I finished eating the cold block of Kendal mint cake and folded the wrapper up and put it in my pocket. My grandmother always sends me mint cake in the summer, which is when she wants me to be rambling. She sends little bars of lavender and rose soap too. While I prefer to eat the mint cakes in the winter when I need the refreshment. I had paused towards the end of my hike, heading off the hill and towards home as shadow was beginning to press against the steep rock flanks of the valley. The pass was straightforward even in deep snow, but there were two choices, the loop, or the direct, by which I had come. I chose the loop. Dark came and the temperature dropped, and I felt even better than I had on the summit. I put on my head torch, swung my arms and sang bits of song as they occurred to me. Then, ahead to one side of the quiet snow-blue path, I saw a figure, standing, hunched. I stopped.
It was no bigger than a child, and must have been a child, slim-built. But crooked, wrapped in heavy brown cloth like a monk’s robes, up to his knees in snow-cladding. I turned my head to one side – trying to keep the figure in the light without losing them, and saw the slope to the side of the path, where more and more of them were. The same crookedness, the same hooded, faceless features, all repeated with slight variation. On the ground, even, some lay stretched out, with others looking gravely over them. It had taken time for me to process the sight but eventually I came to realise I was looking at nothing, just a plantation of new saplings wrapped up in old jute against the cold by the park services. The soughing wind moved a few, bent them in my direction. Deep bows from the trees. I bowed back, and shaking my head, immediately sprang to walking again. I had no urgent need to get home, there was no one waiting for me, and everything in my house would be clean and orderly. Dinner of game and potatoes in the slow cooker. My father’s vinyl collection to choose from for a soundtrack to the evening’s reading. But I began to walk faster. I did not seek out a reason for this. I simply no longer sang, but spent my energy following the spotlight from my head torch. I could see nothing more, and needed to see nothing more.
I could see nothing more than that light, and the path ahead which looped around the frozen lake, and this plantation, built where the old hotel had been. All down the gentle descent to the lake the wrapped trees stood, not moving, but always beside me. Keeping pace. But without moving, I told myself. The wind has music in it, and voices. Anyone who hikes by themselves often enough will tell you that. The landscape has animals in it, and avalanches waiting to powder and pound the slopes and anything that hazards to stand against its momentum. But a field of small, fragile trees, what are they, out in the dark snow – I pulled up my scarf to cover my face. Though I was still sure I could not find in myself anything like fear. I had long since overcome the ability to feel spontaneous unease, and felt no loss, as I had overcome many other losses in my quiet, homely life. It was only the chill increasing, beginning to freeze my hair and turn it white. I walked faster again. It was a few more minutes, and I neared the mouth of the pass where I had parked my car that morning, leaving the note of my location, should I have come to grief at any point. I scanned the way: at a low wall bounding the car park, six trees stood, kneeling as if in prayer. In desperate, broken prayer. It was the wind, though I did not feel it, that turned them to me. It was the wind that raised their jute-covered bodies from kneeling, and lifted up, with a low sigh, their unseen, sightless heads.
Helen McClory is a writer from Scotland. Her first collection, On The Edges Of Vision, will be published by Queen’s Ferry Press in August 2015. There is a moor and a cold sea in her heart.
The Plantation Loop is a collaboration by Helen McClory and myself, Karen McRae. These wrapped tree images make me think of her uncanny stories so I sent her some photographs and asked if she’d be willing to collaborate by writing a flash fiction piece to accompany them. I’m delighted she agreed! You can find more succulent writing by Helen on her blog Schietree. If the wrapped trees interest you, you can find more here.
images © Karen McRae, 2014
writing © Helen McClory, 2014