Yellow Dog

A long drive west, chasing the sunset to the horizon. I blink back tears that blur my vision, red-faced and breathless. My heartbeat is ragged and broken, a chaotic oscillation on the cusp of ruin. I’ve driven this road many times, but this journey is different. I’ve left you behind.

The others thought that we were the perfect couple. Young. Beautiful. Fun. No, not fun. Not any more. I remember the beginning, the hand-holding, the way I could hear the rich timbre of love in your voice. The way our hearts and bones seemed locked together. I hid myself away from the slow dimming of the light, the fading of that fierce glow that once consumed us. You changed. We changed. The love went from your voice, replaced by cruel barbs amid a sea of disinterest. We exist, where once we lived. My hopes and dreams, once so real and tangible, now seem far-fetched and distant. I’m still in love with the idea of you, but it’s not enough. Not anymore.

Motorway gives way to minor road. Minor road gives way to the stony track to the coast. The yellow dog barks joyfully, his shiny eyes gazing at me in the rear view mirror. He’s excited by the sounds and smells of his favourite cove, but I like to think that he knows that things are changing. I park on the crunchy shingle, and we’re soon walking along the shoreline as the sun drips celestial fire on the darkening skyline. The dog bolts into the churning brine as I sink to my knees, overwhelmed. My fingers score the wet sand as my head sinks to my chest, body wracked with savage sobs. I never realised that freedom could hurt this much, or feel this beautiful.

Delete?

I realised today that I still had Dad saved as a contact on my phone. We used to talk a lot, before he was sick. I try not to get too emotional about things these days, but pressing delete sent a jolt of sadness through me.

It’s strange how we attach sentiment to such things as a number in a phonebook, but sometimes they’re all we have to connect us to a vanished time. Today I resolved to be less afraid of emotion, and less reluctant to think about the past.

Here’s to loved ones that we’ve lost, and to all of our shining futures.

Elegy

Endless winter holds the countryside in a brittle embrace. I sit forlornly, watching steam rise slowly from a mess of brash where the oak had stood. Columns and curlicues of vapour, liberated from the ruined xylem of a dying god. A murder cloaked by the illusion of progress.

The people in power call them veteran trees. They plot their locations on a map and write their names on a list. They’re national treasures, they say. Jewels in our natural environment, they say. Until things change. Until they stand in the way of the new town, the quarry or the new road. It was the important new railway that did for this majestic specimen, and a natural treasure was quickly reclassified as a nuisance. Dying and dangerous, they now said. A health and safety nightmare. Think of the children. A death warrant signed in chlorophyll, so that the bigwigs can get to Slough three minutes earlier.

According to official records the oak had stood for over six hundred years, but the records tell less than half of the story. Nowhere in the record books does it describe the fragile acorn laying dormant in the subsoil, bound into the foundations of a temple to a sun god. Nor does it describe the passage of epochs to which that humble seed bore witness, trapped motionless as the temple fell to ruins and dynasties rose and fell a few meagre metres above. The relentless churn of life and death on the surface had no influence, until the day that the acorn was dragged to the surface by the erratic action of a primitive ploughshare. Awoken by sunlight and damp, new life erupted from the torpid husk, and a new chapter began.

Six hundred years is a long time. Astrophysicists will tell you differently, however they generally think on a universal scale. Not me. I think of a man of wood rooted in the same spot; six hundred years is a very long time when you can’t even go for a walk. A consequence of such a long life, however, is that the world changes around you. The tree had stood watch over the reigns of kings and queens, through uncountable changes in government, and through periods of war and piece. Religions rose and fell whilst the surrounding landscape changed beyond recognition. Urbanisation and agriculture replaced woodland and heath, marshes were drained yet the tree survived. Wind, lightning and drought all took their toll, as did pollution from the noisy new machines, but the roots stood firm. Sturdy and steadfast, until today.

The important people were right when they said that the tree was dying, and yet their definition was so lacking in nuance as to be laughable. We’re all dying, every last living thing, albeit some much more rapidly than others. To categorise an organism as dying is to ignore the glorious value of decline, and in some ways the tree had never been more alive. The term ‘tree’, a singular noun, is troublesome – a tree is host to a vast ecosystem, and a dying tree is truly comparable to a great metropolis (and is ultimately equally as unsustainable). The dying tree, with its labyrinth of damage and decay earned over many centuries, is home to unfathomable richness and diversity of life, from magpies and mosses to moths and mycelium. Each parasitic in some way to the mighty host, just as mankind clings leech-like to the natural world. On many nights I had listened to the faint chatter of roosting bats within the cracked and crooked limbs of our tree, and had closely watched the hole in the trunk where the tawny owls lived. All gone now, forever.

I ponder sadly the toll taken on our environment, and wonder when the flywheel effect of our destruction will take us past the point of sustainability. Perhaps we’re already there? I turn my face away as the rising vapour dwindles, unable to bring myself to witness the final ebb of spirit at the close of a life well lived. As I trudge slowly down the sunken lane to the village, I reach into my pocket and touch the small heap of acorns hidden within. Acorns that I plan to scatter in a small act of defiance to those that relentlessly destroy. Each a potential new veteran. Each my own minor act of treason.

Inglorious

 

The vixen lay dying in the undergrowth, wracked with searing pain where the cruel snare bit deep into flesh and sinew. She was used to being hurt, indeed her whole life had been one of pain and hardship, but she knew that her struggle was nearing an end. The hunters had found one of the places where she came to drink, and had concealed their crude wire traps in the bracken that lay along her regular path to the woodland stream. Traps with one purpose, to devastate that which had previously been so full of life and spirit.

Her final act was to drag herself into the undergrowth, as far from her natal den as her maimed leg could manage. Her kits were strong and nearly full-grown, yet their chances of surviving the winter without her were slight. She knew that her moribund form would attract attention from animal and human alike, so finding a secluded spot to wait for the inevitable end was critical. Her final act of motherhood would be to try to keep the evil fuckers as far from her younglings as possible. In seclusion lay safety, and in safety lay a chance.

The fine divide between life and death was a constant in her short life, and she herself had been the angel of death and destroyer of worlds. She was a killer, but she was different to those that were soon to take her life. She killed to live, and to ensure the survival of her offspring. She killed because she was part of nature, and nature is primal and vicious. Yet she never killed when she didn’t have to, and she never killed for pleasure. Her conquerors were different. They were not part of nature, but instead saw it as something to be owned and controlled, to assert dominion over. It’s true that their species had once killed to live, but those days were many generations past. Now they killed for sport and took pleasure from apportioning pain. They hunted for the sheer joy of taking life, self-proclaimed gods intoxicated by their own importance.

None of this mattered now, of course, as she lay still in the undergrowth. Her breathing grew laboured and shallow, her eyesight milky and dim. The fading light of day picked out the crystalline sparkle of the leaf litter, the cold air turning evening dew to the first hoar-frost of winter. She had so nearly made it. She had so nearly escaped the brutal end met by so many of her kin, and yet the hunters had won in the end. In some ways her ending was more peaceful than those meted out to others of her kind, be it by the crack of a shotgun or evisceration by the baying hounds, however the result was always the same. One more life exchanged for a fleeting moment of satisfaction, soon forgotten. One fewer scrap of beauty in the world.

She thought she could feel the sun on her back as she closed her eyes, never to open them again. The hunters never found her.

The Lich

He couldn’t remember what had drawn him there. He couldn’t remember much of anything anymore, but base instinct told him that he was close. The woods were uncannily quiet, devoid of birdsong and the faint rustle of wind through the leaves. The sharp pistol crack of twigs snapping beneath trudging feet immediately deadened to silence as he walked slowly through the unrelenting night.

His eyes were near useless in the murk, but ahead amid the trees he could make out the faint outline of a person. A girl, or so it seemed. He followed the figure helplessly, effulgent moonlight silhouetting a shape flickering between humanoid and something altogether stranger, but always distant.

The sound should have startled him, but in his trance it barely registered. It began as faint laughter, phasing slowly around him from left to right. A child’s laughter. Slowly it increased in pitch and volume, orbiting him like a sickening pulsar until the source of the evil sound was at once above, beneath and within him. The nearly-girl had stopped, turning slowly to face him. His ragged breath caught in his chest. He was there.

He was in a wide clearing, the edges marked by deformed oak and ash trees casting eerie, warped moonshadows on the damp ground beneath. The air seemed thick, laden with the half remembered scent of camphor and charred wormwood. The bones of birds and small mammals scattered the woodland floor, a scene of intense, breathtaking horror. The figure of the half-girl was grisly and cruel, sunken cheeks hollow beneath an eyeless stare, but he was impossibly drawn to her. She moved towards him at a glacial pace, although he heard no footsteps, no crunch of tiny bones. Her sightless eyes bore through him, head tilted as if curious. She spoke.

The sound that emitted from her decaying maw was like nothing ever conceived by the living. Thin and dry, an inhuman rasp like the creak of a rusted sepulchre gate. The smell of a charnel house, putrescent and rank, filled his nostrils, but didn’t break through the glamour. “The old gods must feed”. He died slowly, oblivious to his fate.

A villager would later report seeing a flash of magnesium light from the wooded hollow that night, and the farm dogs were spooked into madness by a sound inaudible to human ears. The stranger was never found, and was never missed. Folklore meant that few humans entered Lich Wood any more, especially not at full moon, but those that did would have seen the major oak more contorted and grotesque than before. The gods were satiated, for now.

Remembering Dad

He dozed lightly, head resting against the textured plastic wall of the aircraft. He’d fallen asleep before take-off, his large body secure in the snug embrace of lap belt and armrest. His dislike of flying had grown with age, in inverse proportion to his tolerance of crowds and confined spaces. Fitful sleep was his only escape, and he had learned to let the vibration of the engines lull him into an uneasy stupor.

Reverberation of thin metal in turbulent air jarred him awake, his head lolling sideways before the eventual onset of sentience. He’d been dreaming about Dad again.

He rubbed the focus back into his eyes and gazed wearily through the square glass portal. Through a thin sheen of woodsmoke cirrus he could make out a familiar patchwork below, vast tracks of forest dotting a mosaic of pastoral and arable, all haphazard boundaries and awkward lines. It wasn’t entirely dissimilar to the landscape at home, but on a much grander scale. The vastness of the woodlands was no less impressive with repeat viewings, and the green carpeted foothills of the Carpathian mountains always filled him with awe.

It was almost a year to the day since Dad had gone, a sudden and shocking end after a protracted illness. He’d been thinking of him a lot recently.

His ability to read the landscape was something he’d learned from years of study, both academic and professional. He’d eagerly pored over books written by men with white beards, telling of glaciation, tectonics and fluvial process. Each of these was a carpenter’s tool, shaving and chiselling the world over geological epochs. Man’s influence was particularly telling, stripping the land of much of it’s high forest to make way for the farmland required to sustain a growing population. Some considered humanity to be the most destructive of all the great viruses of the Holocene, but if that were true Central Europe remained a sanctuary. Here the green man made his last stand.

Dad hadn’t been himself for years. Without Mum he was frail and nervous, a pale imitation of his former self. His last two years were marred by psychiatric problems that meant he wasn’t really Dad anymore. In some ways that made the inevitable easier to endure.

Sunlight glinted off the surface of a small river that snaked sinuously through the land below. He noted the contrast between the river, meandering through the landscape according to the path of least resistance, and the nexus of roads that man had carved through whatever stood in their way. The roads were generally straight lines, designed with set-square and draughtsman’s pencil. Straight lines reduced cost, and it was easier to cut the trees down than to curve around them. He contemplated how the rivers themselves had been engineered to suit man’s needs, evidenced by the long straight sections adapted to drain the wheat fields. Nothing under the sun was truly untouched by man, not any more.

He’d been thinking about Dad more often than he’d like to admit. When he was awake he remembered the strong, silent, kind man of his youth, however dreams only ever showed him the fading shell of not-dad that he’d become. It was almost funny how his final act had come to define a lifetime.

As they flew over slate grey mountains a thick mattress of cloud formed an opaque barrier, and his study of the landscape was thwarted. He was frustrated. Staring out of the window occupied his mind and kept the realisation of how much he missed dad at bay. He already knew, of course, but he’d refused to let himself dwell on it. He’d never really grieved for either of them, not properly. He’d cried on the day that Dad went, but a period of acceptance and closure had never come. It wasn’t a misguided attempt at machismo, he just didn’t know how to open himself to the process. Words were his only outlet. He’d probably end up working his feelings into one of those tortuous verses he’d started to write. Something tedious about landscape, no doubt.

A break in the cloud gave him something to focus on, a small round lake perched high amid the granite. They called these ‘tarns’ back home, derived from Old Norse. He was grateful for the distraction.