Edward Ahern lures us deep into the forest, where an ancient tree wields its mastery over the land…
Artwork by Katie Barrett
Irving Vickers was adamant. “You can’t cut down the tree. Or trim it. Otherwise, I won’t sell the cabin to you.”
“But it’s an eyesore. You have to know how ugly it is.”
“Look, Mr. Charles Martyn, coming all from the states, do you want to fish or garden? You’re standing thirty meters above one of the best holding pools in the river, and you don’t have to boat three miles upstream to get to it.”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Fish of course, but that blighted weed spoils the view of the river.”
“It’s a Norway spruce, and really old. Let’s go inside while I cook the mess of trout we caught and I’ll tell you about it.”
The two men stood on a high bluff overlooking the upper Humber river. A short walk behind them was a two-bedroom cabin that operated with artesian well water, bottled propane, and a diesel generator. Heat was provided by a wood-burning Franklin stove. As the day bled off into a red-on-gray horizon, they went inside. Irving began cleaning the fish for cooking. And talked.
“I picked bark samples off the ground and sent them to the university. Paid for it myself. Based on DNA it’s maybe a thousand years old. Norway spruce ain’t native to the island. So how’d it get here? The Vikings maybe? Some kind of shrine?
“Look where it lives, the highest bluff for miles. Nothing but grass has ever grown within ten meters of it. Back in the day they worshipped trees, Charles, so maybe it was put here as an offering? I dunno.”
I was dicing potatoes for frying while Irving dissected with a filet knife. A few mosquitos had infiltrated and were humming around us. “Okay, I’ll buy that it’s old, but no one sees it but you and me, so what’s the loss?”
Irving put down the knife and turned toward me, his face serious. “I get this feeling toward dusk. Like it’s letting me be here and I should be grateful. And cautious. Foolish I know. But the tree stays.”
I let it go while we finished cooking and sat down to eat. The well water tasted like moose piss, and I laced it with a little dark Myer’s rum to mask the smell. The wild trout and potatoes, fried in bacon grease, were so good I wanted to catch more fish for breakfast.
After dinner we played cribbage and squished a few night bugs. Irving beat me flat, but I killed more mosquitos. I got to sleep easily but woke up twice feeling dizzy like I was swaying in wind gusts with that damned tree.
Irving resumed the next morning while frying up bacon and eggs.
“Gonna be a mausy day. About the tree. I did some reading into it. Some say the oldest tree in the world is a Norway spruce called Tjikko after some dog. It’s in northern Sweden. Every six hundred years or so its trunk rots out, but the rootstock never dies and just sprouts up a new trunk. It’s 9500 years old and got started right after the last ice age, 10,000 years ago, when nothing could grow under the glacier. Just like Newfoundland. That long ago we was also under the ice.”
“Stop, Irving. I’ve already made my decision. The fishing is too good to let a raggedy-assed spruce and my male ego interfere.”
Irving’s smile was beatific.
“That’s wonderful, b’y. But I need you to do me a big favor, even if it sounds stupid.”
“If I can.”
He handed me his folding knife. “Go out to the spruce. Prick your left index finger and rub the blood onto the bark.”
“Please, it’s something I was told to do when I bought the place. It’s-it’s for your own good, maybe even safety, and it would give me reassurance that you’re taking things seriously.”
I stared at him, phrasing a polite no. Then I saw how somber he was.
“Okay, but you’re right, it’s stupid.”
I quick stepped out to the tree, jabbed my finger and smeared the blood onto a flat patch of bark. Nothing happened, just deer flies circling me for brunch. I walked back.
“Okay, Irving, just so we’re clear. The camp, acreage and river access for fifty thousand Canadian, and the tree and roots stay untouched.”
He smiled. “I believe you mean it, but I’ll be writing it into the deed and bill of sale.”
I smiled back. “I expected no less.”
What I didn’t tell him was that he was a lot older than me, and once he passed, the tree was Franklin stove fodder.
We fished later that morning, barbless, catch and release. Then I had to resume my U.S. life, so I said goodbye and rumbled my Jeep back down the rough trail and into the village. My orphaned electronics beeped and squawked at me, filled with unanswered queries.
When I could, I looked into Irving’s theories about almost immortal trees. What he’d told me was essentially correct, down to the name Tjikko. I read a little further, even extracting Fraser’s detailed comments about tree spirits and gods from The Golden Bough. Apparently, everybody worshipped trees back then.
Two months later, in September, I met Irving in the village.
His mottled face looked as though he’d wanted to cry, and I understood why. He’d had to choose between blissfully fishing under the aegis of a scabby spruce or helping his family out of a huge financial hole. He hadn’t told me about his problems, keeping his troubles to himself. But the village gossips had provided more than enough information.
We sat in a room of the little village bank, papers spread out between us. Irving held up his hand before I started to sign.
“I can’t let you sign without telling you about the dangers.”
“Let me tell you what I’ve come to believe. There’re millions of trees on Newfoundland, maybe billions, I dunno. And most of them are just pulpwood. But ever so rarely a tree gets a tenant, call it a spirit, a god, a who knows what. And because of the god, the tree also becomes eternal, or close to it. This Thing only lives partly in our world, and appears just every so often. And it’s like a bear or a coyote, completely wild, and as likely to bite you as avoid you.
“I need the money bad, but I can’t let you commit to something that could kill you until you knew the risks. That’s what I believe you’d be the new owner of. Sorry if I still sound crazy.”
I started to laugh, but his expression choked it back. He meant it. I wondered if signing a deed with a whack job made it invalid, then shrugged. “Ah, that’s a hell of a theory. But I’ll take the chance.”
Irving shrugged in turn. “You don’t believe me. Not yet. But be cautious around it, I’ve given you fair warning.” He held out his hand and I shook it. I provided a certified check and we had documents signed and witnessed.
I looked at him. “Time for a fish?”
His firm lipped smile told me he knew I was offering him a last chance through the pool. “Sure.”
We climbed into our four by fours and trundled out to the camp.
Once we’d wadered up and slogged down to the water, I gave him first pass through the prime water. He hooked up and after a nice fight brought in a nine-pounder and released it. I claimed a hangover and let him keep fishing. Before long he’d hooked, landed and released a grilse of four pounds.
The afternoon sun was hot, and we both were frothed up by the time we’d climbed back up the bluff. As we passed the spruce Irving stopped and bowed, then kept walking to the cabin. “Thank you,” he said.
“Sure. You know you can fish here any time I’m not around, just let me know ahead of time.”
His expression was both sad and relieved. “Thanks, but it’s your responsibility now, husbanding this place. I’m… I’m safely out of it.” He tilted his head a little and stared at me. “You’ve taken an oath you’re not aware of. Be careful how you act around the tree.”
I didn’t know what to say and just puckered up a smile. We shook hands, Irving broke down his tackle, mounted his beat up Xterra, waved, and swerved off.
Exploring the cabin took less than an hour. Two swollen and frayed packs of playing cards, rubber banded, in the end table drawer. Knives that had been sharpened so often the blades were concave. A half dozen canned vegetables, some past their expiration dates. Dinnerware from multiple thrift shops. Mismatched bed linens and moth attacked blankets. Iron water that ran rusty. One spare toilet paper roll. The faint smells of mold and sweat. I was content. I had only a satellite phone for company, but there was no one I particularly wanted to call.
Toward dusk I walked out to the bluff to look at the river, hoping for fish signs. Trout began rising to the evening hatch, but I saw none of the distinctive surface boils that mark a salmon. I’d ignored the spruce tree on the way out to the bluff, but it stared at me on the way back.
The evening sun back lit it in dark red, the outline stark. The eighty feet of twisted branches and scraggy needles took on a suffering presence, as if undergoing the poor soil and harsh climate was for important purpose.
I walked up to the place on the trunk where I’d bloodied the bark, but there was no stain visible. I rubbed the bark absently, and for lack of company began to speak to it.
“Neither of us is good looking, but you’re definitely uglier. And much too old. And don’t have a reason to exist, other than spoiling the view. You’re coming down, old timer, just as soon as possible.”
The mosquitos found me and I jogged with waving hands back into the cabin. I didn’t feel like cooking so ate from packages and tins, then reviewed the plan for the next two weeks. It was starkly uncomplicated, the days taken up by fishing, the nights by reading, with interruptions when propane, diesel and food needed replenishing.
Toward ten pm I loaded up the Franklin stove for the morning cold and prepped the stove top coffee pot. Then I grabbed a flashlight to go to the outhouse, had late evening bladder relief and shut down the generator. Once back inside, I stripped down to underwear and added a wool blanket to the single bed. The night was clear and moonless, and tens of thousands of undimmed stars snuck their light through my windows.
A dream came. I was sitting on the grass at the edge of the bluff, looking down at the river. A knobby-muscled man was sitting next to me. Twice my size, no clothes, coarse hair, face stoic and indifferent.
“You do not belong here, unbelieving ‘come-from-away.’ If you do not leave you will be disposed of.”
“I own this place.”
“There is no owning here, only presence. Leave or die.”
I woke up with a shudder, sweating despite the night chill. It took me an hour to calm down enough to fall back asleep. And then, a little before dawn, I screamed.
I threw back the covers and stared at my left foot. A brown rat was trying to bite through one of my toes. I threw the pillow at it, then pulled up my legs and swung a bedside book into its head. Its mouth came open in a hiss as I hit it, which I think saved the toe. The rat bounced off the log wall and fell to the floor dazed. I jumped out of bed and hit it with the flat of the book until it was a baggy pulp. My toe was bleeding freely but I could move it, which seemed hopeful.
I needed to pee so badly I let the toe seep onto the wood floor while I used the tin chamber pot. Then I cleaned and dressed the wound, and stuck the rat in a plastic bag for rabies testing. The next morning, I drove two hours to the nearest clinic and got my first shot. The male nurse whistled when he saw the bagged rat.
“Big sucker. Funny, they usually hang out in town. Pickings are better. Did you know they’re called Norway rats? Here, I’ll take it.”
Before leaving the cabin, I’d had the presence of mind to slit open the left sneaker of an old pair so I could fit in my bandaged toe. Once the nurse had redressed the injury, I put the sneaker back on and hobbled my way through a supermarket and a provincial liquor store before returning to camp. My liquor-assisted sleep that night was dreamless.
The Humber is a brawly river, and the next day was running high. Newfoundland is given to micro weather, and I guessed that it had rained inland and upstream. A few salmon were showing along the shore. I’d waded that stretch a couple dozen times before, and decided to chance the stronger current. I took some aspirins and rigged up.
It was a mistake. I hadn’t gone ten yards downstream before I stepped into a pothole that shouldn’t have been there. I got swung out into the current. My waders immediately filled with water, making me a broken-loose sea anchor. I was thudding into boulders, but couldn’t get my feet set. A hundred yards downstream was a high-water chute that would likely drown me, and I was thrashing around like a newborn.
I jammed the flyrod between my teeth, spun upstream, and began grabbing at the rocks. My fingers slipped off most of them, but my feet caught enough that I was able to slow down and painfully crab in toward shore. My toe shrieked at me every time I set it against a boulder. Once the river shallowed out my mass held me against the stones, and I was able to get my breath.
I’d doubled my body weight in wader water, so after crawling out and standing, I peeled the waders down to my knees and let out as much of the water as I could. Then I slogged upstream and uphill back to camp, dementedly giddy, not that I hadn’t died, but that I hadn’t lost my rod and reel. The Norway spruce swayed gently as I passed.
I peeled off waders and clothes on the little patch of grass in front of the cabin. Then I hobbled back and forth, naked in the sunlight, gradually recovering warmth and losing wetness. I hung my waders upside down to drip dry and went inside to get dressed. No more fishing that day.
It took another hour for me to connect my delusion with my near drowning. That pothole hadn’t existed the day before. I’d never seen mice in the cabin, let alone rats. The environment suddenly wasn’t my friend. I shrugged off the worry, made supper and got ready for bed.
But I couldn’t sleep. Toward one a.m. I heard a boat motoring up river. Running the river at night is a truly bad idea, even with lights, and I wondered how desperate the operator must be. Then the motor cut off right down the bluff from the camp.
I had no local friends who would be stopping by. It wasn’t rare for riverside cabins to be broken into, but that most often happened in the winter when the cabins were empty and the river could be run with a Ski-doo.
Laying in bed seemed like a bad idea. I got up, put on my altered sneakers, and fumbling in a drawer, found a flashlight, which I used to find the hand axe. The cabin windows were set high, and the only way in was the door, which I stood next to, flashlight off.
For ten minutes I felt like an idiot, and then I could hear the door handle slowly being turned. It swung open with a bang and someone jumped in. I hit the flashlight and saw a gaunt, glazed-eye man in a checkered shirt holding a long-bladed fishing knife. Without thinking I swung the flat end of the axe and bounced it off his head.
He fell to the floor in an ungainly heap and didn’t move. Fear surged through me, afraid that I’d killed him. But his breath was regular and there was almost no bleeding. The flashlight showed a bump starting its ascent on his forehead.
I grabbed a spool of kitchen twine and trussed his arms behind him, then sat down to figure out what the hell I was going to do. I guessed that my visitor was a local druggie, desperate for money or something he could hock. If I reported him, I’d have to make statements and show up at a provincial courthouse as a witness, and he’d get probation. The villagers would hate me and he’d probably come back and do a better job.
There was maybe a better way. The river had lowered considerably during the day, and had a much gentler flow.
He’d been stupid enough to leave his wallet in his pants pocket, so I memorized his name and address just in case. Then I dragged him outside and across the bluff. After catching my breath, I dragged him down the bluff to his boat. Skinny as he was, and downhill, I was panting by the time we got there. He was still out, but starting to tremble from shock or withdrawal.
I dumped him into his narrow riverboat, untied him, and pushed the boat out into the current. My uninvited guest was going for a drift. Once he came to he’d realize I’d let him off easy.
I caught my breath and started back uphill. The spruce was waiting for me on the bluff. I walked up to it and sat down on the grass in my underwear, ignoring the mosquitos. I cringed at what I was about to say aloud to a tree.
“Okay, three times in twenty-four hours, I get your point. I hereby swear that I won’t harm this tree, and that I’ll protect it from harm. In return, I sincerely request that you no longer try to kill me.”
There was no response. The tree and its perhaps occupant ignored me. I got up, swatted the bugs I could feel, and walked back to the cabin. I cleaned up the little bit of blood on the floor with bleach, wiped off the door knob and jamb, and flopped back into bed.
I fell asleep immediately. Sometime later the knobby dream being returned, its image shifting like river water shimmer, its tone the throaty rasp of a big cat. “You are a poor excuse for an acolyte, but until you are replaced. I accept your offering. Do not trouble me again.”
The next morning I wadered up and lumbered across the bluff, stopping at the Norway spruce. I thought about patting the trunk in lieu of a handshake, or providing kitchen scraps as fertilizer, but didn’t want to chance getting into trouble again. I nodded to Tjikko and continued down to the river, hoping for a fish.
Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He’s had over two hundred fifty stories and poems published so far, and six books. Ed works the other side of writing at Bewildering Stories, where he sits on the review board and manages a posse of six review editors.