Primer Papers

The Elm by Sara

May 6, 2022
Sep 23, 2021

This was published as part of the first edition of the Primer Papers, a publication created by the kids at the Primer Newsroom. Primer is building the world’s first home for ambitious kids. Learn more here and find out how your kid can publish too.

About the Author

My name is Sara, and I am a homeschooling student. I am trilingual, love writing stories, drawing strange (and sometimes creepy) eyes, reading (all lot!), and spending time with my cat, Stella. This story is very short, and I hope you like it!

Sara (12) wrote this story as part of a Primer Storyteller's Club challenge created by Finn (10).

The Elm

The world has never and will never see such a forest. As will the forest never see the world that seems to be so interested in it. Each of these completely different places seems to have something that keeps them grounded into an existence that includes them both, and yet they still have no idea who the other is. One of them is sewn into the other, made by someone’s hands, and yet still very much alive.

These two different places live in their worlds, not touched by anything, counting the years by just how much dust has covered the leaves of the forest, and the streets of the world outside it. And yet, everything changed, slowly but surely, like a frightened leaf that, for many years has tried to begin its journey down, and yet is still unsure and with every year seems more and more connected to the branch it inhabits (and to tell the truth, the leaf would eventually die on that branch, never to begin — or end — the journey that it had been preparing for its whole life). 

Three or four stags, their antlers, no, not glowing as they should have, but instead deep in dust and cobwebs that spiders have knitted onto them, run through the center of the forest, their shadows prancing from the leafy floor, into the nearest bolder, and then to a tree that stands behind them. But the show must begin and it will, no matter what its actors wish. First, the face of a large horse, with a shining mane, wet from the sweat that has appeared throughout the long run, and then the whole horse appears in the clearing. 

We now see a tall man, who sits on its back, holding a bow in one hand, the other pulling back an arrow. It is as if the whole forest holds its breath, as the bowman lets the tension off of the bow, and… A single, thin, silver arrow hangs between the man and his prey. But if you come closer you will notice something. At closer inspection the arrow dully shines with grey threads, carefully woven into the thick canopy of the woods. It was never meant to hit the deer, just like every tree around this clearing never grew, or would grow any time soon. The bowman’s face is as tense as his prey, and the forest around him, each waiting for something to happen. Something that will not. 

Across from the tapestry (that was said to be made by the Great Weaver herself - and which portrays a bowman during a hunt) lay the Burgomaster’s lands boxed off by the window sill. Venice, the floating city, as it was sometimes known, lay in front of the tapestry, that seemed to be watching the streets beneath with great curiosity and envy; these streets would be filled with boats and people, the trees would grow, as will the houses that stand right here, as sturdy as ever, become rubble one day. Canals ran through the city, cutting it into thousands of tiny islands, connected only by bridges. More than anything, Venice needed bridges — large, small, thin, wide, beautifully carved from stone, or simply nailed together out of wooden planks — the only thing that kept the city together.

These bridges seemed to be magical (at least to the people of Venice, of course). Such small pieces of a giant puzzle, and yet able to help people “walk” over the still canals, watching the gondolas float by. These bridges were for all; the richest of merchants and their wives, draped in gold, jewels, pearls, golden threads that shone in the light, and the feeling that they were the richest, most powerful people of Venice, walked around with their noses high in the air, and the lowest of peasants draped in their monotone dresses and holding hoes over their shoulders.

All were welcome to use the bridges. And yet there was still something that kept the poor from walking next to the rich, something invisible that stood like a wall between them, as if saying, “Well, it’s not that easy.” The rich would still watch the poor, their eyes pooling with pure disdain, and the peasants dared not look up from the cobblestones of the street, as if only a look at the people with much more power than anyone should have, would melt them away. And so two types of bridges were built; the large and lavish, with gilded statutes, paper flowers tied into the cracks between each stone block, and the smell of perfume (the only thing that protected the rich from any kind of sickness, or so they believed) that hung in the air, like some strange clothing from the clothesline.

Ladies, and their husbands, unhappily walked from one end of the bridge to the other, hiding their faces from the sun with parasols and ridiculously large hats. On the other hand, the peasant’s bridges were simple, made of wooden planks, and much larger than the ones for the much smaller population of rich lords and ladies. The poor folk hurried back and forth carrying everything from buckets, to brooms, and bags; they had no time to dilly-dally, unlike their neighbors. This city was like a world of its own, with people traveling through the canals like actors — each doing their specific jobs, and each saying their specific scripted phrases. 

The usual, “Buongiorno, Signorina.” rang out over the water, filled with gondolas, the people on them hurrying to get the newly caught fish, that had recently arrived, and on the other side of the city, three or four young women whispered to each other, telling their friends of this, and that that they have heard from their dear friend Mrs. ____ (the name of this “dear” lady would change from one group of such girls to the next, each saying what they thought was the truth, and what was something as far away from the truth, as Venice was from Palermo). “Could you imagine!” and “I heard something so..., you won’t believe it in a thousand years.” were phrases that were sprinkled into every sentence that came out of their mouths (that seemed to never stop moving).

And so, the morning began to swiftly turn into the afternoon, and the canals began to become less filled. All of the fish that was thought of, at least, better than it was the last time! (the wives of the most elite families could still not believe how such spoiled fish could have arrived here, in Venice, the city closest to the sea!). 

The city was content, like a giant cat who had just finished a large fish, and was now “purring” softly with the buzz of thousands of people on their way from the market. Suddenly, the calmest sound you would think, a chime, sounded through the Great Canal (the most important of the ones in the city). But this meant something, something very important, to the people of Venice. All in one minute, everything stopped, and the only sound that was left behind was the soft dinging of the chime. And then, before anyone could understand what had happened, a scream, loud and clear, echoed through the city, as if it was magnified thousands of times.

Then, in the center of this all, a short man wearing a tall white wig jumped onto one of the bridges, and, after catching his breath, shouted, “The Bourgamisters daughter. She… She ran away.” The news hung in the air like the complete silence that happens before a storm, and then the “storm” began. Bewildered whispers filled the air, as more and more people began understanding what the little man had just said. And then commenced. Shouting erupted throughout the crowd, and questions began hitting the short man from every side. Where was she? How could she? When did this happen? What was to be done? And then the short man began explaining. 

If someone would have told Giovanni Lippi that day he would have to tell all of Venice that something like this had happened, he would have never believed it. First of all, nothing like this could have happened, and second of all, he - Giovanni Lippi, never allows himself to be the messenger of such scandalous news. And yet, here he was, on a very real bridge, in the middle of a very real city, and with the words “She ran away” freshly out of his mouth. He knew what was coming. And it did. The questions were thrown at him from all directions, all at once, and he began explaining. 

They found the young woman’s body next to the tree, always known as simply The Tree. Not a single person had seen her that fateful night, and not a single person knew of her death, until the next day when a maid had found her, while on her way to the stream. Not a single thing pointed to what had happened, and only one thing was evident; the maiden was dead. After being examined closer, something else was found as well. The city surgeon had seen many dead bodies in his life, but not one that was as strange.

The deceased’s translucent skin, which was green, with veins of brown, looked as if she had somehow rubbed the colors off of the tree she was found next to. Her long hair, which was remembered by all because of its fiery color, was now tinted with brown, and when picked up, did not sway but instead stayed in strange forms, like roots hung from the ceiling. But then something happened, that was so strange, that when it was found no one could believe it. The body disappeared as if it had simply dissolved into the air, like honey in a cup of warm milk. Only one thing was found after the disappearance. During the fruitless search for the body, someone had noticed that the tree that she was found next to seemed to be much bigger. The question was how could a tree, that was thought to be dead for many years, be growing?

The disappearances happened much faster than anyone could understand. They were considered insignificant for the town for some time — if a peasant, milkmaid, or a person who worked for the noblemen would disappear, he would either be thought of as runaway, and so a very lazy person who had run away simply to get away from work, or an idiot who had gone into the woods, and got lost (something that would never happen to a well-trained person) and so not needed on the land (there is no use for an idiot working for the noblemen — though, many peasants thought that the noblemen themselves were ignorant knowing nothing of the land they owned).

But when, just weeks after the death of the Bourgamisters daughter, his second daughter also disappeared in the woods, people began to frantically ponder the fact that if such important and powerful people had begun to disappear they could as well. People began to worry, a feeling of dread slowly climbing up inside them, and when people worry they become reckless.

Two young women were found next to the river, thought to have drowned, and another two got lost in the woods. When they were sent for, they were gone. Word began to spread that the city was haunted by its dead, and on a foggy day in autumn, it was decided that the city would be quarantined, for the time being, in hopes that the deaths would stop. They did not. Moves needed to be made, and they would be. The Bourgamister, lost in sorrow and mourning over his daughters’ deaths, provided no help, and instead decided to protect his remaining daughter, by locking her away in his castle. Giovanni Lippi, the messenger that was the one to start this all, was quickly elected to decide what was to be done, and in a week a group of well-armed bowmen traveled into the forest, in hopes of finding something that would point to how all of these young women had died. Their weapons were found imprinted into the roots of the tree where the first death had happened.

A second group was sent, and they too did not come back. Only on the third group of men, word came back telling of the strange faces that seemed to peer at the men through the bark of trees, and of the voices that echoed through the woods. When they came back, the bowmen were very sick and were sent to the surgeon, who after three days reported their deaths to the newly made Mayor of Venice. Though this was meant to be kept a secret (Lippi believed that if the people did not know the truth, their fear would quiet down, like a little animal that could be shown peace, after which it would stop howling), word spread that after their deaths, when the surgeon did an autopsy, it was found that the sickness that killed them was not from the outside, bit inside them, where a tree had begun to grow, it’s rooted choking the bowmen before they could recover.

Many years passed by, faster and faster as if someone had flashed a series of photographs in front of your face, and you only saw and remembered some. Venice under the grey sky, its people sadly walking back and forth, more and more “lost” signs hanging from the walls of houses, and cries ringing out through the city. Not a single person knew where the people went when they disappeared, and through the years, people began to forget, seeing the killings as something unsolvable, mysterious, and more powerful than every single person combined. Dread, sorrow, and sadness were forever knitted into the people’s skins, into their clothes, and through their hair, as if they were bound to carry this great weight on their shoulders forever. But what they did not know was that this was not true. 

Only one person knew the truth behind the killings and hid this horrible knowledge deep inside. Antonia Felippepi was someone who no one knew. Her long, grey, knotted hair, and slightly strange expression, made people believe that she was a witch, and so one day she left to live in the woods, away from the city and its people. Once a month, the old woman would travel on foot, to the edge of the woods to pick herbs that only grew there. Under the moonlight, she carefully chose the plants’ leaves she needed and carried them back home (a tiny cottage, located in the very heart of the woods), where she made medicines, and foods from them, which she would later sell.

People only saw her one time in a year, when the most desperate, and lonely, of them would come to her hut, where she answered all of the questions about their futures. But, what people did not know, was that Antonia was not lonely herself, in the middle of the woods, no, she had a friend, that no one but her, knew existed, even though he was all around them. Antonia Felippepi was a tree-whisperer, and she was the only person in all the lands, possibly even the world, who could do so. As she was picking herbs one day (and conversing with a very talkative young birch —  she seemed to only worry about how her leaves looked, and how white her bark was) she saw two figures hurrying up the hill in front of her.

Antonia hid behind the nearest tree, watching as the two figures sat down next to a large elm, and then lay down and fell asleep. Suddenly, one of the figures slowly stood up, as carefully as possible, and reached into the saddlebag of his horse. Light shone on the hilt of a small dagger, and then an anguished scream echoed through the air. The first figure, lay on the ground without moving, as the second looked around and then hiding the body behind the elm, hopped onto the horse. Only Antonia saw how roots sprang up, and soundlessly pulled the body into the ground, and then plucked the second off the horse, as if he was a feather and not a full-grown man. His cry of pain sliced through the air, and then he too was under the ground.

When he disappeared, Antonia held her breath and pulling the frightened horse by the bridle, tied it to another tree before retracing her steps to the elm. You may ask how a woman, who had just witnessed a murder was so calm, and you might even say that her being called a witch is very right, but you must understand that this was not the first time that Antonia had seen something like this. Sure, this was the first human killing, but trees were strange beings; they feasted on deer, sheep that came too close, moose, birds, rabbits, and any animal that was in the roots' reach. 

The old woman knew that trees were more powerful than one may think and that nothing but wisdom and trickery could help in an argument with them. These trees were here for many years, many thousands of years, before the people had arrived, built houses then towns, and later cities that spanned much larger than you would think was possible from such small beings as humans. These trees knew more secrets than any other being in the world, they were wiser than the night, more powerful than the earth, and knew every part in the woods.

Their roots, as small as the threads that tied the people’s clothes together, and as big as tree trunks themselves, snaked under the ground, crisscrossing like the veins in a human body, and their own “blood”  — insects, small creatures, and larva, traveled from one end of them to the other. Trees were immutable giants, who wished not to be touched, and to be left alone. Many of their soldiers had fallen at the hands of men, left to wither on the ground, and through the years the woods had grown to loathe people and the destruction that followed them like a well-trained dog. And yet one person was able to talk to these giants, to show them the other side of people, and this person had just witnessed this whole scene and was now trudging up the hill to the elm. 

As the old woman soon found, talking to this particular tree was much harder than she had imagined when they first met. Because of the tree’s old age, he was much more suspicious of men and was completely sure that every one of them was a liar, spy, murderer of fellow trees, and all in all a snake of a person, always trying to slither away from their problem. Though Antonia believed this to be true as well and had known many people who would perfectly fit this description, she tried all her might to explain to the elm her thoughts. But he was as immovable as his large trunk and branches showed. His deep (almost as deep as his roots were in the ground) belief that all men were monsters, out only to kill, pillage, and lie, had led him to become almost too taciturn to say a word.

Antonia and the elm were both firm in what they believed in, and day after day their beliefs just became more and more entrenched, leading to their conversations being more and more one-sided. And yet, the deaths did not stop. After the deaths of the second daughter of the Bourgamister, and the four peasant women, the old woman appeared next to the tree before the burning sun flew up into the air, and stayed at her post through the day and into the night. When the moon, in turn, began to fade away from the velvety night sky, an agreement was reached and Antonia, happy with her small victory, hobbled back home. 

In the next month, Antonia appeared, again and again, learning an incantation that would unlock every innocent murdered from the tree’s grip. Their faces, cut out on the bark of the elm, watched Antonia as she slowly ran her hands back and forth, whispering the spell, louder and louder, until it became a song that rang out in the cold, morning air. With it, every person who was killed, stepped out of the bark, as if they were walking through a fog that was only a drawing of the tree.

They appeared as fast as they had once disappeared. But, they never came back to the city —  they could not, pulled to the woods forever, and only coming out one time a year when then they walked into the city and met their relatives. Met, because none of them could understand, or remember who was in front of them, and they flew away into the woods year after year, as if they were pieces of shredded metal, pulled away by a giant magnet. None of them could fully explain their feelings; as if ghosts, they walked through the rooms that they had filled with their noise, as children, their eyes wide open, and yet not seeing. Nothing could wake them up from the strange, sleeping state. Humans are strange creatures; even though their relatives were unrecognizable, the city folk were happy and flocked to parade through the streets, celebrating the end of the horrible killings.

Only one person in the city was left in the shadow, and this figure was now slowly making her way through the woods, softly murmuring to herself. Antonia was unsure of what she felt, and so chose to not feel anything. The people that had stopped to hear her story, did not believe a word of it, and hurried away from her, as if she was simply a beggar, asking for money. After a series of conversations, Antonia began to slowly understand that these people would never listen, not even if thousands of years would pass. And so, now she was on the hill that had started it all, and hobbling closer to the elm, pulled herself down onto the ground. And as the tale says, she is sitting there to this day, watching the sun and moon rise and fall like the horses on a carousel, and the tree beside her, does as well, just to these two withered, unloved, and unwanted beings, coarse and unfriendly watching the skies. Many years later, when Antonia died her last words were spoken to this elm, who would watch over her for years to come, until even he, the picture of power and strength, would fall to the ground. 

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