This story begins with a tree.
That's not true, though. All stories begin with another story: these are the songs the elves sing, of the age of their glory, or, that's just what the servants say — if you'll pardon me saying so — when they've had overmuch of the gin, and an old house must have its legends.
This tree sprouted up in a fairground. It grew up with the story of Snow White. It lived inside a small forest, but none of the other trees were real: they were plastic and electric, silent figures except for when fairgoers went by, and then they thrashed and cackled.
The tree swayed and rustled. Despite growing up in an Evil Wood, it wasn't an evil tree. The man who ran the theme park liked to see it there: one of those things that was not like the others yet belonged even more because of that — a helpful glossary to the other, unreal trees.
This man liked contradictions. He loved to go on journeys but was alarmed when he arrived; yet he could not step outside his door without a destination to keep in front of him as he went. He would have been happy to spend his whole life in the moment at the top of a rollercoaster. His fondest childhood memories were of visiting the great World's Fairs, with their shining visions of the Future, Today. Yet all of those futures belonged to his past.
As he was dreaming his glittering dreams, his patrons ate candy floss and toffee apples, threw hoops over coconuts, and puzzled their way through mazes inset with mirrors and trapdoors. They found their way out again, but they never found the shortcuts he claimed were there.
One little girl stole a golden hoop from the coconut shy and threw it into Snow White's wood. It was quite a good throw — it landed around the only living tree. Luckily, she didn’t change her mind and want it back — there were no frogs to fetch it, for whatever price.
(This might be important, or it might not. Sometimes it’s hard to tell when someone belongs in your story, or someone else’s, or only ever in their own.)
There was magic loose in the fairground. The tree first noticed this when two animals from the petting zoo came past after hours. They were talking to each other out loud in perfectly enunciated English, and — which was worrying — the Evil Wood stopped thrashing to listen.
”I talked to one of the visitors' dogs,” said the goat. “She couldn’t understand me at all. Don’t you see, Clover, that if we’re different from other animals, we have to take responsibility for our lives? Failure to act means endorsement of the current system and its leaders. I mean the manager.”
”I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going on,” said Clover, who was a horse.
”Neither do I,” said the goat grimly, “and I worry about it.”
The tree hadn’t realised that all the magic was coming from the manager, but it was. Most of the people who visited the theme park left peacefully again, but some stumbled into the theme park that lived in the manager’s dreams — where all the lights were never red and always green, and everything perfect was always just about to come true. Those people left some of their own dreams behind in that place, and the dreams grew wilder and higher. Sometimes they were visible as a mist among the swan-boats; sometimes you could see strange reflections in the maze’s mirrors; sometimes people lost an hour in between rides to dreaming (and it wasn’t just the queues).
It was this enormous, overhanging mood of dreams deferred that was making everything restless: the animals, the evil trees, and the robots that clanked on circuits around the park. Meanwhile, the manager’s magic had some special effects. The hoop that had fallen around the tree turned to a ring of daisies. The tree assumed that this was because it was a good tree, with good influences, and felt special. It tried to use its influence to calm the evil wood.
The dreams were becoming so weird and wild that even the manager had to hide from them one day. He walked around the park and saw the tree with the ring of daisies. “I like daisies,” he said, “and I let you grow here to remind me what’s real. So, tell me. What can I do about all this?”
As he spoke, a brightly painted robot clanked past. One of the lost dreams had become lodged within it, and now it argued back and forth with itself about salvation, rebellion, obedience, and disaster. Usually salvation won, but the tree wasn’t always sure what that meant.
”All this must stop,” said the tree. “So stop it.”
”Stop dreaming?” asked the man. “Stop the music, and the food, and the wild rides?”
”Not everyone can bear to dream like you,” mused the tree. “People can burn out, waiting for their dreams to come true.”
”Better to burn out than to fade away,” said the manager.
But he was more wistful than wicked. He let things slide around the park. He sold the animals to a farm. He let the merry-go-round break down. He promised the tree that it would be transplanted to a national reserve. Summer passed, and then — for the sake of sparks and glory — he burned the park down.
When the park burned down, it released its dreams and its stories. Some of them had grown so distorted that their original dreamers wouldn’t have recognized them. They spread out through the air. Dreams sought dreamers, and stories found their way into other stories.
That’s why, when the theme park tree was planted in a new home, off in a wilderness and far away, men came to steal it. It was clear which one it was. Its leaves had a strange glitter; its rustling sounded a little bit like speech; in short, where once it had been the real tree among symbols, it was now a symbol growing among trees. It was a dream tree. A theme tree.
”This is the tree of legend,” said the men to each other. “This is the tree of which we were told. A witch cast a treasure of golden rings deep down under this tree, but, being a witch, she enchanted the treasure. The gold will only return to the world as apples from the tree.” So they transplanted the tree to a hill and waited for it to flower.
This is where the story begins: with a tree.
But not just a tree, because that would be lonely. In this story, there’s a tree on a hill, guarding gold, and a girl comes who’s brave and clever, so small and well-obscured that she can pass unnoticed through a ring of guarding men. She might climb into the hollow beneath the tree (dark and craggy, mysterious and rough) and find gold at the heart. She might care nothing for the tree. She might be the tree’s friend.
But she isn’t the girl who threw a fairground hoop; she’s not the witch returned to claim her gold; what she wants she wants only for herself; who she really is, only she knows.
All stories begin with another story. This one starts here.