Long ago, there were lantern trees. Young men and women would deck the branches of large, ancient trees with paper lanterns, hurricane lanterns, bottles and jars filled with candles, and other colorful decorations. In the summer twilights they drank tea and ate cake beneath these glowing trees, stole kisses in the shadows, and dreamed of other planets, other worlds, lands of faeries and elves, secret places of magic and romance. One evening, after a long party beneath such a tree, a night of long glances, soft kisses, and the enchanting glow of amber, rose, sky blue and mauve lights, a young poet fell into a river on his way home. The swift current dragged him into a whirlpool, and the whirlpool dragged him into the darkness. Morning awakened him in another land, perhaps another planet. For a day he wandered through effulgent meadows and effervescent woods until he came to a large barrow. On the summit of the great hill there grew a magnificent beech, a lantern tree covered with lanterns and bottled candles. Strange elves played music, danced, and drank ambrosia from silver cups as darkness fell and the lights grew brighter and warmer. A forward elf welcomed the poet and snaked her arms around him to entice him to a dance, but he seemed unable to emerge from a deep reverie. At last, as they began to dance slowly to zither, harp and flute, the poet asked the elf what the lantern tree meant in her world. She whispered about magic, romance and dreaming of other worlds. Her words were bittersweet to him. For it is a precious thing to share something in common with strangers, but it is a hard thing to wander, to wander after shadows cast by nothing or nobody, to search a horizon that ever drifts away, to find that those who dwell in mysterious places have unsolved mysteries of their own. The worlds are infinite, and infinity wanders off one knows not where, he whispered in the delicate ear of the beautiful elf. That is why we light the lanterns. The tree is beautiful. The tree is the only stable thing.
The trees take their tobacco in the twilight as the shiftless dreamers slowly shuffle around the park, searching for a certain silence before sitting down on the moist wooden benches to compose themselves and the letters which will never alight on blank paper.
The hunter saw her pale body drifting like smoke through the dark woods. She was far more beautiful than moonlight or snowflakes. To capture one was nearly impossible, buf if one did, there were untold surprises and rewards, as the old legends reported. It had been some centuries since one had been captured. Quietly, the hunter moved among the blue and black shapes of the spruce, among the silver and gold of the birch. She was leaning down to drink from a partially frozen stream when he threw the halter around her. Though the blue-green eyes were startled, she made no sound or protest. Instead she bared her midriff and beckoned to him, speaking softly in her ancient language. It only took a few minutes to learn the ancient words, for they lie dormant in the minds of most men. Bewildered and enchanted, the hunter immediately removed the halter, and asked her if it was indeed allowed. She nodded in assent, a gentle and inviting smile on her lips. She whispered that he would require no blade. And so the hunter knelt down beside her, and dipped his fingers into the pale skin of her abdomen. She moaned or sighed. Gelatinous streams of lapis lazuli poured out, and his fingertips quickly found the brilliant gems. He ate them carefully, watching her watch him. The gems tasted sweet like cold, fresh cream. When he thanked her, she said there was more, and pushed his head back down so that he could gulp more of the liquid sapphire and eat the pomegranate-colored gems. Afterwards, the skin closed over the wound as if it had never opened, and she rinsed herself in the stream. The hunter felt like a completely other being, euphoric and slightly afraid, but throbbing with energy, his body electrified. Lost in his trance, he barely noticed her lay him down to take her turn and discover the gems of his abdomen. Staring into the rising stars, he felt nothing but the slow leaking away of his life. She had no legends, or did not remember them. She was not aware that he had no gems, and would later be sad and puzzled by the wound that would not close and the lifeless eyes icing over.
The murderer reflected on his fate. It was the oldest fate but he could no longer remember the order of events. There was an assignation by a tree. There was an argument with a woman. There was exile. There was murder. The earth changed. Some cliches are deep and real. All of the events sprang from love and its absence. Once the seed sprouts to become a tree, the first seed is no more, and the earth waits for other seeds and other trees just as autumn waits for winter. In his hands, the murderer crushed some crimson leaves.
Nobody knew how it got its shape. Some said it was designed to look like the leaf of a lost tree. Others compared it to a spread vulva, the maternal bosom, the mons pubis, a little box or the wound of a knight. In one ancient text, it has been described as a disembodied body without essence or substance, a discarded oar, a red gate and the emptiness of the other shore.
Once upon a time, a heretic was traveling in the west, when he came upon a beautiful walled orchard full of golden pear trees that belonged to a young princess. She saw the lean vagabond, and her heart opened. Come into my reign, she said, come in and eat of my pears. The iron gates opened, and the wanderer entered into the brilliant haze of leaves and hanging fruit. The birds followed him, for his coat was weighted with seeds and grain. For days and days, he ate her pears and grew stronger. She fed him many kinds of pears, and gave him her cider to drink, and their life was like a dream of nectar and ambrosia. The longer he stayed, the more the birds came to play in the trees and feed from their hands. She would ask him about these gentle winged creatures, and so he interpreted their ballads and their epics for her to hear, and he spoke of the birds that are and the birds that are not. As time passed, her head suffered migraines. She became reluctant to give the heretic his pears, and would limit how many he could pick or collect from the garden. She no longer brought him cider, and she looked at the birds with hatred and fear. One day, as he walked sadly through the orchard, she came upon him and demanded that he leave. You are no heretic, she screamed. You are holy death. You are the angel of death. She banished him from the garden and forbid him to take her golden pears with him. The wanderer left the beautiful orchard, and went to live in the dark woods nearby. A skeleton blossomed under the branches of a black pine. It is said that the birds did not follow, but remained to consume every last golden pear while the young princess held her head in her hands.
After every battle, the old warrior would bring home a metal trinket, a small glass bottle, or a bell to add to his willow tree full of hanging bells and wind chimes. It was the largest willow tree in the land with beautiful golden leaves. Every day he would pace around the tree from morning till dusk, muttering to himself and whispering to the weeping branches, shaking his sword at the sky and its passing clouds and striking the chimes and bells with his blade. The sounds pealed out over the fields and drifted down the streets. Only after a day of this cacophony would the old warrior plant the sword in the ground and fall asleep under the sighing leaves. The moon would transform the willow into cataracts of silver. Throughout the peaceful days, children sometimes cried at the scary sounds, the young ladies found the dancing and clanging of the old man obscene, the men laughed or cursed, but were afraid to say anything. One day, the heralds arrived, summoning the warriors to the battlefield, and the ancient master swordsman armed himself, whispering a few last sweet nothings to the tree before departing. When he returned from the battlefield, he found the trinkets smashed, the bottles shattered, the bells broken or melted down and left at the base of the tree. Many of the branches had been broken or stripped. The master swordsman looked at the scattered leaves and trashed ornaments and finally at the small remnant of silent bells. The old man wept silently. Then he sat under the tree and went to sleep. During the night the hawks and falcons came to eat his eyes, to rip out his tongue, to pull out strands of intestines, peck out his heart and liver, and chew his arms and legs. Not many days later, the willow tree withered and died.