That Day, the Tree
by Yii-Jen Deng | January 10, 2023
And I watered it in fears.
William Blake, ‘A Poison Tree’
Strange, they said. There she goes, whispering of smashed wood, split faces.
Going to the oak again? Old Hannah, mad Hannah, who does not look us in the eye.
“It’s getting dark, don’t go too far, mind!”
But she’d done it, just as they all did – climbed the old oak tree up to the very top, where she sat, swinging her legs and peering down below.
They all knew how afraid she lived, trembling, shrinking. Every time a storm came, she hid beneath the covers, dreaming of dark woods, smashed faces.
Now she straightened her cardigan and smiled.
Why don’t you come down, silly?
“You all right, ma’am?” called a voice from down below. Hannah flapped her hands at it and covered one ear, peering through the leaves. Where had they gone?
We’re here! There’s only you!
Only her and the rest of them, that circle which would hold her in its warmth – best friends, they’d said – if only she could wrench the crooked hand from its grip upon the bark, see their moss-stained faces below and step out into nothingness, as they had done.
Yet it was so cold and dark. There was that voice, the wrong voice, burbling stupidly on.
“It’s so late…”
She had lived – a little – in a town where no one saw her, hobbling to the grocery store and back, don’t look up, be quiet, and then you’ll hear them…
Jump, jump, her friends were calling.
“Can you get down?”
She’s always down, someone whispered, again. Never brave.
We’ll catch you! someone cried (once).
They’ll catch me, thought Hannah wildly. They wouldn’t lie! And her wizened little hand uncurled itself painfully from the knotted branch; with a gasp she leapt, her coarse white hair streaming back as she hurtled to the earth…
There, on the highest branch of the oak, was the brightest moment she had lived. They had fallen, a tangle of limbs and laughter, upon heaps of cushions. In the laughing outstretched circle that drew close to catch her, she had lived (once).
“Under the tree, yes, over there…!”
And how they had laughed, before the night they went to the tree without her, that night in the storm. Someone made a dare, she supposed. Someone said she wasn’t brave enough.
Don’t be so down, Hannah, we love you so. The warm and lovely circle, burying their faces into her hair and whispering. Don’t be so down. We’ll be back.
“An old lady,” someone was saying. “She was up on that tree, and she fell.”
And she could always fall again. How afraid she had been, of falling for them. Their mothers at her door, the storm breaking over their heads. Where had they gone? What if they’ve fallen, somewhere in the cold and the dark?
Don’t look up. Be quiet. They won’t catch me out.
“I tried,” whispered a small voice. “But I couldn’t save her. She was all stiff and strange, she must have been up on that tree for hours and hours. The words she said didn’t make sense…”
I can’t remember where they’ve gone. They said the storm would be such an adventure. I let them go without me.
They were at the tree, she knew. Waiting, waiting, as the storm broke over their heads, as branches cracked and fell, and roots were dragged out, pale as their faces.
I’m… so afraid.
Waiting, she remembered. Warm at home, a thrill up her spine as she looked into the rain-streaked world and thought, silly things, how brave they were, lovely, and so very cold.
Can’t you find them?
They found her, this little circle of people who had heard of her fall, there beneath the tree. She trembled, whispering. They placed a blanket around her shoulders and waited for help to come, for other, gentler people to try and straighten those awful, twisted legs, the half-snapped arm.
Hannah could feel the circle closing in, and yet it was cold.
There’s only you!
Such a sharp – colour, people, world – she wanted to weep. But she’d wept already.
“Someone will come soon.”
Where had they gone? But of course they lied, they lied, were lying, under some tree…
What a funny thing to have gone and done, they said. Climbed the oak tree (in the middle of the night, too!) and sat there singing. Later, a dog found a small bone and carried it into the tree’s cool hollow where, nestling out of sight, it enjoyed the taste of happier days. ∎
Words by Yii-Jen Deng. Art by Alfie Carter.