In the middle of the enchanted garden, there is a cottage where two sisters once dwelt. Some say they were dryads or the descendants of such mythical creatures. Others maintain that they were simply a pair of lovely ladies who were blessed with unusually long life and lasting beauty. The two tended the enchanted garden and the orchard of Winesap apples that surrounded it. Never were they known to leave its confines or to cross the large oxbow lake that encircled the entire magical domain.
Sometimes, one or the other sister could be heard singing a merry tune as she worked, harmonizing if she were performing the chore with her sibling. The birds of the field often joined them in song, and it was said among the people of the nearby village that to hear these melodies would bring great fortune.
One day, the sisters stepped out of the cottage just as the sun was rising. The sun’s rays bathed the garden with a gentle warmth and pure white light that made the flowers glow and the dew on the lush grass sparkle. A cool breeze spread the heady perfume of the jasmine flowers that hung heavily from the arbor that formed a small, living entryway before them.
“Oh, how I never tire of living here,” Lenora sighed.
“Aye, it is indeed a paradise in which we dwell, dear sister,” Beatrice agreed.
“Shall we go into the orchard to see how the apple blossoms are progressing?” Lenora proposed.
“Aye, that sounds lovely,” Beatrice agreed.
Their lithe legs carried them under the arbor of jasmine flowers, past the rose garden abloom with many hues, through the sunflower field where yellow finches flitted about from flower to flower, and into the apple orchard where the delicate white blossoms were just beginning to open. The air was filled with the music of the sisters’ song augmented by the twittering of songbirds. There were many, many blossoms this year, which meant there would be many, many delicious apples when autumn finally arrived.
“We will be baking countless pies and pressing rivers of cider this leaf-fall, dear sister,” Lenora remarked.
It was then that they noticed the twisted tree.
The ladies stopped before the grotesque, gnarled monolith, suddenly cold despite the summer sun, all pleasant thoughts in anticipation of a bountiful harvest forgotten.
“I do not remember this tree being here,” Lenora said.
“Nor do I, dear sister,” Beatrice responded. “It looks almost…angry. Certainly, it is out of place. See how it does not at all conform with the harmonious positions of the other trees of the orchard? I wonder from whence it came? And look at how the grass surrounding it is dark and blighted.”
Lenora left her sister to these thoughts and began to slowly walk in a circle around the mysterious tree, having a care not to set foot on any of the dead grass that extended out from its exposed, contorted black roots. A faint odor of decay became apparent.
“Beatrice, come,” Lenora beckoned. “There appear to be footprints leading here.”
Beatrice came around and joined her sister. Sure enough, there was a set of footprints leading up to the tree.
“And the grass beneath the footprints is blighted in the same manner as the grass surrounding the tree,” Beatrice observed. “It’s as though each step that was taken by whatever made these prints not only crushed the grass but drained the life from it. I wonder why they suddenly stop at the base of the tree? Shall we follow them?”
“Perhaps we should,” Lenora agreed.
The pair traced the trail of footprints all the way to the shore of the oxbow lake where they again disappeared. Beyond the lake, there were only the dense, dark trees of the Forbidden Forest, home to wood nymphs, fawns, and dryads but for many years also the dwelling place of fell creatures, monsters, and demons. Only the bravest men of the nearby village dared enter the forest to hunt game or to harvest the tall trees. For the sisters to enter such a drear and evil place was unthinkable.
“We dare not go further, dear sister,” Lenora said. “Perhaps we should retrace our steps and examine the tree more closely.”
Beatrice agreed. As they walked, a pair of turtledoves joined them. Each bird chose a perch on a shoulder of one of the sisters. Lenora’s flew off once they reached the tree, but Beatrice’s left her shoulder and settled on a branch of the tree instead.
As soon as its feet touched the branch, the bird uttered a piercing screech. It tried to fly away, but it appeared to be unable to release its grip. As the sisters watched in open-mouthed horror, the bird shriveled up as though the life was being sucked from it, the macabre scene finally ending with the bird a skeletal, lifeless husk, its feathers cascading to the ground like leaves in autumn.
“We must destroy this tree,” Lenora said.
“I agree, dear sister, but how?” Beatrice asked. “We lack the tools for such a task as we have neither axe nor saw, and even if we had them, we lack the physical strength.”
“Fire perhaps?” Lenora offered.
“Too dangerous,” Beatrice countered. “We would risk burning down the entire grove.”
“Poison, then?” Lenora proposed after a little thought.
“Dear sister!” Beatrice exclaimed. “Wherever do you come up with such diabolical methods? No, I think not poison. Again, we would risk poisoning the innocent trees along with the guilty.”
“Then we must go for help,” Lenora concluded.
“And leave the enchanted garden unguarded? I think not,” Beatrice said, shaking her head.
“Then I will go for help and leave you here to look after things until I return,” Lenora offered.
“I do not like it,” Beatrice responded. “We have never been apart. What if something should happen to you?”
“What other choice do we have?” asked Lenora.
“We can keep an eye on this twisted tree and warn the woodland creatures away from it until a better solution presents itself,” Beatrice advised.
“Your words are wise, dear sister,” Lenora agreed. “I will communicate the danger to the songbirds. You inform the squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits. You always had a better rapport with the little furry ones.”
“Agreed,” Beatrice said.
The two parted company, Beatrice toward the gardens where the small mammals were most numerous, while Lenora set about wandering the apple orchard her voice carrying through the air in imitation of birdsong.
The following morning, the sisters returned to the apple grove to check on the twisted tree. Lenora vomited when she beheld what had happened, and Beatrice began to cry.
“The contagion has spread, dear sister,” Beatrice managed between sobs. “Look how much more grass has been blighted. And the four trees nearest this monster have been poisoned as well. See how their blossoms have withered when only yesterday they held such promise?”
Lenora recovered enough to nod her head in agreement and managed to ask, “What is to be done?”
“We could girdle the tree,” Beatrice replied. “The thought occurred to me last night while I slept.”
“That just might work,” Lenora said. “I will fetch the hammer and our sharpest chisel.”
“We could also probably manage to cut some of the exposed roots of smaller diameter,” Beatrice continued. “I will go with you to obtain our pruning shears.”
The sisters walked back to their cottage in the center of the enchanted garden and then returned to the offending tree with tools in hand.
“Let us begin by cutting the roots,” Beatrice proposed, hefting the pruning shears. “Then we shall strip as much bark from this abomination as we can, from the ground to as high as we can manage.”
“Agreed,” Lenora said.
Beatrice walked the circumference of the tree until she found an exposed root of approximately three inches in diameter.
“I will begin by cleaving this black, sinuous snake of a root,” she said, digging in with the pruning shears.
She sliced through the root and gasped as she observed thick, red fluid pulse from the wound she created. Then the two cut ends withdrew into the ground and disappeared.
“That was most strange and unexpected,” Lenora remarked. “Try another.”
Beatrice repeated her cuttings on several more roots of similar size. The results were the same. When there were no more exposed roots small enough to be handled by the pruning shears, the sisters turned their attention to girdling the tree. Lenora began the task, striking the black bark near the base of the tree with chisel and hammer. With each stroke, more thick, red, fluid dripped from the tree.
“Ay!” Lenora suddenly cried out.
A bit of the red fluid had spattered, sprinkling the backs of her hands with crimson dots.
“It burns!” Lenora shouted. “Oh! How it burns!” she repeated, dropping her tools at the base of the tree.
“Let us leave off what we are doing and run to the lake, there to bathe your hands,” said Beatrice, running to her sister’s side. When she reached Lenora, she helped her to her feet and then lashed out at the tree in anger, leaning against it with both hands as though by doing so she might find the strength to push it down. “Curse you, foul fiend!” she cried.
But her curse died on her lips and was transformed into a hideous shriek.
“What is it, Beatrice?” Lenora exclaimed. “Why do you scream so?”
“The tree,” Beatrice managed through gritted teeth. “It has me fast. I cannot let go. It is sucking the life out of me. I can feel it.” As she said this last, her face began to grow pale, and the cuts that Lenora had made began gushing with the thick, red fluid which pooled and stung the sisters’ feet.
Lenora grasped Beatrice around the waist and tried to pull her away from her tormentor, but try as she might she could not loose the force that kept her sister glued to the hideous trunk. Beatrice screamed one last time in a terrible crescendo and then went limp in Lenora’s arms, her hands still fixed to the tree. The tree seemed to vibrate with sound.
“What is happening?” Lenora screamed, still trying to free her sister to no avail.
The vibration changed to a low rumble and then to words.
“You are mine, darling dryad,” the voice said. “Do not fight me any longer. Give in and nourish me.”
It was then that Lenora saw the tree for what it really was. Imprisoned within the bark, she saw the outlines of a tall, thin man with angular ears, large dark eyes, and long pointed teeth.
Lenora let go of her sister and picked up the hammer and chisel. She placed the tip of the chisel over the left breast of the creature within the tree and struck the end of the handle with the hammer with all her might. The chisel slid into the black wood of the tree as a sheath receives its knife.
The tree writhed, its limbs flailing wildly. Then its branches began to fall. One struck Lenora on the head, and she fell to the ground next to her sister.