“Careful on the stairs with that box, Jen! You’ll trip ’n’ break your neck if you’re not careful.”
I winced and tapped the wood of the doorframe twice.
“I’m perfectly capable of carrying a box without suffering a fatal injury, mother.”
I winced and tapped the wood again. I was a superstitious boy and I’d developed a habit I learned from my Mum’s younger sister, Auntie Cat. Cat — or Catherine, as Mum called her — had travelled all over the world as a flight attendant and she enchanted me with her stories whenever she came back. Stories I hoped I’d have one day myself.
Mum always gave Auntie Cat a polite smile whenever she told them but Mum’s smile always started at her teeth and never, on these occasions, reached her eyes.
I told Auntie Cat that she was the bravest person I’d ever met. She told me there was a secret to her bravery. She said that she knew that trees had spirits who lived inside them and these spirits kept living in the wood in it long after the tree had been cut dow. She said, whenever she felt scared, all she had to do was give the nearest piece of wood — whether a tree, a chair or a door — a quick knock-knock and she knew she’d have someone – some thing – on her side. From that day, I knocked on wood whenever I was scared and it never failed to make me feel better.
I was around 8 years old when we first moved into 48 Blackthorn Glade. Before this day, I‘d lived my whole life in a modest terraced house with a plastic door which, when it closed, made the sound of a baked beans tin hitting the ground. The door in 48 Blackthorn Glade, however, was made of heavy wood, stained black by time and experience. And just opening it gave the sensation that the house was welcoming or luring people into its maws.
By the time we moved in, the wood of the door and the window frames had long since forgotten being a tree. Or so I thought. Blackthorn Glade was a small cul-de-sac on a hilly estate that had once been a dense forest. The cul-de-sacs of the estate remembered the trees of the forest with names like Elm Close, Oak Turn and Ash Burrow. Each cul-de-sac contained one house with a namesake tree and Number 48 Blackthorn Glade had an enormous blackthorn tree in its garden.
The first time I saw the tree I was following my Mum around the side of the house, running my hand along the rough stone bricks that made number 48 look like the grey, squat grandfather of the cul-de-sac. The coarse rock made my soft hands tingle and then suddenly they felt nothing but air and I found myself facing the blackthorn’s barren branches. It was as tall as the dark pointed roof of Number 48 and, without really understanding why, it made my insides tighten.
“S’funny,” my Mum said with her hands on her hips, “it should be covered with blossom this time of year.”
“What are blossoms, Mummy?”
“Little flowers that make the tree look like its covered from top to toe with white fluffy popcorn. They really should be here … Maybe the tree’s sick or something. Oh Daniel be careful of the –”
“ — thorns, love. Oh dear that one really went deep, didn’t it?”
A small bubble of blood rose from my pink finger and my Mum placed it, still throbbing with pain, right into her mouth. She made a POP sound with her lips as she took it out again and we both giggled.
“Come on, brainbox. It’ll be dinnertime soon and we’ll be eating tables and chairs if I don’t get the oven on now.”
She turned to walk towards the house but I stood with my finger held tight in the palm of my other hand, staring at the blackthorn tree. I knew it was absurd. I knew I must have reached out and touched one of those long, canine thorns on the bare branches with my pudgy little hand. Except I didn’t touch any branch. I did not reach out at all.
Over the next few weeks life continued as normal. My older brother Stephen had turned 18 and had got his first job working at a bank. And even though she said he was beginning to ‘use this house like a hotel’ Mum was very proud of Stephen really.
My sister Jen was two years younger than Stephen and an enormous — to me, anyway — 9 years older than myself. She and Mum did not get along well. Mum had had Stephen when she was, in her words, “much too young” and she never missed the chance to remind Jen of the fact of it.
For me, school was as dull as eve. My teacher, Mrs Saunders, seemed to take joy in catching me daydreaming and every time she shouted my name it felt like somebody had poured a bucket of water, which was both infernally hot and arctic cold, down my neck and back. She would call me a ‘daydreamer’ in front of the whole class, making the word sound like bad and potentially toxic to my classmates. My small belly cradled a heavy ball of guilt and so I always made sure I listened to her instructions carefully before I let my mind wander. I had a good memory and this annoyed Mrs Saunders because I could recite her instructions back to her in the minutest detail whenever ordered to. This was why Mum called me ‘brainbox’ and it was also why, I was fairly certain, Mrs Saunders hated me.
It’s a strange feeling being ‘hated’, especially as an 8-year-old. I never used that word myself because I hated nothing and you never heard that word around the house. Never, until, the day Jen mentioned her boyfriend.
Things in the house had already begun to turn strange. Stephen came home from the city less and less. And the less he came home the more Mum shouted at him, which made him come home even less still. Leaving just Mum, Jen and me.
Normally, I was immune from Mum’s wrath but ever since Mrs Saunders called me a daydreamer at Parents’ Evening Mum was on a one-woman mission to save me from becoming a ‘No-Hoper’. This was the name she gave to Jen because she was convinced she was the laziest human in England and, therefore, entirely without hope for the future. Jen never rose to it, though, she just went to her room and put her headphones on.
In an attempt to convince her I wasn’t a ‘No-Hoper’ I always brought my homework — plus the extra work Mum gave me — downstairs to finish in front of her. At first, Mum helped me out but after a few weeks at Number 48 she just scowled out the window towards the blackthorn tree.
She was doing this the day Jen came home early.
“Well look who it is,” she said, “Lady of the Manor. Just in time for dinner, again. Let’s see if you can help out with the dishes this time, eh?”
Jen kept her schoolbag on her shoulder and tousled my hair.
“I’m going to Michael’s for dinner.”
There was silence. No chopping, no rinsing, no movement from my Mum at all. I gripped my pencil so hard it left a deep purple line in my finger and I held my breath in the silence.
“Who is Michael?”
“He’s my boyfriend and, before you start …”
The silence was shattered. Mum and Jen began speaking over each other louder and louder. I sat at the table and watched them elevate the conversation into screaming and pointing at each other — their faces looked so similar when they were angry. Jen finally gave up and walked away.
“Ah well, there she goes throwing her life away. I knew it was only a matter of time.”
“You don’t know anything about me or Michael, so just stay out of it!”
“I know plenty about the ‘Michaels’ of the world and you’ve given me no reason to think you can make better decisions — ”
“Better decisions than a slut like you, you mean?”
I’d heard the word on films I shouldn’t have watched. It was a very bad one. I moved my hand slowly to tap twice on the wood of the table. Two taps for ‘Help!’
I looked up and saw Mum striding past the table and, in one fell swoop, she reached out her hand and slapped Jen full in the face. Small crimson droplets sprayed from Jen’s lip onto the living room door and the world paused.
Both Mum and Jen were holding their hands to their mouths. Mum’s eyes blazed but tears were already forming in them. Then Jen released her hands and I saw her palms, covered with blood from a fresh tear in her bottom lip. All three of us stared at the blood in her hands and, without turning, Jen whispered three words:
“I hate you.”
Mum reached out one trembling hand to touch Jen’s shoulder but, as soon as Jen sensed her near, she shrieked, “DON’T YOU FUCKING TOUCH ME!” and ran up the stairs.
I turned to my Mum but she ran into the kitchen and locked the door. Not knowing who to comfort and feeling the familiar burn of tears in my eyes, I got up from the table and escaped to the garden.
I sat at the base of the blackthorn tree and went over everything I could remember the past few weeks. Everyone had been strange. Stephen less present. Jen more irritable and Mum, well, she had started spending long moments looking out the kitchen window in silence. I didn’t know what had changed but I felt a kind of absence in the pit of my stomach. Like the pain you get when you’re sent to bed without dinner. I wasn’t sure what I’d lost nor why I was desperately ‘hungry’ to regain it but I knew something had broken in our family that night.
“It was the blood on the door.”
I nodded my head. The blood on the door was like a kind of old-age wax seal they used to put on letters but, instead of sealing a message, the blood sealed our family’s past and announced a new and very unfamiliar future.
“She’s never hit her before.”
It was true. Once, two years ago, I’d stood up in church and shouted at the priest when he was talking about original sin. I thought he was trying to get me in trouble with my Mum and I let him, her and the entire congregation know that I’d done nothing wrong and that this man was a liar. Ironically, this was the ‘something wrong’ that got me in trouble anyway and my Mum took me outside, dropped my little trousers and slapped my bare bottom. Even so, she never hit hard, just enough to shock, and she had never made me bleed. Like she had Jen.
“Things will never be the same again.”
I nodded, put my face in my hands and cried. I felt the jagged bark of the tree poke through my jumper as I cried and then I realised that the voice speaking to me was not my own. Mine was high and light and young. This was inexplicably, defiantly old.
“Who’s there?” I asked while wiping my nose on my sleeve.
“Oooh now there’s a question. My first name was carried off by the birds in another age but the winds between my leaves still remember they once called me Straif. Blackthorn Straif, at yer service.”
A sob — too terrified to step out into a world with this voice in it — stopped in my throat and turned to a cough. I didn’t turn around but I could hear the fire-crackle of living wood shifting and the musty tang of rotten logs tormented the wind.
“And I say again,” it wheezed, “it’ll never be the same around here.”
“How … how do you know?”
“Aaah’ve been studyin’ humans for generations, lad. They used to walk beneath my branches and they’d let the very worst of themselves come out when they thought no one was lookin’. And no one was, ‘cept old Blackthorn Straif, of course.”
“It was just an accident. Mummy didn’t mean to hit Jen, she just … she just …”
“She just did what was in her heart, lad. Not the outside bit, what’s all pink and rosy, but the inside, what’s dark and pure and private.”
“That’s not true!” I growled but was too scared to turn around.
“Blackthorn Straif has been a lot of things over the years but a truth-twister is not one of them!”
“You don’t know! You don’t know anything!”
“Oh yes I do, lad. Yer see, I’ve tasted it … in your sap!”
“My sap? What do you mean?”
“Core blimey, you’re slow int ya? Yer sap is that sweet red liquid what’s squishin’ round yer body.”
“Yeeeees,” the word sounded like dry leaves whipped into the air on an autumn breeze. “I tasted your fear on my thorns and I tasted the young one’s hate in the drops that touched my door. Both was real.”
“Tis made of me, int it? You might say this house — this invading shelter — grew up out of me and mine. They took our bones and our skin when they made room for their houses and gave nuffin’ in return. S’ok, though. Blackthorn Straif never forgets an injustice. Just ask the last one.”
“The old man who lived here before?”
“Well aren’t you a clever lad? That’s right, he was the first of your lot to live inside Straif’s house an’ he was a dirty human even before they picked his rotten pieces up out of that chair.”
“Wh-what happened to him?”
“Same thing what’s happenin’ to your Mum there. He started lookin’ out the window at me and my twisted grain started to remind him of the Old Ways, the Old Ken, and here remembered why you don’t disturb the forest. When it began it came on quick. Just like now.”
I looked up and saw Mum standing at the kitchen window again, looking out towards me but not seeing anything except some horror in front of her unblinking eyes. I waved at her slowly.
“Oh she’ll not be seeing that, lad. She’s already got the gaze. The last one had the same thing … just before he drank something what disagreed with him. The last disagreement he ever did have.”
“Stop it! Leave her alone!”
“And why would I do that? She’s got the gaze they had when the mountains were young and the forest was worshipped not wasted. The younger one’s got it too …”
“That one what got her bark split open not 5 minutes ago. Did you, in all your short life, ever hear her talk to her mother like that? Naaaahh, that one’s seen a change and, soon enough, the other one will too. It has begun.”
Stephen. I could hear the rumble of his car approach from the other side of the house. I needed to warn him, to keep him from even breathing the air around 48 Blackthorn Glade.
Running, I skirted round the corner of the house and grazed my elbow on the brick but when I got to the front door I heard it slam in front of me. I turned the handle but it was locked. I ran around to the large bay window at the front of the house and saw Stephen standing still in the centre of the living room. He was holding his smart black satchel in one hand but he was standing stock still in front of the window that looked on to the back garden.
I ran round the house again until I was standing at the window and banging on it to get Stephen’s attention. He was stiller than a tree and he was staring past me but I could see his entire body trembling, as if he was trying to hold his breath longer than he could. His eyes were unblinking and becoming more and more grey by the second.
I ran to the kitchen window and I banged on it too but Mum just stood there with a single tear frozen in her now stormcloud-grey eyes. I swirled and ran to the tree.
“What aren’t they moving? What are you doing to them?!”
“Do you know what a toll is, seedling?”
“Like … like when you drop coins in the basket on bridges?”
“That’s right. Well, your family owes me a toll … and I’m collecting.”
“Because the Forest has always exacted a toll. Long before they butchered my family and made these shelters out of them people walked between our barks and they remembered us. They memorised the angles of our branches, the scars on our barks and they made maps of the forest in their minds.
“Until they forgot. We used to give them wood to burn, food to eat and thatch to keep away the winter winds and, in return, we lived on in their memories but not no-more. Now, I’m the only one who hasn’t forgot.”
With this I heard three muffled screams and I ran towards the locked house. Through the larger window I could see dry, twining branches covering the floor of the dining room. I ran closer and saw cones of roots rising out of the floor and running up Stephen’s trouser legs and then I saw him raised off the floor. The roots had lifted his body and he lay suspended in the air with his back arched, shaking. His grey eyes secreted a thick, pearly liquid but they kept staring out the window towards the blackthorn tree.
I ran to the kitchen window and saw my Mum lifted up too. Her tears were now long streaks of pearly white and the liquid was solidifying on her face and in her eyes. I heard a choked squeal from upstairs and I slammed my tiny hand on the window impotently.
“Please stop it you’re going to kill them!”
“Autumn leaves, seedling. Nothing more.”
“They’re not autumn leaves they’re my family.”
There was a noise from behind me that bellowed like a horn. I turned to see a thick root jutting out of Stephen’s open mouth. He was screaming but the scream was funnelled into the root and the painful horn resonated off the clouds that were now heavy in the sky. I ran to the kitchen window and saw a similar root extend out of my Mum’s mouth and she was screaming too.
“Why are you doing this?!”
“I told you, it’s the toll they owe.”
I shifted in my plastic shoes. Two slightly higher pitched screams joined my brother’s deeper one from behind. In front of this age-old thing I was completely useless. I was a No-Hoper. I wanted to sit against the wall and cry but everywhere I looked, everything I touched was a part of the tree. Then I remembered the toll and breathed in hard through my nose.
“You said the toll used to be memories that people made of the forest.”
“They will remember.”
The screams behind me grew louder.
“They won’t! They’ll just die and dead people don’t remember anything!”
“Then the others will remember what happened to them!”
“No, they won’t! Mummy says nobody even remembers the name of the old man who died here. People’s lives go so fast that they don’t remember what they had for dinner last night.”
“Then it’s not a toll …” the voice sounded like storm winds through a cracked window, “… it is revenge.”
The screams behind me rose higher, three souls stretched to their limits, and then they stopped. I looked in through the windows and saw Stephen shaking violently, his face turning purple. I took three deep breaths and wiped the tears from my eyes.
“Revenge never got anyone anywhere! You need a toll again … and I can pay it!”
“You’re just a seedling, a pup or whatever your kind call the little ones what’s not lived long enough to know day turns to night. What can you pay?”
“I remember everything I hear, everything I do and everything I say. As much as I wish I couldn’t I can’t help it. People’s voices — conversations from before I could speak well myself — whisper to me at night when I’m trying to sleep and I’m kept awake by everything they said. I remember everything and I’m young so I’ve got a whole life to remember even more. To remember you!”
There was a pause. The cuk-cuk-cuk noises from my family choking behind me filled the air but I stayed brave, I never turned my face away from the tree.
“If, as you says, you remember everything, then what is my name, little seed?”
I felt that same hot-cold wash down my back again. My mind was blank. It felt like there was something covering it, like smoke from a hot oven, and as much as I tried I couldn’t remember the name. I looked down at my shoes and saw they were already covered in thin roots from the ground. Tiny roots wriggling in spasms. I closed my eyes and repeated every word I could remember from the last time it called me ‘little seed’ to the last words I heard in the old house.
“B — blackthorn.”
“That’d be too easy, pup. Blackthorn’s my family name and a good old one it is too. I’ll show you.”
The roots pierced my shoes and then I felt them slide between my toes and, with a sharp jab, they slid beneath my toenails. The pain took my breath away and I tried to scream before everything went grey.
What I saw was a memory. Someone else’s memory. I remembered the sound of birds, the smell of a cool autumn breeze and the light of a winter sun through a canopy of leaves. I remembered how the angle of branches and the scars on barks became lines on the map of the forest.
I remembered people wearing the clothes I’d seen in history books. I remembered a man with a tricorn hat and a black mask standing, a long pistol held out in his hand towards a waiting carriage. I remembered lovers with fingers intertwined like warm branches. I remembered love and I remembered hate and all the words spoken between. I remembered centuries of what men did, what they buried between the trees and just before the roots reached inside my lips I said “Straif! Your name is Blackthorn Straif!”
The root paused between my teeth. It was sharp and painful but then it retreated. I felt how deep they were then. I could feel the dry wood rasp against my ribs. I could feel them scratch beneath the skin of my legs and feet, leaving me burning as they scraped me out from the inside. I fell to my knees and looked back at Stephen. He crumpled to the floor and I heard two similar thuds from the kitchen and from upstairs.
“Well remembered, little seed.”
The voice was more distant now and it sounded like the rolling of wizened leaves on the breeze.
“Do not forget old Blackthorn Straif, though … because old Straif will remember you!”
My family never spoke about what happened when I was 8. That night they walked like zombies through the house to their beds and there they slept until the next afternoon when they all laughed at how lazy they’d been.
“You must’ve needed it,” Mum said and Jen nodded as she tried to chew a potato she could barely fit into her mouth.
“Mmm mmm, god I’m starving too! Pass the gravy, Ste.”
Stephen was hunched over his plate, his hands moving like ants’ mandibles that shovelled food into his mouth. He paused and looked at Jen with the dead eyes of someone who hasn’t heard anything that’s just been said and was now expected to act.
“Rwhat rdid rou rsay?!” Stephen managed. The words barely made it over the shocking amount of potato and sausage in his mouth before they flicked a tiny speck of white mush across the dividing space and it landed in the centre of Jen’s forehead.
Everything stopped. The table was silent. Mum’s eyes flickered back and forth between Jen and Stephen, who stared dumbly at each other. Without dropping my cutlery I slid my little finger down and gave two sharp but silent taps on the wood. Nothing. I gave two more taps. Not to ask for help, I’d learned very well that the spirits in the wood won’t help for nothing. No, this time I tapped to remind the old soul outside that I hadn’t forgotten our deal.
Suddenly, Jen shouted “Ewwww gross” and started laughing. Stephen tried to laugh with his mouth full but ended up dropping most of it back onto his plate. Mum said “Oh you mucky bugger!” but there was no anger in her tone. In fact, it was the happiest thing I’d heard her say since we moved to this house.
The blackthorn tree has blossomed 50 times since we all laughed at the table. Stephen will retire from the bank this year after half a century of making more money than he knows how to spend and Jen is now a tenured music teacher at a ‘prestigious university’. Before she left us 10 years ago, Mum told us all how proud of us she was a thousand times and, after the night with Blackthorn Straif, I never again heard her say the word ‘No-Hoper’.
And me, well I’d made a promise with the tree in the garden that I would remember and pass on my memories to anybody who came near. So now I tell Auntie Cat’s stories to my own children and add a few of my own here and there. But most of all I make sure that they remember the blackthorn tree and the memories that gave this place its name.