Riversleigh and its accompanying grove are really magnificent, wonderful, magical places. There's no telling who you'll meet up with or what you'll learn.
The trees' whispering call on the gentle wind carries to the open window of my room and is irresistible. Once again the gentle giants lure me out into the Golden Seed Grove. I follow the dirt path leading off from the Manor's back porch, staying on it as it gently veers to the right and into the grove itself. The atmosphere is more hushed and cooler upon entering the woods and the light is dimmer, dappling the ground with shifting gray shadows as warm golden sunlight filters down through the green canopy made of tree boughs. Birdsong coming from here or there high up in the trees, or as a blue bird calls as it flies to its mate and nest, provides a pleasing backdrop to my woodland walk. I am at peace here and I feel safe, knowing the rustling sounds I hear around me are made by the creatures who call this forest their home. I know they won't harm me; they're only going about their business. The woods smell fresh, clean, yet earthy and of course, naturally woodsy. I can't wait to bring this scent into my room! I think to myself, excited about the new endeavor I've planned.
Smiling and swinging the basket to and fro that I'd brought to collect things for the Forest Fantasy potpourri I plan to make, I go on further down the path before leaving it entirely as I spy a bush of cranberry red Milo berries. Going down on one knee, putting my basket down, I remove my pruning shears from it and gently snip several clusters of the deep red berries from the bush, placing them in my basket. Satisfied that I have enough I stand up a few minutes later and move on.
Moving deeper into the grove, I simply enjoy my walk, my surroundings and the well-being that fills me to the brim. I keep my eyes out, though, for anything interesting that catches my gaze, to use for the potpourri.
"Wisha, wisha, wisha, wisha..." the trees whisper about me, as the soft wind sets their limbs a-swaying and it plays with tendrils of my dark brown hair.
Pushing the tickling strands away from my mouth and cheek, I wonder idly what they're saying. There are so many different trees here in the grove, evergreens, cedars, aspens, oaks, maples and willows to name several. What could they possibly have to say to each other? I continue to wonder as I spy something...or someone?...just up ahead. Stopping, stilling, I barely breathe as I focus in on what I had glimpsed just now.
Yes, just there, behind the thick trunk of an old oak tree, someone the likes of whom I've never seen before stares back at me. My jaw drops open a little, and I can't help blinking a few times in surprise. I have never seen anyone like her, even in my wildest imagination, for her skin, a light brown, looks like wood, and her hair is a lush verdant green. Her eyes glow a similar green within her beautiful, odd face.
We stare at each other for what seems like an eternity, a magical, off-kilter eternity. Yet I know it's only mere heartbeats. Dry-mouthed, I wet my lips with the tip of my tongue in an effort to speak. What sort of creature is this? I ask myself as I open to say hello.
Before I can utter a word, however, she turns and hurries away, her brown slippered feet carrying her down a dirt path that meanders like a snake this way and that through the grove.
"Wait!" I cry, suddenly in forward motion myself, running to catch up. "Wait! I mean no harm! Who are you?"
We run and run, past and between trees, new and ancient; we crash--or rather I do while she nimbly and gracefully seems to pass--through the forest brush. My pants and light teal sweater catch and snag on the protruding branches of the bushes and my hands and forearms sustain minor scratches from them as well, but heedlessly I ignore them as I press on, doing my best to keep her in my sights. "Wait for me!" I plead.
We run until I think I can no longer follow. Breathless, chest heaving and doubled over, I take great gasping breaths as I brace my hands on my knees. My leg muscles quiver in a thank you for the sudden halt. Weak, they collapse beneath me and I sink to the ground, grateful we have reached the end of our flight, wherever it is. All I know is I've never been this far in the woods since moving into Riversleigh. Finally having my breathing under control I look up and take in our surroundings.
The strange wood-like lady has stopped in a wide clearing, with a lone magnificent willow tree presiding in the center. Stepping towards it she caresses its great trunk with long graceful woody fingers. Gazing calmly at me she waits till I've recovered enough--she isn't even breathing hard, dash it all!--to join her at the willow.
"Wisha, wisha, wisha, wisha..." the willow whispers as the wind moves playfully through its draping limbs and leaves.
I look at my magical companion, for she can only be magical, and wait for her lead.
"It is good Riversleigh has people now," she says. "It's been empty too long." Her voice is husky, earthy and sounds a bit like rustling leaves as the wind soughs through them. "You humans have become so caught up in the fast-paced life of the city anymore that you fail to remember Nature is around you, wants to be one with you as it--we--once were. You neglect us now that you have these...machines that you say are progress. These machines that take you places, over land, across the Great Waters and through the air. These machines that heat and cook your food, that you type on and letters appear on the glass before your eyes.
"Yes, it is good that you and your companions have come to be with us, to remember and to learn what we know and have to offer."
I say the first simple thing that pops into my head, my mind awhirl. "Who are you?"
She half smiles at that, trailing her woody hand along the trunk as she steps towards me. Taking my arm, she guides me to a cluster of big flat gray boulders not far from the tree and indicates I should sit. She follows me down onto a boulder of her own, smoothing the knee-length skirt of her spring green dress.
Looking curiously at her, I rub my arm where she'd touched me. "You feel like wood," I marvel. "Alive and warm, but like wood.
"Who are you?" I ask once again after a brief silence.
"Willow," she answers, looking up at me. "And this is my tree." She gestures to the graceful old willow whose long limbs move softly with each gentle gust of wind. "I'm a tree spirit."
"Wisha, wisha, wisha, wisha..." the willow whispers.
"It's a beautiful tree!" I tell her sincerely, letting my eyes feast upon the wide and gnarled brown trunk and arcing limbs festooned with the long, wispy leaves particular to the willow. Suddenly I'm hit with an acute feeling of homesickness for my grandparents' farm in Idaho. It has a Weeping Willow in the front yard near the road that I just loved to admire and wonder about as a kid. I wondered why it was called the "Weeping Willow" and what had caused its sadness.
"Wisha, wisha, wisha, wisha..." the ancient willow in the clearing whispers again, bringing me back from old memories and long-forgotten imaginings.
I smile softly, remembering what we were told upon arriving at Riversleigh by the Enchantress. The trees, when they whisper, are talking. But to whom? Is it us, or amongst themselves? I question silently.
Watching me while I ponder and puzzle through my thoughts and questions, Willow waits with a slight smile and knowing expression on her woody face.
"She's talking to you, you know," she informs me, breaking the peaceful silence.
Startled, I ask, "What is she saying?"
"Why don't you go put your left ear to her trunk?" she suggests. "You might discover the answer to your childhood question."
"How...?" I start to ask as I slowly stand and make my way back to the tree, gently moving the hanging limbs aside to crouch down and put my ear to the tree as instructed.
"I'm a tree spirit, remember?" she says as I go. "A part of Nature. I can be with any willow tree at anytime, anywhere. I saw you as a thin, shy and studious child, often visiting your mother's parents' home in the country. I saw you watch and wonder about the young willow tree on the farm; I heard your thoughts and shared your flights of fancy.
"It was the trees who told me you were here, at Riversleigh," she continues as I look at her from my position by my new friend, the stately willow. "Great-Grandmother Willow heard as well, and knowing of your childhood questions from my travels, she called to you and bade me bring you here so she can tell the story."
"I thought they are called Weeping Willows because their branches and leaves remind people of falling tears?" I ask.
Willow smiles tolerantly and simply urges me to "Listen."
I turn my attention to interpreting the whispers of the tree, and a few minutes later I am transported to a long-forgotten time and to a place I've never been before. Medieval England, the era of knights in shining armor, noble ladies to whose beauty ballads or lays were sung, bards, quests and courtly love. Great-Grandmother Willow's voice is soft, creaking yet melodic on the wind. I have to concentrate to hear her as she begins her tale.
"Listen to me, child," she says. "And I will tell you true, the tale of why we willows weep. It's a sad tale indeed, of two lovers who courted beneath a willow tree, who loved well and true, but oh so unwisely. Our story begins 870 years ago, when the willow that witnessed their love was young. It stands (with other trees now) on the south bank of the River Esk still today, along the Scottish border near Carlisle. In those days the river and tree marked the northern boundary of a wealthy and powerful earl's estate. Greensleigh, it was called. (The ruins of the castle are still there up on the hill, but only tourists wanting to walk with ghosts ever go. The locals refuse, unable to bear the feelings of sadness and love lost clinging to the stones. They say the place is cursed, that if lovers set foot on the land of Greensleigh and pledge their troth to each other, their love too will end in tragedy. There have even been reports through the years of sightings of a beautiful young maiden dressed in white and gold, standing in the morning mist beneath the willow tree. They say she waits there for her lover, hoping he will come for her at last, but always she waits in vain. And with the last of the mist burned away in the heat of the sun's rays, the young noblewoman disappears, as if she and the mist were just a dream.)
"But she did exist those 870 years past. In life she had been the earl's only child, whom he doted upon. Melisande of Greensleigh was her name, and with long hair like golden silk, eyes like the purest blue sapphires and a sweet and cheery disposition, she was the fairest and most sought after maiden in all of England. Many lords and knights sought for her hand in marriage...but her heart was already won. Melisande loved a poor, landless knight by the name of Sir Roarke who hailed from Breckinridge. He had naught to offer her but dreams and his undying love. Because he had no land, and because almost all marriages back then were made to form advantageous alliances, their love was forbidden. So they met in secret whenever they could, underneath the willow tree, and courted. There they pledged their everlasting troth to one another, my sister their only witness.
"Soon after the lovers made their promise, word went out that King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table--yes, there really was a Camelot, my child--were on another quest, this time seeking the Holy Grail. Sir Roarke knew upon hearing the news this was his chance to make a name for himself and be able to claim the Lady Melisande for his wife. If he could join the quest for the Holy Relic valued by you humans and be the one to successfully find it, then the king would richly and handsomely reward him. Melisande's father, the Earl of Greensleigh, would then have no viable objection to their union.
"And so, having gotten King Arthur's permission to join the quest, the two lovers approached the earl with Sir Roarke's intentions. Seeing how his beloved daughter looked at the tall, dark-haired knight and how he looked back at Melisande with his dark eyes, the earl was reminded of his now-deceased wife and how lucky they'd been to have love in their own marriage. He could not, nor did he want to, deny them their happiness or love. He liked the young knight besides; the earl knew him to be an honorable and just man. He knew he would protect and cherish his daughter. He readily agreed and gave the two his blessing, wishing Sir Roarke good luck and God Speed.
"'The sooner you get back with the Grail, the sooner we can celebrate your union, my son,' he said jovially, clapping the young suitor on his back.
"Mellisande's and her knight's hearts were overflowing with joy. They had found a way to be together at last, and they had her father's approval. Three days later the illustrious King of Camelot and his followers left for the Holy Land in search of the Grail. Melisande stood on the battlements of her father's stalwart castle and watched longingly and with hope as her love rode away to join the questors, his yellow and sccarlet banner with the rearing rare black unicorn waving in the wind after him.
"As he disappeared over the horizon she whispered to herself, 'Hurry home.' For he had vowed not to return to her until he had the Grail. And a true knight always honors his oaths. He'd made that promise to her beneath their willow tree and asked her to meet him there upon his triumphant return.
"Days passed into weeks and weeks into months. Sir Roarke wrote Lady Melisande when he could and she him. But as a year went by then two without any success, frustration and disappointment plagued them. She pined for him and missed him dearly, going daily to my sister, where she read his letters and cried, knowing in his stubbornness Sir Roarke would never give up and come home to her until he had the Grail in hand. After all, he had promised her and her father. And a true knight always honors his oaths. The stubborn knight pined for his lady too, and he missed her terribly, but his pride and honor would not allow him to give up.
"Back here in England, more lords and knights continued to seek the Lady Melisande's hand in marriage--many would have made highly advantageous alliances her father noted, but he had given his word, and he wanted his daughter to have the love he and her mother had had.
"But sadly, it wasn't to be, this love of Melisande and Sir Roarke's. Not in this lifetime or the next, I'm afraid. Not until a descendant of his can let go of his or her pride, recognizing there is something more important--like love--in life and that it's ok to admit defeat. Until then, the curse that keeps Greensleigh and its unhappy, haunting souls hostage will continue to bring nothing but tragedy to the place.
"How and why was the curse formed? you ask. I'll tell you, child. Amongst the Lady Melisande's most persistent suitors was a marquis quite used to getting his way. He wanted the earl's daughter. And her extensive dowry. In fact, it was her father's lands, gold, renown and power that made the maiden so attractive to him. And he would stop at nothing to make them all his. Nothing.
"He was Roger of Arnsworth, their nearest neighbor to the southwest, whose lands were but two days ride from Greensleigh. He knew, if united, the two families would be a formidable alliance against most who dared to oppose them. Not only that--and this was one of his main purposes for wanting to marry the beautiful maiden--Greensleigh, which contained some of the best land and resources in England with good hunting in the forest bordering its eastern limits, would be his. He would be envied by the majority of his fellow noblemen, both for the lands he held and for the power and connections he had.
"He was patient with the Lady Melisande at first, thinking that with time, artful wooing and charm he'd win her over. But steadfastly she refused, remaining unmoved by the flowers he sent her, the poems and love songs he had written in honor of her beauty. This did not sit well with the marquis, for as I have said, he was quite accustomed to having his way. Rejection was a rare thing for him. Determined to have his way no matter what, Roger of Arnsworth refused to take 'no' for an answer. He tried a more insistent, less subtle, gentle tactic.
"He lay seige to Greensleigh. All Lady Melisande had to do to was say, 'Yes' and he would end it. But still she refused, and Greensleigh was quite well prepared for a seige. Its storage and larders were well-stocked, enough so to last several months. Even more frustrated and angry by being thwarted in this latest attempt and from the lady's continued rejection, the marquis became quite ruthless and dangerous after this in seeking her hand.
"His patience and good humor were at an end. Since fair means had merited him naught, it was obvious and most unfortunate, that his chosen bride would have to be coerced to the altar by foul means. Three weeks after the failed seige the earl was injured in a suspicious carriage accident. Though he survived, his right leg was lame for the remainder of his life. Melisande was saved yet again and once more refused her unwanted suitor. Nothing was proved, but all at Greensleigh knew, or at least suspected, Roger of Arnsworth had been behind their lord's accident.
"Furious at being constantly denied for seven months by a mere slip of a foolish girl, the marquis turned to his mother, the Lady Delilah, who was a witch. It was she who put the curse on Greensleigh. She vowed the young knight, Sir Roarke, would never come home and all of Greensleigh would know only sorrow and bad luck till the Lady Melisande agreed to be her son's wife or a descendant of the stubborn knight's, like unto himself, realized what was most important in life.
"Though belief in magic abounded in the land, and Merlin, Morganna Le Fey and the mysterious Lady of the Lake were powerful practitioners of the art, the lord of Greensleigh, his daughter and people refused to be intimidated by any curse. They hoped and thought that if they didn't believe in the curse, it couldn't harm them. Oh, how wrong they were!"
The ancient willow sighs sadly, her arching limbs moving delicately in the wind. She continues her tale as I shift into a more comfortable position on the ground, using an exposed root of hers for a back rest.
"Though they tried valiantly to ignore the turn in their luck, the series of tragic accidents and other events and the discord that began breaking out across the estate after the witch's unwelcome visit, they couldn't deny them forever. They were, indeed, cursed. Angry, heartbroken and thoroughly unhappy though she was, the young noblewoman refused to give in to Roger of Arnsworth's evil. She continued steadfastly in her refusal. She would not be his bride. Roger was sure, however, that with time events brought about by his mother's curse would force her to come to him.
"By this time four years had gone by, without any success in finding the Holy Relic. King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table knew they had to get back; they had been gone from the realm long enough. But once again, Sir Roarke's pride and honor kept him from quitting. He promised the king he would return home once he found the precious artifact. After all, a knight's word is his bond. And a true knight always honors his oaths. So, the failed questors sailed west, towards home, minus one.
"Each day the Lady Melisande visited my sister, either reading or writing a missive from or to Sir Roarke, or remembering happier times as they courted underneath her graceful limbs. Tears had replaced her cheery disposition and were shed unchecked till there were no more, while her poor heart, as you humans like to say, 'shattered into thousands of pieces' over and over. My sister, the young willow tree on the south bank of the River Esk, heard and witnessed the girl's heartache and sorrow and sought to absorb them while striving to give peace in return.
"All seemed hopeless to Melisande. Everyday was the same now, melding one into another. So easy was it to forget Time, cloaked as it was in a cloying, dark heavy mist of misery. The happiness and peace once prevalent on her father's estate seemed a distant memory, a fading dream in the dismal reality of Delilah of Arnsworth's evil curse. Everything she held dear had fallen--or was falling apart: her dreams for the future, the peace and joy that had always been a part of her beloved home growing up and the lives of the villagers who depended upon her father as their liege lord. Her love refused to come home from the Holy Land without fulfilling his promises to both her and King Arthur, in spite of her fervent pleas and insistence that if he came home, he'd still get the recognition he sought for having stayed behind and giving it one more valiant try at finding the artifact. And she refused to marry the villainous marquis. Though the lady was terribly unhappy, her heart was breaking and she carried the large burden of guilt for the sorrow and misery her people were suffering, and she knew she had the power to end the hated curse, she couldn't bring herself to say the one necessary word, 'Yes.'
"Greensleigh was doomed.
"The marquis waited, letting the curse devastate the once prosperous estate. He was sure it wouldn't be long before he welcomed the beautiful Lady Melisande into his hall at Arnsworth. But one last time he would be denied, this time forever, by her tragic death a short four months later. The poor young woman died of a broken heart underneath the willow tree that had witnessed the happiness with her love and the pain and sorrow Melisande suffered as she pined for him.
"With her death all lingering vestiges of hope left everyone at Greensleigh. Things continued to worsen, people began fleeing the village to escape the curse and the once generous, compassionate lord turned into a bitter recluse, who soon went into a decline of his own. He too died the same way, following his daughter to the cold, dark grave three months later.
"Mother Nature, feeling my young sister's pain and distress, visited Greensleigh and was told the tragic tale, much as it has been told to you by me. Greatly touched and sorrowed by what happened and by the willow tree's unhappiness, Gaia decided there should be a symbol in Nature that would never let others forget the events at unfortunate Greensleigh. She gave my sister, the lovers' tree, and all other willows the ability to "cry" in remembrance of the ill-fated love of the Lady Melisande and her knight, Sir Roarke. Our leaves, when they fall, resemble tears falling. And so we weep, my child, for the tragedy of Greensleigh."
It isn't until Great-Grandmother Willow ends her story and a wet splat lands on my hand that I realize tears of my own have been making silent damp tracks down my cheeks. I swipe at them with the backs of my hands. "How sad!" I cry, slowly getting up with Willow's help who had come close towards the end.
"They never can be together, unless a descendant of his breaks the curse." Frowning, I pause and wonder aloud. "Is a descendant of Sir Roarke's alive today?"
"Yes," Willow said, leading me out from under Great-Grandmother Willow's long limbs. "She's from your country."
"Then..." I start to say, but the tree spirit interrupts, "It's getting late, we should be getting you back to the Manor."
Being caught up in the tale I hadn't noticed the passage of time, but now I see she is right. Dusky gray twilight has begun to fall over the grove and Riversleigh. Tall dark shadows have taken over where dappled light used to be. The woods are almost completely dark. My stomach rumbles hungrily, demanding food. I nod in agreement and start to answer Willow, but then something stops me.
"Wait!" I cry and hurry back to embrace the ancient willow's trunk, disregarding its roughness. "Thank you!" I whisper. "I promise to come back and visit."
As I leave her I feel a graceful limb full of leaves lightly touch my cheek, as if in a caress. Willow guides me back to the spot where I first saw her, and I notice the basket I carried into the woods sits on the path where I dropped it upon chasing the tree spirit. I pick it up and we continue on till we reach the edge of the grove, where we say our farewells.