While he was waiting for The Dream Tree to appear, Arto tried to guess what lovely dream he’d have tonight. Swimming in the river with Joel was always good fun, but, this evening, Arto was more in the mood for adventure. He could be an astronaut, exploring other worlds far away in outer space; or he could be First Mate to a pirate queen, sailing the open ocean on a treasure hunt; or a champion race car driver on his way to winning the world cup. Whatever his dream turned out to be, Arto was determined to wake up from it a hero.
Arto searched the darkness behind his eyes for The Dream Tree. It didn’t normally take this long to appear once he’d fallen asleep. Arto grew impatient for its pretty light and tasty, golden fruit. Then, at last, the darkness melted away and the tree took shape before him. At first, Arto didn’t notice anything different. There was the tree, with its big, blankety leaves, but, as Arto walked closer to it, he realised that something was wrong.
Arto rubbed his eyes and wrinkled up his nose. Where was the tree’s nice, warm light? And what was that terrible smell?
Arto wasted no time in pulling back a leaf: he wanted to get away from here and start his nice, new dream. So it was a real shock for Arto when, instead of a nice, juicy fruit hanging behind the leaves, he found nothing! He could see the little branch where the fruit had been hanging, but it was gone, and there was nothing on the ground around his feet to suggest that it had fallen off. That was strange. Though Arto saw the tree every night, and every night he picked a fruit, it had always grown back by the time he saw the tree again. He’d never ever seen a missing fruit before.
Someone must have beaten him to it!
In a panic, Arto looked around him. Who could have been here, visiting the tree, too? Arto pushed past more leaves as he ran around the tree’s enormous trunk. He only grew more worried with each leaf he passed, finding them, too, to be missing their fruit.
“Who stole my fruit?” cried Arto up into the branches.
Where did that voice come from? Arto spun around, feeling his heartbeat quicken.
“Yes,” Arto faltered. “My fruit was there, and… and now it’s all gone!” He waited, anxiously, for the stranger’s response.
“Your fruit?!” bellowed the stranger. Arto jumped in surprise and covered his ears. He still couldn’t work out the source of the voice. It was as if he was wearing headphones; it felt like the stranger’s voice was all around him.
“I don’t understand!” wailed Arto, screwing up his teary eyes.
“Come here, Arto,” it said. “Let me show you.”
And, without a moment’s notice, the tree stretched out a great, winding branch, wrapped it tightly around Arto’s waist, and hauled him into the air! Arto yelled as he watched the ground fall away beneath him. The tree took him up into its canopy, among its highest leaves and branches. Arto squirmed, but the tree’s grasp was unbreakable. He soon gave up trying to get free and instead looked about him. Arto held his nose; that awful smell was much worse up there.
“What did I do wrong?” he asked the tree. “I’m sorry if I made you unhappy, but please let me down. I just want to have a nice dream, like always.”
“And I want that for you, too,” replied the tree, much calmer now. “It’s all I want for all my children: to share my fruit with you and give you wonderful, happy dreams.”
Arto began to understand. This wasn’t his tree after all. It belonged to everyone.
“But now,” continued the tree, “there just isn’t enough fruit to go around. I don’t have enough energy to grow it back in time each night.”
“What happened?” asked Arto. “Are you ok?”
In response, the tree parted some of its branches below, revealing to Arto a terrible sight.
“You’re sick!” cried Arto.
All up one side of the tree’s trunk, a thick, bubbling black slime was growing. It pulsed and popped, releasing a terrible stench into the air. The surrounding branches were infected, too. They were thin and drooping down, and their leaves were ash grey and scaly. It was a familiar sight.
“How did this happen to you?” asked Arto, putting out his hand to comfort the tree.
“Arto,” said the tree, in a voice so sad it brought fresh tears to the boy’s eyes. “Don’t you recognise me?”
“I’m sorry,” wept Arto. “I saw what those children did to you the other night. I watched it happen from my bedroom window and I didn’t do anything to help.”
The tree draped a healthy leaf over Arto, trying to comfort his crying. “Don’t be silly, Arto,” it said, gently. “There wasn’t anything you could have done. I’m glad you didn’t come outside. It wasn’t safe.”
“Even so,” said Arto, “I still want to help. Is there anything I can do to make you better?”
The tree sighed, and a warm, sweet-smelling air blew across Arto’s face. “There is something,” it said. “But I won’t blame you if you don’t want to do it. No one else has wanted to.”
Arto thought of all the missing fruit. How many other children had already been here tonight?
“I do want to help!” said Arto. “I promise to do anything that will make things right.”
“If you say so,” said the tree, and lifted Arto closer to its rotting branches.
Arto clamped his hands over his nose and mouth. Right in front of his face hung the source of the rot: a single, dead fruit. Its skin was wrinkled like a raisin and broken in many places. From the gashes leaked thick, black fluid, which dripped down the branches and onto the bubbling trunk below. Arto could see the fruit’s insides were all mushed up and rotten to the very centre. Dull green, brown and blue mould had spread through the fruit, killing off its bright, gold colour for good.
Arto winced at the sight of it.
“It’s ok, Arto,” said the tree. “No one else wanted to help me either once they’d realised what they’d have to do.”
“No,” said Arto, firmly. “I promised you. And I promised all the other children, too. Right now, there isn’t enough fruit to go round. What kind of dreams will they have if I do nothing?”
The tree didn’t answer; it didn’t have to. Arto was about to find out.
Hesitantly, he reached out towards the rotten fruit and pulled it closer. Thankfully, seeing that the fruit was already torn open with its own rot, Arto reckoned that just one bite would do it. Holding the horrible, sick fruit in one hand, and his nose with the other, Arto shut his eyes tight and bit deep into the slimy centre.
This story has been written by Madeleine Green, a Bedtime Stories For Kids contributor