Go ahead! Sit, Sir. I know I’m not much to look at, but if you squint, doesn’t the deep brown of my leaves remind you of chocolates from the North? Those countries where darling little houses boast steep little roofs, all in rows like chocolates themselves, jutting into the box of the night, the cold and the snow?

Yes, I know a thing or two. I might not be much to look at, but my leaves have traveled far and wide, and what any of my leaves have spotted I might as well have seen with my own knotted eyes. 

But of course, we’re not in the North are we. It’s hot, you’re drenched, and you don’t strike me as a spring chicken—so why don’t you catch your breath here under my shade and let me entertain you a little?

I don’t get many visitors these days.


Let’s see…

Once upon a time, when wishes could still come true, there lived a prince with hair the color of a faded key. It curled and curled like an infant’s finger—as did his smile, gentle and sweet. He was a man who cared for small and fragile things, startling game away from hunters and transporting spiders out of the path of courtiers’ filigreed heels. His hospitality won him countless tokens of gratitude from the travelers who passed through his land.

But he himself was often away, for the prince was also a brave and adventurous sailor.

Over the years, he accumulated the loveliest objects—not only thank yous from guests but also souvenirs from his own travels. It became necessary for him to dedicate a hall of his castle to these possessions. How marvelous they were!

Among them: 

A robin’s-egg-blue bell which could fly on paper wings…

A chain of silver off which a silver Bible dangled…

A tiger shaped from gelatin, housed in a tank of green waters…

But I could spend forever telling you of these things. What I should tell you instead is that one night, the prince’s fortune took a turn.


That night was black and storm-pocked. The sky crashed into itself over and over like a wave into the hull of a ship. The entire castle shook, but the prince, a uniquely sensitive soul, was nonetheless able to hear three timid knocks at his door. 

He pried the door open to see a shivering slip of an old woman, her striped gray and white hair resembling a bleached candy cane. 

When she spoke, her voice too seemed bleached.

“Good prince—I hope the rumors of your hospitality are true! You see, my home is still several countries from here, and I can’t travel in this wet with my arthritic bones. Could I trouble you to shelter them for the night?”

“Of course, little mother,” replied the prince. “In fact, you’re just in time for dinner with the rest of my court.”  

He called for an extra place to be set at his table, for the fire to be stoked to greater fieriness in the fireplace, and for the stew that was the pride of his royal heritage to be served at once. 

What an extraordinary stew it was! 

Among the ingredients: 

Pink shrimp like roses…

Sausages rich as robber barons…

Cream to rival the creamiest of Christmas candles…

But I could spend forever telling you of these things. What I should tell you instead is that the old woman, whose country no one at the table had heard of, exhibited the most bizarre manners that night.


The old woman clapped her hands at the appearance of the stew. “Oh, what a delightful aroma! Never has my nose so loved a room.” 

She sat back in her chair, closed her eyes, and inhaled deeply.

Courtiers gasped. Porcelain shattered.

Streams of stew arced into the air out of each diner’s bowl—cream to rival the creamiest of Christmas candles, sausages rich as robber barons, pink shrimp like roses—and congealed into a monumental sphere of stew hovering over the long table. Suddenly, the sphere scissored into two rivers; then, each river rushed toward one of the old woman’s nostrils. 

She inhaled and inhaled, until every drop of stew was gone out of every bowl. Then she opened her eyes.

“I can’t wait to try this stew!” 

The courtiers, aghast, began to stir in anger…

But the gentle prince was quicker. He whisked the old woman to her feet. “How barbaric of me to task you with conversation after such a long journey, little mother! Let me show you to the room I’ve prepared for you, and you can take your meal there.” 

The old woman nodded appreciatively. She followed the prince through his lushly appointed corridors, leaning on his tender arm.  


The next morning, the sky was blue as a bluebonnet. 

When the old woman took leave of the prince, she clasped his hands warmly at the castle gate. “I know my foreign manners strike some as peculiar. But I never want your people to say my people don’t know how to show gratitude. 

My good prince, I have left you a gift in your hall of marvels—I hope you find much pleasure in her.”

When the prince returned to his hall, he was confronted with the most astonishing sight. Rising into the rafters amid the flying bell, the silver Bible, the gelatin tiger, and other lesser wonders, was a sprawling tree of clear, pure, shimmering ice. The bark was ice ridged with ice; the leaves were delicate, heart-shaped flags of ice; the branches were tendrils of ice twisting into the air like the horns of a beautiful ram-god. Then the tree spoke.

“I’m so glad you’re here! I was starting to melt.”

Her voice was a lilting mint. 

The prince dashed to her side. “Dear tree, what can I do to help? Should I put out the fires in my castle? Should I surround you with other blocks of ice?”

“No, no, that’s not how it works.” The tree waved a few branches impatiently. “It has nothing to do with the heat. I only need your love to stay intact.”

The prince, whose heart never lacked in love for others, exhaled with relief. “I think it would be easy to love you, tree. You’re the greatest wonder I have ever seen.” 

“Good.” The tree scintillated, giving the impression of a smile. “Show me—keep me company.”

So the prince sat at the foot of the tree and leaned against her surprisingly temperate trunk. The two talked into the night of the other marvels in the hall, of what her leaves had seen in the far countries, and of what he had encountered in his own travels.


Trumpets woke them the next day. “There is a hunt today,” the prince startled. “I need to get out in front of the hunters and shoo the doe and the buck, the swan and the duck!”

The light through the tree dimmed, as if in a pout. “How long will you be gone?” she asked.

“Not long,” promised the prince. 

Then he rushed to shoo the doe and the buck, the swan and the duck.

But he returned to a ghastly scene in the hall.

The little bell was struggling to fly on soaked paper wings…

Words bled across the silver pages of the Bible…

The green waters which housed the gelatin tiger gushed down the sides of its tank…

And the tree was a mere nub of ice.

“I’m so glad you’re here! I was starting to melt.”


With the prince’s companionship, the tree regained her former glory; all her bits which had melted off regrew as good as new. The two talked into the night (and the day, and the night) of the other marvels, of what her leaves had seen, and of what he had encountered in his own travels.

He did not think of leaving the tree’s side again until several nights later, when the bowing of violins startled him to his feet. 

“There is a ball tonight,” he recalled. “I must watch and make sure the crawling things with whom I share my castle, the spiders and their ilk, don’t frighten the ladies. Or if they do, that no harm comes to them.”

The light through the tree became attenuated again, like spilt milk. 

“How long will you be gone?” she asked.

“Not long,” promised the prince.


You might guess what happened next, Sir. The prince learned quickly that he couldn’t leave the tree for even a twelfth of a day, if he wished for her to remain in good health. Sailing, his greatest passion, was completely out of the question.

It was only when the tree nodded off for a spell now and again that he was released from his duty. These interludes were brief, as trees don’t need much rest, seeing as we move so little. 

Anyway, whenever his tree nodded off—whenever the light through her ice trunk and ice branches began to pulse rhythmically—the prince would steal away for a walk in the woods around his castle. He enjoyed the sun’s caress, the birds’ song, and the solidity of un-marvelous trees.

One hot day, he rested from his walk in the shade of an apparently un-marvelous tree. As his thoughts wandered, he began to hum a sea ditty he had learned on one of his voyages, long ago. 

Then he shook his head. The curls of his faded-key-colored hair flopped dispiritedly over his brow. “If only I could sail again,” he sighed.

“How do you think I feel?” came a bemused, female voice from behind him. The prince nearly toppled over in his surprise. The apparently un-marvelous tree behind him, with matte brown bark and drab green leaves, was speaking. 

“Cheer up, prince. I’ve learned a tune to console myself with, when my leaves tell me of what they’ve seen and I despair at being rooted here.”

The tree began to sing.

Taut cotton mats, hammocks for gulls
Forms of the clouds to my half-opened eyes
Now shivering sheep before the shore
Spilling their wool in the nude blue of skies
For the mother of sirens, the Sea with her lulls
Her haloed hair weaving the coquettish tides
Singing so each grain of sand must pine…
‘Til I whisper to myself, myself implore
To remember that “My heart is mine.”

I watch the sea with her sad white worms
And pity the creatures of fate and foam
Who inch ever forth but fall to nothing
And know neither the dream of repose nor home
Nor the love of liberty at which Adam squirms
For which waters sing and gypsies roam
And for which the vast sea makes me pine
A cerulean sickness that sets the soul frothing…
‘Til I reproach myself, saying “My heart is mine.”

Oh the haughty waters! The faithless Sea!
Though she churns enchantment with all her might
And has, through eras, each poet won
In her gamy gown, trailing frills of white
I turn her away below my knee
For behind her seraphic song and sight
I see worms of want and hear her whine
As her spurning waters have left her none…
So be not like she, and do not pine

Be glad, my heart, for you are mine!

“You see? It’s not all bad.”

The prince was delighted. He threw his arms around the singing tree and thanked her for her song. Then they talked for a little while of his other tree, of the other marvels in his hall, of what the singing tree’s leaves had seen in the far countries, and of what he had encountered in his own travels. 

But the sun also traveled, and soon the prince had to leave.

“I’ll come see you again,” he promised the singing tree.


The prince was true to his word. Whenever the ice tree nodded off, the prince would steal away to the singing tree. They became fast friends, chattering of marvels and the far countries.

But the singing tree began to grow despondent without the prince’s company. Each time he rose to return to the castle, she pleaded with him to stay. 

He could never stay.

After some time passed in this way, one day, the prince came to the singing tree with his brow furrowed in sorrow. The singing tree urged him to sit in her shade and tell her what was on his mind.

“I love my ice tree,” he said carefully, “but it’s not the same as it was in the beginning. I remember being glad for the gift of her—of thinking her wonderful beyond compare. 

Now, I often wish I didn’t have to keep her company. Does that make me a terrible prince?”

The singing tree ruffled her leaves in protest. “Not at all! From what I understand, from what my leaves have seen… if we expect love to endure, we shall almost always be disappointed. Whether we’re a prince or a tree.

In fact, I know a tune which says something to that effect.”

And she began to sing.

When, into the fountain, I cast my dime
to rest beside yearnings silver and brown—
the great amours of some forgotten time,
even yesterday’s love, all settled down—
I wonder if it’s not tragically true
that metal outlives the passions of men,
and if love always wears a tarnished hue
if one blinks and searches its face again.
Or one’s love-wish might be forever lost,
indistinguishable to one’s own eye,
amid the sly winks to which it was tossed
of those gleaming cynics—old coins most wry.

Now doubting myself, I roll up my sleeve,
reach in, reclaim my love, and take my leave.

“Still, it’s only natural to hope.”

The prince threw his arms around the singing tree. “You always make me feel better,” he professed gratefully.


But then, the sun arced through the sky many, many times without the prince visiting the singing tree. Worried, she tried unsuccessfully to float her leaves toward the castle to find out what was happening. Only, the wind would not cooperate. 

Finally, one day, the prince came to the tree again. Anguish pulled taut the bow of his lips. 

“I can’t see you anymore,” he choked. “I need to stay with the ice tree; she won’t survive otherwise.” 

He ran his hands over the singing tree’s plain brown bark, which he had learned to distinguish from the plain brown bark of all the other un-marvelous trees, and which he had grown to love. “But you should know that you are magical—I’ve never felt as much magic in my life as during my time with you.” 

The singing tree was quiet. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, her leaves began to droop, and to fade. After a while, she murmured, “Magic is no consolation for love. 

In fact, I know a story which says something to that effect.”

She sang. 

Down by the stretch of sand that runs
like eager children, on and on
around about the green sea’s lungs
singing some sad and salted song,

up by the clumps of cloud that drift
into their lofty fellows straight
and out again after some rift
rankles the lords of airy gait,

a cottage stands the tide of times
and boasts blossoming lilacs near,
its garden deaf to hourly chimes,
untouched by day or month or year.

The Witch, they say, in this house dwells
and watches the young lovers dance,
their pink feet crushing pinker shells,
while breathing out perfumed romance.

Such romance wafts in waxing waves,
sedating as the scented sea
which murmurs blessings out the caves
yet flushes green with mean envy.

The Witch, in such a pungent air,
oft forms some silent word of curse
to break apart the blissful pair,
to lay their love inside a hearse.

So if a couple strolls at night,
in looking to the house, they may
spy two points of silvery light
which off the windowpanes do play.

Then lovers, caught in world apart,
may like in perfect faith to claim
each light to be one lover’s heart,
both joined within one window frame.

The dancing duo would not know
those white pinpricks to be the eyes
of wretched Witch, their woeful foe
who fogs the night with heavy sighs.

She greedily breathes the many scenes
of merry pairs that pass before
her glass, as she has not the means
to love, in all her spells of store.

Such pining turns to dire disease
in even witches old and cold,
so one day on the dancing breeze,
comes Death’s hand for the Witch to hold.

Straight out her shelter walks the Witch,
her gray feet crushing grayer shells,
into the sea whose love is rich,
embracing who, beneath it, dwells.

Down by the stretch of sand that runs
like eager children, on and on
around about the great sea’s lungs
wailing its woe from dusk to dawn,

a shack yet stands the tide of times,
with remnants of some lilacs near,
like dried corpses of dreary crimes,
untouched by day or month or year.

When the tree finished singing, the prince was nowhere to be found.

She looked to the left, and she looked to the right, but all she noticed was that her leaves had dulled to the same brown as her bark.


Sir, have I kept you too long? Maybe you have somewhere to go, someone to return to.

I can see by the grooves in your face that you have also known pain. That you have also waited a long while to be reconciled with happiness.

Do you recognize something of yourself in this story? Tell me, prince, can you stay?

— Stephanie Yue Duhem is writing out of Austin, TX. She created the images in this story using DALL-E.

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