Angela Howard, FR



The Man Tree

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 escape.

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 me go!”

“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 in spring.

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 night.

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 was calling.

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 quiet.

“I do this with all my girls when they misbehave,” he threatened.

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 leaves.

“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 branches, too.

But then there was her mother’s warning.







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