|You can e-mail Victor with any comments you have about his work.|
|Just some more work from Victor , first Prize winner of our Poetry and Short Story Competition 2000, held recently with 'Kanes Mark'|
|All the Authors work is copywrited and may not be used without express permission from said author|
Hundreds had fallen that October day in 1641. The toll was higher because of the biting north - westerly wind, both cold and wet, that spared neither man nor beast. Like a sharp pair of scissors it snipped away those desperately clinging on to their lifeblood, reducing their stubborn resistance to that of chaff. They lay where they had fallen on the cold, damp earth. Some were covered by swirling leaves swept up from the ever-deepening layers on the forest floor, for autumn had come early that year and the trees had been brushed nearly bare. Others lay in the open, exposed to the wind, rain and nature’s indifference. None were left to gather them up, for Cromwell’s Puritan army was sweeping south, clearing the land with a zeal that only religion can birth. Man and child, cow and pig, all were put to the sword. Crops and cottages were put to the torch. The land became a barren wilderness, an ashen tract where the only harvest that autumn was death.
Months passed slowly. Two seasons competed for the same ground. Spring struggled to be born, winter struggled not to die. At the edge of the wood, amidst the hazel and beech trees, one of the fallen started to stir. Buried underground, safe from scavengers, a genetic time clock started to tick, switched on by the warmer, longer days. The cold, brown flesh started to swell and enlarge, metamorphosing into a new entity. One part pushed down deeply into the earth, cutting through the red clay. The other, bent and curled under the weight of the soil, shouldered inexorably upwards. There was no natural birth canal, so it fought and wrestled through the cloying darkness before bursting out into the open. The light that had been the catalyst to change was now its power source. Looking up, it stretched out and unfolded it’s corrugated leaves and drank in the sun. The acorn was reborn.
It had a hard struggle to survive. Of the previous year’s fall, only a few travelled the journey from death to life. Most of those which made the transition were nibbled by grazing animals feasting on the sweet green shoots or trampled underfoot. But somehow it clung on, sending its shoots ever deeper to give a secure anchorage.
The land was resettled. A large, fertile domain, the reward for loyal service to a distant monarch, was given over to a newcomer. He planted his mark on the area. Fresh crops were sown in the fallow land, new barns and tenant cottages built and soon filled. The parent oak was cut down and hewn into roof beams and thick doors for the fortified manor house. Peace came and went like the ceaseless swell of the waves breaking on the nearby lough shore, never seeming to last longer than a generation.
The wood was preserved as a haven for pheasant and other game, at least until the annual shoot. Gamekeepers guarded against human and animal predators, their guns and steel traps taking many a limb, and sometimes a life. The carcasses of the vermin were hung from the fences or special “hanging posts” at the edge of the wood, a silent testimony to their prowess as hunters and also as a warning to others not to enter.
The passage of time pealed the death knell to that way of life. The pheasants gradually disappeared from the undergrowth. New colonists came to make their mark. Red squirrels, previously treated as vermin and shot on sight, now darted freely through the branches, their russet coats perfectly complementing the amber coloured woodland. They would avidly gather the fallen acorns and bury them in various caches around the forest floor. The rich bounty caused their chestnut fur to thicken and soften to prepare for winter’s deprivations. Their numbers flourished and like all before them, they enjoyed a few short years of peace and prosperity. Then the invaders came again. Sweeping through the countryside, they were larger, stronger and adapted more quickly, and so usurped the old order. Red and grey fought for the valuable harvest, the best nesting areas and overall supremacy.
Soft brown eyes watched the extravagant arboreal antics of the squirrels above. Michael McCarthy’s small, wiry frame sat dwarfed against the sturdy trunk, ten feet in girth. The broad, rounded outline of the oak’s canopy now rose over one hundred feet into the sky like a huge green umbrella. His small, domed head, framed by a few remaining strands of white hair, rested back against the thick, rough bark. His face was brown and wizened as you would expect of someone who had spent all of their life outdoors. Times had been hard, and each year that he had struggled through had seemed to plough a furrow on his features. One of his thin hands, with the clearly visible veins gleaming through the paper money skin, reached up to stroke his chin in his own characteristic gesture of thought.
It’s been a long time since I was able to move like that, he thought wryly as he watched them perform a seemingly impossible leap across from one bough to another.
He was a quiet man, but when in front of an open fire the gates of feeling seemed to open up and he became a teller of stories. In his local community he was regarded with awe, although he had nothing beyond his great age to recommend him. He was no active maker of history, only a spectator. The oak was the real patriarch, the prophet reaching up to the heavens, the harbinger of shelter and peace.
This was his oak, for he had always thought of it as his own; as had his father and his father’s father, back countless generations. In the village it had always been known as “McCarthy’s oak”. Michael came here to talk, to pour out his troubles, for his grandfather had told him that the tree could hear and understand. Not that he believed in any of that superstitious nonsense, but when life would seem to crowd in about him and he didn’t know where to turn, he would come and sit at it’s base. It was like an old friend who wouldn’t betray any confidences, and here he felt comfortable. He would speak out loud, airing his thoughts and fears. They rose and were filtered by the canopy above before being recycled, drifting down again more ordered and comprehensible. Having let off steam and feeling more able to cope, he would walk back home, hands in pockets, kicking the leaves as he went.
His father and grandfather had been gamekeepers on the old estate. His grandfather especially was fond of the old tree. He had often taken the small Michael by the hand and walked around the tree, and once told him it resembled Ireland, always being fought over.
“What do you mean, Grandpa?” the young boy asked, eager to glean more snippets from his own special font of wisdom.
“Well, when I was a boy, an old clergyman, who was more interested in natural history than the church, told me about the war of the oak.”
At the mention of war the young boy’s attention was fully captured. He loved any stories about fighting and battles.
“It’s a secret war that is waged every year”, he whispered, smiling to himself as he saw the boy’s eagerness that matched his own when he was first told the story. “Hundreds of different insects attack, nibbling at the leaves and burrowing into bark, and some years they attack so hard and in such numbers that the oak will lose almost all its leaves.”
With that he pointed up to the tree and they could both see that, compared to all the other trees around it, the oak seemed to be sparsely covered.
“Doesn’t that harm it or even kill it?”
“You would think that it would, wouldn’t you? But this old tree is very special and hardy. While other trees, such as the beech or elm, would be killed, it will send a message away deep down into it’s roots and get extra energy to grow a whole new crop of leaves and heal the hurts on it’s trunk. It is more than equal to fight the drain of life and energy. Understand?”
“I think so,” he said slowly, and then blushed, “well, not really.”
His grandfather had laughed and reached out to ruffle his hair.
“Don’t worry, you will someday. I didn’t really understand when I was your age. Just remember this is a strong tree, extra specially strong!”
“But do they hurt the tree?” the small boy had asked indignantly.
“Probably, but it will never tell. It keeps its fights a secret.” was the reply.
As he sat there, those words had come back to him through the years. He smiled at the remembrance.
The squirrels suddenly stopped their angry barking and chattering, and froze on the branches. A gesture of wind touched his face and carried a small voice.
“Grandpa Michael, where are you?”
“Over here, pet,” he said softly, and smiled as he saw his fair-haired grand daughter come running towards him. Little Christina, only ten years old, sensed the magic of the woods as much as him and loved its ethereal beauty.
She gave him a hug and then sat on his knee, her head resting back on his chest.
“Watching Squirrel Pipkin again?” she whispered, for that was the name he gave the squirrels, which in her eyes all belonged to him.
“Yep, and all his friends,” he said and stroked her hair. As they both gazed up at the renewed antics, the softened sunlight fingered through, stippling the leaves lying deep on the ground. Rocked by the gentle rhythm of the branches, it was an evening cradled in peace, one of those special life moments to savour and tuck away. As they sat there motionless, the squirrels started up their chattering again. A large grey chased a smaller red wildly across a bough. It fled down the trunk and scuttled across to another tree, where it sleekly slipped up to a high branch. There it sat up on its hind legs and chattered and squeaked loudly, boldly scolding its much bigger adversary.
“Why do they always fight and argue, Grandpa?” she whispered, “ isn’t there enough space and food for them all?”
It was a question he had often asked.
“There is, pet, plenty indeed to go around. But they don’t want to share. They want to take what they don’t have and hold on tightly to what they have already got.”
“Just like us, eh, Grandpa?”
“Just like us, pet.”
A breeze suddenly started to play with the topmost branches and got stronger as they continued to watch. The young girl shivered in the cooler air. Old Michael felt the wind start to penetrate his thin defences as well.
“Come on, pet, time to be getting back. Our tea will be ready soon.”
Rising, she slipped her hand into his, and they both walked back, kicking up the leaves as they sauntered along.
During the evening the north - westerly wind continued to strengthen, wrestling and bending the venerable old oak. Hundreds fell again that night.