The House of Oak

(The estimated reading time for this is 17 minutes)

People say a witch was once buried beneath the old oak. The kids who played in the woods, back when kids still played in the woods, used to talk about digging under that fat and gnarly tree to look for her bones. No one ever did.

The trunk of the tree was large enough for maybe three or four men to hold hands around it, should the inclination take them. It didn’t. Grown men didn’t often hold hands around a tree, except maybe hippy types defying the developer’s blade, or pagans worshipping their fairy trees out in England’s old places.

People didn’t climb that lonely oak. It wasn’t protected, by statute or man.

Kids were a funny breed. Sometimes they hit upon the truth just by feel, blindly fumbling for explanations an adult couldn’t fathom.

The tree was indeed protected by the witch in the earth beneath, those old roots growing in and around her bones. The power of her blood coursed through it, trunk and branch and twig, and her will whispered in the leaves whenever the wind blew.

*      *      *

Wayne and Neil Nelson weren’t really wayward kids. Just a bit scruffy and scuffed. People now might have said they were neglected, but back then, 1976 or maybe ’77, they were just kids like most others. They played out in the sun and rain, in mud or on the hard packed dirt. They skinned their knees and wore holes through their jeans before their mom would buy them anything new. They weren’t neglected at all. Their mother loved them to distraction. Enough so she worked two jobs to keep the house and her boys going, wore herself just as thin as her boys’ tight blue jeans. People were mean back then. Maybe they’re not any less mean now.

Wayne and Neil weren’t just brothers, but friends, too, and the two things don’t necessarily go hand in hand. They played together, fought together, and later, much later, when Wayne was put in the dirt, pretty much died together, because Neil followed soon after, dead with a weak heart in the winter of 1997. Neither left wife or child of their own, and the Nelson family faded into nothing, forgotten.

A whole family of nothing more than whispers in the leaves of a grand old oak tree, haunting and familiar as the rustle of leaves in the autumn and the sight of the buds in spring.

But this isn’t the story of the death of Wayne, or Neil, or their mother. This is my story. A story about the house I built them in the branches of an oak tree back in 1976 or ’77. A story about a witch, about evil, but about idle hands, too, and these old man’s hands that planted two acorns in the soft dirt above their graves.

*      *      *

I walked a hell of a lot. I don’t really know why. I think it was because when I stopped walking, I started thinking. It began when my wife died in ’73 of brain cancer. She wasn’t young, but she wasn’t particularly old, either. She was a tether, keeping me on the earth, and when she broke I kind of drifted free. I just shut the front door of our two bedroom council house, turned the key to lock it up tight. I put my key through the letter box and started walking…walking away, more than toward any particular destination. I didn’t have much with me. My clothes and shoes and a pair of reading glasses. I would have been around fifty years old at that time. Thereabouts, anyway. My long vision was good and my prostate was just fine, but I couldn’t see close-up for toffee.

Fifty-ish, back in ’73. Must make me around ninety, now. I don’t suppose it matters much. I’m not getting any older. I don’t mean I’m dying or anything dramatic. I’m just kind of stuck.

Around the time I started walking, I stopped getting older.

Who knows the why of things like that? It wasn’t a blessing or a curse, and if I’m honest, I didn’t even notice until sometime in the 1990’s. It never really mattered much. It was just something that was. Other people died, drove, shopped, sat in front of televisions.

I walked and didn’t get old and couldn’t read small type.

*      *      *

I used to live right the way down in the south of England. I had a fair few miles under my feet by the time I reached a little village in Norfolk and stopped walking for three months and six days. The time I spent in one damp hot summer watching over two slightly wayward boys and building a house in a fat old oak tree.

It was Wayne who spoke to me first. He was always the boldest of the two, and the elder, too.

“Fuck off, you fucking old tramp,” I think his exact words were.

I hadn’t spoken to anyone for a couple of years by then.

I wasn’t sure I could, but I felt I should say something in return. After all, I was an old (maybe middle-aged, if someone were being charitable) man, standing in tatty clothing and worn old shoes, watching two boys who seemed to be watching a tree.

Pot calling the kettle black, to my mind. The boys were covered in that dusty kind of summer dirt. They wore trainers. The younger boy’s trainers had a hole where the big toe pushed on the cheap fabric. I thought maybe they’d once belonged the older boy—bigger, with lank blonde hair where the shorter and slighter younger boy’s hair was greasy and dark.

Their jeans had holes in the seat and knees. Both wore faded t-shirts. They were tanned, though, and healthy-looking, and if I was any judge they were actually good-looking boys, in that gawky way that teenagers have about them.

I didn’t tell them to fuck off right back. I didn’t talk to people like that.

Instead, I closed my eyes and concentrated. Squeezed my eyes shut and maybe even stopped breathing for a while, because the growing took a lot of effort in the early days.

Where there had once been nothing but worn dirt, now there was a rough circle of long grass, in seed, with this old tramp grinning in the middle.

I shrugged and they gawped.

“Just something I can do,” I said. “What you staring at?”

Boys, girls, it doesn’t matter which. There’s an age where wonder is all-consuming. And, after that, for many, an age where some of the shine wears off.

It didn’t take long until that moment of awe kind of slid away, replaced by a dull hurt in the eyes of both boys. A little bit wary, but not necessarily challenging or aggressive.

“There’s a wasp’s nest. We’re throwing stones at it. Then running away,” the older boy, Wayne, told me.

“It’s a laugh,” said Neil.

“Sounds it,” I said.

“Wanna have a go?” asked Neil. He was always the more open, the more unguarded, of the two boys. Probably why he went and died so soon after he lost Wayne. He felt things more keenly than was good for people.

I shook my head. “Not really my cup of tea.”

“Suit yourself,” said Neil. He shrugged. The two boys turned back to their game, pretty much forgetting already that I’d just made the grass grow where there had been none just a moment before. I thought it was a pretty cool trick, but people have a way of forgetting things like that. I’ve seen it often enough. Their eyes glaze, like they’re trying to remember something important while I walk by them trailing life and growth in my wake.

People says there’s a Green Man in the wilds and woods of England. A man tied to this land. Maybe it’s me. I don’t know. I’m just a man who can make things grow and walks a lot. I’m not green. Wasn’t then, anyway.

I took a few steps closer to the tree, taking care not to get too close to the two boys, because even back in the ’70s people were well aware of the danger of strangers. I wanted to see the wasp’s nest.

As I stepped closer, the wind rose hard and fast and blew the new grass that grew in my footsteps flat. It blew my hair back from my forehead. The wind was strong enough to stagger the two boys.

I think one or both swore, but a gust dragged their words away.

I planted my feet and walked forward, leaning into the sudden gale whipping out from the old oak tree. It was pushing at me, angry, though a tree couldn’t be angry. Pushing me away, and yet, at the same time something was drawing me in, pulling me toward the oak…a power opposite to my own.

The sky grew dark, there under the sway of the tree, not from the shadow of the leaves themselves, but from wicked and angry clouds spreading low and heavy in the sky. Fat rain hit the new grass and the dry dirt. The wind howled. The limbs of the tree reached forth, but they weren’t tipped by leaves any more. They ended in bloodied, ravaged fingers. Fingers torn from digging at the earth and trying to break free of the grave.

Roots burst from the ground. Sharp roots that speared the boys legs, and mine, my walker’s legs. One root pierced my calf and I grunted in pain. I felt it grating against my bone, then, as the root got thicker, that bone was pushed until it snapped. I fell. I had no choice. I looked up from where I lay, leg shattered, and there were the two boys, staring in awe at a wasp’s nest in the limb of the oak tree. Like a normal day. Just two kids watching the angry wasps swirl in the thick summer air.

I was on my bottom, on the grass. I looked around, for blood or sharp roots like bone shards…nothing.

The tree watched me in the bright sun like nothing had happened, but it had, and I knew it. I rubbed at my unscathed calf muscle, still tight from the memory of the pain, and I imagined that I could hear her laughing from her grave beneath the tree.

I had felt her lash out. I knew she was there now, just as she knew me.

This time I could not walk on by. I think she must have been happy. So long, waiting beneath that tree.

Not for salvation. No.

For blood and pain. To feast and grow. To come back.

*      *      *

I stayed right there in the woods. The grass grew around me. Sometimes it rained and sometimes the sun shone.

I sat against a good tree, watching the witch’s oak. She, too, watched me. We waited.

A tree couldn’t grin.

Of course it couldn’t. Yet, there it was, with her spirit, her festering darkness that had subverted the grand old oak, watching me, just an old man walking, and it seemed smug.

Ha. A tree couldn’t be smug anymore than a tree could grin. But it was something alright. It wasn’t really a tree, was it? That tree had been planted right on top of the witch. Been born practically at the same time as she died. Fed on her bones and sucked up her blood and her darkness right into the heart of it, growing rings around that heart until it was tucked away inside a hundred years or more of tough, stout, wood.

No, the tree was no more a tree than I was just an old man walking.

The tree was the witch.

And in that moment, that summer, if never again, I was the Green Man.

But the Green Man doesn’t just bring springs and summers and green and growth. No. The Green Man brings around the autumn and the winter, too. Slumber and sleep.

And maybe, if the winter was harsh enough…I could bring death, too.

*      *      *

Wayne and Neil came back often while I sat and watched the witch’s oak.

I didn’t know what to do about the two boys. She’d touched them. My vision of her roots piercing our flesh wasn’t mere fantasy. Something in the tree had reached out and dug into them.

Darkness and evil.

They were good boys. Yet, as I watched through that long summer, their games changed. They were no longer content to throw stones at the wasp’s nest on a dare and run. They began to sharpen sticks and throw them like spears into the dirt. At first. And then they threw their spears at the birds in the trees and eventually at each other, laughing harder the closer their spears came to drawing blood.

Neil, the younger boy, felt things more keenly. Like I said, he was sensitive. A good soul, I think.

The more I watched, the more I became sure that something of her had got into them.

I wasn’t much of a thinker. But while I had been sitting, watching, growing, I’d been thinking, too. A slow kind of thinking, deep down, where the best is sometimes done.

I’d been watching them, and the tree, and thinking not of winter and death. Not of destroying the oak. That wasn’t the way.

It wasn’t my way. Took a while, but bringing on winter wasn’t the way to…win? Was it even a contest? Between natural and unnatural, Green Man and witch oak?

I don’t know. Even now, I’m not sure. I don’t know if what I can do is meant for battle. For winning. Grass doesn’t win. It just grows. Trees don’t win, even when they crack concrete with their roots, it’s not a fight. They’re just implacable. They’re just existing, growing, living…they just do what they’re supposed to.

Sometimes I give them a helping hand, yes, but really, I’m little more than a fancy gardener.

Summers are long when you’re a kid. Shorter, I think, when you’re an old man. But for me, for Wayne and Neil, I think that summer was just about long enough.

All the time the sun shone and the rain fell, I’d been thinking of growth. About roots and branches and progress and the nature of things that are denied the sunlight. The nature of trees and the nature of boys.

I pushed myself from my seat and walked through the woods to where the boys fought, throwing stones at each other now. Sharp flint or round pebbles, it didn’t seem to matter to them.

I’d been thinking for a long time, it seemed. The boys looked bigger. Turns out I’d been thinking for three months and five days.

The slow kind of thinking, like I say, is sometimes the best.

“Hey,” said Neil, seeing me for the first time since that first day. He wasn’t entirely gone. It was good to see.

Wayne scowled, but he didn’t swear at me or try to stab me with the small penknife he now carried everywhere.

A good sign. Maybe he wasn’t all hers, either. Further gone than Neil, for sure, but not all the way into her embrace.

She’d been working on the boys. Of course she had.

“Boys,” I said. “I’ve been thinking.”

“Don’t hurt yourself,” said Wayne and giggled at his own joke. I ignored him, because it wasn’t really him. Not anymore.

“Want to see a trick?” I asked.

“What, like, making the grass grow?” said Neil.

“Big fucking deal,” said Wayne. He’d forgotten the awe of spring and summer. She was in his heart. I had no doubt anymore. “Grass grows. It’s what it does.”

I shrugged and walked past him. I didn’t want to leave him at my back. Her roots were in him. He had a knife in his pocket.

He smelled…fetid. Like mulch. Her rot, in him.

Wayne looked like any other child his age…but that stench…

I could do nothing but trust in myself and whatever this power within me was. Who knows? Maybe I really am the Green Man. Maybe I really am England, the one that people forgot while they built their housing estates and shopping centers and motorways.

She screamed. The nearer I got to her, to her tree, the louder she wailed. I think she knew what I was about to do. Some animal part within the old oak that was born of her witch’s blood understood.

I placed my hands on her and pushed.

Not with my hands. With my mind. My will.

Not to kill.

But I’d been thinking about growth, and the seasons, and two young boys out alone in the woods, throwing stones at a wasp’s nest. I’d been thinking about my wife, and her cancer. And trees, growing through the pavement. Flowers, turning toward the sun.

Living things wish to grow.

Growing is what they do.

I just help them along. Nothing more. And when they’re tired, I help them sleep.

Life, death. It’s nothing but nature.

With my hands on the tree and my mind sinking toward the heart of it, where her blood still pulsed, I thought of growth and not of death. The power, the sheer determination, of life.

And, slowly, the tree began to grow. Not up, or out.

But it grew the way it should. The heart of the tree wasn’t hers. It was mine. Just as every tree is mine, every blade of grass and flower.

She roared at me, then, when her damned tree began to change. I whispered back, quiet and calm, and she began to still.

No more than bone meal, at the foot of a plant. No more than fertilizer, that old witch. Ornery or not, she couldn’t stop me.

But more, she couldn’t stop the tree.

A floor appeared, high up in the tree. Not formed of planks, like a man might make, but of intertwined branches, like a tree might make had it a mind to.

Walls grew up, too. Rough things, uneven, fat and thin branches all mingling together and imperfect, yes, but beautiful, too. A gap, a hole, where maybe kids might just be able to clamber inside. Ivy grew and snaked around the trunk, around and around. Thick and tough enough to climb, should nimble hands be brave enough to trust it.

I loosened my hold on the tree, stood back.

It wasn’t the witch’s oak any longer. She was silent, still. Dead, of course, her days and her course run.

The House of Oak was done.

I never did have kids, but I knew right then I’d done something worthwhile, if I never did another thing. The tree and I made a tree house for boys to play and hide and share secrets when school was out and the sun was long.

Sometimes a little thing like that is just good enough.

*      *      *

From time to time I went back to those woods. Years passed. Different children, teenagers, played in the House of Oak.

I kept going back.

The last two times I pushed acorns into the still-soft dirt over a couple of graves. One on top of a man’s grave, a man named Wayne.

Soon after, one on top of Neil.

Where they good men? Did they live good lives? Truth is, I don’t think they were perfect. But I do think those two boys saw plenty of sunlight in their lives, and that works just fine for me.

It’s nature’s way to fight, to clamber through the cracks in the pavement. But it’s also nature’s way to turn toward the light, if it can. And if it can’t, it might need a helping hand.

But then, I’m just an old man who walks a lot. Kind of a fancy gardener, the kind that understands what a plant needs.

Though sometimes I just sit down, too, and watch the trees grow. For the most part, they do it on their own.

© 2016 – 2017, DarkFuse & individual contributors. All rights reserved.

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Craig Saunders has published more than two dozen short stories, and is the author of many novels and novellas, including Rain and The Estate, and the DarkFuse titles Bloodeye and Flesh and Coin. He writes horror and fantasy for fun and humor when he’s feeling serious, which isn’t often. He lives in Norfolk, England, with his wife and three children, likes nice people and good coffee.

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