remembers, like a waiting friend. "Hullo, you," she murmurs out loud, and swings into its embrace to settle in.
But it feels different, too, somehow. She squirms, in confusion, trying to find the previous comfort of her favorite perch. But the hollow is inexplicably narrow, too narrow for her to fit comfortably, and a tree doesn't change that much, no matter...oh.
Oh. It's not the tree. It's me.
All the winter evenings spent carefully ripping the seams from her tunics and gown and letting them out, sewing them back up until the unfaded linen made dark stripes down her sides, flash back at her with new clarity.
It is a thing she has mostly ignored, this subtle change in her own shape, one more in a series of intriguing but baffling ongoing transformations that had begun just before she'd come to Caer Dallben but had somehow sped up after she'd arrived, like a boulder gaining speed as it tumbles downhill. She'd swathed herself in shapeless tunics and baggy leggings and gone on with business as usual, broken only by unpredictable bouts of bleeding that had gradually settled, by midwinter, to a regular monthly cycle. She'd been warned about that at least, and Coll had provided her with what she needed with a quiet practicality that eased her embarrassment, and it had been just one more thing to get used to, in a year of novel things, and not so troublesome as one might have expected, but now...
Now she suddenly and irrationally bursts into tears, scrambling back out of her no-longer-perfect seat and clinging to its disappointing limbs; it's too much, the changing and the growing and the unknown, and she doesn't even know whether she's sad about it or just tired of it…and it's rubbish, anyhow, isn't it, to be upset? Haven't they all been good changes? Escaping Achren, coming here, learning to work, to live with and love her strange, cobbled-together family? Even growing is good, is natural, is what's supposed to happen, something she'd been doing all along quite happily, and now to bawl like an infant just because she can't sit in the same spot in some old tree, for goodness' sake! ...and yet she cannot stop; it feels all right, somehow, to cry, and finally she submits to it, crouching on a branch and laying her head against the rough bark with a hiccup and a wavering sigh.
The tree sways quietly, in that nearly-imperceptible way she can only feel when her eyes are shut, as though it's the earth, breathing. The smell of the wood, dusty and nutty, presses into her nose, mingling with the honey-sweetness of the blossom all around, and she turns her face toward it until her hiccups stall, until her breath melds into the slow rhythm of the rocking trunk. The wind rustles, and suddenly, to her right, there is a beat of wings and a flutter of tiny peeping sounds, and she opens her eyes, startled, to look toward the noise.
On a crooked branch not much more than an arm's length away sits a soft dome of dry grass and bracken, and at its edge a tiny wren has just landed, with a beak full of a grub almost as big as its head. It pokes it through the dark hole of the dome and a flurry of movement greets him; the round head and bright dewdrop eye of its mate emerge, cheeping loudly, and the wren flutters backwards and flits away, following some path of its own through the pink-frilled maze of blossom.
She holds her breath, heart pounding in delight and wonder. The tiny clump of grass is drab and unassuming, and it looks as though the slightest tremor of its branch could send it tumbling, yet the promise held in its downy hollow is as big as the whole world, somehow, for that moment, a breathless fragility that must be protected. She wouldn't have been able to sit here at all, even had she not outgrown it; as thrilling as it would be to watch them, it would have disturbed the parents to have her so near when their young hatched, an intrusion into a sacred space.
Slowly, she edges back down the trunk, down to a spot a few feet lower, one where a crook in the branch provides, if not perfection, at least an acceptable alternative to her favorite space, and far enough away not to disturb the little family, if she's still and quiet. Perhaps, after the wrens have raised their brood and moved on, she can build a proper seat there, one that fits, or perhaps she'll wait, and make sure she's done changing first.
Though perhaps there will be no done. Perhaps it will be change and change, and change again, from now on, as it seems change is the only thing one can really expect with any certainty. Dallben says time is a circle, turning back upon itself, making new of what was old, and old of what was new, again and again, different every year in the same old ways, and that they all recognize it, deep down where the spirit knows things the mind does not. That this is why they look forward to each turning season with such wonder and delight, when every bright falling leaf and glittering snowflake and fresh flower seems as spellbinding a miracle as if it were the first of its kind ever seen.
It makes her head swim to think of it; Dallben's words are often like that, but for just an instant, looking up through the pink and white and blue, she sees the rim of the sun, a golden circle broken through a haze of thin cloud. In a flash of knowing she cannot explain, she sees it: the tree and the earth and the birds and the blood and breath, fountain and flame within her, all locked into a dance of spiraled dark and light, intersecting and connecting, ring upon ring, endless.
It's a flash, like a falling star, gone before she even realizes what she's seen, but it leaves her with eyes sparkling full, trembling with its beauty.
Around her, beneath her, the tree trembles too, though there is no wind.