The Twisted Oak
by Max Leonard Hitchings
In Dencoombe, in the West Country, there stands a hill, and upon that hill was once a tree so twisted that it was said that God and the Devil had wrestled with it and spun the trunk until it was whipped round on itself a hundred times. Old Mal simply called it “‘th Dowel’s bissly ole thing”.
The hill stands some 800ft proud. It once had a name, as all features of land do, but if the locals say “the hill”, there is no need to inquire as to which hill they are referring.
They don’t go up the hill you see, the locals. They used to, in the old days. Old Mal will tell you, he’s been up there alright. He’s full of stories, Old Mal.
If ever you should visit Dencoombe, you’ll see (as with so many villages in the West Country) livestock grazing in every field and paddock – except on that hill. The farmers won’t let their sheep or cows set foot there.
Old Mal told us once down The Mill – that’s the local pub – that once, in the old days, a farmer let his cow go onto the hill. When she came back, at first she wouldn’t milk. This went on for a couple of days, and then, on the third day, she did give milk but the milk came out all aprill’d – sour, you know – and on the fourth day her milk came out black as pitch.
The farmer, Mr Alcock, decided he would have to shoot her – a cow that gives sour milk ain’t worth much, of course, and wouldn’t cover the cost of her own feed. So, he locked her in her paddock at night and resolved to do it first thing in the morning.
Well, morning came and Mr Alcock had his breakfast and then he took his gun down from the wall. He loaded the gun and took it outside, to end the life of his poor cow, only she wasn’t there. The paddock gate lay smashed on the ground and his cow was never seen again.
Then there’s the tale of Albemarle, an old grey mare that belonged to Mrs Cottlesloe, who lives on the other side of the brook. She’s a funny sort, Mrs Cottlesloe – keeps herself to herself, and comes into the village very seldom, at least since her husband died, but when she was younger, she used to ride Albemarle all over.
One time, they rode onto the hill, and Mrs Cottlesloe lost control of her mare. She couldn’t get her to stop and Albemarle charged up the hill, right to the very top, where the twisted old oak stood.
When Mr Cottlesloe came home and found his wife was out, and no mare either, he saddled up his horse and rode off in search of her. He couldn’t find her anywhere and it was getting on for evening now – dimpsey as they say in those parts, the sun just setting over the hill. He went into The Mill, but none had seen her there, so he started to panic. Many of the people in the pub went out looking for her but she was nowhere to be seen and eventually they had to give up as it was dark and treacherous out.
They found Mrs Cottlesloe three days later, by the brook, still sitting upon her mare – her clothes were torn and dirty, her hair was grey, and her skin was as wrinkled as that of somebody twice her age. Albemarle was all skin and bones and had a wildness in her eyes. The poor old mare was exhausted, and died later that evening.
She became frail after that, Mrs Cottlesloe, and required much care and looking-after. But her husband wasn’t up to the task, I’m afraid, and after a short while he took his own life. She still lives on the other side of the brook, and is looked after by a great aunt – though you wouldn’t want to guess which was the older of the two women. Mrs Cottelsloe won’t discuss what happened to her, and any mention of the hill or the tree that stood upon it sees her glaze over and stare into the distance, as if her eyes were focusing on a place no mortal ought to ever see.
Once, I asked Old Mal if he’d been up the hill, and he told me that when he was a schoolboy, he and the other children in the village would go and play near the twisted tree.
They weren’t meant to be there of course, but a gang of them went up there from time-to-time, when they thought there was little chance of being caught. There’s one visit to the hill in particular, however, that he’s unlikely to ever forget.
One of Old Mal’s school friends, Bertie Evering, had a sister a couple of years older than them, Constance. It was her idea to go up there that day, and she waited until they were right by the tree before explaining what it was she had in mind.
“According to the old legend, if you circle round the tree 13 times anti-clockwise, you’ll see the Devil”, she said. None of them wanted to do it, so to prove that she wasn’t scared, Constance ran round the tree.
Whether they saw the Devil or not, none of them ever said, but seven kids went up the hill and only six came back down. Rupert Foster, one of Mal’s schoolmates, was nowhere to be seen. The whole village went out searching for him, but he was never found.
Three days later, his clothes were found folded up in a neat little pile by the brook, as if he’d just gone in for a dip. But there was no sign of Rupert.
The Foster family blamed Constance, and the two fathers almost came to blows down The Mill. The six kids that came down from the hill were obviously rattled – they’d lost their friend, somehow. Mal said that they’d all go hushed whenever an adult tried to speak to them. It was like entering a room where people were gossiping – there’s a sense that your presence changes the energy in the room and whatever subject was being discussed before you came in is suddenly taboo – a secret to be kept.
All of the children who’d been on Constance’s little expedition started to get sick about three or four days after returning from the hill. They had a paleness upon them, a fever, cold sweats, their eyes became bloodshot and their tongues started first of all to yellow, and then to blacken. Old Mal says it’s the sickest he’s ever been in all his life.
At that time, there was just the one old Doctor in Dencoombe, not like it is nowadays with all the fancy surgeries down in the towns. Dr Simmonds handled every sickness in the village, delivered everyone when they were born, and helped a fair few go to their death as well. The hospital, up in the big town, was some hours’ journey by carriage and was used only for emergencies. Dr Simmonds visited the houses of the six children, and examined each of them in turn, but couldn’t establish what was wrong with them.
Constance’s symptoms were the worst of all. One of her hands had become red and swollen to twice its usual size. Dr Simmonds used a needle to drain off some of the liquid that was pooling in her hand, and found a long wooden splinter digging into her palm, which he assumed must have been the cause of the infection. She must have snagged herself on the tree when she went running around it that day.
Dr Simmonds tried to remove it with tweezers but by now Constance was writhing in agony and he could find no purchase on the splinter. The poor girl’s tongue was covered in a thick black film and her eyes were red and puffed up.
Constance’s family were watching the examination and were imploring the doctor to get the splinter out. He almost managed to get hold of it, when Constance suddenly sat bolt upright, grabbed the tweezers with her good hand and jammed them right into the doctor’s eye – immediately her parents tried to hold her down, and they managed to prise the tweezers from her hand, but the fever had given her an almighty strength and she was able to fling the men off like a couple of rag dolls. Black foam began to issue from her mouth, and she started muttering, then howling the old rhyme:
Dancing circles cursed be
Thirteen circles round the twisted tree
The devil waits for me and thee…
She must have said it ten or fifteen times, and then she coughed up a great quantity of black blood and lay back down on her bed. Bertie, who had been watching all this, had covered his ears, his face contorted with terror. Constance seemed still, for now, so while the doctor sat with his hand over his eye, he instructed the parents to give the girl a sedative. He was then taken in a carriage up to the big town to go to the hospital there, where unfortunately they couldn’t save his eye but it was said that if those tweezers had been thrust a little deeper, he almost certainly would have died.
That night, while the house was trying to sleep, Constance’s mother snuck out with a lantern and an axe. She stumbled up the hill in the wind and dark, and eventually she reached the old oak, standing at the top like a dark sentinel overlooking Dencoombe. She set down her lantern and began swinging her axe at the tree’s twisted trunk.
Meanwhile, Mr Evering awoke and wondered where his wife was. He went downstairs and saw the axe was missing from next to the fireplace. Fearing the worst, he woke up Bertie and told him to keep watch over Constance. He grabbed a lantern and headed round to the woodshed, where he picked up another axe and he too headed up the hill.
Bertie tiptoed downstairs to where his sister was lying in bed. The door was ajar and he could hear her breathing steadily, so he went into the sitting room and stoked the fire. He sat there watching the flames lick and curl around the fireplace, telling himself he must not sleep. But poor Bertie had had a long day and of course, eventually, sleep did come.
When Mr Evering reached the tree at the top of the hill, he found the lantern lying on the ground, its contents partially spilled. He saw his axe was still in the tree, but his wife was nowhere to be seen.
He chose which he thought was the bigger and stronger of the two axes and continued to hack at the tree but could make little headway. Realising that there was no way he could fell the tree on his own, he doused the tree with paraffin from one of the lamps, and ignited it with a flame from the other.
Bertie awoke with a start as he heard a scream and a crash from Constance’s room. He flung open her door, but Constance was not there – the window was smashed and the windowsill was covered in black blood.
With the oak on fire behind him, Mr Evering walked back down the hill. By now it was getting on for dawn and the village was stirring. Old Mal says he remembers coming out of his house that morning and seeing black smoke over the hill.
As Mr Evering walked into the village, people stopped what they were doing and stared at him – if that tree really was associated with the Devil, then they probably felt that some retribution was coming – but Mr Foster came out of his house and gave him an approving, if somewhat grim look. Later, the pair of them would go up the hill once more, this time with proper saws, and fell the charred remains of the old oak.
No one knows what happened to Mrs Evering, but they found Constance sitting by the brook. She was pale and silent, her breathing steady. She wouldn’t allow anybody to move her – just kept staring into the swirling waters of the brook as if she was searching for something.
She didn’t move from that spot for the rest of her life. Of course, doctors would come and would try to take her away, but the further they took her from the brook, the more she’d howl. Eventually, her family agreed that they would bring food for her, and Bertie built a shelter for her there. Mrs Cottlesloe could see the shelter from her window, and it was said that the two would occasionally exchange glances, while they were both alive. Constance sat there in her shelter by the brook for 11 years before succumbing to the elements one winter.
In all that time, she spoke just one word over and over again: “Rupert”.
And if you ask Old Mal what happened that night up on the hill, and whether he really did see the devil, he’ll only ever say, “we seed what we seed”.
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