They said the tree of love bloomed in a valley, its roots thrusting deep into the fertile earth, its trunk twenty arm-length’s thick and steady, a shudder of gold-tipped leaves making up its crown. From the limbs red fruits drooped, as large the head of a child. Any lovers that committed to each other in the shimmer of the tree’s leaves were blessed.
All this, they said.
Syrek meant to find the tree. And once he had found it, he meant to cut it down.
There were many witches that would guide young lovers to the tree, but only one who agreed to show it to someone who sought to ruin it. Syrek found her in a meadow of oaks where she crouched like a monkey upon a branch, her gray hair a curtain of decaying moss. Upon her hooked nose warts grew, green and cracked and splitting forth pungent ooze.
“Witch, you know the way to the tree,” Syrek said. “I will pay you ten gold pieces to take me.”
“You travel alone.” Her voice was like a door askew on broken hinges. “Only lovers go to receive the blessing of the tree. Yet all you have with you is that axe. Curious, curious.”
“I love a girl, and she loved me, I thought. Yet we argue and fight, and she has broken my heart with her harsh words. I can’t say the right things, and she won’t even listen when I try. No other should be cursed to love, or to think love is as easy as a golden tree. I mean to cut the tree down to save others from this pain.”
“That is drastic,” the witch observed, stroking her hairy chin.
“If that is not agreeable, then do not take my coin.” Syrek shook his purse in the air, its contents tinkling of gold.
The witch dropped down from the tree branch. She smelled of rotted leaves and maggots; spiders nested in her hair, hid in the folds of her gray cloak, danced around her large ears.
“I will take your coin, boy,” she said, extending a hand as crooked as a gnarled branch towards his purse. “But I do not guarantee you will be able to cut the tree down. No guarantees, no guarantees.”
So they went together to find the tree. They dipped into valleys and waded through rivers. The sun set and rose above them too many times to count. They didn’t have much food, and there wasn’t much conversation. The witch would mostly shriek and mumble as she scurried on, and occasionally she’d stop, sniff the scatterings of animal droppings and throw leaves up in the air to see which way they blew.
“This way, this way,” she’d say, and scurry faster.
Syrek followed, axe in hand. Anger seared inside of him at the thought of the tree — the magic that had flowed into him and his Estetta had left them deliriously happy for a while only to cleave their happiness in two. Fair Estetta had grown distant, her once fiery eyes disinterested. And he, as good a man as he was, had caught his own gaze straying, too. That power he had once thought good was darkly corrupting and a curse — a ruse and a sham. He would not suffer the tree to whisper lies into the hearts of others. It had to be felled!
Yet the witch would cackle and peer at him with round, bright eyes. “No guarantees that axe can cut it,” she’d say. “No guarantees, not at all.”
“The tree is made of wood, isn’t it?” Syrek replied. “If it is wood, the axe will cut it.”
“No guarantees,” the witch chanted on, her stringy hair blowing in the wind.
After fourteen days and fourteen nights, they came into a meadow. There the witch stopped, sniffing the air.
“The tree stands on that hill,” she said, pointing at a mound. “Take your axe and your anger, boy, and see what you can do to it.”
Syrek walked up the hill. The witch had not lied — the tree stood on the hill, rising into the sky.
But the tree was black and burned.
It was bent and crooked — more crooked than the witch that had led him to it. It had just a few sparse limbs: some were broken, and thick sap bled from the breaks. No delicious fruits hung from the branches, but only lumps of tiny, scarlet rubies.
Syrek dropped his axe to the ground with a thump.
The witch came up behind him, her wrinkled face sneering. “Something the matter, boy?”
“Someone got to it first,” Syrek said. “Someone tried to burn it, crack it, before I.”
“No, boy. The tree is exactly as it’s always been.”
Syrek frowned. “But it isn’t green and golden like the stories tell.”
“Cut the tree down, if you will it, boy,” said the witch. “Go at it with that axe of yours. But to cut a tree down is as easy as it is to love. Which is to say, not at all.”
The witch left him there, cackling laughter shrill in the air as she vanished down the hill. Bereft, Syrek sank down, his axe unused in his lap, as the night fell around him.
As he sat, the darkness hugging him tighter, the bright moonlight sparkled off the the tiny jewels in the tree. It looked like hundreds of scarlet eyes twinkling in the shadows. They reminded him of Estetta’s eyes, and the devious look in her gaze the first time she had kissed him. He found it beautiful.
When dawn struggled to life across the hills, Syrek turned to return home. The tree he left behind was still burned, no shimmering leaves in its crown and no glorious fruits drooping from its branches. Nevertheless, he left it feeling blessed.
And that, indeed, was curious, curious.
Sylvia Hiven lives and writes in Atlanta, Georgia. Her fiction has appeared in over a dozen publications incuding Pseudopod, AlienSkin Magazine, Flash Me Magazine, and more.