The old holm oak stood firm, arms akimbo, daring the wind to topple it, Lear-like on the wild moorland above the cliffs. Others, spaced out on either side, cringed away from the relentless gale, all twisted limbs, trying to protect themselves from the onslaught. Some faced out bravely, branches rubbing together like chattering teeth, bending backwards, witch-like leaf-hair streaming out behind them. Still more huddled together in little groups, as if safety in numbers could stave off the inevitable. There were those who had simply given up, trunks lifeless and stretched out on the heather, withered browning leaves scratching claws in the earth. But they were still connected, the web of mycelia beneath the ground ran between them, sending messages of solidarity, even to those fallen ones, as long as they had a finger of root still intact.
The man, walking his dog far below on the beach, looked up to greet them. They were as familiar and loved as the plants he nurtured in his own garden. Every day of his life he had passed beneath. His army, he called them. As a child he had made up names and ranks for them, recognising their forms and singular characteristics. He mourned those lost in the battle, cheered on the young ones marching out, willed the tired old-timers to carry on. He was old himself now. He was finding it harder, even with a stick, to keep up with the new pup, bounding with delight along the sand and leaping joyfully into the surf. He turned for the homeward trudge, calling the dog to heel. After the shout left him, surprised, he heard the pup whining and felt it licking his face. The old man could see the trees on the cliff above him. As he lay, tasting sand in his mouth, he could have sworn they all turned to look at the one in the centre, his favourite, the General. Sure enough, beneath the earth, the signals were coursing out from the Mother tree and as the old man watched, the movements began. They were infinitesimal at first but slowly gathering pace. He was filled with awe as his army first stood to attention then marched in stately unison down the cliff towards him.
On, on came the trees, not stunted and bent now but proud and tall as their lofty oak cousins – a true fighting force out to claim one of their own. They formed a circle around him, the sighing of the wind in their branches a soothing lullaby. He felt himself lifted, cradled in strong arms. The dog watched, his whole body shivering, as the fog rolled in from the sea, covering the funeral phalanx as it hoisted his master, first high in the thickening air then down, down under a crushing, tangled crown of leaves. Later, when the fog had cleared, a passing beachcomber stopped for a moment, wondering at the lone dog lying beside a pile of whitening driftwood.
Bridget J. Daly lives in North London with husband, cat and various adult children who come and go. She is a museum tour guide who is enjoying trying to get into writing flash fiction.
Photo Pat Sullivan, Canada.
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