Written on Oak
There is a visual suggestion. Not much more than an unexpected movement of the air, a fluttering in the corner of his eye.
Perhaps not even that—it was more like a barky whisper as he strode past the old tree on his left, a gentle tap on his shoulder that didn’t register for a few more steps: words, it said, words carved here in this bark.
At that he stopped and turned. He looked back, then up; took the tree in. An oak it was, old and grand and mum, as if denying having said any such thing.
Trevor retraced his last few steps, then faced the tree again, scrutinized it: the somber trunk, thick and grey and brownly furrowed; no words though. He stepped back a little, looked again, tried to envision the spot that had spoken, as if it had, still no words. He approached the tree again and looked closer. Then he shook his head: no, there was nothing, though he could have sworn.
But as he straightened and turned to go, there it was again, the same whisper, peripherally: yes, definitely something—what was that?
Again he faced it, and again, nothing.
Now he stepped all the way up to the tree, close enough to touch it, scanning it closely for letters. He touched it now, still nothing. He took two steps back to get a different view, scanned the bark again, probed it with his eyes, in depth, asking it to give it up. No, no, still nothing. Strange illusion, though, for he could have sworn.
Looking away now: and there again, letters. Or what very well could be, or at one time could have been, letters. This time he did not shift his gaze back to the tree, instead he held the spot firmly at the edge of sight, and only when he was certain of the spot, he once again approached the stocky trunk, and now, yes, yes, he finally saw them, letters. He placed his finger on what seemed the first of several obscured by bark, buried by years and years.
But now he could see it, as if the tree (having thought things over) had finally given its consent.
The first of four, it struck him like an old wound, a welt, buried within and under many seasons of subsequent bark. He traced it carefully with his finger, the bark as rough as sandpaper under its tip. A vertical line it was, which then, at the bottom, angled to the right, half again the distance.
An L, then.
He looked closer, searched the fine crevices of the miniature landscape, and in the depth of it—underneath both ridge and valley—he saw the foot of the L quite distinctly now. Yes. An L it was. The stem clear enough, now that he knew what he was looking for—or how to look for it, rather, how deeply—and there, yes, the foot.
An L-shaped scar, well camouflaged, but definitely an L. Faintly, as if it had once grown itself into young brown tree-skin, then thought better of it and done its best to vanish.
He stepped back again, farther this time, again taking in all of the tree, all seventy feet of it—at least—soaring above him into an overcast sky still mumbling about rain. It must be ancient. He took in the massive lower branches, giant arms carved as if in rock. Ancient, he thought again. He looked back for the L. For an instant—faintly tinged by panic—he could not find it, but no, there it was. And so were the other letters. He stepped closer again, to about an arm’s length, the right distance, the right depth. Looked. The second letter was a D.
Or an O.
An L and a D. Capital letters both. No, he looked again, that was not a D, it was an O. LO. And the third letter was a V, quite clearly now that he seemed to have got the hang of it. And the fourth, yes, he could have guessed, an E. LOVE. That was the word. LOVE.
And now he saw, underneath this first word, the other two words, or their shadows. He counted them. There were seven letters on the second line, then four again beneath that.
A very short poem, he thought. Or a message.
And—letting the letters come to him, as if on their own volition, on the tree’s terms—he read:
He approached the tree again. Stepped on a twig that didn’t so much snap against the moist underground as groaned. He looked down, briefly thinking whatever he had stepped on might have been alive. Even after he saw it was just a twig he just about apologized.
He looked again at the trunk. Now that he knew what was there he could see it well enough and it spoke to him quite clearly. “Love thyself last,” it said. Then something odd struck him. The words LOVE and THYSELF—except for the final letter, the F—were, what? Efforts, that was the only word that came to mind, like hard work. The F, however, seemed slightly different. As if, yes, effortless, poured, smoother. And so was, now that he could discern the difference, the third word, LAST. It was as if the writer had finally found his tongue.
“Love thyself last.”
He knew those words, or had known them. They smacked of public school, they did. Of English Literature, the verbatim kind, his growing up kind, the rapped knuckles if you didn’t know them kind. Love thyself last. Milton, was it? Blake? John Ruskin? The Bible? He read the words again. No, he could for the life of him not place them. Then he wished he had brought his camera.
Stepping back, careful not to hurt the twig again, he leaned his head all the way back and once more took in the tree, looking up through it. This oak was indeed very old. How old do they get anyway, oaks? He wasn’t sure.
He looked around for others of his kind, to compare, to get a sense of seniority, of relative age, but noticed instead that the clouds had begun to softly keep their promise with a fine, almost misty drizzle. Not cold though, warm for September, pleasant almost. It was the kind of rain that made the ground give up all its secret smells: the faint musk of dead leaves, not quite mulch yet, but well on their way; the fresher scent of things alive, of moss, of berries; the scents of stones, and lichen, and earth, they all mixed and rose into the moist sky and added dimension to the forest, and for a moment he felt as if he were standing in a strange room, some sort of museum.
It was a pleasant drizzle. It would come down harder soon, though. He looked again for other oaks, brother and sister trees, offspring. There were a few of them, but not many. What there were many of, however, were beeches. And ash, and willow, and what looked like a birch or two; and, yes, there and there, one, two, he could count five oaks from where he stood, his soaring messenger included. Loners each, outcasts almost, pushing their neighbors away, and none of them all that happy with the company by the looks of things.
He looked back at his oak one final time.
The rain, due warning now over and done with, set out in earnest: one, two, many heavier drops. One found his nose with an almost splash. Time to retreat. Yes, he would in a second. He returned to the words. Ran his fingers over them one last time, as if to commit their hiding place to fingery memory. Off in the distance he could hear a lorry’s horn. And from the same direction, faintly, like a river, other traffic on the not so far away motorway.
Yes, high time to head back.
The late Sunday afternoon traffic was light. Well, it was staying-inside weather now and people were doing just that; lots of bluish telly lights in windows along the way. He pictured them with dinners on their knees, watching, chewing, laughing, spilling food on their skirts or trousers, smiled at this image as he returned to the road. The rain did make it untrustworthy, better pay attention. He slowed down a little just to be safe. Even so, he made it back to his flat by nightfall.
It felt colder inside than outside. He switched on the wall heater, which sprang to life with several crackles and pops, as if stretching stiff joints. Trevor crouched before it to warm up a bit, then made himself some coffee which he brought, in a large steaming mug, to his desk. He sat down at his desk, turned on his home computer and began to look for it.
“Love thyself last.”
Come to find: it was not Blake, nor was it the Bible. Nor was it Milton, nor Ruskin. It was Shakespeare: Henry VIII. Wolsey addresses Cromwell. Thus:
Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition:
By that sin fell the angels; how can man then
The image of his Maker, hope to win by’t?
Love thyself last: cherish those hearts that hate thee;
Corruption wins not more than honesty.
Still in thy right hand carry gentle peace,
To silence envious tongues: be just, and fear not.
Let all the ends thou aim’st at be thy country’s,
Thy God’s, and truth’s: then if thou fall’st O Cromwell!
Thou fall’st a blessed martyr.
A tribute to the Bard, then? Yes, possibly. He took another sip of his coffee. It was nice and warm and fragrant—he could feel the brew filter into his limbs and stir them awake. Yes, possibly, but that was not the sense he had gotten from those words, not as written on that oak. Besides, would not an offering to Shakespeare carved in oak have taken the better known form of, “To be, or not to be,” perhaps. Or, “O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?” No, too long, perhaps, but better known, definitely.
No, he decided, they were not a tribute. The three carved words struck him as too personal, as too not-actually-meant for Cromwell.
Love thyself last. He said it again and then leaned back in his chair—which creaked just a little in protest. He pictured the tree again and the words it had so reluctantly shared. It seemed to him they had been carved by a heart, almost pleaded into bark; and a long time ago, the oak their custodian ever since.
He read the passage from Shakespeare again. And again. No, he decided, definitely: the oak cared nothing about the Bard, it cared about the person who for some reason other than tribute had carved them.
Hands wrapped around the warm cup, he looked out the window. Night had fully fallen. So darkly now he could barely make out the rain—which he certainly could hear, coming down heavily now—while contemplating the drain pipes climbing the walls across the courtyard, reflecting lighted windows and city sky as they, like long, dim glowworms, made their way to their individual flats.
And he wondered who had carved those letters, those words, and why?
And had they actually been carved, as with a knife? It would stand to reason but he didn’t think so. They did not strike him as carved at all.
He placed his right forefinger against the bark, pressed hard, then traced it downward in a vertical line.
Then he re-traced it.
Then he traced it again.
This was the tree to carry his message. It stood large; a sentry in the little clearing, not a hundred paces from his shelter. Though nearly at full height, it was a youth as oaks go—fine and arrogant. Not all that happy to see him, was the sense he got.
He bent his head back and looked up. Grey and brown and green against the cloudless sky. Tall and fine. It would serve him well.
He was a youth as humans go.
He re-traced the vertical line most of that afternoon, until his fingertip wore soft, then smooth, then sore, then raw, then bloody. Still he traced that one vertical line, over and over, until his finger showed bone, and still he traced it, over and over.
“John. Trevor here.”
He cradled the receiver between his left cheek and his shoulder, sipped his newly brewed coffee, and again glanced out the window; at the climbing (or diving) drainpipes, white and grey now in the early day. It was still overcast but the rain had finally stopped. The floor was cold under his bare feet, and his eyes cast about for his slippers. They came up empty.
When John didn’t reply, Trevor said, “Did I wake you?”
“No, no. I mean, yes, but I’m fine. What time is it?”
“Seven and a bit.”
“Yes, John. Morning.”
There was a long silence at the other end of the line while John pieced things together. Success. “Trevor. It’s a bank holiday.”
“What do you want?”
“I have a favor to ask. I would like to show you something and see what you think.”
“Bring it over later. I have some unfinished sleeping to attend to.”
“Well, actually, I have to bring you to it.”
Another long silence. “What is it?”
No reply to that.
“An oak,” Trevor added.
“It’s what’s written on it I’d like you to take a look at.”
“Carved,” he said. “That’s odd. Wow, someone’s carved something on a tree?”
“Yes. What if I pick you up at nine?”
“Trevor.” It came across as a sigh. “What’s going on?”
“Well, for one, it’s a curious carving. What it says, I mean. And for two, I’m not really sure it’s carved, actually. It’s been bothering me all night, and the more I think about it the more curious it gets. I’m wondering how it got there, and I’m sure that if anyone can figure that one out it would be you.”
“At that would have to be on my one day off?”
“You had the weekend off.”
“That doesn’t count.”
“So, is nine all right, then?”
There was another silence before John capitulated, “Yes. Alright.”
“Good. I’ll be there.”
“Fine.” Not all that happy about that arrangement.
Trevor replaced the receiver and stepped closer to the window to get a view of the sky. He scanned it for signs of blue but found none.
John stood waiting in his doorway when Trevor pulled up. John leaned over to his left and opened the passenger door for his friend. John folded over and maneuvered himself into the old Mini and pulled the door shut.
Trevor’s Mini was the real thing, the original kind; so original, in fact, and in such good shape, that he had given more than a fleeting thought to joining one of those “Original Mini” clubs that had sprung up like mushrooms around London, especially now that the new, and not original Minis had begun to appear.
John turned to face him. He was unshaven. Well, that was not surprising. And his brown hair a little ever-which-way. “Okay, Trevor. You’ve got me out of bed. I’m dressed, I’m hungry, and I’m here. Now what?”
“You call that dressed?” As he pulled away from the curb.
“I’m not a bloody model.” John’s Welch heritage peaked through the word bloody, and Trevor had to smile. “Like some,” John made a point of adding.
Trevor said, “Glen Row.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Halfway to Brighton.”
“I have heard of that.”
“There’s a forest just south of the place.”
“Did I mention I was hungry?”
“Yes I did, and I am. The price of my participation is breakfast, payable now.”
“So, a forest?”
“Well, that’s where you would find them.”
“Oaks, you mean?”
They drove in silence for a while through nearly empty streets. By rows and rows of parked cards; trees and buildings and sky reflected in the wet asphalt. Trevor turned to John: “Really. I wouldn’t have dragged you out of bed on your day off, but there is something very odd about this carving.”
“Which isn’t really a carving, you said.”
“Exactly. It should be carved, but I don’t think it is. And the other thing is that you can hardly make it out at first. At all.”
He explained as he drove. Still no rain, and very little traffic; most people, of course, taking proper advantage of the bank holiday.
“I’m still hungry,” said John.
So they found an open roadside café where John had his fill of eggs and chips, a coffee as well, which made him a lot happier.
Trevor found the very spot at the south end of the village where he had parked his car not twenty-four hours ago for his weekend forest stroll. He killed the engine and pulled the hand break. Once out of the car, he looked up, still hoping for blue somewhere but no such luck. Just masses of grey sailing rapidly against a vaster, lighter grey. A light wind brought the smell of foresty rain, as if it had just ceased here. He found the path and beckoned John to follow.
The ground was quite soggy; it must have rained through the night here. Should have worn boots, he thought. Too late now though.
And there was the little clearing; found it, no problem. Walked right to it. Well, he was one of those people who could always find his way back to places he had been. Finding them in the first place was his problem, not finding them again. When it came to revisits, he was uncanny. And, yes, there it stood, the old oak. Hard to miss, once you had the clearing.
This time Trevor made out the words, quite easily; as if his uncanny knack of revisiting applied to barky letters as well.
“See,” he turned to John on his right, “Love thyself last.”
John took his time. He squinted, then shifted, then looked at Trevor, then looked at the tree again. “I don’t see it.”
“Here. L.” Trevor stepped up to the trunk and traced it slowly for John to see.
“Oh, yes,” said John, now squinting again. “Yes. I see what you mean.” Now he stepped closer then away again, just like Trevor had done the day before. “Yes, now I see. How on earth did you spot this in the first place?” he asked without taking his eyes off the spot. Then approached the trunk again and sat down on his haunches for a closer study.
Trevor had to smile. For all his reluctance and moaning about his day off, once something caught John’s interest, all else was forgotten. And this was catching it, all right.
“Not really sure, to be honest. I just caught a glimpse of it. Well, it wasn’t even that.”
“The light must have been just right.”
“Yes, I guess. Just an impression. Like a hint, you know, in the corner of my eye. Then, when I turned for a closer look, I could see nothing. I was about to walk on, thinking I had been mistaken, when I saw the letters peripherally again. I finally found them. Beneath the bark, as it were.”
“Love thyself last,” read John.
“That’s it, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Love. Thyself. Last.” Pointing to each word.
“Do you think they are carved?” Trevor asked.
John didn’t answer for some time. He rose and backed away a little, then moved closer again and back down on his haunches. He studied each letter separately. Took his time and had probably forgotten Trevor and his question.
“What do you think?” nudged Trevor.
“They seemed to have stretched a little as the tree grew, though not too much,” said John, more to the oak than to Trevor. “I suspect that this oak only had a few feet to go when this was made. Before full height, I mean.”
“Still,” continued John, “that was a long time ago. These,” he nodded toward the letters, “must have been carved a hundred, perhaps even a hundred and fifty years ago.”
Trevor didn’t answer, just waited for more.
“Yes,” John said, while examining the last word, LAST, with extra care. “Yes, a long time ago.”
“How old do these guys get?”
“Oh,” said John, looking up at Trevor. “Oaks, like this one, can grow well beyond two hundred years, some older. This one is at least two hundred. I’d say between two hundred ten and two hundred twenty.”
“Well, you should know.”
“Yes, I guess I should.”
“And they were not carved, were they?”
John took yet another close look at several of the individual letters, before he answered:
“No, they were not. Carved is not the word. More like rubbed, with some sort of blunt instrument.”
“Oh, I don’t know. A stone perhaps. An iron rod. A twig, a wedge, I can’t tell.”
“Is there any way to tell?”
“There’s always a way.” John fell silent, still studying the three words. Then he straightened. “Damn,” he said. “I should have brought my camera.”
“My thought exactly, yesterday,” said Trevor.
“You brought one?” With hope.
“No, I forgot.”
Neither said anything for a while. John kept looking at the tree and the three words.
Trevor felt the musky air with its many scents quite invigorating. It was about to start raining again, he could almost feel the drops letting go of the low-gliding clouds; and then he could hear the first few of them finding leaves both in the trees and on the ground. Farther off the rain had begun in earnest, he could hear that, too. Heading their way.
“I want to examine this closer,” said John finally, still inspecting the letters one by one. “I need my camera. Close-ups. Enlargements. You’re right, Trevor. This is really curious.”
“And did you notice the F in THYSELF? And the last word? No pun intended.”
“Yes,” answered John, missing the odd but unintentional wordplay. “I did notice. Smoother. Much smoother.”
Trevor recognized that tone of voice, and again smiled to himself. When John sounded like that it meant that his friend had accepted the challenge and taken on the project of solving the riddle.
Then the main body of rain reached them and they scrambled back to the car.
The rain came down pretty hard on their way back, so Trevor kept the speed down, especially knowing that John wasn’t all that fond of cars in the first place. Called himself a train man. That, and the tube. Cars only when nothing else was available. Trevor had the heater on and the little car turned cozy inside. Some would call it stuffy, but they both seemed to enjoy it, warm silence to the rhythm of wiper blades and the crusty hum of wheels through water.
“And the words,” Trevor said as they passed Oxted—as if continuing a conversation. “Love thyself last? I don’t think they refer to Henry VIII, do you?”
“Oh, I have no idea. I’m still at the ‘how did they get there’ stage.”
“You’ll figure that out.”
John—busy figuring—didn’t answer.
By the time they arrived at the parking spot for a second time that day, the skies were finally clearing.
Back in London they had stopped by John’s lab to pick up his photo gear, and at their respective flats for boots and umbrellas. Now they were back for the shoot, as John called it. The light wasn’t actually fading yet, but would at any moment. Trevor asked him about it, but John said not to worry, the flash would give the pictures better definition than vague daylight any day. Still, he wanted some “natural” shots, he said, and scrambled out of the car in what, for him, was a hurry. They headed back to the tree, the constant returner Trevor leading.
He could not go on. He fell back into soft ground and looked up into pain-filled sky.
His enraged finger screamed from somewhere below the elbow. Colin refused to listen while his finger refused to stop screaming. Colin re-refused to listen. Instead he scrambled up onto his feet and began scouring the ground for a twig thick enough to serve as a bit, something to sink his teeth into to keep his screams from escaping. He found one.
He scraped off some remaining bark with his hand, then placed it in his mouth and bit down. He had missed some bark which he now spit out before returning the bit back to his mouth.
The incongruous picture of being a horse briefly appeared and vanished.
He returned to the tree and the dark, vertical line.
He found it easily enough and placed the raw fingertip at the top of it. Then he pressed down hard and traced it again, re-painting it now with his blood. He bit down even harder on the wood to hold back the scream that now, more than anything, wanted out into the open, fighting tongue and teeth and wood to let it pass. Colin managed to keep it back while he traced the line again, then traced it again, and again.
The natural light was still sufficient, he said, when John had finished setting up the camera, and he took the first several pictures without a flash. Long exposures, John explained. “Nice light, actually,” he added.
He then moved the tripod closer and took the remaining many pictures in the colder but more defining light of electronic artificial lightnings; some very close up, letter by letter.
They did not speak much on their way back to London. The night was falling now along with fresh rain and Trevor had to pay attention to his driving. John seemed to be nodding off, but was not. He was wondering about the letters. As was Trevor.
John called Trevor Tuesday night.
“I can’t tell,” he said, and Trevor pictured him, loupe in his eye, inspecting under his bright desk lamp one of the enlargements from the shoot. “Not for sure. I am going to need some samples.”
“Rubbed, like I said.”
“With something blunt, right?”
“Yes. Must have been. Chafed, with something. But I can’t say with what. It’s too old.” Trevor could hear him sort through the prints, now picking out another one, inspecting it, too. “And then we have those last five letters,” John said. “They’re something altogether different again.”
“Oh, much. Not chafed or rubbed. They remind me a little of a seam laid down by an expert welder. It’s almost as if they were poured.” Then another pause while John inspected the print. “Yes, those scars seem almost liquid in the enlargements.”
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know what it means. This really has me baffled, I have to admit.”
“Are you coming ‘round? Can I see the photos?”
“Not tonight. They just called me and I have to leave for a crime scene. A probable homicide.”
“Tomorrow lunch, perhaps? I’ll call you on your mobile.”
John hung up, and Trevor dismissed a fleeting notion of driving down to Glen Row again, just to take another look, for it was already dark outside and a trip now would yield nothing. Instead he made himself some tea and opened up Henry VIII at the marked place: “Love thyself last: cherish those hearts that hate thee.”
The he closed first the book, and then his eyes.
His teeth sank a little deeper into the soft wood with each re-tracing, locked in their own battle with the broken branch.
And still Colin traced. Each vertical movement removed a little more of the oak’s bark and a little more of his forefinger. He stared at the short vertical line, clearly visible now from the blood—even through the film of pain that now blurred his vision—and reapplied the raw tip to the top of the line. And now he pressed down hard again and traced it and did not scream, but sank his teeth ever deeper into moist, resisting wood.
Again, they stood in front of the old oak, both intent on the letters now clearly visible to each, now that they knew where, and how to look.
“As if poured, or applied with heat,” said John. “Though the seam is too smooth even for that. And there’s no trace of charring that I can detect. It’s almost as if,” then paused, still examining the T in LAST.
“As if what?”
“I don’t know. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s almost as if the oak itself welled these final letters.”
Trevor didn’t answer.
“I know that sounds weird,” said John, “but looking at them now, they are so smooth it seems they rose to the surface from inside the tree.”
Trevor leaned closer as well. “I see what you mean.”
“Definitely not burned,” said John.
“How about the samples?” Trevor more nudged than asked.
“In a minute.” John continued to absorb the letters. “The first ten. The first then were all made in the same way, by the same process, by the same rubbing or chafing. But these last five.” John was talking more to himself than anything, and Trevor knew better than to interrupt. John was on a job now and was all business. “No, not these ones.” Finally, John delved into his shoulder pack and brought out three small, plastic Ziploc bags and a fine knife.
He took three samples. One from the opening “L”, one from the “Y”, and from the final “T”. The fine scrapings of each found themselves in separate bags, which John sealed shut with a practiced motion of thumb and forefinger, before they vanished into his pack.
“You’ve left marks,” said Trevor, a little surprised, and for some reason a little alarmed.
“I had to go deep enough,” John answered. Not apologetically. Professionally.
They drove back, again pretty much in silence, pondering their own angles. Trevor at least as curious about the words themselves, as about the manner of their making. John absorbed by the latter.
Back in London, Trevor pulled up by John’s apartment to let him out. John would test the three samples in his lab as soon as he got a chance, he said, and call Trevor as soon as he knew. He could most likely get this done by the weekend, unless he got tied up with another assignment, or had to go out of town on one.
Trevor said, great, call him as soon as he knew anything. John said he would, and then did not slam the car door shut as he left. He was quite precise with things like that. Just the right pressure, and the door hardly even said click before it sealed him out.
John did not call by the weekend. In fact, Trevor could not find him. The lab said he was out of town, but couldn’t say exactly where. Nor did he answer his mobile phone. That Saturday afternoon, Trevor drove down to the oak by himself for another look.
“Ah, sir. Yes. I see. Yes.” Mr. Yeats—no relation to the poet, mind you—bent a greying head and bushy eyebrows closer to the trunk, then adjusted his steel rimmed glasses as he studied the letters. “And right you are, sir. No knife I know of would have made those marks. No, sir. I think I can promise you that.” He straightened up and stepped back from the tree. Turned to Trevor and took him in over the silvery rims of his glasses with opaque but lively eyes. “Knives, you see, make different marks. Very different marks.” He looked around. “I’ll show you.”
Trevor had met him walking from his car to the tree. A local man, out taking his constitutional. A bit of air, you see. Very good for the system. Have done it for years. Works up an appetite, too.
And what would he—Trevor was it?—be doing here then?, Mr. Yeats wanted to know. Not unfriendly, like, just curious. So Trevor told him about the letters and when Mr. Yeats grew interested agreed to show him.
Mr. Yeats found what he was looking for and soon led the way over to another oak, not quite as tall, but perhaps as old. “Here,” he said, pointing, “these letters are carved with a knife.”
Clearly. And quite fresh, to boot. Bethe, the carving said, along with a short curved line that could be the beginning of a heart, though the author had left it at that, an unfulfilled intention.
“The ones I found,” Trevor nodded in the direction of his tree, “are much older.”
“Oh, yes. Much older.” Mr. Yeats looked back with him. Then he fell silent in thought. “You know, there’s a better one,” he said after a while, and started walking.
This tree was shorter still, but seemingly even older, gnarled. And not too happy to see them, it seemed. It would much rather be left in peace, is what it said.
Yeats pointed. “Here.”
Trevor could make nothing out initially. “Here,” said Yeats again. “These are knife carvings too.” Trevor focused by Mr. Yeats’ finger and then saw them. Smaller letters, almost obscured by age, but visible nonetheless, now that he knew where to look: “Leigh April 4, 1842,” it read.
No question about when. Trevor looked closer and saw how, despite their age, the edges of these letters were quite crisp, defined, a cut. His letters had no such definition. “I see,” he said.
“So what do you think could have cut those other letters?” Trevor asked, and again looked back over towards his tree.
“I’m not sure as ‘cut’ is the right word, sir,” said Yeats. “Chafed, more like.”
Mr. Yeats didn’t answer, but instead set out toward Trevor’s tree. Trevor followed.
“Chafed?” he asked again. “With what, do you think?”
“There’s no telling, really. Something blunt. Something softish.”
“How old would you guess?”
“About the same age as our friend Leigh, I would say.”
Mr. Yeats took another good look at the three words. Trevor noticed what seemed like a familiarity to this inspection, as if the old man was savoring them—like you would a stamp in your collection, or an old, rarely visited photograph, in your album. “And you’ve not seen these letters before?” he asked.
“I never said that,” Mr. Yeats said without looking up.
No he hadn’t, had he? “Have you noticed the last five letters?” Trevor asked.
Mr. Yeats looked up at him. “What about them?”
“Well, they’re different.”
He looked back at the trunk. For show or to see, Trevor could not tell. “So they are,” said Yeats.
“As if poured,” said Trevor.
“That’s a curious way of putting it,” said Mr. Yeats. “And not so far off, I’d venture.”
“You know?” asked Trevor. “Do you?”
“I didn’t say that,” answered Yeats.
“But do you?”
“No,” he answered. “I don’t know.” Again, Yeats didn’t look back at Trevor as he spoke, rather addressing the trunk. “What happened here?” he said suddenly, and looked closer at the spot were John had scraped a sample, still exposing fresher bark.
“Where?” Trevor said.
“Here,” said Mr. Yeats, indicating the opening L with his hand, gnarled and liver-spotted. “And here. And here,” now inspecting the Y and the final T. Then he re-scrutinized each letter in turn to make sure there were no other violations. Took his time, too.
“That’d be John’s samples,” said Trevor.
Mr. Yeats made no reply, not until he had finished his scrutiny.
“Samples?” he said then, no longer entirely friendly.
“My friend John works as an investigator, and also has an interest in trees,” Trevor explained. “They’re his hobby. He was curious, too.”
“What would he want with samples?”
“He is going to run some tests on them, to see what might have been used to make those letters.”
When Mr. Yeats said nothing, Trevor asked, “What do you make of the last five letters, then?”
Mr. Yeats took a brief look at his watch, then said, “The missus will be wondering what could have happened to me. I had better get back. Good day to you, Mr. Trevor.”
With that the old man gave Trevor a stiff bow and set off toward the road and its few houses, one of them presumably his. Trevor watched him recede for a while then looked back at his tree.
Chafed, more like.
John did not get back in town until the following Wednesday, but then with some strange news. He would have called, he said, right away, but he wanted to make sure—which in John’s line of work meant double, triple checking.
“There are traces of blood in the first two samples,” he informed his friend. “But none in the last.”
“Blood?” Trevor wanted to make sure he heard that right.
“Blood. No doubt about it,” his friend said. “The L in ‘love,’ and the Y in ‘thyself,’ they both have traces of blood—and I had them run it three times—while the T, the one in ‘last,’ hasn’t any.”
“Blood,” Trevor repeated. “Now, that’s odd, isn’t it? I mean, what on earth do you make of that?”
“I don’t know,” John replied. “I’ve asked them to run one more test to determine whether the blood is human.”
“Ah, yes. Of course. I just assumed, but it could be pig’s blood or something, right?”
“Yes, it could be.”
“Maybe some sort of ritual thing?”
“I don’t know. Could be.”
“But you don’t think so?”
His face was wet with pain. Bruised by pain. Grimaced in pain.
Teeth, a sheen of bone nearly ghostlike in the fading light, bearing down on the wood in his mouth. His eyes stood out, fixed on the vertical line and on the tip of bone that was now quite visible in his forefinger. He bit down again on the wood, soggy now and thick and worn, and placed the bone at the top of the line and then pressed, and traced again from top to bottom, the stem of L.
Bearcliff calls itself a town, but that is a stretch. A village, yes, and a large one at that; but town? The signs at each end of the wide and admittedly rather long, if winding, Main Street both claim it is: Welcome to the Fair Towne of Bearcliff, in determined, and annually repainted, letters.
Those who live there say it is—except, that is, for the surrounding farmers who still remember its full name (and by which it is still known on most maps): Bearcliff Hamlet, and who still think of it as one.
Those who travel through it assume it is a town—that is if they catch the signs (which admittedly are hard to miss), and can read them. As for the rest of the world, Bearcliff is more than likely just another village, if indeed it exists at all.
Entering Bearcliff from the north, once you’ve passed the sign—a three feet by two oak tile creaking in the wind on un-oiled hinges—there’s the tanner’s, the school and a tavern on your left, a smithy, a guesthouse, and another tavern on your right. None of these buildings is very new, except for the school which was built in 1812, recent as Bearcliff goes.
Continuing down the unpaved Main Street there are more taverns, two haberdashers, three grocers, two more guesthouses, another guesthouse which calls itself a Hotel, two more taverns, then two more. And before you reach the southern sign—the same size, and the same un-oiled creaking—there’s the mill, another smithy, two competing carpenter shops (word has it their owners have not spoken to each other for two full generations), and one final tavern.
This a town? From any distance at all it appears more like a gathering of some large some small houses disturbing the countryside; but once you’re there, well it could be.
Of course, scattered among these various commercial establishments, you find the regular houses, housing the residents; residents like Alinda.
Alinda and her irritating younger brother Seaghan, whom Colin has to bribe every so often to keep him from squealing—to be sure, he’s got candy set aside for that very purpose.
Alinda is a Scottish name, she likes to tell him. Her family comes from Edinburgh, she likes to tell him, too. Her father has the accent to prove it, and the name: Fergus. Fergus Leslie. And if word ever gets to Fergus Leslie, about him and Alinda kissing—by way of Seaghan no doubt—he’d be in for it. So the two rules are: be very careful and bring candy.
Well, if Edinburgh is so wonderful, he’d tease her, why’d your dad leave all that wonderfulness and move all the way to Sussex? And she’d answer—with no hesitation at all, as if it were true; and in that voice, in that accent which was the miracle of the precise Scottish she had drunk with her mother’s milk tempered by the rolling hills of mellower English, which to his ears was not speaking at all, it was singing, it was giving the air a gift each time she spoke—and with those gifts she’d answer, she’d always answer, looking straight at him and explaining to him with her serious and oh, so lovely lips, in what had become a little ritual: Didn’t he know? Her dad was appointed by the secret queen of Scots to settle the wild lands to the south and to see if the natives could be civilized, and if so, to let her know. It was, needless to say, a foregone conclusion that they could not. But miracles have been known to happen, and so Fergus Leslie was still here, still keeping his eyes open for any sign of native intelligence.
She was as tall as Colin. In fact, a hair taller—that’s what he suspected anyway; for he suspected that whenever, in their bare feet, they stood back to back to measure, she flexed her knees just that hair, just enough to make them come out dead even.
“Not even a little?”
“Not even an inkling.”
She was not thin—that was not the word; she was slender. That’s how Colin saw it. She was darkly haired, in a wild, untamable explosion of curls, no matter what she did to it, she’d complain. Oh, that she’d ever do anything to it, he thought or said, it was perfect just the way it was, and he’d tell her exactly that.
And now she was nineteen.
And promised to him.
Not that anyone else knew. Fergus Leslie would shoot him on sight if he did, and Myron, Colin’s dad, would likely not be all that amused either. The only one pleased might be Seona, Alinda’s mom, who did have a soft spot for him, that he could tell. But no one but they knew. It was their secret, two years old this June, whispered—though there were no other souls within at least two earshots (unless Seaghan was hiding somewhere near)—one fresh and sunny morning as they lay side by side at the edge of a meadow, gazing up at the clouds, rushing about, busy with spring—for she had come late that year, spring had, and now had much to do to get ready for summer.
It was a spring morning so springy you could almost feel the grass push up under you—annoyed at the obstruction—and hear the leaves, young and light and green with life, sprouting on the trees, unfolding thousands upon thousands light-green tongues to lap the sun.
All the while the birds chirped and chattered, some calling for mates, some just calling for the joy of it.
It was a perfect spring morning.
Perfect for whispering.
They had known each other since childhood, and on that particular day, as he abandoned the sky and shifted onto his side to face her, it was as if the question arrived on its own accord, willing itself—as the most natural thing in the world—to be asked, as just another face of spring.
“Would you be my wife, Alinda?” he whispered, barely loud enough to leave his lips.
But she heard him just fine. “Yes,” she whispered back, without leaving the sky. Then she smiled, to the sky, to herself, and finally turned to face him, to kiss him long and longingly, and the Devil take Seaghan, if he were anywhere near, he didn’t care.
They did not set a date, nor did they let anyone else in on the secret, though as of late, Seona seemed to smile a lot and he would not be surprised if she knew; mothers have strange motherly ways of knowing what daughters think or dream—or of finding out.
Perhaps his dad would not care one way or the other, perhaps he even knew, too, or at least suspected something—they were seeing an awful lot of each other, and they were no longer children—but still, Colin was not so sure he would not object, and thought it best to say nothing. After all, Myron Lawless was a lawyer, a well-respected man, and a rung or two above Fergus Leslie’s station. He might not see Alinda as a good match.
Besides, Myron Lawless had money and Fergus Leslie, a smith by trade, had none; or at least—according to Alinda—none to spare.
His mom would have cared, though, he was sure of that; she would have cared very much, had she still been alive. Though he didn’t remember much about her, not many of the details, she was still very real to him, the smell of friendliness.
She had been sickly, his dad had explained to him once he was old enough to understand; her lungs, and when Colin was a little over three, she lay down one day, exhausted she said, and she never got up.
She had stayed in bed, in the very bed his dad now slept in alone, for a little over a month, then she passed away.
Consumption, said the doctors.
He could remember lying by her side in that big bed, she wanted to have him near, asked him to come and nestle up against her, hotter than he, much hotter than he, with a sweet friendly smell, and gentle hands that would play with his hair, making little rivulets with her fingers, that’s what he remembered. Not much else.
But based on that, and on the two paintings in his father’s bedroom—one of her as a girl, and one of her as a bride, Myron proud, and a little drunk, he would tell Colin, to her right—he had formed a complete person: a loving, trusting, caring person whom Colin still longed for now and then, and whom he had cried for often as a child, though never so loudly that his dad would hear.
And she added up to friendliness; added up to loving Colin more than anyone or anything in the world. And to being gone now.
She would have cared, he was certain of that, and she would have been very happy. For Alinda was a wonderful girl. So clever and thoughtful and beautiful, and so promised; and if his mother could have heard her speak, that gift of a voice to color the air.
As for Colin himself. He was tall—though perhaps not quite as tall as Alinda—and thin, scrappy his dad said, here have some more meat, and some bread too, and don’t skimp on the butter. He was a quick wit; read anything he could lay his hands on. Quick with figures, quicker still with his tongue, which often got him into trouble, especially at school and sometimes with his dad.
“You should try, perhaps, just once in a while, to think before you speak,” Alinda would suggest.
He promised he would try, but he never quite succeeded.
To his father’s mind there was no question about what Colin would do, or what he should study. He should study the law, just like Myron had. Good thing to have under your belt, Son. It’s a damn exclusive club.
And that is how, in the fall of 1838, Alinda and Colin came to be separated for weeks at a stretch. For Myron Lawless had friends who had friends, who in turn had friends, and so, that autumn—Colin had now finished secondary school—he moved north to London to attend King’s College on the Strand, best bloody law school in the country, claimed his father, who himself had gone to King’s College, though not in London.
Although they were only an afternoon’s coach ride apart, and had indeed intended—Colin had promised—to see each other every weekend, school pressures soon took over and Colin was happy to be able to catch the afternoon to Brighton by way of Bearcliff once a month, if that. Alinda, though, understood. It’s for the better, she’d say, and then she would add that she was very proud of him, her husband to be.
Colin was an excellent student. Outstanding, as a matter of fact.
If God ever used His blueprint for the legal mind, one of his teachers said about Colin, He used it when He made Colin.
Still, though he found school interesting, and though he enjoyed his studies—as students will always enjoy things they are good at—his visits with Alinda were still the highlights of his life. Their talks, their kisses, their—yes, the word was friendliness. Not that he confused her with his mother, but her friendliness, her understanding, filled a deeper need, made him whole. And her fingers would play with his hair at times, making little rivulets, while she thought out aloud about something she had read, or had thought, or had dreamed. Hearing her speak was living. Talking with her was life. That was the best way he could explain it to himself: that he felt the most alive he ever felt when he was around her, when he was with her, when he was sharing. Not even touching, so much as talking. A friend, a wife. And at those times he knew himself to be a very fortunate man.
During his second year at law school it began to dawn on Colin just how exclusive this club he was preparing to join was.
“It’s as if I were being groomed for some sort of shadow government,” Colin tried to convey his impression one day.
“What is a shadow government?” Alinda wanted to know.
“On paper, it consists of those of the opposing political party that would rule, were they in power. Though,” added Colin, with a little smile, almost of embarrassment, “I wonder if the roles are not reversed. I wonder if this country is not actually run by the lawyers.”
“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” offered Alinda with a warm smile at the thought.
“It had crossed my mind,” he answered.
“That perhaps you sometimes wish I was studying something else.”
“Dad is not overly fond of lawyers, that’s true,” she answered. “But I don’t mind them much, especially not the budding ones.”
“Really, though,” said Colin. “It is strange feeling. Dad once said that it’s a damn exclusive club.”
“What is? The lawyers club?”
“Yes. Almost like a secret society of sorts, though no one will say so. It’s like a current—an undercurrent rather—of understanding between lawyers. And it seems like my school is built on, that it rests on this undercurrent. Though I’m not sure yet what it is I’m to understand. Dad certainly seems to know, though, and the professors seem to know, too. Even some of the students seem to have caught on.”
So, she turns to him and looks him right in the eyes and asks, “Is it what you really want to do, Colin?”
And it’s when she asks questions like that, honestly and deeply wanting to know, that he has to stop and think—one of the few times he actually had to, for nothing but the truth would serve. “I don’t know,” was his reply. “It’s what dad has wanted me to do for as long as I can remember. There was really never any other choice. He’s paying for school and board. He’s preparing me for real life, he says.”
“But it’s not what your heart yearns to do?” she said.
“Let me tell you what my heart yearns to do,” he said and didn’t answer her question.
She laughed and made a weak show of fending him off.
Myron Lawless, Esq., knew some friends, who knew friends, who in turn knew someone who sat on the Railroad Planning Committee, and this, as it turns out, would prove a very profitable source of intelligence.
Whispers in his circles had it—and had or some time now—that the route for the London to Brighton railroad through the local area had narrowed to two choices: either by way of Bearcliff, or by way of Greyfield. Knowing which, for a fact, would mean a fortune.
And Myron Lawless now knew which.
It had cost him. Oh, it had cost him dearly, but it was money well spent. The RPC, according to his source—although the final, and public determination would not be made for another two years—had decided, and their choice was Bearcliff. Well, let’s rephrase that, said his source, the decision, per se, has not been made of course, but the Committee is leaning so far in the direction of Bearcliff as to have virtually toppled over. Really, only the formality of the public announcement remained: and he could take that to the bank.
With a grin and a drink up.
And since his source had always proved correct on other important matters—though none as important as this—that was all the affirmation Myron Lawless needed to put his plan in motion.
Bearcliff, still beating with a hamlet heart, was not a sophisticated town and did not much concern itself with trains and such—strange goings on in London to be sure, but nothing good will come of it, mark my words.
It was also, for the most part, in need of ready cash, which suited Myron Lawless just fine. Representing himself—though surreptitiously—he now set out to acquire as much Bearcliff real estate and surrounding land as he could afford. Some parcels he bought from the bank—foreclosures at bargain prices—others through midnight deals with unofficial deeds signed and witnessed—to be recorded later, he did not want to raise any kind of flags.
The farmers who sold him their land—to be leased back to them, of course, to work—were as a rule none the wiser, and if any questions were raised, solicitor Lawless had the gift of the gab, and he had it in spades. Besides, it was all legal, strictly; just not recorded, not just yet, on some pretext or other that the farmer did not understand, but pretended to.
And now, Myron Lawless, Esq., his not inconsiderable wealth duly invested, stood to make, literally, tens, if not hundreds of thousands of pounds once the RPC made its public announcement.
Late one evening in May of 1841 Myron Lawless finally told his son. They had finished dinner. Alinda had gone home. The cook had retired. Myron was sipping a brandy and smoking a cigar. Colin, not really that fond of liquor, nevertheless brought the glass to his lips now and then, wetting his lips, but burning his tongue.
“Have you heard of Trevithick’s invention?” he asked his son apropos of nothing in particular, studying his snifter and the sparkling liquid within.
“Who hasn’t?” said Colin.
“Well, quite a few people have not,” he said. “Especially round here.”
“Well, that’s hardly surprising.”
“Listen,” he said, then returned the sifter to the table, and relit his cigar. “I’ve been meaning to tell you.”
Colin looked up at him, and shifted in his chair.
“I’ve made some investments lately.”
Colin didn’t answer, just looked at him, waiting for more. An excellent trait, thought Myron, he’ll make an excellent lawyer.
“I have bought a few buildings, and a sizeable amount of land in and around town.”
Still, his son did not reply.
“And yes, there is a connection.”
“The railway,” said Colin.
Myron smiled. “That’s my son. You’ll go far.”
“But no one knows, for sure,” he said. “The RPC will not decide for some time yet. It’s well over a year away, from what I understand.”
“So it is,” said Myron. “By the RPC charter, the Committee will make the route to Brighton known the first Monday of 1843. But this is where the word ‘speculation’ finds a good use, for the percentages, from what I can ascertain, are stacking up ninety for and ten against.”
“That’s not what they think at school.”
“What do they think at school?”
“Handcross, Balcombe, Staplefield, Greyfield.”
“Speculation,” he said, stressing the word. “There’s nothing at all wrong with that, as long as you speculate right.”
Colin didn’t answer right away. “Bearcliff,” he said then, as if to himself. “That would be something, wouldn’t it?”
“Ever mentioned? I mean, at school, as a possibility?”
“Once or twice, perhaps, but never seriously.”
“Good. Oh, excellent,” said Myron.
Colin looked back up at his dad, concerned. “And you’re sure?”
“Sure enough,” and then finished his brandy.
“How much property have you bought?”
“More than enough,” said his father.
John called Trevor that Friday evening just before six to say he was on his way over. The blood tests were back, he said. He had some news. Then he hung up before Trevor had a chance to ask him about it; John obviously just making sure Trevor was home.
Trevor was in the kitchen fixing tea when the doorbell rang. “It’s open,” he said, loudly enough. John heard and let himself in. He joined Trevor in the kitchen and sat down at the large, stocky kitchen table.
“It’s human,” he said without preamble.
“The blood is?” Trevor turned from the stove to face him.
“Beyond a doubt.”
Trevor set the cups out and poured the tea. Found a couple of scones in the pantry—not too stale—and put them out as well. John seized one, and ate with relish, then the other. He probably had not had his dinner yet.
John then reached for his satchel, took out the envelope with the prints of the tree and spread them out on the table top. Trevor fetched the desk lamp from his study to better light them.
“In fact,” John said between crumbly bites, “I’d wager that all of these letters, except the last five, bear traces of human blood.” The looked at the plate he had just cleaned, “Any more of these?”
Trevor was clean out of scones, but found and broke open a package of digestive biscuits.
“You have any idea?” he said, bringing the biscuits back to the table and handing them to John.
“No.” Gratefully accepting them and soon well into the first one.
“Does it make sense to you?”
Trevor looked them over, those increasingly mysterious letters, clearly visible in John’s photographs—the camera flash brought them out of the bark nicely: LOVE THYSELF LAST.
“There are fifteen letters in all,” he said. “Ten, we will assume then, with blood. Five without.”
“I’d stake a tenner on it.”
“Do you think we should test the remaining letters?”
“Not so sure I can. I’ve already had to call in one or two favors to have these done. The lab was not all that amused.”
“Right,” said Trevor.
“What occurred to me,” said John, “is that whoever carved—or chafed, rather—these letter into the bark, did not use a blunt instrument.” Then paused and helped himself to another biscuit, definitely making up for dinner.
Trevor said nothing, waiting for John to continue.
“What I think,” said John, “is that he used his fingers.”
Then he reached for yet another biscuit.