The Oak Tree

It was the cusp of winter, and every so often, the muted sound of a small icicle could be heard falling onto the frost-hardened ground with a glassy ‘plink.’ At first glance this almost impenetrable forest seemed to have no life in it, but if one looked closely enough, the warm breath of weasels and red foxes could be seen drifting up into the early morning air in thin wisps, and the scattered pines, which stood like velvet-green sentinels, tipped their crowns above the intoxicating mist as if to remind the world of their presence. But the creatures here were always starving, always hunting. Sometimes Dara would catch one, play with its tail, listen to its stories. Weasels have unique stories if you know how to hear them.

Dara sat at the base of the old oak tree alongside an overgrown path seldom trodden. Her small back rested against its rough, twisted trunk, and she played with the dirt between the tree’s bonelike roots. Mud encrusted her fingernails and gave her an urchin-like appearance. Dara’s face had the look of a snowdrop come too early, or a lily too late, never quite reaching full bloom, and her eyes were the hue of violet slate and gave those who looked at her a sense of unease–or wonder. She looked up to the sky and studied the sliver of broken, cantankerous light through untamed branches. She sang.

I went out to the old oak wood where the acorns scatter in droves
Where fledglings fall on softest mulch and the bluebells paint a road
There you said you loved me; you gave me a fox’s tail
Oh, how I wore it round my neck like the Devil’s bridal veil
You swore you’d always love me; a silver ring I’d see
And we made a promise good and true underneath the old oak tr–

Dara’s singing was disrupted by faint, swift footsteps coming through the brush. They were getting closer with each stride. She darted behind the tree trunk and waited in silence in case it was someone dangerous fleeing a terrible deed, as was often the case so deep in these woods. Out here, there were many grim and obscure places to hide; one could conceal themselves for days without being discovered. When the creature emerged it didn’t seem to be a criminal at all, but a woman, close to middle age, wearing shoes that were not designed for the heavily threaded terrain. The woman stopped in front of the huge oak tree and started picking at the ground with a stick, scurrying from one point to the next like a squirrel searching for its mushroom hoard. After a short time, and feeling more curious than threatened, Dara peeked out from her hiding place. The woman did not see her at first, still consumed by her search. Dara thought the whole scene was perfectly silly and couldn’t help but let out a small giggle. The woman turned, startled.

“Who’s there?” she called out, Dara’s form still obscured in the graying light. The woman spun, stick in hand, as she tried to find a presence.

“Just me,” Dara responded, promptly. “I didn’t mean to scare you.” She was sincere, but how does one appear from nowhere in the middle of a vast, dark wood without causing some alarm? “Honestly,” she said, more softly.

The woman landed on Dara’s unusual eyes and tried to ground herself. “How long have you been there? Are you spying on me?” she asked, wary of the silhouette with violet eyes in front of her.

“A minute, maybe?” Dara explained. “I wasn’t trying to… I was already here. I’m sorry.” She stepped into what little light there was.

The woman softened a little when she saw Dara’s small form. “Isn’t it a little strange for a young woman to be out here alone? You are alone?” she asked.

“Yes, quite alone.” Dara gestured to the trees as if to confirm her statement.

“You do know this is a dangerous place? People have disappeared out here!” the woman warned.

“I know,” she responded, “What’s your name?”

The woman did not answer.

“I’m Dara.”

The woman was still hesitant, but returned the offer of an introduction. “Then I suppose I’m Muriel.”

“Muriel, are you looking for something?” Dara asked as she edged forward.

“Maybe,” Muriel replied, backing away slightly, “How old are you?”

“I’m seventeen but perhaps beyond my years. That’s what my father says, anyway. Or said. He is no longer of this world.”

“Oh. I’m sorry… Well, I suppose if he were he would not have let you come out here all alone? And your mother?” Muriel took on a tone of pity.

“Died in childbirth. I never knew her,” said Dara. She had obviously explained this many times.

“I am sorry for that.”

“Was a long time ago,” Dara reassured her. “Besides, these woods were not always this dark. This used to be a place for friends and lovers to come and walk on summer evenings; they’d tell each other tales under this oak tree!” She gestured upward.

“It’s so dark and twisted!” Muriel noticed.

“I rather like it,” Dara remarked as she approached the tree and clasped a low-hanging branch. “I think it’s characterful. It knows itself. Doesn’t try to be something it isn’t.”

“A matter of opinion, perhaps,” Muriel replied, seemingly agitated. She was getting distracted from what she had come here for and was becoming fidgety. She launched back into her search with a refreshed sense of urgency. “Well, as soon as I find what I am looking for I’ll be on my way.” She paused and looked at Dara, “You should, too.”

Dara continued her song while Muriel combed the clearing.

Oh the catkins glisten in the dew, their dancing tails do glow
Oh Weeping Will is mourning still and the sun does kiss him so
The Foxglove stands the tallest, all robed in white and red
Oh those who drink its nectar will surely end up dead.

“That song,” Muriel cut in, “It’s rather morbid, no?”

“Just an old folk song. They’re nearly always about love or death, or both, you know. But there’s often a lot of truth to them.” Dara responded. “In a way I find them comforting.”

“Folk songs make me uneasy. Too many stories about jilted women and ruthless men hunting innocent prey.” Muriel shivered as she hacked at the spindled brush. It was getting harder to see, and she was becoming more and more nervous. After disturbing the foliage in almost every part of the small clearing, she sat down on the ground, defeated.

“I know it’s here somewhere. I’m sure of it.” She fought back tears. She didn’t know what to do.

“Oh, tell me what you’re seeking. I know I can help you.” Dara approached Muriel closely for the first time.

“It’s my coat,” Muriel shared. “I know that sounds strange. But if I don’t find it…” She stopped herself, still unsure about trusting this strange young woman. “I don’t know what I’ll do.”

“I don’t see a coat around here.” Dara said. “So you left it? Where?”

“I didn’t leave it. It was taken from me.” Muriel replied as she started to shiver.

“May I ask why it means so much? It’s just a coat.”

“It’s one of a kind. Seal’s fur” Muriel explained. “I cannot return home to my family without it. And finding it means… it means I can escape him and finally go back to them.” Her shiver turned into a light, whimpering sob.

“Who?” Dara inquired, now invested in Muriel’s situation.

Muriel did not answer right away. The night had started to roll in like dark ink swirling in clear water. Muffled owls’ hoots swelled in the branches close by, and a fox’s screech punctuated from a distance. Nocturnal animals were beginning to hunt, and this was no longer a world for the living. Muriel was not inclined to stay much longer.

“My husband, he took it and buried it deep in the forest so I would not find it. I overheard him tell of its whereabouts while drinking with his brother last night; he becomes rather loose-tongued when he thinks I cannot hear him. Though he’s usually more careful. So, this evening, I waited until he was drunk and then snuck from the house, but he will eventually notice I am gone, and he will know why. I never leave unless he bids me to, and he is not a forgiving man… I don’t have much time.” She raised her voice, “And I will not be strong or fast enough to escape him if I do not find my coat!” Muriel gasped. She had shared too much; her judgement foiled by her desperation.

Dara looked on, her eyes widening as if something had just occurred to her. She sang a different song:

There once was a hunter who laid with a maid, come ashore to dance in the dunes
As she played on the sand, her silver pelt he found, and he buried it under the moon, the moon
Yes he buried it under the moon.
When she noticed it gone, how she wept, how she mourned for her home in the wide open sea
This young hunter had trapped her upon the dry land, this poor Selkie no longer swum free
This poor Selkie no longer swum free.

Dara went on, “When a Selkie comes to shore in the night to dance in human form, there are those that will steal their seal’s pelts, and when they do, the Selkie cannot return to their own world. They are trapped in human form, forced to belong the one who bound them when they truly wish to return to the salt and the wild waves.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” said Muriel.

Dara stared at her. Muriel looked back, bewildered. She had been unveiled and was too desperate and defeated to endure the pretense. “Sometimes we fall in love; stay because we wish to… I was not so fortunate.” Muriel planted herself at the base of the oak tree and gathered what constitution she had left. Something about it grounded her despite its eerie, distorted features. She bowed her head and sobbed again.

Dara comforted her the best she knew how. She sat by Muriel and patted her on the hand with her pale, dirt-laced fingers. “There, there,” she cooed. She noticed strands of glimmering silver and shimmering gold in Muriel’s hair that she had not observed before, remnants of the ocean, perhaps. Perhaps Selkies age in silver and gold as the moon reflects on the waves, night after night, until they become a part of the ancient sea from which they came, all shipwreck and mysticism. Muriel’s eyes were a deep sapphire, and through tears, became little lagoons of their own. Dara decided that recognizing a magical creature was not that difficult if you looked hard enough. Besides, there was nearly always a song to guide you to the truth.

“I know what it is to be trapped.” said Dara.

“You are only seventeen! How could you know what it is to be imprisoned like this?” Muriel snapped as she wiped away tears.

Dara rose and circled the trunk of the oak tree: “I was supposed to marry a young man once. The son of my father’s friend. He was charming; called me his little ruby on account of the way I’d blush at a compliment. Difficult to picture now, I know.” She looked to Muriel for a sign of confirmation. “He pledged to marry me under this tree.”

“What happened?” asked Muriel, her tears now subsiding.

“As soon as a young lady by the name of Mary Connell came to town, he started to lose interest. Her father was much wealthier than mine; he owned silver mines, and she always presented herself with a sense of ease among men. I could not complete with that kind of woman.” Dara reflected. “I was not important to him anymore. He became someone else entirely, and committed himself to pursuing her, leaving me in a state of perpetual unrest.”

Dara was interrupted by heavy, fast paced footsteps coming through the woods from the same direction Muriel had arrived.

“Oh, no!” exclaimed Muriel. “It must be my husband! He must have figured out where I went.” She was terrified.

“Here, come.” Dara ushered Muriel behind the oak tree and pulled her into a small cavity in its trunk. Muriel had to squeeze her tall body through the exposed roots to enter the confining space, but there was just enough room for them both if they curled up and did not move. The footsteps became louder and more uneven as they approached the small clearing.

There was silence, then, a low, hostile voice called out, “Muriel? Muriel!” Her husband. They heard him pace erratically around the clearing–perhaps, they assumed, to make sure he was truly alone. Then there came the metallic thud of a shovel in dirt.

“He sounds like an utter dream,” Dara sneered.

“He’s digging,” Muriel whispered, Dara’s sarcastic tone lost on her. Fear had taken over. “He’ll find it and then I’ll never escape! He’ll be enraged with me!” As she turned to Dara she noticed her eyes had become faintly incandescent, like they’d summoned their own source of light from the inside. Dara was unresponsive, staring ahead as if in a trance. Muriel was too distracted by her own anxiousness over the figure outside to care to make any sense of it. Then, the digging sound stopped, and in the same stroke came a sudden swoop and an immense creaking and cracking, after which followed a more muffled and harrowing crunch akin to a carpenter’s knuckles being broken under a hammer.

Dara, now released from her trance, turned to Muriel: “We can go out now.”

“I dare not move!” Muriel insisted, trembling.

Dara went first, taking Muriel’s hand as they unfettered themselves from the root-thick fingers of the tree.

Muriel scanned the scene, still utterly on edge. The ground was black aside from a small cocoon of light coming from an overturned lantern a few feet ahead of them. Then, her eyes were drawn up by a subtle movement just above the light’s yellow-white orb.

“Wh-where did he go?” She asked as Dara went over to the lantern and lifted it into the air. Muriel gasped, in a state of horrified awe. Her husband hung about fifteen feet up in the tree, branches clenched around his neck and chest, crushing him in a jagged noose of warped branches. His eyes bulged and his body was limp; he looked much smaller than his ogre-like frame, entwined in the enormity of the tree. In his arms he held Muriel’s pelt, all tattered and crusted in dried earth.

“The hunter becomes the hunted,” said Dara, dryly, as she reached up and tugged the fur down from the dead man’s grasp. “Here.” She handed it to Muriel, still silent and still as a petrified sapling. “You’re free.”

“The tree… You’re connected to it, aren’t you? That’s how you know what it is to be trapped,” observed Muriel.

“I was not so strong as you. Your husband was unkind—even beastly in his pursuit for ownership—but my lover was an ambitious coward. After coaxing me here with the promise of a ring, finally, he lay me down, and slit my throat with another kind of silver. These woods have not seen starlight since.” Dara paused; she could see Muriel’s face becoming even more fearful.

“I—I thank you, Dara, but I must go now. The tide will roll out too far if I wait much longer. Take care,” she bumbled. Muriel briefly looked up again at her dead husband, then back at Dara, then, facing the tree so as not to lose sight of either of them, stumbled backwards across the clearing, and down the path into the darkness.

As soon as she was sure she would not be followed, she turned on her heel and ran swiftly through the brush. Her awkward form, meant for swimming rather than running, did not stop for any sound or creature until she was out of the woods and across the dunes. Perhaps she did not stop until she launched her sleek form back into the undying waves and out to the silver-moon sea.

Dara sat down against the trunk of the oak tree as its contorted limbs swayed gently under the weight of its recent prey. A wisp of guilt passed momentarily through the air as she exhaled it into the ether, “No. It was worth it; she is free now,” she whispered.

Yes you took your silver dagger and split my throat full sore
All for the pride of a lady whom you loved for her money more
And the tree she took great pity; she gave me arms and legs
She gave my spirit room to grow, and her roots became my bed
But I am awake and wondering beyond the open door
I have slept for a hundred years and I’ll wait for a hundred more
So if you come this way now, beware of the old oak tree
Especially if you’re a young man who cares only for a dowry
Yes if you come this way now beware of spirits three:
The woman scorned and never mourned, and the devil and the old oak tree;
The devil and the old oak tree.