Sunlight plays on my branches, washing the uppermost in luxurious warmth. The dappled floor is home to many things of fur and claw. Squirrels run about my branches as something larger disturbs the thick grass surrounding my trunk.
Playful voices chatter closer. The two children. I’m happy to see them. Someone needs to look after them. It’s been a long and lonely winter, and I’ve looked forward to them returning. We are at the edge of the forest, but it’s still easy to get lost. They run towards me, marvelling at how I’ve grown as I notice how tall they’ve become. Every time they come here to play it’s like they see the forest for the first time.
* * *
I remember my first time in the forest. The cool evening. Falling into the ground. The darkness around me, the sense of something incomplete but not knowing what. Dirt covering me like a shroud.
* * *
The children get closer. The steady drumbeat of their feet scatters as their run slides into a game. The older child, the girl in blue jeans and a pink T-shirt, runs straight to me. She has two lengths of blue nylon rope looped over one shoulder. Smiling, she eyes me up like a challenge.
Her little arrives a few steps behind., panting. Dappled shadows move in the breeze like fish beneath a pond’s surface. He stamps his feet, giggling, as if driving the shadows away. He looks around for his sister, his face falling to the edge of panic when he can’t see her.
She giggles, and he looks up. His smile returns at the sound. He shades his eyes with one hand and squints.
“Claire, will you still play with me when you’re at big school in September?”
“Maybe. I’m gonna make a swing.”
* * *
Kids. I never got to see my own. Perhaps that’s where the sense of incompleteness came from. Like being in a trance, but aware of it at the same time. I don’t know how long that lasted. It ended with my reawakening, light and energy coursing through me as something changed. It drew me up, but left what remained of my body behind.
Everything left behind.
* * *
The girl, older and more daring, has climbed a few branches higher. Certainly high enough to cause herself a serious injury if she were to fall. Her brother sits lower, on the first bough he can reach, clutching my trunk for life.
“If I get stuck will you help me?”
She throws one end of the rope over a higher branch. It dangles in front of her like a charm. She leans for it once, twice.
“I’ve got it.”
She hasn’t, yet. But on her third attempt she grabs the rope. Her nimble fingers fashion a hangman’s not.
“Claire? Will you make me one of those?”
* * *
Before the tree, before the earth... I remember being on the floor, consciousness leaking away. There’s a sound; a dry, gritty sound. Someone’s digging a hole. The sound gets wetter as the hole gets deeper, that initial thump of spade biting the earth getting more and more distant.
Then I’m moving. They have hold of my wrists, dragging me across grass and earth. Darkness rolls around me as my head lolls about. I stop; they drop me. My head has barely struck the ground before any calm is I might have felt is replaced by something else: the sensation of falling through space. It’s a short drop. The hole isn’t very deep. I hit the bottom almost as soon as I realise what’s happening. Yet whilst my body comes to a halt, it feels like the rest of me keeps on falling. I’m gone before the first shovel of dirt can land on me.
* * *
The boy has overcome some of his fear. He sits astride a branch, his branch now, shuffling away from the trunk. At first he travels no more than arm’s length. Soon though, he scuttles back and forth along the branch’s length .They play climbing the castle, the mountain, the fort, a game as winding as a river, and as nonsensical as a nursery rhyme. With life enough for the forest, making a noise far too great for the space they occupy.
* * *
Before the light and energy drew me up. Before that part of me kept on falling. Before they threw me in the hole, I remember two yellow homely rectangles of light spilling from our cottage windows, splashing to the ground. They are the last things I remember seeing with my own eyes.
The rectangles were to be a vegetable patch. Canes awaited peas and beans; tilled earth awaited carrots, lettuces, cabbages, onions.
Our home would have grown too. The two empty bedrooms were clean and neutral, any suggestion of pink or blue a long way off but approaching. Everything was ready, everything set, the future poised to fall in just the right way - until the day I left work early.
I arrived home at a time I shouldn't have been there, to find Sarah away from the garden with George who should have been at the office. George, who had left his wallet and keys on the kitchen table. George, who had his own back door key.
One argument, one scream of terror and embarrassment. One fist. One slap, one flash of a carving knife. One bedside lamp crashing over the back of my head.
I'd lost everything. My wife. My home. Any chance of any semblance of the future we’d planned. Had she ever had any intention of seeing it through with me?
I’d given her a decade of his life, and for what?
* * *
The sounds of the children playing and laughing had filled this part of the forest, washing from trunk to bough and over the cottage.
Now the birds have returned to my uppermost branches, and the squirrels scurry over my bark. Dozens of creatures occupy the space the children had taken. Birdsong fills the air and, far below, the dry rustle of paws in undergrowth punctuate the forest floor.
Silence intervenes. Nature holds its breath as something glassy cut through. A woman's voice.
"Sammy? Claire? Where are you?" Then, more brittle still, "George? George, have you seen the children? I can't find them anywhere."