Under the Greenwood Tree
“Come play with me,
Under the greenwood tree”
She fell asleep under the tree, but when she awoke, she was no longer there, for the tree had taken her for its own.
Her mother had sent her out early that morning. To stop the milk from turning, she had said. She had sent her to watch over the geese, but they were annoying and boring and worse than looking after the little ones. They barked and hooted, parading around in groups, and trying to run away, or creep up and bite you. She hit out with the long, supple swish she had stripped of its leaves, and shooed them back with the others, thinking all the time of the village dance and the brown-haired boy.
The sun broke through the mist. The dew underfoot started to dry, so she sat down under the trees for shade, picking at the blades of grass, and teasing the insects in the undergrowth. She practised playing five stones with a handful of small pebbles she collected, but games no longer held the same attraction.
Finally, as the sun overhead grew warm, and then hot, she lay down under a spreading oak and slept.
And as she slept, the tree sent forth tendrils that crept inside her head and possessed her until she belonged to the forest. Roots entwined her, and guided her through the soft mosses and fragrant earth, down into the depths. Cool green sap flowed in her veins. Her eyes took on an emerald tint. Sinews and tendons grew woody and strong. And still she slept, dreaming leafy green dreams.
From time to time she woke, emerging into the light of day under the protective boughs of the tree, and there she waited. When village lads and menfolk walked to forest paths she could but smile, as she had lost all knowledge of speech long years ago. But her eyes were wild and savage, and her lips as full and inviting as autumn berries. And when a boy lay down with her under the spreading branches, the tree opened its trunk, peeling back the bark, exposing the flesh underneath, all the better to welcome in its prey. And once the visitor was firmly entwined, it feasted slowly and silently. The thing that had once been the girl returning to her place, nestling down among the roots, until the next time the pangs of hunger made themselves felt.
And so the years passed.
We moved into the house in Spring. Mother said it was a mistake, that we should wait and see the place in the rain first. The woman from the agency said it was a bargain and wouldn’t stay on the market that long. And us? We were bought off with the promise of a treehouse and ponies, and room to run free.
Mum was proved both right and wrong when the workmen found some sort of rot in the basement, and started ripping out planks and beams, and we were essentially banned from the house for the duration. We protested for the form, but there were battles and explorations waiting in the meadow and the copse, and anyway, all the wood piling up in the back yard would surely come in handy for the treehouse. Meanwhile, Dad hung tyres from suitable branches, and we three children ‘went native’ and brown, as Spring turned into Summer.
It was Lucy who first spoke about the girl hiding in the copse. Everyone else present at the table that evening just took this for another of her imaginary friends. By now we were all used to her tea parties on an overturned box in the meadow where she poured tea and chatted with Rabbit & friends that only they could see.
Then Vicky spied an emerald eye peering through the leaves. She ran into the kitchen calling, “There’s someone in the woods. There’s someone in the woods!”
Mother peeped out of the window at the clump of trees at the far end of the field, screwing her eyes up against the sun.
Finally she called for me to go and have a look for prowlers.
“Take the dog with you!” she hollered.
Mr Saunders, our old yellow Labrador, was happy to spend his days sleeping on the back porch, twitching at flies, and chasing rabbits only in his dreams. After all other attempts failed, I fastened a leash to his collar and dragged him down the path we had worn through the yellowing grass and weeds. In my other hand, I clutched a cricket bat.
Under the trees everything was cool and green. Mr Saunders lifted a leg half-heartedly at a bush, then barked as a breath of wind rustled the leaves. I let him off his leash, and he sauntered off before coming back, and plumping himself on the ground at my feet.
The grass was shorter here, under the trees, with the occasional clump of bushes and brambles. There was no one to be seen.
In the middle of the copse was the oldest tree, with gnarled spreading branches and a great split in the bark. It looked like a good place for a treehouse, but Dad had said we shouldn’t trust trees as old as this one, it could easily be hollow or rotten.
I walked over, the dog’s moist eyes following me as he lay and panted. I felt the bark. It was rough and dry, but somehow warm to the touch. It certainly didn’t look rotten. I tried to imagine the view from the canopy above. In my eyes, it seemed to be a fine choice. As the lowest branches were out of reach, and walking round the massive girth, the trunk didn’t present any obvious handholds, I resolved to come back, but better equipped. I stroked the bark as I walked.
Then I heard Mr Saunders give out a long, low growl.
Returning to the other side, I almost bumped into a young girl leaning against the tree. She was about my height, but the light through the leaves gave her a curious greenish tint. Her clothes were strange too. She appeared to be wearing layers of rags, coarsely woven from some sort of linen, in all shades of green.
She smiled, a sad distant smile, but not with her eyes. They remained dull and empty, the colour of stagnant water. Yet, somehow, the air was hot and sappy, while the girl seemed cool and fresh. I felt I wanted to stay with that freshness.
Before I could say anything, the dog growled again, then barked.
“Shut up you stupid—!” I started, before turning back to the girl to apologise and explain.
Except she had gone.
I darted back round the tree, then out through the back of the copse, but she was nowhere in sight.
“It’s all right,” I called. “He’s quite friendly, really…”
There was no answer, just the buzzing of bees in the meadows all around.
We walked back to the house. I didn’t need the leash for Mr Saunders. He climbed up the steps, lay down at his place on the porch and, exhausted by his walk, fell asleep. Inside the house, no one had seen anyone cross the meadow or the garden. It was as if the girl had never been there, but for the fact that now both my sisters and I had all seen her.
“She must be down from in the village,” said Dad. “Perhaps she liked coming up here when the house was empty.”
“Or a gypsy,” said Mum. “You never know where they’ll turn up. And they dress strange too.”
But she didn’t look like a gypsy. And we’d certainly never seen her in the village.
“She lives in the tree,” said Lucy. “She told me.”
This was the Lucy who had tea parties for all her invisible friends.
“Yes, of course,” we all said. And Lucy went back to picking over the remains of her dinner.
“She’s lonely,” said Lucy, the next evening when we were all gathered round the table.
“I take it we’re still talking about the girl who doesn’t live in the tree?” said Dad, grabbing another mouthful of the fry-up.
“Don’t be silly, Daddy. Of course she lives in the tree.”
Around the table we all looked at each other. Lucy was a girl of character and didn’t like being contradicted.
“Sorry,” said Dad through his munching.
“That’s all right,” said Lucy. “She didn’t really tell me she was lonely. But I felt it. Even though she lives in the tree with lots of men.”
“Don’t you dare say anything!” said the look Mum shot across the table at Dad. He shrugged his shoulders, feigning innocence.
“She didn’t tell me about the men either, but I can hear them whispering…”
“Yes dear,” said Mum. “Finish up and you can have your pudding.”
“Can I take them some pudding?” asked Lucy, skipping deftly over Mum’s attempt to change the subject. “Everyone likes pudding. It’ll make them feel better.”
“Well…” Mum said. “Everyone likes pudding. Perhaps there won’t be any left over.”
“Oh. They can have mine,” said little Lucy.
“How many are there?” asked Mum.
“Seven,” said Lucy. Seven was, in fact, the highest number she could count to, so it could mean seven, or twenty seven.
“That won’t leave much for each one,” said Mum. “Barely a spoonful. Perhaps you’d better eat it yourself after all.”
Lucy gave the idea some thought. Around the table, looks were exchanged, eyebrows raised. It was Mum’s turn to shrug her shoulders. Only Vicky was concentrated on her meal.
“All right then,” said Lucy.
After that, Dad fenced off the meadow, and Lucy was only allowed to play there when we were with her. But, as it happened, there was a spell of rain that confined us all to the house.
The wet weather cleared, and the sun dried everything in no time, already bleaching away the small patches of green that had started to re-appear, and driving the earthworms back underground. Lucy, of course, after the days cooped up in the house with the knocks and bangs echoing up from the cellar, wanted to play in the meadow again. I grabbed a book to read in the shade.
“Wear a hat, Lucy,” called Mum, as we set off. Mr Saunders looked up as Lucy ran past.
Lucy pottered around in the grass, setting up her mismatched tea set for a picnic. Insects buzzed around, just out of sight.
As I sat reading, the warmth of the day seeped into the shade. I felt warm and languid, as if someone had poured honey over me.
I looked up, fearing I had dropped off, but Lucy was still there, peacefully playing in the field. Shifting my position, I found that the green girl was sitting right next to me, looking at the meadow too. She was so close that our shoulders were now touching. I felt I ought to ask her questions — What was her name? Where did she come from? How did she get so close without me hearing or feeling anything? But everything felt so good and warm and peaceful that I didn’t want to break the spell. I could feel her next to me, and it felt warm and good, and I didn’t want it to stop.
She turned to me, giving me that curiously empty smile again. I tried to smile back, but felt awkward and stuck.
Around us, the world receded, a hush fell, and everything became more distant, less important. The presence of the girl next to me was the only thing that mattered. She was warm and welcoming, and I wanted to fall into her arms.
Mr Saunders barked. I jumped up. The sun and light hit me. I swayed as black dots danced in front of my eyes. The dog barked again, urgently, as I rubbed my eyes and tried to find something to hold on to. I fell back against the trunk of the old tree as the dog yapped, and pulled at my trainers.
There was no sign of the girl.
Nor of Lucy.
My ear was still ringing from the clout that Dad had whacked around my head when the Police cars came piling up the lane to the house, raising columns of dust in the air.
“You were supposing to be looking after her!” he had said through clenched teeth before turning away.
Hunched over a crackling radio, the plain-clothes policeman with a navy blue nylon jacket stretching over a pot belly organised the hunt, and soon the fields all around were full of search parties with dogs.
The only trace that anyone found was a hem, ripped from Lucy’s frock that was firmly stuck in the slit in the old tree.
Dad ran back to the house and returned with a chainsaw.
Sweating, red-faced, he jerked it to life and attacked the tree. Bystanders held arms over their eyes as it bit in and chips and fragments flew. All except the pot-bellied policeman who was wearing sunglasses. A great triangular gash appeared in the tree before the detective stepped forwards and, placing a hand on Dad’s arm, gently moved him back, and waited while he silenced it, and pulled the safety cover back into place.
Then he slowly shooed everyone out of the copse while another policeman, in uniform this one, walked round the trees enclosing them all in a bright yellow ribbon.
They extracted fifteen corpses from the tree in all.
From the house, I watched the men lay them out into black zipper bags before the vans carried them off. They were, supposedly, surprisingly intact.
“The Doc says they’re all young men,” said the Detective knocking back the beer Dad had handed him, ice-cold, from the fridge. “Funny thing is, he doesn’t think they’re recent. But not ancient either. Like a coupla hundred years at the most. And to think they’ve been here all along. Under our noses, like.”
“I’m sorry, but there’s still no news of your little girl.” The Detective stifled a belch. “Like she vanished off the face of the Earth, as they say.” He pulled at his nylon jacket as he stood up, as if to zip it closed against the chill outside, but seemed to think better of it as his hands reached around his stomach. He shook Dad’s hand, nodded at me, and walked out to his car where the ‘For Sale’ sign flapped in the wind. He drove away without looking back. Big heavy drops of rain started to fall. The house was cold and damp and oppressive with packing cases stacked all over. Mum had been right: you should always see a house in the rain before living there.
The house never got sold, and even though the tree was gone, uprooted and excavated in the search for clues, everyone gave the place a wide berth. It became a rallying point for teens seeking a quiet spot to smoke and drink, as well as the vicarious thrill of just being in such a spooky spot. But even they stopped coming after one too many saw, in the half light as dusk fell, two girls, one big and one small, in the grass at the edge of the copse, just sitting and looking out over the meadow.
This story was waiting to be told for years and years. When I was very young, someone — I don’t rightly remember who — said that you should never go to sleep in the shade of a tree, as when you did, it grew into your brain, and possessed you… Needless to say, this idea terrified me. And then, later, as a parent, the most terrifying thing I can imagine for myself is something that happens to one of my children.
So this story puts these two frightening things togethe, I hope that it gives you the chills too…
See you next time, Jonathan.
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Last edited: Thursday, August 27th, 2009blog comments powered by Disqus