4,000 years old
A four thousand year old yew tree grows in the church yard of the welsh village of Llangernyw. At the first quarter moon of every month, people travel there, from all over Britain, to participate in the ancient practise known as ‘The charming of the yew’. It is a ritual first recorded around the time of the Norman invasion of Wales. Though the locals claim it is much older. The visitors queue up in the graveyard, the patient dead, arisen and waiting for sunset, when the quarter moon is at its highest. Waiting for the minister to arrive, who is short and shy and walks with his arms folded. I stood there with the others, the rain falling in rubble. We crowded around the church like headstones.
The minister emerged, led us through the rain and the graveyard to the broken yew. Led us past the collapsing plague victims and shrivelled consumptives, over the crumbled and leathery departed. He organised us into three tight, concentric circles around the Llangernyw yew, linked together by our hands in each others pockets. There was silence. He crept around the split trunk of the tree, looking at each of us in turn, looking into our eyes and at the drizzle running down our hair and faces. In a low voice, almost a whisper, he started singing: “Today the yew is dying. It has been dying for a thousand years. It will be dying a thousand years today”. There was a rest, and then he began again, slightly louder. The first circle sang too. Another rest. Then the first two circles. Louder. Another rest. Then everybody. Louder still. And louder. And louder. And louder.
Soon we were all of us booming. Breathless in the short rests between repetition. The minister sang so mightily that he trembled. Transformed from an unstrung instrument of God’s shy, silence to a quaking organ of earthly, mournful riot. I looked at the others, though it was as if they weren’t there. There was the song and the song alone. Swelling with dolent words and then dissolving in the rests, slipping from the air like a yoke from a cracked egg. I imagined the song a thousand years ago, pooling around the tree, before there was a church or a graveyard, when the words rang in Celtic and the wild mountainside howled in doleful reply. The tree was dying that day, had been dying for a thousand years. It would be dying a thousand years to the day. Those words are so well known that people sing them in their sleep, they recite them at weddings, fumble them at funerals, they set them out on their dinner tables alongside their food.
The birds screeched and the dogs barked, trying their best to sing along. The cattle crooned, struggling with the words. People watched from their blushing windows. Whispering along. Gripping their clothes like a steering wheel. There came a point where I was sure I couldn’t sing any louder, I felt like a puffer fish, terrorised and fully inflated, like a hot air balloon at the limits of pressure at the point of explosion, drifting towards the frozen boundary of space. A deep sea diving bell at the point of implosion, plunging through impossible depths of water. Each time I trembled through the song I was a spear-hunter, an oyster-diver, lungs burning, laden down with riches, paddling towards the silver surface of the sea. Each repetition of singing, louder than the one before, was like diving deeper, trying to find folds of lung that had not been unfolded, canals of blood in need of air. I was floundering, drowning in song. Choking. Sinking. I closed my eyes and when I opened them the minister was before me, a hand on my shoulder and there was silence.
The Llangernyw yew loomed. It was so dark. I couldn’t make out the faces of the people across from me. They were grey balloons, featureless, disembodied, secured to the black graveyard grass by unseen strings. We must have been singing for hours. The minister led us back to the chapel, his head down, walking with his arms folded, just as he had sherpered us to the yew. We trickled through the vestibule and into the chapel, where we made idle conversation. We asked the minister about the church bells, made enquiries regarding his general health and happiness, humming the song to ourselves, not really listening to the answers our questions received.
People began disappearing. Straying into the lightless country to start up their cars. Others were drawn in the direction of the pub, erratic and inevitable, moving like iron filings caught under the influence of a magnet. The minister approached me after everyone else had left. We sat together. Perched on a torturous pew. We watched the rain filter through the splintered roof and trickle down the rafters. Watched it fill a line of red buckets, one drip at a time, sounding like pennies dropping into the collection box. The rain fell on the dark graveyard, it streaked across the coloured windows. The silhouette of the yew looking like some miserable stain that had crept across the glass.
When the minister spoke, he spoke with his chin buried into chest, addressing my knees. When I spoke, he raised his chin up high, gazing at the leaking roof, clenching his fingers together as if praying for a better conversation. His head was as bare and polished as the granite slabs in the floor. His voice as old and broken as the yew. You’ve come a long way, he said. All the way from California, I replied.
The cold, damp church was a revelation. Its smell of stone and a thousand years of heart broken weather. The way its air echoed to the slightest sound. Its dim arches and squat oaken doors. It felt part of the sodden earth, as though it had been dug out of a quarry in one piece. A natural occurrence, grown from a single grubby seed like the prehistoric Llangernyw yew. And seated within it, beside the minister, I was part of the earth too. I wasn’t so far from stone. I shared most of my constituent parts with the gloomy church. I was made of iron and copper and calcium too. I thought how I had grown from a single grubby seed an age ago and how I would eventually collapse. I felt as though those drips and globs of rain filtering through the ragged roofing had built me up into existence, gradually and unstoppably, they had sculpted me, a drop at a time, for hundreds and hundreds of years and that one day the water would change and instead of building me up it would gradually wear me down to nothing.
Donald always said that I looked so sad when I was sleeping. It must also be true of when I daydream as the minister roused me from my stalagmitic epiphany by asking if I was alright, that I looked a little far away, a little glum. I told him I was thinking about his church. That there was a church I knew in Kansas but it was tall, teetering and built out of wood, that it was more like a barn than anything else. Built in the valley, on an old river bed, built without fear of flooding, the faithful putting their confidence in the wisdom of the almighty, casting disdain at the wisdom of meteorologists. For the last five years of Donald’s life, he visited that church everyday. I would go there with him, once a year, on the morning of Donald’s birthday. The service was a long litany of dread. Promises of violence. Unspoken and spoken threats. That church smelt of wood varnish and sawdust. It was dry and splintered as was its minister and every one of his half thrashed, rasping words. Castigating and prohibiting, prophesising and forsaking, laying his hands on his congregations’ shoulders, his fingers as rough as a carpenters.
Donald struggled with god his entire life. As a child it terrified him, tyrannized him. In the day, god played ventriloquist in the school grounds, moving the teachers and speaking for them by throwing its voice. God tampered with the play equipment that was always breaking down. God stole school shoes and left them on the staircases, it hung around the cloak rooms and cut up people’s satchels with a razor. In the evenings god was in the countryside, it followed Donald on his walk home, he could see it in the corner of his eyes, hear the branches breaking as it floundered through the woodland either side of the path. God prowled Donald’s dark garden after sunset, leaving weird footprints in the flower beds, peeking in all the windows. At night Donald couldn’t sleep for the sound of god pacing back and forth in the gloomy attic.
When Donald was a teenager he spent a lot less time with god. Partly because he was so preoccupied with puberty, seized by its contradictory imperatives, its confusion and clarity. And partly because god was going through puberty too. Love-sick, impatient, prone to almighty mood swings. They drifted away from each other, god and Donald. On the occasions when they found themselves in each others company, it was always unbearably strange and awkward. By Donald’s twenty-first birthday the two of them had broken apart entirely. Sometimes Donald would think he recognised god on the commute to work, standing in line at the post office, sometimes he thought he heard its voice calling in for advice on the late night radio shows, but it never was. Donald spent his adulthood feeling as if something was missing, like there was a name forever evading him, liked he’d wandered into the room of his later life and forgotten what he was doing. Then, quite suddenly, in the last five years of Donald’s life, god reappeared. Sprung out from wherever it had been hiding. Knocking on the door one day, looking sorry, smelling of someone else.
I can’t tell you how much it hurt to see my husband become overgrown with religion. His faith and fervour became a mire in which he wallowed, which he rarely left, splashing around within his belief with obscene and embarrassing delight. His sudden piety hanging off of him absurdly, like old clothes he had found at back of his wardrobe. I couldn’t watch him when he prayed. Once I walked in on him, kneeling beside the bed, his hands clasped together, muttering, and it was as though I had walked in on him laying his hands on another woman. How quickly it all happened, how abruptly I lost my irreligious husband to a religious one, and how rapidly I lost that one too. It was as if dear Donald had woken up one morning after a night spent drinking secret whisky in his workshop and had mistaken his throbbing head and terrible sobriety for god.
I told the minister about Donald and about god. He asked me if I believed in god. I asked him which one he was referring to. I said I never thought of a good way of choosing one and dismissing all the others. He said that there was only one. And I felt compelled to tell the minister something, a story from when I was a little girl. Something that I had half forgotten, that I had never told anyone. And when I had finished telling him the story, he looked at me for a very long time and said that I should leave. I walked through the rain for an hour and didn’t know where I was going. The story I told him was about when I was maybe five or six years old, and I was playing around the ranch one day and found a litter of wild kittens.
They were squeaking and yawning and had their faces scrunched shut. They had wrinkled skin where their eyes should be, as if eyes had yet to grow in their tiny heads. I found them curled up on a nest of flattened scrub, under the corner of a raised ranch building. A squealing miracle that had survived the snakes and coyotes. There were a lot of wild cats around the ranch, they lived in fodder sheds and hunted the smaller, stupider birds, they feasted on the mice that thrived off the cattle feed. And I hated them all.
I hated the cats for killing the animals that fascinated me, dragging away those odd, enchanting birds and leaving skinny little bones - like the bones in a human ear - and clumps of feathers sticky with blood and powdery soil in their place. I hated them for their green and black moonlight eyes that rolled through the garden like marbles and that people gazed into and saw softness and affection rather than hunger and wilderness. I hated their caterwauling and howling brawls each night. Crying out, scratching and hissing. Prowling into my dreams as savannah lions and brush and thicket tigers. I hated their greediness and the way they killed for pleasure, killed for food they wouldn’t eat, killed when they were sated. I hated how they claimed ownership of everything by spraying their putrid scent.
I had heard the putting and bawling of the kittens from beneath a slat of fallen cladding. When I lifted it up and looked down at the tangled, breathing knot of little lives, my first thought was that I should kill them. That I should murder them. I pottered around the ranch looking for a pitchfork and thinking about all the ways in which I hated them and thinking that I was almost a grown up and grown ups often killed things that they hated like fleas and rats and killer whales, and that it was ok to kill something if it was a pest or if you were being cruel to be kind or if you were playing a sport or if it was a farm animal and so after all was only alive to so it could eventually be killed. And I couldn’t find a pitchfork so I took a brick from the yard. It was rough and heavy and the colour of a peach. I carried it with both hands back to the kittens. I could hear the cattle moving in the fodder shed as I passed by. I picked a handful of blue and yellow scrub flowers as I thought it was what a grown up would do. I felt wise and tough, solemn and knowing, the jagged brick was the weight of my humanity and I carried it gracefully in both hands.
The kittens were where I left them. Soft and blind as worms. I picked up the biggest one as though I was scooping up water with cupped hands and I laid him gently on the millstone. I picked two flowers from the bunch and placed them beside it. I said: Don’t worry, it wont hurt, you wont feel a thing, it’ll be quick, sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. I lifted the brick way up above my head. The kitten wriggled on the millstone. Squeaking and yawning. I brought the brick down. There was a sound like garlic being put through a press, like a carrot being broken, like somebody biting into an apple, like a boot stepping into fresh snow, like a rotten branch snapping. I kept both hands on the brick. It rocked from side to side, balanced on the soft, broken body underneath. Silence. Then a bleating cry, a yip yip yip. The brick wriggled. I was too terrified to lift it up and look below. I stood shaking and sniffling and resting my fingers on the top of the brick as it crawled around the millstone like a glass on a ouija board.