The Blood Tree
A significant number of people – in fact everyone he had spoken to – advised Jonah Blackthorn, in the strongest terms, that he was wrong to build on land that for as long as living memory had been encouraged to grow wild. Even the Town Council had shown a marked reluctance to grant permission to alter the use of the land, a tangle of thorny briars, contorted trees and fallen stone remains of a simple cottage at the heart of a modest, broadleaf woodland.
Jonah Blackthorn, however, was a rich man and like so many men of wealth he was unable to tolerate refusal. It was this wealth that ensured he was able to obtain the permission he so desperately wanted. Within a week all vegetation, shrubbery, plant life, wild flowers, three mature oaks and an innumerable quantity of small mammals, birds and insects had fallen to the relentless blade of a bulldozer, driven with undisguised indifference by Jonah himself.
The only feature to show persistence in the face of destruction was the mossy stumps of the cottage and a pair of gnarled, impossibly ancient, black elders. Crooked-fingered boughs bent beneath the weight of tight groupings of ripening dark berries. In the end – as is so often the case – it was a sheer, brute force that felled their resilience. As the branches broke with a howl of unease it was to prove a hollow victory indeed for Jonah Blackthorn.
Within the passing of two new moons the bulk of Blackthorn House -coarse, golden bricks straining from the rubbled ground - could be seen to scrape the underside of dark, distended clouds that gathered frequently as though observing the progress.
With the vast construction finished Jonah wasted no time filling the house with the finest in modern clutter. Liveried men marched back and forth like worker ants beneath a procession of oversized televisions, unidentifiable silver appliances, furniture of grotesque proportions and a tide of plastic storage crates that seemed in danger of submerging the driveway.
After the last of the crates had been emptied, the lorries trundling from the driveway, Jonah Blackthorn stood in the shadow of his barren mansion wondering how he would fill the quiet, the hours, now that he was all alone.
Alone – for despite his wealth there was no amount of money that could improve the disappointing impact of Jonah Blackthorn’s pasty, porcine features. Nor could money bridge the gap between the national average height of five feet eight inches and his less substantial five feet one-and-a-half inches. Stout and fleshy, Jonah was a man built of soft curves rather than handsome, angular features and it was these deficiencies of creation that left him with a grand, but empty, mansion.
A man of considerably advanced years, moving awkwardly with two wooden staffs paused at the driveway, careful not to step across the threshold with feet nor staff. Faced with his hard, penetrating gaze Jonah felt a sudden chill, as though the sun had vanished unexpectedly. Disregarding Jonah’s greeting the man held him with a gaze unbroken, speaking in a voice sharper than flint:
“Whoever felleth the elder tree...sudden short of life, shall he be.”
By the time night came, taking all light as it is prone to do in the countryside, save for a light powdering of stars and the diminished sliver of a waning moon, Jonah had forgotten the old man. Making his way up a grand, echoing staircase he was brought up sharp by a sudden sound. It was the sound of a wooden door scraping open across a stone floor. From halfway up the staircase Jonah could only watch in voiceless horror as a door in the central hallway gaped open.
There was no other sound now but the knock of his heart as it thundered against his chest, inside his head. Stricken with a fear that all but suffocated him he was unable to recall how to move. Eyes wide he watched as a figure moved noiselessly along the hallway. The merest of forms, it assumed the shape of a woman, yet possessing an unfinished appearance, as though moving beyond a pane of opaque glass.
Despite the insubstantial form there was no mistaking the raised arm, nor the accusatory finger leveled unequivocally in Jonah’s direction.
It was a chill wind that greeted him the following morning, bringing with it a drop in temperature unseasonable even for October. A gale with icy claws ripped at the exterior of the house, hurling roof tiles onto the driveway below. At the jarring sound of each shattered tile Jonah jumped, unable to quell a sensation of disquiet that crept apace.
The previous night had seen him snatch fitfully at sleep, the shadowy, condemning apparition never far from his thoughts. It lurked in the fathomless pools of blackness that engulfed the room and it lunged, mockingly, from behind closed eyes.
From the bruised arrival of first light he had felt his quickening heartbeat as it refused to slow. He wandered aimlessly, besieged by a persistent nervousness that rendered him equal parts startled and exhausted.
It was late in the afternoon, dusk shadowing the hills beyond Blackthorn House, the sky purpled and disconsolate, when the noises began. He heard the resonant thud of the brass knocker against the stout wooden front door. It built quickly from a single bang to a raging tattoo that threatened to loose the door from its hinges. Clutching at the arms of a wooden chair at the sturdy kitchen table Jonah flinched at every sound. Faced with an unforeseen concussion of shattering glass he was ashamed to hear himself yelp like a wounded dog as his teeth clattered together, limbs shaking with a sickening fear. Clamping his hands over his ears he shouted for the noises to stop. His voice sank the instant it left his mouth, lost to the calamitous din of banging doors and the shrill implosions of falling glass.
It was at this moment that he noticed a sprig of leaves – a brilliant green against the white tiles – on the floor of the kitchen. Amidst the turmoil swooping through the house the sight seemed to offer an odd distraction. Stooping to examine the leaves he was stunned to find them attached to a thin stem that had forced itself through the tiling - not through the cracks between but actually through the stone - with delicate, spidery fissures radiating outwards from the bottle-green stem. Even as he watched, the leaves darkened and the stem swelled anew. As Jonah rose he knocked over his chair and was about to leave the kitchen when he froze. A figure, the spectral visitor of the previous night, stood barring his way.
The figure was that of a crone; her face as knotted bark, furrowed with great age. Her gaze, black as the night of a new moon, seared his eyes. Despite a twisted body, skeletal limbs like winter branches, there was ire in her stare that all but caused his heart to surrender its beat.
Pinned like a butterfly he was unable to move.
He knew inexplicably that the land crushed beneath his house had belonged to her. It was as though her wordless explanation crept into his head by stealth alone. The elder trees had been nurtured by her, the cottage had been her home and in a season long since past, beyond the memory of any, she was the spirit of the land.
Shaking her head slowly from side to side she delivered a judgement as she advanced on Jonah. Stumbling back into the chair he shrieked, an inhuman sound of deathly panic. The woman brought a bony finger to her bloodless lips and with an impassive air of purpose took the very breath from Jonah Blackthorn; stilled the frantic beating if his heart.
It would be nine days before the police forced entry to Blackthorn House. What they discovered inside would eventually become a tale told to new recruits. Two constables had struggled their way through the leafy hallway. A barricade of tangled branches and confining shrubbery had limited their access to the remainder of the house.
For anyone unaware that a mere nine days had passed, the advance of the foliage inside the house suggested years of neglect; marauding vegetation having achieved the greater part of reclaiming land rightfully owned.
It was in the kitchen of the house that they had stumbled upon a chilling, unforgettable scene:
A hard, black elder tree had consumed the kitchen, boughs extended over surfaces, winding through broken window panes and across a wide table. The stench of its leaves and withered flowers was heavy in the air, a heavy, cloying smell of decay.
Bound tightly to a chair with sinewy vines was a man; or rather the brittle, exsanguinated remnants of what once might have been a man. Despite the collapse of the skin, taut and leathery over the prominent contours of the skull, the look of abject fright was alarmingly obvious over the shrunken face of the man.
Drooping from the branches of the elder tree above the man were bloated clusters of dark berries. The usual mulberry colour instead a vibrant crimson; the unmistakable colour of blood.