SITKA SPRUCE – A SHORT STORY BY GERARD MCKEEVER

The trees had all changed since Arthur was last in Tynron. Twenty-four years became a generation as he smelled the sappy evergreens standing in rows. His hands bristled for the sensations of bark and ridge, his breathing low in instinctive respect. They were brown, naked and emaciated; they were enormous and effervescently green. The forest huddled close, overhanging the tiles with a few bold sentinels. The view from the other side of the cottage was cut short by a steep banking and the bend in the river, visible from her narrow latticed windows. And so the house naturally faced the wood, rising gradually away in lines that were neater now, much neater since the broadleaf had been felled. Arthur felt the silences heavy with ritual, each impression simmering clear. They had lived just outside, and yet still inside, this forest. It was changed, radically changed like an old friend with a stranger’s face or unremembered pain in their eyes. But not, necessarily, gone. The native woodland of his imagination was a rich foil to this terracing of Sitka spruce. Yet it too had a certain dignity, never quite as orderly as might first appear, and the smell was intoxicating. It was still a forest.

Arthur’s mother was a silent woman, dealing with a pain that he had never understood or sought to repair. His childhood was spent alone, exploring the unexpected rises where a view would launch towards the volcanic bald patch of Tynron Doon, or back down into the Cairn valley. There was a complex network of rivers (how many of them needed a name?) that parted and re-joined through the woods. He knew it all with dreamlike certainty. She had stood by the window, afternoon radio reflecting off the cheap surfaces of the kitchen, her eyes boring into the dense undergrowth of an April hollow, Arthur left wondering what she saw in the trees. It was true that the closer together the forest was, the darker it became. But these relationships to the land were unconscious and esoteric. Could the elm and oak and hazel and beech and hawthorn and rowan and ash and alder and Scots pine and willow and cherry of his childhood ever have been so beautiful? This new landscape was progress, an improvement, a 20-year nursery that smelled like comfort. And yet … perhaps history was a journey to death after all.

Arthur walked around the house, moving objects aimlessly, thinking about the funeral plans, trying to keep his footsteps from resonating too much in the creaky bungalow. Her dark hair snaked around her neck, blue eyes dotted with green, quiet footsteps echoing from the corner as she tended to her flowerbeds. They had lost touch for so long, but he was underneath her roof again, smelling patterns of carpet, curtains and sheets. It was all changed enough to be unnerving, with isolated, familiar notes lingering on like crumbs between teeth. She had spoken so little. Had he failed to ask the right questions? Life with her had felt too much like a fable or a vision to permit any explanation. She had held a position of mythic certainty to him, as when she appeared through the opening anger of a November storm to carry him home, wordless and moving at pace, the sky blackened like a scroll rolled up.

The memories came in irregular clumps, framed by the bracing air, she always a vacuum at the centre. And yet a mass of glowing detail – summer picnics, dancing across the fields, a mouth encircled with lines of joy – might be just out of reach, faded with the years. Arthur tried to lose his temper for a moment, standing in her footsteps at the kitchen window, looking at the dumb shafts of spruce, imagining the nothings that she saw beneath the forest canopy, but his heart was not in it. She had loved him, somehow, perhaps not in the way that he wanted, but she had loved him. Naming the trees was her greatest gift and she had given it without hesitation or any thought of recompense.

There was something in there. He knew it was still there. Something that he’d lost or had never been able to find. With a day to spare, he began to explore the regrown forest. He navigated around the long path that rose up the hill, overwhelmed by the strength of the Sitka, his old routes redrawn. The regimented columns had an ethereal quality, beautiful and sinister; it must have been transformative to watch them ascend from the raped earth, growing to mask the brutal drainage channels. Arthur wondered how his mother experienced the felling of the wood all those years ago, confronted by a landscape of sudden cavities, the infant spruce ashamed but alive. There were particular trees that lingered in the mind … thinking of them might be an unnecessary pain. She would always be tall and statuesque.

Deep in the forest there was an old glade, with a half-ruined wall snaking through it. The structure was part of a network of dry-stane dykes that threaded the landscape, punctuated by collapsed steadings and hollow spaces. The stones were covered with the same, slightly electric green as the spruce themselves, a pervasive moss that grew everywhere. Next to the trees, the crumbling dyke looked like an artwork. In fact, lingering mute like a scent among the lines of spruce and the stone, silent only because there was no one to say it, was a question: was either truly man-made? Arthur couldn’t pretend to know, standing with tears hitting the corners of his mouth, feeling the stunted branches press him from every direction.

He walked further, reaching towards the tree line at the top of the hill where the forest could be left behind, with its warnings and denials of the inanimate. This shadowy environmental effect, the forest’s consciousness, had been with him since childhood. It was a mesh of life and death, fluctuating like the rhythms of breathing. The ancient animals were gone: enormous deer, wolves, lions, bears and boar. The native trees were gone, with their remnant appendixes of bluebells and snowdrops and briers and foxgloves. Even Arthur himself was gone, a passing tourist now with no intention of staying and trying to understand what these claustrophobic, two-metre rows were spelling. In truth, he had never been quite so at home here as he might want to remember, just as the forest of his youth was itself a manufacture bearing the imprint of the hands of men.

The view from the summit was a collage of clouds and the thousand shades of green that is Nithsdale. The alternative canopies of sky and forest spread away like coloured sheets. Arthur stopped and sat down, anticipating a moment of existential weight. The passing seconds marked some grander, unspecific progression. He noticed changes in temperature and light. They were like the changes in ourselves that are tangible only in memories when the past becomes alien. He felt the grass in his hands. She was dead and he would leave. He would remember and that was all. He would remember, failing in accuracy but retaining flashes and feelings in tribute to her no-doubt unfulfilled, awkward human life: she wore wellington boots all year round; she laughed at jokes on the radio; she only spoke about his father in fragmented snatches. A few minutes passed and Arthur began to get cold. The wind didn’t care. He descended back into the forest, the trees equally indifferent but at least capable of being held, moulded and destroyed.

The cottage swung into view, lights that he had carelessly left on pinpricking through the angles of spruce. He didn’t want her house. So the trees would swallow it up for another twenty years, revealing it against a sea of stumps when the harvest came. And then hidden and revealed again every forty years in a cycle of decrepitude, each unearthing bearing an uncomfortable truth like poetry. Maybe when it disintegrated to nothing there would be a cleansing effect, a redemptive forgetting. Arthur’s mother had lived in irresolution, of course, and obliteration might be the only answer. He didn’t quite know how to think of her, finally, though he felt that he must. There had been a bond but not an understanding. She had stood holding his hand but not looking, parted from him by some trick.

Arthur turned around and looked into the forest, spreading with mute greens and browns and moss and branches and dirt and all the species he had never learned to name and Sitka spruce and Sitka spruce and Sitka spruce and Sitka spruce and Sitka spruce and Sitka spruce and Sitka spruce and Sitka spruce and Sitka spruce and Sitka spruce. He wouldn’t bury her here. This place was too burdened for a simple scattering of ash.

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