It’s the weekend; let’s have a lovely piece of fiction:
The first time she saw him, it was early November, and he was wearing a red sweater. She told herself that she remembered that detail because of the way the bright color stood out against the muted winter weather, certainly not because it brought out the bright green of his eyes and the chestnut color of his hair. He had been walking in the park, a spring in his step and a smile on his face, hand in hand with a dark-haired woman. He had stopped at the small vending stand and purchased a cup of hot chocolate for her, though Evergreen noted that he did not buy anything for himself. When the woman shivered slightly in the chilly breeze, he took off his green scarf and wrapped it around her neck. Evergreen watched, and for the first time in her long life, felt a stab of jealousy. Evergreen didn’t miss the slight shiver that ran through his body without the protection of his scarf. She wished the dark-haired woman could see the glare she leveled at her. Her spirit form was invisible to those who lived in the physical world, but that didn’t mean that she didn’t have an opinion.
The next time she saw him, he was again with the dark-haired woman, but Evergreen could tell that the she was not happy. She smiled when he was looking at her, but when his back was turned, the dark-haired woman chewed her lip worriedly, a slight frown causing a line between her eyes. He was wearing the red sweater again, and this time Evergreen noticed that he wasn’t wearing a coat, even though most of the other people who had walked past her tree were. Again, he bought a cup of hot chocolate for the woman and nothing for himself.
Nearby, a group of musicians were playing next to a red bucket, taking donations for the poor. Evergreen had been happy when they set up a few days ago – their music was nothing like the faerie music she was accustomed to, but there was something about it that made her feel wistful in a way she had never felt about the faerie music. Peering around the trunk of her tree, she smiled when she saw him impulsively grab his female companion’s hand and spin her around in time to the music. The dark-haired woman’s worried expression had faded as she indulged his merry mood and danced with him to the music in the park. Evergreen didn’t miss that he dug in his wallet for some money to drop into the red bucket, or the apologetic expression on his face as the small change clinked against the metal of the bucket.
Only a few days later, Evergreen lay on a branch of her tree, a venerable old pine that had been her responsibility for a hundred years, though the tree was much older than that. She wondered vaguely who had taken care of it before she had, and made a mental note to ask Father Oak at the Yuletide gathering that would be held in a few days’ time. The season’s first snow had fallen the day before, and her lovely old tree was blanketed in soft white.
Her heart thrilled when she caught a glimpse of red heading in her direction, but quieted in disappointment when she saw that it was just a middle-aged woman in a bright holiday sweater, clutching two bags of toys as she hurried along. She went back to work, climbing to the top of her tree to inspect the bark and make certain that the old pine had the care it needed to make it through the winter comfortably.
She was nearly finished with her task when she saw something that made her jaw drop in surprise. It was the dark-haired woman, only … she was with someone else! Her pretty face did not display any of the signs of worry she had seen the last time, and she held the other man’s hand, swinging it back and forth as they hurried toward the very same vending stand where she had been purchased hot chocolate a short time before. The other man was taller than the young man in the red sweater and had blond hair instead of brown. The tall, blond man wore a coat that looked new, and Evergreen noticed that the woman now sported an expensive-looking scarf and matching leather gloves. He paid for two hot chocolates and some cookies as well, and they sat on a park bench to finish them off.
Evergreen found herself wondering what the young man in the red sweater was doing right now. Did he know where his companion was? Was he worried about her? Was he feeling sad? She hoped he was warm, safe, and well-fed, but something told her that might not be the case. She recalled the homeless people who sometimes slept beneath her tree or on the nearby bench, and hoped that the young man was safer and warmer than that.
he couple on the bench rose and made their way toward the musicians and their red bucket. There was no clinking of coins as the blond man in the nice coat took out a rectangular leather book and wrote something on it, handing it to one of the singers, whose eyes widened in surprise as she looked at the piece of paper. Evergreen could see that whatever the man had written on the paper had pleased the musicians greatly, and they showed their gratitude with a lively rendition of I Saw Three Ships. That song had always been a source of confusion for Evergreen. What did three ships have to do with anything holiday-related, anyway? The dark-haired woman pulled on the tall man’s hands, trying to get him to dance with her, and Evergreen felt a wave of righteous indignation. The nerve of her, acting like this was her idea! She was so angry that she forgot she was still touching her tree. Uncontrolled dryad magic raced from her fingers into the wood of the tree, causing a pile of snow from the widest range of branches – those right over the couple’s heads – to fall. Evergreen didn’t even try to pretend that she was sorry. She lay on her branch and laughed as the perplexed couple shook snow out of their coats, and shivering, hurried away.
“Up to no good, I see?”
Startled, Evergreen jumped at the sound of the voice. A handsome sprite sat on the branch beside her, swinging his legs.
“Ghillie! I should have expected you, I suppose. You do seem to love to sneak up on me.”
Ghillie didn’t bother trying to look apologetic. He grinned broadly, his handsome face flushed beneath his cap of leaves. “I came to ask you something important.”
“You came to see if you could sneak up on me, and you have. You wouldn’t have been able to if I hadn’t been … distracted.”
He frowned slightly, his greenish-tinted skin flushed pinkish in the cold air. “Since when do you go around using your magic to dump snow on some mortal couple? What did they do? Try to carve their initials in a heart on your tree?”
Mutinously, Evergreen shook her head until her messy golden curls trembled. “No – it wasn’t that.”
“Then what was it? You know how curious I get when you’re all mysterious! Come on, ‘Green! What did they do to peeve you like that?”
“It was the woman. She’s treated someone I care about badly. At least, I suspect she has.”
“Someone you care about? Are you talking about a mortal? Ghillie’s stare was incredulous, his eyes wide.
“Yes, a mortal! There, I’ve explained as much as I care to. Now, what was the important question you wanted to ask me?”
She felt badly for snapping at Ghillie. He had been a friend for a long time, and sprites were terribly curious by nature.
Ghillie’s greenish skin turned an odd shade, and Evergreen suppressed a giggle. Ghillie was blushing!
“Ah, I – I well …” He fidgeted nervously, tugging at the hem of his green jacket.
He looked up at her with wide, hopeful eyes. “Yes? You mean you’ll go? With me?”
She frowned slightly. “You haven’t asked me where or even to go yet!”
“To the Yuletide Ball, of course! Father Oak and Lady Summer are hosting the Faerie Yule celebration, and I would very much like for you to – to attend with me.”
Surprised, Evergreen just stared for a moment. The Yuletide celebration happened every year, and she had always gone alone. This year she hadn’t given it any thought.
“I – well, I suppose that would be nice, Ghillie. Yes, I will accompany you.”
The sprite gleefully tossed his hat into the air and caught it, a grin lighting up his handsome face. Without warning, he leaned forward and planted a kiss on Evergreen’s cheek, then as suddenly as he had appeared, blinked out and away.
Startled, she pressed her hand to her cheek, but found herself picturing not Ghillie with his green-leaf hat, but the young man in the red sweater.
* * *
The next day Evergreen was just waking up her tree, getting him ready to face the day, when she hear a voice – it sounded as though someone was having a very one-sided conversation. She looked down and felt her heart begin to race at the sight of the young man who leaned his back against the trunk of her tree. He was talking into one of those small devices mortals were seldom seen without … oh, what were those things called? Phones! She crept closer, even though there was no reason to do so – he could not see her. It just seemed that she should be quiet, though it made no sense. She listened.
Hello? Yes, I was hoping to talk to Mia. Oh. I see. Could you give her a message when she gets home? Just tell her Owen called Thanks. Bye.”
Owen. His name was Owen. She reached out her hand as if to touch his face, momentarily forgetting that she existed on a different plane. Her hand went through him as if he were a ghost.
Owen leaned back against her tree with a sigh. He seemed … sad, and Evergreen longed to able to help him. He picked up his phone again and punched some numbers.
“Hi, this is Owen. Have you heard from Mia? She hasn’t been returning my calls and I was just hoping she’s all right. Give me a call if you get my message. Bye.”
Evergreen studied him closely. He once again wore the red sweater, and she suddenly noticed that it was a bit on the shabby side. There was a hole in the right elbow, and the cuffs were a bit rough around the edges. His tan corduroy pants were thin at the knees, and his right shoe ha a small hole worn in the sole. It was more than a bit chilly and he still wore no coat. Only the green scarf helped keep out the chill. Beside him was a black case. Evergreen stared at it curiously, wondering what it was.
The phone rang, playing a few bars of a melody Evergreen recognized and was fond of – Greensleeves.
“Hello? Oh, hi Mom. Fine, I’m doing just fine. How’s Dad? Good, glad he’s over the flu in time for the holidays. How’s Denise? She did? Tell her I said she should play an unusual instrument – like the English horn, the harp, or the bagpipes. Apparently, guitar players are a dime a dozen in this city. Yeah, work’s hard right now. It’s hard to gig when classes are in session, and well – the band broke up. Rent is due soon, and Thomas ran out on me. The rat wasn’t on the lease, and now I’m stuck with it. I know, Mom. I know you’d help if you could. Don’t worry about it. Maybe I can find enough money for a ticket home AND rent if I can find a decent gig … No, I haven’t seen her for awhile. She hasn’t returned any of my calls, and I – I think this is her way of dumping me. Oh, crap! I think I’m about to run out of minutes on my phone. I love you guys, and I’ll try to get home, okay? Bye!”
Owen stuffed the phone into his pocket and leaned his head against the rough bark of the tree, oblivious to the pine sap that stuck to his hair. Evergreen watched him – she felt she could watch him all day and never get bored. She watched as he opened the black case and took out a guitar and began to tune it. She smiled when he stood and set out a frayed-looking hat and began to strum Greensleeves. He played beautifully. By noon, several passers-by had dropped change into the hat. Evergreen’s knowledge of mortal currency was shaky, but it didn’t seem like a lot of money to her. By one o’clock, Owen had begun to sing while he played, and Evergreen decided that he possessed the voice of an angel. She fervently hoped that he would be able to earn enough money to go home for the holiday.
The musicians with the red bucket showed up at around three, and Owen stopped playing to talk to the other musicians. The lead musician smiled at Owen, “Sounds good, man.”
Owen returned the smile with a handshake. “Thanks. You guys sounded pretty good the other day. I’m taking a breather – been at it since this morning. I don’t want to compete with the Salvation Army bucket – I’m pretty sure that’s bad holiday karma. Poor kids need clothes and food a lot more than I need a plane ticket. How late do you usually play?”
The other musician smiled his appreciation. “Thanks. We’re done around 9:00 at the latest. The park isn’t safe after that.”
Owen packed up his guitar and picked up his hat. “Looks like enough for some ramen noodles and possibly a coffee. Good luck, you guys. It’s a tough crowd.”
The musician laughed. “I hear you, man! I’m Jay Byrd, and these sorry souls are Belinda, Reggie, and Jorge. Together we’re Jay-bird and the Robins.”
“I’m Owen. You’re a band? What do you play?”
Jay sighed. “We used to do the college bar-band scene until Wicked Keen showed up earlier this year and suddenly they were all the rage and no one had the time of day for J-bird and the Robins.”
Owen winced. “I’ve got good news for you, my friend. Wicked Keen is no more. They broke up.”
One of the Robins – Jorge – let out an exuberant, “Woo-hoo!”
Jay wasn’t convinced. “Are you sure? They were kings around here! The college kids couldn’t get enough of them!”
“I’m sure. I was the guitarist.”
Jorge grimaced guiltily, and Belinda fought the Cheshire Cat grin that had crept onto her pretty face. Jay offered a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. “We’ve all been there, man. You have a great sound – vocals and guitar. It’ll get you somewhere eventually.”
As the musicians set up to play, Evergreen heard Owen mumble, Yeah, somewhere, someday. Just not home for Christmas, apparently.”
* * *
For the rest of the week, things followed a pattern Evergreen was starting to look forward to immensely. Owen arrived in the morning to play, left by three so the Robins could play for the Salvation Army, then came back at around nine to play some more. Owen had been playing and singing for about half an hour, when Ghillie showed up.
“Hi there, ‘Green. You ready to dance the night away?”
Ghillie was nearly bouncing with excitement, but Evergreen was paying rapt attention to Owen, who had just begun to sing Greensleeves.
“Shh! This is my favorite one!”
Ghillie glanced from Evergreen to Owen and back again. “That’s the mortal, isn’t it?” His tone had gone from excited to flat. When Evergreen didn’t reply, he shook her shoulder gently. “Yuletide Ball? Father Oak? Lady Summer? Remember? You said you’d come with me.”
Evergreen slowly tore her attention away from Owen’s music to face Ghillie and sighed heavily. “Sorry, Ghillie. I forgot. I haven’t made us late, have I?”
He shook his head. “Not yet, but if we sit here all night listening to the mortal singing and playing , we surely will be!” He took her hand, casting a worried look back at the mortal with the strange-looking lute. It didn’t sound like anything compared with the Faerie music he was used to, but it seemed to have Evergreen entranced.
“That song the mortal plays? It’s a Faerie tune. Did you know that?”
vergreen looked back at Owen, still playing and singing under the tree. “I like it the way he plays it.”
* * *
The Yuletide Ball was held in the heart of Faerie, hosted by the Great Oak King of the Free Folk, and Lady Summer, one of the Queens of Faerie. The best faerie musicians had been hired, and it could not have been brighter or more beautiful, but Evergreen felt empty. She missed the sound of Owen’s voice and guitar, and she missed watching him as he played. As she danced with Ghillie, made small pleasant-talk with old friends and acquaintances, and took in the beauty of the Faerie Palace in Midwinter splendor, she grew restless. She was lost in thought, wondering if Owen would manage to make enough money playing in the park to afford the ticket home he wanted so badly, when she suddenly realized that Ghillie was trying to get her attention.
She met his eyes, and felt sorry. Poor Ghillie was trying hard to make her smile and laugh. He had probably been telling a joke or a funny story, and now as he looked at her with a hopeful expression, she had to disappoint him.
“What did you say, Ghillie? I’m sorry – my mind wandered.”
He scowled, taking off his hat and spinning it nervously on his finger. “Wandered right out of Faerie and back to your tree with that caterwauling mortal and his funny-looking lute!”
Surprised at the usually merry Ghillie’s angry tone, she retorted without thinking, “At least Owen cares about something other than himself! While you’ve been cavorting about with the nyads and the garden faeries and the gnomes, I’ve been doing my job, caring for my tree. Owen isn’t selfish – he barely has enough money to get by, and he still donates some of his earnings to that red bucket every time he plays!”
Their argument was starting to draw the attention of others. A blue faerie with yellow butterfly wings gave Evergreen a disapproving glare, and a passing gnome stopped to listen, evidently concerned that his people might be maligned.
Her words hit home, she could see. Ghillie’s face fell. She felt badly about hurting him, but what she had said was true. Ghillie was an irresponsible sprite whose duties were as nebulous as his whereabouts often were.
“Evergreen, I’ve loved you for two hundred years. I may not be as serious and serene as a dryad, but I’m no silly garden faerie. I realize that you’re infatuated with the mortal, but in a hundred years, he’ll be long dead, and I’ll still be here, the same old Ghillie, waiting for you when you’re ready.”
Ghillie meant well, she knew that, but the casual way he mentioned that Owen would die … it hurt her tremendously to think about it. What would she do if – no, when he died? For that matter, what would she do when he made enough money to go home for the holidays? Would he even come back, and if he did, would he come to the park and play by her tree? She suddenly felt foolish and afraid, and the Yuletide Ball, as lovely and ethereal as they were, seemed suddenly cold and austere. She took one look around her at Ghillie’s dear, familiar face, and at the unwelcome onlookers, and ran out into the forest alone.
* * *
Dryad magic was a useful thing – even blinded by tears, Evergreen found herself back at her tree in moments. She caressed the bark lovingly and lay face down over a branch, her feet hanging down and her head pillowed on her arms. Owen was nowhere to be seen, and really that was just as well, because she was too miserable to even want to look at him. She was in love with a mortal. A mortal who could not love her back because he couldn’t even see her to meet her! What kind of silly creature would do such a ridiculous thing! Why, she was no better than a common garden faerie or a roving sprite!
A gentle breeze rustled her hair, and she heard a voice speak beside her.
“Why are you troubled, Evergreen? Is your tree not the loveliest in the park? His needles are bright, his bark is well-cared for, and he has grown this strong under your expert care. What brought you to leave the celebration early and your friend alone?”
Father Oak may have had the appearance of an old man, but her perched on the branch beside her with the same ease as she did.
Evergreen sat up to face the old forest guardian. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to cause a spectacle or ruin the celebration.”
The old forest guardian put a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Everyone has already forgotten. Merrymaking has since re-commenced. But, you haven’t answered my question. Why are you so sad, my dear?”
At that moment, Evergreen saw Owen crossing the path, carrying his guitar case. Her heart thrilled, but Ghillie’s words came to mind, and she was staggered by the knowledge of his mortality.
Father Oak followed Evergreen’s gaze, but said nothing. They sat in silence as he tuned his guitar and set out his hat. After Owen had completed his first song, Father Oak sighed. His breath caused a new sprig of green needles to grow out where it had made contact with the wood.
“You’re in love with the mortal.”
Evergreen nodded silently.
“Even though you know that he will die?”
Again, she nodded.
“If it were possible for you to become mortal yourself, you know that there is no guarantee that he would also fall in love with you?”
“Yes, I understand that.”
From the new twig he had caused to grow, Father Oak plucked a small, silvery pine cone. The silver glow of his magic created a delicate chain, and the newly forged necklace hovered before Evergreen.
“Take the necklace, Evergreen. Put it on, and you will become visible to the mortal. Three times you may wear the necklace and if, in those times you are able to gain the mortal’s love in return, you may choose to remain with him in the mortal plane. We of Faerie will of course be sad to see you go, for you are a dedicated dryad and your tree has flourished under your care.” Father Oak smiled gently, raising her chin with an outstretched finger. “We would miss you, my child, but Lady Summer and I have known of your growing dilemma longer than you think. There is no crueler fate than an immortal life of sadness, so we have decided to extend to you this chance to see if a mortal life is what you truly desire.”
Below, Owen had begun to play Greensleeves, and Father Oak remarked, “The mortal does play remarkably well. That song is a faery song, you know.”
Her hazel eyes filled – tears of happiness replaced the tears of sadness – and she impulsively threw her arms around Father Oak. “Thank you! Thank you for this chance! I Just know I can make it work!”
Father Oak patted her back and whispered, “Take care, Evergreen. The mortal world can be a dangerous place.”
With that, Father Oak was gone.
Evergreen stared at the silver pine cone necklace in her hand. Below, Owen still played. There was truly no time like the present. She clasped the necklace around her neck, and –
– screamed, as the world blurred and the ground lurched toward her so quickly that she felt she must be falling? Falling? What kind of dryad fell out of her own tree?
As she landed on the ground with an inelegant thump, Evergreen had just enough time to think to herself that apparently she must be the kind of dryad that fell out of her own tree, because that was just what she had done.
* * *
The music had stopped, and Evergreen found herself looking up into Owen’s concerned green eyes.
“Are you all right?”
She sat up quickly, suddenly realizing that she was terribly cold. Not something she was used to feeling. Owen offered her a hand, and she took it, surprised at the warmth.
“Seriously … are you okay? You fell out of a tree. You could be concussed or something.”
“I’m fine. I just lost my balance is all. I’ve never done that before, but I suppose there’s a first time for everything.” Evergreen looked down at her clothes, suddenly afraid that she was still wearing her dryad clothing of flowers and leaves, and was thankful to discover that Father Oak had thought of that in his enchantment. She wore the same kind of pants she saw mortals wearing around most of the time – some kind of thick material with an indigo hue. In addition, she was wearing a bright green sweater and, for the first time in her long life, shoes.
Curiously, Owen looked up into the tree, and then back at her. “What were you doing up there, anyway? I’ve been playing over here for a while, and I never saw anyone climb this tree.”
Before she thought better of it, Evergreen said, “I was tending my tree. It’s my responsibility.”
Owen smiled. “So, you’re a gardener? Do you work for parks and rec?”
Unsure of what to say, Evergreen mumbled, “Not exactly. I was already up there when you started to play, and I didn’t want to disturb you. I – “ She blushed. “I really like to hear you play. Greensleeves is my favorite.”
Mine too. I always play that one around the holidays, but I like to sing the old words instead of the Christmas ones. Most people don’t notice because they don’t know the words anyway. I was just about done for the night. Usually playing warms me up pretty fast, but it’s colder tonight than it has been. You’re not wearing a coat or gloves or anything! I’d think that if whoever you work for is going to send people out to take care of trees at night, they’d at least provide you with appropriate clothing.”
Evergreen wasn’t sure what to say, so she didn’t say anything at all. Apparently, Owen liked to talk, because he just kept going. She felt her lips curving into a smile. She hadn’t known that about him, but she liked it. She liked the sound of his voice.
“Anyway, since it’s not every day that a pretty woman falls out of a tree practically right on top of me, would you like to get some hot chocolate? You must be freezing! Oh, I’m Owen. I guess it’s probably weird to ask someone to have a hot chocolate if I haven’t even introduced myself!”
“It’s nice to meet you, Owen. I’m Evergreen, and I would love to have a hot chocolate with you.”
He laughed out loud. “So a gardener named Evergreen fell out of an evergreen tree? No one would believe me if I told them!”
Evergreen and Owen went to the nearby vending stand, and he bought a single cup of hot chocolate. Evergreen had never tasted mortal food before, and found that the hot chocolate was delicious. Noticing that Owen had once again not ordered anything for himself, she handed him the steaming cup.
“Here, have a sip yourself. You must be cold too.”
He tried to protest, but she firmly pressed the cup into his hands.
Owen met her eyes over the cup of cocoa and smiled. “You’re bossy, Evergreen.”
She watched as he took a drink, her arms crossed stubbornly.
He finished and passed the cup back to her with a wink that nearly stopped her heart. “But I should tell you that I like bossy women.”
They walked for a long time, hand in hand after the hot chocolate was gone, talking and laughing together. She learned that he was a student and had gone to school far from his home because he had auditioned for a band and made the cut. The band was called Wicked Keen, and Owen had been the lead guitarist, but when the band broke up, he had been left with more bills than he could reasonably manage and a school schedule that made it difficult to get a regular job. He told her about Mia, the woman he had been seeing, who had dumped him for a considerably wealthier man he had previously considered a friend. He told her about his family – his father had been sick recently, but was feeling much better, and he had a little sister named Denise who wanted to be a musician as well. In fact, Owen was still telling her things when Evergreen felt an odd magical tug from the silver pine cone around her neck. It must be warning her that it was time to return to her tree for the night.
Somewhere, a clock chimed midnight, and Owen stopped talking. “It’s late, Evergreen. May I walk you home?”
She nearly panicked. How could she explain to him that she lived in a tree and would probably be fading into invisibility at any given moment?
She managed to stammer, “I – I’m actually very close to home right now. It’ll only take me a moment to get there. I’ve enjoyed this evening very much, Owen.”
“Me too. I’ll be playing again tomorrow night. If you care to stop by, we could make another evening of it. I know of an especially fine hot chocolate establishment in the area. I can give you music and a hot drink – that is, if I make enough playing tomorrow to fund the hot drink. Would you care to spend another evening with a poor musician?”
Her smile felt as though it had exceeded the boundaries of her face. “That sounds like a lovely evening. I’ll be there with bells on!”
As they parted ways, Evergreen felt her dryad magic begin to pull her back toward her tree. She disappeared, fading from the mortal world. Possessed by a sudden, mischievous urge, Owen gathered a handful of snow and turned around to toss it at her back, but the snowball fell with a soft thump – she was gone.
* * *
Back at her tree and back in her faery form, Evergreen went about settling her tree for the night, all the while smiling and singing to herself.
Greensleeves was all my joy
Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves was my heart of gold,
And who but my lady greensleeves.
She placed the silver pine cone necklace in her pocket and tried to contain her excitement until she could see him again the following night.
* * *
The next night, Evergreen was a bit wiser. She exited her tree before putting the necklace on, and then sat down beneath it to wait for Owen. Once again, the enchantment had placed her in human clothing, this time a long, brown velvet skirt, a sweater that reminded her of the moss that sometimes grew on the north side of her tree, and tall brown boots that protected her flesh from the cold. She wiggled her toes inside the boots and found that while they were not something she was used to wearing, they were quite comfortable.
She saw him approaching at a slight distance and felt her heart soar.
When he arrived, she let him pull her to her feet, and returned his enthusiastic, “Hi!”
He unpacked his guitar, and began tuning the strings. “I was half-convinced you weren’t real. I mean, a beautiful gardener falls out of a tree at my feet, shares a cup of hot chocolate, and then disappears into the swirling snow at midnight? A bit dramatic, don’t you think?”
Truthfully, Evergreen replied, “It was magic.”
Cheerfully, Owen agreed. “I thought so, too. I’m glad you showed up again. Say, can you sing?”
She could sing faery music, but then again, all the inhabitants of Faery could sing those songs. She had never tried to sing any mortal music, though she was really starting to feel as though she very much wanted to give it a try.
“I don’t know a lot of the words, but I do know Greensleeves. I’m more than willing to give it a try if you want me to.”
So it was that Evergreen spent the first part of her evening learning the words and tunes to human Christmas songs, and although she still considered Greensleeves to be her favorite, there were many others she enjoyed as well. Owen seemed to like the way she sounded when she sang, and so did many of the passers-by. More people than usual stopped by, dropping change and small bills into Owen’s frayed hat.
She had such a good time singing with Owen and his guitar that the time flew, and before long it was after ten-thirty. She reached up to tug at her necklace giving it a mental admonishment that it had best hold out at least a bit after midnight this time.
This time, as Owen counted out the money in the hat, his face broke into a smile. “Hey, a couple more nights like this, and I might be able to get a ticket home for Christmas!” He looked up suddenly, as if something had just occurred to him. “You should get some of this – after all, I think it was you that pulled them in. Your voice is amazing!”
Evergreen politely refused to accept compensation, and remained firm, stating that if he wanted to pay her for singing with him, he should just buy her a cup of hot chocolate instead. He tried to protest, but gracefully caved rather than argue further.
Once again, they headed for the small vending stand, and once again they shared a single cup of cocoa, but this time, Owen didn’t want to talk about himself. He wanted to know about her. Evergreen did her best to answer with as much truth a possible, without saying anything that would cause him to discount her as a lunatic.
When he asked, “Have you always lived here in the city?”
She offered weakly, “For a long time, anyway.”
Eventually, she managed to turn the conversation back to more comfortable topics like music and Owen’s plans for the Christmas holidays, should he manage to make enough money to purchase the ticket.
Even though it was late, there was music in the air this close to Christmas, floating into the park from a nearby restaurant. Something about the music and the crisp cold of the night air filled Evergreen with a spirit of playfulness. Impulsively, she stood and pulled Owen to his feet, dancing him around the way she had seen him dance with the dark-haired woman so many days ago. He took over the lead, whirling her around and catching her before she could topple from dizziness. When the song had ended, they landed in the snow in a tangled heap, laughing. They stood, brushing snow off of themselves and each other, and before Evergreen knew what was happening, Owen had his arms around her and his lips against hers. It was a quick kiss, but she had never felt so happy in her long, long life.
To her amusement, Owen was blushing. “I – I know we’ve only known each other for two days, but it really seems like much longer. I hope you’re not offended?”
Laughing, she took his hand and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “I’m not offended, I’m happy. I’m so glad to have met you, Owen. You really have no idea how very happy you’ve made me.”
Just when they were about to kiss again, the clock began to chime midnight, and she once again felt the magical tug from the silver pine cone. Sighing, she said, “I have to go. Same time tomorrow night?”
A grin lighting up his face, Owen replied, “I wouldn’t miss it for anything!” He scooped up a handful of snow and tossed it at her, and this time, she had time to retaliate. She aimed for his head, and as he was laughing and wiping snow from his face, she crossed over into Faery and disappeared from the mortal world for the second night in a row.
* * *
Ghillie was waiting for her when she returned, still humming to herself. The blue sprite had his hands jammed into the pockets of his leafy suit jacket, and a downcast expression on his handsome face.
“I heard you singing with the mortal.”
She sat down beside him on the branch. “How did we sound?”
“Beautiful. You sounded beautiful together. Father Oak told me about the – the deal he made with you. Are you going to choose mortality for the human?”
She nodded her affirmation, expecting an angry outburst from her friend who wanted to be more, but he surprised her with a hug instead.
“Then I want you to know that I’ll take care of your tree for you when you’ve gone, and I’ll always be here, even if you won’t be able to see me anymore. So, if you come to sing here with your human, even if no one else comes to listen, I’ll be here. Play me a round of Greensleeves around Yuletide and I’ll be clapping my hands and dancing about like a silly garden faery.” The blue sprite planted a gentle kiss on her forehead. “I want you to be happy, ‘Green. I saw you with him, and you were happier than I’ve ever seen you. You have my blessing.” He muttered as an afterthought, “As though you need it.”
Her eyes shining with tears that were mostly happy but somewhat bittersweet at the knowledge that she would not see Ghillie again if she became mortal, she replied, “I may not need it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t wonderful to have it. Thank you, Ghillie. You’re a dear friend.”
He dashed the tears from his cheeks as though their very presence offended him. “Don’t I know it.”
Her decision made, Evergreen went about the business of making her tree comfortable for the night one last time. She explained to the dear creature that she would be going away, but would visit from time to time, and that Ghillie would be caring for him in her absence. The venerable old tree did not seem perturbed by this, and Evergreen felt relieved that her departure would not cause her tree to feel abandoned.
She could scarcely wait until the next evening, but when it finally started to get darker outside, she again climbed down from her tree, giving its bark a quick kiss for luck. She fastened the silver pine cone necklace, and felt the odd thrill of transformation as she changed for the last time from an ethereal green-skinned dryad clad in leaves and flowers into a young mortal woman with blond curls, pale skin, and hazel eyes. She found that she wore a long, green dress made of some sort of warm material and the same brown boots she had worn the day before. She leaned against the tree, waiting for Owen to appear, but he didn’t come. She waited until the big clock chimed nine times, and then she began to worry. What if he had decided not to come? What if he had changed his mind about her? What if he had made enough money and bought that ticket home? What if – She shuddered at the though. What if something had happened to him? She remembered the band with the red bucket, one of them saying something about the park not being safe at night …
Evergreen had had enough of standing around waiting. She had to find out where he was, needed to know that he was all right. First, she made her way over to the vending stand. The shopkeeper hadn’t seen Owen that night, hadn’t seen him since the previous night when he had purchased the cup of cocoa to share with Evergreen. She wasn’t familiar with the park, save the parts she had been able to observe from her tree, but she was determined to find Owen and was becoming more and more convinced that something had happened to him. A flash of bright green from behind a shrub caught her attention. There in the snow , half-covered by the shrub, was Owen’s guitar, broken. Fear bubbled up inside her like a wild, terrified beast, and she had to fight to keep calm. The snow was covered in footprints and the clear signs of a scuffle. Owen’s green scarf lay near the broken guitar. She picked up the scarf and wrapped it around her neck and body, shivering in the cold. Her mortal body was so much more fragile than her faery one!
Desperately, she glanced around for any sign of Owen, and felt her heart nearly stop when she saw a patch of red against the snow near a small stand of fir trees. She knew without doubt that it was the red of his sweater. Running as fast as her mortal legs could carry her, she ran to him, sliding to a stop in the snow beside him. Owen lay on his back, a bruise forming under his right eye. He was unconscious, his skin as cold as ice.
“Owen! Owen, you have to open your eyes! It’s me, it’s Evergreen! We – we had plans for the evening, so you just have to wake up!”
His eyes didn’t open, but he muttered deliriously, “Evergreen … need to find Evergreen …”
She felt as if her heart would explode. She tried to pull him into a sitting position, but he was too heavy for her to make much headway. What kind of world was this, where a person could wait two hundred years to find love, only to lose it because of some careless thief?
Quickly, she removed the scarf and wrapped it around as much of him as it could reach. Rocking back and forth, hoping that the motion might cause him to wake, she sang,
Alas, my love, you do me wrong,
To cast me off discourteously.
For I have loved you well and long,
Delighting in your company.
Your vows you’ve broken, like my heart,
Oh, why did you so enrapture me?
Now I remain in a world apart
But my heart remains in captivity.
“Owen, you have to wake up! Do you know what I’ve done? What I did for the love of you? I’m no mortal woman, not by nature! It’s magic that has made me thus! I’m a dryad, a tree-guardian from the Faery realm. I fell in love with you, watching you play and sing by my tree, and – and I became mortal so that I could be with you!” She shook him, harder than maybe she should have, but desperation was filling her very heart as his skin grew colder and colder.
“Help! Someone help us! Is anyone here who can help us?”
There was no one near enough to see them or hear her cries for help. She had ventured off the path to find Owen, and the small vending stand was far enough away that there was no way the man inside could hear her shouts. Somewhere in the distance, the clock chimed ten o’clock, and her sense of urgency was compounded. In her mortal form, she had no magic to help him, but if she used the necklace to turn back into a dryad … she would be able to save his life. She suddenly felt terribly calm. She knew what to do, how to save his life, and that was all that mattered.
Taking the small silver pine cone from around her neck, she felt the tug of magic as she turned into a dryad again. Taking the silver pine cone in her hands, she pressed it against Owen’s cold hand. He was so close to death that even in her faery form, she could barely detect a breath, but breath there was, and it was all she needed. What she intended to do would cost her dearly, but after all, hadn’t Father Oak said that there was truly nothing crueler than an immortal life of unhappiness? Without Owen, she would be unhappy, and so it was with no further thought that Evergreen used the essence of her dryad power to call him back from the brink of death. The knowledge that she would not be able to be with him paled in comparison to the knowledge that she was drawing from her own life force to fight back his death. The two figures in the snow were enveloped in a soft green light, like the needles of a pine tree against the white snow of winter. The light grew, finishing in a brilliant flash. When the light had faded, there was only one figure lying in the white snow. Owen sat up suddenly with a gasp, clutching the green scarf to his chest as he looked around in alarm.
“Evergreen? Evergreen, I – I thought -“ He looked around in confusion, at the set of footprints that ended where he sat in the snow, recognizing the smaller footprints of a woman’s shoe. There were no footprints leading away from him, and Evergreen was nowhere to be seen. He reached out to pick up something shining on the ground, and stared at the object he now held in his hand. Evergreen’s silver necklace with the silver pine cone charm. He held a hand to his head in confusion as he staggered to his feet. He had been attacked by muggers, who had stolen all of his money and bashed him over the head with his own guitar before leaving him for dead. He remembered worrying that the roving thugs would find Evergreen if she was waiting for him by the tree and do her harm. Now, he was just confused.
“Are you looking for someone, my boy?”
An old man was standing right beside him. Owen’s confusion increased exponentially. There were no footprints anywhere near the old man. It was thought his feet weren’t touching the ground.
“How did you – I mean, I’m sorry, sir. How did you get here, and did you happen to see a young woman with blond hair? I know she was here.” He held out his hand to display the silver necklace.
The old man touched his hand to Owen’s head, and the young musician felt warmth pulse through his freezing limbs. A terrible thought came to mind.
“Am I dead? Is- is this the afterlife? Are you – are you God? Or an angel, or something?”
Father Oak laughed softly. “I am not an angel, or a god. And, you are not dead, I assure you. Evergreen saved your life.” The old man’s expression grew sorrowful as he took the silver necklace from Owen’s hand. “I never intended this gift to cause her such grief. I meant my gift to provide her with an opportunity to make up her mind. And she had. She had chosen to remain a mortal to be with you.”
“A mortal? What – what do you mean?”
Father Oak shook his head. “Evergreen was a dryad. The tree in the park was hers to look after, and it was from her tree that she fell in love with you from afar.”
Owen’s eyes widened. “A dryad? A tree guardian? I – I thought she was a gardener. For parks and rec,” he finished lamely.
“She was a dedicated guardian of that old pine near where you play and sing. And now, I fear she may be gone. You see, she gave up her chance for a mortal life with you to save your life as you lay dying in the snow. She’s hardly moving.”
Owen looked around, unable to see anything at all. “She’s not even here! How do you know whether she’s moving or not?”
The old man handed the necklace back to Owen. “She’s lying right there, in her faery form. You cannot see her because you exist in the mortal world, and she is on the brink of death in Faery.”
Frowning, Owen argued, “But how can I see you, if you’re in Faery, and so is she?”
“Magic. I possess stronger magic as the Great Oak King than most of the inhabitants of Faery put together, and now, I am going to need your help to save Evergreen’s life.”
“Anything, I’ll do anything! I’ve never met anyone like her. I – I think I love her.”
A childlike grin lit the old Oak King’s face. “Just the words I needed to hear, my boy. Now, take the silver pine cone and kneel down in the snow, right there – no, to the left a bit – there!”
Owen did as the old man asked.
“Now, take the pine cone and hold it out in front of you. Hold it out until I say to stop, no matter how bright the light, do you understand?”
He nodded and held out the sliver trinket. Brilliant white light surrounded them, and Owen felt scared, but not of the magic or of the old man. He was scared for Evergreen. Slowly, the magical light lessened and he could see her, lying in the snow just as he must have been himself before she rescued him. She wore a long, green dress and brown boots, her blond curls damp from the snow. He held out the silver pine cone, his arms feeling like lead, and he suddenly understood that it wasn’t the trinket that was heavy – it was the weight of what it represented and the incredible amount of magic it was conducting.
The old man gave Owen a long, appraising look. “I’ve done what I can. The rest will be up to you. She’s alive, and she is mortal now. Her sacrifice was not in vain, I can tell that by looking at you, Owen.”
Somehow, Owen knew in his heart that the old man was not just looking at him, but somehow looking into him, as though he had seen and judged what was in his heart and had not found him wanting. He felt … honored.
Evergreen stirred, opening her eyes. When she saw Owen looking down in concern, she sat up quickly.
“Owen! You’re alive!” She threw her arms around him, hugging him tightly. She stopped, looking at her own hand in wonder. “I’m alive! We’re both alive, and I’m mortal, just like I wanted to be –“ She looked around, sure that she had seen Father Oak only moments before. “Where did –“
“The Oak King saved your life after you saved mine. He was just here!”
The old man was gone, but the two young people made their way shakily to their feet. The silver pine cone was still clutched tightly in Owen’s hand. Evergreen allowed him to fasten it for her. The magic was gone, but it would serve as a reminder of her old life as a dryad – of her tree, of Father Oak, Lady Summer, and Ghillie, who would tend her tree in her place. Owen pulled her close and planted a kiss on her forehead.
“So … you were a dryad? And here I thought I’d fallen for a gardener!”
She smiled back at him, “It sounds like a job I might be good at. Though, I do like singing quite a bit.”
He squeezed her hand as they made their way back to the path. “We can check the papers to see if parks and rec is hiring.”
As they picked up the remains of Owen’s broken guitar, Evegreen sadly brushed her hand across the splintered wood. “The vandals took your money for your ticket home, didn’t they?”
Owen shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that we’re both alive and we have each other. We can make more money – hey, what’s that?” He put his hand in the pocket of his snow-soaked corduroys and drew out a small pouch. He pulled the drawstring and his eyes widened in surprise at the sight of several glittering pieces of gold. Evergreen pulled a similar pouch out of her own pocket and laughed out loud in merriment.
“Father Oak! He gave us enough faery gold to – well, I’m not sure how far it goes in mortal terms, but it’s rather a lot in Faery. He must have bribed the leprechauns …”
Owen’s jaw dropped in astonishment. “You mean leprechauns are real?”
She gave him a gentle push. “Is that so hard to believe?”
Shaking his head, Owen laughed, “I guess not. Oh, you have so much to tell me! Are gnomes real? How about elves? Sprites? Goblins?”
As they hurried down the path, hoping to get to the vending stand for some hot chocolate before it closed, Evergreen tightened her grip around Owen’s arm, listening contentedly as he rattled on excitedly about the possible actual inhabitants of Faery. She had never, ever been happier.
“Did you know that Greensleeves is a faery song?”
* * *
–by Sara Goodwin