Monday, July 28, 2014

Into the Land of the Elves: Forgiven but Not Pardoned

The Diary of Miss Aidyn Hall, traitor and thief
July 23
11:41 AM

Forgiven, but Not Pardoned

            For the past two days, I stayed clear of the Greenwood. Keeping my mind off of it—and especially off of Apple Blossom—was no easy task, but I managed it. When my work wasn’t keeping me busy, I cleaned up the garden pond and went frog hunting, and at night there were plenty of fireflies just begging to be caught. I took an opportunity to see my friend Hannah for burgers, lemonades, and a dip in the pool. Desperately, I tried not to think about the jade stones, but they would inevitably show up in my mind and I would have to hold back tears. At night, I didn’t bother holding back.
            This morning, I finally went back to the magnolia archway. The Grand Elder Guardian’s web still barred my way, and on the other side was a dejected looking Apple Blossom.
            “Hey there,” I said, trying to sound cheerful in spite of the situation.
            She managed a small, pitiful wave. For a few moments, neither of us said or did anything. We just stood there with our eyes darting from place to place until I figured it was up to me to extend the olive branch. I knelt down and held out my hands for her below the Grand Elder Guardian’s massive web. She approached me and took them. She was willing to look at me, and I figured that was a good sign. “Atta girl, there’s my friend,” I said, trying to smile for her. I’m still not sure whether or not I managed to.
            “Do you know what I’m about to ask you?” Apple Blossom asked darkly.
            “You’re about to ask me why I stole those jades.”
            “Exactly,” she said. “Oh, Aidyn, why would you ever do such a thing? I didn’t think you were the kind to steal. In fact, I thought you were the complete opposite of that! Oh, Aidyn…”
            “I didn’t think so either, honey,” I said. “It was…it was an act of impulse, I suppose. Don’t you ever act on impulse?”
            “I can’t think of any time I did,” replied Apple Blossom.  
            “I can. Don’t you remember when you snuck a peek at your mother’s book?” I reminded her.
            “Oh.” She let out a sigh. “I do, but this is different.”
            “You’re right, it is.”
            We were silent.
            “Do you really want to know why I took them?” I finally asked.
            “Of course I do!” said Apple Blossom.
            “Are you going to be mad at me?”
            “I’m already mad at you.”      
“Well, I took them because I thought I could use them to harness the jade essences,” I admitted. “You said that you couldn’t teach me, so I thought that I might learn for myself.” Apple Blossom let go of my hands and took a step back. Fire was growing in her eyes. “I told you I couldn’t do that because it was against age-old tradition!” she cried. “I thought that you would respect that! You were going to try to break it anyway!” I’d never seen her get angry, and I was amazed by how fierce such a little girl could look. “I was never actually able to,” I said, as if it made a difference. “I felt too guilty to even try.”
            “It’s the principle, Aidyn,” she told me. “Even if you didn’t go through with it, you intended to. To me, that shows a complete lack of respect! What did you plan to do with the jade essences? What makes you so worthy of them? We Jadeites use them to form deep, special connections to the forest. What do you need them for?”
            I need them to write about them and make money. I felt as if I’d been punched in the stomach. What a greedy, selfish, traitorous, all-around horrible person I was! Of course, I couldn’t tell her that. Truth is important, of course, but you don’t break someone’s heart while you’re trying to redeem yourself. So instead, I told her, “It was so I could form a special connection to the Jadeites, and so I could form a special connection to you.” It wasn’t a lie. To write about the Jadeites—to write about anything—I needed to form those special connections. But ugh, look at me. I’m talking about the Jadeites as if they’re merely writing material. That can’t be the only reason I want to draw closer to them! I want to draw closer to them for Apple Blossom, of course. I want to strengthen (and now repair) our friendship. And I still want to show them that humans are not all bad, that I am not all bad. I want to befriend all of Apple Blossom’s little friends—especially Wildflower—and show them that we humans are not the bogeymen that they had been taught to fear. It wasn’t all about the writing. It couldn’t be all about the writing.
            “Oh, Aidyn…” Apple Blossom stepped forward and took my hands again. “There are other ways to do that. You don’t have to harness the jade essences to do that!”
            “Will you teach me the other ways?” I asked her.
            “Of course I will.” And so we were friends again, but I’m not off the hook yet. She hadn’t said that I wasn’t going to be punished, and either way I have to make amends.

4:15 PM

            The Grand Elder Guardian still blocked my way, but he was willing to move aside when Apple Blossom politely requested that I be let in. The other guardians parted the way for us, though I’m sure it was very begrudgingly. “Who was it that I stole the jades from?” I asked Apple Blossom.
            “Her name is Chicory of Willowmead,” Apple Blossom told me. “She’s a gardener and a flower gatherer. In fact, she was gathering some flowers along the Bell’s Rush that day when you…” She did not finish that sentence.
            “Take me to her,” I said. “I’ll apologize and do whatever she asks of me to make amends. Maybe she needs some work done around the house, or an extra set of hands to help in the garden.” It wasn’t until I said it that I realized it wouldn’t hold any water. Why in the world would she trust a thief with her house and garden? I had delusions of grandeur, thinking that I was going to just blaze through her front door with an apology and offers of menial labor and then everything would be okay again. The truth of the matter was that she may not accept any form of apology from me.
            Apple Blossom said, “We’ll just have to wait and see, Aidyn.”
            When we crossed the bridge, we were greeted by several men and women in emerald green uniforms fashioned from maple leaves and reinforced by armor plates. Apple Blossom had told me about them once; they were a sort of public militia that dealt with street and civil matters in the Greenwood. Though they worked on the streets, they were dispatched by only one person: the king. Just because I had been forgiven enough to be let in doesn’t mean that all was well. Who would have known that petty theft was a reason to call upon the street militia? Oh wait, it wasn’t, unless you were a human among Jadeites, and therefore universally distrusted in the first place.
            “Good afternoon,” Apple Blossom said to the soldiers, and I nodded to them. The soldiers, whose stony eyes had been fixated on me, bowed to their princess. Then one of them, a gruff-looking man holding what appeared to be an old mace, began speaking quickly to her in a language I couldn’t make out. I figured it was the tree elf language that they used for their writing. Apple Blossom spoke back to him in the same language, and that got me irked. It was all well and good if these soldiers didn’t trust me to hear what they were saying that was very obviously about me, but Apple Blossom had trusted me enough to remain friends with me even after what I did, so she should trust me enough to hear at least her end of the conversation about me! Now that I think about it, if the Jadeites think humans are so terrible, why did they—or at least, this particular branch of them—adopt our English language? Isn’t it just a little presumptuous of them to go around speaking the language of the creatures they so hate and distrust? And if human contact is discouraged at best and forbidden at worst, how were the Jadeites able to get close enough to humans to adopt an entire language from them? Was it always like this? It’s something for my Need to Know list, and something to stay up late into the night pondering.
            The only words in the conversation that I could make out were my name and Chicory’s name, both said by Apple Blossom. The soldiers’ words were lost on me, and because they were doing such a good job of remaining stone-faced, there were no expressions for me to speculate from. Finally, Apple Blossom took my hand and the soldiers moved aside to let us pass. They fixed their eyes on me again, and I tried to smile for them but I don’t think I quite managed it. As we headed past the village where I had been gawked at so many times (amazingly, nobody was gawking now), I understood that the soldiers were following us—specifically, following me. So this was how it was going to be.
            Chicory of Willowmead, it turned out, lived in a small, boxy tree-bark shack out of the way of everything else. Everything about her was simple, from her unremarkable grass-green hair cut short to her faded blue pants and worn-out grey tunic. She had a plain but pleasant face, slate-blue eyes, and a little spot of dirt on the tip of her nose. It seemed like the only thing about her that wasn’t plain in every way was her garden, which was just like a picture out of Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Roses of all colors—red, pink, purple, yellow, white, and even blue—grew in arches and trailed like waterfalls. Snapdragons grew several feet tall against the garden gates. Camellias and peonies, lilies and dahlias, azaleas and petunias, and flowers I didn’t even know the names of formed a carpet of color intertwined with jade stones of varying shapes and sizes. When we arrived, Chicory had been harvesting from bushes of bright bleeding hearts. When we entered—me and Apple Blossom in front, soldiers spread out in a fan behind us—she paused and looked at us. The sight of the soldiers visibly intimidated her, but she softened when Apple Blossom approached her with her characteristic smile. “Good afternoon, Miss Chicory,” she said. Chicory bowed her head so that her nose touched the spade she was holding.
            “You have the loveliest garden,” said Apple Blossom. “I see that you take the best possible care of it. I like to see nice flowers and the nice people who tend to them.” I understood that she was trying to make the poor girl less anxious. Sure enough, that got a smile out of Chicory.
            “This is my good friend, Aidyn Hall,” said Apple Blossom, putting her arm around me. “She’s human, but she is most definitely one of the sweetest ladies you could ever hope to meet.” When she said this, I smiled a real smile, because I knew once and for all that she had forgiven me. “But,” Apple Blossom went on, “as you must know, even the sweetest are capable of doing the wrong thing sometimes. Why, the list of the wrong things I’ve done could fill a book from beginning to end! And so I am afraid that Aidyn has done the wrong thing, and it is you she has wronged. She…”
            “She’s the one who took my jades!” Chicory exclaimed.
            “I’m afraid so,” I told her. “But I am genuinely remorseful for doing so, and I will do anything you ask of me to make up for my crime—anything at all! I am your loyal servant from now until you decide that I have sufficiently apologized for the stealing.”
            “Right now I just want to know why you took them,” said Chicory.
            “I wanted to study them,” I told her.
            “Study them for what? You humans don’t have them where you’re from?”
            “The ones we have are nothing like the ones you have,” I said truthfully.
            “Well,” said Chicory, dusting off her pants, “if you wanted to ‘study’ them you could have waited for me to come back and asked me. You’re a grown-up lady. You should have known that there was no need for stealing! Do you still want to look at them?”
            “Thank you, but I’m no longer interested,” I told her. I didn’t feel that I deserved it.
            “Well, that’s all, then,” Chicory said. “You don’t have to work for me. You really don’t seem so bad, and I’m sure that the princess knows what she’s talking about, but there is nothing that I would feel right in trusting a human with—certainly not my prized garden! So I will accept your apology and leave it at that.” So I was forgiven, and it didn’t even take any work. I was slightly disappointed, as I’m sure that working as a maid or a garden-hand in a Jadeite household would have given me quite a bit of excellent material. But Apple Blossom said, “I am glad that you found it in your heart to forgive Aidyn. You are so kind, Chicory, and the perfect example of what a citizen of my Greenwood should be.”
            Chicory reached up into one of the arches and picked off an exquisite white rose, so well-formed and detailed that it almost looked like it was made rather than found in nature. She handed the rose to Apple Blossom, who received it with her usual enthusiasm: “Oh! It is beautiful, beautiful! What a perfect rose! Oh, thank you, Chicory! Thank you, thank you! But,” she turned to me, “can you give one to Aidyn too?” When Chicory looked doubtful, Apple Blossom said, “Oh, please? She’s my very, very best friend!” My heart swelled.
            Chicory picked an identical white rose—I wondered how many perfectly-formed roses she had on those arches—and handed it to me. “Thanks very much, Chicory,” I said with a smile. Apple Blossom put her arms around Chicory, stood on tiptoe, and kissed her cheek, and Chicory blushed as she returned the embrace. “Thank you very, very much, Chicory,” Apple Blossom said. “Thank you for being so kind and for forgiving Aidyn and for having such a wonderful garden.” She took my hand then, and we took our leave.
            I am forgiven. I am still Apple Blossom’s friend—her very, very best friend, her only human friend. I really want to keep it that way. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Into the Land of the Elves: Why I Stole the Jade Stones

The Diary of Miss Aidyn Hall, author
July 20
5:17 AM

Why I Stole the Jade Stones

            Of course I can’t sleep. Did you really expect me to be able to? This is the second time I’ve woken up. When I try to rest my head, I think I hear the footsteps of Jadeite soldiers outside my window, and I’ve already had two nightmares that I don’t care to force myself to relive by divulging the details. Let’s just say that one of them involved the stock punishment of yore, and another involved spearmen.  
            Since I won’t be getting back to sleep, I shall use this time to answer the very pressing question that I know you have: why on Earth did you go and do something like that? Well, I took the jades because I hoped that I could use them to teach myself to harness the jade essences. Apple Blossom refused to teach me, and even though she had a good reason, it made me angry.
            When Apple Blossom saw that I had returned, she let out a mighty squeal and gave me one of the biggest, warmest hugs I’d ever received…oh man, thinking about that makes me feel like even more of a jerk. I’ve completely betrayed this little girl’s trust—and the trust of her entire kingdom—when all she’s ever done is shower me with kindness and welcome and even love. This girl loves me. She adores me. What have I done?
            Anyway, as she took me by the hand and led me in, I asked if she would teach me to harness the jade essences. I wasn’t ready to tell her why, so I just told her that I was so fascinated by the concept that I wanted to learn everything there was to know about it. Apple Blossom looked uneasy, even a bit embarrassed. I’d never seen her look that way before, and it was more than a little disconcerting. “Is there a problem?” I asked her.
            She looked at the ground. “Well…yes. Yes, there is a problem.”
            “What’s wrong?”
            She looked back up at me. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but I can’t teach you to harness the jade essences. They belong exclusively to the Jadeites, and it is forbidden to pass them on to anyone who is not a Jadeite.”
            “But would I be able to harness them if you did teach me?” I asked, getting excited.
            “I cannot and will not teach you, Aidyn,” said Apple Blossom.
            “Couldn’t you get permission from your parents?”
            “They would never grant it.”
            “They granted permission for me to be here,” I reminded her. “Technically that was also forbidden.”
            “They will not grant this!” said Apple Blossom. “The jade essences belong to the Jadeites alone, and they have for as long as there have been Jadeites. They are what set us apart from our ancestors, the tree elves, and the dryads before them. They set us apart from today’s common wood fairies and earth elves, the water sprites and the sand elves of the deserts, the mermaids and the forest nymphs. They are unique to us and they always will be. But if you really want to learn about them, then perhaps I can get us into one of the Temples of the Jades. The monks won’t like to allow a human in, but if I’m with you they may be at least willing.”
            So far this was working out beautifully, and I absolutely hate myself for ruining it the way I did. “Oh, thank you so much, Apple Blossom!” I cried, hugging her. “That’s going to help me in such a big way!” But in actuality, it only half helped. It was likely that the monks had the largest collection of information available about the jades, the jade essences, and their various uses and properties, but there is information and then there is experience. They could describe it to me and I could write their words down, but without the full experience my writing could never be as real as I wanted it to be. There are plenty of writers who don’t write based upon the full experience—after all, any writer who kills off their protagonist hasn’t experience death and been able to write all about what it’s like! But that’s why I’ve never killed off a protagonist. To me, writing is about taking experiences and finding ways to make them even more interesting than they already were, and without the experience the writing could still be good, maybe even great, but it could not be what I wanted it to be.
            But what really got to me was that Apple Blossom had not said it was impossible for a human to learn the jade essences, just that it was forbidden. In fact, she had subtly implied that I could very well learn them if I was allowed. An entire world of magic and fantastical new experiences was locked away by taboo! I could not let this rest, especially after Apple Blossom was able to get permission for me to be let into the Northern Temple of the Jades (there is one on every corner of the Greenwood). When Apple Blossom told me that I would need to leave a gift to thank the monks, I got the idea of buttering them up with the best possible gift, hoping they would be so enamored with it that they would be willing to make me the exception to the rule.
            “What sort of things do they like?” I asked Apple Blossom.
            “Oh, they like any kind of sweet fruit, flowers, coins…some even leave jewels or silk. Really, the monks will appreciate anything. They are a very humble lot.
            I knew exactly what to give to them; for my senior prom many years ago, I had been given a gold-embroidered brocade scarf to match my gold cheongsam dress. I had worn the scarf only two other times since the prom, to the weddings of two different friends, and I was willing to part with it. This was much more important than ever wearing it again. I told Apple Blossom to wait for me by the magnolia archway while I went to fetch the scarf. My heart was pounding so hard I could feel it in the back of my throat, and I thought it was going to push itself up and out. Oh, please, oh, please like my gift enough for that! I silently pleaded. It wasn’t until we were finally on our way to the temple that it hit me.
            They weren’t going to like my gift enough for that.
            No gift was enough to break an age-old taboo that existed since the very first Jadeites. Who was I to think that a fancy scarf was enough to inspire a couple of honor-bound monks at a temple to break a time-honored tradition? It was wrong for me to have even thought of bribing them. There had to be another way.
            And then, as if on cue, we passed by the jade stones; five of them lying all by themselves on a mat laid out along the Bell’s Rush. Nobody was around, and yet I knew they must have belonged to somebody.
            But nobody was around!
            Don’t you dare, Aidyn Hall! Don’t you even think about it! I saw that Apple Blossom was several paces ahead of me and she wasn’t slowing down, so I had room to lag behind. I took a step closer to the jades. I’m only going to look at them. Even as I told myself this, I knelt down and picked up the five jades. I waited for either the owner or Apple Blossom to catch me, but nobody came around, and for a flicker of a second I could’ve sworn that I felt just a tiny spark of power coming from the jades. Apple Blossom doesn’t need to teach me anything! I can learn it all myself! I don’t need her! As my fist closed over the five jades, I felt a sudden resentment for Apple Blossom, as if it was all her fault that I was forced to steal these jades. If she had just agreed to teach me, there wouldn’t be a problem! If she really trusted me, the only human who has ever treated her and her race with respect, she wouldn’t have had any real reason to refuse! But she was just like any other princess, who cared so much more about honor and tradition than friendship…
            I was still seething with resentment when I slipped the jades into my pocket and heard Apple Blossom call my name. I didn’t want to go to her. I was angry with her, and in that moment I even disliked her. So I turned around and I ran. I ran as Apple Blossom continued to call for me, as she took note of my sudden wild flight—“Aidyn! Aidyn, come back! Aidyn!”—and as her calls gave way to tears. Apple Blossom was speedy, but for once I could outrun her. I was taller and my legs were longer and I was fueled by panic. I could not let her catch me with those jade stones! I ran past confused Jadeites looking on, past the Bell’s Rush and the paths leading to the palace, over the bridge. I ran until there was a nasty stitch in my side and I still didn’t stop. When I reached the deep forest leading back to the magnolia archway, I didn’t even stop to duck under the webs of the spider guardians. More than once, I got a face full of web and sticky threads clung to my arm. There was no sign of the Grand Elder Guardian.
            I collapsed in front of my house, and it was only then that I realized exactly what I had done. Guilt attacked me, both for the theft and for my anger towards Apple Blossom, and it wouldn’t let up. And soon I remembered that the tag was in my other pocket…
            There’s nothing left for me to do but return the jade stones. I don’t want to try to learn the jade essences anymore. I don’t deserve to. My story will be lacking, and that is the consequence for my terrible behavior. I will face any additional consequences like a soldier.
            It’s still very early. If I can get back to sleep now, I’ll return the jades the very moment I wake up.

8:03 AM

            My way in was blocked by the Grand Elder Guardian.
            It was disheartening, but I suppose it was no surprise. “Please get these back to whomever they belonged to,” I told him, leaving the jades on the ground below his web. “My name is Aidyn Hall,” I went on, “and I stole these jade stones. You know that, but I want the person I stole them from to know it as well. I don’t want to let myself get away with this, and I deserve any punishment that comes my way. Will you get the message to them?”
            The Grand Elder Guardian made no form of response. He is a spider, after all. I nodded respectfully and took my leave. Now there is nothing to do but wait. I’m not sure if I can focus on work today, but I have to try.

3:28 PM

            The jades have disappeared, and my way into the Greenwood is still blocked. My way may be blocked forever. Has Apple Blossom come by to look for me? If so, have any of the guardians told her why I wasn’t there? Or has she gone about her business without even giving me a second thought? I have a strong feeling that I’ve destroyed our friendship.