The White Tree
by Edwin Black
Wind brushed through the woodland, setting the trees whispering. The leaves told their secrets, tales of nocturnal events that no one else would never see.
Birds fluttered their wings in the eaves, carefully putting their nests together. In the midst of this labyrinth the White Tree stood upon a low hill. It was the colour of bleached bone – chalky against the mass of brown, black, and green. Crimson leaves clotted the branches, shivering in the wind. Where other trunks had been decorated with the names of forgotten loves and childhood friends, its own was pristine. Even ivy did not dare to blemish it. Nothing touched the White Tree.
Edwards looked at it from the bottom of the hill. He was broad and burly, with arms as thick as boughs. The sack he carried was heavy, the burlap handles digging into his fingers. His eyes quickly surveyed the tree, making rough measurements as to the thickness of the trunk and which way it was likely to fall. Then, satisfied, he made his way up the small hill.
Reaching the top, he placed the bag down and rummaged through it, producing a rake. Looks as though no one’s done this for years. He found himself knee-deep in the crimson foliage. Leaves clung to his trousers, the stems just about pricking his flesh. How tall is the bloody thing under all this, I wonder. The task lulled him into himself. He remembered the stories he had been told about the White Tree, the ones he and the other boys frightened each other with. Tales of spectral hang-men, babies found drained of blood in the knots, and the ever favoured evocation of the Devil. The forester smiled dimly as the memories crowded in.
He was eleven. The world he had known before was so small, and shrinking all the time – there was more to the life that was coming than dirt fights and the five miles around the village. Boyhood’s unconscious end was on the horizon. The others were quickly becoming pioneers, pushing against the boundaries of their newly found smallness and discovering pastures new. There was Arthur Hargreaves, who walked into the middle of the Guardian Stones and spoke the Green Man’s name. Young Billy Mayhew had leapt into the river and, according to some, was never quite the same around water. Most daring, however, was the legendary Tim Donovan. The boy had stolen a pheasant from the Blackcliffe Estate without being shot by the grounds-keeper, becoming a minor deity in the eyes of his peers. Each of them had a story that spread between the villages of Whirley and Culverton, settling into the cobblestones of Taylorstock. In awe, Edwards wanted nothing more to join them, to become part of the schoolhouse pantheon. How could the boy become a legend? He was helping his father in the garden when he spilled a pot of iron nails. As he picked them up the idea sprouted. He pocketed one, carefully arranging the remainder so that it would never be missed.
He found the boys sitting on the village green. Summoning all the confidence of an eleven year old, he strode over the grass and presented the nail.
“What you got that for?” Billy asked.
“Aye – oughtn’t be playing with stuff like that. Could do yourself a funny’un,” Arthur added.
“Well lads”, Edwards replied, standing straight and broad shouldered. “If you come up to the White Tree tomorrow afternoon. I’ll show you.”
The boys’ eyes suddenly widened.
“Don’t you be looking at me like that! Tim there were near shot a couple of weeks ago. You can’t be telling me that you’re scared of a tree!”
Tim spoke up.
“A pheasant’s different. You can forgive a pheasant. I know what your game is, Sam Edwards, and I ain’t playing.”
Edwards shrugged. “Suit yourself. I expect the other two, though.”
The boys stood at the bottom of the hill. They could do nothing other than look at the tree. There were silver birches in the forest, their bark white to the point of incandescence. But the White Tree was different. Edwards swallowed.
“Are you really going to do it? I mean, we can do you a favour and just tell people that you’ve done it. No one’ll ever come to check,” Billy said.
Edwards clapped him on the shoulder. “Cheers, but no. Got to do it now I’ve said, don’t I?”
“No. You really don’t.”
The boy laughed and began his ascent.
A deep hush took hold. The laughter died in his throat, strangled at its root. Silence boomed. In his pocket the nail scratched and poked, as though it knew where it was going and could not wait for the moment. The White Tree was largely hidden by the angle of the incline, every step slowly revealing its form. As its crown came into being, the leaves bloodiest red, the boy’s legs stiffened. He could still turn away, return to the real world. Even now his legend was secure. But something rose inside him. The White Tree was just a tree. It grew, it swayed in the breeze. It was just a tree. Edwards steeled himself. With the wind blowing gentle and cold through his shirt, with a pair of legs which tried all they could to turn him around, he crested the hill.
He was struck with awe. The White Tree stood before him. There was no wound on its trunk, no sign of the mould that lives in the crevasses in the bark. The crown thinned out, more leaves dotting around the trunk, as spindly branches stuck out from it. He took a deep breath, making his nostrils tingle with cinnamon. Raising a hand, he stroked the bark. The first thing that came to mind was that it felt like a tooth. The boy shook his head. It was a tree. A weird looking tree. But still a tree.
Quickly, he brushed back the leaves. His eyes scanned what little exposed ground he created, managing to find a rock the size of his hand. Circling the trunk, he tried to find the perfect spot. His fingers traced over the bark, prying it for any sign of the softer wood beneath. He orbited the tree again and again until, suddenly, came the breakthrough. A nook the size of his fingertip. It was soft, springy, as though it was about to give way on its own. He looked down the hill. The boys had shifted with him. He felt their eyes. Every move was becoming part of his story, the legend was blossoming in his hands. Sam Edwards – the one who touched the White Tree.
He pointed the nail at the nook. The rock was ready. All was still. Slam. The impact shook the tree, making its leaves hiss. Another followed, and another, each strike echoing throughout the woods. After the fifth, the boy dropped the rock.
The man looked at the rusted nail head. It stared back at him, a small dark eye set within white flesh. Edwards sighed, the echoes of the hammer falls disappearing into his mind. He started this work over a decade ago. It was time to finish.
His arms ached. Hours of work for a pile of leaves that was as tall as he was. The root system was revealed to the sky, a large circle that clung to the hilltop like a pile of nerves attached to a muscle. There was no seam between the trunk and root collar, the two structures simply flowing into each other with perfect precision. Each of the roots was as white as the rest of the tree, completely untouched by the dirt it plunged into.
Edwards circled to the other side, marking a line in pencil where his saw would go. All the while he felt eyes watching him. Close, careful, they mapped out his every movement, his every breath. He expected to see an eyeball blink out from any of the knots, or to catch some figure standing at the bottom of the hill. Just like the lads…
The wind blew. No one answered. He shook his head.
“Don’t be daft, now. Got a job to do.”
He picked up his saw and began his true work.
The air was filled with the sound of grinding, heavy breathing, and snapping wood. Edwards grunted his way through the trunk. The dust that rose from the wound was as red as the leaves above. Sweat stuck to his flesh as the pendulum movement of his arms became heavier and heavier. The bark was thick, near unyielding. As it gave way, the black sapwood showed itself. Ah. Rot. That explains a lot. After another trial of bark, the wedge had been made. He grinned. This was going to be a job well done after all. Picking up the axe, he hammered into the wedge, making it ping from the trunk.
He picked it up, only for his gloves to be covered in thick sap. It flowed from the surface of the wood, pumping through microscopic veins. He wiped the liquid away with a cloth and gasped. Externally, the White Tree only looked relatively young. Its rings told the true story. They were widespread to begin with, but the spiralling fractal of years became so intricate, so thin, that its childhood was lost to pure time. Guilt pranged in Edwards’ chest. But the state of the sap, the fact that the rot infesting the sapwood had spread into the very heart, also told him all he needed to know. Why none of the past foresters had done a thing about it escaped him. The tree may well be living, but it had been very ill for a long time. That explains everything. He made a quick calculation. It would take hours for his saw to break through the trunk. There was also the question of the stump. With the sheer amount of roots that kept it anchored in the hilltop, it could take days to remove. However, that would come with time. For now, this part of the task had to be finished.
The saw sang with a warbling high note as it made its way through the wood. Sap drizzled from its blade, falling in viscous drops to the ground like the drops of sweat that flew from the forester’s head. Hours of burning muscle, harsh breath, and the silent scream of the forest around him melted together. Finally, there came a sad snap. It was deep within the centre of the trunk, a fracture running from root to the very tip of the leader. The other trees leaned in, spectators to something they thought they would never see. Edwards leapt back. The White Tree groaned. It swayed, balancing on its stump. A fight was being had – the tree refused to fall, to die. It refused to see the end of the story. Edwards gave it a sharp kick, sending it tumbling and exploding in a shower of sticks and branches. The man stood, panting. His task was done. The next day would bring the tree’s final dissection, but the difficult part was done with. He could not help but smile.
As he packed his tools away a great urge swept over him. It felt like a deep homesickness. His head was drawn toward the stump. Spots of thick red sap were welling up between the rings. A closer look shook him. The heartwood was covered in a honeycomb-like collection of holes, as though some parasite had set up an entire colony. How had the White Tree remained standing for so long with so little of itself inside? He looked to the wedge. The holes were there too – uneven and irregularly clustered across its face. I’ll have to give that a proper look once I’m home. Mustn’t let a nasty take hold of others. He slung his bag over his shoulder and picked up the wedge.
Ancient eyes gazed upon the thing that had touched, murdered, the White Tree. The birds stopped, not a thing moved in the undergrowth. In the midst of millions, Edwards was completely alone. He wanted to run, to reach home and barricade the door, but his legs rebelled. Just as they had when he was a boy, they rolled his feet, tripped him on every rock they could find. Anything to turn him back around. His own body reacted in revulsion to what he had done. Fear makes trees of men – turning their toes to roots, their arms into limp branches without leaves. He felt feeders growing from his feet, becoming trapped by the sole of his boots, making him squirm. Edwards could not move, barely able to breathe. The trees were still, unmoving against the wind. Oh God. He felt something on his fingers. It was warm, thick. He knew what it was before he dared look down.
Sap, deepest red, poured from the surface of the wood. It dribbled from his fingers down to the ground in long, slow drips. The colour was so living, so alive, that it was more akin to blood than anything made by a plant. It flowed continuously from the holes, tiny mouths that would not stop gently vomiting. A sigh rose from the trees. In that single moment, Edwards knew that he would not be reaching home. Indeed, it was not his home any more. There was one place he needed to go.
He allowed his legs to turn him, to amble back toward the hill. The stump was waiting. It had been waiting for him since he drove the nail into its trunk. Perhaps it had been waiting for much longer. The trees broiled. Their branches rose and fell, the creaking of wood and leaf-rustling filled Edwards’ ears. They were shouting, screaming – the murderer had returned to the scene. Sap erupted from the stump, bubbling over the top. It stained the bark and sat atop the ground, coating the roots in a thick mass. They were not nerves. Not any more. They had become a pile of cold entrails. Edwards stared at it. He dropped the wedge, shaking his head. No. No. This ain’t right. This was just a job. Just a job. The trees continued to whisper. They told him what he needed to do. His will was theirs.
He stepped onto the stump. The trees roared around him. Every oak, birch, evergreen, from sapling to rotting trunk, thundered in his ears. They had seen so much, felt much more, watched the world spin from the days of ice to the days of iron, and would do so well beyond. He felt the roots, how they netted together, how the fungi spoke to each other as messages in unknown tongues about strange and wonderful things passed through the vast array of connections. And above, how the branches wave in the wind, how the leaves drink and eat of sunlight and the air. There were so many – and he was in the very navel. His mind drowned in it. He could see, he could hear and feel. Thought died once his left foot made contact with the exposed marrow of the White Tree. The being that had been Sam Edwards came to an end.
The pain was deep. Deeper than muscle and nerves, it cascaded up his very bones, which swelled beneath his skin, tearing through in large nodules that burst through the fabric of his trousers. He screamed, only for the sound to be eaten by hungry leaves. Instinct took over as he tried to fall from the stump, to escape. It was no use. His knees refused to budge, sending shocks of pulsing, electric pain. And still the nodules grew, bright white and chalky, until they merged together. His legs could no longer be distinguished from each other, becoming one single mass of black wood and white bark.
There was no conscious thought. Wave after wave of agony coursed through Edwards’ body as the metamorphosis crawled its way toward his hips. Suddenly, a series of jolts ran down his spine. With every violent crack more vertebrae dislodged and shattered as his trunk was extended upwards. His torso would be the new leader. Panic rushed through him, but it was no use. Pain gave way to numbness. His trunk was forming.
What was once Edwards suddenly felt the need to raise his arms. He could just about feel surprise when his arms obeyed. They were coated in bloody sap, the leaves already sprouting from his fingers. Sunlight seeped into his veins. It was akin to being submerged in a warm bath – comforting, all consuming. His bark was chest height, close to engulfing his head. The trees whispered into him. Drink, they said. Use your roots. Water rose through his trunk, caressing the parts that still ached and burned until they were soothed. After all the pain, the agony of his new birth, this was welcome. It felt right.
Suddenly, a sharp stab sliced its way through what was left of his pallet. Through his remaining eye he saw an object growing from what was once his mouth, and with a patch of tongue he tasted metal. The nail. The memory flared once more before it died away, the brain that held it blossoming into his new crown. The White Tree stood atop the hill, resplendent in the sun.
The trees swayed in the breeze.
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