Illustration by Karen Rock
Wizard in a Tree
If you are the type who is curious to know how stories begin, you should sneak out very early one morning and see if you can find the place where the sun rises. You must keep walking towards it, and when you can see it blazing with the most pinky-orange of pinky-orange lights, when golden rays spread from it in all directions so that it completely fills the sky and you feel you can almost reach out and touch it with your fingertips, then you will know you are in the right place. I ought to warn you that this might take some time. You might have to try more than once. You should also know that there is no cure for curiosity once it gets hold of you. And that is exactly how a little girl called Silva, a girl with curly black hair and green eyes, came to be in this story.
Silva lived in a house with a big garden of perfectly flat grass which a man came to mow once a week in summer; but she had no brothers or sisters and there weren’t any other houses nearby, so she had no-one to play with. She had a cat, a stripey one with yellow eyes, who sat on the windowsill all day. Silva would have liked a dog to play with but her mother said dogs were too much like hard work. In fact, I think Silva was a rather lonely child, but she would not admit it. She was the sort of girl who wants to know everything, but doesn’t believe what people tell her: the sort who needs to find out for herself. So when she asked her mother, one day during the holidays, where the sun came from, and her mother told her that it didn’t come from anywhere, it was always there, Silva didn’t believe her. After all, every night the sun went away and every morning it came back, so it stood to reason that it came from somewhere, and went back there.
On another day, when the nights were getting shorter, she woke very early before anyone else was up, and decided to find out for herself. She saw the sun rise between the neighbours’ houses, a giant orange ball, and began to walk towards it: past the allotments, through the fields and over the hills.
Silva was already far from home that spring morning when she looked up to find that the sun was high in the sky and very bright, much brighter than she remembered. She did not recognise the strange land around her and she was not sure how she had got there. It was very hot and nothing cast a shadow, there was just a lot of sand and rocks and some scrubby little bushes that might once have had leaves. The furthest edge of what she could see was hazy and she thought, as she stood there, that in fact it was quite a natural place for the sun to come from. She reached down and touched the sand and it almost burned her fingers. And then the hotness of the land began to seep up through her shoes and between her toes and she thought it would be good to find a cool place to sit until the sun went down and she could go home again. So she began to look for some shade. It was just as well she was wearing a hat.
On a hill in the distance Silva saw what she thought might be a tree. It was hard to tell in the haze, but being a curious girl she walked towards the hill. It seemed to take forever. When she had nearly reached the top she tripped over an old gnarled root, all twisted and shiny. Like a snake it slithered through the sand, getting thicker and thicker and more nobbly until it rose up out of the ground altogether and became a tree trunk. The trunk did not point straight up into the air like a normal tree, but sloped off, almost as though it were taking a running jump at the sky. Although the trunk was very shiny, like the root, Silva grabbed hold of it with her arms and climbed along it until she came to a branch sticking out from one side. She could just see at the end of it something red shimmering against the bare yellow sand of the hill, so she crawled along the branch. There were no leaves or twigs at all but right at the tip was the most beautiful red and purple flower you can imagine. It was as large as her hand and looked almost good enough to eat. She wanted so much to pick it and wear it in her hat but she could not quite reach it and she did not want to lean out any further in case the branch broke, for she was now quite high above the ground. Back she crawled to the trunk and climbed again, higher and higher up the tree; every now and then she saw another red flower at the end of a branch but she could not reach any of them.
Suddenly, from far above, came a voice. “Ahoy there!” She looked up and thought she saw a dark shadow, but could make out nothing more because the sky was full of dust and rippling heat that seemed to bend the air itself into strange shapes.
“Who’s that?” she called.
“It’s me,” came the voice.
“That’s not very helpful,” she called back.
“Well, climb a bit higher and you’ll see me.”
Silva climbed once more but she found the branches were getting more nobbly and more shiny and more upright and harder to hold onto than ever. She stopped to get her breath. Now she looked up and saw that right at the top of the tree was a canopy of dark green leaves, just like an umbrella, and sitting on a little branch beneath it was an old man with knees that were just as nobbly as the branches, and just as shiny. He wore a blue vest and raggedy blue shorts the colour of the sky. His hair was short and spiky and almost perfectly white and his chin was covered with a bristly beard. Silva laughed and pointed at him and said, “You look quite ridiculous!”
“Don’t be cheeky! I’m a wizard,” said the old man in a croaky voice.
“You don’t look much like a wizard.”
“Oh, is that right? Just what do you suppose a wizard ought to look like?”
“Wizards wear dark blue pointy hats with gold stars on, and long dark blue robes,” said Silva.
“What, in this weather?”
“Otherwise how are people supposed to know you’re a wizard?”
“We know a lot about wizards, don’t we?” said the old man, sarcastically.
“As a matter of fact I am an expert,” said the girl, flouncing her black curly hair with her hand.
“Is that so? Do you know how to blink, young lady?”
“What sort of question is that?”
“Quite a simple one, I should have thought.”
“Of course I know how to blink.”
“Go on, then.”
She did not know why, but the girl called Silva blinked as she had been told, and when she opened her eyes she looked up at the old man again and hooted with laughter. On his head he now had a tiny blue pointy hat with gold stars on it, and a little waistcoat, also dark blue and also covered in stars. “Sorry,” she said, “I shouldn’t laugh… but really!”
“Like I said, it’s hot.”
“You can’t expect me to take you seriously dressed like that. I mean, for goodness’ sake.”
“There’s no pleasing some people,” said the wizard, looking rather despondent.
“Anyway,” said Silva, “what are you doing in this tree?”
“It’s the only shade for miles,” the old man sighed, sweeping his arm as if drawing in the edge of the horizon.
“Why don’t you walk somewhere else, where it’s a bit cooler?”
“What, in this weather?”
The little girl began to fan herself with her hat. She had an idea that the wizard was a little jealous of this hat, for he eyed it with the look of a dog staring at a bone in a butcher’s window; but she carried on fanning herself anyway. The two of them sat there for a while, and it seemed as if the day just got hotter and hotter. The air became stiller and stiller until it was as thick as custard. Silva could hear almost nothing: not a bird nor an animal stirred; just the sound of her hat flapping and, from above, a sort of scratchy, scraping noise where the wizard was busy carving something in the trunk of the tree with a knife.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“I am writing something.”
“Is it a spell?”
“A spell. If you’re a real wizard, you must do spells. Why don’t you write a spell that makes some more shade.. or fetches ice-cold drinks.. or grows more trees for us to shade under..?”
“I’m not that sort of wizard,” replied the wizard, who carried on busily carving letters with a little knife.”
“I never heard anything so idiotic,” said Silva, looking up at the wizard and shading her eyes with her hat. “What sort of a wizard are you, then?”
“I know stuff,” said the wizard.
The little girl laughed out loud again, a bright tinkly laugh like a string of bells in a breeze, and said, “You know stuff? What kind of an answer is that? Everybody knows stuff, it doesn’t make us all wizards.” Her tone was what you might call incredulous, like a parent listening to some cock-and-bull story from a child explaining how they got their new clothes so torn and dirty.
“Maybe,” said the wizard. “Maybe. But I know really clever stuff, stuff you can’t even imagine anyone knowing, it’s so clever.”
“Go on, then, tell me something I don’t know, something really clever.”
“You’d only laugh.”
“No I wouldn’t,” said the girl.
“Alright then,” said the wizard. “I know what you’re thinking.”
Silva really could not help herself: she threw her head back and burst into a peal of laughter so long and loud that the leaves in the canopy above the old man’s head began to tremble. She carried on laughing until she noticed that the wizard was shaking his head very sadly. Then she stopped and put her hat back on. “Right, well,” she said. “It’s getting late and I must be going home. Bye, Old Man.” She began to crawl back down the tree. Now the sun was far across the sky and even without the shade of the tree it was a little less hot than it had been.
“Look behind you,” the wizard called after her. “Out there, across the plain.” Silva, without quite realising she was doing it, turned as the wizard had told her to and looked out across the plain towards where the sun was going to set. Now the haze had lifted: far, far into the distance she could see a fuzzy dark green line right across the horizon, and above it a myriad, a kaleidoscope, a carnival of colour, full of life and movement.
“What’s all that?” she asked, without really meaning to.
“That is a great green forest where children play all day and make friends. It is full of trees that bear luscious fruits dripping with juice: mangos and oranges, lemons and custard apples, plums and cherries. And nuts: nuts so sweet and crunchy you wouldn’t believe. There are buzzing bees and ants and butterflies and small furry animals, and cool springs of the tastiest water you ever tasted.”
“What’s that above the trees, all shimmering and pink and blue and yellow?”
“Those are my friends,” said the wizard. “Millions and millions of birds and butterflies. They look after the place for me.”
“That’s right. It’s my forest.”
“Well why don’t you go there, then, you silly old man, instead of sitting all alone by yourself looking miserable and moping all day?”
“What, in this weather?”
When Silva got home that night (and when she thought about it she was not quite sure how she found the way) she did not quite feel herself. She tried to think of a word to describe her strange feelings. She did not want say what she had been up to in case she got told off, but she asked her mother if there was a word for feeling, well, sort of a bit odd.
“Discombobulated,” said her mother, who was very clever but often too busy to explain things.
“That’s not a real word,” said Silva, her nose pressed against the window looking out at the garden and wishing she wasn’t so bored.
“Yes it is,” said her mother.
“What does it mean, then?”
“It means confused, like you feel when you wake up in a strange place and forget where you are or how you got there.”
“Oh,” said Silva.
That night, Silva decided she would get up early and visit the strange wizard again (she was not sure why); but she was so tired when she went to sleep that she did not wake up until her mother called her. By then the sun was already high in the sky. There was nothing to do but sit at the window next to the cat looking out at the lawn in the garden where nothing ever happened. Now, Silva knew that her mother kept a small old-fashioned wind-up clock, with a little alarm bell. So that night she took it out of the drawer in her mother’s room and put it under her pillow with the alarm set to go off just before dawn.
The next morning, following the rays of the early morning sun, she found herself once again in the strange land where she had met the wizard. She had told herself that the land where the sun came from was boring. She had told herself that the funny little man who pretended to be a wizard was silly and boring. But when you are a small child and your curiosity is insatiable, there is nothing for it. You must follow where it leads.
The sun was hot and high; the land bare and dry. She remembered that when she found the hill on which the strange tree stood with its funny old man in the very highest branch, the sun had been on her left; so she put her hat on for the sake of a little shade, turned herself so that the sun was on her left, and peered into the haze for any sign of the tree. Yes, there it was. And there at her feet was the smooth brown root which she had followed and which had become a branch. Up she climbed once again: up and up, holding onto the branch with one hand and onto her hat with the other.
“Hallooooooo!” she called.
“Hallooo-ooo—oo!” she called again.
“Oh,” said a distant voice from high up in the tree, clouded by the haze. “It’s you again. I’m surprised to see you after all this time.”
“Don’t be silly,” cried Silva, breathing hard as she crawled out onto a branch and looked up at the funny little man who, she noticed, had managed to grow a long silvery beard in two days. His nice new blue wizard’s clothes seemed a little faded.
“Well, you are just in time, anyway,” said the wizard, stroking his beard. “I need your help.”
“Why should I help you, you silly old thing?” It has to be said, Silva was not always very polite. Some young people are just charming, always smiling and thinking of others and bringing a cheery look to their friends’ faces. I’m afraid to say that Silva was not one of those children. Maybe she was just lonely and didn’t know how to tell anyone.
“Never mind that,” said the wizard, “I want you to take this nut and go and plant it down there.” With that, he dropped a huge great nut, a bit like a coconut only flatter and smoother, from the branch where he was siting in the shade, and it landed with a thwack in Silva’s outstretched hand, even though she had not even tried to catch it.
“I shall do no such thing,” said Silva, wiggling her head and shoulders with the nearest thing to a flounce that she could manage while holding onto the branch with one hand and the nut with the other. The nut felt beautifully smooth and cool, and if she had had a spare hand she might have stroked it a little, only she didn’t and besides, the wizard was watching.
“Down there,” the wizard carried on as if he hadn’t heard her, and pointed to a small patch of dark brown earth that seemed a long way off, at the bottom of the hill. Silva was about to throw the nut as far as she could when she accidentally looked where the wizard was pointing and remembered that far in the distance, when the haze lifted in mid-afternoon, she had seen the marvellous far-off sight of millions of birds hovering over that great green forest.
Before she knew it, the little girl had climbed all the way back down the tree trunk, all the way down the steep hill, and out onto the hot, dry, dusty plain. She found herself kneeling down next to the patch of dark earth, which was surprisingly cool and moist, and with her hands she dug a hole and buried the nut in it. She was quite cross with herself: her dress and her knees were dirty and so were her hands; but she was even more annoyed that she had done what the wizard asked her when she didn’t want to.
“Why didn’t you plant it yourself?” she asked, panting, as she climbed back up to the branch where she could see the wizard.
“What, in this weather?” The wizard picked up a little knife and began to carve something in his branch, just as he had before.
“What are you carving?”
“I am carving a word, if it’s all the same to you,” said the wizard, carrying on carving.
“What word?” asked the insatiably curious little girl.
“Pursue,” said the wizard.
“What does pursue mean?”, Silva asked her mother that night.
“Follow,” said her mother.
“Follow?” asked Silva. “Follow what?”
“Nothing: just follow, as in chase something.” said her mother.
You may believe this or not, but Silva went back to see the funny old man again. And again. And every time she went to see him in his tree his beard was longer and his clothes were more and more faded until they became quite raggedy once more. The next time she went was only two days later, and she was astonished to find that where she had buried the big brown shiny nut a small tree was growing. It had two beautiful dark leaves. On her next visit she climbed the tree only to find that the wizard was no longer sitting there. She looked around in vain, and it was only when he called up to her that Silva saw him: sitting on the ground beneath the beautiful spreading shade of the tree that had grown from her nut; and he was carving something in its trunk. Now the tree bore the prettiest pink flowers; and a small bird sat on a twig, singing a sweet song. Silva began to suspect that the old man might be a wizard after all.
Silva could not wait to go again; so after that she took to visiting the old man every day during the holidays. Her mother was so busy that she didn’t even notice when Silva came home a little dirty from having scrambled up and down the hill in the land where the sun rises.
It seemed not very long afterwards that Silva began planting more nuts, very like the first, which hung from the tree that had grown from the nut she had buried. The wizard told her just where to plant them and she did just as she was told without quite knowing why, because she didn’t very often help when her mother asked. But she liked the cool shade under the tree and the sweet song of the little bird, and it was quite fun to laugh at the old man with his beard that stretched all the way to the ground and his frankly disreputable clothes and his silly carving knife. Against her better judgement she told him all about herself: that she had no brothers or sisters, no friends nearby, no dog to play with, just a cat and a busy mother. The wizard behaved as if he knew everything already; but that was impossible, obviously. The old man told her how he had become a wizard in the first place, by talking to the birds and learning the secrets of the animals: how they made nests and found food and drink; how they talked to trees and made them grow and how flowers came to be so lovely.
“Do you know why they are so lovely?” he asked Silva.
“I expect it’s because the rest of the tree is so boring,” she said.
“Nothing about a tree is boring,” said the Wizard. “I remember the day I found out that they can talk to each other. I was so happy.”
“Nonsense: trees can’t talk.”
“Oh yes they can. When one of them is upset by animals and insects nibbling at them they send out a little puff of smelly gas, and it warns all the other trees to watch out.”
“I don’t believe you,” said Silva.
“Now there’s a surprise,” said the Wizard.
The day after, Silva found that the old man had moved from under the tree that she had planted and was now sitting in a shady grove a little way away. Silva noticed that in the first tree the wizard had carved the word “wisdom” in the trunk. She knew what that meant: it was a special tooth that older children got when they had been good. The wizard wasn’t looking when she arrived and seemed quite surprised to see her. She thought he looked a little older; but he seemed happy enough, busy talking to some birds and butterflies that were chirping and dancing away on the branches in his little grove of trees.
“Would you like me to plant some more nuts for you?”, asked Silva without knowing why.
“No thanks. No need any more,” said the wizard, and carried on talking to his friends.
“Oh,” said the little girl, slightly disappointed. She was rather annoyed that she couldn’t understand what the wizard and the birds and butterflies were saying to each other. She tried to make out some words but she couldn’t. She noticed that the old man had carved a new word in one of the trees in his little grove, but he was resting against the trunk and she couldn’t see what he had carved.
“I might not come back tomorrow,” she said.
“Righto,” said the wizard, and went back to talking with his friends. Then he said, “Ever wondered why are flowers so pretty?”
“It’s not for any reason,” said the girl, “they just are.”
That night, before she was sent up to bed, Silva asked her mother how old old men were. “What a silly question: it depends how old they are!”
“Well, how old do you have to be to have a long grey beard that goes all the way to the ground?”
“Oh, well, I suppose you have to be about a hundred,” said her mother, not really paying any attention. “Now go to bed.”
“Other children at school have grand-dads who sometimes pick them up. Some of them look like they are a hundred. Why don’t I have a grand-dad?”
“You do,” said her mother absentmindedly. “He lives in New Zealand with your uncle Billy and your cousins Flora, Daisy, Holly, Rose, Hazel, Ivy, Jasmine, George and Peter.”
“Oh,” said Silva. “Why don’t we ever see them?”
“Too far away,” said her mother. “We don’t really talk much.”
“Oh,” said Silva.
The next day, Silva went to see the old wizard again. It took her quite some time to find him. There was a long line of trees stretching out into the plain. At least she was able to see what he had carved on the tree in his little grove, where lovely ripe mangos were lying on the ground. She was going to eat one, but just then along came a small gold and brown striped furry animal that looked a bit like a cross between a dog and a cat, which gave her a look, picked a mango up in its mouth and hurried off. Silva just had time to read the word the old man had carved in the tree. “Like,” was all it said. That’s very silly, she thought, and then ran after the animal. When she caught up with it, the animal was standing next to the wizard, who was sitting down leaning against a tree. The animal made a noise half way between a bark and a meow, and dropped the mango at the wizard’s feet. The old man smiled and nodded, and the animal picked up the mango again and ran off with it.
“It’s you,” said the old man to Silva.
“Of course it’s me,” she said. “What was that animal?”
“She’s called Goldie, she’s a friend of mine, been helping out, planting a few nuts, that sort of thing.”
“She looks like a cross between a cat and a dog.”
“She’s a cog,” said the wizard. “I remember, a very long time ago when you first came here, telling you I was clever.”
“That was only last week,” said Silva.
“Maybe it was only last week to you,” said the wizard. “Look around you: all this takes time.”
Silva looked around her, and saw for the first time that the trees which had grown since she planted the nut for the old man had become a forest. It stretched all the way across the plain from the little hill where she had first climbed into the tree and laughed at him; and now it seemed to merge with that beautiful fuzzy green on the horizon, far, far in the distance. The forest was full of noise, hundreds of birds and insects and animals, all looking like they were busy.
“Are all these animals and birds and insects your friends?” she asked.
“Yes,” said the wizard with a sigh. “They are all my good friends.”
“What are they all doing?”
“Ah, well, now you’re onto something I know something about,” said the wizard. “But you didn’t want to know last time. Remember me asking you why the flowers looked so lovely? See, the insects and the birds fly from one pretty flower to another, they can’t help loving all those beautiful shapes and colours and sweet smells. They drink the nectar in the flowers and in return they help the flower to make seeds. Then the birds carry the small seeds away and eat some of them and drop others onto the ground. And the animals take some of the big nuts that fall onto the ground and carry them away, and bury some of them, and then those nuts grow into trees. And then the trees make flowers so that their friends the insects and the birds come and visit them. Clever, isn’t it?”
“I suppose. And I suppose you’re going to tell me that it was all your idea, since you know everything.”
“I’m not that clever,” said the wizard. “Only nature’s that clever.”
“What do you do, then?”
“I got you to plant the first tree. That was pretty clever.”
“I don’t understand,” said Silva. “Why did you get me to plant the first tree?”
“I wanted to go and see my friends who live in the forest across the plain. And now, because you planted that first nut, they can come and see me.”
“How did you know I would plant the tree for you?”
“Like I said, I know stuff.”
“Could I go and see if there are any children to play with?” asked Silva.
“Oh yes, you could,” said the old man. “But it is a very long journey for a girl like you.”
“What do you mean, a girl like me?”
“You know,” said the Wizard.
“No I don’t. Have you given up carving words?” she asked, not knowing what else to say.
“Not quite,” said the wizard, “only I’m getting a bit slow these days. There’s one over there.” He pointed to the trunk of a tree that Silva could just see in the dimness of the forest because a small shaft of bright sunlight made it glow like a torch.
“It just says ‘a’,” she said.
“That’s right,” said the wizard. “That was easy: just one little letter. One more word to carve, only I’m so tired I can hardly do it.”
“Shall I carve it for you?” asked Silva, without quite knowing why.
“I thought you might say that,” said the wizard. “Here, let me show you how.” And the wizard showed the little girl how to carefully carve the letters of his last word in the trunk of the tree he was leaning against, just above his head. Hundreds of buzzing bees and butterflies and twittering birds came to watch, all chattering away excitedly. And Goldie the cog came by and watched too. And the little girl carved the last word. It took her all day because she hadn’t done that sort of thing before and wasn’t allowed to play with knives at home.
“Hunter,” said the last word when she had finished.
“I don’t understand,” said Silva. “What does it mean?”
“That’s for you to find out,” said the wizard. “I can’t tell you everything.”
“That’s not fair,” said Silva, flouncing her long dark curling hair and wiping a little tear from her eye.
“Tell you what,” said the wizard, who had closed his eyes and looked as though he might fall asleep at any moment, “do you have a grand-dad?”
“Yee-es,” said Silva, slowly. “But he lives in New Zealand and I haven’t ever seen him and he has lots of grandchildren over there and they’re called Flora, Daisy, Holly, Rose, Hazel, Ivy, Jasmine, George and Peter. Only I have never met them either and my Mummy doesn’t talk to them much.”
“Is that right?” said the old man, nodding his head with his eyes still shut, and smiling a little smile. “I tell you what, when you get home tonight why don’t you write your grand-dad a letter, ask him to come over and see you and bring your cousins so you can play with them. Don’t spend all your time with a silly old man in a forest.” With that the old wizard became very quiet, and fell asleep.
Silva didn’t know why, but she turned and ran all the way back to the hill through the forest, crying as if she was upset about something. When she got home she was going to ask her mother if she could write a letter. But she thought about it for a little and then she went to her room and wrote a letter to her grand-dad on a piece of paper without telling her mother. She found an envelope and looked up her grand-dad’s name and address in her mother’s address book, and with her pocket money went to the post office and posted the letter to New Zealand all by herself.
Silva did not go back to see the old man again. She did not know why, but she worried that the next time she might not find him. Instead, every morning she woke up early to see if the postman had brought anything for her. And right at the end of the holidays, when it was nearly time to go back to school, a postcard flopped onto the mat: a card with a strange stamp and her name on it. The writing said, in big bold block capitals, Dear Silva, we would love to come for Christmas! Underneath, in handwriting that looked somehow familiar, were the words ‘Pursue wisdom like a hunter, and lie in wait on her paths.’