There’s a tree grows in a wood, an old willow tree. And of an evening when the world is quiet and still, if you are really listening, you will hear the tree speaking. And it tells this story.
There was once a young woman who came walking through the wood. It was late on a midwinter’s afternoon. The ground was hard, the air was bitter, and the branches of the trees were covered in frost. And this young woman wore only a ragged dress, with a thin shawl wrapped around her shoulders, and her face and arms were thin and her feet were bloody and bare. But her belly was big, and she was near the end of her time. Poor thing, she walked on through the wood as the day darkened and the cold sharpened; she walked and she walked until she couldn’t walk anymore and, weak and exhausted, fell to the ground. And it was there, in the heart of the winter woods, with her back pressed against the broad trunk of a willow tree, that this young woman brought new life into the world. Two children, a girl and a boy. As she felt her own life slipping away from her, she wrapped them in her shawl and held them close to her breast to keep them warm. But how would they stay warm once her own life was gone? Who would take care of them and feed them? She closed her eyes and whispered with her dying breath,
‘Willow tree, willow tree,
Protect my little babes for me,
Wrap them gently in your arms,
And never let them come to harm.’
Now, if you’d been in that same wood at that same time, with the day darkening and the shadows thickening, you might have seen, or thought you’d seen, the branches of the willow tree beginning to move, reaching down towards the dead mother and her sleeping children, and the ivy that grew around its trunk creeping out and folding itself over them. You might have seen those things, and you might not have, and you might have seen more, but you wouldn’t have, because there was a weirdness in the wood that evening that would have set your skin tingling and the hairs pricking up along your arms and down the back of your neck, and it would have sent you hurrying as fast as you could back to the safety of your own home.
I suppose you might have told others about what you’d seen, or thought you’d seen. And you wouldn’t be the only one telling tales about that wood. From that time on, stories began to grow and spread, like the branches and roots of the trees themselves. Folks who passed through the wood said they had the feeling they were being watched. They spoke of seeing shadows flitting among the trees, and of hearing whispering voices and muffled laughter. And there were some who said that as they passed by the great willow tree whose branches hung down to the ground, they heard a woman’s voice softly singing and felt the trees move about them. It was a haunted wood, sure enough, and best to stay away from it, people said. And so they did, and the wood grew wild and close and dark, and whatever it was that might be living deep in its heart, and whatever secrets it held, it kept them close, shut well away from the human world.
Now, not far from the wood there was a cottage. It was an old, tumbledown place, and no one had lived there for years. But late one early winter afternoon, when the wind was moaning in the wood, a man came to the cottage. His name was Abel. He was carrying a pack over his shoulder and looked like he’d been walking for many miles. He stood for a while looking at the cottage, then went up to the door, pushed it open and went in. He could see from the state of the place that it had long been abandoned, and it made him sad to see it so, because he had been born in that very cottage, and had grown up there, until he’d left to go to sea ten years before. Now here he was back again. But where were his mother and father? What had happened to them? Were they dead, or gone away? He didn’t know, because in all the years he’d been at sea, he’d not written them one letter, and they’d written none to him. And he wouldn’t be back here now if it hadn’t been for a dream he’d had one night in which he’d heard a voice calling him to come back home. It filled him with a yearning and a longing, that voice, and the yearning and the longing were still in him when he woke, and wouldn’t leave him. So he was forced to leave behind his life at sea and travel the long road back to the cottage by the wood. And there he was now, wondering what might be waiting for him to find it, for as he stood in the cottage, he felt certain that there was something waiting for him, and it was that unknown something that had called him home.
It was beginning to grow dark, and Abel thought that if he was going to stay in the cottage that night he would need some twigs and logs to make a fire. He went outside and walked towards the wood that lay close by. There were some fallen branches lying on the ground that had been blown down by the wind, and Abel made his way along the edge of the wood gathering them up. He heard the wind shivering through the trees and the creaking and groaning of the boughs as they swayed backwards and forwards, and the way the whole wood seemed to move in the wind reminded him of being on his ship at sea; he almost felt the ground shifting and rocking beneath him.
Then he stiffened. He wasn’t sure what it was that had made him so suddenly alert. Some noise he’d heard, perhaps, or a movement somewhere close by. He took a step forwards and peered into the shadows that were thickening among the trees. Was there something in there, watching him? He had the strongest feeling that there was, or even that the entire wood was leaning forwards, peering at him. It made him feel not scared exactly, but uneasy. His skin was stretched tight over his face and hands and there was a prickling in his scalp. Slowly, he backed away from the wood. Then, when it felt safe enough, he turned and walked back to the cottage, went inside, and closed the door firmly behind him.
As he lay that night wrapped in his blanket by the fire, he heard the wind blowing stronger in the wood outside, and that long, loud moaning cry seemed to be filled with a yearning and a longing, like the voice that had called to him in his dream. He pulled his blanket tighter about him and shuffled closer to the flames to feel their warmth on his face. But still the cold wind moaned outside, and he lay a long time hearing it before he slept.
The next morning the wind was quieter and in the full light of day Abel could see what a dishevelled and ramshackle place the old cottage had become. He decided to clean it out and fix it, so that while he was staying there he would be in some kind of comfort. And it would give him something practical to do.
There were four rooms in the cottage – the parlour, the kitchen, and two bedrooms. One had been his parents’ bedroom and the other one his own. They were all in such a bad state, having been empty for so long, that it took him all morning and a good part of the afternoon to sweep them clean and fix everything that needed fixing – rickety chairs and loose hinges, a window latch broken and a door hanging off. Luckily, he had the tools he needed in the kitbag he’d brought with him, and his years at sea had taught him all he needed to know about making repairs and keeping everything shipshape.
It being late in the year, evenings came early, and by the time he was putting the finishing touches to his own bedroom, the light was starting to fade. He stood at the window cleaning the glass with a rag and looking out at the wood. The shadows were gathering there and he could see how the wind had grown stronger again, how it whipped through the bare branches of the trees so that they leaned forwards and seemed to be reaching towards him like long fingers scratching at the cold December air.
He shivered and drew back from the window. And as he did, he saw something scratched into the wood of the windowpane that he hadn’t noticed before. It was faded with age, but when he bent his head closer to look, he saw that what was scratched there was a name. He ran his fingertips over the letters and spoke the name aloud.
It was a name he hadn’t heard or thought of for many years. He might even have believed he’d forgotten it, and the young woman it had belonged to. But now the name and the woman came back to him. Rachel. She had lived in the village a few miles away and for a time they had been sweethearts. They’d even spoken of marriage. Then his desire to go away to sea had taken hold of him like a fever, so that he could think of nothing else. They had said goodbye, he had left, and he’d never seen her again. But now, as his fingers once more traced the letters of her name, he found himself filled with a sense of sadness for something that was lost and would never come back.
That night he found it hard to sleep. The wind groaned around the cottage and the flames leapt in the fireplace, throwing strange, twisted shapes across the room. Then, as Abel was at last drifting into sleep, he heard a sound that had him sitting up, wide awake and alert. It was a tapping at the door. He listened and it came again. Tap-tap. Tap-tap. As if someone or something was out there in the roaring dark, wanting to come in. He rose, went to the door and stood beside it. Tap-tap. Tap-tap. And then a scuffling on the step. He couldn’t be sure if it was just the wind making that sound, or if it was indeed someone or something else. And he had to know. So he waited a few moments, then lifted the latch and pulled the door open.
There was nothing there. Just the dark of the night and the wind blowing drifts of pale cloud across the moon. And by the light of that moon the wood stood out clear and sharp, and he thought he saw two shadows slipping away among the trees. He went back inside and shut the door, bolting it fast behind him.
The next morning, when Abel woke, what he’d heard and seen the night before made him reluctant to stir out of doors. But the branches he’d collected were almost used up and the food he’d brought with him was almost gone. ‘You must eat, Abel,’ he said to himself, ‘and you must keep warm. Especially with that cold wind that blows through this place. It’s fuel and food you need – and you know where you must go to get them both.’
When he was a boy he’d helped his father set snares in the wood to catch rabbits. So he gathered a few good-sized twigs that were lying about on the grass, and with some twine he had in his kitbag he made himself half a dozen snares. When he’d been cleaning up the cottage the day before he’d found his father’s axe, so he sharpened the blade on a stone and put the axe in his belt. Then, with the snares and his empty kitbag slung over his shoulder, he went off into the wood.
There were no paths through the wood, only narrow tracks through the undergrowth made by animals. Every now and then he would stop and lay a snare across one of these tracks, then carry on. He went softly and quietly, though the branches of the trees creaked and ached in the wind. And there were other sounds too, rustlings and scrapings and whisperings, and once or twice what sounded to his ears like muffled laughter. ‘It’s just animals and birds,’ he said to himself, but at the same time he couldn’t help thinking of those noises he’d heard outside the cottage, and of the shadowy figures slipping in among the trees. He wondered if there might not be some other kind of creature living in the wood, watching him and following him as he laid his snares.
After he’d laid the last snare he began to search for firewood to take back to the cottage. There were plenty of fallen branches lying about, some of them quite big, so he set about chopping them up with the axe and putting them in his kitbag, and all the time he was doing this the feeling that he was being watched grew stronger and stronger. But he carried on with his work until his kitbag was full, then slipped the axe back through his belt, slung the heavy bag across his shoulder, and turned to make his way back the way he’d come. But as he turned he saw a movement in the undergrowth, and glimpsed a figure hurrying away through the trees. Was it human or was it an animal? He couldn’t tell, but he had to find out. So he dropped his bag and went chasing after it.
Whatever it was, the creature moved swiftly and led him deeper and deeper into the wood, keeping always just ahead of him and just out of clear sight. And as Abel pushed his way through the dense trees and thick undergrowth, the thought came to him that he was being brought this way on purpose, and that maybe he was being led into danger. But even as that thought came to him, and before he had time to act on it, he came stumbling out of the trees and found himself standing in a clearing in the middle of the wood. And there, in the middle of the clearing, stood a great willow tree.
Its long branches hung down to the ground, stirred by the winter wind, swaying from side to side so that the whole tree seemed to be moving in a kind of slow dance. And through the swaying branches he saw two figures crouched against the trunk of the tree. He went forwards and spoke to the figures.
‘Who are you? What do you want?’
There was no answer, but he heard whispering voices and soft laughter. The tree creaked and swayed. And then, almost before he knew he was doing it, Abel bent low, took hold of the branches, and began to push his way through. And he found himself, not within the branches of the willow tree, but once more in the wood.
But it was a wood that was completely changed. Now it was summer; a warm light sprinkled down through the green leaves, and there was birdsong and the smell of wildflowers. He looked around, amazed. He stood on a wide path that led through the wood, and the branches of the trees that grew on either side of the path arched over to form a long, warm, green tunnel. And there, right at the far end of the tunnel, stood the two figures. Although they were far off, he could see that they were human, and they were children. A girl and a boy. They were standing on the path beneath the trees, looking towards him as if waiting for him. And so, not even thinking about the strangeness of it all, he began to walk down the long path through the green tunnel towards them. As he drew closer he could see the children more clearly. They were bathed from head to foot in the green light that shone through the leaves, so that they seemed to be just that very colour themselves. Green children living wild in this warm summer wood. And they were calling to him.
But then a change came over the wood. Suddenly it grew darker and colder, and a wind began to blow. It tore the leaves from the branches and whipped them against his face, and they became huge flakes of snow swirling around him so thickly that he couldn’t see. The trees creaked and thrashed around him and the wind roared. Then there came a loud crack and he looked up to see a great branch falling towards him. He flung up his hands to protect himself, but it was too late. The branch struck him across the top of his head and he fell unconscious upon the ground.
When he woke it was evening and he was lying on the ground outside his cottage. He sat up. His head was sore. He remembered a branch falling on him and put his hand to his head; sure enough, he felt the gash where it had struck him. But how had he got back to the cottage?
‘I must have been dazed and wandered back,’ he thought. ‘Then I fell unconscious here outside the door. And then I had that strange dream.’
But when he went inside his cottage, he saw the branches he had gathered stacked neatly by the fireplace with his axe alongside them, and, lying on the table, a freshly skinned rabbit. His empty kitbag lay folded on the floor. He didn’t remember doing any of that, and felt sure he couldn’t have, given the state he’d been in. And it was then that he realised that what had happened in the wood had been no dream.
He made up the fire and cooked and ate the rabbit, then once more wrapped himself in his coat and blanket and sat before the flames. He was not even going to try and sleep that night. He was going to stay alert and wait by the fire for whatever it was that lived out there in the wood to come and haunt him again. Long into the night he sat waiting, listening to the wind in the dark. And then, a little while before sunrise, it came.
Tap-tap. Tap-tap. Tap-tap.
Abel sat still, staring at the fire, refusing to turn round. But the sound went on – tap-tap, tap-tap. And there were whispering voices and shuffling footsteps, until at last he could stand it no longer. He turned towards the door. And there, looking in at him through the window, were the faces of two children, a girl and a boy. And by the light of the early morning moon shining outside, he saw that their hair was tangled with ivy and thorns, that their eyes were wide and wild-looking, and that the skin of their faces was a deep green.
For a moment he stared at them, his own eyes wide with amazement and terror. Then he gave a shout and jumped to his feet, and the faces at the window disappeared. He ran to the door and pulled it open, but by then the children were running away from the cottage towards the wood. He stood in the doorway and called out after them.
‘Who are you? What do you want with me?’
But even as the sound of his voice was snatched away into the darkness, the children disappeared once more into the wood, and there was only the moonlight, and the cold stars, and the moaning of the wind in the trees.
Abel went back inside and sat once more before the fire, staring into its dying flames. Outside, the darkness turned grey, the moon set, and the stars began to fade. He knew that as long as he remained in the cottage these children, or whatever kind of creatures they were, would give him no rest. And it was rest most of all that he craved. Finally, as the first light of day showed through the window, he stood once more and spoke aloud.
‘Children or devils, whatever they are, they’ll haunt me no more.’
And he took up his axe and strode out of the cottage towards the wood.
This time, as he made his way through the trees, there were no sounds of voices nor any sense of being watched, and no movement other than his own. Everything about him was still; he realised that the wind had dropped and the winter air hung heavily in the branches. He pressed on deep into the wood, until he came to the clearing in the centre. He stepped into the clearing and stood before the willow tree.
There were its long branches hanging down to the ground and, as before, the two figures behind them crouching down close to the trunk of the tree. Abel cried out, ‘It’s no good hiding there! I can see you! Come out and show yourselves to me!’
The figures didn’t move, so he took a step forwards. But even as he did so, and even though the air was still and there was no wind, the branches of the willow tree began to move from side to side in that gentle, swaying, dance-like movement. And now he could hear singing too, a high, lilting song that called to him as if from far off, and he knew it sought to entrap him, and would pierce his soul and cleave his heart in two. But he shook his head clear of it, drew the axe from his belt and once more cried out, ‘You’ll not enchant me, you devils!’
Now, although he didn’t know it, there was already a kind of madness working inside him, for his plan was to cut his way through the branches and strike at whatever lay hidden behind them, and to strike too at the tree itself. But just as he raised the axe above his head and stepped forwards once more to strike the first blow, he stopped, frozen. Because the tree was beginning to move towards him. Its roots pulled themselves up out of the ground, and its branches came twisting and writhing towards him. The axe dropped from Abel’s hand. He tried to cry out but the sound stuck like a stone in his throat. All he could do was stand, transfixed with horror, close his eyes and await whatever terrible end was coming to claim him.
But then he heard that lilting song again, and it was close by now, and filled his heart with such longing and yearning and beauty that his fear fell away from him. He opened his eyes and saw before him not a willow tree but a woman, with two children standing on either side of her, and the woman’s hair was the colour of willow bark, and her dress was green, and she was smiling and holding out her arms towards him.
‘Rachel,’ he said. And again, ‘Rachel.’
Then he looked at the boy and the girl, and said, ‘These are your children.’
And Rachel spoke to him.
‘These are our children.’
And he knew the truth of it, and knew what it was that had called him back home and had given him no rest until he found what he had never even known he’d lost.
‘Come to us now, Abel,’ Rachel said to him. ‘Embrace us, and never be apart from us again.’
And when she spoke those words, Abel knew it was all he wanted in the world. He stepped forwards and put his arms around them, Rachel and the two children, and they wrapped themselves around him too. And there they stood, and never moved again. For their bodies fused together and became one, and their flesh hardened into bark, and they were a single tree, a willow tree, standing in a clearing in the middle of the wood, with the winter sunlight falling clear and golden and bright upon them.
For more short stories, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.