I remember her covered in snow in a field
where each dead stalk of wildflower was thick
with frost. The sky was pink in the hawthorns,
the day held on the light-edge of breaking.
A woman carved from the bole of an oak,
her feet (if she had any) buried in the winter’s
shedding weight. Whoever had turned her
from the tree had given her an orb
which she held in both hands, close to the gentle
curve of her face. And she stood there
by the half-rotten stile off Broad Lane,
head bowed, as though waiting to greet us
and offer the frozen circumference of a new
world. Years ago, our school had planted
the woods behind her, when I was eight or nine,
and now each tree ages alongside us.
Every time I go back, I see a part
of my life laid out, still growing in a field
by the old village. I used to come here
often, at eighteen or so, with men at night
and it was strange to pass her as we stumbled
in the undergrowth and into the woods
like deer plummeting through the wet branches.
And I think now of all the men forced outside
after clearing-out, into the dark spaces of towns,
how they walk in vigil to woodlands and old
estates, to the smell of the day settling. Once,
I came here with a man whose whole body
was muscled, as though he too had been carved
from a single trunk of wood. I pretended
all the time to be a man like him,
answering each lie in a deep, alien voice.
I think I was afraid he would kill me,
and walked a few steps ahead, hearing
him moving through the sodden grass,
pulling his feet from the bramble-vines.
We passed the woman without comment,
though she stood there in her cloak of wood,
the globe held in the lathed green of her hands.
Here was so unlike the places other people went,
a place without doors or walls or rooms.
The black heavy-leafed branches pulled back
like a curtain and inside a dark chamber
of the wood, guarded, and made safe.
The bed was the bed of all the plants
and trees, and we could share it. And then
the kneeling down in front of him, keeping
my secrets still in the folds of night, trying
not to shake in the cold, and the damp floor
seeping up. I remember the cold water
spreading in the capillaries of my jeans.
As I looked up, the sky hidden under a rain
of leaves, each tree stood over me
in perfect symmetry with his body.
Each was like a man with his head bent,
each watching and moving and making slow
laboured sighs. I came back often,
year on year, kneeling and being knelt for
in acts of secret worship, and now
each woodland smells quietly of sex,
not only when the air is thick with it,
but in winter too when the strains
are grounded and held against the earth,
and each time I half-expect
to meet someone among the trees
or inside the empty skeleton
of the rhododendron, and I wonder if I have ruined
these places for myself, if I have brought
each secret to them and weighed the trees
with things I can no longer bear. But then
what is a tree, or a plant, if not an act
of kneeling to the earth, a way of bidding
the water to move, of taking in the mouth
the inner part of the world and coaxing it out.
Not just the aching leaf-buds
in spring, the cloud of pollen, or in autumn
the children knocking branches for the shower
of seed, but the people who kneel in the woods
at night, the woman waiting by the gate, offering
to each visitor a small portion of the world
in which they might work for the life of it.
Waking, close to morning but still
a shuttered, metal dark in the room:
a sound inside my dream, only a whimper
at first, then becoming human, a howl
raised in the street outside, left unanswered
then raised again. In my boxers, shivering
by the single-paned window, but seeing no one
among the black shapes of the parked cars
or hedges, I went out half-dressed: hands shaking,
front door unlocked then pushed open,
and by the column of the porch, under a cone
of orange light, a young man slumped,
drunk, sobbing like his whole life
was unfurling into sound.
And now, I am reminded of one afternoon,
home from school, my father digging out
the root of a conifer in the garden – I saw him
look up, suddenly alert, leave by the back gate
into the alley behind the terraces, and return
panicked with a boy in his arms. I recognised him,
about my age, from school, by his dreadlocks,
his turquoise streak of hair; but now lolling
under his own weight, his wrists draining
over my father’s mudded jeans and the patio tiles.
I knew, even then, the rumours about him;
thought as we wrapped and pinned torn sheets
around his opened veins, how we might share,
once the truth was out, a bond, an elective blood.
Nights later, I only half-slept, expecting
at any moment to hear someone again outside,
as though time might be caught in a loop,
the same boy walking the mapped route
along the dark streets at the same hour
to my door. Again, I unshuttered the window,
stood waiting to see him come, barefoot, maybe,
down the path. Each night, no sign, until I thought,
perhaps, it was only me, or a dream of myself,
asking nightly to be greeted at the threshold,
allowed back into the cold room of my life.
But then, in each of us, a wound must be made
or given – there is always the soul waiting
at the door of the body, asking to be let out.
The above is an excerpt from Tongues of Fire by Seán Hewitt, published by Jonathan Cape, £10.00.
Tongues of Fire has been shortlisted for the 2020 Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award.