Summit County short story contest winner: “The Tree of Burning Light” by Audrey Anderson
Editor’s note: Every year the Summit County Rotary and Summit Daily News host a Short Story Contest. The Summit Daily will feature the top three winning stories over three days, from Friday, Dec. 16 to Sunday, Dec. 18. This is the second installment and second-place story, “The Tree of Burning Light,” by Audrey Anderson, a ninth-grader at Summit High School.
Long ago, the ground was bare and listless, the trees never swayed, the birds never sung, and the earth was colorless. A white and black slate waited quietly, seemingly forgotten, never to be painted by the gods of the land. But this nation was not completely lost within the shadow of sorrow, for there existed a girl with hair a color none had ever seen, with eyes shining with a bright fire throughout the heavy darkness of the land, and with words flowing smoothly like silk. Each day the girl walked the earth, and everyone who passed her was in awe of the grace and mystery surrounding the rare, undefined beauty of the young girl..
The young girl’s name was Akemi, meaning “bright beautiful”, and though the girl carried the demeanor of one beloved by all, she was deeply despised by the gods, furious beings that had never planned to give any of the lesser lifeforms the hope and happiness exuding from Akemi. Among the gods, however, the hatred of one goddess towards Akemi could not be rivaled. Fuzen, the goddess of imperfection and sin, viewed the perfection of Akemi as defiance of her creation of the miserable humans. After years of watching and despising Akemi, Fuzen reached her limit. She devised a plan to steal that rare beauty of Akemi and poison the land with her blood, ensuring no other mortal would even challenge the will of the gods.
A young boy by the name of Naoki, meaning tree of truth, had heard of the goddess’ plot to kill Akemi, who he had shared a deep bond with since their childhood. And so he ran desperately throughout the land searching for her, yelling her name. By the time Naoki came upon the cottage in which Akemi lived, he saw that the long grass covering the ground had turned into thick blades of steel, dripping with a poison that would wither away the skin at the slightest touch. The boy cried out to Akemi, desperately trying to save her, but his calls seemed to fade into the still air. Naoki had always had feelings for Akemi, and could not stand by to watch her be torn apart by the hatred of a goddess, so Naoki ran through the sharp spikes crying out in pain as he reached the doorstep of his beloved.
As he lay writhing in pain, his cries reached the ears of the young Akemi. She opened the door and rushed to his side, gasping at the sight that laid before her. The young man’s legs were burnt and had settled down to the size of two thin tree roots. Naoki looked into the beautiful eyes of the young maiden and told Fuzen’s plot to kill her. As he sobbed his last breath he uttered a message, “For years my arms have failed to reach, to tell you what the world thought, to tell you how deeply I cared. For I have wasted my life trailing quietly, but now I will say that you are never to be forgotten for I will always hold your cheerfulness in my arms.” As the last words drifted out of Naoki’s mouth, Akemi fell over his body, and for the first time, a tear slid down her beautiful face. A tear formed of pure regret, sorrow, and love. As the teardrops silently fell from her eyes they landed softly on the broken body of her lover, but as the first tear touched his body a great light shone from within Naoki. Akemi gasped as what was left of Naoki’s legs began to burrow deep into the ground as her lover began to wither and twist into a great strong tree.
The young girl gasped at the sight of her reborn love and continued sobbing, but the tears that fell now had changed, they were made of happiness, relief, and hope. As these tears fell, a pool of crystal clear water formed at that the foot of Naoki’s roots, and within it colorful lilies began to sprout up from the depths. And with these few flowers, the world gained color, for each lily held the deep feelings that both Naoki and Akemi had held for each other. As Akemi’s sobs filled the still air, the first wind began to churn wildly, seemingly plucking the lilies out of the pool. The breeze carried the lilies through the sky, slowly painting the world with the newfound color the two lovers had created.
Fuzen saw the unnecessary hope that Akemi and Naoki had brought into her world and was furious, so she called upon her most trusted servants; Sutakuma, the bear of the stars, and Kanashimi, the dragon of sorrow. She demanded them both to go down from the heavens and destroy Akemi by tearing out her soul, for if they did not return with her soul they would be sealed out of the realm of the gods for eternity. So Sutakuma and Kanashimi quickly agreed to the terms of their master in fear of the more dire consequences and flew down to earth in search of the girl.
For three long months Sutakuma and Kanashimi searched for Akemi, they searched all along the mountains, valleys, and rivers, but she was nowhere to be found. Finally, the pair stumbled upon the treelike form of Naoki by the ruins of a small cottage. At the edge of the pool that lie at Naoki’s roots, they spotted the young girl that they had desperately sought to find for their many long and restless days. She sat, painting a picture, not of what her eyes could see, but what her heart could. With every stroke that touched the canvas, her surroundings became ever more beautiful, for she had painted a picture depicting her future with Naoki as if he had never been lost.
The two beings watched the girl paint for a moment and within that single moment they felt the sadness and the loss that the girl had witnessed over the past few months. But this did not last because their hearts too, were filled with the fear of their own demise, and so the pair roared in frustration and flew down to the girl in a rage. Akemi jumped up to see Sutakuma and Kanashimi coming down at her with such speed, she desperately tried to run but her legs did not seem to want to turn away from the tree in which she had stayed by all these long days. So she stood, paralyzed as her life seemed to fall apart before her. She screamed in agony as Sutakuma claws tore across the chest and Kanashimi’s teeth dug into her legs. As Akemi cried her last breaths Sutakuma pulled her soul out from within her and let her body fall lifelessly onto her lover’s roots. Akemi’s blood seemed to flow out of her body effortlessly into the small body of water. In which the blood sunk, allowing the water to rise overflowing the pool, causing the world to be spread with the pureness of her tears, coloring the rest of the whiteness of the world.
Sutakuma and Kanashimi both lunged forward, horrified at what they had accidentally caused. As Sutakuma raced past Naoki to stop the flow of tears, the tree sprung to life reaching out its branches towards the unexpecting bear. Sutakuma reared back in shock and tumbled through the air crashing into Kanashimi, causing Akemi’s soul to be flung through the air and into Naoki’s waiting branches. The young girl’s soul slowly sunk into her lover’s bark causing a light pink ora to climb up the tree’s trunk, spreading out to the end of every branch producing the most beautiful flower in all of the land.
And every spring when the stars shine brightly, and the moon reflects the water, a tree sprouts from within the blood filled soil, creating smaller copies of Naoki and Akemi’s tree. And these trees became called Sakura No Ki, or cherry blossom trees, and once a week every year, lovers from far and wide come to watch them flourish, knowing story of Akemi’s and Naoki’s love. And for the centuries gone and past, Naoki had always stayed true to his promise to Akemi. For he was the tree of truth and would always hold the bright and beautiful flowers of Akemi’s cheerfulness in his arms.
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