I had always wondered what the other side of that old oak tree looked like. Many times did I wonder how many knots emerged promiscuously about its robust bark or how many birds and squirrels pitched their homes amidst its lush branches. I’ve forever longed to feel the embrace of its cool shade whose inky bulbous form scoured the grassy hill with an alluring serenity. Instead, I am trapped here behind my iron veil, forced to bear witness to it at a fixed angle. I have indeed memorized every crag and twist in the distant bark facing me, counted every branch and its offshoots, thirteen in all. I have counted the thousands of leaves never quite knowing their exact amount being privy to only their one half.
In truth I do not remember my crime, for it was all so hopelessly long ago that I was stolen from the place of my nativity that those years had become a fleeting haze. I only remember flashes of the huntsman’s grim face as he tore me from the family I never knew. His nasty, twisting teeth lining his grin as he chuckled to himself in gratification. I remember the haunting, morose tune he hummed as my body, wounded and dazed was dragged out through the snow and loaded onto a cart headed for alien lands.
When we arrived I was imprisoned, a patch of iron-shaded dirt my only comfort. Day in and out the routine became the same, every morning he would march to the cage with the same, stern expression upon his bearded face. He would throw a haunch of meat at me through the bars, all the while humming that dreadful tune to me. Afterwards, he would disappear, not to be seen until the following day.
It was years I lay in that place staring up at the hill upon which the old oak tree sits, rustling calmly in the breeze. Oh, how peaceful it must have been, I thought, to live as that majestic wood, to bristle calmly in a silent state of meditation, growing, ever growing, shedding old skin to leave room for new.
I became weary of the many strangers who would pass me by in my prison. They were curious creatures I must admit, for they are so brutish in their demeanor. They trod as if the Earth quaked under every step and spoke with booming voices in their guttural, vicious language at me, laughing and grinning.
In that ditch, under the roaming eyes of passersby I felt little more than caustic fear and boiling agony as I peered through my metallic window into a world I was never meant to know. How I wished my throat could parse the words to those strangers, for when I spoke these creatures timidly recoiled in fear as my noble voice howled. I begged I pleaded, I snarled, I screamed “Help me! Help me!” and in their terror they stiffly strolled off, guarding their young as they did so.
There was but one who did not. A youth of theirs, who upon observing me, cast a peculiar look. His eyes grew big and his mouth agape. He looked up to his father, eyes shimmering, hungry, for what I could not say. He spoke with a softness that others lacked, a warm breath that made their tongue almost bearable to my ears. His father turned to him and laughed, head back, malicious voice bounding through the hillside gleefully. He would move on, the youth remaining for but a moment. He would murmur quietly to himself then heed the call of his father.
The child visited frequently, almost daily, sometimes with his father, sometimes not. Every day he would grace me with his sad, heartfelt expression, murmuring to me in his quiet voice. I would sit and I would listen, understanding not his words but his tone. His voice filled my vengeful heart with sadness, empathy even though I could not understand his narrative. Although there was one word which I have committed to memory, It is a strange word to me that he would say ad nauseum. “Free” what a strange word, so harsh yet he spoke it in such a blissful manner that to him it must be something positive. Perhaps it was his name, I had thought.
I sat and I moaned with Free. Speaking to him and he understood my reproach only in essence.
He is my only friend.
One day he and the Huntsman met. Their blithering quickly escalated as they spoke. The man laughed in his cackling, guttural manner while the child’s face twisted and turned crimson. The hunter banged on the bars, causing me to flinch and the boy swung at him, screaming so that his voice pierced the very sky itself. He stormed off, and the hunter fed me.
Then the next day, as I waited, heart restless for the youth to return, he did not. I sat watching as muddy strangers meandered by and as the clouds traveled to the other side of Heaven. I watched the sun, three hours till it set, two, one. Then the darkness crept over the land, smothering the hill and its oak tree with its onyx coat. I waited, but he never came.
Dejected, I curled up in one corner of my prison, feeling the dust grate beneath me. I felt heavy, porous and almost drowning. I snorted, trying to vent my disappointment, twisted and flexed in the dust, unable to sleep.
Then, in the midst of the darkness, a disturbance chattered along the road.
I cast my sorrowful eyes into the shadows and saw a figure shift through the moonlight. It moved gently, freely. A small jingle, playing a neurotic anxious song followed and a heavy slam erupted from the iron veil.
Then, in a moment I thought to be most dream-like the veil opened, its bars screaming as they slowly disappeared into the callous night and at its threshold stood the figure of Free who beckoned me to him. An electric jolt shot through my body and I bounded to him, a cloud of dust being left behind me until I passed out from under the burdensome roof of my once domain and into the air of the valley.
A peculiar odor wafted from my friend, it was metallic like that of my prison. Dark splotches appeared across his peach-like skin and a sort of weary look glinted in his eyes palely.
The smells outside were crisper, the air flowed through me like water. The ground was firm and moist. The grass smelled so fresh and then the tree…the Tree! I sprinted up the hill, my friend following at a ragged pace as I trailed towards the tree. I circled it, reading the bark and the leaves. There was a hole in its center and in it a nest! , es a family of sparrows nestled comfortably in its hollowed out hull! And above it, the squirrels, in their knitted home, snored so quietly! A single knot twisted like a mole at its base. For so long I had yearned for that knowledge! For so long…but now that I had it what else was there? I had only ever known the cage and the tree and the boy. What else could there be?
Then my friend pointed down the hill shouting at me. Then, so many trees! Yes, a whole forest lurked just beyond that hill. He spoke that word to me again “free!” he said voice worn by unknown means.
Free? Is that what that word means? Does it mean the woods?
I bounded off towards the “free”, this time he did not follow. I looked back and he waved me on shouting “free!”
I was hesitant at first, seeing the dark shadows of the wood interweave like a basket. Strange chirps and rustling crept from the underbrush and I quivered as the Earth sighed, causing the leafy jowls of the woodlands to quiver. “Free!” he continued to chant, like a war cry. He waved me on some more and finally, a spark of trust pushed me in.
I slalomed between the many trunks. Some were white, others nearly black! Some skinny, some thicker than the tree on the hill! It was wonderful to see the foliage and all their knots and holes. I could see where worms nested and all sorts of creatures slept. Was this place Free?
No, No it was not. I soon found myself lost. The woods twisted around me, towering covering the night sky in their canopy. It was an alien place, a veil of iron replaced by a veil of bark. The creatures here did not like me, they were all timid, afraid of my voice.
Saddened and disheartened I turned back and found the oak tree again. I sat upon the hill, looking down at the familiar but now desolate cage. I winced at its sight, a part of me desired its dismal embrace yet as the longer I looked the more the air was torn from my lungs.
I began howling at the stars. Crying “Free! Free! Come back Free!” Yet the boy did not return.
Then one night a particular scent tinged the cool air. It was the scent of iron. I followed the winds as it led me through a rustic village, between its peaked homes and it’s dirt paths where all the muddy creatures slept. I wandered, the metallic scent growing stronger piercing my nose sharply like a nail.
Then I found him. Free, behind a veil of iron. Excitedly I wandered up to its edge and moaned. He sat quietly in the corner of his own dirt patch and upon hearing my call his head rose slowly. The young man grinned and hobbled over speaking to me softly. Perhaps one day I would unlock his cage.
I visited every night.