They say you never know when your time comes. It may come like a sudden blaze of heat, or it may creep upon you slowly, bending you downward with unrelenting certainty. When I was only a few saplings strong, eager roots curling like frayed bowstrings in the warm earth, I never thought much about my own end. But when countless generations of birds have come and gone in your branches, when you have seen the death of too many seasons to tally, thoughts begin drifting to the time when the last of your own great oaks will lie decaying among the remains of their own leaves. Sometimes, you long for it.
But then comes the boy. He charges through my undergrowth, scattering the small animals that hide there, and his shrill voice silences the singing of my birds. I try to ignore him. Then he builds a fort among the branches of my largest tree, and I am reluctantly pulled into his play.
I am his castle, his bulwark against the flood of enemies his imagination devises. Some of my smaller trees become heathen soldiers, and he shoots stick-arrows at them. They cannot fall, but he pretends they do, and his triumphant whoops echo among my branches. When he leaves, I find myself hoping that he will come back.
He does come back, and a girl with hair like autumn leaves is with him. He pushes her into a puddle. When she cries, he apologizes by fighting off the hordes of oaken giants that come to take her captive. Soon they are both laughing. I laugh with them, although they cannot hear me.
Seasons meld into one another, and the boy often comes, sometimes alone, sometimes with the girl. He talks to me, sharing his boyish aspirations, dreams about becoming a fearsome and valiant fighter across the sea. Sitting in the curve of a low-hanging branch one day, he learns to whistle.
Now the boy and girl are taller, and they walk my paths in bashful silence, looking everywhere but at each other. Once he tries to hold her hand, but the nearby scolding of a squirrel startles him, and he pretends he was only stretching.
One day the boy is gone. I wait, but his familiar tuneless whistle and rippling laugh don’t come. Whispers of war and treachery reach me, and I worry for him.
Men begin to gather in the deepest parts of me, rough men who build low fires. They speak in anguished mutters of injustice, and their families, and revenge. I look for the boy, but he is not among them.
My leaves fall twice before I see him again. He walks my paths with a bowed head. Past horrors linger in his eyes, but I see that he has not forgotten how to laugh, and this makes me happy. He sleeps among my trees, and joins the men who gather there.
Laughter returns, the laughter of many voices. The men love the boy, and I wonder if he has given them the same thing he gave me, all those seasons ago. More men come, and they begin to call the boy Hood. I like my name for him better.
Sometimes the boy walks far away from the other men, to our secret place where his old fort still stands. This is where he talks to me, spilling out his frustration, the despair he cannot let the others see. He feels too young, too unfit to be a leader of men. While he was away he saw terrible things, things that hurt him, too many things he does not understand. With tears cracking his voice, he asks why good men can hate, why bad men can love, and why good men are not always the triumphant ones. I do not have answers for him, but even before his fervent prayers filter through my topmost leaves, I know they have reached their destination. The One who holds all answers is listening.
One day he comes to our secret place with excitement spilling out of every pore. He has met the girl again, he has talked with her, and she still loves him. He speaks with barely confined exuberance of bringing her back to the forest, of keeping her with him forever. This makes me happy. I hope that soon the boy and girl will again walk my paths together.
Once again I am the boy’s castle, his bulwark, but his enemies are no longer saplings. They can fall now, but so can he. Swords sometimes clash in my glades, arrows pierce the woodland hush, and blood lies beaded and glistening on my leaves. I feel the boy’s pain when one of his men falls, his triumph when they have beaten back the enemy. But even the triumph is mixed with sadness; victory is not sweet, as it was when he fought trees with sticks.
A season passes; the boy comes to the secret place again, but now his head is bowed with anguish. The girl he loves will never walk with him again. She has been given to his enemy. He asks why. Again, I have no answer for him. My branches ache to bend down and hold him, but the arms of the One who has the answers are already there, wrapped around him in a strong embrace. I wish he could feel that embrace, but all he can feel is his own torment.
He goes back to his men, to his yew bow, but his face is older now. He has forgotten how to whistle.
Many seasons pass. The boy has been in many battles, and lost many friends. The people in the town outside my borders love him, because he brings them hope. They sing songs about him, and call him a hero. When he sees a child singing one of the songs, he smiles and says that is why he keeps fighting. The children.
Bells are ringing in the town, and the men shout to one another that the day they have waited for is here. The true king has returned. Justice has returned. No longer must they hide in my forests, hunted like rabbits. No longer must honest men become thieves to support the people they love.
The boy looks on silently, but joy and love for his men spills out of his eyes. I am happy for him, although I know he will leave me now. He has spent many seasons under my shade; it is time for him to go back to the people he has fought for all these seasons. But perhaps every once in awhile, he will come back and sit with his back against the broad side of a sun-warmed oak, and we will enjoy the stillness together.
But he returns sooner than I expected. He is angry. The justice he has waited for and battled for has indeed returned, but not for him. He is again betrayed, this time by the king he has called his own. He is Hood the outlaw, and an outlaw he must stay.
He pounds the pommel of his sword again and again into my earth, and my leaves quiver with his cries. Again, I have no answer.
The boy shouts against the king, against me, against the One who holds the answers. I ache for him, hurt with him, but can do nothing for him. I cannot give him the hope he has given so many others.
And then the boy is gone. I wish I could call to him, plead with him, but my voice is not one that can touch his ears. I wonder where he has gone.
My leaves fall, are covered by snow, and fall again. I lose count of the seasons. People no longer sing his songs in the town, or tell his stories, but I will not forget the boy. Every time the birds return to my branches and the yellow sun trickles through my leaves and dances through my woodland paths, I wait to hear his light step in the leaves.
Then one day, he does come. His shoulders are bent, his beard white and ragged, but I would know the boy anywhere. The wind whistles through my leaves, making them sing for joy.
His hands tremble as he scrapes the leaves and dirt away from the few rotting logs that remain of his old fort. Finally they are uncovered, and black beetles scuttle for cover. He stares at the remains, and a tear disappears into his beard.
Then he sits, and leans his head against an oak, and begins to talk. His voice is frail, quivering, but a slow strength fills it as he talks of Will, of John, Much, Tuck, of days when sorrow balanced with hearty laughter, when brave deeds were sung to ridiculous magnitude over a flickering fire and bowls of Tuck’s mead. His eyes glisten as he speaks of the girl, of love that swelled young hearts, and hair with the flame of autumn.
Then the speaks to the One he has tried to run away from for so long. He is sorry. He knows now that some stories were never meant to be understood, that some desires were meant to be unfilled, that some questions were meant to be left unanswered.
His voice falls silent, and he sits for a long time, watching the sunlight on the path in front of him. From a nearby branch, a squirrel scolds. Just before he falls asleep, his breath catches in wonder, and I think he can finally see the One who holds the answers, who has always held the answers, reaching down to usher him into a final and lasting embrace.
They say you never know when your time comes. One thing is sure: that it will come, be you boy or ancient forest. As the seasons change and my thoughts begin to drift toward the time when the last of my great oaks will join the boy Hood among the soft blanket of leaves, another vision joins the first; a boy and a girl with hair like autumn leaves walking the paths of a different, more beautiful forest.
And they are laughing.