As everyone knows, in the Wilder Forest there live the Dryads, the spirits of the wood, who make their homes in the trunks of trees. What you may not know (and what I am here to tell you) is a secret that the People of the Trees have kept safe for many years: Every single tree, no matter how ancient and tall, no matter how tiny and young, is the home to one of the People.
Not all of them are Dryads, of course, for a Dryad is always female. But most every Dryad has a brother, and those brothers are called the Dru. This is the tale of one Dru in particular. His name is Ottum.
Long and long ago, each different kind of tree was cared for by Dryads and Dru from one particular clan. The trees were named for the clan that watched after them (or, perhaps, the clans were named after the trees -- in the end, Clan and Tree are one in the same). Ottum was born into the Clan of the Maple, and as soon as he was old enough, he was taken out into the wood, to find the tree that would be his home. The light spring breeze shook the branches of a tall maple tree overhead, and a single spinning seed fell from it. Whirling and dancing, the seed fell through the air, until it came to rest at Ottum's feet.
From that moment on, that seed was his, and would become his tree; no other would care for it, and if it were to survive, Ottum, as young as he was, must help it grow.
He took the seed and lifted it up, even though it was nearly as big as he, for he was still very young, and he tottered through the forest looking for a good place for his tree, his home, to grow. After a time, he came to a place where the soil was rich and moist. The Dru of his Clan did not know much beyond the care of maple trees, but what they did know, they knew very well indeed, and Ottum knew that this was a good place to plant his seed.
He nestled it in a shallow hole in the earth, and then covered it over. Then he found an acorn cap as large as he could carry, and fetched water from a nearby puddle, pouring it over his seed. Then he sat down to wait.
The day passed, and the night. The next morning (for trees grew very much faster in those days) there was the sprout of a young maple tree where Ottum had planted his seed. He knelt before it, and spoke to it, even though he knew it would be several moons before the tree was old enough to understand him and speak back to him. "My name is Ottum," he said, "And you are my tree. I will care for you, and help you to grow, for as long as there are days. Welcome to the world, little Maple." And though it could not understand him, the tree heard his voice, and knew him, and as he watched, it unfurled its very first tiny leaf.
For a time, there was not much for Ottum to do, so he sat upon a stone each day as the sun moved overhead, and he watched his tree. When there was rain, he made sure it had enough. When there was no rain, he carried water to it using his acorn cap.
One day, as he was pouring water for his tree, he heard a sound behind him, and when he looked, he saw another Dru, someone he had never seen before, carrying a berry so large that Ottum could not see his head. "Hello?" Ottum said.
The newcomer dropped his berry to the ground and blew out a heavy breath. Then he turned to Ottum and said, "Hi! My name is Jinn. Juniper Clan," he added, poking the green berry with his toe.
"I'm Ottum," said Ottum. "Maple Clan. This is my tree," he said, pointing to the tiny seedling.
"That's a very nice tree," Jinn said. "And a very nice place you have picked out here. Would you mind if I planted my seed here as well?"
"As long as you do it far enough away that your tree and mine will not get in each other's way," Ottum said.
"No, no, of course not." And Jinn took his berry some small distance away. Ottum helped him bury it, for even though each Dru and Dryad is responsible for his or her own tree, there is no harm in helping another. Jinn watered his seed as Ottum had, borrowing Ottum's acorn cap to do so.
As the days passed, Jinn and Ottum became great friends, and fond of one another's trees as well. When Ottum's maple was large enough for him to move into its trunk (which was not very large at all, for such is the magic of the People of the Trees that they can fit into a very tiny space indeed), Jinn celebrated with joy that was almost as great as Ottum's. And some time later, when Jinn was able to move into his tree, Ottum returned the favor with equal joy.
In those days, when a tree was healthy, there really was very little for a Dru or a Dryad to do; Ottum would wrestle bugs from the bark of his Maple, and occasionally carry water, though his tree was big enough now that it did not need him to fetch water so often; he did it anyway, out of love. But as the year waned and the days grew shorter, Ottum did what all members of the Maple Clan (as well as those of Oak, Cherry, Beech, and many other Clans) did: He carefully took down his tree's bright green leaves, and stored them away in a safe place, so that they would be ready for use again the next year. Jinn watched all of this with curiosity, and even helped a little, for no one in Juniper Clan had ever done such a thing; they left the tiny needle-sharp leaves upon their trees all the year 'round.
When the snows had melted and the days were warm again, Ottum fetched out the leaves that he had stored, and brushed them clean of any dust. Then he took them out and put them back upon his tree's branches. His tree made a few new leaves, of course, to add to the old ones, and was even more beautiful than before. Ottum was proud, because he believed that his tree was the most beautiful one in the forest.
The life of a Dru is a simple one, and they like it that way. The years passed, much like the first one had. As the days grew cold, he would pack his maple's leaves away, and when it grew warm again, he would dust them off and add them to the new ones his tree had fashioned. Ottum and Jinn became even greater friends in these years, sitting in the branches of their trees, talking back and forth and making jokes and teasing squirrels together.
Ottum's tree found her voice one day, and told him her name, for such is the trust between a tree and its Dru. I do not know that name, for it is not something that Ottum would have shared with many; perhaps he shared it with Jinn, or perhaps not. But whatever her name was, Ottum loved her very much, and they sang to one another when the wind blew, and she rocked gently in the breeze, and Ottum could not think of anything that could make him happier.
During those years, from time to time, one of Ottum's family would visit him, and he would introduce them to his tree, and to Jinn, and to Jinn's tree. And at other times, members of Jinn's family would come and visit Jinn, and Jinn would introduce them to his own tree, and to Ottum, and to Ottum's maple. One of Jinn's aunties, a dour old Dryad named Foll, seemed very much to dislike, well, everything, really. She disliked Jinn, and she disliked Jinn's tree, and she disliked Ottum. But most of all, she disliked Ottum's maple, because (if truth be told) Ottum's maple was far more beautiful than any other tree in the forest, and Foll was the sort of person who does not like a beautiful thing unless she can have it for her very own.
Many years after Ottum had planted his seed, when his tree was very tall, he sat in the crook of one of her branches, and he felt the coming chill of winter on the breeze. He and Jinn were watching a group of humans, who wore all manner of bright clothing, red and orange and yellow, as they drummed and danced around the fire in celebration of the harvest-time. As Ottum watched the dancers, he heard a voice in his ear, as quiet as the rustle of a leaf in a gentle breeze. It was the voice of his tree, whispering so quietly that only he could hear her: "Sssso beautiful," she said.
Whispering back just as quietly, he said, "What is beautiful, tree-of-my-heart?"
"The dancccerssss. Their dressssesss. Sssso beautiful..."
"They are lovely, but so are you, in your bright green dress. Though it will soon be time for me to put your leaves away for the winter."
"What do you wish, my love?"
"I wissshhh I could wear a dressss like that before it was time for my winter ssssleep..."
Ottum thought about this for a while, and then he said, "You have ever been the most beautiful tree in this forest, and if you wish to have a dress of bright colors, then a dress of bright colors you shall have." The next day, he called out to Jinn, saying, "I have an errand to run. Will you watch over my tree while I am gone?"
"Of course," said Jinn. "But where are you going?"
"I cannot say; it is a surprise. But I will be back by this evening, and I will show you tomorrow why I have gone."
Ottum left his tree and traveled into the west. Before long, he found a Gnome. He knew that, as Dru and Dryads cared for trees, the Gnomes cared for gardens, and he had an idea. He spoke to the Gnome, and the Gnome gave him a pail. Ottum continued upon his way, and soon he came to the home of the Piskies of the Western Sky. He told them what he was doing, and they gave him a pail as well. He thanked them, and set off for home. As the evening fell, he returned to his tree with a pail in each hand.
That night, Ottum painted his tree's leaves, each and every one of them. The ones closest to her trunk he painted with the yellow paint that the Gnomes use to decorate daffodils (for that is what was in the pail the Gnome gave him). The ones at the farthest reaches of her limbs he colored with paint from the other pail, the one he had gotten from the Piskies of the Western Sky, and so those leaves were the deepest red of sunset. And in between the red leaves and the yellow, he painted with a mixture of both colors, and the leaves became the color of the fire that the humans had danced around. He finished before the dawn, and lay down to sleep nestled in the crook of one of his tree's lower branches.
Before long, however, he woke, for he could hear voices. He peered down from among the leaves, and saw that there was a crowd upon the forest floor; a crowd of Dru and Dryads, Piskies and Gnomes, Hobs and River-folk. And all of them were staring in awe at the new harvest-dress his tree was wearing. He heard a whisper in his ear. "Thank you..." his tree said to him, and he hugged her branch.
People came from all across the forest to see his tree, for no one had ever seen a tree that wore anything but green leaves. For many days, all Ottum had time to do was answer questions and tell people why he had done what he had done. Each night he fell asleep exhausted, and slept so deeply that nothing could stir him.
But not everyone was happy about the bright fiery dress he had given to the maple. Jinn's auntie Foll was very angry, for she had not liked the tree when it was green like all the others, but now that it was dressed in a robe of bright colors, Foll liked it even less. She visited her nephew in his juniper one night, and said, "You must tell your friend to undo what he has done!"
"Why?" asked Jinn, who thought the maple looked rather pretty.
"Because...because he's showing off! You, you lazy Dru, who will remember you or your tree when you've fallen into the past? All you have ever done is squeezed your tree's berries and tried to make a drink out of the juice. Who will remember that? It doesn't even taste good! Your name will be forgotten, and mine as well! But his! His! His name, and his tree...they'll be remembered forever! What do you think of that?"
"I think that if he's happy," said Jinn, "and his tree is happy, then I am happy for them."
And his auntie gave him a look that would have withered leaves, and she stomped away.
The next morning, Jinn knew why, for he awoke when he heard a familiar voice sobbing with heartbreak. He ran out to see what was the matter, and he saw:
Auntie Foll had snuck into the branches of his friend's maple, and cut all of the leaves off. They lay in ruin upon the ground, already turning brown and drying up, for a leaf must be packed away with care if it if to survive the winter and still be good to use again; and Auntie Foll had wanted the leaves to die, so she had cut them and let them drop without a care.
On the ground, among the dying leaves, Ottum knelt, weeping for his tree and her beautiful dress. Jinn ran to him, but had nothing to offer his friend except for sympathy.
All that winter, Ottum lived in fear, for he had no leaves to put back on his tree in when the weather turned. He was afraid that she would not be able to make enough, and without them, she would starve. His fear was even worse because his tree was not talking to him; she was turned inward, speaking to no one, answering no questions, and he feared that her heart was broken and she might not even try to live.
But then, as the days grew longer once more, Ottum's maple did something that had never been done before: she opened up so many new leaves that it was as if nothing had ever happened. And she whispered to him, "Ssssorry. I had to concccentrate to make them all. I wanted to sssurprise you, as you sssurprised me..." And it was all right.
Later that year, Ottum painted her leaves again, because she assured him that now that she knew how, she could create a new green dress for herself every year. And that is what happened: each year she would dress herself in finest green, and each year he would paint her leaves with the colors of harvest-time, and each year she would shed her dress and sleep the winter months away, only to begin again when the snows had melted.
Soon other Dru and Dryads were doing the same thing for their trees, so that the forest at harvest-time was a blaze of fiery color. But Jinn never did, for he was afraid of what his Auntie might do. In fact, the entire Juniper Clan (and their friend-Clans, Fir and Pine, Cedar and Holly) feared her so, that to this day, none of the trees they care for is ever any color but green. And though the Oak and Poplar, Beech and Sycamore, Cherry and Hickory Clans all painted their trees, none were ever as beautiful as the trees cared for by the Maple Clan, and none of the maples were ever as beautiful as the tree that Ottum first painted.
Old auntie Foll was right about one thing, and wrong about another. She was right that Ottum's name would always be remembered, though time and distance have changed it on our tongues, and we call the season of harvest "Autumn" in memory of him who painted the first tree. And she was wrong that we would forget her name, for she is who we name when we think of "Fall", and the dying of the year.
It is said that the tree that Ottum painted for the harvest-time still stands, though I cannot tell you where, and that beside it stands a juniper that is still home to Ottum's friend Jinn. And the clans have no anger between them, for Old Auntie Foll is gone and only the memory of her name remains, but those of the ever-green Clans still do not paint their trees, in what has become Tradition.
So when you walk in the forests, lay a hand upon the trees you pass, and wish them well, and bless also the Dryads and Dru who live in them and care for them. And look forward to the harvest-time, when all of the trees (except the ever-greens) put on their brightest colors, to celebrate Ottum.