The Hawthorn Tree stands sentinel at the edge of the field; its crooked shape inked against a grey sky. It is the cusp of May and the bloom has frosted the branches as if its own declaration of the end of winter is tinged with melancholy and regret. I kiss the cold skin of the urn before giving her up to the earth.
To the world this is just a Hawthorn Tree but not to me.
It is a tree of many names. Sceach Gheal. The Peasant Tree. The Quick. The Commoner of the Wood. It has held its watch for hundreds of years, most of them marking nothing but itself. When my Grandfather’s ancestors made their way here from neighbouring shores it was given a purpose. The purpose of men. It was to mark the boundary of Campbell land.
Three centuries later its services were required once again, to the delight of my Grandfather and dismay of my Grandmother, when it was used to mark the boundary of a new State. Grandfather was happy that his land had become the last bastion, the remnant of a receding Empire. Grandmother was distraught that it had to be that tree that wrenched worlds in two.
Locals suggested the margin run a metre below the most southern protruding root as no Irishman would put a boundary through the middle of a Hawthorn tree but the line came down with the stroke of a pen.
That tree didn’t belong to any of them, she would say. It was neither British nor Irish. She clung to the tales her own Grandmother told her; tales honed on cold and rocky land, in hunger and in pain. The Hawthorn tree belonged to the true natives; the Sidhe. It guarded the entrance to the Faerie realm and as such could never be touched for fear of incurring their wrath. Even in the coldest of winters when fire could be the barrier between life and death, none must be cut from the tree. Only windblown wood could be foraged and burned.
Every year on the eve of St Brigid’s Day we would cut strips of coloured cloth and take them out to the tree and tie them to the branches for Brigid to bless as she roamed. Grandfather would remain in his chair, unconcerned with Brigid, a topped off whiskey beside him, glasses resting on his ruffled forehead, eyes on the news with gasps and tuts and shakes of the head.
He often remained at a distance from such things but I always saw the want in his eye. It was her thing and she had the rights to it. I knew deep down he wanted to feel the connection she felt but it remained unreachable. He had lost the ways of his forbearers and wouldn’t slight them by partaking in the ways of his new home. He had become a child of nowhere, unaccepted in his native land, nor the home his ancestors chose.
He passed that insecurity on to my father who referred to ‘that auld tree in the back field’, expressed as fact with empty words. When he’d had a drink he spoke differently, offering a story with a misty eye and his mother’s half smile; the same look that warmed her face as she wistfully decanted centuries-old folklore to young ears in front of a peat stacked fire.
It was all things to him; a fort, a father, a friend. Its arms were strong when they held him yet they were weak the day they tried and failed to catch him, his head bumping on brittle, winter branches, elbow fractured on frozen ground. A few days of recovery and he was back on the tree, swinging and climbing and hanging the way a wee boy does, screaming, Are ye watching me, Ma? Ma?
Grandfather had looked upon that tree with reverence. It was a soldier at his post, a defender of his realm, the friend he lost in France. He was always safe in the sight of it, comforted by the knowledge that it would protect him.
He had overestimated its ability the night they came, for the tree had never seen the small, shiny lumps in their hands, nor cold eyes and thin lips, blazed through cotton.
A dozen snaps of metal and smoke and the peppery tang of sulphur in the air. Grandfather slumped over root, red leeching into the ground, the tree nourished, strengthened by his sacrifice.
After he died, my Grandmother told me, to allay my fears, that my Grandfather was a part of the tree. He watched over us in a way the old tree never could. I would sit out there for hours telling him about school and my parents and how my little brother was the bane of my life.
Years passed and all changed. The tree became less and less like the fading memories of my Grandfather and more like my Grandmother. I considered that maybe he had been turning into the tree for years and that night was his time to be given up to the earth. Soon it would be her turn as the cracks and ripples on the tree mirrored the wrinkles on her face, the knots of the branches just like her knuckles, swollen with fluid and time.
Yet there was hope when the soft bloom lit up the branches like her bright soul eased the years.
She held on to see me become the Mother before she became the tree.
When I talked to my own Mother about scattering my Grandmother’s ashes at the auld Hawthorn Tree she stared at me, brow furrowed and an eyebrow raised. She knew nothing of its many lives. To her, it was just a tree.
Now I stand on its roots, looking out to see what they all see. Dusty remains skitter at my feet in the warm, spring breeze.
I do not look at the tree for all I will see is me.
Chris’ short fiction has featured in The Wellington Street Review, Brave Voices Magazine, Silk + Smoke, The Bangor Literary Journal, and Sirens Call. Recently, his work has been long-listed for Reflex Fiction’s International Flash Fiction Competition, has been performed on national radio and at the St Patrick’s Festival in Armagh.