Deadwood

It’s been a while since I posted anything here – too much happening elsewhere.  I’ve self-published a short anthology of short-stories called Christmas Tales from which the proceeds will go to the Bridge Street Buddies, a community group in the area in which we live.  Anyone wanting the anthology (price £3.50 inc. post)) can send a comment or email with postage details and I’ll be happy to arrange delivery.

Otherwise here is another story which I hope will be read and commented on.  Like my last story, a tree is one of the proncipal characters – is there a trend here?

Deadwood

It was summer when I first saw the tree.  It stood alone in the field with the surrounding woodland a couple of hundred metres away.  It was dead of course, its bark stripped away and the wood bleached white by sun and frost.  Yet it stood firm and had withstood spring gales and autumn storms; its roots had obviously not yet been rotted away.   It retained a power in its size and symmetry from its thick trunk and broad boughs to its bifurcated branches.  Leafless, the tiny twigs formed a fuzzy corona, an indeterminate boundary.

Mid-winter had arrived when I returned.  I had to call in the gift shop at the nearby stately home.  As I walked from the car-park I glanced at the tree.  The low Sun shone over my shoulder but to the north the clouds were dark and forbidding.  The tree glowed in the feeble winter light.  I took out my camera – I carried it always for such eventualities – and began snapping.  I crossed the field to stand before the tree.  No grass or other plants grew beneath it; the earth was dry and powdery.   For some reason it did not seem simply dead, but waiting, for what I did not know.  The light disappeared as the Sun was obscured by cloud and the tree became a dark shadow of itself.  Drops of rain began to fall on my head and I retreated.

Later that evening I decided to download the photos from my camera.  I was amazed and intrigued.  In each picture of the tree it was surrounded by a halo of white light.  Was it some atmospheric phenomenon?  Perhaps the sunlight from behind me had produced an effect like a rainbow in the moist air surrounding the tree. But why had I not seen it when I was standing there?  How did the halo appear in each photo regardless of how far I was from the tree?  I was gripped by a need to confront the tree, to explore further.

Despite it being late, I pulled on my boots, grabbed a coat and scarf and stepped outside.  The weather had changed.   The cloud had been swept away leaving the sky clear and the temperature was plummeting.  As I travelled along the country lanes the road sparkled in my headlights revealing the frost that was already forming.  Puddles left by the earlier rain were freezing over.  I made sure that I drove carefully and didn’t skid on any ice patches.

The car park was deserted of course but I locked the car when I got out and carefully picked my way in the darkness towards the field where the tree stood.  There I stopped and gasped.  The whole tree was bathed in white phosphorescence.  I looked into the sky.  There was no moon to cast such a glow but the clear sky was filled with stars.  With no nearby cities to wash away the starlight with light pollution the night sky was as it should be.  But surely starlight could not be causing the tree to appear so radiant.

I picked my steps carefully over the rabbit-burrowed field until I stood before the tree.  If anything, the glow seemed brighter closer up and came from every bough and branch.  I stepped under the canopy and found myself encircled by light.  I approached the trunk and placed a hand tentatively against it.  It was cold, colder than the freezing night air, so cold that I could feel the heat flowing from my hand into the wood.  I wanted to withdraw my hand but found that I no longer had the will to do so.  I took a step closer and pressed my other hand to the trunk.  Without lifting my hands from the smooth but freezing surface I slid them around the tree until I was hugging it to me.  Even through my coat I could feel the heat being drawn from my body and yet I did not shiver.

It was not my intention to do so but my head was drawn to the trunk until my lips touched the wood.  It was like kissing frozen metal.  The moisture on my lips froze binding me to the surface.  I was immobile.

Now I sensed the tree was not still.  Although there was no wind, there was a trembling in the branches around me.  The vibration came from within the tree not from the air around it.  It was like a fluid flowing swiftly along a pipe, little eddies and vortices transmitting the turbulence as a rumble.  The trembling grew in intensity, became the crashing of waves against a cliff.  It felt as if the trunk itself would be blown apart by the force of the fluid it contained but still I was held by my hands and lips.   Then it seemed that the rushing was within me that I had become part of the tree.  From the tips of my toes to the top of my head I was shaken and buffeted.

And then? Well I’m not sure what happened.  I was flung away from the trunk with a great force.  When I hit the ground I was stunned and may even have been knocked unconscious.  When I came to my senses I found that I was lying on the grass outside the tree’s circle of shade.  The glow had gone from its branches and now they looked dark against the night sky.  Nevertheless, I could see that the trunk had been rent in two.  A massive crack split it from where the trunk divided into the boughs down to the ground.  I was worried that the tree might fall on me so I retreated.  I looked back over my shoulder a few times but the tree was just a silhouette.  I drove home shivering, feeling colder than I had every done before.  It took all night for my body, wrapped in my duvet, to recover its inner warmth.

Next morning it was raining again, the sky overcast and grey.  I drove back out to see the tree.  A small group of people were gathered in the field, a short distance from it.  Some were talking to each other while others pointed to the tree itself.  It was as I had left it with a great cleft in the trunk.  The two halves leaned away from each other as if some giant had heaved them apart.  I joined the group and listened to the conversation.

“How did it happen then?”

“No idea.”

“Looks as if lightning struck it.”

“But there wasn’t any lightning last night.  It was clear until this cloud came over this morning.”

“A mystery.”

I didn’t join in and tell them what I had seen and felt because I wasn’t sure what had happened.  I left them going over the same pointless arguments.

During the next few months I paid a few visits to the tree.  It remained the same although it seemed to have lost its power and looked rather forlorn.   One warm day in May I ventured right up to it.  I climbed over the fence that had been erected to prevent people doing exactly what I was doing.  The owners were scared that the two halves could fall at any time and injure someone foolish enough to be standing underneath.

I crept warily up to the trunk.  The wood seemed grey now rather than white.  Gingerly I placed my head within the great crack and looked down.  The trunk was hollow and the hole seemed to go down well below ground level.  It was dark but as my eyes adjusted I thought I could see something.  I waited and at last my view became clear.  Growing up through the very centre of the old trunk was a sapling.  New life was replacing the old, the rending of the dead tree allowing the new growth its freedom.  What part had I played in this, I wondered.

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