Matt Dovey

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Elm & Sorrow

I am waiting for you. In the grove where you made me, in the tree I am carved in, I stand and I wait. The season turns to autumn and the leaves gather round my feet, but I will not forsake you.

My first sensation was the touch of your fingers on my face as you drew me from this living elm. You stroked and caressed and shaped the wood with tools of burnt Indian rosewood, sculpting my body into the trunk. I could not yet see, speak nor hear, but I could feel your hands on me even as I became me, brought forth beneath your fingertips.

You fetched two acorns from the oak on the hill, and with them you gave me eyes. I saw you, beautiful in the golden summer light of this vale, your delicate face lit by slanting rays of sunlight. Your amber eyes were level with mine as you stood and worked. You leant close to me when you concentrated and I felt your hair brush my skin in the warm breeze.

You called a woodpecker down from the branches above and had him hollow out my ears, then blew spores inside so that mushrooms would bloom into eardrums. I heard you speak at last, how you talked as you worked, though you did not know I could hear you; and so I came to learn why you made me.

"My Edward, he is a loving man," you would say, "a handsome man with a good heart. He alone cared enough to come to me when Father died, and grant me our groundsman's hut as my own. He alone loves me. Even Father kept his distance, fearful of my knacks, but not Edward. I will craft you in his image so a part of him is always near me, watching, until he returns from the war and I am no longer alone."

You are not alone now, I thought. I am here with you, watching you, and I love you.

Each day's work would end with a kiss. Your pale hands stroked my face, your round eyes considered me, and with the slowest and most deliberate of movements, you laid a single kiss on these grateful lips.

I miss your kisses.

When telegrams arrived from the trenches you would sit against me, cross-legged and subdued as you read them. Each such missive would steal your voice for hours after and you would work with a silent and furious focus until your storm clouds broke and you could speak again of the family you dreamt of, children running round the gardens and filling all the rooms of his grand stately home. Your forest hut would be abandoned and I would be left behind, forsaken for the man I was made to resemble.

Then, one day, you didn't come.

You had sat through wind and sleet with me, working beneath the shelter of branches as darkness encroached on autumn evenings, but that day you didn't come. Trapped in solid elm, I was helpless and afraid.

The next morning you slumped against my feet, the letter crumpled and the ink spreading in the rain, staining your pale fingers black. It took time for the words to come out, but you were too much in the habit of talking to me to hold back.

He had gone to war for you and his country and met a new love in a new land. He was returning to town one final time to set his affairs in order before departing for foreign shores and married life.

You couldn't stand to look at me: each glance you took was stolen by a wracking sob. When finally you forced yourself to keep your gaze, anger took hold instead, and you slashed my face with the tool you had used to carve it. I felt the pain of the wound on my skin, though I could not show it. You fled to plead with him, abandoning me for the man who had abandoned you.

I wear the scar with pride, for it marks me as different to him.


Now the leaves pile against my unfinished legs and the moss creeps up to smother me. The evenings rush in with unseemly haste, as if light and warmth left my world with you. Without your voice to fill my days I learn to listen to the forest and the gossip of birds that rest in the branches above me.

I hear your tale from them.

They saw you implore him with tears and prostrations, begging and beseeching, but he turned his head and walked away. Shorn of all options, you tried to stop him leaving, throwing yourself at his horseless carriage. He did not stop, not even when he hit you, either from cowardice or shame; and so you were left alone in the mud of a country lane with autumn rain covering your face and washing your tears and blood into the earth.

I would weep with you if only these dry wooden eyes would let me.


I must go to you. I must show you that you are not alone.

The ants burrow veins into me to carry the sap I will need to live. My skin burns as they bite through it and I feel needles of pain where they march inside. Snails traverse my body, over and over, over and over, moistening my joints ready to walk to you. The beavers come, and though their work is rough and tears at my flesh, they free me from this elm and let me stand with my own feet, alone and myself.

I take my first wooden step, life teeming through me, love and loyalty and faith impelling me forward. I am a poor substitute for what you have lost, and fear your rejection, for who could love a man of wood? But if there is a chance of salving your soul, I must take it. I must prove to you that you are worth the fight. I take my second step.

Against the northern wind and the driving rain, beneath grey skies and grief, I will come to you my love.

I can feel you through the ground now I stand upon it with my own feet. I am pulled towards you like leaves on a stream, and I pick my way through the trees and out of the forest.

I cross into the open fields that border the woods, stumbling in the black furrowed mud that has been harvested of all it can give. Crows circle overhead and caw their disappointment at this paltry season, black tatters cast about in blustery winds. They watch as I pass, curious and unafraid, and begin to gather on the lone barren oak that stands here. One crow lands on my shoulder, tilts its head quizzically, and croaks a question at me. Food? it asks, and I move to swipe at it, but my lumbering movements are easily evaded and it flaps off. Others soon alight on me, and once they realise I pose no threat they begin to steal the snails from my skin, swooping around my head to distract me as their brothers feast. My skin dries and tightens and I can do naught but flee, slow, deliberate and creaking, to take refuge in the line of trees that mark the field boundary.

The world has stolen my grace as it stole your grace from you. I am slow and cumbersome and unlovely, but I am determined still. I will not abandon you.

I hear the burble of the river through the trees before I see it, the dense foliage hoarding what little daylight remains. I stand on the banks and watch the water rush by, white leaping out of the black where hidden rocks disturb the flow. It will not be easy to cross.

The water is freezing as I step into it, violent as it pounds against my still-raw flesh. The ants that fill my body march higher inside, climbing to escape the torrent, and the rolling patter of their countless feet builds to thunder in my head. In half a dozen steps the water is up to my neck and it is all I can do to stay upright in the current, until a fallen branch drives into me and knocks me under. I cling to the stones of the riverbed but they rend my flesh and water rushes in to scour my insides, sweeping thousands of ants downstream. I force myself up and on, with hands and feet and determination, until I am stumbling up the shore on the other side with grit sticking to my sodden bark and veins empty of the ants that sustained me.

The world has stolen my dreams as it stole your dreams from you. I begin to understand your grief and loss as I feel the threads of my own future--the threads that tie me to you now--snap and fall short. The world would keep me from you.

No! I will not suffer it. You are worth more than the solitude and sorrow of this world. Willpower alone pushes my slow and ignorant body on.

A granite bluff rises from the riverbank before me. Starlings gather to tell me I should follow the river upstream and go around, but my skin is taut, my legs are slow, and I know my time grows short: I must go over if I am to reach you.

The rock is jagged and old, easy to grasp, and I pull myself up with the slow certainty of elm growing towards sky. The birds take flight, whirling round and urging me on. I am past halfway before the water on my hands freezes to ice and my grip fails me. I flail desperately for a hold as I slide down the rock face, sharp edges tearing at my face, at my hands, at my feet, great gouges scoring my body, my mouth open in a silent shout of agony and fear when suddenly a hand hooks around a root and arrests my fall. I hang there as birds land and launch all around me, bouncing off the cliff in a constant stream of worry. I cannot tell them I am fine, only show them, and so I begin my climb again, broken, cautious and weary.

The world has stolen my beauty as it stole your beauty from you. I love you. I am sorry if I am not enough; but I am not sorry that I am not him. For all his life and charm and promises, look what he has wrought you! I may not be much, but I can be better than him.

The moon has chased the sun away and the chill of night is settling into my fibres as I reach the edge of town, buildings sketched in shades of moonlight silver. The water from the river is freezing inside me and I can feel cracks breaking open my skin. The scar that runs down my face is splitting open and the frost is creeping in.

I can feel you through my feet. I am nearly there, my love, after all my struggles. Wait for me.

I set off down the hill, my feet following your pull. The autumn murmurations of starlings have settled in the trees and they watch my passage, a dark audience on bare branches. Their silence is unsettling.

I turn a corner and find myself in a graveyard.

Your plot is a paltry one, a simple wooden cross bearing your name. With no family left to mark your passing and your lost lover unaware, it would have been left to church charity to pay for this humble marker.

The world has stolen you from me.

I know, now, how I could feel you through the ground.

I know, now, of the loss you must have felt.

With a slow, gentle movement and all the strength of the forest, I reach down and pull the cross out of the freshly packed earth. It is unneeded. I will mark your grave.

My feet sink into the earth and the last of the sap freezes inside me, locking my dry joints in place and slowing my thoughts to silence. In time, the cheap wooden box that holds you will rot away and you will mingle with the soil; then I will draw you up through my ragged feet to run in my veins and fill my hollow heart.

You will live again in me, and I will live again through you.

We will be together, reborn, transformed and renewed.

I am waiting for you.


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