James’s Note: I love folklore about trees, especially the stuff surrounding willow trees. We have more oaks than willows were I live, but when you look at one of those old trees with its heavy, sprawling branches, it’s easy to see how people pictured them as monsters. I first read the Willow Rhyme in Neil Gaimen’s American Gods and I knew I had to do my own take on it. Well, this is what I dreamed up.
One of Anna’s Elder vampires, the one wearing a tasteful working man’s suit, was wielding a katana. Trees had been falling before him like he was some kind of industrial shredder. He was currently held up as he fought a stand of bamboo. Bamboo is a surprisingly tenacious plant and it was growing into great loops and whorls to try to ensnare him. He was in trouble because, even backed by awesome vampiric strength, the blade was having a hell of a time cutting through the bamboo.
The problem was, my forest was losing.
They were using explosives to help clear a path, and then there was the entirely different problem of Anna. She was like an elegant Russian bulldozer. One of the honey locusts seized her, digging huge thorns through her flesh. She tackled it like a linebacker, uprooting the whole thing, and chucking it over her shoulder. Some of the thorns were ripped out of her flesh, showering the area with her blood. Some of them remained embedded, sticking out of her like a twisted voodoo doll.
The forest wasn’t going to be able to hold them much longer. They were almost to the garden.
I was faced with a difficult situation. I was going to have to use the garden to fight. It was the only way we were getting out of this alive. The difficulty lay in choosing what from the garden was dangerous enough to kill a master vampire, but safe enough to not kill myself or Israel or the entire world for that matter.
Want to talk about a line as fine as frog’s hair.
For starters, I took a left turn down a side path which led to a beautiful garden pond. It seemed far deeper and darker than a pond that size had any right to be. By its side stood a truly enormous willow tree. Israel and I could not have joined hands around it. I’m not sure why we would have wanted to, except maybe to dance and sing Kumbaya, but you get the point.
Its huge sweeping branches hung down like the tentacles of a giant squid. Its roots were huge and gnarled and stuck up from the ground in hoops and lumps. Beneath its canopy, was an oppressive shadow. It had an aura of brooding menace.
Israel watched as I approached the iron posts that ringed it. A red string connected each one to the next. I placed my hands on the string, and prepared to break the spell I had cast when I first brought this willow tree here.
Trees are funny things. Just like humans have werewolves and vampires and such, trees have their own special monsters.
If you cut down an oak grove three times, letting it grow back from the roots, you create a place of immense power. The Oakmen, short wooden creatures with heads that look like mushroom caps, will inhabit it. They have a fearsome hatred for men and their iron axes. The entire grove will be anathema to all the children of men, but the Oakmen will fiercely guard all the beasts of the forest.
If a grove that contains 13 elm trees becomes sick, all the elms will start to die. The first will die of the sickness, then the others will die of grief for it. If a single elm survives, it will grieve for the rest of its long life. It will stand in the middle of a glade and create a place of indescribable sorrow. All those who sit beneath its branches will feel the weight of its grief.
Some people kill themselves, while others will sit and weep until either someone comes to rescue them or they starve to death.
Willows are different. All willows hate men, just a little. Even normal willows are half a step from getting up. Some of them are special, though. Some are like the one I had in my garden.
I snapped the red string in half as I chanted,
“Elm, he do grieve,
and Oak, he do hate,
but Willow goes walking
if you travel late.”