Tree of Birds

A traveler was out looking for a certain tree, reputed to be
magic. Why he was looking for it, or what he hoped to find, he
didn’t know; all he knew was that he had heard of it & curiosity
wouldn’t leave him alone. Why did people mention it so often
yet say so little about it? Was it a special tree or was it any tree?
Did it exist, & what did it do?

The traveler met an old man who looked like he might know
something. The traveler asked him, & when the old man opened
his mouth & spoke, between the gaps in his words came another
language, a whole meadow-full of the chirrups of crickets & tree
frogs & a forest of birds in one tree, standing alone in a meadow,
bearing every fruit known to man & many more besides.

And the birds in the tree chirped in every language- if you
lean in & listen close you’ll catch whispers of even more.

“Where can I find the tree?” asked the traveler.

“I may have seen it in dreams,” said the old man. “I don’t
know where it grows, but my grandfather’s friend knew a
woman who found it & fell bewitched in love with it, spending
days in its branches sucking its fruit.

“Some say she became unutterably wise and grew fur. They
say the forest anointed her Queen of the Witches & turned her
into the loveliest of all animals; so lovely that none dare name
her, for her beauty is like God’s-who can truly name God?
“Others say she became astonishingly mad, madder than the
Devil himself in a full moon’s spell. They say she kicked him in
the ass & beat his back and shoulders with a stick until he fell &
crawled on all fours like a bitch.

“She demanded he tell her the language that gave birth to all
the songs of the birds. Then she splintered the stick against his
back & kicked him in the kidneys until he screamed ‘Mercy!’ &
he told her the secret.”

“And then?
                  And then?”

“And then she chanted the word the Devil taught her,
moaning & rolling it with her tongue like it was candy, pressing
it with her lips like a kiss.

“They say this was what turned her into an animal, part wolf;
she shrieked clear as a diamond, sharp as a stiletto, bright as
winter’s sun, leapt straight up in the air & vanished.

“But all agree on this-that somewhere in the woods or
mountain slope or hidden vale, she lives still in the heart of the
land, hidden in a thicket where many heroes hang impaled.

“Even the purest fail to reach her-she cares nothing about sin
or salvation, living in complete accord with the laws of the
animals. If she shows herself to you, you’ll go mad with the
desire to stroke her & adore her. If she lets you, cry ‘Mercy!’, for
you’ll turn instantly half-beast, half-human, unable to join,
unable to return…”

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