Mulberry

Oliver stood and puzzled over the Mulberry Tree, set right in the centre of the orchard, and wondered who had planted it there. Doubtless it would have been one of his ancestors, although which one he had no idea. He hadn’t grown up here after all, just inherited the place by some quirk of fate when his eccentric uncle had decided to ignore all those with a strong claim on the property and leave it to him instead.

This morning he had decided to try and tackle the overgrown grass and weeds that filled much of the orchard area. He wasn’t much of a gardener, in fact he had never had a garden before since his London flat was several floors up, but he reckoned he could probably figure out how to use a lawn mower. Even mad Uncle Ralph must have had a lawn mower in amongst all his junk. Then when he could see the place properly, Oliver thought he would be able to work out what to do with it; if he was going to try and live here, keep it as a holiday home that he could let out, or just sell the place and be done with it.

He walked round to the main storage area, which was the end section of a long, low building that stood at right angles to the house forming a shelter from the field. It had once housed animals and farm wagons, some sections being originally left open between the brick pillars supporting the roof, now glazed, while the storage area had a stable-type door on the end wall. Oliver had to duck to fit through.

There was certainly an odd collection of things there, many of which probably dated from the time when the property was still a smallholding. Looking round as his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he reckoned he should give most of it to a museum. Greater scrutiny did not reveal hidden treasures; from what he could tell after quarter of an hour’s steady searching, the only grass cutting implements were an ancient cylinder mower that would never be able to tackle what he had inherited, and a long handled scythe. How easy was it to use a scythe, he wondered?

Actually it turned out to be not as hard as he expected. The tool seemed to balance quite well in his hands, and given it had been left sharp and oiled, it sliced through the grass rather nicely on his first few attempts. After half an hour it was less effective and his arms were getting tired, so he went in search of something to sharpen it with, but it made him wonder if this was what Ralph actually used, and kept the lawn mower for the more formal bit at the front by the roadside.

He sat on a bench in the sunshine, now getting quite warm, to see whether he was capable of sharpening a two and a half foot long scythe blade. Kitchen knives or miniature woodcutting and carving tools were more in his line of experience. Nope, couldn’t think of anything he had ever done remotely like how he was spending this morning. He would soon be as mad as his uncle.

Had it been anyone else other than Mad Uncle Ralph leaving him his estate, to use the legal term, the claim would have been contested. Estate it almost was however, consisting of a small house, a large cottage-style garden with flowers, herbs and vegetables in the courtyard area immediately behind the house, the aforementioned orchard dominated by the mulberry tree, a field which the farmer next door currently grazed his sheep on, and the outbuildings which formed the boundary between the courtyard and field, now mostly converted into Ralph’s studio apart from the junk store at one end. It was of course the studio that had gained Ralph his reputation, for he had made teapots. Not ones you could necessarily use, crazy teapots where the handles were rarely opposite the spout, or else pointing in directions completely unsuitable for pouring tea out of. They frequently had elves and fairies and tree spirits on them, some friendly, some not. Many in the family would have loved to know why he made such odd things, but no one really asked him, or if they did never got any useful sort of reply.

So now Oliver had inherited Ralph’s studio and his mad reputation, presumably because Oliver also had an interest in art. Pity that Oliver’s interest was in woodcut printing not pottery, so he had no use for a kiln, and so far his reputation had been for architectural accuracy rather than anything whimsical.

No, not a pity at all he thought. He loved his work, and loved living in the city being surrounded by exciting examples of Georgian, Victorian, or Modern urban design. Ralph’s place was just crazy.

*

Over the next few months Oliver did his best to immerse himself in his work, and avoid having anything to do with Ralph’s place. He felt too unsettled there, didn’t know what he might do next. He liked life to be predictable, not watch himself gardening by hand, or washing clothes or sheets by hand and running them through a mangle, or cooking stews on a range. There wasn’t even any central heating, just open fires.

He didn’t like the layout either. Sure, the bit by the road at the front of the house that visitors or passers by saw was perfectly respectable, and the cottagey bit in the courtyard between house and stables was pretty in an old-fashioned, slightly chaotic sort of way, but get beyond that to the lower lawn and clearly the original designer had walked off the job. Thrown up their hands in horror, not knowing what to do with that weird, gnarled old mulberry tree centre stage, slap bang in the middle of what must have once been a good orchard. Now as autumn approached it kept dropping its fruits everywhere in a sticky, messy sort of way, while perfectly good apples, pears and a greengage seemed relegated to the edges. But even that wouldn’t have mattered if the rest of the garden had been designed around it along symmetrical or other formal lines. Some arched avenues around pottager beds for example, or low box hedges to lend a sense of cohesion to the whole. No, it was an affront to Oliver’s sense of order and wellbeing.

Yet for some reason he kept returning whenever work was quiet, and would stay a few days. Always looking after the garden, trying to stay in the courtyard area but finding himself drawn down to the orchard every time. He found himself creating paths through the jungle with the scythe, sitting in odd places to look at nothing in particular.

Maybe he thought he should be able to make something of it. That the garden had potential was not in doubt, but he wasn’t a gardener. He sketched a few things, bits he liked, bits he didn’t. Maybe he could show them to someone and get some suggestions on what to do with it, because he hadn’t got a clue.

Then as the first frosts set in, he set off back to London, found a new girlfriend, and immersed himself in a new project to create the illustrations for a book on Dickensian London.

*

Spring came. Oliver’s conscience made him return to Ralph’s place, although without his girlfriend Stephanie since he couldn’t even trust his own reactions to the place, and he was amazed to find the gardens absolutely full of flowers. It was as if the only things that had grown in his absence were the ones he wanted, the ones that made a good impression on the land. Daffodils, fritillaries, cammassias, tulips, probably more if only he could recognise them. His mother would probably have known.

He should bring Stephanie down with him next time, although she wasn’t any more a country person than he was. But she might find it charming as he did, and be a little more encouraging about him keeping the place; her questioning his failure to put it up for sale had strangely made him hang onto it. As for the rest of his family, cousins and the like, they were increasingly perplexed by his attitude of doing nothing and thought Ralph would want him to live there. His sister Annabelle, an accountant, was angling for a visit to see the place, as was a good mate of his, Richard, and he knew he couldn’t put them off forever.

The real problem, he finally admitted to himself, was that it felt like there was something he wasn’t seeing, or understanding, about the place. And until he worked out what it was he couldn’t make any decisions. Couldn’t allow everyone to trample over it all, try to put their stamp on it. It certainly didn’t want his stamp; he was once again raiding the old hand tools to get jobs done, like mending a fence with handsaw and hammer and nails, or splitting wood for the fire with an axe.

He returned the next few weekends, and saw the trees all coming into blossom, one after another around the orchard in a carefully orchestrated show. Bees hummed, butterflies appeared. He felt sure there should be a pond, and then discovered as he cleared a pathway from the corner of the garden that there was a stream just the other side of the wall. The place definitely had charm, and beauty in a very wild and unfamiliar way.

*

It wasn’t until midsummer that he finally understood.

Mostly he avoided getting too close to the Mulberry tree, either when scything or just when walking around the paths he had created enjoying the landscape. He still felt a strong antipathy towards the tree, like it didn’t welcome him and didn’t want him to come close. But on this particular, hot day, he had decided to spend the day in the orchard to see if he could work out what he had missed.

Taking a fresh sketchbook and some charcoal, he began by circling along the edge of the boundary wall and deliberately sitting in awkward places. On the ground behind an apple tree, on top of the wall where a pear afforded him purchase, looking through a patch of long grass. Unfortunately there was nothing that showed him anything beyond the obvious. He ate his sandwiches in the shade of the greengage, then sat in the sun and got too hot trying to draw the slightly crooked lines of the house as seen from the garden. Finally he went over to the mulberry tree to enter its shady canopy and see what that was like.

Feeling a strong resistance, he stopped, puzzled. He tried again, and felt the tree’s animosity towards him. “What’s the matter, tree? Don’t you want me here?” he asked out loud, before deciding he was now officially mad if he was talking to trees.

“So far you haven’t wanted me!” the tree replied. No words were spoken out loud by the tree, yet he heard the thought as if it had.

Oliver paused, not sure what to make of it. Was he imagining things, or had the tree really replied? Unfortunately he couldn’t deny the truth of the answer; he just never imagined that his feelings were known. Did trees have feelings?

“Yes we jolly well do have feelings!” the tree replied, “just that you humans are mostly too self-absorbed to notice or care.”

“Well I’m very sorry,” Oliver replied in silence. “May I get to know you? Or would you rather I sold you off to someone else.”

“Humph!” There was silence from the tree for a moment; a great pause as even its leaves stopped moving. Oliver found himself holding his breath. “Well I suppose you had better come in then.”

He entered with some difficulty as the leaf canopy was substantial, then sat down. He couldn’t help but admire the way there was a hollow space between the trunk and the drooping branches, like a green veil creating a special, hidden space inside. “It’s beautiful in here,” he breathed.

“Well other people have liked it.”

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t brought up with trees. Especially not Mulberry trees. I don’t think I’ve ever even tasted a mulberry.”

“Well that was silly of you, all that fruit I produced last year.”

Oliver found himself apologising again and vowed to rectify the situation come the autumn. He tried to make a sketch of the space inside the tree, but could tell he was going to have to get to know it better before he could make anything of it. “May I come back tomorrow,” he asked.

He thought the tree wasn’t going to answer for a moment. “Midsummer tomorrow, I guess you can if you want to. Don’t say I didn’t warn you though.”

Clearly he was still missing something, but supposed he might find out soon enough. He made a few phonecalls delaying his return to London, then cooked a simple dinner and spent the evening reviewing his sketches. He had been invited to do an exhibition in the autumn, by a gallery that usually sold his more arty monoprints, and thought it would be the ideal time to increase the variety in his work. There were a few drawings he had made of the orchard that held promise, maybe as a series of farming vignettes. Including the outbuildings as they might have looked, and the sheep in the field would give a sort of theme to it, he mused. It turned out to be a late night as he drew out several of his ideas ready for turning into woodcuts.

He made his way back to the mulberry tree early, before the sun had reached its full power. The tree was not in the mood to talk today, which he thought was a bit of a shame since he would have loved to ask it about its history. After lunch he drifted off to sleep, feeling the previous night’s work catching up with him. He tried to stop it, jerking awake once or twice, but eventually had to give in.

In his dream, he was under the mulberry tree. Nothing had changed between wakefullness and sleep, or maybe he was awake again. But he was no longer alone. Whole troops of what he could only presume were fairy folk were appearing from along the paths he had scythed, some walking or possibly floating, others running or skipping or jumping or turning somersaults. They all seemed to be converging upon the mulberry tree.

He sat up and was about to move to be out of their way, then found his hands grabbed and he was pulled into the dance. Twirling, whirling, around the tree, out through its branches, back in again. There seemed to be hundreds of fairies, nature spirits, wood elves, leprechauns, all different shapes and sizes from knee high to much taller than he was, and yet none tripped over each other or seemed to be stuck for space. Some had instruments which they played as they danced; flutes, drums, a pulsing rhythm that seemed to grow out of the earth, out from the tree that was the centre of it all.

The colours seemed to change too, from greens of various shades, through yellows and blues and whites, spiralling out from the tree, and he realised that they were the colours of the flowers growing in the orchard. More appeared out of the courtyard garden flowing through the entrance to the orchard, reds, pinks of roses, delphinium blues, purple lupins, soft pastel geraniums. The whirling peaked, taking him with it, in and out, in and out. Creatures he had only known in mythology or fairytales, like satyrs or dryads taking his hands and dancing him round the circle.

As the sun set and the sky changed colour, he realised the numbers of fairies was dwindling. Eventually the last of them danced away, and he was left sitting alone, under the mulberry tree. He felt the grass, to make sure it felt real. Touched the ground between the green leaves, make sure it really was damp and muddy.

“Now you know,” the tree said, almost sardonically.

Oliver started. He most definitely was awake, and yet he was still trying to come to terms with what had just happened. “Yes, I guess I do,” he replied, realising exactly why and how the tree had come to be dominating the middle of the garden like it did. It was the centre of everything. There would be no garden, and no house, and no stream, and no flowers, and no fruit trees without the mulberry in the centre. It was certainly a lot older than all the other trees.

The moon shone, and in the halflight he could see just what a magical place the whole smallholding was. He understood why and how Ralph had lived here, and why he hadn’t invited just anyone to be part of the place; Oliver hadn’t wanted to either, and that was before tonight.

“Are they here all the time?” he asked the tree.

“Of course. How else do you think everything manages to grow? Plants can’t just grow themselves!”

“Don’t they?” he asked, shocked.

The tree just laughed.

“So why don’t I see the fairies now? Why haven’t I seen them before?”

“Well they’ll be elsewhere now, in the hollow hills I expect, feasting for the rest of the midsummer celebrations. They come and go, but there are always some here if you look for them. Most of you humans just don’t look. Or don’t see if you do look.”

The tree lapsed into silence, and Oliver realised it had done talking for the night and wasn’t going to answer any more questions. He headed for the house, for some supper and to think. While Ralph’s teapots had sold well, Oliver now saw that they only told half the story, only showed some aspects, whereas there was so much more.

*

Oliver was still at the house three days later, still trying to puzzle out what to do. It was if life as he knew it had just ended, and this new, richer, more multi-dimensional world had opened to him. He had caught glimpses of fairies going about their business, or just enjoying themselves which seemed to be pretty much the same thing, but they tended to disappear if he stared at them or tried to sketch them.

He was desperate to sketch them, to capture what they were really like. It was all so different from the sickly sweet fairytale images of his childhood, the little folk as they were often called, with gossamer wings and leaf clothing. That seemed such nonsense compared to the reality he was seeing in the garden. His garden, he reminded himself. There was no way he could leave it now, let someone else take over and kill the life that dwelt within it. And yet he couldn’t explain it all either. Not in a way for people to believe him, to understand. It was all too alien, too unexpected.

Sketch after sketch emerged, in pencil, ink, charcoal, mostly to be torn up, falling short of the reality. He wasn’t used to sketching from memory and became more and more frustrated with himself as his work fell short of what he wanted to achieve.

He made excuses again and again, as to why he wasn’t in London. Stephanie despaired, and dismissed his sketches as naïve art from being touched in the head. She started seeing someone else, and he found he didn’t miss her. Annabelle was politely interested, and then when she realised he was serious, asked him the sort of questions only an accountant could ask. Numbers, types, details. The nature spirits weren’t going to tick boxes, however, even if he wanted them to. Richard thought it was a joke, and wanted to try whatever scrumpy he had managed to brew from the orchard. Only his agent seemed to have any great interest, assuming he could produce something saleable as a result. It might reach a new market, if he wished to diversify, although using a pseudonym might be a good idea.

After a few weeks he moved his things into Ralph’s house and simply stayed there. There were fairies in the house as well as the garden, he had discovered, who when asked nicely would help ensure a supply of dry kindling and firewood, and help the food stay fresh despite the lack of a fridge or freezer.

*

Mulberry paper, that was what he needed he realised. Mulberry paper for images of the mulberry tree.

Since the internet was something Ralph did actually use, to sell his teapots, there was unexpectedly a good connection to the house. Oliver wasted no time in ordering a stack of mulberry paper, a fraction of the weight of what he normally used for printing. Fibrous, bright, strong, it had a different quality to cotton. He took a sheet, and a fresh pencil and began to draw. Then to carve. Finally to print.

He worked through the night, block after block, printing a short run of each, checking them, tweaking the image. Finally mid-morning of the second day he was satisfied and fell into bed, leaving the prints hanging up to finish drying. This was what he wanted to exhibit. To show the world something new, and remind people what they had forgotten about the real world of fairies. Not the make-believe, but the one that actually existed.

The mulberry tree nodded sagely when he went out to tell it about them. “We like them. You couldn’t expect us not to take a peek, surely? Others won’t believe you, you know, but a few will. And their numbers will grow.”

*

It goes without saying, of course, that the exhibition was a success. Oliver’s career took off in a different direction from that point forward, and while his family might not understand him and might now call him mad after his uncle, the letters from fans who have since seen what he has seen continue to give him satisfaction and joy. As do the fairies, who could never hold a midsummer festival without him and take care to direct him as to where he should scythe the paths each year.