From the archives, once more:
“M’Lord, when you look so disdainfully upon this great oak you see only the ravages of age. I? I see magnificence – a monument to the centuries. With your indulgence M’Lord I shall create from it a thing of such beauty it shall be venerated by all who see it!” Anton Beneskja said grandly. “It shall be my greatest work!”
Lord Percival Fuchs-Pelham regarded The Briarley Oak, woodland giant and pride of his country estate, with some doubt. “Ravaged, m’dear? Immensely grizzled, I would venture. Hideous, certainly: its nine hundred years have not dealt it the kindest hand.”
Anton smiled. “Yet it still grows. Had I that gift after so many years unsightliness is a price I would gladly pay.”
The gnarled tree’s elephantine boughs loomed over the companions’ heads like a coming storm, its mighty trunk twisted as if seeking the source of some summoning voice amongst the mountains of the east. “Indeed, Master; if you can improve upon nature…”
“If I can? If I can? M’Lord Percival, have I ever failed?”
M’Lord Percival bit a nervous lip. There was no doubting Anton’s genius. In his life Beneskja, sculptor, had created many estimable works in wood – his ‘Adoration of the Lamb’ Triptych (Commissioned by Pius XI himself) was a venerated exhibit in the Basilica of St. Boniface and his quite graphic series of carvings ‘Beyond Innocence’ held pride of place in the Alpington Gallery. A frieze the great man had hewn to adorn the banqueting hall of Malton House had been lauded as ‘inspired’ by all who saw it.
“Yet this would seem…” Knowing those extraordinary talents, Percival hesitated in his criticism…”exceptionally ambitious.”
“Indeed so! Indeed so! A great enterprise, my Lord! I shall call it…” Anton proclaimed; “…The Perfect Bear.”
“All the same;” Percival reasoned; “Step me, Beneskja, but to carve from a living tree? This is the Briarley Oak, man, and I’m not sure, d’y’see, that either my ancestors or my heirs would ever forgive me. If I were to agree, then why not take the tree down first?”
“Wood, my Lord Fuchs-Pelham, is a paradox. We speak of it as a ‘living’ material, but it is not. Wood dies when the tree falls.”
Fuchs-Pelham’s cane scraped irritably at a random twig amongst the woodland loam. He was not of a mood to be lectured. “Deuced cold.” He murmured. A brisk north-easterly breeze was threatening rain. “A bear, y’say?”
“And an affirmation of life: carved so the tree’s vital energies will be preserved. It will grow; it will develop the sculpture! Perceive how those two mighty roots are spread like hinder legs with feet planted firmly upon the earth, and how they unify with the great barrel of that trunk, then how the neck supporting the thinner upper boughs – such useless things – forms a bole? Hewn by my hand that bole shall become a head with mouth agape and rows of, oh, such fearsome teeth; and now! Now!” The old man thrust himself forward, jabbing a finger towards the forest canopy: “See how that one lofty bough, strongest and most ancient of them all, claws at heaven? It will be a mighty paw, reaching as though the creature were seeking to pluck the very moon from the sky!”
Percival tried to recount the times he had listened to his artist’s impassioned exposition of his work, how often he had doubted. As Beneskja’s patron, he had been persuaded by many visionary tours of lifeless chunks of timber, and placed his faith, oh, so many times, in the maestro’s all-encompassing imagination. Each time he commissioned a Beneskja work he did so out of friendship, or a gambler’s arrogance, or maybe for the love of fine art at its finest; to be rewarded, many-fold, for almost every adventure. The parklands that surrounded his country home played host to many Beneskja compositions in marble or bronze, but this – this bordered upon travesty.
Lord Percival Fuchs-Pelham jabbed his cane at the twig, snapping it in two. He had been chilled for long enough and had no wish for a fever. “Beneskja m’dear: you must kill the tree in such an enterprise, surely?”
“Again no! I can work with the form of the tree, leave such bark as it needs to protect the passage of life-giving sap, keep the strength to support those limbs. My bear will live in your woodland, it will grow and alter with the years – my art will live, My Lord; long after you and I are gone.”
Fuchs-Pelham tried, using all the resources of his imagination, to gain a picture of Anton’s intentions in his mind. He could not. “I shiver intolerably!” His Lordship finally said; and he walked away, shouting over his shoulder: “Very well. Do it!”
So a spark that had smouldered so long in Beneskja’s mind became flame. Thereafter he could think of nothing else: lesser commissions were left uncompleted, meals left uneaten. He wandered the passages of his rambling old home through the early hours, often forgetting to clothe himself and frightening his servant. He drew plans on walls, talked unceasingly of the tree until his mistress Gisette, incensed, began to throw things at him, and eventually left the house altogether.
Gisette came back, of course, she always did. But when she did, the maestro was not at home. She found him beneath a little roof he had made for himself, nestled at the foot of the Briarley Oak.
“I shall sleep here. I shall eat here. I shall work here.”
“It will be too cold! When the wind brings snow from the mountains you will surely freeze!”
“I can build a fire! I shall have wood, after all! And perhaps, my love, you will join me on the coldest nights?”
“On such hard ground? Am I so foolish? When you turn to ice, be sure you pose so I can make a cast. You can be your own last statue.” Gisette snapped back. “I shall pay the household bills by exhibiting you here!” Gisette stormed off, telling Anton she would be in his house if he wanted to come to her. One of Lord Fuchs-Pelham’s servants would bring him food.
In fact Anton had no intention of remaining in his little hut more than a few days, while he studied the living veins that sustained the tree year by year. There was little to detain him, as he saw it, once the essential sinew of the old beast was discovered and mapped; for he knew this must be protected. Although much of the wood was dead and therefore of no use in his eyes his chisels and rasps would work close to living arteries. It was essential he knew where to make each cut.
A week would pass before Anton began. His gouge found an open end of grain which invited him to follow it, using the guile his years of dedication to art had taught him. A sliver of the great oak yielded, prised away from a bed wherein it had slumbered for an age, exposing the lighter grey of long-deceased sapwood beneath.
“Ah,” said the oak. “That was a blow struck with wisdom. You have no idea how irritating is the burden of atrophy. You have relieved me of an itch that has troubled me for three centuries. I thank you for that.”
Anton took a backward step. He looked, but the carafe of wine Fuchs-Pelham’s servant had brought him was still full. Then he looked at the tree, which had not moved, or made any other sign of life. Great artist that he was, he had often claimed that wood could ‘speak’ – until now he had never really been given cause to believe it.
“You spoke to me!” He cried.
“Is that so surprising? I have existed in this glade nigh on a thousand years while mortals have clustered about me, I have learned your language well enough.”
“But you have no…..”
“What? Mouthparts? Tongue, vocal cords? Of course I can speak, though you may not hear my words, but rather feel them inside your head. Not every mortal can sense them; but then, not every mortal knows wood as you know it.”
Anton found himself unable to reply! He paced back and forth for several minutes, allowing his freed mind to marvel at this phenomenon. At last he began to speak in mono-syllables; pouring out random questions: “Why? How long? Which? Can you? Have I?”
The tree smiled. Anton could persuade himself he actually felt it smile!
“Be still!” The old oak said kindly. “This way of sharing knowledge is new to you. You must organize your thoughts, let your questions form. Take some time. We are trees – we have nothing but time.”
Anton did not return to his house as he had anticipated, in a few days. Nor did he return in a few weeks, or a few months. He built a fire against the winter, a screen against the east wind, and despite Gisette’s dire prediction he did not freeze to death. For much of the time work was impossible – his tools too cold and brittle, his hands too bitten by the frost to hold them, but he stayed, and in that time the old oak shared many secrets.
One day in early March, as the first lances of sun sliced through the snow clouds and the ancient tree was busy nurturing buds he made a pact.
The tree had long known of Anton’s intention to transform it. “I am old and though you have given me new life I know one day I must die. I will be food for beetles, a rotting carcass on the forest floor. I do not want that to be my fate. If I am to be a bear,” the tree spoke in his mind, “I will help you with your quest for perfection. I would like to die as a bear.”
Anton placed both his hands upon the tree’s wide trunk, saying: “My Lord of the Forest, I will do all I can.”
Thus dawned a last, brilliant phase in the creative fortunes of Anton Beneskja, woodcarver and sculptor. His renewed genius was entirely centred upon the Briarley Oak which, as he had promised, was step by laborious step transformed into the fearsome image of a giant bear reared upon its hinder legs, stretching for the moon through the canopy of the trees. No-one knew how deeply intimate was his relationship with that great tree, or how each cut he made, each refinement of form was inch by inch advised by his subject: he kept that secret to the end. Knowing him as she did, Gisette might have been best placed to discover the truth, that ‘The Perfect Bear’ was not, after all, entirely his work. Yet she was accustomed to his conversations with himself when he was working, and so thought little of discovering him apparently talking to the tree when she came upon him unannounced.
“Ah, my Anton! My shining star! It is as if the wood could talk to you, my darling, is it not?”
“Yes.” Anton agreed. “And imagine what it would say….”
The months passed, became years. Out of the deformity of the Briarley Oak inch by inch, cut by cut, a miracle took shape. One morning in the third spring, at quite an early hour, the largest root became a paw, its claws clutching the loam with crippling force. In that same year the union of root and trunk was transformed to become a broad and powerful haunch, and the excess wood that spoiled the angle Anton wanted for the bear’s back began to fall away. So dramatic were these changes those who witnessed them swore the tree itself was changing shape, its boughs creating new angles, the bole at its summit leaning upwards more than before. Everyone who visited the glade remarked upon the vitality of the sculpture – how very like a mighty bear it had become.
As for Anton himself, he became as much a part of the woodland as the tree. Working increasingly from ladders and burned walnut brown by constant exposure to the elements, he was barely distinguishable as he clung, ape-like, to a high limb. Lord Percival, amazed at the sculpture’s brilliance, was inclined to visit often. When he did he enthused, but Anton answered only with non-committal words and grunts. When would the work be finished? Not yet. Did he need more money or supplies? No, none.
Eventually, Fuchs-Pelham stopped approaching Beneskja altogether, preferring to view his remarkable carving from a distance. Soon even Gisette was rejected. The master lived by his work, and he lived only for his work. It was his alone.
The years slipped by. Gisette married Lord Percival Fuchs-Pelham. Anton was seen only rarely. Glimpsed at times amid the foliage of his tree he became the subject of superstitious rumor. Some claimed Beneskja had become a sprite, that he would hide within the disguise of his tree ready to leap upon the unwary. Others even suggested they had seen leaves growing from his body. He could no longer speak in human tongue, they said. Children were warned with dark tales.
At last in the summer of the seventh year, ‘The Perfect Bear’ was finished. Its presence in the wood had been so remarkable for so long it was impossible to be certain when Beneskja’s chisel made its final pass. But the completed sculpture was a thing of power and beauty which fulfilled Anton’s promise. And true to his promise it grew in glory with the years.
Beneskja? Perhaps he left to travel in foreign lands, or to seek new avenues for his colossal talents; maybe he simply dropped into obscurity, his life’s work done. No-one could say what had become of him and strangely for one who was a legend in himself, few took the trouble even to ask.
Then one bright morning the elderly Lord Percival and Lady Gisette, walking in the woods, came upon their glade to find ‘The Perfect Bear’ had gone! There was nothing, no trace beneath the wide acre of clear sky the tree had left behind to show it had ever grown there. They sought for signs of churned earth where its roots had been, called in experts to look for other clues, but all in vain. The Briarley Oak, ‘The Perfect Bear’, had vanished.
A satisfactory answer was never found. In future years a man from the village would claim to have seen a bear rushing across the fields towards the dawn with an old man clinging to its back. Still more time would pass before a group of mountaineers in the nearby peaks came across a cave well above the tree line which was, inexplicably, filled with huge baulks of timber that looked like oak from an ancient tree. But there were no signs the wood had been cut, or evidence of any human activity.
“It is as if” one of the mountaineers explained; “the tree just crawled into the cave and died.”
© Frederick Anderson, August 2020
Header Image by Liggraphy, from Pixabay