CREATIVE Katherine Stansfield

NWR Issue r22

The Magpie Tree

And there they were, before us again, those wretched trees. There was no escaping them.
Anna slipped into the gloom without a backward glance, left me. I had my knotted rope around my neck and clutched at it now, thinking of untying it to blow our way clear of the tightness of the place and crowding birds and the like. But as I followed Anna into the woods I stilled my hand. The place was going to get worse before it got better. I should wait until things got very bad indeed before I unknotted my rope.
That things had worsened since we’d gone to Boscastle, I soon knew, for the path had narrowed to almost no path. Before, it had let me and Anna walk side by side almost as far as the quarry, but now it was hardly wide enough for us to pass at all. The brambles snaked their way across it. Lumps of moor stone had rolled in and taken root. There was a cry above me, then the sound of washing being shaken out. The birds were back.
They shuffled on the branches, barely room for them to perch and stare at me with their eyes that gleamed even though there was so little light. Most of them magpies. They began to jump up and down so that the trees shook like they were having fits. I feared the creatures would fly at me if I moved so I tried to stand as still as I could. There was no sign of Anna.
It was then I saw something else moving. The trunk of a tree twisting, turning, as if – as if undoing itself. A shadow opening, reaching.
A shadow that spoke.
‘You got the basket all right, my bird?’
She had been sitting on a fallen tree, her black shawl making her a part of the woods until she chose to reveal herself. To let me see.
‘My sweet?’ she said. ‘Not ill, are you?’
‘No, I . . . You frightened me, Mrs Haskell.’
‘Not me you should be frightened of, my sweet. Not me.’
She moved a little, resettled herself, and I saw her scarred hands. All the rest of her scarred too, she’d said, from the fire, aside from her face which was marked only with age. Her face tilted now to look at me, her eyes bright as the magpies’. I had the feeling that everything around me at that moment was leaning in, trying to get close to me. Close enough to hear my heart stuttering.
‘The food, now,’ she said. ‘Did you get it?’
‘Yes, thank you. Though the magpies, they got to it first.’
She chuckled and shook her head. ‘Ah, yes, with the ash tree there, by the summer house. I should have thought to remind the girls.’
‘The squire should chop the tree down,’ I said. ‘He can’t be liking the birds crowding so close to the summer house. They make a terrible clitter on the roof.’
‘That would be a mistake. The magpie tree is sacred, my bird. Saint Nectan planted it himself.’
I was glad, then, that Anna had gone on without me. She’d have called such a tale fanciful and stopped the telling. She had no heart for the ways of the people in my country.
‘Someone has done it once before,’ Mrs Haskell said. ‘Cut down the magpie tree and suffered the consequences.’
‘What happened?’
‘His legs went.’
‘They disappeared!’ I said.
She laughed. ‘No, my sweet. I mean they stopped working. He was crippled. His arms too – no strength in them. He knew, this man, that it was his own fault, and he bade his daughter plant a new ash tree on the same spot. The tree grew and the birds returned, and the man’s weakness was taken from him.’
‘So all was well?’
‘For a little while. The tree grew tall and there were many strong branches. Another man –’
‘It’s always men in these stories, Mrs Haskell.’
‘And what does that tell you?’
‘That men cut things down,’ I said, ‘destroy things. It’s daughters do the planting.’
‘You’re wiser than your years, Shilly. But some daughters cut down trees, too. Some set fire to whole forests. Don’t forget that.’
How could I forget? I’d been thinking it. To burn the place, to be rid of the closeness. The hatred. And she knew.
‘But the second man,’ I said. ‘What did he do to the tree?’
‘He cut a branch to make a wooden nail.’
‘And he was afflicted?’
‘Of course. He lost an eye.’
‘Did the nail go through it?’ I felt my stomach heave as the words escaped, but I couldn’t keep from asking, nasty beast that I was.
Mrs Haskell shrugged. ‘The story doesn’t say. But I’d imagine so. He deserved nothing less.’
A cripple and a blind man. The woods weren’t kind to bodies. And to mine – what might they do to my flesh and my bones? To Anna’s, too?
I asked Mrs Haskell if Anna had passed that way.
‘She did, my sweet. Passed right by me but she didn’t see me.’
‘Anna doesn’t know how to look,’ I said.
‘Not like you, my bird. Your eyes are wide open.’ Mrs Haskell patted my arm. ‘On you go, then, fly away home. You don’t want to be too long out here, things being the way they are.’ She sat down on the fallen tree again and pulled her black shawl more tightly around her – so tight she might crush her throat, I feared.
‘But what about you?’ I said. ‘Will you be all right out here, on your own?’
Her back was to me. She seemed to sink into the tree beneath her, to find the place she slipped into shadow.
‘Me? I’ll be right enough, my sweet. And I shan’t be on my own, don’t you worry. He is here.’
‘Who . . . Who is with you?’
‘Why, the saint, of course. He’s with us in the woods.’ Her voice was growing fainter, even as she sat a few feet from me. I reached out to touch her, to prove to myself that she was there.
The birds took to the air.
I ran.

I found Anna at the cottages. She was talking with a young woman I didn’t recognise – a pretty thing with red hair and the bones of her cheeks sharp enough to draw blood, but her face was grey with slate’s dust, which I knew Anna wouldn’t like. Anna was all for washing. But I hastened over all the same. Anna was mine. No one else’s.
I needn’t have worried. The talk was thieving, not kissing. Two more things had vanished since that morning – a brooch belonging to this young woman, and a christening spoon of Richard Bray’s.
‘Both silver!’ the young woman said. ‘And precious too. Poor Richard’s in a bad way because of it. Weeping, he is!’
‘Where did you keep your brooch?’ Anna said.
‘In a box beneath the bed, but I’d had it out this morning, hadn’t I? To show the baby. She was fretting. And the shininess of the brooch, she likes that. Takes her mind off whatever it is that’s giving her pain. I left it on the bed to fetch something from the other room, and when I came back – this!’
She held out a small lump of coal.
‘And your bed,’ Anna said, ‘it was near the window?’
The woman nodded.
‘And the window was open?’
‘Course it was! ’Tis hot, isn’t it?’
‘Did you see anyone nearby before the brooch was taken?’ Anna said.
‘Well, people were passing, like always, but none of them strangers. I didn’t see the sisters from across the river. But the Devil helps them cast spells, don’t he? So they can hide. That’s how they took Paul.’
A man was hurrying towards her, carrying a bawling child, which he thrust at the young woman as if ridding himself of a violent animal.
‘Oh my dear, my dear!’ she said, taking the baby. ‘They’ll come for you next and how shall we stop them turning you into a lump of coal?’
Anna and I left them to their worry and made our way past the cottages in the direction of the summer house.
‘The thefts are increasing,’ Anna said.
‘And all costly things. But Miss Franks and Mathilda are too well known to pass by here unnoticed, surely?’
‘If they haven’t enlisted the Devil to turn them invisible.’
‘That’s not funny, Anna.’
She waved away my telling-off. ‘It’s true, though. The thief must be someone known here, someone no one thinks will steal.’
I glanced about me as we passed the last few cottages, and met stares in return. Folded arms. Children herded indoors and doors banged shut, bolted. The Haskell girls, making their way home, skirted us, their squabbles forgotten. We were strangers in that place.
It was late by then – too late to cross the river and see Miss Franks and Mathilda to ask them about what we’d learnt in Boscastle, too late to ask the squire the same. Climbing the steps to the summer house door I caught sight of something stowed beneath the wooden slats. A basket, the cloth cover tucked in tight to keep out the birds. But the care wasn’t needed today, for in the magpie tree there was only one bird. If the tree was Saint Nectan’s, did that make the bird the saint’s own too? The magpie watched me take the basket and make my way inside, and I was sure it watched me long after I’d locked the door.
We were tired after our day asking questions and didn’t have words left for each other as we ate the food brought us – bread and hard cheese, some salted fish that dried my mouth so badly I wanted to stick my head under the waterfall.
When we had finished eating, Anna took from her black bag the broken piece of por-s’lain we had found outside Miss Franks and Mathilda’s cottage – the bottom half of the woman in the pink dress, birds gathered at her feet. Anna put it on the window ledge, and next to it I put the lump of coal I’d taken from the road to Boscastle, and Paul Haskell’s rabbit snare.
‘Three clues,’ Anna said. ‘And two of them missing something.’
‘The snare has no rabbit. The woman has no body. And the coal?’
‘Is itself standing in for missing things – a mirror, a spoon, a brooch. And a boy.’
‘Do you think Paul Haskell is dead?’ I said.
‘I don’t know. I . . . I fear it.’
‘If I were to have a drink –’
She blew out the candle.

The Magpie Tree by Katherine Stansfield, out on 22 March 2018, is her third novel, and the second in her Cornish mysteries series published by Allison and Busby. Katherine lives in Cardiff.

Photo by Maslov Dmitry/Shutterstock


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