In the dusty corner of an ancient olive grove perched on a steep Mediterranean hillside stood a huge gnarled and battered tree. Its many twisted limbs spread out their crooked fingers across the sky and its winding leathery roots ran up and down the entire hill. The local villagers called it Il Venerabile, although no-one actually knew how old it was. But the tree knew and liked to tell the birds and the beasts and the neighbouring trees. “I’m a thousand years old and two hundred too, minuto meno, minuto più.”
His proud boast annoyed some of the younger trees who believed that if old Venerabile was as ancient and wise as he claimed he ought to be a bit more modest. By and large though they held him in great affection. After all whose strong roots had given them a helping hand when they were mere saplings and the winter weather threatened to stunt their growth? And who was it showed them how to bend and sway into the hill against gusty squalls and sea spray?
It so happened that once a year on the last day of summer the Four Winds gathered high in the sky above the olive grove to make mischief and challenge each other to prove who was the best. They raced round the hills, and whipped up the waves, and made elaborate patterns in the fields, but they couldn’t agree who was the outright winner.
Glancing down at the rows of contented chirping sparrows sitting along Il Venerabile’s branches, the West Wind said, “First one to blow all the birds off that old tree is the winner.”
“Too easy,” replied the others.
“I’ve a better idea,” said the cruel North Wind. “The first one to blow down that old tree is the King of the wind.”
“Or Queen,” snapped the East Wind.
“Sure, why not?” said the South and West Winds, and started puffing their cheeks out in preparation.
The West Wind was the first to try. Racing back and forth along the Atlantic coast, it stirred up a storm and released its fury on poor old Venerabile.
“Che diavolo?” he cried as salty blasts of air rained down on his leaves and battered him with shoals of sardines and other fishy fare. “Stronzo!” he cried as confused crabs and angry lobsters nipped at his bark and squeezed at the olives left over from this year’s harvest as they scuttled down his sides and made their way back down to the beach.
Il Venerabile was wet and was wilted but he shook himself off. The wind that beat him would need sterner stuff.
The sparrows had scattered at the first sign of danger, and when they returned they looked slightly strange. Their wings were now covered with fish scales, not feathers, and when they struck up a song they spat out fish bones. Wishing to avoid a second drenching, they took their perches on the neighbouring trees.
The South Wind smirked, and said to the others, “I’ll be back soon to finish the job but first I’m off home for a special gift.”
Swooping across the Mediterranean then on to Mother Africa, she scooped up desert sand dunes in the middle of the Sahara, and swiftly returned to pummel down harsh hot dry columns of sand, glass, and stone on poor old Venerabile. His leaves were peppered with holes, his twigs were singed, and his bark was scoured down to his trunk.
But although the South Wind’s hot blasts made him crease and crack, somehow he was still standing despite scorpions racing down his trunk, and camel teeth chattering on his branches.
“Stand aside!” cried the East Wind. “Leave it to me, my darlings, I have a very special gift from Siberia for this troublesome tree,” and circling into a tight ball of spite, she shot over the Steppes and into the night. Returning at once, the East Wind launched her attack. Dragon’s breath and Mongolian snow rained down on Il Venerabile in a tempest of fire and ice, and many of his branches broke off and burst into flames. It was starting to look like the East Wind would win, but despite everything, the grand old tree still stood.
A blood-curdling shriek from the East Wind made it clear that she’d given her best, leaving only the cruellest and coldest Wind left to prevail.
“I’d never have guessed that this ugly old tree would prove more than a match for you overblown three. And now you shall learn why the North Wind is King. Now stand back and let me do my thing.” The King of the Winds withdrew to the Arctic and gathered his strength, pulling northern lights and electric storms into his orbit in the calm before the final storm.
“I guess this is it,” said Il Venerabile while he waited for the worst to occur, “but dear fellow trees, I want you to know that it’s been my honour to stand with you all these years and watch every one of you grow and flourish.”
A gentle breeze through the olive grove carried the thoughts of all the trees who’d been watching in silent horror as the brutal battle of the winds unfolded. And silently they agreed to a plan.
The North Wind returned, rolling in over the hill and ready to finish the fight. Lightening bolts and thunder claps shook Il Venerabile to his roots, and ripped off more of his branches as he stood, now little more than a blackened, blistered stump rocking back and forth in the wind. The North Wind prepared for his final assault, but as the clouds parted and he began his descent, there was much activity underground. For every tree in the olive grove had complex roots that intertwined with Il Venerabile’s. Miles and miles of strong sinewy fibre that flexed and tightened around the roots of their most distinguished neighbour. Thud after thud of icy cold wind knocked the old tree back on his heels, but each time he bounced back as his complex root system found the support and strength it needed to keep him upstanding.
The North Wind’s fury knew no bounds but his strength eventually deserted him. “How can this be so?” he exclaimed. “How can one withered old ugly tree stand up to everything the Four Great Winds can throw at him? Can you answer me, sir?”
“Indeed I cannot!” said Il Venerabile. “One tree is no match for the Four Winds, but you would need to blow down each and every tree in this olive grove in a single breath if you were to rip me from this soil.”
The Four Winds took note, parted as friends, and returned to their corners of the globe a little wiser, although the West Wind was already thinking of what challenge to propose for next year. And the sparrows flocked back onto the few crisp black branches left on Il Venerabile’s gnarly scorched trunk, but immediately discovered he was still far too hot, and flew off before they burned their feet.
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© 2018 John Mount
John has worked in cinema, journalism and advertising and writes fiction when he can.