There are only so many places in the modern world where a spirit can live. Add to that the constant arguments between the five high spirits, and you often get hostile neighbors, whose arguments are interpreted by humans as chills in the wind or the raucous cawing of ravens.
One such argument occurred in the backyard of the Fander family in the summer of 1981. The children were off enjoying the pool of the wealthier neighbors and the parents were busy repairing their aged car and shouting at each other when the nuts and bolts didn’t fit quite right.
It should have been peaceful in the back, nothing but grass drooping in the oppressive sun, but two spirits were having an argument of their own. The first to arrive in the Fander’s backyard had been the spirit of the willow, some three hundred years ago. At that point it had been nobody’s backyard, and the spirit’s fear had been intense when the house was under construction. Any day could’ve been the day where a chainsaw roared to make way for potted plants or plastic sandboxes. He though nothing would ever be as terrifying as those days, but that was before the cross showed up.
The Fanders had bought their children a pet chinchilla. If the spirit of the willow remembered correctly, its name had been Nachos. Nachos was adventurous, and the children too rambunctious to rein him in. One day they were chasing the poor creature around the now fenced-in backyard and it was snatched up by a passing hawk.
The children hugged the willow, making the spirit very uncomfortable, as they cried into its bark. They couldn’t bare to watch as their father hammered the wooden cross into ground. There was no body to bury under it, but Nachos deserved recognition. They wrote the roden’t name across the bar of the cross in permanent black marker, taking turns with each letter.
Perhaps that hideous scrawl was why a more powerful spirit never claimed the cross as its home. The invisible being that did eventually settle in was of roughly the same tier as the spirit of the willow. Neither of them could even pronounce the true name of their respective high spirits. The spirit of the willow called the progenitor of his race the First Tree. From him sprung every spirit of nature, from those who inhabited the mightiest redwoods down to individual algae.
The spirit of the cross, as he would introduce himself, came from the First Blood, the spirit that spawned many human religions and conflicts. The spirit of the willow bemoaned his ill fortune. A spirit of any other family would have been more tolerable. Someone of the First Thought could’ve provided very deep conversation. Someone of the First Light could’ve always brightened the day. Someone of the First Kiss could have at least thrown a little flirtation the willow’s way.
But no, it was the spirit of the cross. Such objects did attract them after all. They liked mourning, specifically mourning following violent or surprising losses. It was far too morbid a philosophy for the spirit of the willow. He was all about life, about shedding just to bloom once again. The spirit of the cross liked finality… and he just never shut up about it!
“Did you know, once, Nachos thought of himself as god?” the spirit of the cross asked the spirit of the willow. “He did, but only once.” The willow tried to ignore the question. He tried to drown it out by waving his leafy tendrils in the wind, but the cross was not deterred. “That thought resurfaced when Nachose died in the grip of those brutal black talons. It resurfaced, but did not finish. He thought, ‘if I am god how can I d…’ and then he died. Isn’t that interesting?”
“No!” the willow shouted back, loud enough to disturb the bluebird in its branches. It flew off in search of a quieter tree. “Great. There it goes. You know a nature spirit lives and dies by its animal tenants don’t you?”
“Oh I know that,” the spirit of the cross said. “You’re the one who shouted.”
“What is it with you First Blood folk?” the willow asked. “Why do you have to dwell on death so much? Your rot feels as if it spreads to me.”
“The ending is always the most important part of the story,” the cross insisted. “Everybody needs to think about it more.”
“Well I am about life,” the willow snapped back, one of its twigs snapping off and hitting the ground. “You’ll see. The caterpillars are coming this week. They will sleep in my branches as they are transformed into imago. They will start their new lives with me. Not you.”
“If you say so,” the cross replied. He then proceeded to explain to the willow the exact sound each drop of blood made as it fell from Nachos’ flying corpse. “First it was like plit, and then it was like plat…”
Later that week the caterpillars did arrive. They marched up the height of the willow in lines of hundreds, their stomachs full. Their fat green bodies wiggled with delight and the willow couldn’t help but join them with the swaying of his leaves. The caterpillars were his Christmas and his Hallow’s eve. No day was more important in the yearly cycle, as it reaffirmed his nature. He was of the First Tree, and he could share that with all the animals.
To his shock, this year, it couldn’t be shared with all the caterpillars. One green body among many separated from the march and made its way across the grass to the cross. It scaled its front, passing over the O in Nachos’ name and rested.
“What are you doing with that?” the spirit of the willow gasped.
“It’s just enjoying my company,” the spirit of the cross said, just as flabbergasted. The other caterpillars, entrenched in the willow’s branches, began to form their chrysalises.
“You need to get back over here!” the willow warned the caterpillar. “All your friends are here!” The larvae ignored the pleading of the tree and began to make its hardening shell. It suspended itself from the left arm of the cross.
“It’s fine that you’re here,” the cross told it. “I’m all about Nachos, but there’s room for you. You have something like blood I imagine, yes?” Rather than answering the caterpillar took to its transformative sleep along with all the others.
“I can’t believe this!” the willow raged. It felt like its trunk was twisting under the bark. How could it go over to the cross? What was wrong? Was his life force fading? Was this the tree’s last season? “I hate you!” he shouted at the cross.
“Don’t be jealous!” the cross shot back. “I need a little life too. Blood can’t be shed without it.” Back and forth they bickered, and weeks past. The children went back to school. The Fanders finally got a new car. Fall rains came, washing away the willow’s anger and replacing it with sorrow. It was all he could do to protect his charges with his remaining leaves. He assumed death was coming for him, perhaps as a higher-ranked spirit of the First Blood. He considered lodging a complaint with it against his neighbor. All he wanted now was to hold out long enough for the butterflies to emerge.
“It’s happening!” the spirit of the cross declared one morning, rousing the spirit of the willow from his sorrow-flooded dreams. The first butterfly, a delicate creature of red and black, fluttered out of the willow and over the fence.
“I made it,” the willow said somberly, happy to see the butterflies this one last time. More and more of them poured out: a cascade of flapping and flashing colors. The air filled with the brilliant dust of their efforts.
“Ooh! Mine’s here! Mine’s ready!” the cross declared, giddier than he’d ever been. The willow watched, beholden by curiosity. The chrysalis snapped open and the buterfly emerged. Its shriveled wings slowly unfurled in the stark sun of early Autumn. “It’s going to fly away! One day it will return and…”
The butterfly dropped to the ground, its legs moving slowly but not finding purchase. The flicking of its antennae slowed… and then stopped altogether. The creature was dead.
“Oh…” the cross whimpered.
“It’s… it’s natural,” the willow consoled. “It… it knew it was sick. Even before it went into sleep. It sought your comfort for its final time. It sought your understanding.” Even as he said it, the willow realized it was true. He could not help the creatures in death. He could not bleed with them. He could not be an object of mourning, because he would always bloom again.
“I’m… I’m glad you’re my neighbor,” the willow said.
“Th-thank you,” the cross answered. “I’ve bled every day, waiting to hear that. Now I can bleed happily.” And so the minor spirits of life and death, of growth and wound, of birth and sleep, tolerated each other for generations to come.
Author’s Note: This flash fiction story was written based on a prompt provided by Silentwillow and Chaytoncross during a livestream. I hereby transfer all story rights to them, with the caveat that it remain posted on this blog. If you would like your own story, stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade during one of my streams and I’ll write it for you live!