“No, you can’t do it!” My little girl clung to my skirts, and cried. The tears were real, and I knew why she protested.
“It’s in your bones, and in your ancestry to protect the forest.” I knelt down to her height, wiped away the tears with gentle thumbs.
She nodded, her lower lip trembled.
“Darling Palenta, I know it seems wrong, but we must let this tree go.”
“You don’t know, mommy?” Her eyes were wide, and her knuckles turned white as she grasped my wrists.
“Tell me.” It was our invitation to each other. Those two simple words meant we could say whatever we wanted or needed, and the other person would listen.
Palenta looked up at the ancient tree. It’s bark had been grey for more than a century, and a new leaf hadn’t grown for nearly that long. Custom told us it was time to make room for other trees, time to let the tree go. But my little girl struck a dancing pose, mirrored parts of the tree, looked up into my eyes and recited the ancient story, as if she knew it by heart.
“She dances in the moonlight, silvery off her leaves. Her roots become feets, the breeze her partner, and the earth her stage. Everyone, everyone stops to watch, to listen. Little animals, little birds, tiny creatures too small to see, the stars, but especially the moon. They all hold their breath, because her dance makes everyone breathless. She dances in the moonlight, silvery off her leaves. Mommy, she’ll dance again.”
I stood in shock. No one had uttered that story for more than fifty years. What was going on?
Palenta moved up to the bark, and caressed it like it was soft as rabbit fur. She coo’ed at it like a doll.
“I know the Right of Surrender.” Her tiny voice carried across the cleared path. My heart stopped.
“No, no one knows it anymore.” I said to her. My feet were frozen in place. She was less than ten feet away, but out of reach. There were a handful of us that knew the Right, but we were all sworn to never to reveal it. Our books, our scrolls, it had all been burned. She couldn’t know.
Palenta turned to face me, and she pointed a finger, her brown hair shifted in the breeze. “You gave me the knowledge, when you borned me, mommy. I want to surrender to this tree. It’s the highest honor for an ancestor tree.”
My blood turned icy. Rumors in the village circulated that children born in the last two decades carried knowledge they shouldn’t, but this?
“Mommy doesn’t want you to surrender. Come back over here, darling.” I knelt down, lifted my arms up to her.
Palenta closed her eyes and shook her head. It reminded me of my grandmother, when the village decided to stop the old ways, burn the Ritual. Palenta turned toward the tree and began to recite the cursed words.
“No, Palenta. Mommy and daddy will be very angry if you leave. We don’t want you to go. You’ll be gone forever.” I screamed, and begged. I stood but still my feet couldn’t move forward. As the ritual continued, more of the village arrived. None of them could get close either.
Palenta’s best friend, Maggy, burst through the crowd. She whooped, and ran toward the tree. Palenta glowed, and her feet lifted off the ground as the magical energy used her body as a conduit. Maggy ran up to Palenta, and I knew my little girl would be saved.
Maggy grabbed Palenta’s hand, and began chanting in unison. Soon Maggy glowed, and was lifted off her feet.
We watched as the children continued the ritual, surrendering their life for the sake of the tree. It was a cruel nightmare, I would wake and start the morning anew.
Two hours later, the whole village watched as the two girls bodies shone with the light of the sun for a moment, their hair streaming, their clothes whipped around, their limbs stiff. The smell of fresh earth, as if it had just rained, seemed to grow pungent.
My feet could move, and I ran for Palenta. Maggy’s mom ran for her. We caught our daughters’ lifeless bodies before the tree released them. We both wailed the Song of Sorrow, and plead to undo the rite. In unison we bowed a thousand times to the tree, and remained silent. Our husbands tried to comfort us through their own tears. Our families gathered around us.
At midnight, the moon high in the sky, we saw the tree come to life again, bloom with green-silver leaves. It touched the parents’ foreheads.
For a brief moment, I heard ‘I’m okay Mommy. This is magical.’ and it was gone. Palenta’s voice retreated. The tree danced in the moonlight as it had for eons.