One Wednesday, seven-year-old Jemima Sidney went into the woods to visit her tree. He was a nice tree. He reminded her of her grandfather, whom she’d seen two summers ago when she was five, but they hadn’t been back there because he lived all the way the other side of the country and they lived in Trinity’s Field, NC. But that was all right, because she had her tree and the tree smelled like her grandfather. And he talked like him, too.
Jemima’s mother was in real estate. That meant that she sold houses to people. Jemima often wondered what her mother would sell if she was in imaginary estate, but when she asked one time, her mother told her not to be silly; and another time, she told her not to be rude. Jemima also wasn’t sure how you could sell a house because it’s far too big to put in your pocket, see, but she also wasn’t allowed to ask that question. Her daddy was a lot easier to understand, because he didn’t sell houses; he built them. He often told her that made him and her mother a perfect pair.
When they had first moved to Trinity’s Field, NC, just after the last time she’d seen her grandfather, one day she decided to go out into the woods. It was easy because there were woods just behind their house and they went on for miles and miles. And she knew all about Little Red Riding Hood, but she wasn’t scared because there weren’t any wolves in this part of North Carolina, only bears and everyone knows that Goldilocks got away because bears only eat porridge.
But she didn’t meet a bear, because twenty-four yards from her house, she found a small clearing (called a “Glade”, Rembert told her) and that’s where she met Rembert the tree. At first, though, she didn’t really care about Rembert, she only really cared about the vine that was going up his trunk, because the more she looked at it, the more that vine seemed to shimmer and glow. And when she reached out to touch it, she could swear the vine moved.
“The Demno doesn’t like to be touched,” said a voice nearby.
Remembering the story of Little Red Riding Hood, Jemima gasped and turned, expecting to see the Wolf, or a Big Bad Bear behind her. But that wasn’t where the voice was from.
It was the tree that had spoken to her. It was easy to miss that it had a face in it, but once you saw it speak, it was unmistakable. His name was Rembert and he explained that he used to be a human boy, but he had given up life as a human more than a hundred years ago to live as a Dryad. A Dryad was a man in a tree, like Rembert. She got to be friends with him because she remembered where he was and she visited him and he explained to her another time that people needed Dryads so that they could communicate with the Demno, and the Demno was the shimmering vine that crept up the bark of his trunk and didn’t like to be touched.
“But why do people care about shimmery vines?” At first, Jemima thought it might have been a rude question and she scolded herself, but Rembert didn’t mind and he answered her.
“The Demno is very powerful,” he told her. “More powerful than most of us realize. It controls the fate of all of the trees and all of the flowers and plants on the planet. Most people don’t know the Demno because it hides from them—that’s how the Powers that Be want it…” He had been getting excited, but now he slowed down. “There are things out there more powerful than the Demno.”
Her parents didn’t approve of her talking to trees. That’s why she did it in private; when they weren’t looking, she’d sneak out, and be sure to be back before they noticed. But sometimes she would tell them things Rembert had said.
“Who’s Rembert?” asked her mother one time when she found herself listening to her daughter.
And Jemima explained that Rembert was the tree out in the woods—
“You’re not supposed to go out in the woods,” her mother reminded her.
“Oh, let her go,” her father spoke up then. “Don’t worry, we’ve got the whole place roped off, fenced in. Let her enjoy the woods while she still can.”
Jemima wasn’t sure what that last part meant, but she was glad it was safe to go talk to Rembert in the woods now.
So that Wednesday, she went out into the woods to talk to her favorite tree. But when she got there, she saw the strangest thing.
There was a man there, huddled on the ground in front of Rembert, and the man kept saying “Please… please, Demno, let me back in, oh! Praise be to Lord Gollobor, don’t make me do this!”
The man was wrinklier than her daddy, and his hair was wiry and grey, and he wore this big robe that kind of looked like tree-bark and leaves—and why was his voice familiar?
Then she looked at the tree and realized Rembert’s face was gone!
“Rembert!” she screeched, and the old man turned.
“Jemima,” he called to her. “Oh, my dear Little Miss Sidney. I wish you didn’t have to see me like this…”
Why did he know her name? And why did he have Rembert’s face? Slowly, it started to dawn on her why the Demno had cloven her favorite tree in two.
“I wish I could spare you this,” said Rembert, the man. “I wish you hadn’t come today, now, of all times, to this place. I wish you didn’t have to know.”
But she did know. She knew her best friend was no longer a tree—but she also knew he was sad, so she went up to him and put her arms around him.
“We’re just not powerful enough,” he sobbed. “Deals had to be made, sacrifices. If we didn’t give them this, they’d take it from somewhere else. But now they’ve made me human again.”
“It’s not that bad,” Jemima apologized. “Now you can move around, and you can dance with me!”
A curt laugh broke his sobs. “Yes, of course I will dance with you, but that… what are we going to do now? Now… where will I go? And what will become of the Demno and all of their trees?”