Life changes. One second, all is well; and then the next second brings Change, usually with a Capital C., and often in a dose too big to easily swallow.

Ruby had tried. She’d tried to force it all down, until one day she finally choked on change; and then, fueled by panic, was propelled into headlong flight. She rushed blindly about, here, there, and everywhere, searching for salvation and finding only half whispered promises that failed to deliver. She ran on and on until she stumbled out of the swirling fog of heartache and desperation to find herself teetering on the edge of a world gone gray.

She instinctively recognized this bleak landscape in which she stood, and knew that it had finally claimed her. It was an echoingly lonely place which would eventually force a person to their knees in order to better gaze upon the wavering reflection of their own ash covered shadows. She’d avoided it as long as she was able, knowing this locality could do nothing but lure her into consideration of the dark and lonesome spots that lurk in the corners of most human hearts. She didn’t expect to survive her stay here.

Ruby’s wide green eyes, usually clear and bright, were stunned and dull. All she had known had ended and she was unable to offer up acceptance in return. She was barely able to cope with all the empty space between each painfully shallow breath. Her once beautiful body, much weakened from its former glory, had struggled to carry her this far, and could go no further.

Staring blankly at that haunting space of eternity that beckoned from just a footstep away, her whole self ached for stillness. She wished for a pause, a space in time to try and absorb the enormity of it all. But she also knew that it was bigger than she was and would probably destroy her in the process. She just longed for it all to stop. There had to be a way to escape, to make it all go away, to no longer feel pain, to become numb. Her tenacity was no longer sufficient to maintain her forward momentum, for tenacity is fueled by Hope and Ruby’s hope had shriveled over the past months, much like the flesh on her frame. Her hope had been reduced to dry bone and gristle and was virtually unrecognizable.

Too frozen in fear to move forward alone, too heart-sore to continue looking back; blinded by her own tears until she was unable to see anything clearly; Ruby saw no escape from her private prison and was, at long last, utterly unable to continue.

At that moment, the very last remnant of hope was wrung from her heart, and burst from the corner of her left eye in one single, fat, burning teardrop. It was the only one she had left.

Her last tear fell in weighted, slow motion; the death throes of Ruby’s optimism. Bulging with broken confidence and unfulfilled dreams, it shattered on impact into rainbow droplets upon the thick carpet of grass at her feet. Her blurred thoughts could hardly comprehend the speed with which a small tree burst from the soil and shot upward in a dark confused rush of tangled branches. It rapidly became a tall, gnarled tree that loomed far above Ruby’s head. The Dark Tree stood, a pillar of strength and the very last stop at the absolute bitter edge of endings.

Deeply rooted, and well-versed in Time’s Ravages; the Dark Tree grows only from the shattered last hope and had answered her soul’s cry for help. It silently offered itself as the last resort and spoke gently to her of comfort and shelter. It whispered warm welcomes to a haven that would act as safe harbor in the midst of her too perfect storm.

The possibility of refuge was all Ruby’s weary mind could grasp. Cowering close to the tree’s solid protection, she marveled at the courage of her heart in continuing to beat, as her legs were no longer capable of supporting her. Overwhelmed with terror, laced through with indecision, she clutched a thick branch to help steady her quivering limbs. She leaned into the weathered trunk and tasted faint relief at no longer being completely adrift at the brink. She’d found an anchor to help her weather the rough seas. Ruby had no earthly idea how the tree had suddenly come to be, but was too empty to dredge up the necessary words to question its existence.

The solace she found in the Tree’s nurturing embrace lent her the necessary will to concentrate on slowly drawing a full, uninterrupted breath. This simple act of survival allowed fragments of clarity to resurface, and the internal tug toward the threatening abyss lessened. Tensely knotted muscles calmed, and the fossilized nest of fear in her middle began to soften and melt. Still clinging tightly to the only comfort she could reach, Ruby’s bleary eyes suddenly closed, and her severely rumpled and heart-sick spirit tumbled head-first into escape and the death-like sleep of the excruciatingly exhausted.

She dreamed of the Tree. She saw they had known each other long ago in a far-away place. Their friendship was easy and familiar with the practice of many years of life together; so she remained unafraid as she felt her spirit self begin to drift and then meld with that of the tree. Her mind’s eye showed her visions of her wine-red gown slowly fading to the dusty, deep brown shades of ancient tree bark. Her ivory skin tanned and weathered, whorled with knot holes and left behind impressions from birds and bugs. She watched as her long hair spiraled into vine-like tendrils; it twisted and twined into crooked branches, soon lost among the upper reaches of the tree. Ruby couldn’t even hold on to her astonishment, but sank down through the thick ooze of exhaustion deep into the very marrow of the tall tree.

Here was safety. Here her soft self, so vulnerable to injury under skin too thin, was protected inside thick hardwood and craggy bark. Here she was cradled in loving care and merciful oblivion. In this velvet darkness, far beyond the grasping fingers of daily life, and the ache of loving obligation, she was finally able to give up, give in, let go and rest. Everything slowed to an almost pause….the world, her breathing, her tears, her heart, her life.

Time passed, as time does, even when one is frozen in shock. The Dark Tree gave poor Ruby much needed shelter, and stood sentinel over the private space she needed to begin to learn how to finally heal. Through its many deep tap roots, the kindly guardian shared with her elements of itself and the earth surrounding them. With this help, the tear-stained soul held in the tree’s center began to renew and transform. Sealed away from death, fear and harm; germination, regeneration, and metamorphosis gradually took place in the still and the hidden.

With the influence of the tree’s life blood, her shocked, crystallized mind began to melt into trickling blue streamlets of neglected, too painful thoughts. Unwilling to allow the thaw as there were no answers to these hurtful facts, Ruby turned away from coherence and chose instead hibernation while the old skin of her self peeled away and was shed. Like Sleeping Beauty, she slept on as the old, hot, inner agonies were precisely scooped away and replaced with a cooling snow-like mist. At long last, her semi-transparent spirit, no longer raw and abraded, began to grow a pearly-light protective shell patterned with the delicate texture of aged bark. She would never be so vulnerable again.

Much later, Ruby swam up through murky layers of clouded consciousness to find herself feeling calm, reasonable, pain-free and rested. Her body tentatively holding a sense of something so long absent as to be almost foreign. She examined this feeling and found it to be a small serving of vitality and feeling of correctness that now occupied the place in her belly where vipers had recently nested.

Her green eyes lowered in silent wonder as she gave thanks for the much-needed reprieve. It was the miracle she had longed for through hard-filled years. The respite gave Ruby the strength needed to embrace the silent moments in which she must ponder a strange future and contemplate uncertainty. She was much surprised to find that her own often-maligned courage no longer failed her. In the past, she had been unable to see around the peaked mountains of weakness, fear and despair; but now….now she was seeing everything differently, as if through completely fresh eyes that offered a different vantage point.

Her restored vision allowed her to at last discern her own unique brand of bravery and impressive strength of will. She could finally measure how very far she had traveled, even with her misguided wanderings into vales of tears. Ruby had discovered that determination can live on in secret, in spite of avoidance, denial, and bone-crunching fatigue of spirit. She’d begun to glean the knowledge of the world’s deeper mysteries. She was unraveling the workings of true power, what it consists of, and where it really resides.

As she was able to unlock and understood this secret of self, her stubborn little heart, still tender – for it had almost broken – jumped, and then resumed the rhythm of the living, sending instant warmth flowing through her veins. The sudden heat refocused her dormant strength and sparked a light in the deep inner darkness. The shadows ebbed and dispersed as if they had never been. Her physical senses hesitantly returned and Ruby grew conscious of the absence of sunlight falling on her face. She was aware of vibrant birdsong filling ears that were no longer firmly closed to sounds of joy.

Life and the will to once again experience it eased back into her body and she became vaguely uncomfortable in her stagnant position. Her skin itched and felt much too tight, as if it no longer could completely cover her. The rasping tree bark that encased her ceased to be shelter and rapidly became irritating. The comfort she’d desperately needed began to feel confining, and she discovered that which had supported her no longer fit her corners or supplied her wants. This place had been outgrown and Ruby could feel that it would only grow more uncomfortable. She realized that her time here must soon come to a close, or she would be in danger of suffocation. Her cocoon, so necessary for survival, had now outlasted its true purpose. If she didn’t leave it behind and learn to let it go, it would eventually become her prison. Her own strength would have to be enough.

At the exact moment of her sudden epiphany, a shining sword appeared in Ruby’s hand and the inner realms of the tree parted beneath the sharp blade as if by magic. The urge to move outward and into the realm of forgotten freedom feverishly mounted in her chest. Each inhaled breath revealed more of her true self emerging from within the tree. The velvety red color of her dress slowly returned, along with the pale fairness to her no longer care-worn cheeks and smooth, soft arms. Life once again bloomed in her eyes and slowly spread across her face, ending in a small smile of recognition.

For Ruby had recognized the gift of her own healed strength, and her new eyes showed her how the blessed symmetry of each faltering step had allowed her to unknowingly move forward. She could now spring forth from her dark hiding place. She would finally face that which had driven her across the plains of her own trepidation, and all this long, lonely way down to the very precipice of everything.

She was no longer hunted; no longer shaken to the core. Her heart had mended and though she still wore scars, she now stood her ground firmly, no longer needing the Tree’s gentle support. She had grown wise in her experience, was again determined in mind and strong in body and spirit. She knew deep in her bones, with astounding clarity, that she was truly capable of all that needed doing. Ruby had grown into Certainty. Her time in the tree had taught her how to be resolute and she knew she would never again forget.

Ruby also understood that she now wore the magic of the Dark Tree. She’d absorbed it along with the Absolute Knowing that was left behind after the long dreams. She remembered nothing from her time hidden in chrysalis deep inside the tree’s trunk, but the incredibly vivid dreams. She knew that she would forever carry this magical layer of dream echoes and deepest realizations. They settled over her new skin as an armor, protecting her from misconceptions, wrong turnings, and self delusion.

The Certain Knowledge pushed her onward, upward, and far away from the brutal edge she’d been drawn to. With a grateful nod to the powerful Tree for keeping her safe when she wasn’t able to help herself, Ruby turned her back on her private history and resolved that her past was not going to write the remainder of her story. She set her sights on a still unknown, but no longer uncertain horizon. The swirling fog was gone; her green eyes no longer clouded with tears and, Ruby could clearly see the way to her future lay before her.

The Tree’s Gifts, though freely given, were not without cost. The time she had lost to the outside world while she was sheltered inside the tree would never be regained. And she had missed much. Ruby’s newly acquired pearly-shell of protection was heavy. Her new knowledge was at times, quite heavy. But she was strong now; her slender shoulders held straight under the weight of these recently acknowledged burdens. She was proud in the knowing that not all could easily bear them. She’d somehow learned to carry the immense dignity, strength and power of the tree softly, as if she was born to it. And she was. She had finally discovered that these particular fine qualities merely walked in tandem next to her own.

 © Theresa Stahl June 6, 2017

16″ x 20″ acrylic on canvas