It was a tall
tree, with long branches and a thick, hard trunk—a majestic
tree which stood in a vast field, watching over the landscape.
Its bark was wrinkled, like worn skin, but its leaves were a
vivid green. Sometimes birds came to sit and chatter like
little girls in the tree, but they didn’t stay for long. Fruit
grew at the base of each leaf and the seed had wings so it was
borne by the autumn winds to far away places, which meant the
tree had family relations scattered all over the world. In
summer, when the air was still and the sun was high in the
sky, the tree’s shadow formed a small, dense ring round the
base of the trunk. But in winter its shadow stretched thin and
long as if racing to search for prey.
They called it a Man Tree because of its gigantic size and
because of the huge knots of wood on its branches which looked
like muscles on a weightlifter’s arms.
People came to visit the Man Tree; they carved little shrines
in its ample trunk which they filled with oranges and apples;
they even left notes in different languages to their loved
ones. They took photographs, and pinned pieces of cloth to the
bark—ribbons, handkerchiefs, scarves, all sorts of small
garments like gloves and silk stockings, sometimes tying knots
in the cloth to ensure that their good-luck wishes couldn’t
One day a young girl came to visit. She came alone, crying
into her hanky. Her mother had vanished, and although the
little girl had been searching everywhere for her in the
villages, over the fields, inside abandoned houses and even
disused wells, she couldn’t find her. She was very tired.
She’d met an old woman at the edge of the field who said, “Why
don’t you ask the Man Tree?”
So now she stood in the Man Tree’s dark summer shadow, and
when he saw her he bent down and lifted her up in his arms.
“Don’t cry,” he whispered through all his green leaves. “I
will look after you. Let’s see if we can see your mother in
the sky,” and he swayed a little. “Here she is, in the
breeze,” he said. “Her breath helps us sway like this,” and
the wind gently rocked them. “If you stay in my arms, you will
be all right.”
The young girl felt comforted, swaying in her mother’s breath,
softly cushioned by the green leaves which whispered to her
each day—louder when the wind blew, bringing her mother’s
voice back to her, that lilting voice as if she were singing.
It wasn’t clear what she was singing, though.
One evening, when the breeze dropped into that still silence
of a hot summer evening, her mother’s voice came
extraordinarily clear. It seemed to come from the base of the
tree now. This was the first time the little girl could
actually hear the words she was saying.
“Be careful darling, things aren’t as they seem.”
The girl looked down through the branches and saw something
small run out from the niche of the trunk. She couldn’t be
sure what it was but it vanished into the Man Tree’s long
evening shadow, racing across the field and away.
She tried to climb down through all the branches to where her
mother’s voice had been, but the Man-Tree firmed up his
muscles and blocked her way.
“That was my mother!” she protested, trying to get down. “Let
“My dear, you’re imagining it. It’s the evening breeze; it
brings odd sounds. It’s that time between sun and moon where
one’s mind turns. You’re imagining it. There is no-one here,
my dear. Just you and me.”
So she thought yes, perhaps she had imagined it, and she
settled back into the branches, occasionally climbing down to
help herself to the food the visitors had left. And when the
visitors arrived she watched them from the top of the Tree,
hoping that somehow she’d see her mother amongst them.
Her mother never came. And when they left the little girl
climbed down and walked along the field where the thing had
run, where the visitors had left, keeping her head down,
looking for her mother’s footsteps. But there were so many
footprints and they all overlapped. She decided that the thing
she’d seen wasn’t her mother, it was a kind of spirit, or
something. When she got back to the Man Tree he bent down and
picked her up in his arms and said nothing.
The Man Tree never spoke about the notes the people left, or
about the fruit and the ribbons and stockings which fluttered
in the breeze at his trunk. And it didn’t bother her that he
didn’t talk about them because none of the people who came
were her mother.
She lay in the Man Tree’s arms and closed everything off,
played with the leaves, made little green crowns with them for
her head, intertwining new shoots which came from the branches
The visitors were now leaving bigger presents: bouquets of
roses and irises, baskets full of apples, oranges and little
cakes. At night when they’d gone she’d climb down and collect
some of the goodies, bringing up apples and cakes to eat. When
the visitors came she threw apple cores down on them,
sometimes whole apples. One day, one of them landed on a man’s
head. He jumped back and let out a cry “Ouch!” He stepped out
of the Tree’s midday summer shadow and rubbed his head, then
looked up to see where the apple had come from.
She hid in the leaves.
“Why did you do that?” the Man Tree asked.
“I want them to go away. I want it to be you and me only,” she
said, jealous of all the attention he was getting. He had
thousands of people visiting him, but her mother never visited
her. Where was her mother? Surely the Man Tree knew? Why
wasn’t he saying anything about her?
“I have work to do,” the Man Tree said, avoiding the issue.
“These people need me. These people are my fruit. My seed is
spread all round the world and it is right that they come to
pay their respects and say thank you.” He seemed to swell,
spread his leaves and his branches as he said this.
It was the first time he’d ever spoken about them, and then he
smothered her with the leaves. “There, be quiet,” he said.
“Be careful, darling,” her mother’s voice came again that
She sat up. The words were so clear, definitely her mother’s,
and she sounded so very near. But the Man Tree’s branches
suddenly hardened. The little girl froze; she didn’t dare
move. She thought: the Tree had said she was imagining her
mother’s voice and he’d been very fierce; he’d told her to ‘be
quiet’. If she tried to climb down he’d block her way and
punish her for trying. So she stayed still, lay unmoving in
her leaf-bed. She couldn’t sleep. She didn’t sleep all night.
And her mother’s voice didn’t come again. So she must have
imagined it, as the Man Tree said.
But the next morning when the sun rose, when the Man Tree
seemed to have relaxed his hold, she climbed down very slowly,
careful not to show her purpose, and jumped to the ground,
falling into all the offerings the visitors had brought. But
this time they weren’t really offerings, because everything
had been eaten. She’d fallen into orange and apple peelings,
cores and cherry stones. Someone had been eating them. Who?
The little girl hadn’t seen anyone come. One of the apple
cores was right at the entrance of the Man-Tree’s niche.
She peered in. There was little light, so it was difficult to
see. It looked as if there was something right at the back, a
figure covered in a blanket or some kind of shroud. She held
her breath. And then suddenly everything went very dark. She
stood back, out of the niche and looked up. The Man-tree had
thrown his shadow over her, darkening everything, all but the
tiny, sharp needles of light which cut down through the leaves
and almost blinded her.
“What are you doing down there!” he boomed.
And instantly her mother’s voice came from the niche. “Be
careful. He’ll trap you. Run darling.”
But before the girl could do anything the Man-Tree bent down
and snatched her up again. She kicked and struggled, pummeled
his woody muscles and tore at his leaves. “Leave me alone, let
me go! I know you’ve got my mother down there!”
“Run, child, run, before it’s too late!” her mother’s voice
But the little girl couldn’t get away. The Man Tree was
wrapping her up in a leafy shroud, almost stifling her,
cocooning her in his leaves.
Then more visitors came. The Man Tree dangled her over them
and threatened to drop her on top of them if she didn’t keep
“I do this with all my girls when they misbehave,” he
And she didn’t know that he’d made little leafy beds for his
chosen girls too, strapping them up in his sapling branches,
keeping them in his uppermost arms so no-one could see them
and take them away. She didn’t know that they squealed as he
tied them fast in their little beds—just as the little girl
was squealing now.
The visitors knew about the squealing because they’d read
about it in the travel books which explained that the noise
was the birds in the Tree chattering, making their nests. It
was all very charming.
But it wasn’t written that when the Man Tree’s chosen young
girls grew into older women, he cast them out. He did this
mostly during those heavy thunder and lightening storms so
that when the ladies were found flung across the field in his
long shadow—mysteriously dead—people said they’d been struck
by lightening, that they deserved their fate, walking in the
open field in such dangerous weather. Others said they’d been
murdered, although a murderer was never found.
However, on this particular day the little girl screamed so
loudly the visitors said it couldn’t possibly be the birds
making their nests this time; it was all too noisy. Were the
birds squabbling? A man with a camera peered up through his
zoom lens and saw her legs kicking and struggling through the
“There’s some one up there, a young girl,” he called out.
But no-one believed him. The little girl screamed again and
the Man-Tree swayed his branches, fighting with her arms as
she battled hard to free herself.
“Be quiet! I’ll drop you if you carry on!” he threatened.
Just as he spoke she fell through his branches onto the ground
right where the man with the camera stood. All the visitors
drew up and stared down at her, at the leaves in her hair, at
her little arms and legs so pale like saplings, her dress
green like the leaves, with twigs woven into it.
She looked up at them, stunned—defiant almost. They stood
back. The Man-Tree’s leaves were shivering loudly above her;
his muscles swelling, ready to bend down and grab her. She
could run away now; there was nothing to stop her. But to
where? She looked over to the open field and the empty horizon
spanning the sky and knew she’d have to go well beyond there
to escape the Man Tree. And: what was out there, in that
beyond? Mother wasn’t. She shivered, turned round, saw his
thick, sturdy trunk which had stood up to all those storms.
There’d always been food here, with him luring these visitors
with their apples and oranges, cakes and sugar loaves. And
there were all those flowers and ribbons she could put in her
hair, silk stockings—she could even smear her lips red with
the juice from the cherries. And it was comfortable in the
But then there was her mother’s warning.