I wrote the original version of The Big Tree almost fifty years ago when I was part of a novice writing group in Northern Ireland.
As with most of my other scribblings from that era, no copy of it has survived, but the idea itself remained with me and I decided to rewrite it in 2013, managing to recapture much of the spirit of the early piece.
THE BIG TREE
The boy was climbing a tree.
It begins that way: a boy climbing a tree all those years ago in the green-spring wood that was our world, untroubled as Eden: a small figure ascending through leafscape towards sunlight.
Below, by the tree’s foot, other children gathered and called out encouragement as he climbed through a network of branches and leaves, soft as goose-feather.
We named it The Big Tree, our woody Everest, a mountain of bark and bough, king of the wood, huge among legions of lean, lesser trees, a giant encircled by mortals.
I remember that day: the scent of mulch, woodsmoke, the sound of birdsong. School had broken up for the Easter holidays. We’d gathered at the wood’s centre, as we often did, around The Big Tree: a mixed band of boys and girls cheering our champion on.
A soft breeze shivered the treetops. It seemed to whisper.
Confidently, the boy climbed, finding footholds by instinct, the branches a stair to a hidden room, while below, the others waited, faces upturned like flowers.
Up he went like a squirrel, quick-footed, not looking down, through a jigsaw of branches, soft leaves, fingers beckoning, bark, coarse skin and the tree itself, a beast breathing, aware of his coming.
Light in the treetops, bright as gold. Never grow up. Never grow old.
Breeze through branches sang like a plucked harp; sunlight fell like a host of arrows on to the woodland floor and all the spider-web, foot-worn tracks converged on that tree at the wide world’s centre and at its foot the children, grown restive now, called out the boy’s name, their voices like small prayers rising.
In a wood grown suddenly colder, darker, birdsong ceased. They called out again and again but he did not answer.