“I do, Jack, I do indeed.”
Thursday, 17 March 2016
Jack's in the Green
The man, advanced in years, remembered, though the dust that fogged his mind made it hard to concentrate. Every time he stirred he would make eddies, the motes twirling in the fractured sunlight. He remembered that he was not always alone; there had once been laughter in the little thatched cottage and he had even moved freely at one time.
Now he was confined to this wheelchair that creaked so whenever he tried to move around. There was only the ground floor that he could access in the cottage now and he resided in the master bedroom. Master bedroom, it had such an air of authority about it but he was at the mercy of the cottage, not the other way around. He was positioned by the window so he could look out on the world that lay stretched out before him, mocking him.
He had lived in the same cottage, in the same room, for many years now and very little had changed. The surrounding forest had remained strong and resolute and hugged the lie of the land down to the valley below. It was a great green canopy stretching for miles, offering refuge for all who dwelt in its warm embrace.
Sometimes the man would think of the times he had spent there as a child; setting “bear” traps, trying to fend off attacking marauders and being careful not to disturb any of the Faey folk that lived around.
Other times he remembered when he had not been so alone. There had even been children running around; three children infecting the whole cottage with their laughter, playing and living so gaily that he envied them.
It had been many years since, though it could conceivably have been yesterday to the old man for his memory was so lapse, like a brittle elastic band –it snapped too easily. The details of the memory were hazy, but the substance of it was still there.
Three children; they might even have been blood of his blood, Grandchildren even. He loved them, he was sure of that. But why were they there? Was it a holiday? It must have been; a holiday of some kind, and what better place was there than the countryside?
Indeed, the old man remembered that he had gone on holidays himself, when he was young (and not so young) to the seaside. The fresh, salty taste invigorated him. Having lived in the country all his life, the only thing that held surprise, awe and wonderment was the sea. The brightly coloured promenade, the menagerie of smells: candyfloss, toffee apples and a hundred-and-one other things that rot the teeth but taste sweet and delicious. There were also cascades of sounds all tantalising the ears, layering up the imagination with catcalls and cries, screams and laughter. The seaside was always magical; the donkey rides, the penny arcades, the helter skelters and rides galore. Waves fighting the crowds for possession of the shores.
But, he was thinking about something else… The children…
No, he had not always been alone, they arrived one spring he was sure. Two girls and a boy. Their names were blurred. The boy was surely the eldest of the three and was named after his father.. Paul... Strange, that was his name as well. The girls were twins, and the old man had a feeling that they were named after flowers. Rose was one, and the other was called… Hyacinth, or some such.
The boy, Paul, being the eldest, set the task exploring the house when they arrived; checking for booby traps and secret passages (in the same way that the old man had done when he was of a similar age). The girls sat down beside him, unsure of what to make of their surroundings. The old man could walk, barely, back then and it occurred to him that he could take the girls for a small guided tour –which would undoubtedly have made them feel at home.
When Paul returned from his own explorations the old man walked them slowly round the cottage, telling them what rooms they could play in and which were out of bounds.
In the mornings the children studied: holidays or no, their education was important, even back then. After lunch they would play. At first their playground was the cottage but when that became too familiar they played outside, in the forest and down in the valley below. They promised their grandfather that they would never wander too far and never play on their own.
After their supper they would sit down by the open fire and listen to their grandfather tell them stories of when he was a lad; and of the forest.
One night the old man went to great lengths to explain the dangers of the forest. He warned them never to fall asleep ‘neath the Elder tree; to steer towards the Oak tree if they were ever to be caught in a thunderstorm; never to uproot a mandrake or a peony and most importantly of all, never to eat the fruit of the Jaffa tree.
“The wood is a magical place, still.” He remembered telling them. “There are many things which are not bound by man. This is a place governed by spirits and of the Faey. Many a child has been snarled by the delights of the Faey and never returned to the mortal land. One of these delights is the Jaffa tree. Once the fruit is eaten you can never re-enter this realm, forever bound by the Faey laws, a slave of the mistress Titania. Heed my words, dear children, eat not the fruit of the Jaffa tree and trust not the words of the Faey.”
The forest was now open to the children and it did indeed lead to a magical land. Fettered only by their imaginations, they spent a timeless idyll playing and exploring; all within eyesight of their grandfather who walked with them. The games they came up with! Only children could come up with such larks. Games of innocence, yet deep with meaning that would ultimately lay the ground work for much of their adult life, and would only make sense to those young enough to believe; yet they never once tried to find the Jaffa tree.
Days became weeks and weeks became months. The old man's condition weakened. No longer was he able to walk with the children. Now he was bound to the wheelchair, confined to the house that he had known all those years.
Sometimes he would forget their names, or mislay things; or fall asleep by the fire and not awaken until morning after. And as the months passed the children realised that they had explored nearly all of the wood that lie around the cottage, but there was still plenty to explore in the valley itself. And there was still the Jaffa tree to find.
One day the twins found themselves with nothing to do in the forest. Paul had wandered off, scouting for Indians or Germans (whoever was the current enemy of the hour) and had left the girls to make the camp. Rose was becoming restless and bored. She wanted to do something that was different and fun; exciting. It was then that she remembered the Jaffa tree and it struck her that it might be fun trying to find it. Hyacinth wasn’t sure, she still remembered her grandfather’s warning about the Faey and the Jaffa tree and it frightened her. She refused to help Rose find the tree and so Rose, unperturbed, left the camp to search on her own.
She had no idea where was walking; she just wanted to be away from her siblings. She soon came to a large clearing that she had never seen before. The sun was shining high and refracted off the slight haze that still hung in the air, making pretty pictures on the forest floor to which Rose danced around. In the middle of the clearing was the tallest tree that Rose had ever seen; it seemed to stretch to the top of the sky and beyond. It’s leaves were the purest lilac and the bark was ashen grey. As she walked closer Rose realised that the bark was covered with fine hairs, almost like fur. She placed the palm of her hand on in , tentatively at first and before long she was stroking it languorously; it felt so soft that she placed her cheek to it and embraced the tree.
“Like you the tree, m’lady?” A voice from behind made Rose hop back in surprise. She turned round to find herself looking into the eyes of one of the little people of the forest; one of the Faey. “My name is Jack.” Said Jack. “Jack of the Forest Green, and what is yours?”
“My name is Rose. Are you a fairy, Sir?” Rose was captivated by this funny looking man in front of her.
“How old are you, my young sprite?” Jack asked.
“Nine and a half years of age.” Rose said proudly, in the way that only children can muster.
“Then yes, I am a fairy. I am Jack of the Fairy folk, of the green; of the willow and the beech and oak and I am at your service!” With a smile on his face, Jack made a curt elfish bow. “I know what you be searching for.” He said with a glint in his eyes, reflecting the timeless shadow of the sun.
“I’m not searching for anything, dear Jack.” Rose replied in innocence.
“I know you are, sweet Rose and it be alight… I can show you where to find it.” He smiled. “Turn yourself around three times with your eyes closed. When you open them again then in front of you will see the jaffa tree.”
“Is it a game?” Asked Rose. “Oh, I do love games!”
“Yes, m’lady – it is a game. Do you wish to play?”
“I do, Jack, I do indeed.”
“I do, Jack, I do indeed.”
“Then close your eyes and spin yourself around three times.” Jack watched as Rose spun herself round and around and around until he, at last said, “Now open your eyes, m’lady.”
Sure enough, right in front of her was the very thing that she had been looking for. Rose stood and looked at the tree; it seemed far too small to be the type of thing to be afraid of; as was this strange fellow standing in front of her. He was no taller than her and had funny pointy ears and a pointy beard. He seemed more mischievous than someone to be feared.
“Didst thou wish to taste the fruit of the Jaffa tree?” Asked Jack.
“I’m not allowed, kind Sir.”
“Not allowed? What do people know of such things? Do you think that I wouldst harm you, m’lady? You wound me; a daughter of Eve, wounds me who wouldst only be your friend. I would merely want to be your friend and servant for ever.”
“Oh, I would like that, dear Jack. Forever and ever!” Rose clapped her hands with glee.
“Then all you needs do is taste the fruit of the Jaffa tree and we shall be together of all eternity. Wouldst thou do me the pleasure?”
“Of course, dear Jack. Anything for you.” Rose bent down and picked the strange, eclipsed fruit that was of the Jaffa tree and took a slow tentative bite.
Time passed and Paul returned to the camp to find only Hyacinth on her own, sleeping deeply in the makeshift camp. Paul tried to wake her, and after a number of attempts Hyacinth woke slowly, rubbing her eyes. Paul asked her where Rose was.
Paul was shocked to hear that she had gone to look for the Jaffa tree; anything could have happened to her. They searched for Rose for hours, stopping only when it got too dark to see. They made their way back to their grandfathers cottage with heavy hearts and when they arrived they found their grandfather asleep by the dying fire. Paul told Hyacinth two things: that she must not say anything about Rose’s disappearance to him, and that she must not, under any circumstances, go looking for the Jaffa tree herself.
Early the next morning Paul and Hyacinth searched for Rose again. Paul was adamant that Rose had simply wandered off and was just lost in the woods. He didn’t believe in fairies, but didn’t have the heart to break it to Hyacinth for she still believed in such things.
She was too young to truly understand the world whereas he was at least two years older and it was simply a matter of searching every inch of the house and forest. Sooner or later Rose would turn up; all Hyacinth knew was that she missed her twin ever so much.
The hours stretched and dragged into days for Hyacinth. Paul was still busy in his unrelenting search and seemed to have forgotten about his other sister. Grandfather was no fun anymore, no matter how hard he tried. He spent most of his time asleep by the fire. And although she had been forbidden by Paul to go wondering in the forest, the temptation and loneliness became too much for her. There was nothing else to hold her inside and more and she missed Rose so much it hurt her.
One day she could ignore the pain no longer and took it upon herself to look for Rose on her own. She knew that she would be back long before Paul returned and there was no way that Grandfather would even know she was gone.
There was a cold air that nipped at her ears and nose as she scuffed about in the snow that now covered the ground. She had taken the precaution of wrapping up warm but she was shivering nevertheless. Her breath crystalised in front of her as she trudged along. She tried to make the trek into a little game, pretending she was a steam train on its way home. The white encrusted ground made a satisfying scrunch scrunch sound as she tried to find the spot where they made camp so long ago.
Sure enough, Hyacinth found the abandoned camp without any problems, but she was now faced with the question of where to go from there. It had been so long ago and everything had changed so much. How could she hope to find Rose? She sat in the snow in despair and started to weep. Suddenly an ethereal voice called to her through the forest.
“Hyacinth… Hyacinth.” It was the voice of Rose, to be sure, but Hyacinth couldn’t tell where it was coming from. “Follow the sound of my voice and it will lead you to me. We can be together again for all eternity then, my sister.” Hyacinth could hardly believe it. It seemed so impossible but she wanted to believe so much. She had missed Rose and wanted to be with her again, so she quickly got to her feet and followed the sound of her voice into the dense woodland, the trees swallowing her up as she went.
When Paul returned later that day he walked into a cold, empty cottage. The fire that blazed and burned was now nothing but embers, white and frozen. Hyacinth was nowhere to be found. He couldn’t understand it, he had told her to stay and wait for him; so she must still be in the cottage somewhere –probably playing hide and seek. But after he had searched the cottage he realised that this wasn’t so. Grandfather was nowhere to be seen either, but that wasn’t Paul's concern. Hyacinth was all that he had and he couldn’t face being on his own any more. He knew what he had to do.
It took Paul only twenty minutes to find the clearing where they had made camp all those months before. As he sat on one of the snow covered logs he closed his eyes and tried to remember what his sisters looked like. When he opened them again he found himself looking into the eyes of a strange little man with pointy ears and a short pointy beard.
“Hello, young fella… My names Jack. What’s yours?”
The old man was alone again. The whispered thoughts and memories of happier times lingered. There were times when the cottage was full of the sounds of laughter and children, but that was so long ago, wasn't it.
The wind lashed against the window, whistling through the cracks in the wooden pane, snow buffeting the exterior in a pointless war of attrition. Where once there were children playing in amongst the green now there was nothing but white, glistening snow: an unchanging landscape of forgetfulness and despair. It was so difficult to remember anything now and he found himself lapsing into another deep sleep.