It must have been mid-October when the unfortunate man set out for a stretch of the legs. Frank enjoyed his afternoon strolls. He’d set out precisely after dinner which finished at 6:15 pm. He wore his white woollen socks to the rims of his knees, his khaki shorts with the two hidden pockets, his orange blocked button-up tucked in and secured by his leather belt where he’d punctured an extra hole. Not because he’d lost weight but because the belt was on discount.
‘A perfectly good belt,’ he thought, ‘going to waste.’
He was not a man to worry himself about fashion. He was a man of function; deliberate. A man of miraculous punctuality and mirthless structure. Although one could say his yellow-shaded glasses were funny.
A lukewarm breeze slid over Frank’s cheeks as he pushed open the wooden fence. Damp mist hung low over the meadow, almost purplish, the droplets cloaking the field in a silvery hue. Briskly he ascended the hill towards the old beech tree which roots dug firmly into the hillside. He didn’t notice the two shades on top of the hillside adjacent of the tree. A pair of men with arched backs and distorted faces.
Those men would come often on late afternoons, sometimes even at nights, when everyone has fallen in a nocturnal slumber. Their business is obscure; their intentions nameless. No good things happen when they are around. The pair is known by Blame and Pride if they’re known at all. They most certainly do not come from the village below.
Their appearance is quite frightful, unlike anything seen before. Blame is a cup and a half taller than Pride, but Pride could fit into two Blame’s and is not embarrassed to say so. Pride’s somewhat like a creased ball of newspaper that tumbles down busy streets, kicked by leathery feet and taking into the air; a ball of paper with no location to go or a place to stay. His face is that of a fat sluggish-frog submerged in murky waters, eyes bulbous like preying night-cats. Blame on the other hand has the down-determined expression of a penniless salesman; he looks like the kind of dream you might have if you fell asleep drunk on a dripping-wet barstool in a Scottish pub; delirious, but stubbornly persistent, and after waking up, you’d carry a nauseous feeling in your stomach as if something you ate was a few days off.
There exist no greedier, ruder or nastier pair.
They chuckled wistfully as they regarded the old man taking off his glasses, wiping them with a cloth, peering through the frame, squinting his eyes and wiping them again. At one point he stopped to remove a smudge with the side of his thumb. Mid-October afternoons are always foggy and bad here for the less-fortunate far-sighted folk.
‘My dear friend, do your eyes spy the same calamity approaching?’ Blame spoke slow with a sound low, creaking like the crushing of desiccated bark.
Pride, who had been digging the frozen ground fervently, jolted upward and pierced the twilight sky with eyes bright ablaze such as a cold fire. It didn’t take him long to spot Frank.
‘He’s come too early,’ Pride’s high voice slithered through yellowed teeth.
Pride started to dig more urgently now, his shocking, slender body appearing to fight off the shapeless identity of time. The shovel slashed through the earth, sometimes with ease but more often it bounced back where it had hit a rock or a root. ‘He’s come too soon. I can’t finish the grave,’ he panted. Blame nodded and made a musing noise that could be interpreted as ‘let’s come back later’. Or perhaps it meant ‘there is still time; he’s stopped again to catch his breath.’ There was no way of knowing.
But it didn’t matter. Pride had had enough.
Both men regarded the shallow hole with jagged rims and strands of unearthed grass scattered through it like malachite shards. It was clearly not big enough for a human body.
‘We could slice him in two,’ Pride said, ‘he’s very skinny nowadays. We’ll use the shovel; its edges are still sharp.’
‘You seem to think that the body is made of twigs and sand,’ Blame said.
Pride gave an insulting frown. ‘I’m no fool! I know that it has strong bones, thick muscles and lean flesh. In fact, I’m quite sure I know a lot more about many things than you do.’
‘You didn’t dig fast enough; that’s the problem.’
He was probably on time after all.
The pair stole into the shadows, hiding behind the lowest branch. The hole concealed by the mists’ obscurity.
As Frank reached the top of the hill, he felt the burning of his lungs. He noticed that there were still leaves on the white beech tree, though not as abundant as you might see in summer. Some were fiercely bright as acidic wine and, on the ground, the leaves were evenly speckled like fragrant, sweltering oranges. If you happened to step on one of the old ones, they’d sigh and disintegrate under your sole with gratification. The tree always gave Frank the impression of a large eagle that spread-out its wings. It gave him reassurance.
Hardly anyone came here except some children, to play. They’d hang upside down from the thick branches and laugh until they looked sick, or they’d bounce their ball against the fat trunk until it rolled down the hill and they had to climb up again. But today they weren’t here, and Frank was glad for it.
He turned around. From here he could see the bird fountain made from marble that once was white but was now coated with a damp, furry moss that, according to some villagers, added to its magical appearance. And to the right, the Old Roman church where the back of the roof had collapsed and caused dreadful leakages when it rained, and, specifically frightened the tending pastor.
Frank adjusted his shirt and gave his neck a quick rub, then rolled his shoulders up and down, let out a big puff of air so that his chest deflated. This was good, the walk. It took his mind off the thing he tried to forget so hard. If only his heart would have a little more strength.
‘You have arrived at the perfect time.’
Frank leaped around, scouring the dimmed surroundings. ‘Who’s here?’
There was some movement a few meters away near the line of the woodland. The second time the voice spoke, he couldn’t suppress a small shriek. It originated from the tree.
‘You’ve arrived at the right moment!’ it said.
‘Alright! Heard you the first time.’ He searched for words. ‘What do you mean, the right moment? Who are you? Where –’
‘To make amends for your mistakes,’ it said.
Thickness swelled up inside Frank’s throat. He moved closer, his head cocked, his left ear pitched to the tree, but not too close – he didn’t dare to lose the moonlight.
‘What is it you want?’
Somewhere a blackbird shot out of the shrubs, screeching into the hastening blackness of the night.
‘Now, don’t be so brisk,’ the voice growled, ‘why assume there’s something wanted?’
He sniffed the cool air and tried to pull himself together. There could be no such thing as a talking tree, he knew, because he’d read it in books but never heard of it on the news; and the news always said the truth, awful truths, but things that were there, happening, in the world he was part of. Or used to be. He wasn’t actually sure whether he wanted to be part of it any longer.
Frank then was convinced that something else was at play. Something unnatural that he hadn’t yet encountered. The waxing moon surrounded the ivy on the tree with a halo, translucent as barrel-aged whiskey.
‘There’s always something needed in life,’ Frank said as he fumbled the rim of his khaki shorts.
It was quiet for a moment.
The higher voice said: ‘Not if you’re good enough. Then, you have everything.’
The lower voice said: ‘There’s always someone who’s better. Who’s more successful than you.’
The soil was frost-bound. Frank could tell from the shuddering heather. He suddenly felt very tired. Tired of this game that was obviously a ruse and how dare the tree talk about being good enough and whether or not he’d had success in his life.
Then the voice continued. ‘But now that you mention it, we do need something.’
‘Look, I’m not sure what you’re playing at, “tree”,’ he did quotation marks in the air and then felt very foolish since there was no way the tree had eyes, ‘but I’ve had enough. I’m going to start walking back now.’ And he turned around with determination, his eyes fixed upon the small village with the flickering light-bugs and the aged copper-coloured roof-tiles. In the embrace of the falling night, the town invoked a sense of bewitchment and trance. He wished he was back in his chair near the window. He wished he could’ve had more time.
After he’d taken a few steps he half expected to be called back by the tree; most certainly the voice would reappear after he was almost out of ear reach, but the tree remained silent. It stayed quiet for such a while he began to think that he’d imagined it all. Maybe he’d eaten something funny. An odd mushroom.
But then the tree spoke again.
‘You know you can’t go back.’
Frank knew. ‘Why?’, he heard himself ask. The white beech tree that suddenly felt like his only best friend. There was an uncanny familiarity to the voices as if he’d heard them before in a dream, delirious and hazy. Were they even real?
‘You know why. You’ve tried long enough,’ the voices both said. ‘You’ve thought about it long enough. Every time you opened your eyes in the morning when you made weak green tea for yourself. You asked yourself the question; every time you watched the creeping shadows engulfing yet another day, another day where it didn’t get better. Where nothing happened or changed. You’re tired, had enough. And it’s alright. We’re here. We’ve always been here.’
The silent breath of the wind caressed the clothes around his body and urged him back toward the tree. Was this really why he was here?
For the first time in his life, he felt that he could cry. He hadn’t been able to cry for a long while. He’d felt the emptiness alright, not just in his mind, but the mundane and bland coldness that flowed through his limbs and chest like a late November fall-day where the sky seemed ashen white but it was clouds that covered the sky and it was not truly the sky but the clouds, all over.
Nothing came and nothing left.
He’d gone through his life with no particular emotion. He performed every movement as if it were directed by a shadowed entity, face dark, dark eyebrows. He had regarded his life patiently as if it were a long moment to endure and even though he might’ve been youthful when he was young, he’d always thought of himself as old. There had been moments where he found he couldn’t breathe as deep as he liked, only shallow breaths and it had made his head fuzzy. Maybe it was the right time after all.
Frank stepped closer. He noticed the fresh soil dug up in a big pile next to a shallow hole.
The voices seemed to sense the question in Frank’s head. ‘It’s your grave. We’ve started it but you finished it.’
‘You’re not real,’ Frank said.
‘We’re glad to see that nothing escapes on old crook like you.’
Frank sighed and picked up the shovel and started digging. ‘I’ve let a fulfilling life, you know.’ The blade went into the earth and uncovered worms wriggling naked and pink in the black soil. ‘it was just the last years that were tough. After she passed, the only woman I’ve ever loved, it wasn’t the same anymore.’
The white beech tree moaned as the icy wind pushed and pulled its branches.
‘You couldn’t have helped her even if you’d been there,’ the highest voice said.
The other one seemed to let out a howl so fierce that it rumbled the dug-up dirt and set the leaves to shiver. ‘It is because you weren’t there that she died.’
Frank’s insides turned to water. His legs felt too heavy and his body cumbersome. He wanted to lay down, just for a moment.
‘I shouldn’t have left her.’ Frank said meekly.
‘It was your fault.’
The earth felt frosty and the cold seeped through his clothes and his skin and into his bones. He wondered if he’d see her again soon. At that moment, mortality seemed only a thin mist. One that would fade with the rising of the warm morning sun.
‘What do you need,’ he asked as he laid down.
His spine relaxed and he thought of her.
‘To make amends for your mistakes,’ Pride and Blame answered.