“Just be careful at the river’s edge, boy.”
John grimaced and looked over his shoulder at his father carefully unearthing potatoes from the ground. “Come on dad, I’m not a little child anymore. We could do with a fish or two to go with those spuds couldn’t we?” he said defensively.
His father heard the tone in his son’s voice. The boy needed to spread his wings, that was true; he couldn’t mollycoddle him. He remembered how he had been like when he was John’s age; what could happen down by the river? But that was the problem. He looked up from his digging and looked at his son. He saw the same defensiveness that he once had in his eyes; could almost see himself having the same conversation with his father, so many summers ago…
“Wait a minute John, I’m not having a go, honest, I’m not.” He stood upright and stretched his back, feeling the weight of years, and leant on his fork. How he wanted just to hug his son, but those days were gone, he had to accept that. He patted his waistcoat , finding his pipe and baccy; strange he thought he had more in the pouch last time he had loaded his pipe. He filled the bowl and struck a match, fragrant smoke curling around him as he brought it to life.
“Can’t I just go Dad? I’ve done all my chores.” John said irritably. Over his shoulder he had his rod and line and in his haversack he had a packed lunch of bread and cheese, as well as a jar of cider and a pipe and pouch of his father’s tobacco that he’d surreptitiously concealed. His father was lighting his pipe, a sure sign another lecture was due, did he suspect something?
His father blew a smoke ring, a smile forming on his face as he remembered the scene from decades ago.
“It’s a lovely, sunny day, John. No doubt you’ll be fishing in the shade of the willow thicket?”
“Not necessarily so Dad, although there are nice deep pools on the opposite side, where the fish sun themselves.” John sighed. And it was away from prying eyes, he thought, but he might have known his father would know every corner of this place.
“Well that’s where I always used to go when I was a lad, John. “chuckled his father. “Not giving you any ideas, mind, but I once sneaked out a jar or two of scrumpy to have a nice old time fishing there.” He made sure he didn’t look John in the eyes, but he saw his son shift guiltily from one foot to the other.
John feigned laughter but crossed his fingers behind his back. “You did that Dad? Did Grandfather punish you?”
“Only did it the once, Son. I’ll tell you why and why I want you to be careful…” He cleared his throat and began.
“It was a sunny day like this, the air was thick and warm; it was full of insects and the fluff of willows billowing off their branches. I went down to yonder willow thicket to escape the afternoon heat. I set my rod and leant against an old weeping willow with gnarly bark. Old man Willow had roots that reached from the bank into the water like fingers. I remember thinking them odd at the time.”
John laughed. “Old man Willow, Dad? It’s just a tree!”
“You reckon lad?” his father said blowing smoke around him. “You think trees are just plants? They’re more than that lad, each has their own personality. Why do you think I ask trees their permission to take wood?”
“You mean like you do with Elders?” John asked, “That’s just because their branches look like a witch’s fingers!”
“Yes John,” his father replied, “And like you I thought the same of the Old Girl, that was until I was taught a lesson by Old Man Willow, and now I always ask first. You see willows are fickle trees, their mood changes just like that, they envy us our legs and their hearts are as black as pitch.”
John snorted, “It’s just a tree, they can’t have bad intent and what could they do anyway?”
“Well, I’m getting to that,” his father said sucking on his pipe, “There was I, leant against him, drinking my dad’s scrumpy. The leaves above were glossy cages quenching the sun’s fire but the air was so warm. The sunlight came through the gloss all dappled and shone on the slow moving water in front of me. It dazzled my eyes. Soon I was feeling drowsy and my eyelids grew heavy. A gentle breeze was in the treetops making soft rustles and squeaks as the trees spoke amongst themselves. The sound of water around the roots, the leaves rustle and the hum of insects was like a sweet, sad lullaby. Soon my jar of cider was empty and I thought to rest my eyes, but for a minute… I never noticed the water around me, not until it was over my head and I came to in a panic.”
“You’d fallen drunk in the river dad?” John asked, giggling.
His father shook his head, “No I hadn’t slipped in the water. I had been pulled. I was being held by those twisting roots. I very nearly drowned, I can still picture the mud blinding my view under water, as I trashed about under the surface, desperate to break free. I kicked my way to the surface as those hands that gripped me seemed to change back into roots. When my head broke the surface, Old Man Willow’s branches were shaking and creaking, screaming their hate at me. He had one more trick to play. I grabbed a low branch to pull myself out and it snapped off the trunk, taking part of the bark off with it. I remember it to this day, looking inside that tree; his heart was black and rotten. I had to kick with my legs as I swear those roots became snakes, trying to pull me down again.”
John’ s humour had left him hearing the earnest fear in his father’s voice, he looked at his father open mouthed. “You were drunk, it was just an accident!”
His father looked at his son shrewdly. “Maybe it was, but I got home sodden and muddied and as sober as a judge. My mother tore a strip off me, but later your grandfather had a word with me; seems he had something similar happen to him when he was a lad. You watch those willows lad; they’ll weep for you as they drown you. Don’t you dare trust them!”
John swallowed hard and reached into his knapsack and passed the jar of cider to his father, he dropped his eyes, feeling sheepish and not wishing to look directly at his father.
“Good lad,” his father said, “We’ll share this later when we eat the fish you’ve caught, good luck.”
“Thank you, Dad, and I will be careful.” John said smiling, realising he wasn’t going to get in trouble now.
“Of course you will." His father replied with a glint in his eye. "We were all young once lad, but just one thing; don’t let your mother catch you smoking!”