Once it had been called the Old Man of Drake Lane, then the name was shortened to Drake Man, but these days the shrugging youth of the village of Harfinsain call it the Mandrake.
Some locals have different ideas, but many of us believe it was damaged in the wake of some long gone storm, which left it looking for all the world like a man turned to wood. The top eighteen inches of what is left of the trunk are torn into the macabre facsimile of a tortured man, his head thrown back, his nose pointing towards the horizon, his mouth agape as if screaming out to an unlistening God, his eyes screwed up in misery. Beneath that, two branches stretch upwards like arms, as if in supplication. The human look is finished off by the lower part of the trunk, which has a vertical groove in the centre, giving the impression of two narrower trunks fused together by time and growth – or of two legs pressed together. There are two knots in the area where knees would be, and at the base the roots give have the eerie appearance of feet.
Nobody can identify what kind of tree it is. It is claimed that experts have examined it, taking away small samples, but been mystified. It appears not to be related to any known tree in the world, and the age it had reached when it died cannot be calculated, as the rings are blurred, or perhaps non-existent. Rumour and mystery surround it, giving it an air of dark glamour which attracts the children and young adults who live hereabouts.
From where it stands it offers an excellent view of the sunset, and sometimes a boy will entice a girl to sit with him, next to the tree, in the twilight. As the light fades and the sky turns to navy, he may tell an elaborate story of an evil man whose pleasure was to devour young, female flesh, and who was turned into a tree by an angry fairy. At this point in the tale, his voice may lower to a whisper, as he explains that the fairy added an extra cruelty to his punishment – that for one hour every year he would become human again, and have the ability to roam the villlage, but when that hour was up, he would be pulled by magnetic force back to his roots, and become a tree again. He would never be able to relax into his tree state – the longing to be human would torture him for evermore. After an eerie pause the boy will ask the girl what the date is. This he will whisper , as if suddenly unnerved – frightened, even. On hearing her response he will stammer while he tell her that he’s not sure, but he thinks it this is the day of the year when the tree becomes a monstrous flesh eating human…
The girl nearly always falls for it, which gives the boy’s friends – who are hiding behind the hedge – no end of entertainment. From time to time someone comes up with a more imaginative version of the story, and the friends behind the hedge are employed to add sound effects. Young men were ever this way, and a certain kind of young woman can always be relied on to be gullible and easily frightened.
Edie Penrhyn is the oldest woman in the village. A nimble lady of a hundred and two, she is often to be seen, walking-stick grasped firmly in both hands, angrily thrashing nettles in the garden beside the village hall. She has no more objection to the nettles than anything else which has the temerity to push through the ground in that area – many years ago the garden was a mass of colour, spilling over with roses, lavender and a profusion of lovely flowers, but she thrashed them into extinction. While this has nothing to do with my story, I mention it because it is just one example of her many eccentricities. It is those eccentricities which cause neighbours to doubt her tales of folk-lore.
Her favourite tale involves the Mandrake. Being so far from even the smallest town or place of interest, we get few visitors around these parts, but occasionally someone takes a wrong turn and and finds themself in the village. Often this someone will go to the Post Office in the hope of buying a postcard (postcards of the village are available, and they looked very pretty twenty years ago, but they rarely sell, so now they lie faded and forgotten in a corner, stuffed into an old toast rack, scuffed and curling at the edges), or wander into the village shop looking for a Mars Bar (79p) or a quaint souvenier (no chance). At such times, Edie almost always happens to be in the vicinity, as she is today, when a tinkling bell in the back room announces the presence of a new customer in the shop.
Edie has been installed in the shop for the past two hours, trying to choose a birthday card for herself, as her birthday is only eleven months away. This is not a vanity on her part, but a reminder for the proprietor, who generously allows customers a free sniff of her smelling salts on their birthdays. Edie’s eyes light up at the sight of new blood. She abandons her search for greetings cards and prances over to the new customer, her grey side-ponytail bobbing and prancing like the item after which it is named, her thin lips grinning. Her old brown cardigan fails to conceal – and is loudly upsage by – a nineteen twenties chiffon flapper dress of faded emerald – replete with ragged swathes of sequins which have seen many, many better days, and striped over-the knee-socks in bright shades of pink, purple and orange cover her legs. Her choice of footwear is strictly ruled by the day of the week – on Wednesdays and Saturdays she wears no shoes unless it is also the first day of the month. The first day of the month is riding boots day. Today is a Monday, so she is wearing one green wellington, and one black one.
Edie says that if you lead with the feet, the bowels will follow. Don’t ask her what she means, it infuriates her not to be understood. She will scream at you “If you maintain regular habits with your footwear, your bottom won’t take you by surprise at incommodious times,” and she will smack you across the behind with her stick.
But I digress. Where was I? Ah, yes, Edie has just sighted a victim and is dashing full-pelt towards him, tail flying and tiny sequins tinkling across the floor. She accosts him with a torrent of nonsense.
“Yer, you over there, you wi’ the noo plastic an wet tarmac ‘smell o’ the city on yer kaks.’Tis a bit o’ luck you run inta me. Come on, I’ll show ‘ee summin inter’sting.”
(just a quick note at this point: unless addressing a stranger she speaks in a rather refined accent – her fake rural accent is for the benefit of unlucky tourists – but after a few minutes of her barrage, she generally slips back to her natural way of speaking, as she feels that if they have stayed to listen to her for that long, they deserve to be considered naturalised)
Having made a suitable introduction to her quest to educate him in a small portion of the history of the village, she grabs his arm and pulls the protesting man out of the shop – showing herself to have a remarkably firm grip – to the general laughter of all around, except the shopkeeper, who was hoping to aquire 79p from the sale of a (three years out of date) Mars Bar.
For a woman of a hundred and two, Edie sets a fast pace. She’s a diminutive four-foot ten inches in height and she’s inadvertantly pulling his arm in a downward direction, so he’s stooping, staggering and almost falling over at times. As they dash along the road, people are coming out of their houses and following behind, making a procession. They know when there is entertainment to be had.
Down past the church she drags him, past the old house that is said to be haunted by a ghostly giraffe (though some think it is more likely to be a pair of Armadillos), beyond the pond which only fills up when there is a drought, and down Drakes Lane, situated opposite the invisible football pitch (which some claim doesn’t actually exist. I haven’t managed to work out their reasoning). The Mandrake is towards the end of the lane, on the left hand side, or the right hand side if you are walking backwards.
By this time Edie’s unwilling companion is shaking with terror. The Lane is regularly used by the villagers, as its purpose is to provide access to a wall. This wall is the width of the lane, twelve feet high. The locals do not like to be in the shadow of a twelve-foot wall, but unless they stand beneath it they cannot escape it, as it is impossible to escape something which isn’t there in the first place. It gives us peace of mind to know we have escaped the shadow of the twelve foot wall, so most of us go and stand beneath it every day, and then walk (or run) away. But the poor stranger knows nothing of our customs. Between the people who are in the process of escaping the shadow of the twelve foot wall, and the procession behind him, all he sees is a huge gang of locals who appear to be planning a lynching, and at this point he wishes he’d had a chance to pay for the Mars Bar. To be hanged for a debt of 79p is humiliating, to say the least.
Edie stands in front of the tree, and points up at it’s twin branches.
“See ‘e there,” she says, and then realises her new companion has spent almost eight minutes in her presence,so she drops the accent and starts again:
“Now, my good man, what do you think this is?” she asks him.
His eyes stare. He tries to think of an escape plan, but nothing comes to mind. He is frozen to the spot.
“Well?” she asks, a crease on her forehead forming something that for all the world looks like a question mark.
“A… a… g-gallows tree…” This is a statement, not a question. The stranger is too frightened to notice that no rope hangs from it.
“Why do they all say that?” Edie mutters, shaking her head, (thinking, these foreigners are so peculiar – what horrors they must have witnessed.)
Edie turns to her audience “Tell the gentleman what this is,” she says.
A young man tells the story of the flesh eating man who was turned into a tree.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” scoffs Edie.
A woman in her fifties says that it is true that the tree was once a man, but he had committed no crime. It was he who had built the wall, but as stood at the top of the ladder, finishing the top course, his wife came along to give him some lunch. She was carrying their new baby, and he didn’t hear them approach. They were under the ladder when the baby let out a sudden wail, alarming him. He fell off the ladder, killing both wife and child, andwas so grief stricken that he was unable to move. His feet took root, and he turned into a tree.
“That’s just plain silly,” says Edie. “This tree is over twenty feet from the wall. If he took root where he landed, he would be closer to the wall.”
Nobody notices the stranger as he walks away, feeling rather embarassed but no longer afraid. It had become obvious that these people, though a little peculiar, were harmless. Life in a village such as this would probably be a riot of fun. He would have stayed longer, but he had urgent matters to attend to.
The young man speaks up again.
“My grandma told it to me, and her grandma told it to her. My story is true, and what’s more, she said he buried the bones of all those girls he killed, right there, beneath where the tree stands. We know why are there no female children in the village. It’s because as soon as one is born, the family move away. They don’t want to lose their daughter to the monster.”
Some people laugh, others feel the hairs on the backs of their necks rise. A few come up with increasing outlandish theories, but all of them have been heard before, like a favourite play attended once too often. People get bored and begin to wander off. The insistant young man remembers another detail told to him by his grandma, and somebody else recalls being told about a seven-year old girl who disappeared in the night over thirty years ago, and a toddler who was lost just a few years before that.
Edie becomes increasingly impatient, declaring it to be no more than a dead tree, leading me to wonder, as oft times before, why she dragged another stranger down Drakes Lane to look at what she averred was no more than a dead tree – but as I said before, she is eccentric – and that is the signal for the party to break up.
As the last of the villagers turn away from the tree, and walk down the lane to go home, if anyone cared to listen, they would hear strange creaking sounds coming from the tree. If they turned back to look, they would see its eyes open, showing otherworldly twin stars that twinkle red in the waning light, and the gaping mouth widen into a cruelly mocking smile, as the jagged shard that resembles a nose twitches, sniffing the air, and smelling something. Something young and sweet. Something delicious. The earth around him shudders as he shuffles his roots,stroking and carresssing, wrapping them possessively around small, perfectly preserved bones, counting each one.
Beyond the invisible football pitch; beyond the pond that only fills up when there is a drought; beyond the house that is said to be haunted – either by a giraffe or a pair of armadillos; beyond the church and the Harfisain village shop, there is a thatched cottage with clematis growing up the wall. In front of this cottage is a removal van. The stranger helps the removal men to carry furniture into his new home. In the kitchen his wife pulls a kettle, some teabags, sugar and mugs out of a box. She fills the kettle with water. She stops and listens. Her face lights up with love, and she smiles softly. Her eighteen month old daughter is stirring. She has woken from her nap.
©Jane Paterson Basil