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She’s angry. Angry with herself and angry with her mother. Angry with the trees that are her home – her family. Penknife in hand, Roots inserts the point, touches the core, and chips off the first piece of bark. Chips off the skin.
“I needed to do this,” her mother had told her. “Needed to be here, here in the woods; needed to return to my roots, to own a little piece of this land for myself. A little piece of nature to call my own. You understand; I know you do. You are part of this land, part of this wood; you were born here, here under this tree, in the home that I made – made for us both.”
But she knows that this isn’t true. Knows that her mother was only thinking of herself when she chose to give birth in a wood; chose to bring up her child in an abandoned log cabin. Chose to raise her only child, her daughter, on a diet of wild fungi, roots and berries.
“Feral!” the teacher had whispered to a colleague. “Raised in the woods by a hippy. By a crackpot! Hair matted into dreadlocks, as thick and as rough as the bark of a tree – probably riddled with woodworm!”
She guesses she wasn’t meant to have heard these comments, this first summing up of her appearance by an outsider but, like the trees that cradled her into life, her hearing is exceptionally sharp.
“And what kind of a mother would name a child Roots? It’s asking for trouble!”
First day at school, Roots is years older than the other kids, and she sticks out like a thickened-old oak tree surrounded by saplings.
“She’s a Faraway Tree!”declared the class starlet; the self-appointed child genius who’d read all her parents’ books, front to back, over and over, before she’d barely even started nursery school. “She lives in the Magic Faraway Tree, with Moonface and Silky! Eat one of her pop biscuits and you can make a wish upon her dreadlocks!”*
“Yuck, I’m not eating anything she’s made!” declared the communal others, all in one voice, with one mind, with one mind controlled by the starlet. “She’s dirty. She’s disgusting. Never washes her hair. Doesn’t have a bath. Probably washes her hands in deer poo!”
She’s angry. Inserts the edge of the knife further in and under the bark of the tree. Chips off another piece of bark. Another piece of skin.
“Oops, didn’t see you there!” screams out the girl who’s just fallen into her, knocked her off balance, and left her on the concrete. Left her to right herself, to re-root her behind onto the wooden playground bench. “Thought you were part of the bench! Sorry!” she laughs in chorus with her identical friends. And they all run off, feet in time, like army recruits, all working as one. All following orders.
She turns again to her companion behind her, the one single tree in a concrete landscape, retrieves her penknife. Chips off the bark. It’s looking good, she thinks. Looks like a leg with a scrape on it, a graze. A leg with an injury, ready to be patched up. Ready for a plaster. She chips off some more.
Every break-time, from then on, she works hard at the task. Chipping away, bit by bit, peeling away the skin, preparing the leg for its day of binding, wondering about how she’ll get hold of the bandage, soon to be required. Chipping away, on and on, through the Autumn term, through the Spring, and on through the Summer, until …
The new teacher’s unhappy; her face resembles the terrifying facial features of a trucker’s cab. Headlight-eyes smeared and unfocused, grille-lips, frowning and threatened.
“I don’t understand it!” she rants. “Just don’t understand it. Don’t get it at all. During the summer holidays something shocking happened, and it happened right here, in this school, in our playground!”
“What did, Miss?” shouts out the starlet, a little taller, but otherwise unchanged. Unchanged and still controlling.”What happened, Miss?”
“Someone. Someone horrible. Someone evil, mindless and unthinking committed a grave act of vandalism!”
“Is it the graffiti on the bench, Miss?” contributes one of the followers.
“Silence! Silence and listen! Let me finish!”
The silence is deafening, as deafening as the rustle of leaves, when woodland trees know that a storm is imminent.
“Someone, someone, stole the life from our school tree. From the one tree, that has been here since the school first opened, the Mayor’s oak tree, rooted and watered with his own hand, at our opening ceremony – twenty-five years ago! Our pride and joy!”
“What happened, Miss? Has it gone, Miss? Is it dead? What’s wrong with it?”
“Silence, I told you! Don’t interrupt!”
“Someone, someone, took a knife and stripped our tree of it’s bark, took away ring of bark from all the way around it’s trunk! And do you know what happens, when a tree is stripped of it’s bark, of it’s skin?”
“Yes, Miss ..it ..”
“Silence! Silence I told you! When a tree is stripped of its bark, it can no longer get access to essential nutrients, can no longer feed, can no longer live!”
“Be quiet, I told you! What I would like to do is to get hold of that person, the person who did that, to get hold of them, to get their leg and to peel off a layer of their skin, all the way around their calf, all the way around to their shin and back!”
“Yuck, I feel sick, Miss!”
“Silence, girl! Yes, that is what I would like to do to them. See how they would like it.”
The class, communally, as one, fall silent.
“Miss?” interjects the starlet.
“Miss, where’s Roots today? Is she not coming back this year? Has she left?”
“No idea and, if I did, I wouldn’t discuss it with you. Silence. Get on with your work!”
“I know where she is!” blurts out one of the followers, one of the many. “My mum says that she’s in hospital. Had an accident during the summer holiday. A very serious leg injury.”
A ripple of colour rumbles around the class – pinks up the faces of the followers. The teacher, troubled – troubled and angry – turns white.
“Silence, I told you! Get on with your work!”
Hobbling out of the hospital, she clutches hold of her crutches; clutches hold of the dead wood of willow tree, with her hands still living; living hands that give off a little heat, enough perhaps to coax a willow back into life. She pauses, long enough to take a swig from her water bottle, long enough to start again. Her leg is painful – it’ll take some time for the skin graft to acclimatise to it’s host. She thinks of last year’s perch, the lonely wooden bench, next to the lonely ash tree.
It’ll be some time before Roots has to return to school.
In the meantime, anything could happen.
Copyright owned by Jay Cool, June 2019
Disclaimer: The images below link to Amazon. Should you choose to make a purchase, I will receive a commission at no extra cost to yourself.
*Reference to Enid Blyton’s ‘The Enchanted Wood’, ‘The Magic Faraway Tree’ and ‘The Magic Faraway Tree Again’ fiction series.
Inspiration taken from ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ by Peter Wohlleben: