They came with their pipes and their drums, whistling out a merry tune that frightened all the birds and beasts. Behind the drumbeats’ rhythm and the jaunty airs, heavy wheels followed, lumbering over roots, crashing against us, dragging the weight of dark metallic tubes and clattering with cast-iron balls. Under new spring leaves, yet to unfurl, the rancorous smell of sulphur and brimstone filled the air like a sickness.
And then the mighty footfall: thundering legions. Men and horses, boys and dogs, noise, confusion, chaos. Fires and burning, yelling, shouts filling the spaces that they left between us—spaces made smaller and smaller as they came in ever-increasing clusters of unbridled madness.
The forest closed itself around them, and that was how we drifted through that longest day.
What happened was a travesty, thick-veiled in smoking powders, drowned in deafening roars of fire and hopes of ‘Glory!’ mingling again and again with the mortal shock of loss and pain.
My roots were fed with a red tide, as, one by one, the fragile bone-houses of men cracked and shed their cargoes. But their cries were not strange: we had seen all this before, albeit on a smaller scale. The gold of our green, expectant only for spring, knew it must wait for the smoke to clear, wait for a glimpse of the bright warm sun again.
It would come. We had faith: It would come.
We kept hope as the endless day wore on. While man lingered amongst us, we, the quiet giants of the earth—sheltering, succouring, life-giving, yet seemingly invisible too—we would wait.
And after dawn cleared the dimness from the sky, and the smoke had almost drifted away, I realised what had gripped me through the long, dark night. A single man who had been thrust at me with exploding fire was still impaled against my bark, standing with arms outstretched as if crucified, and as cold as a February night.
He stoops, half-buried in my bark, my splintered trunk surrounding him like a nod to his inevitable mortal coffin. His pulpy, too-soft skin is worn away on my exposed xylem, staining my pale flesh with the colour of his insides.
It is an intimate final exchange that makes me an unwilling part of this madness. I’m no more than a temporary stopping-place, an accident, a casualty of his war like he is, yet his arms are clutching me still.
When others approach in the clearing of the battle’s aftermath, they notice him and collect in a group, making a loose copse of legs and men’s voices.
“Well, I’ll be damned—ain’t never seen nuthin’ like that before.”
“He looks like an angel, stuck there so still an all.”
“Anyone recognise him, boys?”
“We oughta get him off that damned tree, lay him out proper, then we’ll see.”
“He looks kinda peaceful there, though, doncha think?”
They haul him off my raw bark—it takes three of them and one to say prayers at the side—and lay him unceremoniously on the charred earth that hollers out just above my tap root. They are trying to fold his outstretched arms over his chest, like they do with all the still ones, as though he is praying to his god one last time. This is what they do before the carts arrive to take them away.
But they cannot.
The man has stiffened and retains my shape. He makes a mockery of a bleak and lonely angel resting on the forest floor, arms open in supplication to an empty sky. In frustration, they leave him there, moving on to the next blue jacket, an easier task, who lies fallen with his hat on.
I wait out the day, notice how the carts come empty and leave full, and how they transport the lost shells and husks of men swiftly to where the railroad meets the forest edge. No one will touch the Angel who clutched me until he softens once again, and I wonder if it’s fear, or superstition, or is it simply an inconvenience for the bone-housed souls?
The Angel lies there alone all day, until he finally stops imploring his heaven and it seems that his arms drop in wearied exhaustion. The sound of voices is gentler with the last roll of the cart’s wheels. He’s heaved upon it, and a sudden rush of steam from the long iron road plays its finale to the spring twilight.
We know little in the forest, but we say less.
Men say much, but it means very little.
Sometimes, the only comfort is in knowing that tomorrow always comes.
—Native to the North of England, Anne Lawrence Bradshaw graduated as a mature student in English Literature in 2013. Since then, her work has appeared in several UK literary journals. She occasionally tweets @shrewdbanana, but is usually too busy reading a good book or watching the grass grow tall.