The grove of trees was secluded, and it was dark. It was ancient and largely unknown. And it was waiting. The eldest of the trees held court there, squatting like a bloated tyrant with a tanglewood crown and grasping miser’s fingers raking the earth around its corpulent trunk. Healthy things did not grow there, wholesome plants did not flourish. Birds did not roost in the trees of that grove, not the wise old birds anyway. Ravens shunned it. Foolish fledgeling songbirds who fluttered into the tyrant’s little realm did not flutter out again. Insects and crawling things flourished and dug and bred greedily in the stinking moisture of the hollows of that grove.
An approaching light, flimsy and weak. Two men picked their way through the night, a lantern held aloft by the older of the two.
“It is much further?” said the younger, a strong young man in his twenties, broad shouldered beneath his roughspun jacket. His voice carried the barely masked complaint of someone who had been out much later than he expected to have been out, and who had travelled much further than he had wanted to.
“No,” said the older man. He picked his way between two wiry sentinel trees and carefully stepped down and down and down the grove’s steep sides. “We’re here Antonio. Watch your footing.”
Antonio, the younger man peered down into the place that his neighbour had brought him to and he grimaced. The air was foul.
“This is not a healthy place,” he said quietly.
“What is a healthy place?” said the older man hanging the lantern from a jutting branch. “Where in all of Tuscany is healthy? Is safe?”
Antonio recognised the familiar bitterness in his neighbour’s voice. “My friend, the cholera has passed us by. You cannot keep blaming...”
“God mocks us,” said the older man, pacing slowly to the edge of the clearing, feeling the earth suck hungrily at his boots. “He despises us. I despise him in my turn.”
Antonio crossed himself.
“He took my wife from me ten winters past,” said the older man, “and left only my boy to remember her by. All the love I had for her I poured into him. My hopes. Everything. And I gave thanks to the Almighty for him. And then the Almighty showed his undying love again.” He spat copiously on the earth. “The cholera hung over our town like an unseen angel seeking who he might devour. My boy...”
“My boy!” the old man said angrily, turning and pointing a finger at the younger man. “God showed his contempt for our lives, our hopes, our efforts! Should I bear it in smiling silence, as a woman bears the fists of the drunkard who beats her?” He looked up at the distant sky and bit his thumbnail.
Antonio did not answer at once. He would let his neighbour’s anger rage and burn itself out, and what good would argument do for him now, here in this place? This place cared nothing for words.
“My grandmother’s mother came here,” said the old man more quietly now. “She was born in Palermo, but she fled north with nothing but the clothes on her back and a bundle of sticks. The priests called her strega, a witch. And the Inquisition was still a power in those days. Strega!” He wiped his chin, clearing it of the spittle that had flown there when he had raged.
“A slander,” said Antonio
“The truth,” said the old man with no shame in the words, but rather pride. “She found this place, this very place, and she added her bundle of sticks to the old wood that grew here. Sticks from the woodlands she’d danced in as a girl.”
A gust blew the lantern a little and the shadows moved and encircled the two men. Antonio shivered and looked around, the older man closed his eyes as though embraced.
“There are trees as old as Eden,” the old man said, his voice soft, “who drank up the water from the ground when Adam and Lilith coupled in the midnight heat. Who supped on the tears of Eve who wept when the Almighty’s curse fell upon her,”
“We should go home,”
“Trees who sank beneath the deluge and refused to die,” the old man said, his voice stronger now, “who knew their enemy for what He was and held on fiercely to life and waited for their moment.”
Antonio came slowly toward his friend and took hold of him by the shoulders.
“You’re distressed,” he said in a voice that shook with fear for his friend’s wits, “but you must stop this talk. It is sacrilege. Blasphemy.”
The old man’s eyes looked into Antonio’s and did not know him.
“Trees that gave their wood gladly for the crosses on the sullen brow of stone beyond Jerusalem. Who rejoiced to drink the blood that-”
“Enough!” Antonio shook the older man roughly, hoping to break him out of this feverish rage that twisted truth and the world around an old man’s grief.
“He is with us,” said the old man in a triumphant voice, and above them old limbs, ancient limbs moved and creaked in the wind and something cracked and roared and fell. Antonio looked up too late and raised his hands too late and felt a thunderbolt of dry and eager weight strike him on the head.
When pain woke him it drove away dreams of whispering voices and replaced those dreams with searing hot agony from temple to jaw. He was lying on the ground in the mud beneath that ancient tyrant tree and he was tangled there in down-drooping branches and thorny vines that clustered around its roots. Beneath his wounded head there was mud and bloodied water and his heart was a pounding drum that shook his whole body.
The old man was crouching nearby, hunched over the fallen branch that had struck Antonio. It was bulbous and fibrous, as thick around as a man’s thigh, and the old man was sawing off the smaller shoots and tendrils that writhed and bled grey sap as they fell to the ground.
“Help me,” Antonio said, his voice a phlegmy gurgle.
“See what he has given me,” the old man said, not looking up from his work. “He is generous. He that my grandmother’s mother knew by name, see what he has given me.” He put away the knife into his belt and grunted as he hefted up the hewn log of ancient gloating wood. “He will restore to me what was stolen.”
“Help me up, help me get free of these...” He was going to say ‘hands’ but that would have been madness, surely. “Of this tree. My head is split, help me to stand.”
The old man shook his head and tucked the log beneath one arm, reaching up to take the lantern from the branch.
“You remain,” he told Antonio, “You remain. A gift demands a gift, that is the old way.” He turned away and the night closed around the trapped young man like water rising over the ground. Crickets and beetles emboldened by the dwindling light crept, then ran, then danced over the captive.
“Don’t leave me here!” he called. He struggled, thrashing his limbs, but the limbs of this grove’s old master were stronger still and held him fast. The lantern light was almost gone now, the old man out of sight. “Don’t leave me! Geppetto!” The darkness engulfed Antonio completely and the wind through the branches above him lamented him in mocking tones, and the crawling things in his nostrils and mouth and ears whispered as they feasted and told him of the mighty deeds that the carpenter’s son would bring to pass.