Mama always said my imagination ran wild. She’d tell me I’d not stay a boy forever and that I’d do well to show some restraint. She was wrong, though. I didn’t imagine the old man in the elderberry tree. He had been there, wearing only a pair of tattered breeches as he pelted the little black berries at me until they stained my skin. He had laughed at that, though I hadn’t thought it nearly so funny.
But when I told Mama, she spanked me for telling fibs and for staining my clothes, and then sent me to bed without any supper.
Why would I lie about such a stupid thing? If I were going to lie, I’d say a dragon came down and swooped me up in its claws, and then dropped me to the ground and the elderberry tree was the only thing that broke my fall. That would be a lie worth telling—not some creepy old man lurking in a tree.
It was unfair.
So I waited until night fell, and I snuck out and returned to the elderberry tree. It stood atop a tall hill, so it was easy to find. When I got there, the old man was still lurking in the branches. He looked down at me and laughed that same, rasping laugh as before, like rusted hinges or a broom across a stone floor. He pelted a berry at me, but I was expecting it, and I darted out the way.
The old man whistled. “Finely done, young lad. Finely done, indeed.”
“It’s not very nice,” I said, “pelting people with elderberries. Don’t you have any manners?”
The old man cackled. “I did, once, but I turned them into wine and sold them. I fear my manners have ended up in the gullet of some fine gentleman and his wife. Not too bad a fate, all things considered.”
“Well, you ought to get new ones. I got sent to bed without any supper, and now I’m awfully hungry and it’s all your fault.”
“Tsk, tsk,” the old man said. “We can’t have that. Here, have a berry.” He pelted another elderberry at me. I was too slow that time, and it got me between the eyes. He laughed again.
I balled my hands into fists. “If you don’t stop that, I’ll…”
“You’ll what, little man? Make me stop?” He cackled and wheezed. “I’d like to see you try.”
I pressed my lips together and ran at the tree. It didn’t have much of a trunk, so I just about jumped straight onto a branch and nearly grabbed the old man’s gnarled foot.
“Ho ho!” he said as he climbed higher up into the tree. “The chase is on!”
I scrambled after him, up into the highest branches. I nearly caught up to him, and again I reached out to grab his foot. But my hand only brushed against his callused heel as the old man jumped from the tree and landed on the ground below.
I frowned and made to jump after him but… couldn’t.
The old man cackled. “What’s wrong, dear boy? Can’t you get down?”
Each time I made to jump out of the tree, it was like a great invisible hand pressed me against the branches and kept me there. “What did you do?” I said, my voice strained and squeaky.
“All trees need a guardian,” the old man said. “And now you’re it.” Then he turned and walked away.
“Wait!” I cried, but the old man never looked back. He just kept on walking until the darkness took him from sight. Again I tried to climb down out of the tree, but it was like my clothes had caught on a branch and I couldn’t move.
I stared up at the starry sky through the elderberry leaves. The night seemed so big, then, and I very small. I started to cry, but then my own sobs echoed back and startled me, and I stopped.
My belly hurt, so I grabbed a handful of elderberries and put them in my mouth. They tasted sour and bitter, and I spat them back out. I was tired; the hour was late. I wanted to go home and sleep, but the tree wouldn’t let me. So I curled up in a nook of some branches, but sleep never came. I just lay there, watching the moonlight filter through the fluttering leaves above me.
And then, just as the sky started to grow light again, the old man returned. He climbed into the tree, and when he did, I fell out and landed on the grass below.
He chuckled. “Watch your step, little man. First one’s a doozy.”
I stared up at him, rubbing my sore backside. “Where’d you go?”
He waved a hand. “Oh, around. One doesn’t get to see much here in the tree, as you well know. But it’s important to get out from time to time and stretch the legs. It keeps one young.” He cackled.
I kept on staring at him. I wanted to leave, to run home and forget this night had ever happened. But I just stood there, unable to move.
The old man held onto a branch as he leaned down towards me. “All trees need a guardian,” he said in a whisper that rustled like leaves in the wind. “Run along, little man. Run as long as you can and do not look back.” He laughed again, but the mirth in his voice sounded strained and tainted with desperation.
I turned and ran.