Amongst tufts of struggling grass, amid the mud and clusters of weeds, the tree rose flagrantly, eyeing its adversaries below with the kind of hauteur that, in nature, only a large oak can muster. The boy found it easily enough – in the glow of a full moon its outline was clearly definable along the barren hilltop – but as his small legs manoeuvred themselves up its trunk, the tree’s coarse bark clawed at his mud-stained ankles and by the time he was safely perched on the lowest branch, a reddish-brown blood had begun to coat his legs.
‘Stupid tree!’ cried the boy. ‘Why do you have to be so rough?’
The tree answered with a groan as a strong wind pushed at its ageing limbs. The boy wobbled on the flimsy branch and as his grip tightened, a loud crack echoed through the silent air. ‘Uh-oh.’
‘Ethan?’ His sister’s voice reached him just before he fell. ‘Ethan!’
‘I’m here! Lily, help-’
As the branch dropped, Ethan’s nine-year-old arms flailed wildly, grasping at handfuls of flaky wood until he landed heavily on the ground below. In the silence that followed he could hear Lily’s footsteps, agile and light, hopping from stone to mud-free stone until suddenly her quizzical face appeared above him. ‘What are you lying in the mud for?’
‘I fell.’ He pointed, needlessly, to the tree above him.
‘I told you not to sit on that weedy branch at the back, didn’t I?’ There was a brief pause, her earnest eyes surveying him. ‘Are you all right?’
‘My back hurts.’
She nodded slowly. ‘Actually I meant about earlier, about what Daddy said about moving away.’
He shook his head and turned back to the tree, one leg already attempting to remount the monster. Behind him, he heard Lily sigh.
‘It’ll be fun, Ethan,’ she said quietly, ‘like an adventure.’
But Ethan didn’t want an adventure, not that kind anyway; halfway up the tree and with a steadily decreasing patience, he snapped back, ‘Are you coming or not?’
A fast-paced rustling was her answer; expertly Lily weaved her way through the foliage, reaching one of the weightier branches near the front a good minute before her brother.
‘Daddy says we’ll make lots of new friends,’ she ventured, when Ethan’s flustered face finally appeared next to her.
‘You will too!’
Ethan shrugged and for a while the siblings sat in comfortable silence, watching from their perch the soothing twinkle of the village lights below. When it began to grow cold, Lily tugged at her brother’s sleeve, but he refused to be coaxed from his post. For Ethan, that tree was home and even Lily, in all her spirited confidence and social ease, could see the undeniable parallels between her introvert brother and that solitary, immovable tree.