Happy Valley in the Month of Eating: the ground was thawing under the sun's beams and the remnants of snow melting to a trickle down the wooded mountain streams. On the edge of the village during this especially glorious spring day, a young green Tonu and a striped Jubjub walked side-by-side through the slush on the ground, a small unplanted sapling resting on their backs. Behind them, a modest cottage rose in the clearing with a red Moehog occupying one of three wooden rockers on the porch. Beside the cottage stood a giant tree, a marvelous statue in the shining sun; its sturdy arms stretched up and over the little neohome, shielding its roof from the sky above in a gentle embrace.
"Alright, Ever," said the Jubjub as they walked through the yard, "does this look like a good spot?"
Ever, the green Tonu, nodded her furred head, her little horn glowing in the sunlight. Though she was already almost twice as big as the striped Jubjub, she was much younger, and not nearly the size of a full-grown Tonu.
"Okay, then, let's set the tree down here," continued the Jubjub. "Now, where are the shovels?"
"We left them on the porch, Janny," Ever said, her voice small.
"Oh, right Ever. We did."
Sure enough, there were two shovels leaned against the wall of the cottage, by the door. The Jubjub turned to look at the red Moehog sitting on the porch. He rocked slowly in the chair, half-asleep in the warm sunlight.
"Max!" she called. "Mind bringing those shovels down here for me and Ever? You can even help dig!"
The Moehog addressed the Jubjub with a wave of his hoof. "I'm too... relaxed right now, Janice--can't you tell? Just make Ever go get them; she's not three yards away."
"Yes," Janice said, "but you're not two steps away, and lazy."
Max was about to object, but Ever was already hurrying up the steps of the porch to retrieve the shovels and heading back to where Janice waited.
"Thank you, Ever," the Jubjub said with an indignant glance at Max, who was leaning back slouched in the rocker.
Janice and Ever got to work with the shovels. With each mound of dirt removed, and some help from the Tonu's small horn, they soon created a good-sized hole in the soft ground that was the perfect size for the little tree. The two gave a gentle heave-ho and the base of the sapling slid into place below the surface. Then the Jubjub and Tonu went about filling the empty space around the tree back in.
"Do you know why we're doing this?" Janice asked Ever. "Do you know why we are planting this little tree?"
Ever paused a moment, her eyes thoughtful, then shook her head.
Janice smiled. "We're planting this little tree so it will grow up to be a big tree someday."
They finished piling the dirt up around the sapling and rested for a moment by its tiny trunk.
"You know," Janice said to Ever, "you and this little tree aren't very different from each other." She met with the young Tonu's quizzical eyes. Continuing, she explained, "You both start out small and insignificant, but one day you each will grow up to be big trees; big and beautiful, like me and Max. Well," she reverted, "maybe not like Max; he's too lazy. But you'll both grow up together, you and this little tree; into something much bigger than you are today."
Ever stopped and thought about this proposition. "Nuh-uh!" she said, with a shake of her head.
"Uh-huh," said Janice. "Say, you see that big tree over there?" The Jubjub pointed to the solid trunk and the tangle of burly branches soaring above the roof of the cottage. "This little tree we planted here today--someday this tree will be just as big as that one over there."
Ever looked at the big tree, and then at the sapling at her side, the thin trunk slightly tilted in the soft soil. The young Tonu shook her head again. "I don't think so!" she said.
Janice laughed. "You may say that now, Ever. But someday, you'll grow up to be bigger than you are today, just like this little tree. You just wait."
That summer, Ever pranced in the yard around the little tree, exuberant now that winter was over and she was free from the constraints of the indoors. Janice and Max sat on the porch in the sunlight and under the big tree, the Jubjub most often reading a copy of The Neopian Times with one eye and keeping the other on Ever on the lawn.
When he was not tanning in the summer sun or catching up on beauty rest, Max sometimes took Ever into the village for a slushie or attempted to play games with the youngster in the yard. But the Moehog eventually gave up at that because, in the little Tonu's words, he never "played fair." Of course, playing fair to Ever meant always letting her win; and so as the summer wore on, Max could be seen more often napping in his chair on the porch in the sun than playing out in the yard with Ever.
But as the fall came that year, Janice decided to let Ever go play in the woods. The young Tonu was older now and already gaining the large stature shared by the members of her species. The only restraint was that Ever must come back to the house by dark, and that was quite fine with Ever. She couldn't see anything in the dark anyway.
Ever grew to love the forest of Happy Valley. There was so much to explore! And there were many more trees there in the woods than in the yard; in all different sizes and variations, too. Some were minuscule saplings, smaller than even the one she had helped Janice plant. Others were humongous; they practically dwarfed the big tree that shaded their cottage. And there were many, many more in between that grew in a plethora of colors and shapes. Ever loved them all. She even had names for some of the big trees.
The one with a mix of purple and green leaves--that was Jhudora. The one with completely purple leaves was the Faerie Queen, Fyora. Illusen was bright green and sparkly. Taelia was white like snow with blue berries; her leaves seemed to keep a frost better than the others, too. Meuka was the tree with light green slime coming out from its roots. Or was that snot? Ever didn't know. And the tree with three funny green branches sticking out of its head--well, Ever named that one Sloth.
Every day, she would greet the trees: "Well, how are you today, Illusen? Looking just as lovely as ever, I see. And my dear Queen, purple is your color, so then why are you shedding your lovely hair?! Soon you'll have no leaves left! And Doctor, are you feeling healthy today? You look a little green..."
Ever kept this up for weeks, coming each day to chat with her tree-friends and clean up after them when a couple of them began to lose their "hair."
It was on a chilly late-fall day that the Neopian Times called for snow in Happy Valley. Ever begged to be let outside to go into the woods. It was against her better judgment, but Janice finally allowed her to go on one condition:
"You come right back if it starts snowing, okay? Just one flake and you come back."
And with a quick "okay, Janny," Ever was out the door and into the woods. She said her usual greeting to Dr. Sloth and gave Taelia's frost-covered bark a hug. The Tonu was winding the bend to where her other friends were rooted when she heard voices echo through the woods; and these voices were not the imaginary ones of her tree-friends. They were real.
Alarmed yet curious, the young Tonu hid behind a near-bald Fyora, peeked her large horn around the trunk of the tree, and then her head. In the clearing in front of her, standing by the stream there, were three pets: a Bruce, a Gnorbu, and a Tuskaninny, all clad in Denim Coveralls. Strung between the Bruce and the Gnorbu was a huge flat metal object with a ridged edge on one side; like fierce teeth, Ever thought.
"Alright, boys," said the pink Tuskaninny with a clap of her hands. "Let's take down this one right here before the snow comes."
The Tuskaninny directed the Bruce and the Gnorbu to the nearest tree. Ever watched stunned as the pair lifted the jagged edge of the strange object up to meet the bark of Meuka, and then began sawing away at the massive trunk. The monstrous teeth severed the grown tree right above the slime-lined roots as the Tonu looked on in near tears.
"Tiiiimmmmberrrr!" cried the yellow Bruce as the top of the big tree broke loose and fell to the ground with a crash.
Ever wiped at her startled eyes as the team hacked away at the fallen wood with their axes. Finally, the three pets rolled what was left of the big tree Ever had known as Meuka into the water and watched it float downstream as the first snowflakes of the season floated down the shafts of cold air through the trees and settled on the ground.
With the snow come, the three pets in Denim Coveralls soon left, never noticing the sniffling green Tonu huddled at the base of a nearby tree. Ever simply sat there in the cold, stunned for a few minutes. Then she began to shiver uncontrollably and got herself to her feet to begin the trek home through the woods. The Tonu made her way through the falling snow, the wind whipping her face and tearing at her fur. She trudged on, head to the ground, surrounded by a whirl of white.
Ever had been combating the blizzard for some time, trying to get home, when she bumped into a smaller draped figure going the other way.
Ever felt a warm blanket fall around her back and looked up to see the red Moehog Max. They fought through the storm together and were soon climbing up the porch steps of the cottage.
Janice was inside with more blankets and two bowls of hot soup awaiting them on the big wooden table. The striped Jubjub thanked Max for going after Ever and then chided the Tonu, and then chided herself for letting Ever go out. Ever drank the soup and kept a couple blankets wrapped tightly around her body but didn't look at Janice or Max. She kept to herself for the rest of the afternoon while the snow fell outside.
That evening, the green Tonu stood in front of the mirror in her bedroom. Her body filled the entire length of the reflection and extended horizontally beyond it. Ever touched her horn to the glass. Not too long ago, she could see her whole reflection in the mirror standing this close, and then some. But now, she could see only a fraction of that.
Ever poked the unsightly knots on her knees. They hadn't been there before. Then she focused on the green horn protruding from her face. When had that gotten so big? The Tonu was trying to drive the horn back into her head when Janice appeared in the threshold of the door.
"My!" Janice exclaimed, looking at Ever at the mirror. "Well, aren't you just growing up?"
The Tonu looked at Janice in the doorway; the Jubjub's striped fur now appeared grey in the low light of the bedroom.
Ever's face tightened. "No!" she screamed and pushed by Janice. She rushed past Max in the hall and ran out the door of the cottage. Racing down the porch steps and straight into the midst of the blizzard, Ever crossed the lawn, blinded by the snow but knowing exactly where she was going, certain of what she was after.
She soon came to it: the little sapling, its bare branches looking frail and menacing at the same time. The Tonu lunged at it. She grabbed its trunk with her feet and tugged. It resisted her. She had grown stronger, but so had it. She pulled harder, crying. Its roots held fast. She used her horn and dug at its base, and she pulled and tugged and cried and yelled through the snow as the tree held on.
"Ever!" Max shouted behind her, coming through the bleary yard. "What in the snowy valley are you up to?!"
Ever held fast to the tree, giving it another yank; one of its roots popped from the ground.
"Ever, stop that right now!" Max yelled. The red Moehog grabbed the Tonu from behind. He drove his hooves into her tough back. "Stop that! Stop that right now, you hear?"
Ever didn't hear. She kept pulling the tree out of the ground through her tears, root by root, until just one relentless root held on.
Then she let go. She tumbled backwards, practically crushing Max under her, and landed hard on the ground on her back. Numb with feeling, she rolled to one side and sat up. Max crawled over to where she hunched in front of the partially uprooted tree.
"Ever, what were you trying to do?" the Moehog asked.
The Tonu didn't answer but just stared at the sapling hanging sickly over in the snow.
"Let's get you inside."
Janice already had a stack of blankets ready for them as they came in and hot soup at the table.
"I didn't mean to do it!" Ever cried, wiping at her nostrils with a corner of a blanket. "I didn't mean to! I didn't know!"
"What happened?" Janice asked as Ever wept at the table.
"She was out there trying to pull up that tree you planted," Max began.
"I killed it!" Ever shouted.
Janice looked at Max agape, and then back at Ever.
"But, Ever, why?"
Teardrops fell to her mane. "I didn't want it to grow up," she said quietly. "I didn't want it to grow up to be like the big trees in the woods and just get cut down in the end. I didn't want that to happen to it, so I killed it."
"Oh, Ever," Janice breathed while Max slipped out the front door. "No, no, no. It's alright. Max is going to check on it right now. No, it's fine, Ever. Why did you think that?"
"I saw pets in the woods," she said. "They were taking the big trees. They were taking my friends. I didn't want them to go. I don't want them to! So I won't let the little trees grow up to just be cut down in the end."
"But they haven't done anything wrong," Janice said. "And you haven't done anything wrong either. How did you get something like that in your head?"
The Tonu's eyes fell to the floor. "You told me that little trees grow up and that I am like a tree. I--I don't want to grow up, Janny."
"Oh." Now Janice felt tears in her eyes. She sat beside Ever at the table. "I'm sorry. That's not what I meant." She looked straight at the green Tonu. "You don't have to be afraid about growing up," she said. "But I can understand if you are. I was too. Though, don't you think being a little pet forever would be kind of boring?"
Ever looked down into her bowl of soup in thought and then up at Janice sheepishly. "No," she said.
The Jubjub smiled. "Yeah, but there are so many things we can't do until we're grown; so many exciting, interesting things."
Ever nodded slowly. "But I'd still like to be littler."
Cold wind circled through the room as Max entered the cottage again. "The tree will be just fine," he told Ever.
Ever sighed and relaxed her shoulders. She let her head rest softly on the table and closed her eyes while Janice stroked her mane. As the Tonu drifted off to sleep, her eyelids blinked open once and she noticed the woody grain of the tabletop, its dark weaving patterns glowing in the firelight.
"Big trees never really die," she whispered, "do they?"
Janice was about to answer, but didn't. The nearly-grown Tonu lay limp against the soft wood of the table, her body curled up awkwardly in the chair, eyes closed, asleep.