‘We’ve found the Changeling Treehouse… This is the end of our journey!’
Ashlyn didn’t know what to do with herself. She was giddy, excited, scared, faint and cautious all at the same time. The child in her hoped to find a secret passageway, hoped that a mystical guardian would appear in plain light, hoped that a single book of fairy tales would drop out and hit her on the head… Anything to tell her that after falling down so many wormholes, she had finally landed in the one that housed the legendary library.
‘This is not the end,’ said Curio. ‘Journeys will end nevermore… Stories will end nevermore… Memories will end nevermore…’
His time traveller interrupted him before he could drift further into his newfound narrative.
‘Q. Stop reading that raven and help find a way in. You do think this is the Changeling Treehouse, right?’
‘I don’t think. I read,’ Curio replied.
He watched as the raven flew away to perch on an overhanging branch. Ashlyn was too distracted to question whether or not it was some kind of omen.
‘Why don’t you read more of the tree to find a door?’ she suggested.
Curio had turned his attention to a patch of moss. He said, ‘The family book will be useful.’
Over the six years that Ashlyn and Curio had travelled together, they often referred to the book for direction and guidance. On its pages were handwritten fairy tales collected by the Espenschied family, which Ashlyn is part of. She had always known it to be the family’s most treasured heirloom, so at sixteen years of age, she decided it was the most important thing she could borrow (after Curio). Back then, it seemed to be the logical thing to do. The book held historical and geographical information, as well as generations’ worth of time sands.
Following Curio’s advice, Ashlyn took off the satchel that was strapped to her back and retrieved the book it contained. For the most part, she had taken acceptable care of it. All of the entries were legible, although some lines may require more patience than others. Whenever she observed the scuffed edges, mouldy blots and water damage, she would often picture her grandmother, who never seemed to like change of any sort.
Ashlyn opened the book and searched for ideas.
‘So, what do we have? Alice followed a white rabbit… Ali Baba spoke some magical words…’
She looked up, shouted, ‘Open sesame!’ and returned to the book when nothing happened.
‘You ought to take a seat,’ said Curio.
He gestured towards one of the many large tree roots that had grown above ground. As she moved to sit, Ashlyn spotted something of note on the book’s pages.
‘Ah. There was one where a bird had a key. Did you see where the raven went –?’
Her train of thought was broken when the tree disappeared beneath her. She rolled backwards and saw the leafy canopy flash past her eyes. Blackness enveloped her and the glow of Peter Pan green had gone. The book of fairy tales flew out of her hands. Something white danced around the corner of her vision, bringing to mind once again the little white rabbit who couldn’t keep time. She didn’t have the chance to see if there happened to be any miscellaneous memorabilia floating around, because the hole she was falling down wasn’t deep. Spongey moss softened her landing and, apart from feeling incredibly surprised, she was exactly the same as she had been outside of the tree.
She sat up. For a little while, she could only hear the sound of her own breathing. It was her first visit to an enchanted tree, so she wasn't sure what to expect. She thought, perhaps, that a disembodied voice would be there to greet her. Maybe there would be a riddle to test her intelligence. It was too dark for her to hazard a good guess. She remembered her family’s book and was about to call for Curio when she heard distinctive sounds of chewing and nibbling.
‘Lots of things are in your hair,’ said a young voice.
The voice didn’t belong to her zeitgeist. When she raked her hair with her fingers, she found something very soft and fluffy. It was about the size of an orange and just as round. Another voice flooded the shadows. It wasn’t the godly, disembodied voice she had hoped for, but it possessed a commanding authority that brought her grandmother to mind.
‘Who permitted you to chew the girl’s hair?!’ it barked.
A cosy light lit up the tree’s interior and allowed Ashlyn to see the creature that was munching on her braid. It was like a giant ball of cotton wool. Its heart-shaped ears and teardrop nose were blue in colour. Ashlyn couldn’t place the reason why, but there was something disconcerting about its black, smiling eyes.
‘I already found a beetle, an ant, a caterpillar and a baby spider,’ beamed the creature, who didn’t seem fazed by having been told off.
Two more of the same species fluttered down to the mossy floor. Seeing their little, leathery wings, Ashlyn realised that they were bats – very round, white bats. By appearance alone, they weren’t exactly awe-inspiring, threatening, all-knowing or even magical or legendary looking. Had Curio made a mistake? She was about to question where Curio had actually gone, when the bat with yellow ears and nose started to speak. His manner was light, friendly and fatherly.
‘Welcome to the Changeling Treehouse,’ he said in a voice much deeper than expected. ‘My name is Yuen Yuen.’
He flourished a wing towards the bat beside him, who had pink ears and nose.
‘This is my dear wife, Min Min. You will find my darling daughter, Tin Zan, dining in your hair, which is infested with her favourite insects. On behalf of the tree, we’d like to thank you for your generous –’
‘Fairy bat,’ said Curio.
Having investigated the circular, wooden room, Curio was now gently poking Yuen Yuen with his beak-like horn.
The yellow fairy bat seemed pleased with the interruption.
‘Ooh… Min Min. Look.’
He took hold of the beak-like horn, picked Curio up and swung him round to show the pink fairy bat what he found.
‘It’s a zeitgeist.’
Min Min replied, ‘Keep that thing away from me.’
Ashlyn recognised the pink fairy bat’s voice to be the same commanding voice she had heard earlier. She hadn’t pegged the bats to be well-read, but was encouraged to see that they knew what a zeitgeist was.
‘Is this really the legendary library?’ she asked apprehensively.
The room she had fallen into was airy and spacious. It had a natural carpet of moss and walls of tree bark. There was not a single book to be seen. For that matter, there wasn’t any furniture.
‘The tree is feeling shy, because you’ve never been here before,’ said a child’s voice from the top of her head.
‘I couldn’t have put it better myself,’ Yuen Yuen agreed. ‘That is my clever little boy, Ping Wo.’
Ashlyn found it difficult to memorise foreign names, and was silently repeating them to herself as she reached up to find the little fairy bat.
‘DON’T MOVE HIM!’ Min Min screeched.
‘WHY?’ Ashlyn cried, forgetting the names of all of the bats.
‘Forgive us,’ said Yuen Yuen. ‘If you move Ping Wo away from his designated high place, he will hyperventilate with excruciating anxiety, pass out and fall into a comatose state that is incredibly difficult to wake from.’
This explanation raised more questions than Ashlyn cared to say, so she asked, ‘What colour are his ears?’
‘Pale French mauve,’ Yuen Yuen replied.
In the silence that followed, Ashlyn realised she couldn’t be bothered to ascertain how a colour could have an ethnic origin, so she plucked from her hair the latest ball of fluff, which didn’t actually go short of breath.
‘Mauve is green!’ Ashlyn declared.
‘Mauve is purple,’ corrected Min Min.
‘You hold in your hand our first daughter,’ said Yuen Yuen. ‘She loves her little brother and little sister very much.’
The fairy bat with green ears and nose, despite regarding Ashlyn with a look of contempt, spoke in a very sweet and quiet voice.
‘I’m Song Long,’ she said. ‘I know you’ll forget my name, but my brother, whose name you’ll also forget, has said that I’m socially bound to introduce myself. Who are you?’
‘Ashlyn Espenschied,’ said Ashlyn, who was beginning to find Curio’s absence from her shoulder very disconcerting.
‘Ashlyn Espenschied, thank you for the book,’ said Song Long.
‘Wait,’ said Ashlyn. ‘What book? Y-you mean my family’s book?’
The green fairy bat nodded.
‘That wasn’t a gift. It slipped out of my hands when I fell. I’m gonna need that back,’ Ashlyn said firmly.
Song Long turned round to face her parents and spoke as if she were commenting on the weather.
‘I knew this would happen,’ she said, ‘but at least the tree is happy.’
She looked back at Ashlyn.
‘You will not be happy, but there’s nothing I can do about that.’
She flew away and Ashlyn became more agitated.
‘What is she talking about? Where is my book?’
‘It has become part of the tree,’ said Ping Wo from the top of Ashlyn’s head. ‘The tree has accepted the book as part of her soul.’
‘The tree ATE my book?!’ Ashlyn exclaimed with horrified eyes.
‘Access to the library is only granted to those who sacrifice a book as an offering,’ Yuen Yuen explained.
‘I wasn’t sacrificing my book! I can’t sacrifice my book!’ Ashlyn cried. She was getting very distressed. ‘I don’t care what magical powers you or this tree has! I want my book back!’
The sound of shifting earth reverberated throughout the tree’s interior. When the room started to shudder and rumble, Ashlyn was prepared to shout for Curio’s aid, but she stopped short when she saw her family’s book of fairy tales sprout miraculously from the green floor. Slender twigs with baby leaves held the book aloft and carried it straight to the time traveller’s hands.
‘You may borrow the book,’ said Min Min.
‘Are there other books you would like to check out?’ enquired Yuen Yuen. ‘We’re happy to oblige.’
Ashlyn didn’t know what to say.
‘Is it really that easy?!’ she thought.