As a child, trees in our vicinity were a particular draw. It was not a exceptionally wooded landscape. There was the feeling of cultivated lands slowly being returned to their original inclinations: verdant. I would wander as far from the house as I was allowed and stand among young acacias. Their smooth grey trunks and yellow springtime fluff gave off a feeling that I cannot express even today. Their trunks were about 5 inches in diameter, I believe, and they would sway in the breeze, creating a small gap at their base as they shifted back and forth. I was small, they were tall. We had a relationship.
There were other trees I grew to know over time, but these were my first loves. I do realize I was an odd child; lonely, small, hungry and silent. Odd has turned out to not be such a bad thing. Apparently there are also the odd moments of grace in life that hardly make sense in the world of ordinary concepts.
The following story speaks for itself. As an aside, the name ‘Culley’ is Gaelic in origin, meaning ‘the woods’.
What May Enter Here
Culley had been standing in the grove for some time now, standing still. His mother could see him from the back door of the house, the land rising gradually from there and cresting with the stand of acacia trees just coming into bloom. She paused her process of baking bread every so often to check and see if he had moved. Her wristwatch had stopped yesterday and she had left it on the counter of her bathroom this morning. She made a snorting sound of frustration as she automatically checked her naked wrist one more time.
Culley’s mother slid the two loaves into the oven, checked the time on the clock in the other room, and pulled on her sweater and wellies. She tried hard not to run or to slip on the still damp spring grass. When she had nearly reached the grove, she approached more slowly: moving a step or two and then pausing to watch her child, who was far too fey for his own good. At last she came to stand by him, nearly brushing against his shoulder, carefully watching, still. At last he looked up with a sunny smile.
“Hello, my child. What are you doing?” her words as softly spoken as she could make them.
“I’m talking to the trees, Mama.”
Culley’s mother unconsciously pressed her fist up to her mouth, a look of anxiety walking shamelessly across her face. Culley had turned back to the trees, rapt.
“Do they answer you, my sweet boy?”
“Yes, but they are very slow.” He did not look away from the grove as he spoke. Culley’s mother pressed her fist against her head this time. A movement, caught in the corner of her eye, caused her to jerk her head in that direction. Her son cast her another smiling look, as if waiting to share her excited recognition of something. This time she schooled her face to stillness. Culley turned back to the grove.
“You’ve been here for a long time. It’s time for you to come home and help with dinner.”
“OK, mama!” He seemed completely unperturbed, and his mother slid her hand into his and turned him toward home. Another movement beneath the trees turned her still face to stone and she deliberately turned her back to it. At the kitchen door, Culley pulled back and let his mother remove her boots before helping him pull his off as well. She stepped inside, then turned to see him pause on the doormat. A shadow of something passed behind his feet. She looked at him as sternly as she was able, an effort on any day.
“You know the rules, young man!”
“Yes Mama,” he spoke solemnly, “house things in the house, garden things in the garden, and wild things where they belong.”
“Very good, now make sure that’s true before you step over our threshold.” She emphasized the ‘our’ only a little and not for his sake, but for the sake those who might need reminding.
Dinner was constructed from steps; meat cut into cubes and seared, onions browned, root vegetables peeled and chopped. Culley was remarkably skillful with a knife, but she had been forced to purchase the new ceramic ones. He cried when she used the steel ones and refused to touch them himself. She had donated them to a surprised neighbor; saying ceramic was safer for children. She took the bread from the oven just in time, by smell. It seemed she had forgotten to wind up the clock in the sitting room. As the bread cooled on a wooden rack, she sent Culley into the dinning room to draw while the stew cooked.
Twilight was falling and Culley’s mother opened the back door again, stepping out of her hot kitchen, this time without her sweater. She gazed up the hill with a silent stillness her son would have understood. A late honeybee lit on her flowered blouse, near the elbow. She turned her attention to it. There was nothing to fear in bees, they meant you no harm. Bees were conscientious and diligent, sometimes a bit pompous, but never unkind. If you had something that needed telling, they were here to listen with polite concern.
“I don’t need to talk about him today, thank you. It’s his son I worry for. I don’t think you can help me there.” She smiled with a touch of sad chagrin. The bee hummed for a moment longer on her arm and took flight to a home where his yellow dust was a badge of courageous enterprise. She thought of the budding acacia and wondered just how much the bees had seen.
Dinner did not begin until full dark had fallen. This was not due to a plan of any sort; it was the tenderness of potatoes for the most part, that dictated the time. When Culley had eaten his last bite, he set the spoon to the side with authority; a small clink that gave his mother warning. She waited, toying with the last bit of her bread.
“Mama, will I go to school next year?”
“I think you will be old enough.”
“Papa’s family say I should come to them for school.”
“Do they now.” Her tone was flat, her face resolved to this bitter news. “When did you begin to talk with them?”
“After the trees. They are all friends.”
“They say that Papa would have wanted me to learn from them. I know you don’t like them.”
At this she looked up at her son’s face in surprise. “Not true. Your father was one of them and I have never stopped loving him.”
Culley tilted his small head like a bird listening for something. “Then why have you closed our door to them?”
His mother nodded in acceptance. This was a conversation she knew would someday arrive. Very softly she said, “Their interference was what led to his death.”
“But they did not mean to, they told me that they miss him too.”
“I have no doubt they miss him, but he was mine and they had no right here.”
An uncommon look of concern took up residence in her son’s face. With a deep sigh she straitened her shoulders and spoke. “Let the red fox come, the one they hail as Todd, and we will parley.”
With such a solemn demeanor did her son bow his agreement, for all the world as might the lord of the hall agreeing on terms. She felt the gurgle of a laugh even through her sadness, which she immediately suppressed. Both here and in that other place he might be, one day, lord indeed. She must play her part as well, and unflinchingly, if she were to protect her child from the harsh and loving ministrations of a world beyond her ken.