Beneath the Yew Tree at Green Knowe

 “Now Tolly, you may take the cloth from the table, carefully now, and shake the crumbs outside for the birds for they will be glad of them on a hard frosted morning such as we have today.”

“And may I play outside?”

“You may, but come in when you feel the cold bite and we will sit by the fire till you warm.

Outside the air was so cold it felt it might snap. Each twig and bud was furred with a coat of fine crystals of ice. Tolly shook the cloth and a rush of waiting birds took every crumb almost before they touched the ground. Blue tits, great tits, sparrows… Tolly was glad to see his friend the Chaffinch make off with an unusually large morsel of toast with a smear of butter still adhering to it. The chaffinch sat in a low part of the spreading yew and seemed mightily happy with his prize.

Taking the chaffinch’s cue, Tolly followed his friend into the spreading shade beneath the tree and squatted down to puzzle at the heap of old stones that clustered there like bones from a long forgotten beast. Some rounded, some angled, the stones lay tumbled dumb to tell their tales. The boy scratched at the ground half thinking to uncover the carving he could see on one of the stones but the ground, frozen hard and knitted together with large and small roots of the yew was beyond his power to excavate. One of the roots caught his eye though, it had a straightness and an edge that the other roots lacked. He held it between thumbs and forefingers and worked it gently back and forth till it became a little looser and he could grip it more fully. Tolly pulled; the object resisted then slipped smoothly as if from from a scabbard of earth.

Tolly he’d the object in his two hands, it was long a straight. It tapered towards one end and, though it was rusted, it was clear it had once been sharp. A sword. Not a shiny officers sword like Toby’s perhaps but a tool for a men to strike another man with. To hurt, or to kill. Tolly looked up. There was granny sitting and writing at her desk by the window. Or if not granny, someone very like her. He waved the thing he had found and waved again but granny, gazing out at the yew and the lawn beyond, didn’t seem to see him. Lost in her thoughts perhaps. He would show her when he went in to get warm. If he did go in to get warm, it was not – he realised now – as cold as it had been. 

Looking around Tolly realised that the mornings hard frost had quite disappeared. More than that, the wintersweet bush whose bare branches had been burdened with spicy, jasmine scented blossoms, was in leaf, buttercups and daisies studded the grass. Tolly listened, the buzzing of bees and the song of the birds thrummed in the air. And not just those sounds, not far away, quite distinctly, was the sound of a child crying. Not a baby but a child of his own age judging by the sound of it. Tolly quickly climbed a little way into the tree so he could peer down like a squirrel and see without being observed.

Leaning against the trunk of a tree not twenty paces away sat a child wearing breeches of a rough cloth and a jerkin over a shirt that looked, to Tolly’s eyes, more like a girl’s blouse than a shirt that a boy might wear. The child had their head in their hands and was sobbing such that their shoulders heaved. Tolly watched until the sobbing abated but the boy’s head stayed cradled in his hands. 

Tiring of waiting, Tolly plucked a red berry from the yew and tossed it towards the child. It fell short so he plucked another and, throwing with increased confidence, landed on the back of the childs hand where it left a wet, red mark. The child looked at their hand then set to sobbing with redoubled vigour. Tolly was shocked by the reaction to what had seemed so mild a prank and slithered down the tree calling out ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt’. 

As Tolly ran towards them the child looked up and showed face. Unmistakably a boys face but pale and much bruised and battered. The boy was panic stricken – ‘I’m going! I’m going now!’ He tried to stand but his legs gave way and slumped back down against the tree. Tolly saw that the yew berry’s mark on the back of his hand was not the only red. There was a great dark patch on his britches and a stain where he had been sitting. Tolly gasped, ‘come into the house! Granny will fix you – or Come to the stable, Boggis will care for your wounds.” But the boy would not, or could not rise, he grasped Tolly’s hand and pulled Tolly’s fresh, clean morning face to his pale, tear stained one. “My father, my brothers. They are killed. The bridge. When the men came through with the plate from the chapel for the king’s funds. We went to see them pass…” The boy gasped and clutched at himself. 

Tolly said “you should rest, let me get my granny” but the boy would not let go and pulled Tolly closer.

“We stood to watch and cheer as we were told but the parley men came then and we were surprised. They must have thought we were with the militia for we were cheering for them. And when they came with likes and muskets…”

The sobbing wracked the boy’s body again and this time Tolly did not try to encourage him to stand or offer to fetch his grandmother. He did not know much of death – he who had been so much amongst the dead – but he could feel that it was near and that this poor boy of four centuries ago needed the comfort of his company more than he needed any doctor. He stayed quiet and in a while the boy continued.

“My father and my brothers, and uncle Thomas and three of his grown sons. We tried to get away it we were up against the river and the militia were holding the bridge. It happened so quickly. I saw cousin Joseph take to the water but he could not swim and I did not see him again. And we fell. All us Boggises fell. I stayed quite still and was so much amongst them, my kinfolk, that they must have thought me dead too. I waited till all was quiet and crept here.”

The boy’s voice had fallen to a whisper and his breath had become faint and irregular. Tolly held his hand and said, “I’m sure you’ll be fine, I’ll fetch a doctor” and other nonsenses. And the boy seemed to fall asleep and his head fell to the side.

Tolly held his hand a while longer then let it go for a moment and blinked his eyes once and twice to clear the tears that had come unbidden. Opening his eyes he saw the frost was back and felt his hands quite frozen with cold. He was still leaning against the trunk of the tree but the boy had gone. The dark spreading stain on the ground had gone. 

Tolly stood up and stamped his feet which felt more like blocks of ice than like real human feet. As he stumped life back into them he noticed the sword blade that he had pulled from the ground beneath those blocks of stone. With distaste he slipped it back into its earthen scabbard. He brushed the dirt and soil from his hands and went indoors to find his grandmother.

“My my Toseland, you’re quite pinched with the cold. Come sit by the fire and tell me where you have been. Look at you – you’re trembling.”

In fits and starts Tolly told his grandmother what he had found that morning and what the boy had told him. “All of them Grandmother – all Boggises he said – father and uncle and cousins and brothers’ can it be true? Would all of them die?” He looked at his dear grandmother who seemed now to have retreated far inside herself. He saw her glance for an instant toward the photographs that crowded the top of the dresser.

“We wouldn’t know” she said at last “the names of men such those your boy spoke of wouldn’t be recorded. But I’m sorry Tolly for those men belonged to this house just as you do, and I do, and your dear mother did. I am sorry, for war is a cruel thing and it takes so many that we love – sons, brothers, husbands.”

Then old Mrs Oldknow wept, and Tolly wept though he was not quite sure for whom or for why he wept. And around them the stones of the house gathered close and the eyes of the garden gathered too.