On a mountain whose peak was the beacon to the warm town of Aldeboden, there was a tree. It was a patchy forest that was bare in the winter months. The trees were wooden markers of winter’s toll on the mountainside. They were sickly, standing and waiting for the purity of the winter snow to cleanse them in white. Crunching dark seeds and leaves created an unmarked pathway to that tree. That was where she rested. Theresa. She had become the spirit of the woods, her ashes sprinkled underneath one of the forest trees next to a small river that flowed of melted snow from the mountain peaks. On winter nights the trees rustled and accepted the weight of the snow that made its home on their branches. When the river flowed and then froze over remembering its obligation to the winter frost, you could walk across the ice and find her tree. That was if you were coming from the other side of the mountain, where I live. I am able to hike past the town and onto the path the farmers take to call in the cows. A long gravel and dirt path leads to her tree. These trees explode in green making a crown for the beautiful mountain, my grandmother’s tree is the gem. Special winds carried noises from the mountains when it snowed at night. Flowering scents danced on the noses of hikers or foragers that roamed the peaks in the spring. Theresa’s tree was what they searched for, its magical powers granting one wish to the person who found it.
Ursula smiled, her eyes reflecting back to her as she splashed away the reflection seen in the river. She paused and thought, “Is this a river?” It was too large to be a stream or a brook, “Maybe a really large stream,” she concluded. When the river dried up during the summer or early parts of the winter months, large grey rocks were visible and Ursula thought that they were rather ugly. They created a vast expanse of boring and their character was strong because they remained bleak and dull no matter if it was spring or winter. The seasons had no effect on the rock’s beauty and Ursula felt a pang of insult realizing the qualities she visibly shared with them. She wished that spring was in full bloom so the rocks were covered by the river passing over them so they could be forgotten altogether. She breathed aloud, forcing her solemn eyes to look up past the stones and trees whose leaves no longer cared to decorate their branches.
“ I wish to find the tree of Theresa!” she screamed into the chilling night air.
“How do I find it, how do I find her?” she thought, carelessly picking mushrooms and weaving her way back to the main path. Kindness had compensated for what she lacked in beauty, and her evil mother reminded her of her shortcomings daily. She had been gone for hours with little to show for it and she knew an earful was the best reaction received from her mother. “A cold, harsh woman,” she thought. “If I look like the stones at the bottom of the river her heart is one of those stones.” As she trekked back into the town to the small chalet her mother owned and rented out to other travelers, a cold flurry spun past her. Ursula’s shock at the winter’s gust quickly dismantled as she began to think of Mother. Mother was a successful woman. She was conceited, her comfortability with herself created hateful confidence she held over the guest. She had dark chocolatey hair, sometimes braided, and wore a fake sense of hospitality as she smiled through gritted teeth. No one was more acutely aware of her mother’s public and private moods than Ursula. Her mother’s smiles would send a shiver down her spine. She said snipping passing comments, little words of hurt, and watered Urselas insecurities with her overabundance of critiques. These rooted deep into Ursula’s heart of hearts where she no longer felt she was beautiful. Ursula’s eyes stung with tears thinking of the hurt that was going to be piled onto her once she walked through the door. It was never all at once but the suffocating presence of her mother was always enough to smother any light in Ursula.
“I wish to find the Tree of Theresa, the good lady of the forest. The granter of wishes. I wish to find her,” she said quietly.
All at once sheets of snow began to fall, and the path that was visible only seconds ago seemed to have vanished altogether. What was she supposed to do? The snow seemed to be piling more and more on the ground with each second. “Should I go take shelter in the tree and try and start a fire, I know I won’t be able to make it home in all of this snow.”The green rolling hills were covered in frosty white. The scene’s drastic change made it look like St. Nicholas was only a few days from coming. Running back through the snow and into the forest, and entering the treeline, a soft powder was all that was on the ground. Everything had turned white, and the sky seemed to only be dusting the earth. Ursula turned and watched in awe as the river froze over. The water sloshed, crunched, and stuck as long frozen-looking tendrils stopped their motion and rested. It had looked like crystals had been in the water, it had been shimmering and the frost clawed its way cementing its movement.
“Where am I to spend the night?” she thought. She curled up next to a tree and it was like the snow wrapped around her in an embrace that truly warmed her. It sent no chill and she slept peacefully through the night. Rising with the sun she heard a mysterious hooting call, loud and clear. Nothing like a bird, it was deeper, almost like a man calling into the sky. Wishing to find the creature that had enchanted her interest she raised along the river and up into the peaks of the mountain. The hooting continued, louder and deeper than before, reminding her of the tales her father had told her before he died. The Barbegazi, the watchmen and helpers of the snow and mountains. When one is near, you will be safe and sent on in safety. The new snow, magical and untimely at this time of year, sent excitement coursing through Ursula, who knew what could be found in the mountains. She paused, the hooting had stopped, then a crack of a small branch made her whip her head around. She was standing face to face, or maybe face to chest with the Barbegazi! They were real! He was a short man with icicles dripping from his platinum blonde whiskers and large, very large bare feet. He hid behind a nearby tree and hooted once more, now taking large hopping jumps back towards the river. Ursula squealed, frolicking through the snow after the Small man with large feet, making sure to find his large footprints in the snow. His hooting continued all the way back down the mountain as snow began to fall once more. Ursula’s back was damp with perspiration and her nose sparkled rosy pink once she had finally made her way back to the edge of the river. The Barbegazi looked solemnly at Ursula, she knew to not get too close or speak because although the creatures were helpful they were more fond of their space. She smiled and stepped back from the little icy man, who then mischievously grinned up at her. He walked towards the frozen river and placed a heavy foot onto the ice. It created, under his weight, cracks, and fissures of icy water sprung up and he turned looking displeased.
“I wonder what this little man is trying to do, he must know I live on this side of the river, there’s no need to try and make it across. These creatures do help and always work to protect you though.”
Her curiosity overcame her and she sat down in the snow patiently while the frozen man plucked an icicle from his beard. A few feet away from his original foot mark he pressed down again, and seeing no give in the ice he stabbed his icicle into the frozen river. It stuck and had no effect on its stability, here he scampered onto the ice beckoning Ursula to follow. She hesitated for a moment, but then the Barbegazi let out a friendly hoot and she knew she wanted to follow the Mountain Keeper. Once across the river, the forest was silent, the snow radiated the sun’s rays and snowflakes created kaleidoscopes of light onto the trees. He quietly walked towards a thick tree, the only tree that had no snow around it and seemed unaffected by winter’s presence. Carved in the trunk was a thick T filled with sap, the outline was all that was visible.
“Theresa’s Tree!” Ursula whispered. The Barbegazi shuffled through the snow handing her a small intricately decorated handle of a knife. Its Hilt was magical and scenes of the different seasons changed with each breath Ursula took. The Barbegazi pressed Ursula’s hand to the sap-covered T beckoning her to carve.
A rich voice filled the Forest, the voice didn’t come from the tree but it was like the wind all around, speaking as softly as the snow fell.
“Ursula, you kind girl. You have received my grace because of your remembrance for the spirit of the Forest and mountains. You have found my tree, my roots of love run deep into this mountain, my family lived and loved here. You continue my story through your kindness of heart. What is your wish, my dear”
Ursula sat in awe as the voice of Theresa dissipated, waiting for her response.
Ursula had always imagined that she would wish to make herself beautiful to the eyes, it would please her mother and people around her. She thought her appearance could match her heart. But while she sat, realizing that nature’s image, all of its beauty, was truly lots of random, and sometimes ugly pieces, that were then put together to make a whole image. A beautiful image.
Ursula smiled turning back to Theresa’s Tree, “I wish to be a tree with you, granting wishes to people who search for our magic and those who have beautiful hearts.”
There is a legend that a girl young and quite plain, but with a beautiful heart went in search for the magic of the Forest. Some say you can find her tree, it is near a river that freezes over during the winter, and only the truly brave and kind can find it.
This piece is inspired by the history of my family, my Grandmother Theresa has her ashes sprinkled in Adelboden which is a Swiss town in the mountains that she grew up going to. She was born in Switzerland and rests in Switzerland. The Barbegazi are our mountain friends, you can hear them hooting, sounding like winter winds when everything is white and all you see is snow.
Photo Credit: Vintage Swiss Mountain