I live alone in the old yellow cottage at the neck of the woods, where the small stream says goodbye to the trees and hurries down to the pond outside the village. I like it here, next to her oak, and so close to the forest that I can feel its breathing on my skin. The cottage was assigned to me when I was appointed estate forester; they headhunted me for this job as they knew my ability to coax wealth out of the woods. And it is true that I have a natural talent for planning and implementing thinning, pruning, and clear cuttings, and that I can make money from all parts of a forest. Timber and firewood, grazing rights and berry collection, bird watching and fishing, mountain biking and rare mushrooms. But it’s more than just talent, I understand the woods because they are part of me, like my veins and lungs. I know this isn’t normal, that other people don’t have woody tissue in their bodies and aren’t connected to trees. My wife used to caution me not to talk openly about it. But my mind is sound and I strive to see what’s inside myself even if it’s a little different. I always found it weird that people don’t distinguish individual trees, they tend to see them as identical or, at best, as a variation on a theme. Yet not two trees are alike. Each has its own shape and scars, its own struggle for existence in a rough neighborhood, its own potential and fate. These differences are as clear to me as the first neon-coloured leaf of the foliating beech. That is why I always know what trees to prune and keep, and what trees to cut.
I’ve been close to trees since early adolescence, and I know they behave as they wish. As a student, I often laughed at the textbook descriptions of tree anatomy and ecology. Trees are not like that, not stationary units of production interacting in more or less subtle ways with their surroundings. They are alive, mobile, and full of intent. Oh yes, even as a small kid I knew that. I’d play hide and seek with my brother in the thick grove of downy birches by the bog at sunset; he was good at hiding among the trunks and the creeping cranberry shrubs and in the square holes left by the peat digging during the war.
“Come on out, Michael, I can’t find you.” I got nervous as the wind picked up with the arrival of darkness and the birches started sweeping the sky free of clouds with their witches’ brooms, whispering to me that they would come to play as soon as they had finished their cleaning. I didn’t understand they were my friends and in my imagined loneliness, a strangling horror took hold of me, rooting me in the acidic sphagnum as I began to sob.
“What are you doing, bro, don’t be a sissy, stop crying, I’m here, of course.” He took my hand, and there was nothing but the gentle wind in the tree crowns. It was only later, as a teenager, when I grew stronger and more courageous, and went to sleep alone in the woods in the tranquil, warm nights, full of bird song and whispers, that I realized the trees were my friends. A late summer evening, on my sixteenth birthday in September, the beeches gave themselves to me. I saw them move on nimble roots and I joined them, we danced through the night to the music of the last nightingale. At sunrise, a young beech walked inside me and stayed there. I became part of the woods. For some reason, I didn’t tell my parents or brother about the tree inside me. Maybe because, as the beech, I thrive and grow best in shadow. But the tree in me gave me strength. Once, in high school, this big bully had to stop beating me because his knuckles started bleeding. It was the beech in me, helping me, turning my skin tough and scaly.
The first time I kissed my wife-to-be was in the great pillared hall of naked spring beech about to burst into that sea of green gentleness that was her eyes. I was never able to distinguish her voice from the singing of the wind in the tree tops. It’s hard to say what happened between then and now. How can you understand other people when you don’t understand yourself, hard as you may try? But I never thought of her as a woman of the wood, to me she was closer to heaven. I knew that made her remote from me, but there was nothing I could do about it. I shared her with the rain in the forest brooks and the delicate spring flowers of the yellow star-of-Bethlehem, but she remained an outsider. I think she wanted to live in the countryside to bring up the children we never had. I found her, in the great oak that usually stands close to the cottage, at the very edge of the forest. I cut the rope myself and carried her inside. Maybe it had been too lonely for her here, especially as she couldn’t talk to the trees. Maybe she was upset about my plans to leave the house to move into the deep forest. I don’t know. People came from the village and the estate to express their condolences and sympathies. It was horrible, so many persons in the cottage at the same time. The village doctor was especially kind to me; his name is Dr. Armistead, and the way he looks at me generates a feeling that reminds me of the joy I find when I gather tubers of the holewort under the ashes and wild cherries. He invited me to come and stay with him, but I said no. As long as it’s close to the woods, it shouldn’t be important where you live, it’s just a physical place, tying you down, like a dog to a fence. Break the rope, and you can move on. He thought I still lived in the yellow cottage. But I don’t, it makes me miss her too much. And the whispering beech in me had convinced me to get to know the great oak better. I had moved into it. First I slept in a hammock, strung up on her branch using the rope that I had mended and kept; then I climbed into the tree to sleep in a shady nook made by two branches. It was much more comfortable, and I liked the privacy, avoiding the spying eyes of passing villagers. It also took me a little closer to her voice. I had all I needed in the oak, from acorns to juicy eggs and plenty of fresh rain water; sometimes I’d drop to the floor to pick up a few berries or tasty nettle leaves. I stopped working; there was no need for it and people were just getting stranger and more annoying. And the echoes on the wind, about cubic metres, deliveries, saw mills, and spring plantings, died out, replaced by the bird song of my youth, and the soothing softness of the wind in the rustling leaves.
“Why don’t Vera and I drop by here sometime soon? Maybe help you out a bit with the practical things, perhaps wash some clothes and do some cooking for you? It’s nothing really, we’d love to.” Dr. Armistead often came to the cottage to try to see me and one day he caught me while I was foraging for fresh ground elder leaves close to the cottage. But what a suggestion, at the start of the summer, in the midst of the easy life! He had to be out of his mind. Of course, I refused.
“It’s kind of you. Very kind. This, however, is a busy time. Things are growing, and I’m growing with them. We can’t be distracted. But do let me know if there’s anything I can do for you. For instance, I have an ample stock of holewort tubers.” He looked quite baffled but fortunately didn’t continue to talk. He left. Probably thinking about where it’s possible to find so many holewart tubers that you can just share them at will with good neighbours.
Life was sweet. I was introduced to other trees, old ashes from the heart of the wood. We danced in the moonlight, the ancient rhythmic fertility ballet in slow motion. I realized the swaying and dancing were the language of the trees, each gentle movement another word presented to me. It was just a matter of time, and I would master their tongue. I knew they had much to tell me, even some last messages from my wife, what she confided to them as she prepared her branch.
But my peace and joy were interrupted by a nightmare that started to visit whenever I slept, making me feel gloomy and confined. Even spending the entire day among the trees in the sun did not dispel my disquiet. In the dream, I’m not free, I’m not alone in my tree. God is here. I can’t see him, only his fat fingers, holding tools, trimming the tree, building stuff for me, like a tree hut with a fancy mattress, full of wrapped coil technology and memory foam and damask fabric. As though I need that. I know what he is doing, trying to turn my tree into an accomplished bonsai, pinching off new buds and shearing of unruly branches to obtain a balanced foliage appearance. He even starts to wire the tree, wanting to change the shape of the trunk, branches, and new shoots, manipulating the tree according to some vision of what he wants. It’s downright awful, and I don’t want to be part of it. I decide to stop him. I have a plan. On a Sunday morning, where he has gone somewhere, I set about my business. I break off all the flowers, both staminate and pistillate flowers, and continue with the leaves, one at a time. It takes forever, yet I finish in no time. There is only one leaf left, sitting lonely at the end of a naked branch. I’m filled with happiness. When I break that off, and God sees the result, that shaved and broken tree, he will have no option but to move his attention elsewhere. Maybe, then, I’ll have my peace and quiet. Then I’ll tend the tree, talk to it, listen to it, and it’ll come back. I’m sure of it. That is all that matters, the sum of life and death. The sun is resting on that last leaf. I smile and crawl towards it. But I always wake up just before I manage to pluck the last leaf. This morning, however, I’m woken because Dr. Armistead is shaking my arm. I’m lying on the forest floor, I must have fallen out of the oak, maybe when crawling out towards the last leaf. I’m lifted off the floor by two big men I haven’t seen before, each holding one of my arms in a grip so I can’t move.
“I need you to come with me,” says Dr. Armistead, “I’ll take you to a place where you’ll get clothes and hot water and food.” I relax. He is a good friend, I know he likes to walk the woods. I know exactly what spot to tell him about.
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Carsten Smith-Hall lives where the edge of the forest is trying to stop the slow march of the agricultural land. He watches the battle front and writes short stories and poetry, emerging as weeds in places like the Yellow Chair Review, The Seventh Quarry, and the Dawntreader.
Photo credit: Dirk Dreyer www.dreyerpictures.com