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14/04/2020 / Harry Browne

The Crooked Tree by Stephen Brady

The Crooked Tree.jpg

He could hear everything, but dared not open his eyes.

He was being dragged along a rough, uneven path. His hands had been bound behind him, with plastic cable ties. They sliced into his wrists, deep enough to draw blood. From the darkness he heard orders, hissing and curses.

They had come for him at sundown.

Doyle had spent the day patrolling the farmstead, securing the fences and checking on the animals. There was comfort, of a sort, in the routines. He’d checked the trapdoor in the barn. Made sure it was locked, and covered it in straw. Then he had tested the water from the groundwell. He did this every day. He was checking for tampering, not contamination.

Lastly he would look down at the spot by the stonewall, and the mound of earth that lay there.

Around noon, someone had appeared at his gate. The person was clad in standard protective gear, a facemask and goggles. Doyle had stood in his driveway and watched the newcomer. He did not go for the shotgun, which was propped at the front door. Finally, the person at the gate had given a nod. It was impossible to tell what the gesture signified. But he suspected the intent was not good.

The interloper had turned, and walked back down the lane.

Doyle had thought, I don’t know who that was. But it doesn’t matter. I don’t know which gang they’re with, but that doesn’t matter either. They wanted to see if I’m still here. Now they’ll come for me.

On Doyle’s front gate was a hand-painted sign. It read:

PRIVATE PROPERTY

No Food Water or Medical

Do Not Approach

You WILL be Shot

But he had known that would not be enough to keep them out.

 After dark, he had lit the lamps. There’d been no electricity for five months. He had sat in the parlour and tried to ready by the sickly light. They must have surrounded the place, climbed the fences or cut them. He hadn’t heard the gate, so they must have gone over it, or under. All he knew was that one moment all was peace, and the next he looked up and saw a masked face at the window.

He’d gone for the gun. They must have known he would. Because no sooner was he out in the dark hallway than he was jumped by three of them. They bound his hands, bound and dragged him out of his house.

He struggled, but it was no use.

“Private property, ye bastards!”

“Shut up, Doyle,” a muffled voice grunted. “You know that doesn’t count anymore. So you can shut your hole.”

“You’ve no right-”

A couple of them made honking noises, that might have been laughter.

“You’re a Traitor,” said another mask. “You’re the one has no rights.”

“Now shut up or you’ll get a dig,” said the first voice, and Doyle decided to save his breath. There might yet  be someone to appeal to.

They dragged him out the gate and up the lane. All around were the black and silent hills. They took him up the boreen, and hustled him through a gateway. Then he was stumbling on a stony, uneven slope.  He was pulled to his feet and pushed on. He kept his eyes shut the whole time, despite the dark and the uncertain footing. He did not want to see where they were taking him. Because, deep down, he already knew.

Over the past few weeks, Doyle had taken to standing at his door each morning and looking out across the hills. He would do this while holding a mug of tea he had heated on the gas stove. But it was almost possible, standing there in the quiet of the morning, to believe the world was still there.

But even in those quiet moments, he would find his eyes drawn towards one hill away to the north-west, and the crooked tree upon it.

The tree was bent and twisted, a leprous old man of the hills. One branch protruded at a right angle to the trunk. The branch was thick and sturdy. Doyle did not know why, but that tree and that branch troubled him. It haunted even his shallow and restless sleep.

And on this starless night, as they hustled him up the hill, he thought about the crooked tree again.

“This is bullshit,” he said. “Who’s in charge of this?”

“You’ll see,” said a mask. “Now pipe down or you’ll get a belt.”

“You’re to get what’s comin’ to you, Doyle,” said another voice. Angry and scared, the voice of a kid.

These were his neighbours. Or had been, once upon a time. A lot of evil things had happened over the last six months, but somehow this was the worst. And the worst thing about it was that somewhere in Doyle’s mind, was an image of how this was going to end.

They brought him to a flat place, and he sensed that there were more people there. His arms were being gripped tightly, and someone shoved him from behind. He could barely keep his balance. Reluctantly, he opened his eyes.

They were on the top of the hill, and the crooked tree loomed over them. There were about twenty people waiting there. All were wearing facemasks, some crudely improvised. All wore gloves, and many had safety goggles. One or two were wearing full hazard suits. The only light came from a couple of hand torches. The beams were pointed upward at the twisted skeleton of the tree.

They’re using up batteries, he thought. Somebody thinks this is important.

Doyle stood up straight.

“Ye have no right to bring me here,” he said as loudly as he could. “There’s still laws in this country.”

“Shuttup,” said a voice.

“Ye’re nothing but a shower o’yobs.”

“Shuttup Traitor!” Someone punched him in the back.

Doyle struggled, but he was being held tight.

“Who’s in charge here?”

The masks all turned, as one. Someone was standing by the trunk of the tree. He was wearing protective gear like the rest, and some kind of improvised hazard suit made of plastic. A piece of paper was pinned to his chest with some writing scrawled on it. He stepped forward into the torchlight.

“That would be me, Doyle.”

“Who the fuck are you?” Doyle demanded.

A big hand walloped him on the side of the head. “Watch your mouth. That’s the Sheriff.”

Doyle shook his head to clear it. He tried to remain focused on the figure standing in front of him. Behind the goggles were pale blue eyes, just visible in the torchlight. They looked faintly familiar.

“Sheriff,” he said. “Is that right? Who appointed you?”

“Doyle.” The voice from behind the mask was familiar, too. “You need to stop this play-acting. It won’t do you any good.”

“It’s ye who’re play-acting. Ye should all go home.”

“Doyle, Doyle.” The marble eyes looked almost sad. “It’s too late for that. Do you not understand, even now? It’s too late.”

In his confusion, Doyle hadn’t realised that he was afraid. But standing there in the torchlight, in the shadow of the crooked tree, he realised it.

He cleared his throat and tried to speak calmly.

“What do you mean, ‘too late?'”

“You’ll find out.”

“What are ye all doing out here?”

“We’re doing what has to be done.”

“According to who?”

The Sheriff stretched, his plastic suit creaking. Now he sounded almost bored.

“I have charges to read to you, Doyle. You will hear them in silence.”

“To hell with yer charges.”

Something struck Doyle in the kidneys, a stick or baton of some kind. He fell to his knees.

The Sheriff waited until he’d got his wind back. Then he produced a sheet of paper. It was some kind of thick paper with a yellowish hue, and someone had written on it in red ink. It was meant, Doyle realised, to look official.

One of the mob held Doyle by the shoulder, keeping him on his knees. The Sheriff raised the sheet of paper and began to read.

“Charges listed against Patrick Doyle. Herein witnessed and signed by the Community Emergency Committee.

“One: That the accused Patrick Doyle has closed access to his land, instead of allowing it to be utilized for the good of the Community in this time of national crisis.”

“Private property,” he said, and someone thumped him on the back of the head.

“Two: that the accused Patrick Doyle has on his land been stockpiling foodstuffs, fresh water, and medical supplies for his own use, instead of allowing them be utillized for the good of the Community in this time of national crisis.”

“How the hell do any of ye even know that?” Doyle said. A baton was thrust against his throat, and he shut up.

Doyle had indeed been stockpiling, for almost a year. He’d dug out a storeroom under his barn, and had been filling it with supplies. And more recently, he’d been prepping it as a bunker. In case the farm was overrun and looted, by the likes of this mob.

But how had they known that?

“Three,” the so-called Sheriff continued. “That the accused Patrick Doyle has refused to attend any of the Community Emergency Committee meetings called in recent weeks. Attendance at these meetings was mandatory. Therefore the accused has declared himself a Traitor to the Community, in accordance with the Charter of the Commitee. In this time of national crisis, such action is to be considered a capital offence.”

The pale blue eyes rested on his face for a moment. Behind the safety goggles, those eyes looked distant and sad. Those of a master with a disappointing student.

“I know who you are,” Doyle said.

“The accused,” said the Sheriff, “has been found guilty by unanimous vote of the Emergency Committee. He will now stand to hear his sentence.”

Doyle was dragged to his feet. The mob seemed to crowd in closer around him. The beams from the torches wavered, casting crazy shadows in the twisted branches overhead.

“You’re Vaughan,” said Doyle. The hubbub of the mob seemed to falter. “I  know it’s you. I know the voice. You know me, Vaughan. You knew Terri. What in the name of God do you think you’re doing?”

“Doyle.” The voice behind the mask was cold. But it had not lost its lofty tone. “I know you’re aware of my identity. But that’s immaterial. That was before.”

“It’s the same world.”

“No, Doyle, it is not. Community Rule was declared ten weeks ago.”

“By who?”

“By unanimous declaration of the Emergency Committee.”

“I wasn’t there.”

“That’s immaterial, Doyle. You want to dispute it? To whom?” The voice had a smirk in it now that was also  familiar. “Wish to write to your T.D.? Hmmm? The Guards? They’re gone, Doyle. A community has to look after itself, these days. And that’s what we’re doing.”

Vaughan had been Principal of the school in the village. It was a small parish school, boys and girls mixed. Teresa had gone to that school, and Doyle had sat across the table from Vaughan at countless Parent-Teacher nights and looked into those same blue, thoughtful eyes. Vaughan had been clad in a brown suit with chalk on the sleeves, rather than hazard gear. But the eyes, and the holy manner had been exactly the same.

“Pat,” Vaughan would say, the ginger beard twitching in a stop-start smile. “Teresa’s a star. She’s a credit to you. And to Maureen, God rest her.”

Vaughan made a gesture to his lackeys. They dragged Doyle over to the trunk of the crooked tree, and stood him beside it. The torch beams were now being shone at him, into his eyes. He was almost blinded, and could just make out the shape of the Principal eclipsed in the light.

“The accused,” said Vaughan, “having being found guilty on all charges, will now hear sentence.”

“You love this, don’t you?” said Doyle. “You fucking love all this, Vaughan. Fellas like you always do. Waitin’ yer whole life for somethin’ like this, weren’t you?”

“Patrick Doyle, you have been found guilty of hoarding, breaking curfew, and of being a manifest Traitor to your Community. In this time of national crisis these must be considered the gravest of crimes. Therefore the Community Emergency Committee decrees that you be hanged by the neck until dead. Sentence to be carried out immediately.”

 So this is what it’s come to.

Doyle’s guts had turned to ice. But he felt no shock, no outrage. This had been coming, for a long time. This was the end of all the grim news, the breakdown of systems. And he had known. Ever since he’d stood at his back door and looked across the hills at the crooked tree.

A rope was thrown over the branch above. Doyle was manhandled into position under it. The loop was slipped around his neck. One of the masked yahoos was laughing. The rope, hard and studded with bristles, bit into the skin of his throat. He embraced the pain with a kind of bitter gladness, as he was sure it would be the last thing he would ever feel.

“Vaughan,” he said to the shadow in front of him. “You’ll be next. You know that, don’t you? As soon as this shower get sick of you. I wouldn’t give it long.”

“Doyle, Doyle.” The disappointed-teacher act was back. “There is no use in talking. Not any more. Action has to be taken, for the common good. I invited you to join us, and you refused. And now here we are.” The masked head made a nod. “Mr Hangman. You may proceed.”

The rope was pulled taut. It bit into Doyle’s throat, drawing blood. Two of the mob were pulling on the rope from the other side of the trunk. He began to rise. He struggled, but his hands were still tied. His feet left the ground, and kicked out into nothing.

In quick, spastic jerks, he was hauled into the air. When he was about ten feet from the ground they held him there. He kicked and twisted, as his windpipe was crushed. He was dimly aware of the mob standing at the base of the tree, with Vaughan the Sheriff at their head. Silence had fallen, an air of stillness and attention.

He’d watched over her, as she was taken. She’d thrashed, too, burning in the bed. Said awful things, in voices not her own. She’d even called for her Mammy. It was a mercy, in the end.

He had taken her from the bed and wrapped her in an old blanket. There was no-one to call. Nothing to appeal to. So he had carried her, in the quilt, down to the end of the field. He’d prepared the spot a week before. Under the stonewall, in a hawthorn’s shade. He’d dug the hole while all the while pretending he was doing something else. And he carried her there, lowered her down, and shoveled the dirt back in. The sun was setting, bitter on the horizon.

There were no words, because what words were there? He didn’t pause when he was done. He’d just thrown the shovel over the fence and gone back into the house.

His mind was dimming now. His throat was crushed, and the spasming of his limbs was instinct only. But an image was still there, in his head. An image that refused to be banished. It was the hawthorn, the stonewall, and the mound.

From below came a voice: “One last thing, Doyle. The contents of your stockpile will be liberated and distributed to the Community. At the discretion of the Committee, of course.”

He was fading now. His feet had stopped twitching. He tried to turn his head, to what he imagined was the east. A terrible light lay across the hills. The rolling slopes that had marked the limits of his life. That light came through the earth. It was yellowbrown, a sepia luminescence. Many had seen it of late. It was deathlight, the awful glow that transfigures the final sight of the world.

WHERE IS MY HOUSE? The thought pounded away in his darkening mind. IT’S THERE, I KNOW IT IS. WHY CAN’T I SEE IT? WHERE THE FUCK IS IT? WHERE IS MY HOUSE?

One Comment

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  1. Roy McCarthy / Apr 22 2020 5:46 pm

    Powerful Stephen, nicely written.

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