She was not a spirit. The Lady of Asharcadia walked alone and she held in her thin-boned hands the Cup of Djemscheed. She carried herself light as a featherweight through the gardens, long and meandering, to the brow overlooking the Aegean Sea and it was still a long walk to the laughing tree on the hill that she enjoyed sitting and on wet nights, standing under.
This night was like any other moonlit night on her way towards the solitary tree on the solitary hill overlooking the Aegean Sea, save that now, this night, she did not travel alone. Her companions, those that she could not see (could never have seen), walked alongside her every ethereal step of her white slippers.
Stooped, as she often did, as she stooped; paused and contemplated, as she was wont to do, as she did; they even mimicry wonderment at the stars, when she happened to stop and gaze, as she oftentimes did, on her way to the laughing tree. They drooped their shadows o’er her feet every step of the way.
She did not know, did not see those shadows click and droop along her way.
The Lady of Asharcadia walked along the cliff-walk and did more than once, as she usually did, cast her glance back over her shoulders. They, those shadows, did also cast their glances back over their shoulders, but instead of walk-way and coastline, they saw dark opportunity and terrible chance.
She clutched her cup closely and kept her feet moving steadfastly towards the laughing tree. Kept her heart beating toward the laughing tree, because that is where her heart was at home. (They say her heart was at home).
Approaching the laughing tree she began to concentrate her thoughts on the rare cup she held in her long-fingered hands, as she commonly did, before beginning her climb. The whispers and strokes brought upon her mind the ruddy image of a Polish family in their kitchen: four, in particular, occupied one side of a long, square and brutishly tarnished wooden table. She saw an older gentleman opening his mouth, clutching what appeared to be a pewter mug steaming with a dark, milky liquid. He appeared to finish speaking, for his lips ceased moving, then he extended his arms and began pouring small streams into the expectant, smaller mugs of the children who sat across from the four elderly occupants of the kitchen.
The scene gradually muddied, then coalesced into a mirky portrait of an older man, dark hair streaked with grey hairs running the length of his face, doubling in thickness and richness to make a proud face of bristles. In the foreground of the hazy image there appeared to be the outline of a coconut tree and it didn’t make any sense because the man was obviously indoors. The scene changed, momentarily, to almost the same scene, only three feet closer to the man, past the coconut tree. In the background, now, in clearer focus, you could see a woman bound and gagged, two belts running around her head to keep her black mouth open. She was sunken into the floor and swaying, leaning in defeat against a filthy wall that may have once been whitewashed. Then the scene returned to the mirky portrait of the older man.
The Lady of Asharcadia shudders and the image is defeated. The eye in her mind, affixed to the images of the cup, is momentarily disrupted, disturbed from its duty - its former clarity. She sighs as she always sighs. Nothing is perfect.
Nothing earthly, even magical artifacts, carries on properly forever. It all breaks down, becomes rusted cogs in an obsolete machine. The cup has become outdated, perhaps, but still she clings to its perception, to its truth, even if she is utterly helpless to change the images it projects.
It is during this exchange that the lady hears a warning, as if whispered to her on the zephyrs: “Do not come to sit under me today, oh Lady of Asharcadia. Do not enjoy the shelter of my boughs. Do not imagine clambering into my branches, for the dark things that follow you this night. Come again, milady, another day.” The lady hears the message, but like the cup’s final images, it is muddled and difficult to discern.
She believes she has understood the import of the omen, yet she knows she ought not to believe in the words of the swirling and temperamental winds nor the stubbornness and simplicity of trees and rocks; for tree and rocks are, at this twilight hour, her only and bare companions.
So the Lady of Asharcadia continues to walk, without slowing, to the foot of the solitary hill and then, step by step, to ascend the hill. She has half the hill beneath her feet when three shadows, hovering about the trunk of the laughing tree, startle her from reverie.
She has no sooner halted than she hears, from an un-nameable source: “Lady of Asharcadia, I ask you, do not come this way today. Come again another day.” Again, she chooses to ignore this warning, even though a warning twice given from an unknown source is irregular; even though she is well-versed in the arts of elemental caution. But the cup would have told her and she has faith in it.
She holds the cup as a rosary and begins climbing the hill again. The three shadows part to allow her to touch the trunk with her palm. She closes her eyes and breathes deeply. She nearly gags on the tell-tale scent of anti-life and devilry, like brimstone and sulphur filling her nostrils.
Her eyes open and for a moment she believes the magic of the cup will keep her safe from the darkness but she is wrong. A bristled hand grips her wrist and strips back the sleeve in shreds to the shoulder. The Lady is spun away from the trunk while her other wrist is seized and twisted behind her back. She is forced onto her knees, her face laying on one cheek against the earth.
The first teardrops are pattering the earth when the laughing tree shudders its whole frame, shudders down to every last timber and splinter. The three shadows are not moved by the great tree’s audible groans. And they are not slowed.
The Asharcadian Lady’s dress is thrown onto her back, almost over her head and her cup tumbles partway down the hill. A shrill cry cuts from behind her teeth and rips past her lips into the night. The shadows are taking turns between preparing the trunk and ripping the colours from innocence.
They dance macabre and amok.
The great tree is plying all its willpower into dragging its laughing branches earthward from heaven in a colossal effort to cocoon and protect the beautiful lady. Her screams thrill the leaves into flickering fits and her anguish places a tremendous strain on its boughs, but still it cannot descend far enough, fast enough.
The shadows have finished the ropes and now have the lady on her feet, but she sways, so they thrust her back against the tree and lash both arms in nooses around the tree’s girth. The tension of the struggle has wearied neck and back muscles beyond exhaustion. She falls against her bonds, then stands, then falls again into painful postures.
Her face is worn from clenching and weeping. Nobody comes to dispel the three shadows and loosen her bonds against the laughing tree. She is alone by the time her life- blood has washed down her chest and soaked her evening dress. Her throat cannot make a sound.
By the time the sun begins to rise crimson behind the black mountains, the laughing tree has its boughs completely concealing the beautiful lady from approaching trespassers on foot. The beautiful, dark haired lady has not moved in many hours, but still the branches and leaves flutter, hoping to feel some response in return for these light, playful sensations.
There are none, but trespassers do come.
A lady comes upon the hill because her son has pushed and forced their way from the walking path. They drew up under the boughs of the solitary tree in the warming light of that dark morning.
Before the lady discerned what had happened during the night, another child ran up the hill from its western face and while she turned to touch the trunk the child called, “Oh laughing tree, reach out and laugh to me!” But the child did not know. He saw the tree sway, perhaps in laughter, but of course the child did not know. He called again. Then again, until another mother came and took him away, towards the lights of the village.
The first lady, the first mother, knew something was wrong, but she could not bring herself to raise the boughs of the laughing tree, knowing how strange it was that the tree remained in such a posture. She told her son that the tree was still sleeping, that it needed another hour or so to resume its happy and triumphant posture over the daylight.
Somehow she knew nothing would change when they came back to the hill of the solitary tree, several hours later. Indeed, the laughing tree would remain engaged in its protracted, weeping posture with limbs and boughs dipped and hugging its own trunk as if some terrible tragedy had to be spared the watching world.
It was true, what she thought, but nothing changed when the men of the town came and found the beautiful lady, dead and lashed beneath the boughs of that once laughing tree. And nothing changed after they buried her in the sanctuary the men of her family had allotted for her body many decades before.
The laughing tree never again reached for the joy of heaven’s light but sometimes, in the twilight of cold springs, you can still see the weeping willow search its trunk for the joy of heaven that was stripped away.