I didn’t take much notice of Ardwyn cottage before putting in an offer. It was cheap and I wanted something to do up. Structurally it was sound but needed lots of work, so I spent the money she’d paid me off with. She hoped I’d stay as far away from her and my son as I could, to allow her to get on with her new life – complete with new man.
Ardwyn, which is Welsh for 'on a hill', was isolated with only a couple of neighbours dotting the lane. It was the last residence before desolate moors yawned and stretched into the black mountains. It didn’t appear to sit on the hill so much as crouch, like a gnome spying on the valley below.
Dark grey slates overhung tiny windows and the walls were so thick they appeared bulbous under dirty flaking lime. Drab green paint peeled from a heavy wooden front door. The whole picture invoked tiredness, the building looked exhausted – not unlike how I felt. I planned to transform it into a cosy pad where my son could visit, whether she liked it or not. I’d see her in court if she tried anything. I envisioned a new lease of life for myself and the cottage.
By the back door, that led into a sizeable kitchen dominated by an inglenook fireplace, stood a large rowan tree. I’d never seen a rowan so big. I thought they were wispy things clinging to mountainsides not thick-trunked monsters like this. I didn’t think they lived particularly long lives, like oaks, but this one looked unnaturally ancient. The berries were beginning to burst into burnt orange and scarlet, ripening soft and bulging in contrast to the hard grey trunk.
I’d been a builder by trade but the business had gone under during the divorce so I was working for my mate Dan. He helped me with the renovations on Ardwyn at weekends and before long the cottage breathed an air of cosy chocolate box lid. I tried to keep things traditional, like the windows and doors; it cost a bit more but I knew people in the trade so it wasn’t too bad. The inglenook was the heart of the kitchen and I installed a large wood burner complete with oven and hot plate. I saw myself warming soup over a roaring fire after a good moorland walk with my son, muddy boots drying on the old flagstone floor.
The first night I slept there I dreamt a woman was sitting in my bedroom. She may once have been beautiful but was now old and haggard, not like the elderly but like someone who’d suffered. She seemed relieved when I appeared to wake and rushed towards me saying the Divil is dead, God forgive me, the Divil is dead, let him lie. She sighed and dispersed before my eyes. Then I awoke for real and obviously there was nobody there. I tried to get back to sleep but it had left me a little uneasy so I lay there thinking about my failed marriage until dawn broke my vigil.
I told Dan about the dream the next day, wondering if he knew who the divil may be. He laughed, saying it was Irish for devil. That explained it: I’d been listening to the Folk Show on Radio Two that evening. As the late summer sun cooled I’d sat in the kitchen and lit the fire. Whimsical folksy notes had filled the air mingling with the smell of wood smoke as I ate a simple supper of beans on toast.
The moon had been full and although majestic resplendent in berries, the rowan tree blocked all light and obscured any view from the kitchen window. I didn’t want to contemplate cutting down such a lovely tree but it was close to the house foundations and might pose a problem. I’d been thinking about this also as I went to bed, with a repeating Irish jig in my head - about the divil no doubt.
That weekend one of the neighbours came by. I felt a little guilty at not having introduced myself sooner but I’d been so depressed and busy with the cottage and work that socializing was the last thing on my mind. She must have been at least ninety and walked with a stick covered in odd carvings. Sepia skin and lumpy knuckles gripped the knobbly top making it hard to tell where the wood ended and her arm began. Her face, like wrinkled tree bark, broke into a wide gummy smile and her nut brown eyes twinkled.
“I see you’ve done a lovely job of it bach, bout time something was done to brighten the old place up.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Do you live around here?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’m Ivy from the cottage down the lane, Efail-fach – used to be the old smithy – and you’re my nearest neighbour.”
“Hello Ivy,” I replied holding out my hand to take her twiggy grasp. “I’m Marcus, sorry but I haven’t introduced myself to any of the neighbours yet. I hope you’ll forgive me.”
“You’ve been much too busy for that by the looks of things,” she replied. “But don’t worry we’ll not hold it against you Marcus, we’re a shy lot ourselves but friendly enough.”
“Come in for a cup of tea,” I said stepping back from the door so she could come into the kitchen. She entered and glanced around smiling as her eyes feasted on the stove complete with kettle on the hotplate.
“That’s a good’un,” she said. “It’ll keep you lovely and snug come winter, and it gets very cold up here.”
I smiled at her and proceeded to make tea. I didn’t have a tea pot but she said she could cope with a bag in a mug. I made two builders teas without thinking, but she sipped politely and didn’t seem to mind. I asked her about the history of the cottage. It had been a neglected holiday home when I bought it, and neither the vendor nor the estate agent knew much about its past. She sat back in the chair cradling her mug and peered at me over the brim.
“My mam knew the family that lived here when she was just a little girl. I’m over ninety so I’m going back a few years. They were called the sacks. I can’t remember their real name but everyone called them the sacks because that’s what they wore. They were so poor they couldn’t afford proper cloth to make clothes but used old sacking instead. It was tragic really, three little kiddies running around in old sackcloth. My mam remembered the other children at school teasing them, calling them sacks.
The mother was Irish, worked really hard but it were him that was the problem. Her husband was a useless old drunk, used to beat her too according to what my mamgu told my mam. She was to stay away from the kids and the cottage just in case; he wasn’t to be trusted around little’uns you see. She told mam the old rowan tree would have her if she went too close to the cottage.” Ivy glanced at the gnarled trunk outside the window and took a tentative sip of tea. It appeared to have heard and loomed closer.
“Is it the same tree?” I asked.
“Oh yes, there’s some magic in that old bugger. I’ve always loved a rowan and that one is older than most. There’s a whole lot of daisy wheels carved in the trunk, don’t know if they’re still visible but you’ll see them if you look hard enough.”
“What’s a daisy wheel?” I asked.
“An old witch mark, guards against evil spirits, a protective charm of sorts. They were very popular years ago, you could find them everywhere. There’s a cave in Ireland covered in them, 'twas believed to be graffiti until recently some scholar worked out what they were. My mam said the tree held the devil in it and that’s why it had the mark. I wonder what that cave had been holding.”She sighed and I almost detected an edge of fear to her voice as she glanced towards the window. “But that’s just old wives tales, and rowan trees are lucky trees, protectors of the land,” she added hastily, hoping she hadn’t frightened me. I suppressed a smile.
“Anyway, the poor old sacks were starving too, and my mamgu would bring food up for them, she couldn’t spare much as times were hard but she’d give what she could. She took some good cloth up once, to make the kiddies some clothes, but he threw it back at her saying he’d grown up in sackcloth and if it were good enough for him it were good enough for them, nasty bugger. Mamgu reckoned Old Nick himself would have made a better husband.” She tutted under her breath and I thought of the haggard woman from my dream.
“Why didn’t she leave him?” I enquired.
“Well that’s the thing you see, she loved him. Said he wasn’t always that way, said something had possessed him and she wanted her real husband back. He’d taken her in apparently when he’d been working in Ireland and brought her back to marry her. His family had been poor but he’d grown up here and it was the only home he knew after his parents died.”
Old Ivy took a few more sips of her tea before continuing.
“One day though he disappeared. Nobody knew where he’d gone or what had happened to him. Dead in a ditch some said. Drank himself to death others hoped. Not a single person lifted a finger to look for him; relieved he’d gone they were. My mam didn’t realise at the time being only a kiddie herself but the pain and suffering he put his family through was evil. Someone should have done something to help I suppose, but people tended to keep to themselves in them days. ”
“What happened to her and the kids?” I asked, concerned and hoping for a happy ending now that the wife beating, child molesting drunk who’d clearly taken advantage of a vulnerable woman, had disappeared.
“Well she up sticks and left, kiddies an all. Dressed in sacks they headed into town looking for work. Maybe she managed to get back to her family in Ireland if she had any, but probably ended up in the workhouse or worse. Not many choices for a woman alone with kids in them days. My mamgu gave them some supplies, but she were a proud woman and didn’t want charity.”
“That’s a very sad story,” I said placing my cup onto the kitchen counter. The day had begun fresh and clear, but now just a corner of sunlight peeped from behind sombre clouds. The rowan cast dark shadows that flitted restlessly around the kitchen.
“Yes,” said Ivy. “But at least you’re here now and maybe some happiness can return. It’s certainly looking like a cosy new home. Is your wife going to be joining you soon?”
Here goes I thought, this was why I had delayed introducing myself to the neighbours. Taking a deep breath I proceeded to tell her I was divorced, but my son Michael would be visiting and I was hoping to find some local walks for us to explore. She smiled at this and after telling me to come to hers for a cuppa sometime she finished her tea and bid me farewell. I couldn’t help noticing her give the rowan tree a wide berth.
That afternoon I went for a long walk into the hills and from the top I could see the lane, ribbon like, winding along the moor and there at the end crouched my cottage. I felt proud because it looked lovely, still gnome like, but one that had had a makeover. Michael would enjoy hiking the mountains with me I thought. Then I noticed something odd about the rowan tree that was easy to spot with its flame like bundles of berries. A dark shadow hunkered underneath, like someone was hiding and peering through the kitchen window. I wanted to shout out to distract them and let them know I could see them, but I was too far away. I cursed myself for forgetting my binoculars and turned down the hillside hurrying for home, the cottage disappearing from view as I dropped into the valley.
Of course there was nobody lurking anywhere when I got back, and I began thinking I had imagined it. The sun had been in my eyes and it could very well have been a black shadow cast from something, although I couldn’t think what. I glanced around for foot prints in the earth but the ground was undisturbed.
That night uneasiness rested upon my shoulders and although I’d cooked a hearty meal of steak and potatoes with a fresh salad I had no appetite. The kitchen was cast in shadow and more than once I glanced nervously over my shoulder to the window. I jumped, spilling my beer as I thought I saw a dark shape hunched against the windowsill and was sure I saw the flash of teeth or the white of an eye, but it must have been a cat. I checked outside but saw nothing.
The following morning was a Sunday and I rose early. I had decided, after a restless sleep dreaming of shadows, daisy wheels and the smell of damp earth and sacking that I would cut the rowan tree down. I phoned Dan and he agreed saying he’d come over to help make sure it didn’t fall onto my new roof. I was looking forward to a bit of banter and a couple of beers with him afterwards.
I felt a little guilty about cutting the tree down because it was old; but it wasn’t protected and I promised the land I’d plant some fruit trees to make up for it. I’d always wanted a little orchard, blossom would be lovely in the spring and I may even try my hand at making apple pie. I could do this single dad stuff easy, Michael was going to enjoy his visits.
Coffee mug in hand whilst waiting for Dan to turn up I stood surveying the condemned tree. ''Sorry mate'', I said, ''but it’s time for a change.'' As I looked closer I could just about make out a few strange carvings in the bark. There were a couple that looked like a circle with a six petal flower inside, they were beginning to peel away and as I looked closer I noticed the leaves and berries appeared to have some kind of blight or fungus. ''Looks like you’re already on your way out, old boy,'' I said, touching my hand to the marks on the bark.
A shudder like an electric shock ran up my arm, and a beetle burrowed out of the trunk scuttling away. The tree was being slowly destroyed by the looks of it, which was not a good sign I thought. It would be a mercy putting it out of its misery, otherwise it would slowly succumb to pests and disease and a strong wind may blow it onto my new roof. I felt better now, about my decision. Cutting it down was the sensible thing to do.
Dan and I worked hard and before long the rowan tree was just a pile of logs stacked on the lawn, with its branches and berries arranged in a pyre nearby ready to burn as autumn closed in. We even managed to get most of the root up with a winch. We levelled the ground and prepared it for a patio or maybe a deck, I hadn’t decided yet. Feeling pleased with the day’s work I lit the barbeque and grilled burgers, which we washed down with a couple of cold beers.
Dan didn’t have more than one small bottle as he had to drive home to his family; he’d declined my offer to stay and seemed eager to leave as the evening approached. I envied him, watching his truck pull away heading home to all the noise and chaos that comes with family life. I drank the rest of the beers in silence watching the sun sink into the gloaming out of my kitchen window. The walls lit up with a pinkish glow instead of being cast in shadow and feeling satisfied, and a little tipsy, I headed for bed.
I awoke to the stench of damp earth. A heavy weight pressed down on top of me and I struggled to see through a suffocating blackness. I called out but rough cloth like sacking pulled tight over my face. As I struggled the cloth tightened, the smell of damp and rot intensifying. It’s a dream, I thought willing my breath to calm and waited for the feeling of wakefulness, except I already felt awake. Sack cloth scraped against bare bones and as I tried to move my mouth fell open to fill with earth.
Fear choked me. I panicked, thinking I couldn’t breathe - but I wasn’t breathing. Stiffened limbs refused to respond like they belonged to some dead thing. Amidst my confusion I sensed a part of me, a lightness that was separate to the bones that gripped like bars . . . a small frail thing cowering. I reached for it and rose weightless through dying roots and crawling earth only to witness my own body carve a circle with a six petal flower into a stone. I hung ethereal and formless and saw my lips curve in a cruel arc and mutter strange words that stung my gossamer existence like electric.
Watching helplessly I saw my own hands place the stone deep in the earth to sit within the withered roots of the poor dead rowan tree, where old bones lay decayed and wrapped in rotten sacking. Something that had never been human stared, laughing at me from behind my own face. Screaming soundlessly my soul plummeted back into the earth and I felt sack cloth pull tight once more over a skull that was not my own. Foreign memories of a woman’s frantic cries pressed their way into my being and mingled with children’s voices taunting sacks sacks sacks.
Old Ivy had been to visit a friend and was concerned to feel an odd shift in the air when she returned. It felt more significant than simply summer flowing into autumn. The following morning she smelt smoke and saw a silvery stream meander into the sky. Her new neighbour was having a bonfire by the looks of it. She reached for her stick and decided to take a walk up to Ardwyn to see what he was doing. He had seemed a nice enough chap; kind and genuinely concerned when she’d told him of the sacks, but she had detected an edge of bitterness when he spoke of his divorce. She hoped this wouldn’t make him weak and therefore vulnerable.
Maybe she should tell him about the rowan, how it would be very unwise to chop it down. But how could she tell a story of her mamgu dabbling in witchcraft with the sack woman that resulted in the death of her husband, drunk or not, whilst trying to trap a demon in a tree. If she didn’t know better she’d think it a load of ole cobblers herself. The rowan was old back then and should be dead by now, but the charms kept it alive and something still held that foul beast fast. Although she’d had an uncanny feeling Marcus had been thinking about removing the old tree. She hoped the berries would be charming enough to stop him for now, until she’d worked out how to dissuade him without sounding mad.
As she reached the brow of the hill her sharp eyes scanned the view. The outline of the cottage rose defiant and alone against the mountain backdrop aglow with purple heather. Gone was the thick grey trunk and splendour of berries that had dominated the skyline for so long. Her step faltered as fear churned her stomach and she gripped her mamgu’s stick, her thumb tracing the sigils carved there long ago hoping they’d keep her safe.
Marcus was sitting outside sipping from a mug and reading a paper. He looked okay, seemed relaxed even. Maybe it was only an old wives tale at that, and she was being foolish to think otherwise. The cottage did look better without the crooked old tree leering over it, she supposed. Her eyes flickered to the bonfire where the rowan branches and berries crackled and spat. A young boy stood at a safe distance watching the flames, his son maybe, she thought.
Marcus placed his mug down and looked up at her cautious approach, raising a hand in greeting. “Good morning Ivy,” he called and her heart froze. Icy shards shuddered down her spine oblivious to the morning sunlight as she realised something ancient, something dark and inexplicably evil was smiling at her and recognising her from behind Marcus’s dead grey eyes. She clutched at her chest, and her mamgu’s stick clattered to the ground and rolled to rest against the grass verge, the sigils useless.
The mountain cowered as the town birthed up fern clad slopes. Only the marsh escaped; a wild pocket of reeds and grasses where a deep tidal river slugged its way through. It was in this magical place amongst the chattering of reed warblers and silent gaze of herons that I found my return to home. An old Victorian farmhouse offered a wealth of character features, not lovingly restored, just unchanged. Not even the 80s glamour had influenced the deco over the years and I liked it. It smelt old and breathed, expanding and contracting like a lung inhaling the salty marsh air.
There was a walled graveyard on the Marsh ancient and forgotten; an abandoned place of solace shrouded by nature. My Aunt Annie had brought me here as a child. She told me that if I ran around a grave seven times I would hear the body stir within and maybe even talk to them. I chose a simple headstone cushioned in moss with coffin shaped kerbs and footstone. It looked a cosy grave, snuggling under the protective shade of a wych elm, not far off the pathway leading to the church porch.
I ran once carefully circling the stones, then twice and kept going, but on the sixth turn a blackbird skittered a warning, flying low between the trees. The land tilted and my eyes swam with dizziness, clutching my head I almost fell. Taking a couple of deep breaths the ground soon returned to normal, but I decided not to make the seventh turn. The old bones of Mrs Thomas and her young child, cradled in tree roots since 1785 could stay that way. My Aunt laughed telling me I was a very wise little girl and to always trust my intuition, and she hugged me so tight I couldn’t breathe. We picked wild flowers for Mother on the way home.
These days the old church had long since been moved to a museum of buildings. It originally dated from the sixth century. They removed it stone by stone. Underneath its drab Protestant gown, bright medieval artwork blared. Experts painstakingly restored St Catherine, St Christopher and the Passion of Christ complete with the Holy Father. I had visited eager to see the ancient graffiti, but now resplendent in medieval glory the church had no soul. That still slunk around the graveyard, a puny knight with no armour ashamed and degraded. Naked arms thorn scraped and worn caught the corner of my eye twisting into a yew tree, features garish and grotesque. I walked on.
I remembered the church in the early eighties when as teenagers my friends and I would dare each other to go there after dark. There were still pews inside but the bright fifteenth century frescos remained undiscovered and subdued. The last proper service had been in 1971. After that people lit fires on the altar for a congregation of naked mannequins. Satanism, black magic, sex magic; it was all the rage back then. Some found it funny, others offensive. I thought it expressive, a statement of the times. Frustration, fear and guilt suppressed into outward acts of demonstration, not unlike the Passion of Christ hidden beneath its cloak of lime.
It was here that I found my Aunt Annie’s grave. I had forgotten all about her until I came home, and had no idea she was buried here. As a child I remembered Mother saying, don’t look at Annie you don’t want to embarrass her, but you couldn’t help but stare at the swollen bulging eyelid either side of a purple slit. Never knock on Annie’s door if Uncle Jim’s car’s outside, she’d say when I set out trick or treating on Hallowe'en.
I never told anyone about the night I had knocked on their door. Uncle Jim answered. He’d taken me into the front room and sat me on his knee. He smelt of something strong and bitter mixed with male sweat; it wasn’t very pleasant but I put up with it because it was Uncle Jim, and I had to be polite.
Annie came in wearing a red mini dress. Her hair was up and she looked really pretty except for her face that was purple and her nose, which kept bleeding. Her eyes were swollen and she was crying. Everyone said I looked just like her apart from the bruises. Mother had told me never to comment on them so I said, I’ve got sweets and Uncle Jim said he had a treat for me if I’m a good girl. Annie cried harder telling me she was going to tell my Mother where I was if I didn’t get out now. I knew I’d have a proper spanking if Mother found out, so I ran out the back door and into the garden. I was upset that Aunt Annie had been so mean to me.
I shouldn’t have spied on them but the curtains were open a chink and that’s when I saw Uncle Jim raise a whisky bottle to his lips. Aunt Annie was behind him but I couldn’t see her properly, the light was too dim. Something thick and red started to run down his face and his legs kicked out like he was dancing. He dropped the bottle and it rolled across the floor. His eyes met mine and he leered as more red stuff ran down his cheeks. He was making funny faces and I remember smiling and laughing thinking it an act for Hallowe'en because it looked like blood.
That’s really scary Uncle Jim you look like a zombie or a vampire, I called out forgetting I was not supposed to be there. Annie came to the back door. She had the red stuff all over her hand. Clutching her clean hand to her mouth she dropped something heavy onto the floor. She looked really crazy and yelled at me to get away and not ever come back. I’d been so upset I ran all the way home, but I didn’t tell Mother anything and I made my mind forget, locked it away and hid the key, until now.
I was sitting on the wall lost in memories, staring at the old church that wasn’t there, watching its soul lament, when a dark haired woman in a red coat hurried past. I watched her run towards the riverbank. The river is tidal and treacherous near the estuary mouth. “Hey!” I called out. “Be careful.” She hesitated and turned towards me. It was Annie. She smiled with something like recognition. I don’t know how but she looked younger than me, and I hadn’t been back for about thirty years. She looked exactly like I remembered. I jumped off the wall and waving headed towards her. Her clothes were old and dated. But she looked so young and so much . . . . like me.
A raven barked, circling overhead. It was only for a second I glanced away and when I looked back Annie was gone. I screamed running to the riverbank, but she must have gone under. All I could see was brown sluggish water and no sign of a red coat. I got my phone out to call the police to say I’d seen my Aunt fall in the river . . . except I hadn’t really. It was then I remembered my mother talking to the neighbour the day after Hallowe'en. I had only been about seven, but I can remember her words clearly. Poor ole Annie she said. She must have had enough. I hope she’s in a better place now, without him. Aye, said the neighbour, shaking her head, can you imagine? Poor ole Annie never hurt a fly.
I remember for weeks after I’d asked where Aunt Annie and Uncle Jim had gone. Mother would tell me she lived in a better place now and maybe we’d see her again, but not Uncle Jim. Then I grew up and I’m ashamed to say I forgot all about poor ole Annie. The river was silent showing no trace of the dark haired woman or her bright red coat. The raven barked again and I watched it descend into a wych elm above a forlorn tombstone, lichen patched and mottled. I approached slowly but it croaked and took flight.
The wych elm had grown through the grave bed. Smooth grey roots gripped the headstone, slowly nudging it aside to claim its rightful place of life birthing from a cold death in the form of wrinkled bark. Twin trunks, limb like, circled each other before joining as one. The waist of the tree rose tall with feminine burrs bulging. Boughs hugged and swayed and branches waved before reaching down to brush my shoulder and stroke my face.
I traced my fingers over the epitaph still visible through the leafy lichen. Annie, it read, beloved Wife and Mother died October 31st 1971. Mother? I thought, touching the cold granite, and then I knew. I looked up into a knotted whorl that twisted and smiled into knowing. Then I began to run, in circles around the grave. . .