‘You’ll have to clear the brook again,’ he said from his chair. ‘Always grappling with those willows, I was. You’ll never get the hay barge up there if you don’t cut them back.’
‘I hear you father. That’s a long week’s work, and I can’t spare the time.’
The old man snorted. ‘Won’t, you mean. Won’t! Sheer idleness is all. A son of mine to shirk so shamelessly, on his own land. Send Buck and Milton, if you won’t do it.’
‘There’s time yet before hay-making. Buck won’t do it this week, and I won’t let Milton down by those trees. He’s no respect for them.’
‘And what about you? You talk as if you weren’t a working man yourself. I never hired a man to do what I wouldn’t.’
‘I’ll stay by the calving, as well you know, this week and as long as those cross-breeds are birthing. Not one of them has borne a live calf yet, and we’ll not suffer another year’s losses for a little patience.’
‘You talk as if you blame me, son. You’ve already made me admit a fault, but you can’t leave it. You may not have bought them, but there’s no sense in disowning an inheritance like I’ve given you. But I tell you, if you don’t clear the brook this week you’ll be ruing your sloth come haytide. The weather’ll break, and you know that I know it.’
‘And shall I leave my crippled father to calve those cows, then?’ Young Foxton had been needled enough. Much as he hated to strike at his father’s weakness, the man seemed to refuse to accept his own circumstances. Old Foxton, who had been the bluff, hearty owner of Foxton Farm for the last thirty years, was now confined to the chair by the hearth when he wasn’t being carried to and fro by sons or daughters’ husbands. He had made over the deeds to his eldest, a man too like himself for comfort, but seemed to have forgotten it.
‘If you’ll hear me and choose not to listen,’ said Old Foxton, ‘Then you’re more of a fool than I gave you credit, and that’s all I say.’
The next morning Young Foxton took Milton and the axes down to the low pasture. His wife was with the cows. It had been his hope to overcome the old man’s curse and see those cross-breeds bear something living. He had been born himself with a living touch – animals were all ready to have him close by. As a boy foxes had come out of coverts, ravens down from roosts and milk-cows seemed to have saved their best milkings for his soft hands. But there was something about that his father had suspected – something less than manly, this gentleness and this easiness to feel and stroke. But even he had admitted that there were cows on the pasture who would have been wasted away in the cold winter but for the nearness of those warm, living hands.
The first day was an undifferentiated continuity, slashing at the tangling weed, bramble that stretched from bank to bank, rosebay, sycamore and aspen shoots all twisted and unlikely attempts at trees. They laboured on under summer sun until the dusk came at last, leaving the hay-barge only yards upstream from where the little brook joined the river. Unless they could clear a fair route to the long pasture then all the year’s growth of tall grass would be wasted, and the fields might as well have been stocked for the months they had been held back. Such waste couldn’t be contemplated. Neither father nor son would have any waste on their farm, or ever had. It was the only sin worse than deceit in their stern religion.
By the end of the second day a route had been hacked as far as the row of willows that Old Foxton had staked into the damp soil some fifteen years before. They were all alike, with the same twist to the North about ten feet up, and none keeping an unsplit trunk fifteen feet above the ground, unpollarded though they were. But they were all cuttings from another tree, some hundred yards up the brook. Old Foxton had planted them for the leaf, which made a passable fodder, but also in some trial to placate the original tree, or so he said.
‘Come to the willow row already, Father. A week, you said.’ Young Foxton couldn’t help but crow. ‘We’ll have the brook clear before Sunday.’
Old Foxton shook his head. ‘And you’ll be the one to praise patience! Those willows shouldn’t be misjudged. Roots like cable running into the water. I cut that old willow down over and over, and he wouldn’t be stopped until I cut out the very lowest limb. Rotted then. More alive than you or I, those trees.’
The three men were struggling with the willows from then on. Even though the trees were young, as Old Foxton had said, they had the roots of much larger trees, and a saw had to be brought to rasp away at them underwater. The billhook would strip the lithe branches but only succeed in releasing an inner, vicious springiness. Each of the men were covered in scratches and cuts when they returned to the farm up the hill. The best axe was brought back blunt from those indomitable skins.
Young Foxton blamed his parent. ‘Well, did you anger that tree, Father? I’ll swear those cuttings bear a grudge against me.’
‘Willow is tough, boy. The moving water only toughens it. They gather all the strength of the water and the wind into their knots and hearts. What did you expect? Nothing wants to be cut back.’
One of the cuttings had a limb right across the stream. Alone among its siblings it had seemed to have scorned the sky and preferred sheer contrariness. Even after a few years’ growth the branch was thick and twisted.
Young Foxton was sure that if they could take it off, the hay barge would go clear up to the long pasture uninhibited. He worked hard the fifth day, and kept Buck and Milton with him until the evening star was brighter than the sun.
‘Hand up the saw, Buck,’ he said. ‘And we’ll tell the old man that his job’s done, even before those cows have calved.’
It took the saw to bite into the bark, but the teeth squealed when they started into the living wood. Then the axe, chipping, chipping, pale shreds of wood floating slowly downstream beside the barge. The saw again, and sweat rose on the farmer’s face.
It was hard to see what had been done and what was left to do in the early night, beneath the shadow of those long leaves. He put his weight against the bough to test it, and before he knew his feet had slipped off the mud-layered root beneath him, falling backwards. With a crack the branch sheared off, not where it had been cut and hacked, but right at the trunk and the two fell together into the stream. His head bounced on the hardness of the root and eyes closed as the water covered over him.
Try as they might, the two men floundering in the dark shadows could not lift the branch off from him. Somehow it had caught in the tangle underwater and he was held down. By the time they had cut and wrenched it out, he was a heavy, sodden mass like a still-born calf, and that was how he was taken back up to his father by the hearth.
I wrote this in 2011. I wanted something a bit spooky – and maybe it’s in imitation of Lawrence, too – but I always intended it to fill the third space in my Ghost Story Trio.