A/N: Written for originalfic_las for the prompt: "Deny your desires and you will find what your heart longs for." — Saint John of the Cross.
Summary: A teaching story for the children, about how everyone climbs the Tree of Life.
It is said there is a people, far to the west, that believes everyone climbs the Tree of Life. This, everyone knows. But what their holy men and women teach them as children is that they must want to climb it. For the higher they climb, the greater they can become. The heroes of legend are said to have climbed within sight of the phoenix nest that crowns the tree.
Yet, the higher one climbs, the more difficult the climb becomes. An aged and wizened woman is the one that tells the younglings the greatest legend of the tree.
“There was once a young girl, just as young as you are now, who heard the first legends of the Tree. She was captivated, and vowed to climb the tree all the way to the top. She wanted to know everything.”
“What was her name, Mother Anja?”
“Well, no one rightly remembers, so we’ll call her Kit. And Kit started her climb at the very base of the Tree-.”
“Shaman Valm says it isn’t a real tree.”
“He’s just about right. So tell me, Pip, what is at the ‘base of the Tree?’”
“The dead. The ones who died before they were born, so they never climbed.”
“That’s it. So Kit worked with the dead, and learned about the roots of the Tree. Then, impatient, she climbed up the trunk to the first branches.”
“The farmers, who give life to plants!”
“Very good, Ulla. Then?”
“The herders, who give life to beasts, then the healers, who give life to people.”
“You learned your lessons well, Calla. Oh, Kit didn’t stay long with any of them, because she wanted to climb fast. Barely had she put a foot upon the branch than she was reaching for the next one. What comes next?”
The children clamored to answer first, running over the top of each other.
“The bakers and cooks who give life to food, and then the craftspeople…”
“Then the scholars who teach our minds, the warriors who protect our bodies, the holy people who protect our souls…”
“You’re very clever! Kit was like you, she was learning all sorts of things, and didn’t want to stop. So she kept climbing as fast as she could, past chiefs and elders, hunters and explorers, magicians, sages, and oracles, until she’d gone past the topmost branch that anyone knew about, the Truth Seeker.
“But Kit still wanted to know more. She left the Truth Seeker and hunted far and wide for more branches. That’s when she found a tree, a real Tree, just like how it looked in the carvings. Exciting at the thought of learning something new, Kit climbed the tree, not stopping, no matter how tired she became. And then she saw the nest at the top.”
“Was it a phoenix’s nest, Mother Anja?”
“Kit certainly thought so. But there was no phoenix inside, just a glowing gem, as big as Kit, and warm. So she sat down on it to wait for the phoenix. She waited and waited, and as she waited, she began to think. She looked down at the tree, and realized she had been so busy, learning and climbing so fast, that she hadn’t been able to really understand anything she’d learned.
“Kit had wanted knowledge, but now that she knew things, she wasn’t sure what to do. So Kit sat and sat, and thought and thought, thinking about all the different branches and where she might like to go. Because she realized that the upper branches were thin and hard to stand on, not like the broad, comfortable lower branches. There was even no one nearby to talk to, though the view was very pretty. And in the phoenix’s next, Kit could not even see anyone else anywhere!
“Kit was lonely and no longer wanted to stay. And it was right then that the gem she was sitting on began to move.”
“It was an egg!” one of the littlest children giggled. “Kit hatched an egg like a chicken!”
“That’s right, Trin. But what came out of the egg wasn’t a chicken, it was a phoenix, all covered with feathers like flames.”
The children’s mouths gaped open.
“The phoenix chick broke out of the egg and fell into Kit’s arms. It looked so lost, and Kit wondered where its mother was. ‘I will be your mother,’ she said, realizing suddenly that was why she was here. So she taught the phoenix everything she knew. And when the phoenix was old enough, it took her on its back and carried her back to her village.
“‘Now you will be a mother to them,’” the phoenix sang. The villagers that saw them arrive counted Kit as wise, though she did not think she was, and she began to teach them about her long climb. She realized now that she was seeing every branch up close, in the eyes of a boy who wanted to be a warrior, or in the heart of a girl who helped tend her sister’s scraped knee. And so Kit found that what her heart had truly longed for, thought she hadn’t known it.”
“Is that story true, Mother Anja?” Calla asked.
“Oh, some believe it is,” Anja said, and smiled at the girl, her eyes almost disappearing in a mass of wrinkles. “Some say Kit is still around, for the mother of a phoenix can never die.”
“Your grandmother said the same thing when she was your age. All right, off you go, time for lunch!”
The children scattered across the village square, laughing and talking about the story. Anja slowly stroked the flame-colored father in her pocket as she waited for the rest of the village children to come hear her tale.
There is a people, far to the west, who believe everyone climbs the Tree of Life. And they say you will know which branch is yours when you finally stop climbing.