On the western side of the village, in a clearing some yards beyond, stood five silver birch trees. They were unusually tall for birches and formed a quincunx, a pattern that in later centuries would be routinely found on dice and playing cards depicting the numeral five. The central tree was taller than the other four. Some people maintained the birches just grew like that. Some said the land they grew on was once part of the grounds of a fine lord’s hall and they had intentionally been planted that way. Others said nothing, but discreetly made the sign to ward off the evil eye. One thing everyone agreed on, though, was that the trees had been there a long, long time and there was something eldritch about them.
“Go on, I dare you. Walk straight through the centre of them trees and carve your sweetheart’s name on the middle one.”
“No way. I bain’t walking through the middle of them and I certainly ain’t damaging the bark of any, let alone the Lady Tree. They say there used to be blood magic done there. It don’t be right and it don’t be safe.”
“You’re just a trembling field mouse. Give me your knife and I’ll be brave enough to carve the name of my true love into the wood.”
“No Jenna, it’s not right, I’m telling you.”
“Go on, give it me.” Jenna made a grab for the small whittling knife and snatched it from Daniel. She turned and ran into the middle of the five birches, where she proceeded to carve a name painstakingly into the bark of the slender central tree.
“Want to see whose letters I’ve carved?”
“No. It ain’t right. It’ll bring bad luck.”
“It might be your name I’ve carved, Daniel Flitton.”
“I’m not walking into the middle of them trees to see.”
“Then again it might not. I’ll have no mouse-twitchy coward to be my sweetheart. I shall find myself a man with some courage in ‘im.”
Jenna turned her back on Daniel and flounced off towards the small rough copse on the far side of the clearing. Daniel walked slowly back to the village. Behind them both, and unseen, the carving in the bark of the birch oozed raw red.
In later years, Daniel Flitton would father five pretty daughters, but not with Jenna Bellman. The night after she made her mark on the birch, Jenna disappeared from the village. Daniel was sad, but was never foolish enough to check whose name she had carved into the tree. Within the year the bark had closed over the offending rough gouges as if they and Jenna Bellman had never been.
Legends come and go. They remain. If they once told stories amongst themselves, it has long been forgotten. They have grown into the story that myths are rooted in. They are an inaudible breath on a barely felt breeze, whispering the words that formed the first story. More fundamentally, they are balance. They are patience. They are judgement. They are the guardians of an old, green truth and it is uniquely theirs.
The slender branches creaked softly in the strong breeze. Around the quincunx of whispering birches a group of youths were gathered. None were brave enough, or stupid enough, to go into the centre of the trees, but they retained enough of the cruelty of childhood to tease and bully one of the younger ones into doing so.
“Go on, Annie. Dare you.”
“I said no.”
“We all done it when we was your age and there’s nowt wrong with us.”
“But I don’t want to go into the middle. It’s not safe.”
“If you want to be with us, you got to do what we done.”
Annie was the youngest by several years and she yearned to be part of the group, because the alternatives were games with the little’uns or yet more of her own undesired company.
“Go on, Annie. Dare you.”
Annie made a decision. She hitched up her skirts and ran, but she was sharp enough to run just inside two of the outer trees and not go anywhere near the actual middle where The Lady stood. Far enough in to be seen to be brave, but far enough out not to offend. A reasonable balance, surely?
She made it safely to the other side of the clearing and the group was generous enough to accept it as a dare fulfilled. It seemed as if the trees also accepted it as fairly done. Annie remained safe and sound in the village, growing up strong and tall, but with a fascination for the five birches that many in the village considered somewhat unhealthy.
It was said that when, fifty or so years later, it was her time to seek heaven, she walked unafraid into the centre of the tall birches to lay her aching bones at the feet of the Lady Tree and breathed her last breath with no company but her own and the softly shivering trees. By the next morning her body had gone.
We walked the earth before the World knew us. Our energy flowed brightly through leaf and branch, wood and forest. We are the story your legends are rooted in. You have all but forgotten us, but that does not mean we have forgotten you. We sleep deep, dreaming of green beauty and soft, exhaled harmonies, but sometimes we wake, if there is offence or enough is offered. There are still hidden places where we have left our markers to remind you we deserve your respect, places we guard and where we may return if we are so minded. If they are hidden no longer that is not our problem, but it may be yours.
“Maisie Flitton, I do believe you’re scared.”
“No I’m not.”
“Come under this pretty tree with me, then.”
“No. I’m not stupid neither. If you want a kiss and a cuddle we can go into the woods or, better yet, Old Man Saggers’ barn. It’s warm, dry and private. More importantly, it’s not in the middle of them damn trees.”
“But come take a look at the sunlight through the leaves. It’s all green and gold and ever so pretty.”
All the wheedling in the world didn’t work. Maisie ran off, leaving Jed alone and sulking. He flung himself down onto the ground, leant his back against the trunk of the central birch and glared at the distance, or as much of the distance as he could see through the thick woods that bordered three sides of the clearing. He was so lost in his own frustration that he didn’t notice the woman approach,
“You have a fine, but lonely seat under the shade of that sap-rich tree. Be you looking for a companion?”
How could Jed refuse her? She was tall, pale and slender with long, straight blond hair. It was unbound and hung around her shoulders and down well below her waist. Her skirts were a shifting combination of pale brown and green with the occasional hint of gold. They rustled softly as she moved. Jed knew nothing about cloth, but he knew fine when he saw it and her skirts were so fine they must have cost a fortune. She was beautiful and obviously wealthy and now she was extending the graceful, long white fingers of her left hand towards him. He scrambled up, brushed the grass and leaves off his clothes and hesitatingly took her soft hand. She smiled and led him silently towards the dark wood.
The village arranged a half-hearted search for young Jed Warboys, but it didn’t last long. By then everyone had heard the rumour of the elegant woman in the rich, shimmering silks who had been seen on the edge of the village. Clearly he’d gone with her to be her serving man or some such.
Time advances: first like the steady growth of tree roots and the spreading canopy of the forest and then like the necrotizing frenzy of humanity, trailing damage and destruction in its wake – a rot that consumes all, but gives little back. The balance is shifting, becoming unbalanced.
Sam Flitton felt himself to be a reasonable man, but he was angry. He had tried logic, tried to keep his temper under control, but the old cow (though Lady Bellman was actually a couple of years younger than Sam) was not willing to compromise and the Council officer sent along to act as intermediary seemed to be siding with her.
“Look, Lady Bellman, I’m not here to tell you not to turn the bottom of your once lovely estate into a god-awful housing estate, if that’s what you want to do, regardless of the loss to the countryside round here. I’m not even suggesting you shouldn’t pay to widen the lane to create access, if that’s what you and the Council have agreed. All I’m asking, begging actually, is that you preserve the wood and, in particular, that group of five silver birches. They’re ancient, part of the fabric of the village’s history. They’re woven into the folklore of the area. You can’t destroy them. Please.”
The Council official coughed annoyingly. “I doubt they’re ancient, Mister Flitton. Silver birches don’t live that long, you know. It’s not as if they are oaks.”
Sam tried to keep calm. “All I’m saying is those birches, or their predecessors, have stood there for centuries. They were there when I was a lad, and my father before me. There are folk tales about them going back to the fourteen hundreds, if not earlier.”
“You’re old, Sam Flitton, but not that old. All the so-called historical references are according to Fred Pike, the local historian whose concept of history varies according to the number of pints you’ve bought him down The Hoops on any given night.” Lady Bellman snorted, “Let the developers plant some birch saplings on the new estate. I think they are going to call one of the new roads Birch Avenue.”
“Planting new trees is a commendable thing, Jennalynn Bellman, I’ll give you that, but it’s these here trees I want preserved. These particular trees. Rip them out and you rip out the heart of the village, past and present. These trees need to stay.” Lady Bellman glanced at the Council official in a way that told Sam he was losing the battle. There was still a war to fight, however, and he was angry enough to fight it.
The diggers were on site at dawn the next morning, but Sam had beaten them to it. At midnight the night before he had made his peace with the birches, apologised to them and strode, not without a painful tinge of anxiety, into the centre of the quincunx where he had proceeded to tie and padlock himself to the tall, strong tree in the centre of the group, the Lady Tree as it had once been known. If his presence had disturbed anything in any way, it was not immediately obvious.
The diggers went to work, but made a point of skirting round Sam and his girdle of birches. They began to hack, chop and haul at the wooded area Sam was facing, giving him a ring-side seat to their destruction of the mature woodland that surrounded the birches. It was sad. It was beyond sad: it was a form of sacrilege. In anger and frustration Sam gripped the slender trunk of his tree so fiercely that he scraped his skin raw and his blood started to ooze onto and into the bark, staining it pink. He felt so strongly about this… desecration that it seemed as if the tree trunk itself was throbbing to the heartbeat of his anger. Sam gave in to his rage and allowed it to flow through him.
When Lady Bellman came across to reason with him, he ignored her and focused on the soothing rustling of the leaves above his head. By now he had been chained to the birch for a good many hours and his limbs were starting to ache. His left arm, in particular, was becoming quite painful, but he was not going to back down. He just stood there clinging to the tree as if life depended on it and somehow it felt as if it did.
The diggers drew nearer and moved to the wooded area to the side of the birches, tearing at the trees and the soil. Destruction followed relentlessly in their wake.
Sam’s frustrated rage increased to the point it blotted out all else. He was so incensed he almost failed to see the lead digger somehow become wrapped around a large flailing white root it must have just dug up, tip and become further trapped in more thick, freed, flailing, roots. Earth and leaves sprayed upwards like a fountain. Wood and stone cracked and splintered. Metal screeched and the digger driver spilled out of the false protection of his vehicle, onto the dirt and into the path of more oncoming heavy machinery. The man screamed for what seemed like a long time. There was blood and ripped flesh and bone. Tree and human limbs alike were mangled and severed beyond hope. The hungry soil soaked up the spurting blood as if it hadn’t drunk for years. There was a lot of blood to soak up.
Sam’s own limbs were becoming increasingly weak, but still he hung on. Having been almost deaf to the screeching carnage taking place to his right, he barely noticed the man with the bolt cutters coming to free him from the tree, but even with the ropes and chains gone he wasn’t willing to relinquish his connection to the birch.
It was the paramedics who finally and gently managed to prize his rigid figures away from the silvery bark, but by now it was too late. His heart had given up and it was only the empty husk of Sam Flitton that was laid on a stretcher, covered from head to toe by a thick, grey blanket and carried away. By then, however, a group of upset and very angry people from the village had surrounded the birches, waving pointed gardening and farming implements whilst chanting and demanding the preservation of the village’s natural beauty, the safeguarding of the village’s history and folk heritage, an end to any further unnecessary deaths and a permanent memorial to Sam Flitton (though not the unfortunate digger driver).
The deaths and the call for a memorial won the day. Or perhaps it was the increasingly frenzied rage of the protestors and their improvised agricultural weapons. In any event, neither Lady Bellman nor the Council wished to be seen to be desecrating a memorial site now covered in bouquets of bright flowers, soft toys (mainly squirrels, rabbits, a couple of koala bears and one imaginatively coloured woodpecker) and wreaths made from ivy, twigs and young, supple tree boughs.
As time grew on, the woodland wreaths, corn dollies and other natural weavings came to outnumber the increasingly bedraggled soft toys, which came to be absorbed by the environment and then replaced by anthropomorphic images of the Green Man, Cern the Hunter and more ambiguous, but perhaps more relevant symbols. The central birch of the quincunx was now known as Sam’s tree, although some of the older villagers still surreptitiously referred to it as The Lady. It and its four tall escorts remained in their place, proudly watching over the village and beyond.
We persist. Our strength is in and of the earth. There are places that are special to us, markers of our passing, our persistence. In sleep we protect them, stirring fleetingly when necessary, but increasingly we have been disturbed. Now we are watchful and awake. We are balance. We are judgement. When minded, we will return. Guard our legacy and we will watch alongside you. Do otherwise and we see you.