Birdie

It’s time I returned to the archives for another short story. Here’s a favorite…

Birdie?  Yes, I knew Birdie.   

The third house from the end, on our side of the street; that’s where Birdie lived, and had lived ever since I could remember.  He was a part of my growing up, someone I either met, saw or heard every day from my first walk to school right up to the time when I moved to the city.   Birdie was an institution, a fixture, a feature of the street.  If you wanted to sell your house to someone, you told them about Birdie.  He added color.  When friends came to supper, they asked about him.

“How’s Birdie these days?”

“Oh, fine.  Same as usual.”

Birdie played a piano accordion:  not well, but enthusiastically.  When you walked past, you’d suddenly find your steps being matched by a loud Souza march.  Looking up, you’d see Birdie’s grinning face at his window and his fingers flying across the keys as he belted the music out of that old squeeze-box, completely unashamed of the odd missed note.

Most people who lived in our street had attitude where kids were concerned.  I blame that on Baz.  Baz was my mate, and we still communicated, if you know what I mean, right up to five years ago, although Baz had trouble with words of more than one syllable and he couldn’t spell even those.  Text-speak came as a lifeline to Baz.

Baz’s problem was existence.  His, I mean.  If he didn’t turn up, everything went fine.  When he did, nothing went fine.  Baz could make a discussion out of ‘hello’.  Baz could make an argument out of any discussion, and Baz’s arguments always ended up with Baz hitting someone. So most people in our street had attitudes where kids were concerned; because kids meant Baz, and Baz broke windows – and legs.

Now Birdie never shared those attitudes; somehow, when us kids went visiting Birdie, Baz would become as quiet as the mice we knew lived in Birdie’s kitchen, although they never came right out and admitted it.

Birdie loved kids – no, I don’t mean in some covert, perverse way – though if he had I don’t suppose we would have realized.  He somehow knew what we were tuned into, he could read our needs and fulfill our dreams in his inimitably simple way.  He was the one who discovered Baz’s love of magic, so he took a lot of trouble making boiled eggs appear behind Baz’s ears, and setting up the card tricks that always, always mystified my poor, really very susceptible friend.  Mara, he understood her love of fairy cakes, so every time Mara and I popped in the door, there’d be a plate of cakes somewhere about the place.

Mara’s girth underwent subtle expansion with the years.  Her parents could never figure out why, but I knew.

As for me, I was an absolute junky for science fiction – anything that could fly was a spaceship, and Captain Kirk was my all-time hero.   The first time he found out, Birdie stopped playing his accordion (he was halfway through ‘Danny Boy’, just at the ‘it’s I’ll be here’ bit) and took me by the shoulder.

“Feel that?”  His hand was gripping my collar bone.

“Nah.”  I said; then:  “Feel what?”

“The tingle, lad.  The vibration.”  And do you know, I thought I could, a bit.  Birdie’d do that to you.  

“Whoa!  What’s that then, Birdie?”

“It’s the residual charge at the periphery of a force-field, lad!  There’s a very powerful anti-matter disturbance.”

“Wha’ – in here?”

“Yes, son, in here.  This house was built – wait for it – on the very edge of a time-space continuum!  Aye!”  Birdie struck a dramatic cord on his bass keys.  

Humor him.  “Aw!  It’s close, is it?”

“Aye, very.  In a different dimension, mind you, but close.  No more than a couple of miles below us!”

“Why can’t we see it?”

“Because I keep it contained, lad: I have to!  There’s a worm-hole leads directly from this room!”

In spite of myself, I felt I was seeing Birdie’s room for the first time.  I looked everywhere, and a little, believing part of me wanted to see that worm-hole, even though I didn’t really know what it would look like.  “What happens if you step on it?”  I asked.  

“Oh, I’d never do that!  And neither must you.  One touch and you’ll drop through into another universe!  You’ll never be seen again!” 

“That’s not safe!”  Mara had been silent all this time, busy demolishing one of Birdie’s cakes, but one look at her told me Birdie had got her absolutely hooked.  She was standing staring at us with her frosting-smeared mouth open, and tears were rolling down her cheeks.

“Oh, it’s all right, lass!”  Birdie soothed.  “I told ye, I’ve got it contained.   That there table is right over the top of it.”

Saucer-eyed, Mara and I gazed at Birdie’s heavy old Victorian dining table.  A massive mahogany construction of prodigious proportions, it had been in the centre of the room for as long as I could remember.  In my recollection though, I had never before shown such interest in the stacks of wooden boxes jammed beneath it.  Crawling examination of Birdie’s worm-hole was not an option.

“You’ve never moved that table?” I challenged him. “Haven’t you ever wanted to see?”

“I daren’t, lad.”

“Scared you might fall in?”

“Scared what might come through from the other side, more like!  I’ve heard noises, lad.  I’ve heard them trying!   In the night-time they come.  Its a good job that table’s heavy as it is, mind.  They’d be through!”

“What – aliens?  Like, real aliens?”

“Must be, aye.”

Just then, Baz’s football thumped against the outside wall of the house, which was Baz’s usual way of announcing himself, and the spell was broken.  By the time I came to remind myself of Birdie’s science fiction tale, it had reduced to a pleasing exercise of the imagination; no more or less than all his other tales.

I suppose our parents must have had ambivalent feelings about Birdie, even in those innocent, far-off days.  They enjoyed deriding his rough, untutored music, or making social capital out of his eccentric dress (he never wore socks, for example), or his untidy home.  When he ventured out into the street, which was rare, his loud, yellow check trousers prompted my Dad to call him Rupert, though I never found out why.  His brown cardigan had leather patches on the elbows, and holes everywhere else.

Mrs. Purberry from number 42, ‘Dunborrowin’, pronounced her usual verdict upon anyone who lived alone:  “What that man needs is a good woman.”  Others were less kind, but suffered his proclivities because his love of us kids gave us somewhere to go on wet afternoons when our Mums needed a ‘bit of peace’, so no-one would ignore him if they met him in the street, and no-one could ignore that piano-accordion when he began to play.

These are old memories.  As the years passed my friends and I grew out of that childhood wonderland at the third house from the end.  I confess, with sadness, how readily Birdie was forgotten.  Maybe others took our places to listen to Birdie’s playing, I can’t say for sure.  I went to University, Mara went to Art College and Baz went to jail.   The best part of twenty years passed before I chanced to ask my mother, on one of my occasional trips home from the City, about Birdie.

“Still wears those bloody awful trousers!”  She said cheerfully.  “And still playing that bloody awful squeeze-box of his.”  Then she added darkly:  “He’s married now, you know:  or at least, he says he is.”

“Birdie!  Married?”

“Well, let’s put it this way.  No-one in this street was invited to the wedding, if there was one.  But if you’re visiting, prepare yourself.  She’s a gorgeous girl!  Middle eastern, I think.  We all believe she’s a mail order bride.”

That was it!  I set off as soon as I decently could for the third house from the end.  The differences in the place were obvious; curtains in the windows, new paint, a gleaming blue car standing outside.

Birdie answered the door, looking a little older, maybe, but he had one of those faces that belied the years.  “Why, if it isn’t…  You took your time, lad.  I thought we’d lost you!  Come in, meet the wife!”

Admitted to that parlor where so many fantasies had been spawned, I absorbed the shock all grown-ups must accept when they return to the places they knew when they were young:  how small it was, how unlike the room I remembered.   The gargantuan table that had seemed so formidable was just a table, and it no longer dominated the centre of the room but was placed against the wall.  There was no sign of the wooden boxes.   

“No worm-hole, then, Birdie?”

Was there just a brief hesitation before he laughed at me?  “Why no, we closed that up long ago!”

“I didn’t think you could.”  I answered lamely, feeling foolish.

“Terrible things, those wormholes!”

“Yes.”  I felt awkward, beginning to wish I hadn’t come.

“Here’s the wife!  Let’s have some tea!”

As she floated in through the door from the kitchen, I could see why my mother had guessed Birdie’s wife was Eurasian, though I knew instantly she was not.  Her skin was not quite olive in color, her height exceeded her husband’s, yet she was impossibly slender and elegant in build; almost wand-like.  Her greeting was augmented by a slow smile and she extended a hand to me.

“You’re meant to place it on your cheek.”  Birdie said.  “That’s how we greet each other.”

So I took her two-fingered hand in mine and her warmth coursed through me; the same warmth, I was sure, that gave her a soft green glow in the twilight of the curtained room.  “Hello.”  I said, as soon as I trusted myself to speak.  I raised those fingers to my cheek and the tingle, the vibration Birdie taught me to feel all those years ago flooded my being once more.

“So you did let someone through.”  I said.  

“You’re right.  Just one.”  Birdie said.  “We can’t close worm-holes, but Araguaar can.”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo Credit: Romberger Sound Productions on Pixabay

A Faery Tale

Again, from the dusty archives! This is just a bit of fun, really!  Oh, and quite long again, so bring sandwiches.

“There were tales told of a girl, in the days before imagining, when wild people lived deep in the wild wood, and wild deer danced in sunlit glades.  It is said those blessed by the sight of this girl described an apparition so beautiful the raindrops about her turned to diamonds as they fell.  They spoke of auburn hair, of a dress gossamer-white that flowed about her graceful limbs as freely as the waters of a mountain stream; and light would shine in their eyes at just the memory of her.  It is said that old men from their beds could see her, and young men riding by on their steeds might desire her, but she was of the faery people, and none may touch her if they wished to live.

“Those were old tales.  This was long, long ago.”

Anna poked experimentally at a willow frond.  “You make it sound so real.  I thought I could see her for a moment there, among the trees.”

“If you see her, she will bring you good fortune.”  Callum replied. 

“But not if I touch her.”  Anna wound the frond about her finger.

“No.  You must never touch her.”

“I won’t, then – if I see her.  What was her name?”  

Callum watched Anna as she walked before him, and he thought her as beautiful as any spirit of the woods.   “Legend had it that her name was a riddle.  Whosoever solved it would marry her.”

“Ah, so there’s a story, isn’t there?”  Anna called back over her shoulder.  “What happened to

her?” 

“These are old, old tales.  Some say she passed as all the faeries did, into the Land of the Forgotten.  Others that she still walks here, among these trees, but will only appear to a very few who are specially blessed. Me, I like the story most often told, in those far gone days, of a young man from Halverton.”

Callum stopped talking, lost for a moment in his rapture of Anna.  She turned to see the far-off  look in his eyes and laughed her music, saying:  “Go on, then!  Who was this ‘young man from

Halverton’?”

“Halverton was just a village in those days, not the town it is now.  A collection of mean peasant huts huddled in the river valley, fearful of the wild wood; but it was a place where the river might be crossed, so there was a living for a few.

“According to legend a tyrannical merchant controlled the only route across the river, taking tolls from all who used it.  This merchant made a slave of a young man, working him all hours of night and day, then getting drunk and beating him mercilessly.  Now one morning, gathering firewood for his master in the deep dark forest this young man he met with the faery.  When she saw the blood that evidenced his beating she took pity on him.  She led him to her home deep in the forest, where she cared for him, healing his wounds.  There they fell in love.  They made a home together in the root bole of an old oak tree, and its ancient roots wrapped them in their warm embrace.  And so they lived, in happiness.”

“He must have solved the riddle?”

“I suppose.”  Callum smiled.  “Or maybe she cheated and told him her name.  It’s only a story!”

“Oh, but it’s so sweet!”  Anna enthused.  “Happy ever after, Callum.  Isn’t that sweet?”

“Well, not so happy, no.”

“Now, Callum!  Don’t spoil the story!”  Together, Callum and Anna stood at a place where their path divided into two; one of which would lead across open fields, the other into the cool shade of the trees.   “Which way?”  Anna asked.

“You choose.”  Callum said, but he held his breath while she made her choice.

Anna grinned meaningfully, deciding.  “Let’s hide in the deep dark forest, Callum.  Perhaps we can find an oak tree, do you think?”  She took his hand.  Then, as they strolled together on their new path into the darker recesses of the wood, she said:  “Why not a happy ending?”

Callum did not reply immediately, for the moment Anna placed her cool hand in his he forgot everything that had gone before.  Her presence, her soft breathing next to him, the way dappled sunlight found its way through the treetops to play in her hair enraptured him, and all else was lost.

At last, when they were already far from the open light of day, he said:   “There was a king who ruled this land.  Although he was a fair, just ruler, so too was he powerful and hot-blooded. For many years, years before the slave-boy met her, this king had heard tales, brought to him by his courtiers, of the forest maiden.  His palace echoed to accounts of her loveliness, and he was determined to take her hand in marriage. He sent his courtiers to the forest to find her; but even if they saw her once in a while, they could never get close enough to capture her.  Oh, they tried.  They contrived to bind her with nets, they dug pits that they covered with leaves, they laid traps; but she was wise in forest ways, and nothing that was made by man could hold her.”

“She was meant to be free.”  Anna murmured, half to herself.  “It’s so quiet in here, isn’t it?  So peaceful.  I can picture her, you know, Callum?  I can feel her close to me.”

Callum smiled.  “Can you?   Could it be possible you are one of the blessed?  But first you must hear the end of the legend.

“At last, the king grew angry.  He sent his herald to the forest with a proclamation, that the faery girl was to be his bride and she was to go to him, by his command.  He was king, after all.  He was not to be disobeyed.”

“Oh no!  What happened?”

“The faery girl emerged from the forest; something so unexpected and amazing all who saw her were frozen to the spot, because this was the first, the only time anyone from the outer world would hear her speak.  In a voice as soft and as pure as a thousand caroling bells she told the royal party she was wed already, and the lonely slave-boy was her husband.  She would never come to the king.”

“So the king wasn’t happy?”

“He was furious!  He sent soldiers to arrest her, but they were lowly paid and not as courageous as the courtiers.   They had heard it was fatal to touch her so they didn’t look very hard before they told the king she could not be found.  Now the king himself, who ruled by divine right, was not so fearful of her touch, or troubled by faery riddles, but he was wary of the forest people, and he had long sought an excuse to drive them out.  So in his passion he swore if he could not possess the faery girl no-one would.  He accused the forest people of hiding the girl and ordered their forest to be razed to the ground. 

“They set fire to the forest?”

“They came with torches in the first light of dawn.   They set fires along the forest edge and by sunset all the trees were well alight.  They say a thousand woodland people died.  Those who survived scattered and fled.   But Nature is stronger than any king, and they were not gone for long.”

“The girl, Callum!  What happened to the girl?  Oh, stop.  I already know.”  

“Yes, she died in the fire.  It was said she never left the old oak that gave her shelter, but curled up with her lover in her arms beneath its mighty trunk and waited for the fire to come.   When the forest people returned they discovered two bodies lying there, and left them while they conjured the rebirth of the forest with their magical husbandry.  With time, the greenwood swallowed up the faery girl, and so she rests.   For a while her memory died with her.”

Anna had walked a few paces in front of Callum so she might hide her face from him, in case her tears spilled.  “Only for a while?”

“Of course.  Isn’t it always so?  When one legend dies another is born?    This one tells how the faery girl wore a ring as symbol of her love, which she kept with her when she died.  Well, many claim to have found her ring as they walked through the forest, but none could recover it, for the legend says she holds it on her finger until one person of true virtue passes by, and only if they are as pure of mind as she will she release the ring into their care.”

“You mean, like the sword in the stone thing.  Like King Arthur?”

“Yes.  And here the riddle story comes in again. Whoever lifts the ring will learn the answer.  They will learn her name and the power it gives.”  Seeing Anna’s wide-eyed look, Callum laughed.  “It is only a legend.”  He assured her gently.  “There are thousands of old folk-tales like it in early history.  One version even says that if someone evil tries to pick the ring up, the faery will drag them down into the earth with her.  Like I said – only a legend.”

“Wow!”  The pair walked together silently for a while, lost in their thoughts, and they walked deeper and deeper into the wood.

Anna said:  “What if…?”   And she stopped.

“What if?”  Callum questioned her with his eyes, but she was staring at something far off among the trees.  “What, Anna?”

“Callum, what sort of tree is that?”

Callum tried to follow the direction of her stare, towards the knarled old tree that stood perhaps a hundred yards ahead of them.  “That?  I believe it’s an oak.  Why?”

“Because there’s something shining – there in the leaves at the bottom of it.”

“Oh, Anna!  I’m sorry I told you now!  It’s a folk tale – a story!”

But Anna was running.  “No!  No, it isn’t.  I can see it.  I can see it, Callum!”

Laughing, Callum ran in pursuit, but she was a young hind, fast and light of foot beyond his means to catch her.  He only did so when she had stopped before the old tree.  

“Callum, this is the tree.  I know it.  I can feel it!”  

Callum tried to catch his breath.  “It’s certainly old.”  

“She died here.  She’s laying here, the faery girl!  And this…”  Anna stooped to brush away leaves from the forest floor:  “Callum – oh, Callum – this must be her ring.”

Together, they stared down at a ring of gold all but buried in the black soil, its single stone flashing in rivulets of sunlight from the canopy of trees above their head.

“Could it be you?”  Callum murmured, overcome.  “Could you be the one to take the ring from her?”

“Well, it’s certainly a very beautiful ring, but I’m not worthy of it.”  Anna said.  “I hate to break this to you, Callum, but my soul really isn’t that pure.”

“It is in my eyes.”  Callum said.  “At least you should try.”

“No.  Should I?”

“Yes.  But as you do it, say a prayer for the faery girl.  I don’t know.  Maybe she will hear you.  Maybe you’re about to solve the riddle at last.”

“Oh, stop it!  I have to try, though, don’t I?”  Hesitantly, and trying to drive all thoughts of avarice from her mind, Anna crouched beside the ring.  With shaking fingers she grasped the gold band gently, making a prayer as Callum had suggested, right from the very essence of her being, a prayer of hope and love.  So, so carefully, she pulled the ring upwards.

The soil released it.   

Anna held it there, for seconds, for a minute perhaps, disbelieving.  When at last she found her feet, the ring nestled in the palm of her hand as though that was where it had always belonged.

“Oh, Callum!  It’s so lovely!”

“Almost as lovely as the hand that holds it.”

“But how do I find the answer to the riddle?  How do I learn her name?”  Anna cried.  Then:  “Wait!  There’s something written on the inside of the band.  It’s so small I can hardly read it.  It says…”

“What does it say?”  Callum prompted.

Anna squinted to pick out the words.  “It says:  ‘Anna’.  It says, ‘Anna with love’!”  Then, as the truth dawned, she glared at him in mock fury.  “Callum, you bastard!”

Callum grinned.  “I am, aren’t I?  Anna, will you marry me?”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

Photo Credit: Header photo by Anastacia Cooper at Pixabay

The Perfect Bear

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