The Charred Tree

A Special Treat

Author’s Note:  I was issued a challenge and I’m not yet sure how I did with it. As those who have read my work may realize, much (dare I say ‘most’) of my work has a dark aspect and is geared more toward a more mature audience (this will become even more apparent as some of the serials play out on the blog…but I digress). Since I do not have children of my own, I have not felt the need to build tales with them in mind.

Until now.

In the course of a conversation with my sister-in-law this week, she mentioned that it would be nice if I had a story that she could read to my niece. Whether she intended it as a challenge or not, I chose to accept it as such and mentioned that I would look for a premise around which to build a children’s story suitable for my niece. She was ready for me: “How about ‘Where do jelly beans come from?’ She asked me that just the other day and I didn’t know what to tell her.” She went on to put the further restriction that I could NOT end up with jelly beans being Easter Bunny poop (darn!).  😉

So, here is my answer to the challenge. I hope you enjoy it. Your comments are both welcomed and appreciated–I’d like to know if you think I succeeded in my goal. 

~DBJ

Anya, this is for you from your Uncle B.

The fruit from the Ge’hlei tree was almost ripe.

Ealdun sat on the low rock wall separating the lane west of the village from the small grove of the sacred trees. Despite the crispness of the air, the sun warmed his slight body through the rough green cloth of his jacket and the breeze was light enough to not be uncomfortable. The boy smiled up at the pendulous fruit swaying lazily above him.

He wasn’t old enough to appreciate what this meant to everyone else in the village; he only knew that the skin of the fruit turning yellow meant he would soon get his favorite treat, mils’ba. The sweet food, which was like a firm foam of the fruit’s pulpy flesh mixed with the soothing aroma of freshly turned earth, was made every spring from the large fruit once it ripened in the warming air. While all the other fruit trees in the groves surrounding the village produced fruit in the summer and autumn, the small grove of Ge’hlei trees flowered every year during the feast of Geimhridh when the village celebrated Lugh’s turning the sun around from its southerly retreat so the world would not freeze in endless darkness. It was Ealdun’s favorite of the annual festivals because his parents let him stay up as late as he wanted and visit all the bonfires. At the last one a few months ago Ealdun even managed to sing all night and saw the sun rise over the standing stone set high on the hill to the east of the village. The fruits were starting to grow plump on the limbs of every tree by Imbolc even if they might be covered with ice and snow. The week or two leading up to Earraigh saw the fruit of the Ge’hlei grow large and swell almost to bursting. As the fruit ripened its skin went through a gamut of colorful changes—green to purple, purple to red, red to orange, and finally orange to yellow. Old Auntie Gramu had told Ealdun that the colors foretold the summer’s weather and the harvest at the end of the year. The boy wasn’t sure how the trees could know what would happen through the rest of the year, but Gramu was very well respected among the elders of the village so he did not completely discount what she had told him.

“Gatherin’ the brain’s wool again, are ye?” The strong voice broke Ealdun’s reverie and he turned from the wall to see who had spoken. “Don’ ya think it’s a wee bit nippy out to be sittin’ there in th’breeze on that cold bit o’ stone?” Aelston grinned at the boy and leaned against the wall on the far side of the lane. He was dressed similarly to Ealdun in the green dyed homespun clothing the people of the village produced. The only item that was different from that of any other man in the village was the big black walking stick that was always at hand. The chill of the air had made his joints stiff. “I find it hard t’believe that ye’ve not frozen solid in spite of the afternoon sun!”

“Aye, Da! I was thinking of the mils’ba at the next festival. How long before Earraigh?” Ealdun jumped down from his perch and crossed the lane to join his father.

“It’ll not be too much longer; not by the look o’ that fruit! It seems we’ve more of them this spring than in several years, it does. There should be lots of your tasty treat come feast day.” The stout man ruffled his son’s hair as he approached and smiled down at him. “Now run along home to your Ma. The sun is setting an’ ye know how she worries if you’ve not come home before dark. Run along now and I’ll be there shortly!”

Ealdun hugged his father and ran down the lane toward the village.

Several weeks later the village celebrated Earraigh and there was plenty of mils’ba for everyone. It was delicious. Ealdun overheard some of the old folk sitting nearby say they had not had its like since leaving the old country. He had been born in the village but knew they meant the island where everyone used to live before crossing the Western Ocean to find a new home after the sacred groves had been destroyed by the invaders. Gramu had once told the children the story of how the violent Eagle people, with their bronze standards leading the way, had killed many of the fae folk. They had cut down the trees and set them alight. The survivors had gathered what few seeds of the Ge’hlei they could find and set out with them to establish a home in a new land—hopefully far from the reach of the dreadful Eagle. He could not imagine what the mils’ba had been like in the old country. If it was better than this, then he was pretty sure it must have been sent by the great Lugh himself.

“May I have some more, Ma?” He looked up at the thin blond woman sitting beside him and used his best smile hoping that it might influence her to agree.

“Not right now.” Dunella replied. “If you eat more now you’ll be in no condition to compete in the games.”

“Please? It’s purple this year. I’ve never seen purple mils’ba before and it’s the best I’ve ever had!” Even though he did his best to make his voice sound persuasive, he could hear the whine that had crept into it and knew it would not sway his mother’s mind.

“Go join your friends and play before the games begin. You can have more with the evening meal.” She watched him with a steady gaze while he slowly stood. She smiled at him to lessen the disappointment and gently pushed him toward the rest of the children gathering in the field.

Ealdun sighed his disappointment and walked between the tables toward his friends. His mother was right, of course—she always was—but he really wanted more of the mils’ba. The tables he passed were surrounded by the adults and old folk of the village. Most of them were engaged in various conversations, some serious, others merry with laughter. Each table held a bowl of the sweet purple food that marked the occasion and Ealdun had an idea.

The mils’ba belonged to the entire village which meant that it was his as much as anyone else’s. What if he took a little bit from each bowl? It wasn’t as if he planned to take the entire bowl from any one table; in fact, he planned to only take enough for a bite from each. Besides, he was just a small boy, so a single bite would not be missed or begrudged. His mother was right about the games starting soon, so he had no time to waste. Ealdun grabbed an empty bowl and began to go from table to table. If the people at the table did not notice him he simply used his finger and scooped up a bite-sized morsel of mils’ba; if they did notice, he would smile and scurry along—usually with a bit of the treat—followed by their wishes for his luck in the games.

By the time he had made his way through all of the tables (except, of course the ones closest to his mother), Ealdun had gathered a large bowl of the small finger-shaped balls of mils’ba. He looked at the full bowl and a grin split his face—there was more of the tasty treat than he had ever had before. How wonderful to have this much mils’ba all to himself and not have to share it with anyone! Oh, how good it would taste!

He reached for one of the small pieces near the top of the heap but his hand stopped at the sound of his father’s deep, bellowing voice rolling across the common. “Let all the people o’ th’village hear and bear witness that th’games o’ th’festival will begin in short order. Please turn your attention an’ your presence to the competition field where all the proprieties will be observed before our young people make their most earnest efforts t’win honor and glory on this magnificent spring day of Earraigh!”

Ealdun had run out of time. He had to go to the competition field. He would certainly be missed if he did not show up and he only had a few moments to find a way to hide his bowl of mils’ba. Where could he put it? He thought quickly and remembered the old hollow tree on the south side of the village. It was close—he could see the topmost boughs over the thatch of the roofs.

He quickly walked around the corner of the nearest cottage before breaking into a run. The tree was on the far side of a field of close-cropped grass that would soon be used to graze the village’s herd of cattle. The hole in the trunk of the tree faced away from the village but he knew it was there. It was the perfect hiding spot and Ealdun began to run.

When he was halfway to the tree, his left foot dropped into a hole in the turf. Ealdun cried out as the bowl flew into the air and the mils’ba pieces scattered across the pasture. He could see a few of them but most were hidden in the grass. Ealdun saw that he had stepped into a rabbit hole. There were others here and there across the field and  no doubt some of the sweets had rolled into the rabbit warren. Time to hide his treasure had run out and there was nothing left for him to do but gather the few pieces he could see and run to join the ceremony. He ate the last piece of the stolen mils’ba as he ran. He felt tears begin to slide down his cheeks and the mils’ba tasted bitter to him because of his loss.

The last of the games did not finish until just after the sun set. The blue sky began darkening to black and the shadows under the trees spread out into night. Ealdun had not won any of the games but his parents told him he would do better next year. He had wanted to do well, but his heart was just not in it—he kept thinking about his lost treats and thinking how he could get them back.

Ealdun made no protest when his mother suggested he go to bed before the bonfires burned low. He lay awake and stared at the rafter and thatch of their home. He had tried to get Ma and Da to let him take a walk around the village after the games, but they said it was too dark and a fox or owl might make a meal of him. There hadn’t been an attack by either of the predators in a long time, but he supposed they were right; after all, he recognized that he was still only a small boy and could not quite pick up his Da’s shillelagh. The big weighted stick Aelston had used to drive off the fox from the village two years ago was too heavy for him to lift much less use. So there was nothing to do but wait until the morning and see what could be salvaged at the pasture.

Ealdun rose from his bed before his parents. He quietly put on his jacket and trousers and slipped out the cottage door while the eastern sky was only just beginning to brighten.  A heavy dew coated the ground and his feet were soon cold and wet since he had forgotten to don his heavy boots. Despite the discomfort, he trudged on to the pasture with the hollow tree. When he rounded the corner of the cottage that shielded his view of the field, he froze.

Patchy fog hugged the ground across the pasture and shadowy hunched forms moved slowly through the fog. They were almost as big as he was and Ealdun’s first thought was of the bogles of Gramu’s tales. Those dark spirits would create trouble for anyone they found just for the sport of it and they took great pleasure in causing mischief. He held his breath so they would not hear him. He watched as each dark form moved a short distance and then settle back down in the fog. There was something familiar about the movement that he could not quite place, but as the sky began to brighten he chuckled to himself. Spread across the field were the large forms of rabbits—a whole colony of them—eating the dew covered grass. The sound of Ealdun’s chuckle startled the rabbits and they looked looked at him. After a few moments they realized he was not a threat and they returned to their eating. The sun creeped closer to the horizon to his left and Ealdun saw a glimpse of purple through the dew. And then another. Soon he could see almost a double handful of the finger-sized pieces of mils’ba scattered here and there. His excitement grew but not enough to overcome his fear of getting too close to the grazing beasts. He would have to wait for them to leave.

Then Ealdun saw something very strange. One of the rabbits nibbled at the grass as he approached one of the pieces of mils’ba. When he got close to it he sniffed it. Then he sniffed it again before sticking out his tongue and licking the bit of sweet food. After tasting it, the rabbit twitched its ears back and forth several times and looked around before licking the mils’ba over and over again. He rolled the purple treat over and licked every surface of the food until it looked like a small purple pebble. The boy wasn’t sure what to make of the rabbit’s behavior and he was disappointed to see that half of the piece of mils’ba had seemed to disappear. Another rabbit further away began to act the same way and Ealdun could only assume that he had also found some mils’ba. Soon rabbits all over the pasture were licking at the small bits of his stolen treat.

The sun had risen above the horizon and the fog began to burn away. The rabbits made their way down the holes into their warren. Once they were gone Ealdun walked into the pasture and picked up the piece of mils’ba he had watched the rabbit lick. What the rabbit had left behind did indeed look like a small purple stone shaped like a kidney bean—the outside was hard and tough but it was lighter than a stone would have been. He walked around the pasture and gathered the other pieces of mils’ba the rabbits had licked—they were all the same. Ealdun was rather disappointed at how little he had left from what had been in the big bowl. He almost forgot to check the holes down which the rabbits had disappeared, but when he did he found more of the bean-shaped mils’ba stones.

Ealdun picked up one of the purple bean-shaped pieces he had gathered and wondered if it tasted different from being in the dew and licked by the rabbit. He popped it into his mouth and found that it tasted just as good as it had tasted the night before, but the texture was differnt—instead of a light and stiff fluffy foam, it was sticky and gooey. He figured it was some magic worked by the rabbits and decided he liked it. Maybe not enough to give up half of the treat from the Ge’hlei trees, but it wasn’t bad.

No, Ge’hlei beans weren’t bad at all.

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5 thoughts on “A Special Treat

  1. erin markley on said:

    LOVED IT! Super cute!!

  2. michael johnson on said:

    makes me want some popcorn flavored mils’ba… cool story!!!

  3. Great response to a fun challenge.

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