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art by Tais Teng

B is for Banyan Tree

Tim Pratt's stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, and other nice places. He's won a Hugo for his short fiction (and lost Sturgeon, Stoker, World Fantasy, and Nebula Awards). He lives in Berkeley CA with his wife and son. Find him online at timpratt.org

Jenn Reese lives in Los Angeles and is currently writing a middle-grade adventure series for Candlewick Press. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons and the World Fantasy Award-winning anthology Paper Cities, among others. Follow her adventures at jennreese.com.

Heather Shaw is a writer, editor, gardener and aikidoka living in Berkeley, California with her husband and son. She's had fiction in Strange Horizons, Polyphony, The Year's Best Fantasy, Escape Pod and other nice places. She just finished her first middle-grade novel, "Keaton T., Junior Gene Hacker" and is looking for representation. For more, visit heathershaw.org

Greg van Eekhout's fiction for adults and children includes the novels Norse Code and Kid vs. Squid and stories published in Asimov's, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, and other places. He lives in San Diego, CA. For more information, visit writingandsnacks.com.

Jonas was eight when his best friend, Tabitha (Tabby, Tabs, or the Tabster for short) climbed up the Banyan tree and disappeared into its branches. The ancient tree had been the setting for many of their childhood adventures, spanning as it did several backyards in their neighborhood. Jonas's dad was the sort to arrange play dates, though most other parents on the island didn't bother, but Jonas was allowed to play in the backyard unimpeded, and so it was easy to climb up, and over, and find other children playing in the rambling, forking branches of the enormous tree with many trunks.
Tabby wasn't the type of girl his father thought he should be playing with. She'd lived her whole life on the island and went to the local school, which his father described in carefully neutral words in a tight voice as he justified Jonas' tutors. She was a bit older, though he was never sure how much--she always changed the subject when he asked, so eventually he just stopped bothering her about it. She was always dirty, her clothes had small rips from hours spent among the branches, and she didn't like talking to adults, but let her voice drop to a low murmur when they addressed her.
That day, the last day Jonas played with Tabs, they'd climbed further into the branches than they ever had before. The tree always seemed endless, with a lattice pattern of branches supported by numerous roots, making the whole thing feel less like a tree than a giant, organic jungle gym. He climbed over to her yard and dropped down to call for her. Tabby came running out of the house, a backpack strapped on. "I was hoping you'd come today! Let's play explorer today!"
They usually pretended the tree was a hospital (which was usually Tabitha's favorite game, as it meant playing doctor), or a school, or that the branches were horses or motorcycles or carnival games. Explorer was a new one, but Jonas let Tabby take the lead, as usual.
They set off, taking branches that led away from their yards, with Tabby narrating the safari, pretending giant birds were attacking them, joining a group of monkeys, riding elephants, and negotiating with tribespeople along the way. It was impossible to keep track of the path they'd taken, and as it got dark, Jonas began to worry about finding his way home in time.
"Silly! If we keep going this way, we'll get to the shortcut and we'll be back before you know it."
Jonas was lost, but he wasn't turned around. Home was behind them, and if they kept going forward they'd only be further away. He said as much to Tabby, who rolled her eyes.
"You forget, I grew up in this tree, Jonas. Out here, the paths don't follow the branches."
Then she climbed up a branch and vanished.
Jonas called for her to stop hiding. His voice became shrill when she didn't answer and the silence among the branches let him know she was really gone. He turned around and made his way back, getting home long after dark.
Tabby called for him the next day, asking why he hadn't followed her. She told him the secret of the Banyan trees, how if you climbed the right branches in just the right order, you could pop out in another part of the tree or even, if you climbed the smallest branches, into another tree altogether. She claimed to have seen Hawai'i and India this way, and showed Jonas a Maui keychain she said she'd shoplifted in Lahaina just last week. She begged him to follow her, to let her prove it "for real."
But Jonas just shivered, visualizing her climbing up, away from him, and vanishing from sight without even saying goodbye. He shook his head. The tree was now big and scary, and that long climb back through the dark branches by himself was real enough for him.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, January 12th, 2011
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