I STARTED to climb.
It was difficult.
The tree had no natural steps, no considerate clefts. Its dark branches reached at awkward angles…held themselves at hostile levels… as if they’d grown with resistance in mind… with this night in mind.
The cedar’s bark chafed my skin beneath my overalls. My hair grew wet with sweat. Needles tumbled into my eyes as I tried to get purchase with my hands on the bole and the branches above.
When I’d first seen her… in the day… she was a beauty, stunning: like some Hollywood actress from a golden age. But now – unquestionably – she was a bitch, a geriatric of the kind that refuses to yield… all elbows and knees… mad-eyed, wild-haired… fighting, kicking… thin coverlet clenched to bristly chin.
The climb exhausted me.
When I’d clawed far enough, I stopped and sat in the collar of two branches, caught my breath in the damp air. Then I took hold of the rope looped at my shoulder and drew it tight around the trunk. I threw both ends to the lawn below. Having done so, I began my descent.
Near halfway was the place where the bough that now lay in next door’s (deeply offended) garden had broken. I looked down at the sheared limb in the ruins of the greenhouse on which it had fallen. Suddenly, my head swam. I locked my hands on the tree, breathed heavily, held her close, steadied my heart’s racing beat. I resumed my route down. Finally, I jumped to the lawn.
A fox was running on the wet grass, skittering, looking at me.
I picked up the ends of the rope I’d tossed from the tree. I walked to the far side of the garden and lashed one end around a steel peg that I hammered into the lawn with a mallet (having first muffled the head with some rags). I did the same with the other end at a distance from the first. The watching fox – clearly curious as to my labours – calmed me. When I lowered my goggles and ripped my saw to life the animal deserted… fled (its nimbleness strangely at odds with the heaviness of everything else: the houses, the tree, the night).
I angled the saw into the trunk of the tree. It spat aside bark.
Orange dust flew out as I made the first notch, wide, like a mouth, in the cedar’s side.
I went round to the opposite side and worked the saw deep into the tree’s heart. My immersion detached me from the whine and drawl… from everything.
Satisfied, I drew the saw out and silenced it.
I became aware in my peripheral vision of lights in nearby houses. But I kept my focus on the tree. I drove two wedges, at left and right, into the second cut. I struck them with the same mallet I’d used on the pegs.
Cracking, stretching, groaning, mournful sounds… of the kind you imagine boats built of beams make at sea… came from inside her.
For a moment she seemed to hesitate, to waver.
Then, with a moan, an almost gentle swish and, finally, a decidedly ungentle crash, she came down on the lawn.
Now lights were coming on everywhere. A dog was barking. Its noise setting off another. A woman, somewhere, was calling. “Can you see anything? Tom? Be careful!”
I headed down an alley to my van, threw in my things, then drove.
In the morning I went to the café. An old guy I’d seen there previously was at the next table, staring into space.
Trish, who runs the place, said his name was Gerald and that in the night someone had done something really awful and cut down his tree. Trish said Gerald’s dad had planted it on the day Gerald was born. Why would anyone have done such a thing? What was the world coming to? Trish asked.
When I got back home the phone was ringing. It was my controller, with the next target.
‘Leave only firewood,’ the voice said – and hung up.
When I came upon it I had no qualms: a conifer hedge of the soil-leaching, light-eclipsing kind. Bogus trees. Green, but dead. Like plastic, between my finger and thumb. It was a mercy killing, I told myself. Even the Somme… its shelled wastelands… would have shunned them.
I cut straight through them at night. Twenty.
It felt good, but it wasn’t enough.
I’d been a cab driver. Night shifts. I lost my licence when I lost my temper and a customer lost three teeth. That was when they found me (in the way that people like them do). Before the cabs, the Army: theatres of war – that strangest of phrases – you’ll have heard of, but not actually known… unless you were there.
I learned about trees from Ken. I found him in a forest in Canada… on the internet, I mean… in my local library. He’d made films of himself, cutting down trees.
I’d imagined lumberjacks to be tall, athletic. But Ken was on the dumpy, stumpy side. He had a ginger beard and a shirt in red and black checks. He wore an orange helmet and blue ear muffs.
His skills impressed me, both his cutting and his teaching. After he’d made an incision he’d turn off and lay down his saw, say something like, ‘Now I want you to take a good look at this so you remember what I’ve done.’
He’d point at a birch or a pine to make clear why he’d gone about things in the way that he had. Sometimes he placed a tape measure against the bark. He didn’t promote a particular saw or jacket or ask if I wanted to meet other lumberjacks. And I appreciated that. It was just Ken, cutting trees.
He was concerned a lot for my health and safety (which was something that was new to me). He talked about the importance of always planning an escape route, which he said the American way: rout… like clout. One time he seemed to run pretty quickly towards the camera (which wobbled). But he still declared the job ‘a great fall’ (while catching his breath).
There were eight films. At the end of each of them Ken warned of the importance of cutting with care. Then he said, ‘Happy felling, fellers!’ and raised his safety helmet. I came to see him as a friend.
Ken’s films had been on the internet for six years. A counter said they’d been watched by eleven people, none of whom had left any feedback. So I wrote, ‘Thanks.’
For the next year, I killed trees.
I worked coast to coast, mountain to valley. A motorcycle courier left packets of cash for me in Trish’s café. She knew nothing, of course.
There were some notable kills. In Scotland I scythed a stand of pines that had a preservation order but were blocking alterations at a high end golf course. On the south coast of England I dismembered a fine chestnut that had spread itself into the sea view of a ‘personality’ often seen on TV. In the Welsh borders I destroyed an entire orchard of ancient apple trees that had threatened a planned estate of what the agent called ‘executive homes’.
I had my subtle side too. A Monkey Puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana), in the quad of a famous college, began its slow and painful death thanks to the poisoned rods I skewered in its side one half-term. My linkman was the college’s head porter. He said the senior dons – how appropriate that word seems – knew everything. They were hungry to erect some steel-and-glass ‘centre’: the porter assured me I had nothing to fear.
The police attributed my work to vandals, thieves, bungling contractors. I was uncatchable, unstoppable. No one thought (or wanted) to connect the fresh stumps of five old oaks in a Norfolk park to a copper beech sliced and diced on a Gloucestershire green.
Developers were my biggest customers, of course. More often than not, they didn’t want trees hanging around, holding up projects, causing a fuss. But some of my sponsors might surprise you. The client who had me cut down a healthy beech in a Midlands town square was a white-haired spinster aggrieved by the way youths met there come evening. As I despatched it one dawn, I caught sight of her at a window, twitching the curtain, thrilled by my deed.
My killing became industrial. Chainsaws weren’t enough. I erased an entire mile of greenbelt outside one northern city through a process of contamination. The authorities, who had themselves hired me, later re-classified the land as ‘spoil’, paving the way for an out-of-town mall and stadium with a car park only marginally smaller than an airport runway.
I was interrupted only once – about to lay waste to some willows in the garden of a house by a river you’re sure to have heard of. The trees were of some literary significance. A man who’d been a guest at the residence felt he’d been slighted in some fashion by his hosts at a dinner party. He placed a contract on the willows by way of revenge.
A young girl, no more than ten, approached me in the soft darkness of a mid-summer night (as I considered how I might best take the willows apart).
‘What are you doing?’ she called from behind me.
‘I’m… checking the trees,’ I said, swinging round.
The girl was in her nightdress. She had a grey rabbit in her arms, which she was petting.
‘They need to be checked, sometimes,’ I said.
‘I’m checking Roger,’ she said and she stroked back the ears of the rabbit.
‘That’s good,’ I said.
Lights came on in the downstairs of the house at the top of the garden. A woman’s voice called the girl (whose name was Martha).
The girl walked away, talking to the rabbit. For a moment she turned back to me, then she walked on.
I gathered my things and went to the jetty at the bottom of the garden. I slipped the moorings of the boat I’d tethered there, then drifted downstream.
The man who felt himself slighted contacted my handlers. He wanted to know why the willows were still standing… demanded to know when, exactly, the riverbank would be littered with their carcasses. He was paying good money, he said.
When I did it, it made the newspapers. They called it the work of a madman, a maniac. I felt insulted. I thought about calling them, holding a press conference… to explain myself, my work… at which I would ‘reveal all’, as they say: the role of the thin-skinned man… the part of the sarcastic man… the needling contributions of their wives who would not, could not, let the slight (real or imagined) rest.
I didn’t, of course.
Then came the yew. A thousand years old. So ancient it no longer looked like a tree: its girth enormous, deformed, mutated, grown-in on itself. It didn’t have bark in any normal sense, but a grotesque hide: sharp ridges, sinister valleys, foul tumours, clenched knots. Its crown was absurdly low, as if it had been stamped down by the sky. Surveying its mounds and sprouts and swellings, I couldn’t help but think of Merrick, The Elephant Man. But I had no pity for the yew and it had no mercy for me. Its needles were more black than green, and brimmed with poison.
It crouched beside a West Country church in a yard of flaking headstones lodged at strange angles (like ships run aground). And yet, for all of the yew’s ugliness, there were those who saw it as beautiful, venerable… even sacred. Had not the archers of Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt cut bows from trees just like it?
In the old, grey church a faded pamphlet spoke of the yew and the Angel of Mons: how the ghostly bowmen of Agincourt rose as one in a Flanders field, five centuries on, to hurl back the Hun and save the lives of beleaguered British soldiers (to whose ranks I had myself, of course, once belonged).
The vicar – a new man – saw things differently, and wanted the yew dead. He was young, a high flyer, lean, keen, smelling of cologne. The yew stood in the way of his plans for a meeting hall, kitchen and cloakrooms… stood in the way of him. The congregation had split into factions. A special court had been arranged to decide the yew’s fate. But this parson was impatient. He wanted to make his mark and move on. There were rectorships, deaneries, bishoprics, waiting to be had. The yew required… an accident.
I left word that I’d return when conditions were favourable.
When, one evening, I saw the isobars tight as a knot on the television news, I knew it was time.
The wind pummelled my van. I fought the wheel like the skipper of a trawler. Soon there was no traffic. The sky blackened and rain of a kind that I had never seen swept down in waves that fell like swarms of arrows. Abandoned cars littered my route. Torn cables slithered and hissed – shooting sparks over pools that glowed with electric-blue light. Soon trees became my obstacles, falling and blocking my way as if they knew my business… as if they were sacrificing themselves for the yew. I chainsawed through them, and drove on between dark woods that moaned and wailed.
When I reached the church, the yew glared.
Wind blasted the lychgate shut. I heaved it open, dragging after me the chains with which I intended to shackle that hag of a tree.
Flowers from headstones flew into the air. Notices tore away from a board, whirling furiously and disappearing into the night, like startled rooks. Slates crashed from the roof of the church, shattering on crosses and tombs, its stained glass meanwhile erupting outwards, as if machine-gunned from within. I dropped my chains by the porch and went back to my van for my saw and my axe.
When I re-entered the yard, my reception party was waiting.
Ken was first to scurry alongside.
‘As with every specimen,’ he gasped, ‘what you have to ask yourself is: do you really need to take down this tree?’
I brushed him away. He gave me a resentful look. His helmet flew into the churning sky. He disappeared after it.
Next came Trish: the blue tabard she wore at work tight against her in the gale. She waved envelopes that were bursting with banknotes.
‘All this is yours!’ she said. ‘How many more must die?’
She threw the notes into the air. The wind drove them against headstones, spiked them on hedges, swept them into brooks that boiled and laughed.
Next I saw old Gerald: clinging to a beam in the porch, as if to the edge of a cliff, as if to the edge of the world. I leaned into the storm and looked at him. The tempest unlocked his fingers one by one, and then the church sucked him into its stones… head, chest, waist… as if it were some horrific, molten bog.
I reached the yew. Beneath its swaying branches stood little Martha whose willows I had spared… then slaughtered.
The yew had hold of her hair and was twisting her locks backwards into the foul folds of its trunk.
‘You’re not checking the tree!’ she said, spreading herself against it. ‘You’re not! You’re not!’
The bells of the church began to peal. It was as if the yew – with the cunning that had seen it survive for centuries – was summoning defenders to its boughs.
Voices made me turn.
Answering the ancient tree’s call were the dead of the parish who, even before my eyes, were rising from their graves.
Smocked farmers and their wives, soldiers in scarlet, a parson (holding down his hat).
They stamped their feet, shook soil from their clothes. A nurse in a uniform of blue and white helped the older, less able corpses to their feet. A teacher called her young charges, who ran to her skirts. Whiskered men mustered in groups. An aproned butcher spoke with a doctor whose Gladstone bag swung in the gale.
A lean man in a top hat and chain of office thrust a furled umbrella into the wind. The indignant dead assembled behind him, bent into the wind and marched on me.
They drove me backwards against the yew, stripping me of my axe and my saw. Their pale, pinched faces pressed inches from mine.
‘He wants our tree!’ the schoolteacher said.
‘Well, he’s not having it!’ said the lean man with the chain. He thrust the wooden handle of his umbrella under my chin.
‘You’re not having it! You hear?’ joined in the butcher, taking my hair in his fist, like entrails from a block.
Soon they all chorused: ‘You’re not having it! You’re not having it! YOU’RE NOT HAVING IT!’
The children ran back to their graves and returned with soil, which they pelted at my face and chest.
The women tore off my clothes, so that I became naked. Two soldiers took my arms and held me hard against the yew. Parting the mob, a group overseen by the man with the chain advanced… and placed on my head a crown of thorns.
Above me the yew shook and creaked and groaned. And then… all was blackness.
No earthly signs of me remained.
Not a tooth, not a nail, not a hair, not a button, not a lace, not a thread. Not a thing.
Had I been hanged or gored or beaten or burnt, something of me – a finger perhaps… maybe my watch, charred and cracked – would have been left. But there was nothing. It was as if I’d been… swallowed… whole.
The problem with the yew has been solved.
What I mean to say is that the tree has stayed and the young vicar has… gone. Clippings ground into his fancy leaf tea saw to that. He suffered a little, I suspect: trembled and staggered as the toxins took hold, then collapsed, lay cold, on the vicarage floor. (I can’t say for sure but it’s possible that his last sight through his kitchen window – as he fell – was of the churchyard and the yew, which – unlike him – was still standing, of course.)
Next I went in search of the courier whose job it had been to bring me my bounty as the hired hand. I knocked him from his motorbike in the street near Trish’s café, put a saw to his throat, told him my killing had to stop.
He told me to go to a grey block in a part of town long-conquered by concrete. He said that there I would find Him, the one that I wanted.
My entrance was spectacular.
Call to mind soldiers who camouflage themselves with nets, twigs, grass and creams, and who hide undetected for days in ditches and fields, and you will, perhaps, have half the picture.
In my case, the foliage was real: green shoots that sprang from my skull, tendrils that twisted and turned in place of my tongue, stalks and stems that swept from my excavated eyes and ears, leaves that swarmed my torso and limbs, needles, like scalpels, that flailed from my fingers, a beard of lush moss that clung at my jaw. Each and every inch of me coppiced, spinneyed, sown.
I found Him, my Controller, Master, call Him what you will… at a desk with a telephone and papers piled high. On a wall were maps punctured with red pins. He was skewering-in yet more.
I went about my work. An incision to the right of the trunk, a deeper cut to the left, then wedges hammered left and right (just as Ken had taught me). I detached myself with clinical efficiency from His shouts and screams so that, amid the crimson fountains, I would and did avoid any entanglement of limbs.
The fall was a good one.
And where am I now?
Well, sometimes, when shadows lengthen on autumnal evenings and a coolness stalks the stillness of this ancient and lichened churchyard… at that hour when bats and owls commence their vespertine callings and fish in their dark pools rise heavily for the last flies of the day… then, those that pass by with their prayer books who happen to look at the old yew closely may, perhaps, in the dying light, decipher a form.
For I am here and always shall be.
Protector. Defender. Saviour.
I am the Green Man now.