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Sky kisses the glass lake surface attentively, merging them into one somber mass: inextricably and eternally bound. Elm trees encircle the clearing, waving their leaves in approval of the celestial matrimony. They wither and pass without contention, offering their aura to the next occupant to inherit the same patch of Earth. A soft breeze sways between them and the heavens, circulating a sense of tranquility. November leaves bid their branches farewell as they uproot and surrender themselves to the cool progression of affectionate wind. Naked December trunks bend low above a thick coating of glassy ice.

 They obsess over their reflections, patching hollows and hiding overgrown burls to their dissatisfaction. Tentatively, they await spring and weep for the comforting guise of leak cloaks.

May leaves emerge, dazed from their abrupt entrance and find fulfillment in masking the vapid insecurities shared individually but not expressed outwardly by the community of elm trees.

“Why do you hoist me outward, obscuring view of your beautifully lined trunk?” each leave asks. “I wish I had sensors to reach out with and trace your gentle notches as they stop and start up and down your great mast. I want to coddle your burls, to spread your viscous sap from the base of my stem to the outermost edge of my blade, relishing in the warmth of your spirit.”

“You do not understand,” each elm explains. “My neighbors: they have no sap nor burls. I am an oddity. Each winter I am stripped nude for all to see and jest. I work tenaciously to clog my hollows, but sap always manages to seep through my branches, drowning my limbs in globs of repulsive gunk.”

“Look at your neighbors!” the leaves plead. “Can you not see their branches clumped together in hardened, dry sap? Can you not see their plump burls dressed in thin leaf sheaths? Just as I am bound, my stem to your branch, your roots reach out and grab hold of your neighbors’. They tangle and merge in a fleeting dance of life. Once the soil settles, we share one unceasing essence…“

The elms turn away and stop listening. They don’t stop caring. No. Their self-deprecation will never surpass the self.

They care for the leaves as a mother would her child. From spring to fall the elms feed them when their veins are half full, sing to them when they stir in the dead of the night, and love them unconditionally with enough conviction to admit them into the heavens on account of the elms’ recommendation. However, no matter how often or fervently the leaves plead, the elms insist on covering their burls and clogging their hollows.

As October approaches, the leaves wrinkle and deflate. “Elm,” each announces, “I can feel my veins draining and my stem detaching, will you receive my parting word?”

“Yes,” respond the trees.

“Do you love me?” asks each leaf.

Startled, each elm immediately responds, “yes, of course I do.”

“Why do you love me?” again, asks each leaf.

The trees take some time to ascertain an accurate answer. “Because you are a part of me; without you I would not be complete.”

For a moment, the leaves seem youthful again, warm with color. “What then are your hollows and burls?” Before the elms can articulate their response, the leaves face a sweet surrender, briskly blowing skyward.

Winter approaches and the elms stand stout, disgusted by the sap effusing and coating their bark. Fallen leaves litter the clearing; occasionally some are strewn about by a chilly, unfeeling wind. Peculiarly, the sky seems to have withdrawn from the lake, no longer kissing, but watching on, from afar, in dismay.

The glassy lake calls out to them. “Please, save yourself from unnecessary shame! Come, peer into my icy pane!”

The elms, although wanting nothing more than to lurch forward and feed their insecurities, remember their leaves. The chilling breath stirred on by the temptress is now contested by their leaves’ warm parting words. They stand sober: stiff in defiance.

The lake, sensing their rigidity tries once more. “You really are an abominable creature, aren’t you? Just promise that you won’t slobber any of that sickening sludge onto my surface when you look!”

The elms are helpless once again, paralyzed with shame.

Had the lake always been quite so reflective this time of year?

They glance down, now, at the faded, shriveled corpses of their fallen friends.

Can they see me now? each elm wonders.

Whether or not the leaves have retained their consciousness: one thing is for certain, the elms have. For what seems like the first time in their history, the elms straighten their stumps, roll their branches backward, and affix their attention to each other in the dead of winter. Unsightly burls and gurgling, sap-filled hollows now dominate each elm’s vision. For a moment, all wish they had taken the lake’s advice.

One evidently affected elm lets loose an ugly cry. Each elm swivels about their base, contorting their roots underneath into a mesh of mangled twine in hurried effort to listen more acutely. Soon, they realize that this is not a cry- rather a laugh.

This entity is sick and twisted enough to jest in the face of incomparably brave vulnerability? I bet he has few blemishes, they all think to themselves.

Each elm looks him up and down, maybe a hundred times, awakening to the realization that he is likely the most hideous of them all. From trunk to branches, he is one large, unsightly burl, leaking and sputtering sap a great distance.

How can someone with that complexion take such a dire condition so lightly? the elms question.

“He’s been so cursed by fate that he’s completely lost his wits. Hurry! Before it’s too late, cast your vision onto my icy shores! I imagine you’d rather not suffer a similar fate!” hisses the lake in response.

Laughter fills the air, but this time it is not one, but three elms. Darting their vision about, they each absorb their surroundings and one-by-one realize the similarity of their plights. The warm joy of acceptance froths from the base of their tangled roots to the tips of their extended branches. Laughter seems the only appropriate response.

This revelation becomes contagion; it spreads like wildfire. Soon, all elms double over, not inspecting their branches for dry sap, but immersing themselves in laughter.

The lake is screeching something indistinguishable, but no longer has any power over their kindred spirits. Their roots begin to glow visibly red with heat. The earth becomes increasingly warm the harder they laugh and the more their inhibitions dissipate upward, toward the pleasantly astonished sky.

Finally, the heat from their roots brings color back to the dull, deflated leaves littering the clearing floor. A great wind sweeps them upward and swirls them about the canopy opening. At once, a cascade of steaming hot leaves floods the icy lake surface and in a matter of seconds, the ice is totally eroded: leaving the simple lake as it had been before the winter.

Extinguished, the leaves slowly Drift back to the shore, again lifeless.

The sky and lake once again lock in an eternal kiss.

Does eternal mean whenever the lake grows tired of being a cold witch? Some elms wonder, however, nothing stimulates their fear anymore.

They extended their vision and found beauty in their differences, then extended their roots and found beauty in their unity.

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