Tale #71: The Crow Tree

It is often tempting for outside observers to judge a society or community solely by its traditions, rituals and festivals, to bestow a significance and seriousness onto events beyond that which they hold for their participants, to see superstition and fear in theatre and frivolity. Equally, of course, the reverse can be true for those involved, leading to a refusal to recognise the serious intent that underpins their festivities.

The event which takes place at the crow tree is one of the community’s least talked about rituals, and consequently can be assumed to be among its most serious. Indeed, there appears to be no written record of the ritual at all, although there are verified accounts of the tree used in the ritual itself dating back to the 15th Century. While the community’s own folklore suggests the ceremony has always taken place, nothing certain about its origins are recorded, and no speculations about its meaning would be offered to me.

The ritual takes place on February the 29th, during the second leap year after the birth of a father’s eldest daughter. The distinction of it being the father’s eldest daughter is an important one, as it means no man can participate in the ritual more than once, whereas a woman might well be required to participate both as a daughter and later as a mother.

(The strict criteria can lead to several convoluted possibilities where the mothers of daughters are concerned. For example, a mother’s first daughter might not be the father’s first daughter, and in this case the ritual would not be required. However, this same mother’s second daughter might then be fathered by a different man, one who has not fathered a daughter before, and so it would be this child that would necessitate the ritual. And of course this hypothetical mother could have more daughters by more new fathers, and so on. Indeed, it is possible for a mother to have to participate in the ritual with each of her daughters, while another woman may never have to, regardless of the number of daughters she has.)

Due to the fixed date of the event combined with the unfixed timing of a child’s birth, the daughter can be anywhere between the age of 4 and exactly 8 when she participates in the ritual. A child born on February the 29th would be the eldest possible participant, and a child born on February the 28th during a leap year would be the youngest.

If the child, the father or the mother have died before the ritual has taken place then a lament is sung by the surviving members of the family at the edge of the field where the ceremonial tree, or crow tree, resides. In these circumstances it is not permitted for the survivors to approach the tree itself during the course of the day.

In recent years, due to the decline in births within the community, it has been rare for there to be more than one family needing to perform the ritual in any given leap year, and indeed in some recent leap years the event has not taken place at all.

In times of a more populous community, however, when multiple rituals were to be carried out during the same day, the participating families were ordered by the age of the child involved, with the eldest girl first and youngest last – a reflection, perhaps, of the length of time they had been waiting to perform. On busy days it was said that, despite there being no apparent communication between the families, each group would arrive in the correct order, equally spaced apart, and that all the rituals would be finished in good time, well before the sun had set.

The ritual itself is one of the most sombre in the community’s complex calendar. No work is conducted on the day itself, and it is traditional for everyone who is not directly involved to stay inside their own houses, although this is not compulsory. No costumes are worn, and the tools used are not ceremonial objects, instead being everyday household objects or workplace items.

The ceremony starts with the father leaving his house at dawn. He makes his way to the edge of the field and waits by the gate. The mother and daughter do not hurry, although usually they will arrive before noon, and always before dusk. The mother carries with her a pail filled with breadcrumbs, offal, fish guts, bones, butter. The daughter carries a length of rope and a knife. When they arrive at the gate to the field, the father wordlessly leads the way in and they walk together to the crow tree at the centre of the field.

The crow tree is a long dead oak, its trunk and branches bleached white as bone by the sun. Other dead oak trees dot the field, but the crow tree is the only one that remains completely bare of ivy or lichen. It is believed that the trees in the field were killed by the sea hundreds of years ago, although the field is many miles inland. The trees themselves are so cold and solid it is tempting to believe they are actually made of stone.

The father stands with his back to the tree. The rope is tied around his left wrist, looped round the tree, and then secured around his right wrist. The daughter pushes her knife into her father’s belly as deeply as she can.

“Speak,” she says, and her father speaks.

They listen. His words go unrecorded.

“Sleep,” says the mother, and, removing the knife from his belly, she slits his throat.

His body is cut down from the tree and dragged a short way from the trunk. The food from the bucket is spread in a circle around him. The knife is placed in the pail, and the women, hand in hand, leave.

Overnight the crows come down from the tree and feed, either upon the flesh of beasts or the flesh of man. In the morning, as the crows return to their roosts, the father is reborn.

Thus judged, some fathers make their way back to town, bucket and knife in hand, and return to their former lives. Others leave, and are not known to be missed.

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Notes:

1. Written in April, 2010
2. This appeared in the “Rituals” issue of Here Comes Everyone magazine, in January 2019

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Tale #21: The Wolves In The Woods

In the woods a night of snow and howling winds and wolves at the wheels. Mother said, “They are getting too near,” and Father said, “Then throw them our youngest son, so we may escape.” Said Mother, “But he is our child,” and to that Father said, “We have two more.” So Mother threw her youngest son over the side of the cart, and the wolves circled around the boy and in the darkness they consumed him.

But soon the wolves were back at their wheels. Mother said, “They are getting too near,” and Father said, “Then throw them our daughter, so we may escape.” Said Mother, “But she is our child,” and to that Father said, “We have one more.” So Mother threw her daughter over the side of the cart, and the wolves circled round the girl and in the darkness they consumed her.

But soon the wolves were back at their wheels. Mother said, “They are getting too near,” and Father said, “Then throw them our eldest son, so we may escape.” Said Mother, “But he is our child,” and to that Father said, “We can always make more.” So Mother threw the eldest son over the side of the cart, and the wolves circled round the boy and in the darkness consumed him.

But soon the wolves were back at their wheels. Mother said, “They are getting too near,” and Father said, “Then throw them yourself, so that I may escape.” Said Mother, “But I am your wife,” and to that Father said, “I can always marry another.” So Mother threw herself over the side of the cart, and the wolves circled round the woman and in the darkness consumed her.

But soon the wolves were back at his wheels. Father said, “They are getting too near,” but there was no-one left to throw, and soon the wolves had surrounded him, and Father was forced to stop. The wolves circled the man, round and round in the darkness. They began to shiver and cough and choke and one by one they spat out his children and finally his wife.

And his family circled round and in the darkness they consumed him.

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Notes:

1. Written on July 21st, 2014
2. Illustrated by Holly English
3. The last line is an echo of the last line in The Three Wishes

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Crack

There were a load of cracks all over the field behind our house. They weren’t there yesterday. They were only there today.

The biggest one of them was so deep you could put your arm down it and never reach the end. This worked whether you had a short arm, like me, or a long arm, like my dad, or a leg, like my mum, who refused to lie down, like we were doing, and just sat on the side and dangled a leg down there instead.

“What are they, though?” I said.

“Mouths,” said my dad.

“Mouths?” I said, uncertainly.

“Yep, mouths,” said my dad. I could see my mother shaking her head and putting a finger to her lips but he carried on regardless. “It’s been so dry all summer that the ground needs to get water from somewhere. So it’s opened up some of its mouths in the hope of gulping down a child or two.”

“A child?” I whimpered.

“Children are full of water,” my dad said, and laughed and made to push me down the hole but he didn’t push me down the hole.

I jumped to my feet and thought of mouths and began to cry and my mother said, “Christ!” but not at me at my dad. My dad just shrugged his shoulders somehow even though he was lying on the floor and then rolled over onto his back and looked up at the sky.

“He needs to grow up,” he said, bitterly.

“You need to grow up,” said my mum to my dad, while hugging me and assuring me everything was okay, everything was all right, they weren’t really mouths, they weren’t going to eat me at all. And she made it all better and I stopped crying and I really love my mum I do.

A little while later we went off to the shop to get some ice creams, and when we got back my dad was asleep on the blanket. My mum smiled at me and put a finger to her lips and then exaggeratedly sneaked over to my dad and rolled him up in the blanket and pushed him down into the crack.

You’d never believe how much water there is inside a person, how thick and dark and endless it all is.

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Notes:

1. Written on August 3rd, 2018

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Tale #8: The Three Wishes

In the country hereabouts there lived a poor farmer with twelve children and a loving wife. The children ate so much that the farmer always went to bed hungry and one day he said to his wife, “I wish, just once, that I could have a whole meal to myself.”

That week a sudden snow fell, and all of his children were overcome by illness and died. On Sunday, his wife roasted a turkey but in her grief she could not eat, and the farmer had it all to himself. He packed it in a basket and took it out into the woods with him for lunch.

Under a willow tree he sat down, and remembering his ill-spoken wish, wept with guilt and said, “I wish my children were here with me now to share this meal.”

The basket by his side began then to shake and looking inside he saw the turkey begin to judder and dance, and then, one by one, all twelve of his children emerged from the turkey’s ragged carcass.

They stood around him in a circle and he fed each one in turn until there was no more meat left. Seeing them all before him again, the farmer was overcome with joy and said, “I wish that all of you will always have enough to eat, no matter how little is left for me.” At this, the children grabbed hold of their father and pulled him deep beneath the ground and in the dark places there fed forever upon his soul.

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Notes:

1. Written on October 9th, 2013
2. The premise of this is taken from (I’m probably supposed to say inspired by) the short story Macario, by B. Traven, published in 1953.
3. There’s also clearly an element of The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs (first published in 1902)
4. And also of course Charles Perrault’s The Ridiculous Wishes (from 1697), and all other fairy tale variants thereof.

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Tale #6: The Farmer’s Daughters

A farmer and his wife had a daughter, and they both loved her with all of their heart. They called her Red Rose, and they lavished her with love. Two years later they had another daughter, but this time the farmer’s wife died giving birth to her. The farmer called this daughter Black Death, and cursed her with his every breath.

The two sisters grew up reflecting the uneven treatment they received from their father. Red Rose, who was given nothing but praise, was fair of face, with long red hair and a confident and friendly nature. Black Death, however, was scolded and beaten daily and treated with naught but contempt and malevolence, and she grew up to be awkward and fearful and shy, with lank black hair and a sickly pallor to her skin.

One day, just after Black Death had turned 16, the farmer travelled to the city on business, and he took with him the farm’s full compliment of cows to sell at the market. He considered his daughters finally old enough to safely leave on their own, and anyway he was glad to be away from Black Death for a while. She still raised in him a furious hatred and despair that he could not control and which had not dimmed over the years but had instead grown stronger with every passing day.

Without the constant attacks from her father, Black Death, who called herself Raven, gradually became less withdrawn. Red Rose, who was usually forbidden by her father from helping her sister, shared with Raven the daily chores around the house and her work in the fields. Raven, who was forbidden by her father from playing with her sister, joined Red Rose in her games in the garden, and in the evening they swam together in the river that ran near their house.

By the end of the fifth day, Raven had begun to laugh and smile, and she said to her sister, “I wish this week could last forever. It has been to me as if a dream. But alas by Sunday our father will be home, and he shall wake us the next morning and all this shall be gone. It will be as if nothing has changed nor ever did. A dream fading away like all the others come the break of day.”

Rose, who loved her sister, said, “Let us run away together, far away, and never mention our father again.”

But Raven said, “He would never let us go. You due to love, and me due to hate. And when he came eventually to find us he would forgive you, and blame everything on me, and my punishment would be even more severe than that under which I suffer now.” And so they did not go.

On Sunday, the sisters were working in the fields when they heard a screaming by the river. They rushed there to discover a woman had been knocked into the water by her two cows, and was now being drowned beneath them as they clambered into the water to drink.

Raven, whose arms were strong from years of toil and could pull as strongly as an ox, grabbed the cords around the cows’ necks and hauled them up the river bank and back into the fields. Rose, who spent many of her days swimming in the river and was as agile as a fish, dived into the water and pulled the lady to safety.

“You have saved my life,” the woman said to the sisters. “Tell me anything you want, and I shall repay you as best I can.”

Red Rose said, “I have received nothing but kindness and riches my whole life, regardless of what I have deserved. Yet none have brought me happiness, for the only thing I want is for my sister to know joy, and be free of her life of torment.”

And Raven said, “My sister suggested we should run away together, for it is our father who torments me and has prevented me from ever knowing joy. But if we leave he will search us out until we are found, so he can punish me and reclaim my sister. For in love and in hate he considers us his own.

“But this week our father has been away, and today it is that he returns. So all I ask is that you come with us to meet our father, and tell him the kindness we have done you, in the hope that it will help convince him to let us leave. Then your debt to us will be repaid.

“For if he does agree to let us go and to leave us be, for as long as we live, both me and my sister can know true joy.”

And the woman said, “It will be done,” and she went with them to the road through the woods, and there they waited for the farmer’s return. When the old woman saw him approaching, she told the sisters to hide in the undergrowth with the two cows, and to remain quiet until all had been agreed.

“I will give him a chance to show his kindness,” she said to herself, and then to him she said, “Sir, your daughters saved me this afternoon from drowning, and I owe to them my life. In repayment for their deeds I wish to take them with me to my castle, where they can live like queens, for I will treat them with a kindness and generosity unknown in this part of the world. They shall want for nothing, and be happier than any who have come before or since.”

“No,” said the farmer. “I will not let you take them from me. They are my daughters and mine alone to keep.”

The woman said, “If their happiness is not enough, I offer you all my money and the great vast expanse of my lands, for I rule a great world. You shall be a king there without equal, and your daughters and I can stay here and toil as farmers upon the land.”

“My older daughter, whom I love, is all I have left to remind me of my wife, and as such is more precious to me than even the greatest treasure. Every time I look upon her face I see the beauty of her mother, and briefly I am happy again. No money nor power in the world would be enough to let me give her up,” said the farmer. “As for my other daughter, whom I detest, glad would I to be rid of her. But what she took from me can never be returned. To honour the memory of my wife, whose life she stole, her punishment must go on. And not for anything can I set justice aside and let her go free.”

“Then I shall return to you your daughters,” she said. “And you can go on your way.”

The old woman brought forth from the undergrowth her two cows. “Here is Red Rose,” she said, pointing to the cow with red-brown fur. “Here is Black Death,” said she, pointing to a cow of black and white. “Take them with you, and forever be gone from my sight.”

At this she rose up, and took on the appearance of a great witch, and in horror the farmer took the cows, believing them to be his daughters transformed by a great and terrible power, and he hurried away with them to his home and did not look back. Then the old woman took Red Rose and Raven to her realm, which was as vast as she had said, and vaster still, and there she treated them as if they were her daughters, and as if they were her friends.

“Oh Red Rose, look at what has been done to you,” said the farmer when he got home, and sadly stroked the red cow’s back. “Oh Black Death, look what you have done to her,” he said, and struck the black and white cow harshly with his hand.

The cows, although docile in temperament, were old and strong, and also stubborn and immovable, and they remained unmoved by both his kindness and his spite. In this way he lived out his days, his love and his hate stripped of power, and eventually he died. And on that morning the cows walked out beyond his fields and disappeared into the mists at the river’s edge.

As for the sisters, it is said they were never parted for as long as they lived, and nor were they ever unhappy again, in this or any other of their lives.

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Notes:

1. The first draft of this was written between June and November 2012, but this version is from May 2015

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