ROOTLESS • by Beth Cato

Day 1

I am ancient yet not immortal, and I wonder if this is how my death begins.

I have lived in these mountains for seasons beyond measure. I have bonded myself with dozens of trees and mourned their mortality as I moved on. However, this is the first time my home-tree has been severed at the base, its roots abandoned. The humans seem pleased with their efforts as they carry us down the mountain.

As a dryad, I can end my link with this pine. There are many other trees that would suffice for me, and yet… I cannot leave, even if it means my death. I have loved this home-tree like no other. It’s still young, scarcely beyond a sapling, but knows such joy as its roots sink deeper and its branches stretch toward the sun.

My tree is hurt and confused. I offer what balm I can through my magic.

Night has fallen. The humans tie the tree to a vehicle. We move, gliding like birds over the ground. Ever-bright lights loom ahead but grant us no warmth. A harsh wind scatters my tree’s needles like seeds as the trunk weeps amber.


Day 2

My tree’s base is nestled into a basin of water — strange water, bland, compared to our rooted home. My tree is appeased, excited. Its innocence both delights and frustrates me.

The sun has been stolen from us. Walls surround us at all sides. I can scarcely sense the earth. Ancient as I am, my wells of magic run deep, but not deep enough to extend the tree’s life beyond a few weeks.


Day 3

My tree, oblivious to our dire circumstances, only knows something has happened to its roots and hopes to resume growth soon.

There are other plants in the house. I can faintly taste their earth and chlorophyll. Without wind to help, it takes me hours to siphon their life essence and weave it into my home-tree.

The humans speak loudly from the next room.

“How can all five poinsettias be dead? I bought them this morning!”

“I don’t know what happened. An hour ago they were fine!”

“Where’s the receipt? I’ll take them back. I better get a refund.”


Day 4

The humans cover my tree’s branches with strange objects of all colors and weights. This includes strange lights that emit little warmth and no nutrition. My tree tastes electricity across its drying branches, and for the first time knows fear.

If fire comes, I can bolster my tree’s resistance for a time, but I cannot force away flames.


Day 10

My tree continues to despair, but now its grief focuses on me.

The tree was beautiful from the time it emerged from earth: straight of trunk, symmetrical, perfectly tapered. My magic made it all the more glorious.

Now, the tree wonders if it was chosen for this death because of me–that I made it too irresistible, its green incomparably vivid. It’s afraid. It regrets accepting my bond at all.

I confess its reaction wounds me even deeper than the loss of root and earth because I fear it may be true. I may have brought this upon the tree I love so very much.


Day 12

Colorful objects nest beneath my tree’s lower branches. The humans radiate excitement.

My tree no longer speaks with me. It resists our bond as much as it can.

As humans come and go from the house, I sometimes taste the outdoors. There are other trees and plants not far away, though I can’t connect long enough to draw on their essence.

I could still abandon my home-tree and drift to a new tree nearby, though it repulses me to think of existing surrounded by humans, their stench. The transition would be easy and I would live. And yet… I hesitate, even as my tree sulks and resists my devotion.


Day 13

Humans fill the house and open the objects at the base of the tree. Music shudders through the branches stronger than birdsong ever did. My tree would dance, if there was wind to play partner, but knows joy even in stillness. I absorb the emotion and grieve what will become of us.

Sound grows louder, sharper. The humans disperse, happiness evaporated. The smell of smoke is sudden and strong.

“The kitchen’s on fire! Get out! Call 911!”

My tree is calm as our bond opens again. It tells me to go. It knows it is drying out and the fire will be fast, and that I should live on and bless another tree.

The doors are open. Brisk winter air blows in and carries the heady essence of life. This is it. This is the opportunity I have awaited.

My tree’s enhanced majesty made it vulnerable; now I will make it all the more majestic, but stronger. Mightier.

I fling out my power, sinking magical tendrils into every nearby plant, and I yank. More people enter, and with them, water flows in a magnificent fountain. Smoke increases as the fire dies with a hiss; I call forth the water as I once lured in rain.

I reach into my ancient self. I take everything, I offer everything.

Life pours into my tree. I shove the energy downward, upward. I tell it to grow. To live. To take on such height and girth that it will never again be rendered rootless.

New roots shove through metal, through gray as dense as caliche, and find blessed dirt. They sink deeper, deeper. Branches snap through the walls and ceiling and discover the sun. Life burbles through my tree. I am overjoyed, even as I dwindle, spent.

My magic is no more. I am almost no more, a mere wisp of dryad, but our bond roars like a river in spring thaw. My tree cradles my spirit within its broad trunk. I am content. I am home.

Beth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She shares the household with a hockey-loving husband, a numbers-obsessed son, and a cat the size of a canned ham. She’s the author of THE CLOCKWORK DAGGER (a 2015 Locus Award finalist for First Novel) and THE CLOCKWORK CROWN from Harper Voyager. Follow her at and on Twitter at @BethCato.

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Rate this story:
 average 4.2 stars • 47 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • I’m a wreck after this! The power of that opening sentence, the authenticity of the relationship somehow achieved without sentimental anthropomorphism, the grief and the sacrifice. I’m so glad I have an artificial tree or I’d be gibbering in front of it with apologies. A profound tale of nature and human superficiality expertly delivered.

  • JAZZ


  • Lisa Walpole Finch

    This is such gorgeous prose, can’t say enough that will do it justice. This story will stay with me for a very long time. Spectacular and brilliant.

  • Rose Gardener

    I’ve always preferred the use of artificial Christmas trees because I’d rather lose out on the essence of pine myself than see a real tree chopped down to die in the unnatural warmth of a house. Next time anyone tells me I’m being overly sentimental I shall direct them to read this wonderful story!

    • Where’s a ‘like’ button when you need one 🙂

    • So, you think it better to put the pinch on Christmas tree farms. That’s why they grow them. 🙂

      • JAZZ

        Perhaps farm-Christmas trees have wee apprentice-Dryads……

  • S Conroy

    Was so pleased this had a happy ending, though a sad one would not have made it a lesser story.

    • MPmcgurty

      I was briefly concerned that the tale was going to be a bit Disney-fied, so was very appreciative when it wasn’t and yet had an uplifting ending.

      • S Conroy

        Oh no. That would not have done at all :-).

  • Paul A. Freeman

    I prefer an artificial tree, too. All those pine needles to hoover up, otherwise!

  • MPmcgurty

    Wow. Glad I went artificial a few years back. I am going to send this to my sister to make her cry.

    Craftwise, I think the human dialogue doesn’t fit, especially the first instance, which seemed almost amusing in this otherwise poignant tale. There are probably more subtle ways for the tree to communicate the humans’confusion.

    Beautifully done. Thanks.

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    Another Charles Addams moment for me, I’m afraid.

    • JAZZ

      We are all entitled to an opinion, Sarah, but to infer that this story is cartoon-like is a little OTT

      • Is this the first Sarah Akhtar review you’ve read? It’s a continuing theme.

        • JAZZ

          I’m a big fan of reviews and I regularly read many in major newspapers: The Guardian (U.K.) The New Yotk Times, The Globe and Mail (Canada) etc.
          These reviewers vary in style, but all are well versed on how to do it, and how to do it well.
          They give you the good, the bad and the ugly while staying within the boundary of fairness and honesty.
          Bad criticism, by the non-professional on the other hand, could well be judged as an opportunity to show off that they are somewhat superior. Pity..!

  • Jack Tilley

    Fine writing. Good pace as it built to a crescendo that delivered in full.

    But this from the dryad on Day 12 caught my attention: “it repulses me to think of existing surrounded by humans, their stench.”

    Wow! An intriguing flash of animus from the lissom dryad! Seems more than just understandable anger at being attacked. Combined with the fact that the dryad obviously started the fire, there’s a tantalising hint of Day of the Triffids here.

    No living creature is innocent, and I’m suspicious of any that pretend to it. Go back to the time before trees existed (~400mya), to a time of freewheeling small plants and extravagant fungi, then watch in fast-forward as these new aggressive thick-trunked upstarts start hogging all the resources and bullying into extinction all manner of innocent little proto-flora. These towering totalitarians of the rain-forest have ruled with an iron bark ever since. They make the dinosaurs look like two-bit rent-gougers.

    No, light-winged dryad of the trees, no one who has roots going back to ancient times is free from blood-guilt.

    (–hope it’s alright to tangle with a story like this – only because it’s a very good 4-star story did I feel the urge to engage.)

    • MPmcgurty

      How dark. I hope you stick around this neck of the woods.

      • Jack Tilley

        Ha! So the trees can get their revenge?

    • Rose Gardener

      ‘Thick-trunked upstarts’…’ruled with an iron bark ever since’. LOL. Love it!

      • Jack Tilley

        Phew! I broke the very reasonable etiquette of becoming familiar with a discussion space before sounding off. But I was so immediately taken with the lively discussion attending the stories I couldn’t help myself.

  • Imogen

    Really enjoyed this. Had to look up dryad. So cool, what a great thing to write about. So topical at this crazy consumer driven time of year.

  • Michael Stang

    Cruising along just fine, “getting into it” as they say then wham. Out of the blue like a stranger just handed me my underpants, comes along the word “chlorophyll”.
    Had to pull over to the side of the road. Two rear tires are flat, no spare, it’s the desert. No way back to the creative effort this story took to write.

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  • I found the story to be very creative, but honestly, when I realized it was some sort of forest wood nymph living in a tree that was becoming a Christmas tree, I lost interest. I greatly prefer human stories over the supernatural.

    Thanks for sharing.