THE SPIRIT TREE
By Jacqueline Kirk
Copyright 2011 Jacqueline Kirk
The sound of wood hitting wood resounded across the field sending birds flying and rabbits scurrying to safety. Two boys appeared, running through the grass and waving long sticks in the air. The boy in front stopped and turned suddenly, aiming the stick he held toward his companion.
“Yield!” the second boy cried swinging his stick against the other.
“Never! The Scarlet Mark never yields!”
They swung the sticks as they moved back and forth across the field, trading insults as well as blows until one of the sticks broke with a loud crack. The two boys looked at it in surprise for a moment and then the one with the whole stick patted his friend on the shoulder.
“Never mind James,” he said comfortingly, “We’ll get another one!”
James nodded flinging the rest of the stick to the ground and began to follow his friend back to the edge of the woods. “Michael, wait!” he said suddenly, stopping, “Were you not supposed to be back home about now?”
Michael squinted at the sky as if he could tell time just by looking at the grey clouds overhead. He ran his hand over his hair in annoyance. He nodded wearily and they made their way over the field, jumping over the wall to the road beyond.
“How’s your Mum?” James asked his friend.
Michael shrugged and swung his stick at the grass verge. “Dad says she’ll get better but I’ve seen how worried he is and him and Gran sometimes stop talking when I walk into the room. It’s really annoying!”
James listened sympathetically although he didn’t really understand what he meant. All his family were fine and no one seemed capable of being quiet in his house, at least not for long. Michael just had his parents and his Gran so he could only imagine what it felt like to be left out of conversations. Especially if they were about his mother who had been ill for a long time or so it seemed.
When his friend stayed quiet James tried to think of something to say that would get him out of his mood. “Did you hear about the weird bird they found out by the old well?” he asked brightly.
Michael stopped decapitating weeds with his stick to look at his friend. “What weird bird?”
“Tommy found it. He says it was like a huge crow but with red feathers under its wings and red eyes.”
Michael snorted dismissively, “Tommy Boyd is an idiot and a liar to boot! It was probably just an ordinary crow!”
“Maybe,” James agreed, “but Duncan saw it too and he isn’t a liar.”
“So what happened to it? If there really was a weird bird, what did they do with it?” Michael demanded.
“How should I know!” James said defensively, “I just thought it was interesting that’s all!”
Michael looked at his friend and felt a little guilty for snapping at him. “Sorry, Tommy just annoys me. He thinks he’s the only one that has found weird things out by the woods. Remember that thing your Dad found? Now that was weird!”
They walked along the village main street excitedly discussing all the strange things that had been found. From the two-headed rabbit to purple frogs to snake like vines, laughing as they made up some of their own creations with all the boyish enthusiasm for the disgusting.
As they turned onto their own street James was gleefully describing the mouse with paws for ears and a snake for a tail when he noticed that Michael wasn’t listening to him but staring along the row of houses. He swallowed nervously when he noticed the doctor standing outside Michael’s home, shaking hands with his father. Both men looked grim and James had a feeling something bad had happened. From the look on Michael’s face he thought it too.
“I have to go home,” Michael muttered, hurrying off before James could say anything.
James opened his mouth to reply but Michael was already running so he walked alone past Michael’s front door that was now shut to the people outside and to the end of the street where his own house was. He didn’t see Michael for two days after that.
The day of his mother’s funeral came and Michael stood in his bedroom trying to knot his tie properly but his reflection kept wavering as the tears ran down his face. He was surprised he had any left he had cried for so long the day he had come home with James to find the doctor at the door.
His father had been silent when he had burst through the door demanding to know what was wrong. His father had simply sat down in his chair by the fire and said nothing. It was his grandmother who had come to take him into the kitchen and tell him his mother had passed away.
At first he hadn’t understood what she was saying, shaking his head as if that would make the words go away but the look on his Grandmother’s face made it heartbreakingly real. He had gone up the stairs to his mother then to see her one last time.
She lay in the bed looking for all the world as if she only slept. Michael could only stare at her, willing her closed eyes to open and for her to smile like she always did when she saw him no matter how much pain she was in. He stroked the blonde hair that lay on the pillow, sunshine hair his Dad called it and would tease his son for having the same. But Michael could tell that the sunshine was gone from his mother. She lay cold and unmoving even when her only child sobbed on the bed beside her.
His father had never once told him to be a man and stop crying like most would have. His father was dealing with his own heartache and didn’t seem to know what to say to his son. If it wasn’t for his grandmother Michael would have had no comfort while his mother’s body was being readied for the funeral.
Now as he stood in front of the mirror on the day of her burial he couldn’t stop the tears from falling again. Giving up he sat down on his bed and just stared at the floor hoping this was all a bad dream he could wake up from.
“Come on now Michael,” his grandmother said from the doorway, “Let’s get that tie fixed.”
Michael stayed where he was but his grandmother was not the type of person you could ignore. Pulling him by the arm she got him to his feet and began tidying his tie, tutting as she saw the mess he had made of it.
“Why can the men in this family never tie a knot properly,” she watched his face as her fingers worked. “People always say on occasions like this things like ‘put a brave face on’ or ‘keep your chin up’ or some such nonsense like that.”
Michael sniffed and wiped his nose on his shirtsleeve ignoring his grandmother’s tutting at his bad manners. “If I kept my chin up I wouldn’t see where I was going,” he said with smile.
His grandmother laughed and kissed him on the cheek, “Indeed you wouldn’t! Now, let’s get your coat on and get downstairs to your father.”
“How is Dad?” he asked quietly, “He’s barely spoke to me since … since.. you know.”
Grace Baker stepped back from her grandson and regarded him solemnly. “Your Da is doing the best he can. He doesn’t mean to be so distant but you have to understand he’s just lost his wife,” she held up her hand when Michael started to speak, “I know, you’ve lost your Mum, but it’s different for him. He loved your mother more than anything in this world, a different kind of love that he has for you. Every time he looks at you he sees her again. It’s hard for him when the pain is so new, you’ll just have to give him some time. You might think it a bit unfair, you need your Da right now, but people react differently to death. You’ve cried over your Mum and rightly so, but your Da bottles it all up inside and one of these days he’s going to need you to be there for him. Just give him time, love! Your old Gran is still here for when you need her!”
Michael could feel the tears welling up again and hugged his grandmother tightly then stood back with a smile. Grace smoothed down his hair and brushed the shoulders of his jacket so it would hang straight then took his face in her hands.
“Let’s get that face washed and get downstairs, eh?”
Michael nodded when his grandmother let him go and automatically raised his arm to wipe his nose on the sleeve but a sharp warning from Grace had him grinning and reaching for the handkerchief in his trouser pocket.
The procession to the cemetery was a solemn affair with a few sobbing women holding on to husbands as they walked behind the horse and cart that carried Molly Baker to her final resting place. Michael walked beside his father and grandmother just behind it, heads bowed respectfully.
Michael had been surprised to see how many people had come to pay their respects to his mother but then Molly Baker had been a good friend to many of the families here and they had all come.
As he stood beside the open grave that her coffin was being lowered into Michael could feel his attention wandering. It seemed unreal somehow to him. He knew his mother’s body was in that wooden box but for some reason he just couldn’t imagine it. His mother had been happy and smiling not so long ago before the sickness took her. It just seemed unfair to take someone so good.
A gentle nudge from his grandmother brought Michael’s attention back to what the vicar was saying and he stood listening attentively until the end of the funeral. As people began to drift off Michael let himself be led away by his grandmother while his father remained where he was, staring blankly down into his wife’s grave.
“Hello,” a familiar voice said beside him.
Michael turned to see James standing uncertainly by the path out of the cemetery. Michael smiled at his friend and stopped in front of him.
“I’m sorry about your mother,” James told him, twisting his cap nervously in his hands.
Michael nodded but couldn’t bring himself to speak past the lump in his throat, looking down at his feet.
James shifted uncomfortably and asked, “I’ll see you tomorrow maybe?”
Michael looked up and glanced at his grandmother who smiled, nodding her head slightly. “Okay,” he told his friend, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He watched his friend run off to catch up with his family and turned to his grandmother again. “Dad won’t mind will he?”
“Of course not,” Grace smiled, “Boys need their friends.”
Michael sighed and looked back to where his father was still standing by his mother’s grave but suddenly froze with fright at what he saw. Standing across from his father on the other side of the grave was his mother. She was wearing the navy dress that she had been placed in the coffin in and her hair was loose and fell around her shoulders and down her back, shining in the weak sunshine.
With a delighted smile Michael went to step forward but a firm hand on his shoulder stopped him and pulled him back.
“Come away, Michael,” his grandmother said sternly, “That’s not your mother.”
“What? But Gran, look! It is her, she’s alive!”
“No!” Grace said firmly pulling him around to face her, “Your mother is dead! Now come away!”
Michael stood stunned for a moment at his grandmother’s words and he felt again that horrible lurch to the stomach when he had first been told his mother was dead. He turned back to the grave but only his father was there now, alone except for the gravedigger who was steadily shovelling the soil over the coffin.
“Come on Michael,” his grandmother said softly, “Let’s go home.”