In the heart of the house lay a garden.
In the heart of the garden stood a tree.
In the heart of the tree lived an old man who wore the shape of a red-haired boy with crackernut eyes that seemed as bright as salmon tails glinting up the water.
His was a riddling wisdom, older by far than the ancient oak that housed his body. The green sap was his blood and leaves grew in his hair. In the winter, he slept. In the spring, the moon harped a windsong against his antler tines as the oak's boughs stretched its green buds awake. In the summer, the air was thick with the droning of bees and the scent of the wildflowers that grew in stormy profusion where the fat brown bole became root.
And in the autumn, when the tree loosed its bounty to the ground below, there were hazelnuts lying in among the acorns. The secrets of a Green Man.
"When I was a kid, I thought it was a forest," Sara said.
She was sitting on the end of her bed, looking out the window over the garden, her guitar on her lap, the quilt bunched up under her knees. Up by the headboard, Julie Simms leaned forward from its carved wood to look over Sara's shoulder at what could be seen of the garden from their vantage point.
"It sure looks big enough," she said.
Sara nodded. Her eyes had taken on a dreamy look.
In was 1969 and they had decided to form a folk band -- Sara on guitar, Julie playing recorder, both of them singing. They wanted to change the world with music because that was what was happening. In San Francisco. In London. In Vancouver. So why not in Ottawa?
With their faded bell-bottomed jeans and tie-dyed shirts, they looked just like any of the other seventeen-year-olds who hung around the War Memorial downtown, or could be found crowded into coffeehouses like Le Hibou and Le Monde on the weekends. Their hair was long -- Sara's a cascade of brown ringlets, Julie's a waterfall spill the color of a raven's wing; they wore beads and feather earrings and both eschewed makeup.
"I used to think it spoke to me," Sara said.
"What? The garden?"
"What did it say?"
The dreaminess in Sara's eyes became wistful and she gave Julie a rueful smile.
"I can't remember," she said.
It was three years after her parents had died -- when she was nine years old -- that Sara Kendell came to live with her Uncle Jamie in his strange rambling house. To an adult perspective, Tamson House was huge: an enormous, sprawling affair of corridors and rooms and towers that took up the whole of a city block; to a child of nine, it simply went on forever.
She could wander down corridor after corridor, poking about in the clutter of rooms that lay spread like a maze from the northwest tower near Bank Street -- where her bedroom was located -- all the way over to her uncle's study overlooking O'Connor Street on the far side of the house, but mostly she spent her time in the Library and in the garden. She liked the library because it was like a museum. There were walls of books, rising two floors high up to a domed ceiling, but there were also dozens of glass display cases scattered about the main floor area, each of which held any number of fascinating objects.
There were insects pinned to velvet and stone artifacts; animal skulls and clay flutes in the shapes of birds; old manuscripts and hand-drawn maps, the parchment yellowing, the ink a faded sepia; Kabuki masks and a miniature Shinto shrine made of ivory and ebony; corn-husk dolls, Japanese netsuke and porcelain miniatures; antique jewelry and African beadwork; Kachina dolls and a brass fiddle, half the size of a normal instrument....
The cases were so cluttered with interesting things that she could spend a whole day just going through one case and still have something to look at when she went back to it the next day. What interested her most, however, was that her uncle had a story to go with each and every item in the cases. No matter what she brought up to his study -- a tiny ivory netsuke carved in the shape of a badger crawling out of a teapot, a flat stone with curious scratches on it that looked like Ogham script -- he could spin out a tale of its origin that might take them right through the afternoon to suppertime.
That he dreamed up half the stories only made it more entertaining, for then she could try to trip him up in his rambling explanations, or even just try to top his tall tales.
But if she was intellectually precocious, emotionally she still carried scars from her parents' death and the time she'd spent living with her other uncle -- her father's brother. For three years Sara had been left in the care of a nanny during the day -- amusing herself while the woman smoked cigarettes and watched the soaps -- while at night she was put to bed promptly after dinner. It wasn't a normal family life; she could only find that vicariously, in the books she devoured with a voracious appetite.
Coming to live with her Uncle Jamie, then, was like constantly being on holiday. He doted on her, and on those few occasions when he was too busy, she could always find one of the many houseguests to spend some time with her.
All that marred her new life in Tamson House was her night fears.
She wasn't frightened of the House itself. Nor of bogies or monsters living in her closet. She knew that shadows were shadows, creaks and groans were only the House settling when the temperature changed. What haunted her nights was waking up from a deep sleep, shuddering uncontrollably, her pajamas stuck to her like a second skin, her heartbeat thundering at twice its normal tempo.
There was no logical explanation for the terror that gripped her -- once, sometimes twice a week. It just came, an awful, indescribable panic that left her shivering and unable to sleep for the rest of the night.
It was on the days following such nights that she went into the garden. The greenery and flowerbeds and statuary all combined to soothe her. Invariably, she found herself in the very center of the garden, where an ancient oak tree stood on a knoll and overhung a fountain. Lying on the grass sheltered by its boughs, with the soft lullaby of the fountain's water murmuring close at hand, she would find what the night fears had stolen from her the night before.
She would sleep.
And she would dream the most curious dreams.
"The garden has a name, too," she told her uncle when she came in from sleeping under the oak one day.
The House was so big that many of the rooms had been given names just so that they could all be kept straight in their minds.
"It's called the Mondream Wood," she told him.
She took his look of surprise to mean that he didn't know or understand the word.
"It means that the trees in it dream that they're people," she explained.
Her uncle nodded. "'The dream of life among men.' It's a good name. Did you think it up yourself?"
"No. Merlin told me."
"The Merlin?" her uncle asked with a smile.
Now it was her turn to look surprised.
"What do you mean the Merlin?" she asked.
Her uncle started to explain, astonished that in all her reading she hadn't come across a reference to Britain's most famous wizard, but then just gave her a copy of Malory's Le Morte d' Arthur and, after a moment's consideration, T. H. White's The Sword in the Stone as well.
"Did you ever have an imaginary friend when you were a kid?" Sara asked as she finally turned away from the window.
Julie shrugged. "My mom says I did, but I can't remember. Apparently he was a hedgehog the size of a toddler named Whatzit."
"I never did. But I can remember that for a long time I used to wake up in the middle of the night just terrified and then I wouldn't be able to sleep again for the rest of the night. I used to go into the middle of the garden the next day and sleep under that big oak that grows by the fountain."
"How pastoral," Julie said.
Sara grinned. "But the thing is, I used to dream that there was a boy living in that tree and his name was Merlin."
"Go on," Julie scoffed.
"No, really. I mean, I really had these dreams. The boy would just step out of the tree and we'd sit there and talk away the afternoon."
"What did you talk about?"
"I don't remember," Sara said. "Not the details -- just the feeling. It was all very magical and... healing, I suppose. Jamie said that my having those night fears was just my unconscious mind's way of dealing with the trauma of losing my parents and then having to live with my dad's brother who only wanted my inheritance, not me. I was too young then to know anything about that kind of thing; all I knew was that when I talked to Merlin, I felt better. The night fears started coming less and less often and then finally they went away altogether.
"I think Merlin took them away for me."
"What happened to him?"
"The boy in the tree," Julie said. "Your Merlin. When did you stop dreaming about him?"
"I don't really know. I guess when I stopped waking up terrified, I just stopped sleeping under the tree so I didn't see him anymore. And then I just forgot that he'd ever been there.... "
Julie shook her head. "You know, you can be a bit of a flake sometimes."
"Thanks a lot. At least I didn't hang around with a giant hedgehog named Whatzit when I was a kid."
"No. You hung out with tree-boy."
Julie started to giggle and then they both broke up. It was a few moments before either of them could catch their breath.
"So what made you think of your tree-boy?" Julie asked.
Another giggle welled up in Julie's throat, but Sara's gaze had drifted back out the window and become all dreamy again.
"I don't know," she said. "I was just looking out at the garden and I suddenly found myself remembering. I wonder what ever happened to him... ?"
"Jamie gave me some books about a man with the same name as you," she told the red-haired boy the next time she saw him. "And after I read them, I went into the Library and found some more. He was quite famous, you know."
"So I'm told," the boy said with a smile.
"But it's all so confusing," Sara went on. "There's all these different stories, supposedly about the same man.... How are you supposed to know which of them is true?"
"That's what happens when legend and myth meet," the boy said. "Everything gets tangled."
"Was there even a real Merlin, do you think? I mean, besides you."
"A great magician who was eventually trapped in a tree?"
"I don't think so," the boy said.
Sara didn't even try to hide her disappointment.
"But that's not to say there was never a man named Merlin," the boy added. "He might have been a bard, or a follower of old wisdoms. His enchantments might have been more subtle than the great acts of wizardry ascribed to him in the stories."
"And did he end up in a tree?" Sara asked eagerly. "That would make him like you. I've also read that he got trapped in a cave, but I think a tree's much more interesting, don't you?"
Because her Merlin lived in a tree.
"Perhaps it was in the idea of a tree," the boy said.
Sara blinked in confusion. "What do you mean?"
"The stories seem to be saying that one shouldn't teach, or else the student becomes too knowledgeable and then turns on the teacher. I don't believe that. It's not the passing on of knowledge that would root someone like Merlin."
"Well, then what would?"
"Getting too tangled up in his own quest for understanding. Delving so deeply into the calendaring trees that he lost track of where he left his body until one day he looked around to find that he'd become what he was studying."
"I don't understand."
The red-haired boy smiled. "I know. But I can't speak any more clearly."
"Why not?" Sara asked, her mind still bubbling with the tales of quests and wizards and knights that she'd been reading. "Were you enchanted? Are you trapped in that oak tree?"
She was full of curiosity and determined to find out all she could, but in that practiced way that the boy had, he artfully turned the conversation onto a different track and she never did get an answer to her questions.
It rained that night, but the next night the skies were clear. The moon hung above the Mondream Wood like a fat ball of golden honey; the stars were so bright and close Sara felt she could just reach up and pluck one as though it were an apple, hanging in a tree. She had crept from her bedroom in the northwest tower and gone out into the garden, stepping secretly as a thought through the long darkened corridors of the House until she was finally outside.
She was looking for magic.
Dreams were one thing. She knew the difference between what you found in a dream and when you were awake; between a fey red-haired boy who lived in a tree and real boys; between the dreamlike enchantments of the books she'd been reading -- enchantments that lay thick as acorns under an oak tree -- and the real world where magic was a card trick, or a stage magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat on The Ed Sullivan Show.
But the books also said that magic came awake in the night. It crept from its secret hidden places -- called out by starlight and the moon -- and lived until the dawn pinked the eastern skies. She always dreamed of the red-haired boy when she slept under his oak in the middle of the garden. But what if he was more than a dream? What if at night he stepped out of his tree -- really and truly, flesh and blood and bone real?
There was only one way to find out.
Copyright © 1992 by Charles de Lint