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Books by Quantum Muse contributors and friends.
The Greer Agency

by
Harris Tobias
Stormcastle: And Other Fun Games With Cards And Dice

by
Jeromy Henry
Peaceful Intent--Stories of human/Alien Interaction

by
Harris Tobias
CHRONON--Time Travel

by
Harris Tobias

Bijou and the Tree

by

Julie Foster



The tree was beautiful, she decided. Large with intricate bark of deep purple brown, she’d glance at it, hike her bag to a more comfortable position over her shoulder and keep going. As she passed beneath, she would lift her head and watch the leaves shiver their shadows along the branches in the breeze. When the October weather cooled them into clear reds and yellows, she’d come to a stop, temporarily stricken by beauty. As Spring dotted the branches with bright green, she’d find her step lighter and quicker.

The day she heard her name called, she’d been running late. A man in a blue coat swore under his breath as he swerved to avoid her when she slammed to a stop in front of him... She smiled into his scowl as he brushed by. Meeting her eyes briefly, he grimaced, a wry twist of his lips. Although she was tall with long hair and light eyes, she was average until she smiled. Then it was as if delight reached out and touched the heart of any who saw it. People never failed to return her smiles.

“Bijou.” The voice was husky and medium pitched but definitely male. Thinking someone was behind the tree, for the trunk could easily hide a person, she backed away and to the side, cocking her head to see around. Nobody was there. She glanced up and down the wide path. It was empty except for the man who’d almost run her down and then, he too disappeared around the corner. Laughing at herself, she hurried by, not wanting to be late. Must be the lack of sleep and too much coffee making her hear things, she thought, and forgot about it completely until the next day. Keeping her eyes straight ahead, she slowed, feeling a flush crawl her cheeks as she passed the tree and listened for the voice.

It wasn’t until the third day she heard, “Bijou.”

She leaped behind the tree but nobody was there. Gazing into the weave of branches wearing buttons of new green leaves, she could see nothing in the shadows. She took a quick walk through the surrounding bushes, gathering dew in dark stripes against her jeans. Glancing around, she brushed a length of hair out of her face before leaning in and whispering, “Yes?”

A breeze was her only answer as it shook the branches into tiny crashes and rattles. For the rest of the week, she’d slow as she passed the tree, feeling a tug of sharpened attention but it remained voiceless. Until Sunday, she went for a walk in the late spring afternoon and found herself standing under the tree, looking up into the purple shade of the branches.

“Bijou.”

To make sure she was alone, she took a quick look around, before laying her hands against the rough bark of the trunk.

“You know my name, what’s yours?”

A shudder seemed to pass through the tree and into the ground at her feet. A sudden sharp pain ate at her heart. She waited for a reply but it remained as silent as every other tree she’d come across. Sadly she walked away and down to the beach. The ocean was gray glass, reflecting a cloudy sky on the wind chipped surface. Bijou wandered along the dark border of wet sand, and pulled her sweater tighter across her stomach.

Wondering if she was losing her mind, she thought of calling her mother…no, that would be crazy. She’d only make a fuss and tell her she needed a rest, or worse, a husband, things heard a thousand times before. Ignoring a sudden chill, she turned and walked along the foamy edge of the water until an ache began to build in her hips and legs.

On her way to her apartment, she allowed herself to be drawn to the tree, rested her back against the trunk and let her mind float with the breeze. People passed and smiled at her. She slid down until she was on the ground and laid her head against the bark. Awake at dusk, Bijou found herself stiff and sore from sitting on the cold surface. Her mouth was dry and her mind filled with the remnants of dreams, strange ones of losing pieces of herself, being frozen, and of voices calling.

She stood, stretched and arched her back, glancing around. There on the ground next to the flattened grass still warm from her body, was a flower. Dotted with dew that ran down her hand, it glistened in the sun, velvet red and heady with perfume, when she lifted it to her nose.

Early the next morning, when she found she couldn’t eat, she began to worry for her sanity once more. Drinking coffee, Bijou stared at the rose in the glass vase in the center of the table. The room had been saturated with its perfume while she’d slept and the taste coated the back of her throat.

Thirsty, she went to the sink, poured her coffee down the drain and filled the cup from the tap, drinking in large gulps. Hearing a scratching at the window, she turned and saw a bluebird flicker its wings and settle in to watch her with a tilt of its head. A sudden wave of love engulfed her as she stared back. Finally, it seemed to get bored and flew away and she set her glass on the counter and left the apartment.

Bijou approached the tree and felt a flash of anxiety but didn’t know if she feared it would speak or remain insentient. On the path, she hung back while she gazed at it. Seeing movement above her, she looked to see a thousand bluebirds perched like jewels among the leaves. They flapped their wings in unison and took soundlessly to the sky. Forming a cloud above her and the tree, they each let go of something they’d held in their beaks, soon her hair and clothes were covered with a snow of pink petals. Laughing, she raised her hands and spun under the fragrant fall.

“Singe,” said the voice, freezing her hands in the air.

“Singe?”

“My name is Singe.”

Bijou moved in closer, absently brushing the petals from her shoulders. Laying her cheek against the warm trunk, she whispered, “is it you?”

The tree shivered at her touch but calmly replied, “of course.”

“Why are you speaking? And to me?”

“All trees can speak to the ones they love.”

A short laugh escaped her before she could stop it, “But you’re a tree! How can you love?”

“How can you?”

“Well I don’t know, but all people can love.”

“Can they?”

“I think so…most of them anyway.”

“And yet they choose not to. A tree doesn’t know how to hate.”

A lady in a long coat walked by and looked out the corner of her eyes at her. Bijou pulled away from the trunk, and hurried down the path, leaving the lady staring from the back of her petal strung hair to the littered ground.

That evening she went and sat underneath the tree watching the wind catch the circle of wilting petals into a whirl, and waited for it to talk to her. When Singe began, he spoke of the world’s beginning as a peach pit. Spat out by the sky god, it fell through the sun, cracking when it struck the edge of the universe. Hot red earth poured out of the fissures, cooling, it settled into a ball around the pit. The earth was born.

He told her of how the sun was a beautiful girl living in the east while her brother, the moon, lived in the west. Of how a giant frog would try to swallow them every now and then, causing the eclipses. How an invisible race of spirit people lived among us, appearing at will and looking like everyone else. How energy grew and spread through the roots of plants and trees, creating a golden network of life underground. For hours he strung tales through her head and heart like lace and that night, she dreamed them all over again.

The next day, Bijou left her breakfast congealing on her plate, skipped coffee, and daydreamed of living in the small cottage half hidden among the trees of the painting on her wall. The only thing that settled in her stomach was water and this she drank in copious amounts. Finding a cone of heavy headed lilacs lying on her porch steps, she put them in water and let the scent fill the room before leaving for work.

The tree did not speak to her again that day or the next. But the day after, a cloud of butterflies rose as she approached, swarming, landing on her hair and shoulders and clutching her fingers with their thread legs. Bijou was careful not to hurt them as she sat with her back against the trunk and ignored the people staring at her. She smiled at them when they strolled by, though they pretended not to see her, they couldn’t help but grin.

“Bijou.”

Starting, she glanced around her before answering “Yes, Singe?”

“Will you stay with me?”

“Today? No I can’t. I have to work.”

“When?”

“Oh…well, I could stay most of the day tomorrow, it’s my day off.”

That morning, she got up early, drank her water and had to pin her pants to keep them on. She was losing weight and briefly wondered if she should go to the doctors but shrugged the thought away. Even if she was psychotic, it seemed a harmless form and she could always lose a few pounds.


The tree was wearing a flock of colorful birds that burst into twitters and song as she neared. Laughing, she sat with her back against the warm trunk and waited for it to speak her name.

“Bijou.”

“Singe.”

“Are you staying with me today?”

“I’m staying.”

“Good, then sleep, dear Bijou.”

She found herself asleep and dreaming of love in the arms of a dark haired man with luminous eyes the color of the sea who whispered her name against her neck. He brushed her heavy hair away from her face and gently set his lips against hers, spoke her name again. Wanting to die rather than have this dream end, she held onto him and closed her eyes. And awoke to a sharp pain on the back of her hand that was lying outside the shadow of the tree. She brought it to her mouth, and met the bright eyes of a crow until it twisted its head sideways. The beak was tipped with a red bead that caught the light. There was a bloody hole above her ring finger where it had jabbed her.

With a mutter, and a louder caw, it spiraled into the sky. Holding the back of her hand against her stomach, she gazed around to find that dusk had fallen and three large crows were stalking a circle around her. Fear pressed her against the tree when they croaked in derision, darting forward and away again in fake attacks. She scrunched further into the trunk and felt as if hard arms came around and held her. Looking down, she found half her body enfolded by bark.

A new panic seized her when she tried to move and couldn’t.

“Shush, be still.” Singe’s voice was a whisper.

But it was too late; she’d lost herself to fear and thrashed against him, shrieking and moaning. She pounded the trunk with her hands and kicked out at the crows when they came near. Her clothes were tearing along with her skin but she didn’t care. Finally she was free and running down the path, fists pumping, breath gasping. The apartment felt abandoned when she entered, dust sparkled through the air in her wake, reflecting light from the one lit lamp. Turning all the lights on, she crawled onto the couch and pulled a blanket over her face and listened to her breath until she fell asleep.

The next day she went to the clinic. A Doctor weighed her, listened and patted her hand, took some blood, gave her acid blockers for her stomach and told her to take a few days off work.

“There’s nothing to be concerned with, young lady. A few days away from stress are all you need.”

Not reassured, she left and tossed the prescription in the garbage on the way out. During her walk home, she glared at the trees. On the power lines she saw a staggered row of crows and increased her pace while keeping an eye on them. Storm clouds were crowding along the horizon by the time she made it into her room. The wind was shaking doors and windows as she began to pull the curtains. Dull thuds rattled the panes and she shaded her hand over her eyes and against the glass to see the outside.

A crow flattened its chest on the window and scrabbled with sharp claws trying to reach her face. She yelped and jerked the curtain across before running through the house pulling the rest of them closed. They were pelting the door now, screaming she held hands over her ears while rocking back and forth on the floor behind the couch. Gradually the constant thumping faded, she crawled to the door and opened it a crack. A foot high pile of broken crows, black eyes dull, feathers bent at unnatural angles was crammed against the jam and along the first step.

Closing the door, she wiped the sweat from her upper lip and ran to the bathroom and vomited. Feeling better, she phoned maintenance to clean the porch, hovered by the door and listened to them swear and groan about it for an hour.

Bijou didn’t leave the apartment for three days but lay on the couch watching TV and drinking water. At night she dreamed of Singe, the man, and during the day, she longed for him. She could feel him call her, want her, think of her and not being able to stand it any longer, she put on extra clothes like armor, crammed on a hat and left, locking the door quietly behind her.

Through her sunglasses, she eyed the sky but no crows appeared. The only birds she saw were blue jays, and though she thought they might be following her, they kept their distance. By the tree a million tiny white butterflies spun in the sun. As she approached, they danced around her in funnels, brushing her clothes and tickling exposed skin. She smiled and wanted to dance with them but people were staring in astonishment so she kept walking.

“Bijou.”

“I’m here, Singe.”

“Are you all right? I’ve missed you. Come sit with me as you do.”

She sat and laid the back of her head against the bark. They didn’t speak again but Singe began to hum a lullaby. It felt like running warm water against her back and soon she was drowsing. Abruptly, he stopped and she opened her eyes to find a deep shadow in front of her, felt as if it should be lying along the grass but it was upright instead, causing a momentary visual distortion. There were no eyes visible within the dark form but she could feel them on her.

Shrinking against the trunk, she said under her breath to the tree, “Don’t you absorb me like you did before.”

“I won’t but don’t leave.”

The shadow raised a hand and pointed at her. “You have no right to be there.” The voice was a like a cold knife through her head. She was about to ask why when Singe spoke.

“You’re the one who has no right to be here.”

The shadow darkened further, hissed and quivered, a low howl rose from it. Bijou felt sweat break out on her forehead, she wanted to scratch a building itch under the brim of the hat but held her breath instead.

“I am Nereid. Your loyalty should be with me!” It shrieked and slammed a fist into the ground. The earth rolled like a wave, cracks parted the grass and collapsed into soft dents as they came back together.

Bijou screamed and tried to stand but was held against the trunk by invisible hands.

“No,” said Singe. “Stay. You cannot be harmed while you’re under the protection of my branches.”

“You’re a bastard, a betrayer!” The shadow was flat black with a red tinge staining the edges. The earth groaned, shook, and the sky seemed to wobble.

“Ah…you speak of betrayal when you suck the life from me without care.” Singe’s voice was quiet.

“The only thing I did was care!”

“Enough! Be gone.”

And she was, the shadow, stripped away as a sunbeam shot between the branches of the tree.

Feeling as if her bones were suddenly empty of marrow, Bijou collapsed against the tree and wiped her face with her hands.

“Who was that?” She brushed the hat from her head and let it fall to the ground.

“My wife. She is dead.”

“She didn’t look all that dead to me. Furious, but not dead.”

“A remnant of her only. She’s dead to me.”

Singe wouldn’t answer further questions but begged her to stay until the strength was back in her legs.

She had a bodyguard of jays keeping pace with her from the sky on her way home.

Waking sweaty and tangled in damp sheets from an unremembered nightmare, Bijou wandered into the kitchen for some water. It wasn’t until she’d drank two glasses that she realized a light was coming from the dining room. Had she left one on? Nervous, she slid a knife from the drawer. Holding it in front of her, she tiptoed to the doorway and peered around the corner. The light was a dull reflection off the table but the source wasn’t visible. The room appeared empty and exactly as she’d left it.

Holding her breath while she listened and waited, she wiped one hand dry on the side of her hip, switched the blade to it and then wiped the other before stepping into the room. It felt vacant but the breath caught in her throat as she followed the path of light to the little painting of the forest cottage on the wall. Yellow light was coming from the tiny windows and a silvery white came from the painted moon.

Curiosity out won fear and she moved in closer. Examining the windows she saw a shadow pass between the light and her. She covered her mouth with her free hand and held back a scream. Suddenly the painted lights went out and she stood in darkness. Her stomach sank. She felt insanity press against her in the dark and reached out for the wall and found the picture. The canvas gave against her fingers and was almost too hot to touch. A shock ran up her arm. Her stomach flipped and stepping back, she banged into something hard enough collapse her legs from behind.

On hands and knees, she reached for what she’d run into. A solid wooden bench, and pulling up onto it she wondered where it’d come from. There was no bench in her dining room…none in her house at all. The lights came on. Blinded, she winced and raised her arms to shadow her eyes. Laughter, musical and full-throated filled the room.

“You have a habit of sitting where you don’t belong.” A tall willowy woman was in front of her. Her hair was straight, black with a greenish tint and hung over her shoulders like water. She was wearing a worn brown shift that was tight over her breast and hips, and holding Bijou's knife in her left hand.

Swallowing a sudden lump in her throat, Bijou lowered her arms slowly. “I...I’m sorry. How did I get here?”

“I brought you here. That’s how. Now it’s time for you to go.” With those words, she lunged forward and sliced the knife across Bijou’s cheek. Pain was a frozen line that went hot as blood filled it. She flung herself backwards, smacked over the bench, and thudding against the wall, skidded onto her side. In a reflex she braced herself against the wall, placed both feet on the bench and kicked out. It shot across the slick floor and cracked into the woman’s legs, knocking her over.

Bijou scrambled to her feet and tipped the bench so the seat was against the woman’s stomach and rested one knee and both hands on it, pressing down with the full weight of her body. “Who are you? Why hurt me? What have I done?” The blood tickled as it followed the line of her jaw and dripped off her chin and onto the bench in star shaped splatters.

Up close, she could see bitterness had lined the woman’s eyes and tightened the small mouth, and the edge of her collar was frayed and gray with dirt.

“I am Nereid.”

Shock numbed her arms, her brain. Nereid took that opportunity to wedge her hands under the bench and thrust out. Flailing backwards, Bijou gasped for air and saw Nereid stand and swing her left leg back. Then lights exploded as the side of her head connected with the bare foot. Swearing Nereid spun in a circle, clutching her foot in her hands while she hopped on the other.

“You’re Nereid? I thought you were...uh… not real.”

“How real is this?” She tested her foot against the floor then bent over and picked up the bench, holding it by one end and over her shoulder with superhuman strength she swung it at Bijou. Who, seeing it coming, rolled in the opposite direction and came to her feet just as the bench cracked into the spot she’d been. Anger was raging in her now, so much so, she shook with it.

Curling her upper lip, she snarled like an animal, and flung herself at Nereid. Hands tangled in the long hair, she pulled her down, then slapped, and punched, tearing with her fingernails.

The weak fabric of her dress tore and exposed her upper chest. Bijou stopped her hand in mid slap and stared at the ugly hole surrounded by bruised, blotched skin over the heart. It had greenish black lines like veins of rot radiating out from the center of the raw wound. Feeling tainted, Bijou backed away on her hands and knees, got to her feet and wiped her palms down over the hips of her nightgown.

“What happened to you?” Her voice shook on the words.

Nereid stared at her as she sat up. “Singe happened. He turned away from me and I tore out my heart before it killed me.”

Bijou flinched. “I think it’s killing you still.”

“Oh no,” she whispered, “It’s killing you” and rose to her feet as if she was on strings and lifted her left arm. The knife flashed in the overhead light.

Without thinking, Bijou spun and ran. She took the first turn wider then she should’ve, skinning her knee and knuckles against the wall. The hall seemed to go on forever. Seeing a door she grabbed the handle but it was locked so she smacked it with the flat of her palm and ran to another. This one also refused to budge. No more doors were along this way, so she took another turn as fast as she could while looking over her shoulder for pursuit and collided with a shut door with the side of her head and shoulder. Her ear felt flattened and on fire but ignoring the pain, she pulled the door open then closed behind her, turning the lock.

Leaning the unhurt ear against and straining above her harsh breathing, she listened for footsteps before sagging onto the door with relief. There was no sound from the hall outside. Sliding down with her back against it, she allowed her breathing to settle while she glanced around the room. A queen size bed with a patch worked quilt thrown over it was taking up most of the small room. And then she saw the open window, jumping to her feet she jogged over, stared outside over the grass and into her dining room.

Placing her hands on the sill, she lifted one leg over and straddled it. Her foot connected with something but when she looked there was nothing blocking. Kicking out, the toe of her shoe bounced off an invisible wall. She leaned over and ran the tips of her fingers down, there was a slight give when she pressed inward but only for a couple of inches before it became hard as glass. A cough of laughter came from the doorway and she lost her balance, toppling onto the floor.

Rolling to her feet, she put the bed between herself and the door. Nereid walked in, thin lips twisted.

“You think to leave? Ha! If it was only that easy.”

Bijou wanted to back away from what she saw in the glittering eyes but instead she stepped in. Her foot hit something under the bed, and pretending to shift her stance she glanced down to see a long wooden pole with a metal hook on the end. By the time she looked again, Nereid was flying over the mattress, knife first, straight at her.

She threw herself onto the floor rolled under the bed, grabbing the pole as she bruised her way over it. Her already skinned knuckles cracked between the floor and pole, shoving it ahead, she crawled out from under the far side. She stood. She and Nereid sighted each other at the same time. Swinging the hook end like a baseball bat, she squeezed her eyes shut. It whistled through the air and thunked into Nereid’s left ear. The shock of impact traveled up Bijou’s arms and down her body, in a numbing wave. She dropped the pole. Her belly flipped, mouth filling with saliva. Gagging, she bent over and emptied her stomach of bile. Screams were building in pitch until the last one made her cringe. Bijou came up wiping her mouth with the back of her hand and saw Nereid standing, back arched, arms out stretched, and her mouth open wide, screeching with the pole still hanging from her ear.

Unable to bear it any longer, Bijou crawled across the bed and bent back Nereid’s stiff fingers until she could get the knife free. The shrieks had turned into an unending wail and Bijou kept losing her train of thought while trying to examine the brass hook embedded in Nereid’s ear and figure out how best to get it out. She didn’t want to touch it but the pealing screams were twisting her insides beyond bearing. Finally she seized it with both hands and yanked. Immediately the sound was cut off and Nereid closed her mouth, stared at her a moment before folding at the knees and pitching face first onto the floor. Sitting back on her heels, Bijou felt a wave of relief sweep over her now the siren scream had stopped. Glancing at the pole, she saw blood, thick and clotted on the hook, suddenly dizzy, she rubbed the sweat off her forehead on the inside elbow sleeve and glanced down at Nereid.

She was gone.

Panic shot her with sudden energy. She picked up the knife that she knew she’d never be able to use and looked for a good place to hide it. Not finding one, she leveraged herself on the sill with the pole and tossed it out the window. It skidded off the invisible wall, falling to the grass below. Bending over, she peeked under the bed. It was empty except for dust fluff in the corners. She got a whiff of hot tar and saw a silent shadow sweep across the floor toward her and fell back on the bed, jabbing the hook upward.

An ear splitting shriek shivered the air and cut off, leaving a ringing silence behind. Bijou could feel something soft and dry landing on her face. She shook her head and wiped her upper arm across her eyes before opening them to find a drift of ash falling all around her. Her shirt and jeans were coated with black while the creases were startling bright in contrast. The room was quiet and nothing moved, so after a good look around, she jumped up and down in place, pinched a bit of her clothes and shook, trying to knock off the top layer.

Enveloped in a dense cloud of dust, she coughed and checked under the bed, behind the door and out the window. Where had the shadow gone? Was it Nereid? It had sounded like her. Then she crept from room to room with the pole gripped in both hands. Though she could open all the windows and doors, the house seemed enclosed within an impenetrable bubble. She jabbed it with the brass hook but after a brief yield, it held firm.

Eventually she came back to the bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed. Was she stuck here forever? Anxiously she bounced and swung her legs, raising more dust. After brushing some off herself and the cover, she noticed the pattern of the quilt. The colors were bright and intricate, seeming familiar in some way. Standing, she backed away to examine it from further away. It was a still life of a room with a rose in a vase, centered on a shiny oak table. The sunbeams were yellow and the rose was lavender in the shade and red where it caught the light. The tipped over chair had a blue seat with cream stripes. Her dining room!

She stepped forward and put both hands on the quilt, fingers tracing the stitching around the rose. A wave of dizziness caused her to collapse forward, darkness closed in and she fell. Waking cold, bruised and uncomfortable, she found herself lying on the table in a puddle of water from the broken vase. The rose was smashed and torn in her hand. Sitting up she peeled the stuck petals from her palm while she looked around. It was her house and seemed as solid and real as ever. Staring at the small painting on the wall, she got stiffly off the table, limped over, gingerly touched the frame, and turned it to the wall.

The next morning she drank four glasses of water for breakfast, put on her jacket and locked the door behind her. Singe’s leaves were full fledged and a tender bright green. Her heart constricted within her chest, she reached out and ran slow fingers down the bark.

“Bijou.”

“Singe.”

“Are you here to stay, Bijou?”

“I don’t know how to stay.”

“Are you still afraid?”

“Yes, more than ever.”

“You don’t need to. You could leave now and never look back.”

“No, I couldn’t.”

“Then let me hold you, Bijou.”

A cold wind came and blew hair over her face, pressing it against shoulders with shaky hands, she stepped in and leaned her forehead against the tree, waiting. Feeling arms around her, she relaxed and sighed into them.

The park flourished as the years went by. When drought came in late summer to the rest of the town, it remained green and moist. And when storm winds tore at buildings and sidewalks, it floated gently between the branches of the park trees. Birds clustered, singing and bees hummed under a golden sun and the scent of lilacs filled the air.

People in the park after dark swore they recognized a slender girl with garlands in her hair dancing between the moonbeams as the one who used to walk through the park. If she caught them watching, she’d run into the tree and disappear. The tale spread and soon people were coming to look at the tree named Singe that had a nymph named Bijou living within its heart.


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2011-08-16 20:07:31
Beautifully written and interesting. Nice job.




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Books by Quantum Muse contributors and friends.
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CHRONON--Time Travel

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