Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Tree Spirit

Copyright: Janet Cameron

I can hardly breathe.  A pair of lovers is loitering under our tree.  I want to scream at them, ‘This tree is taken; it’s Dean’s and it’s mine’.   But they’re oblivious, absorbed in their kissing and cuddling.    As I shuffle towards them and their faces become clearer, I feel a strange ache inside me which morphs into a violent rush of anger.  In that moment I understand what is meant by being consumed by rage because I am no longer myself.  I’m just a tight ball of undiluted fury. 
I clench my fists, trying not to pant in case they hear me.  I need to give this matter some careful thought.   Because one of these starry-eyed lovers is him.  Dean.  My Dean.  Who the girl is, I have no idea, nor do I care.
            The Tree is an oak, a very large, very old oak and it grows in a remote part of the South Gardens, a fenced off area of our local park.  This was where, in the final years of college, we helped each other with our homework and then relaxed, me nestled snugly into the crook of Dean’s arm.  
I know it’s corny, but we really were childhood sweethearts.  If you’re guessing we met under the old oak tree, then you’d only be half right.  It was autumn and I’d sat down under the spreading branches with my friend, Annette.  Dean was actually eight metres over my head in the tree.  I never knew he was there till he began dropping acorns on my head. 
I told him to grow up and he said, ‘You gonnna make me’ and I said, ‘You better believe it,’ and he said ‘You and whose army’ and I said, ‘You just wait and you’ll find out, Ratface.’   It makes me smile, to think how young we were.  But we liked each other immediately and Dean walked me home. 
But now I’m dumped and don’t know why.
I watch the lovers wander off then I sink down at the foot of our tree and lean against the gnarled trunk.  Dusk is falling – no it’s not dusk – too early for dusk.  Stormclouds are gathering.  I hear the rain pattering on the leaves above me and soon the tree is weeping fat tears over my head and I shake out my dripping hair, putting my arms around the oaken waist.  In the middle ages, spinsters were actually married to trees, to avoid the shame of being spinsters.  Maybe they weren’t that crazy because right now I can almost feel the green life-energy throbbing inside me.  Legend says that tree spirits are the Lords of the forest and natural things and somehow I know our Tree’s spirit senses Dean’s betrayal.  How could it not? 
Secretly, I name the Tree Shylock – because I sense that, like me, it wants its pound of flesh.... 
The Tree was never witness to our quarrel, which took place one quiet Friday evening three weeks ago while we were watching the telly with a glass of wine and a box of chocolates.  Dean wanted to watch the football match and I wanted to watch a girlie film with Hugh Grant.  The video had gone wrong, so we couldn’t watch one while we recorded the other.   
It started as some silly bickering, but then one thing led to another, the way it does.  Things were said.  ‘You always want your own way,’ and ‘You don’t care how I feel,’ and ‘Alright then, I’ll get out of your hair.’  Then it got even more personal and more hurtful.  I’m not kidding myself it was just a lovers’ tiff.  Oh no, we’ve had a few issues, Dean and me and we were spoiling for a fight.  But it was nothing that couldn’t have been sorted, if he’d just grown up a bit and stopped being such a selfish so-and-so and done what I told him.
Then, Dean said, ‘I’ve had enough of this, it’s over,’ and that was that. 
At least, that’s what he thinks!
            Next day, I make a detour by the tree again.  Here, feeling loved and protected and overheard only by squirrels and small songbirds, we’d planned our future lives.   They, Dean and the girl, are here already, and she has her lips close to Dean’s ear. 
Didn’t take him long!  It’s just two weeks since we broke up.  Now look at them, both on their knees and facing each other, nose to nose, like they’re some sort of romantic tableau.  Dean is stroking the girl’s bobbed hair.  I feel sick because Dean and I and the Tree are no longer an item. 
My heart gives a little blip as I think of Dean, the affectionate way he put his head on one side when I talked to him, the way he waggled his ears to make me laugh.  I teased him once, saying he looked like a mischievous elf, and he blew himself up like the Incredible Hulk and chased me around the garden, growling ferociously.  Still, Dean was a great kisser and soon I was swooning in his arms.
            Slipping through all these delicious memories, I’m missing him so much.  I’m painfully envious of the other girl now clinging to my bloke.  My shoulders slumping, I turn away, hoping they haven’t seen me acting like such a loser.   Then I hear a rustling and the crunch of their footsteps on the path.  They’re leaving.  I press up closer to the Tree, pitting my skin on its gnarled and twisted bark.
            ‘I don’t mind sharing Dean with you,’ I tell it, ‘but I forbid you to share yourself with him now he’s left me.’
            This can’t go on.  I sink down into the pile of autumn leaves littering the ground.  It really makes me mad, to think what we’ve both thrown away and it’s time to do something about it.  I get out my mobile.  I click on Dean’s number.   I don’t get a chance to say a word.
‘It’s over, Lucy,’ says Dean.  ‘I’m with Miranda now.’
You’re always hearing stuff about hearts missing beats, but I’ll swear mine actually misses about twenty in that moment.  I just sit there, in the pile of red, gold and bronzed autumn leaves.  My head feels like a coconut, all woolly and strange. 
Before he rings off, I quickly say I’m sorry.  I’m not, of course, because he’s the one in the wrong, but by now I’m desperate so I’ll say anything.  He says he’s sorry back and I begin to think I’m getting somewhere.  The mounting wind knocks one of the lower twigs against my cheek, almost like a warning, and I gasp with the damp sting of it. 
‘It’s over,’ says Dean again.  ‘It’s been a long time coming.  Deal with it, Lucy.’
I am incensed.  How dare he tell me how to act.   Muttering murderous intentions under my breath I sink back among the tortured, grey roots of the Tree.  I remember that time Dean slipped his hands under my arms and lifted me onto the largest branch.  Although it was the lowest branch, it was too far from the ground to jump down, so there I sat there, helplessly, in the fork between trunk and branch, unable to move.  ‘What are you doing?  Get me down from here, you big idiot!’ I’d yelled.  Dean put out his arms and I allowed myself to fall into them and he wrapped his arms around me and pulled me close to him.  ‘Please don’t ever let me go,’ I murmured.
‘As if I could!  You’re so precious to me, Lucy,’ he’d said.  ‘Don’t ever forget that.’
Huh!   Such insincerity.  Such treachery.
‘Do you remember, Tree?’ I hissed.  ‘Do you remember all those promises?’
There’s a gentle hissing noise above me, a rustling of leaves, and I feel as though the Tree is being truly sympathetic.  We are in collusion.  Once a threesome, we’re now a twosome – it and me.  I don’t feel alone any more.
I pull my jacket around me and close my eyes and it’s as though the Tree is swaying around me, sensing I need to replenish myself, coaxing me to sleep.   I think I manage to drop off, at least momentarily, exhausted by fitful nights and emotional emptiness.
The next thing I know, there’s a high, girlish voice.
‘I’ll see you under the tree again tomorrow.’
I’m awake in an instant.  How dare she?  Not only does she steal my bloke, she’s also appropriated my Tree as their special place of assignation.  I know the Tree won’t have it.  It won’t.  I won’t let it.
I glance up and the girl is standing a short way along the footpath, hand in hand with Dean.  She’s tall and skinny, no figure to speak of, not curvaceous and sensual like me.  Neither of them notice me and I slide around the sturdy trunk to remain out of sight; they’ll think I left ages ago.  They’ve obviously enjoyed their walk and now they’re setting off in their separate directions, with a last quick kiss by the tree.
‘You gorgeous thing,’ he says, bending down to kiss her goodbye.
I don’t know why I swivel my head around and peer up the Tree’s trunk, but I do.  And I notice the there’s a fissure in one of the lower branches, right where it forks at the trunk.  This shouldn’t happen.  The council’s Tree Inspectors should spot any irregularity, any unsafe aspect of the trees in South Park.  Maybe it was the storm; maybe lightening struck while I briefly dozed. 
Slowly, I shift my weight onto the balls of my feet, sliding my body, slowly, up the trunk till I’m upright.  I step onto a high, knobbly root-tip, lean sideways, curling my body around the trunk, placing both hands on the injured branch and I push.  I push as hard as I can.
I feel the branch give a little so I push even harder.  As the branch creaks sideways, I lose my balance and tumble downwards among the ancient roots, wrenching my ankle, but not before I hear a shrill cry.  I wonder if it is me.
Deliberate act of revenge on my part?  You might think that.  The weirdest thing is, when I finally struggle to my feet, stumble towards the broken branch lying on the ground, there’s no sign of the girl.  She’s scarpered, terrified and, straining my ears I imagine I can hear her loud crying in the distance.   I can see Dean lying on the ground beneath the foliage, his body strangely twisted.
I edge closer, a strange excitement stirring inside my stomach.  I peer through the mess of leaves and twigs.  It’s true there’s a graze on the side of the temple where the branch struck him, but it’s also clear that’s not what finished him off.
A thick, gnarled root coils around his neck.  Oh, it has attitude that root!  If it weren’t for the fresh state of the corpse, you’d think it had been growing that way for years.  There’s just no way that root could cling so tightly and so suddenly to Dean’s neck by some freak of nature.  I can’t help wondering what forensics would make of it, but the thing that moves me most is that he, Dean, looks so surprised.   If I feel a little smidgeon of pity, I manage to suppress it.  Justice has been done.
Blokes shouldn’t mess with me – I have hidden assets.
I feel better, stronger, cleverer.  I say a little prayer to the Tree.  No one can possibly blame me for what’s happened to Dean.
There’s this barman at our local pub I’ve quite fancied for while.  I wonder what the Tree will make of him.  I think I’ll see if I can wangle an introduction, secure in the knowledge that The Tree will take care of any complications.

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