Morea dwelled among the leaf-dappled shade, dancing light-footed among twisted roots and beneath the low, crooked branches of her oaken lover, her otherself. She tucked herself into a hollow in his heart at sunset, drank crystal dew from his leaves at dawn, and sang back to the birds as she climbed her lover at noon, clinging to him like moss, inseparable.
And so they had dwelled for four hundred years, though the edge of the forest crept ever closer as men broke earth for farms, planting grapes trellised along low walls built under tree-shadows. She’d watched the advance of the villages with unease, listening to the sound of axes at the forest’s edge, aching with alarm, for there was no way in which either she or her lover could flee. They were bound there, rooted in the earth. For that was how things had always been, and surely would ever be.
There came a time, however, after grapevines crept over a vineyard wall and lapped up his trunk, and after human children had caught sight of her dancing once or twice, when her lover found it harder to put out new leaves and break the earth with his roots. When Morea’s steps felt slow and sluggish, and she found gray in her ruddy hair. And she wept against his bark.
A vintner found her there, weeping and forlorn. “I remember seeing you,” the human told her, and she jumped, startled. Tried to hide.
He laughed softly and sat on the stone wall nearby. “When I was a child, I mean.”
She peered warily down from the branches, towards where the man sat with his hands spread over the stones. “Has it been so many years?” Morea asked. “Are you not. . . Antonio?” She thought it might be him. She could almost see a boy’s laughing face, entombed in the sternness of adult lineaments. He’d been open of face and heart, clear-eyed. Now, gray touched his hair. As it did hers.
“At least thirty years,” he agreed peaceably. “My parents told me I was imagining you. But you’re still here. Just as beautiful as you were then. Why do you weep, tree-spirit?”
A hesitation. But the boy he’d been had been kind. Hadn’t thrown rocks at squirrels or broken branches from her lover’s body, as the other children had. “Because my tree is old, and he dies, if slowly.” She stroked her lover’s bark, hearing the groans of straining heartwood deep within. “And when he dies, so will I.”
The man frowned. “That hardly seems fair. When a husband dies among my folk, no one expects the wife to die with him. It’s very romantic to say that someone died of a broken heart, but still, it’s unfair.”
“We’ve lived together for centuries,” Morea replied softly.
He glanced back towards where his house stood. “My wife passed last year,” he replied, quiet sympathy in his voice. “I miss her. It was hard to let go. But I’m not ready to rest with her beneath the ground. Not yet, anyway. Too much left to do.” A pause, and then he laughed softly. “Maybe that’s why I can see you again, tree spirit. Don’t have as much on my mind. Our children moved on years ago. There’s nothing left but me here. The plants, the trees, the earth, the sun. And me. And you, it seems.” As he spoke, his hands touched the grape leaves and vines nearby. Spread them out over the wall, ensuring each leaf had a little more light.
There was something like love in those hands, she thought.
“Do you want to die with him?” Antonio asked.
“I don’t want to die,” Morea confided, feeling like a traitor. Again, heartwood groaned under her fingertips.
“Does he want you to?” A head-tilt, a gesture at the tree. “Because if he does, I think that’s the worst kind of selfishness I’ve ever heard.”
Morea bowed her heard. Tried to hear her lover’s whisper in the rustle of his leaves.
Live, he told her, his voice weary with the weight of years. Live, if you can.
“He says not,” she whispered. “But what else is there? We are bound. We are the same being.”
The vintner shook his head. “Things will always be the same, if you never try anything new. I often take an old, exceptional vine and graft it to fresh new roots. Perhaps your tree might sacrifice a limb, that you might live.”
The notion made resistant fear well up in her. She wasn’t supposed to outlive her otherself. But her lover whispered in leaf-rustle, In you, some part of me might endure. Live. Live. Live. Words like the pulse of spring-quickened sap.
So she suffered the man to cut her love, and cried out in pain as tree-blood poured from her own arm, clear and resinous. Watched him as he called his grandchildren to him, and bade them pay heed as he bound the old limb to a fresh young sapling. Some of them even looked up, and met her eyes as their grandfather worked.
And she wept as her lover died, wishing that she might die with him.
Seasons passed, and the vintner felled the dead tree. His old, skilled hands made furniture from the wood—a cradle for a newborn grandchild, a chair in which a mother might sit to rock the child.
And for the months in which he labored, Morea huddled in the shadow of the sapling. He wasn’t home; he gave no shade; his roots did not pierce the earth, nor did his branches hold up the sky.
But in this new young thing, she could hear a trace of familiar leaf-rustle on the breeze, and she sighed, knowing that in time, through this subtle craft of men, her lover would be her home again. And she would teach him all the wind-wrought tales they’d told each other for centuries.
Perhaps, she thought, I might even teach them to the vintner’s grandchildren.
BIO: Deborah L. Davitt was raised in Nevada, but currently lives in Houston, Texas with her husband and son. Her poetry has received Rhysling, Dwarf Star, and Pushcart nominations; her short fiction has earned a finalist showing for the Jim Baen Adventure Fantasy Award (2018) and has appeared in InterGalactic Medicine Show, Compelling Science Fiction, and Galaxy’s Edge. For more about her work, including her Edda-Earth novels, please see www.edda-earth.com.