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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My Mother

My mother died last week, which was sad, I suppose. She was a hard person to love, my mother, though, so in many ways it was a relief.

Anyway, for a week or so after I sort of wandered around in a daze. Shock, I expect, and also that I wasn’t really sure what to do or how to do it. I spent so long on the phone telling everyone she was dead that for awhile it seemed like this was it now, for me, forever. Just sitting here at my desk ringing people up and going, “Do you remember [mother]? Well, she’s dead, I’m afraid. Sorry about that. Did you know her well? Yeah, oh, yeah, yeah, I know. I know. Sorry. Yeah she was, she really was. But still she’s my mother, and, well… I just thought you should know.”

I’m not sure even the vicar bothered to attempt to console me, to express in any way a sense of regret.

Anyway, I thought yesterday that it was over, after the funeral was done and she was safely buried and I’d cleared away all the uneaten buffet stuff from the table I’d set up in the living room and everyone had gone home and there was no need for them to ever think about her again.

But this morning I came down stairs and there she was, sat at the kitchen table, eating some toast and marmite, biting through it toothlessly with her dry papery lips.

“I thought you were dead,” I said.

“I was,” she said. “I spent the last week in heaven,” she said. “Nice place, really, except for all the cats.”

“The cats?” I said.

My mother didn’t like cats.

“Yes, the cats. Cats everywhere there was. Every cat that ever lived. Millions of them, sitting around. Sitting on everything,” she said. “Well, every cat that ever died, I suppose.”

“And…?”

“And what?”

“Why are you here, mother? You’re supposed to be dead.”

“Well, you know how I feel about cats.”

Everyone knew how she felt about cats.

“So I left. Told God it was either the cats or me. He chose the cats.” She took another bite of her toast. “He reminded me a bit of your father, really.”

“Who did?”

“God.”

“Are you sure you were in heaven, mother?”

“Well, where else would I have fucking been?”

So, anyway, now I expect I’ll have to spend the rest of the week on the phone again, telling everyone that I told that she was dead that she’s alive again now. I’m really not looking forward to having to explain this to the council. Or the inland revenue, or whatever they’re called now.

Actually, she’s going to be bloody furious when she finds out they’ve cancelled her pension. And how few people turned up at her funeral. How no-one even ate the sandwiches I’d made and that they’d all ended up in the bin.

Maybe I should let her call everyone.

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Notes:

1. Written on June 30th, 2016

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