The Jerusalem Tree

Rachel chose June's Chatterbox topic as
boats and boating
with the deliberate purpose, I think, of watching me writhe.  She said she wanted to see me step out of it like a disgruntled cat which has just trod in a puddle, and shake off my paws.  Which I did.  I am not sure this relationship is a healthy one, but we seem to get on without any intention of disjoining. 
the jerusalem tree

In the dun-dusky evening the road diverged, curling like the sweep of a hurley-stick through the red pillars of the cedar trees, and the Black Prince put down the last two fingers of either hand upon the reins, drawing upon the mouth of his agouti.  A little bewildered, the horse paused, churning fruitlessly at the air. 
“Hush, hush, cousin,” crooned the prince absentmindedly. 
The horse mouthed the bit and fell silent.
Before him the track wound up through the old cedar wood from the depression of the river; over the coppered tops of the trees he could see the gilt towers of the University etched against a sky of new faience-colour and old bronze.  And farther away, making mockery of the lifted land, the froth of cyclamen clouds with their strings of golden pearls and their trains of gossamer-stuff rolled slowly across that kiln-heated heaven. 
How beautiful it was!  A small, hurt smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.  The evening air and the evening light seeped into his bones and flooded through his veins.  How beautiful…  Once—what was time?—it had been a frightening place to a boy naturally disposed to be quiet and reclusive; once it had been a labyrinth of nightmare and heartache.  But those days were lost behind him; and though he wore their scars, he need not remember: at the foot of this scarleted and golden hill, it was easy to forget. 
He glanced toward the junction.  It curved into the wood and followed the base of the hill, and it did not look, to an alien eye, as if it led to anything or as if it were wise to traverse.  But its ruddy shadows, he knew, would open out into the long greensward beneath the walls of Marsdon Tower—whose walls could not be seen from this vantage—and out of the lawn and the swans and the river at the foot of the green emerged memories that the prince did not need to turn away from.
He turned his horse’s head into the junction and spurred the shadows of the cedars over his shoulders.  The soft triple spluttering of hooves and the sepia-purr of moving tack were the only sounds in the wood as he cantered down the lane, bending with the movement of the track, hitching up slightly as his gold-touched bay curled its body over the gnarled figure of a fallen beech-limb.  The others would not mind, he considered, that he would be a little late.  They would understand.  In their way, they would understand…
The cedars gave way to oak and elm, the wood began to open up and turn from the hill, and presently the cinnabar light became once more diffused with gold spice and amber, and through no conscious guidance of his own, his horse dropped to a collected trot and then a slow, scrutinizing walk as they left the woodshore behind them and came out upon the green.  To his right, the old blasted stonework of Marsdon Tower heaved out of the hillside, broken and burnt without windowpane or wooden floor, and its gateway, once barred with the oak which surrounded the hill, stood gaping to the elements and breathed unhappy memories into the minds of all who passed beneath its shadow.  The road snaked up toward it, but before it lifted from the green it darted away again in the dusty beaten way of used tracks: only a faint green line in the turf marked where the road had once shot precipitously up the hillside into the stone bowels of the Tower. 
Away.  The prince looked away, out across the wide sward that was like the curve of bronze buckler verdigris’d with age.  The Lamb lay out beyond the bank, watered like etched steel, slowly carving its banks through the valley and through time, and nearer to the bank than it lay to its castle he looked for the massive walnut tree, older by generations than the building, under which he had sat as a boy new and green upon this hill.
The sward stood empty.
He must have kicked a little in shock for the horse shivered beneath him, and complained at the sudden jerking of the bit.  But the blow—his eyes swept the green as if by some magic the thing had moved and was still there, yet all the while he knew it could not have moved, not by faith large or small, and he knew the thing was gone. 
All things must die one day, said reason, clearly and gently in the back of his mind.  Even the walnut tree.
Like one coming up through the dry-leaf steps of a mausoleum, he urged his bay across the lawn, a little lost without the towering compass-point which the massive tree had always been.  The green seemed naked without it.  And more than that, it was not merely a tree.  It had stood before the Tower was built, it had been mature when the cedar and the oak and the elm had encroached as new forest upon the hill.  Its limbs had twisted massive and breath-taking upward and outward, casting shade like the words of an oracle across the grass, and beneath its springy froth had yelped laverock and fox—even the fate of his own family had been tied to its gnarled shadow.  And now it was gone, as all the great ones must go one day, fallen like Ozymandius and leaving behind it only the hollowness of its passing.
He stopped his horse upon the brink of the grassy depression wherein its root-system had sunk and stared fixedly at visions which were not very clear to him. 
How it had shone!  With the winds and the sunlight in its boughs, tossing it gently against the virgin sky, every leaf flashing and every flash like a name of those who had stood long ago below it. 
How it had prospered!  Like the rich soil beneath it, and the men and women who toiled in that land—the prince gazed upward reflexively, squinting into the late sunlight, as if he might see the tangle-work of its boughs again making a golden byzantine tapestry with which to gild his face and the sky. 
It had been like rocks and wells and mountains smoking under the word of God.  It had been a promise to the land, an end of bloodshed, a bond, a symbol of peace. 
And now it was gone.
He slipped his feet from the stirrups and dropped noiselessly to the grass, instinctively catching at his sword-hilt lest it make a rattle.  The horse began to graze, and he stepped from its side to skirt the depression, eyes ever a little ahead of his feet until, by sweeping through the clover and using an old stone pier on the near bank as a kind of reference, he came to the broken slab of granite, pock-marked with lichen, next which he had sat for hours on end and which for leagues of years had lain a quiet memorial to what stood, arguably, as the single most important event in the history of his people.
He turned his back to the light and stood over the stone, one hand still upon the sword’s haft, head canted a little as one might look down on a dog one was fond of.  The words were old—very old—but he knew them by heart, and in his mind they still seemed very clear.


And a little more beneath, in only slightly younger lettering:


The prince crouched down—he did not know why—and touched the cold, crumbled edge of the stone with one outstretched hand.  His shadow arched across the stone and for a moment, coupled with the heaviness of loss, he felt the weightiness of fate impress hard upon his shoulders.
“It was that great storm last summer.”
He lifted his head, unaware that it had fallen forward.  It took him only a moment to place that peaceable voice, always a little shy and at the same time always sure of itself.  Respectfully he rocked back onto his heels and rose, turning to the Mayor of the University.  How long had he stood here, that the man had come up across the lawn so quietly to join him, and had gone unnoticed until now? 
The pale lilac eyes were on the stone between them, and that shy little smile with which the prince was personally acquainted touched at the pale lips.  “The stone is still here.”
“Yes.”  The prince turned back on the stone.  It was perhaps a sorry trade, in light of all the storms that walnut tree had weathered, but the stone was still here.  He was still here—a testament in the flesh to the carved words in that stone.
The Mayor was saying gently, “It was hard to see it go.  It means much to us—more to me, and still more to you.  But the etchings of it are many in the books, the accounts of it numerous, and the rock of remembrance is still here.”  He nodded to it, the wind feathering his white hair. 
The prince said, “It came down in the storm?”
The colourless face lifted to his, eyes unfocusing a little, as if seeing through to the pain and the past.  “Yes.  Sooth, it had been dead for some time, and the drainage has not been managed properly so that its roots had lost their strength.  It was a great storm, and the tree made no sound as it lay down upon the green.  When we came to it, it was like an old warhorse which has gone back to the fields of its triumph to die.  Very quiet and peaceful.”
“Its roots had lost its strength!” mused the prince, quietly and vehemently beneath his breath.  “What ill omen lies within that picture.”
The Mayor looked at him steadfastly and said nothing.
But already the practical side of him was slipping loose the catgut of the aching wound and he was saying in a moment, into what seemed to him a very hollow, living quiet, “We must needs fill in the hole.  It is within my power to procure engineers to survey and drain this place.  We will have another tree planted.”
“That will be good,” said the Mayor.
Again he stared at the stone and the hole and the dead legacy.  The wound began to hurt again, more fiercely this time.  “What was done with it?” he asked.
With fingertips hardly touching his shoulder, the Mayor moved forward and lifted his arm toward the bank.  The prince, raising his hand to shield his gaze from the sun, looked out along the line of his pointing and saw what the lift of the green had before hidden from his view.  A new bridge, of timber corduroys and stone piers, arched across the blue Lamb from bank to bank, and along its sides like some breed of limbed dragon stepped stairs and walk-planks against which whispered the sides of the long leaf-shaped river-boats as they lifted and dropped to the surge of the current. 
“Perhaps it may no longer be the memorial it once was,” observed the Mayor, “but it manages, by some strange providence, to be a kind of way to us even still.”
The prince said, “It is a beautiful bridge.”  But in his mind the glittering thing with the sun upon its timbers so that it looked like gold and not wood, looked like a bow, a bow drawn at a venture, and he felt more kin to the early hours of that covenant and the new life of the walnut tree than ever before.  The tree and the covenant had prospered long and sturdily—not always happily, but strong, and though the ache was fresh and the blood seemed to well out from beneath his fingers even as he tried to press the wound shut, there was no anger in the pain.  He looked down again at the stone.
God mend all. 
Turning in alongside the Mayor and fetching up the reins of his horse, he began the walk across the green with many things lying at his back—and the wind, at his back, rushed with a sudden power upon him, fanning out the dolphinskin of his cloak, and in its plunging he heard the sounds carried across the years of the fox and the laverock and the talk of men and horses, and that peace which was as painful as it was indescribable dropped upon him out of the naked sky.

He fell not by an enemy’s blow,
Nor by the treachery of his own followers.
But he died peacefully,
Happy in his joy,
Without pain,
His people safe.
Who can call this death,
When none considers that it demands vengeance?

8 ripostes:

  1. h o w do you come up with these things on such short notice
    this is beautiful

  2. You certainly cheated this time, but I'm so glad you did. Unnerving, Jenny, how you chose to write about a beautiful old tree, because there is such a one at the fairgrounds in our county and I adore it and just three days ago, I drove past and thought what I wound that'd make in my heart if it came crashing down and was gone forever. This piece is so good. <3 The bit at the end, right before the epithet, where you repeat some of the same memories as at the beginning ... that is like his heartbeat returning, when it had been stopped for so long through the whole scene. I loved this one. <3

  3. Mirriam - It's really a matter of critical mass. Something - even the smallest thing - hits the centre of what I had no idea might have been an idea, and the next thing I know I have Hiroshima on my hands. And that is how I write.

    Rachel - The real trick is to make you care like hell about that tree, having absolutely no background yet as to the events which took place under it. I'll write that one day. I always seem to do things backwards.

    "I can't quite seem to do anything the orthodox way."

  4. "And the next thing I know I have Hiroshima on my hands..." That line is fabulous, Jenny. :D
    This piece, "The Jerusalem Tree" is among your best. I love the way you build pictures and emotions in my head and heart.
    Keep it up.

  5. Gospel truth. XD

    I'm glad you enjoyed reading it! I certainly enjoyed writing it. I enjoy writing all these Chatterboxes, and thanks go of course to Rachel for starting up the venture. <3

  6. There is such a deep, refreshing feeling to this piece, like an old stream that's been given fresh water. It's beautiful. ♥

  7. I can't quite say I understood it all, but what /I DID/ understand I very much enjoyed! This is beautiful, and touches something deep in my heart the way trees and weeping willows do. In a small way it reminds me of the ancient tree that used to grow in a park in florida "the Senator" I think it was called, but someone set fire too it and I never got to see it.... :( and also in a way the story of the "other apple tree" in the Magician's nephew. I especially (though at first it caught me off guard.) like the Olde English style of writing on the stone. One of my favorite parts...

    Also Philip Cheval and Pan Aeneas... I recall I have read some some (or perhaps heard a recording?) mention of them in your snippets. I think this story has like nothing else piqued my interest in this world of yours and its people. I find I would like to know more... I think...

    Finally, the poem! it is very beautiful and a good tribute to the tree. (Reading this, I feel almost as if I had loved it and felt the pain of loosing it in some mysterious way.)

  8. Rereading this and just realized for the first time whom the mayor is