The Ghost Oak by Deborah Drake – word count: approx 1514 inc title
(prompt: Set your story at the boundary between two realms)
The great Oak tree had been standing steadfast, in a clearing in the Southern Forest, near the village of Little Wychwold, for as long as anybody could remember. Certainly, the sheer size and scale of this giant, with its girth measuring a good nine metres or more, would indicate that the tree was, indeed, as ancient as local folklore would have you believe.
It seemed to defy time. There were no visible signs of disease. No lightning scars, no damaged limbs or branches, as one would expect from an oak that had stood for centuries and even more curiously, it was perfectly symmetrical in form.
Each year, it produced an abundance of green leaves and later, in the Autumn, a bumper crop of acorns, when the other oak trees in the forest, had few to drop. This apparent resistance to the normal ageing process, only added to the villagers’ sense of wonder and awe of the tree they had always known as either, ‘The Great Oak’ or as ‘The Ghost Oak’.
A curious feature of the trunk was a number of mysterious patterns formed by the bark. Just as one can might see ‘pictures’ in the flames of a fire or in cloud formations, some claimed they could see distorted faces and unusual markings, thought by some to be ancient symbols, with hidden meanings.
For 364 days and nights of the year, The Great Oak remained benevolent in its demeanour. It provided shelter from inclement weather and welcome shade from the hot sun for passers-by and the villagers of Little Wychwold, who would use it as a meeting place for summer picnics, as well as the backdrop for annual events and traditional gatherings.
It provided a safe haven for wildlife, for birds, insects and small mammals. Mice and voles would burrow amongst the grassy tussocks in the surrounding area, at its base. Giant ‘feet-like’ roots appeared to be only partly submerged in the soil and thus looked as if they could be lifted by some mysterious force, enabling the tree to move around on its own. ‘Fairy Rings’ of fungi frequently appeared in the surrounding grass and the village elders claimed that rare woodland truffles could be discovered close by, (provided one had a dog skilled enough to sniff them out).
So why might you ask was it also known as The Ghost Oak? It is not clear exactly when the legend began, only that it was many moons ago. The village elders were told the same stories when they were children, as were their parents before them, repeated over and over again, going far back in time. It was drummed into each successive generation: “Don’t ever go near The Ghost Oak after dusk on the thirty-first of October. “All Saints’ Eve is the boundary between two realms, that’s when strange things happen to both man and beast. If you venture there, you may never see the 1st of November”, they warned. They were so earnest in their urgings that the majority of the village children took heed. Only the most daring, curious or downright defiant went against such sage advice.
The few that did venture to the forest during daylight hours on that ominous date in the calendar, on a dare or some unavoidable errand that took them close to the vicinity of the Ghost Oak, returned with their own versions of strange events, some boastful, some elaborate and some clearly nonsensical, which only added to the ‘library’ of verbal storytelling, to be regaled and ‘chewed over’ by the fireside or garden gate.
Some even claimed to have heard the ‘voice of the tree’, an eerie moaning sound, as well as scraping and scratching noises but some of the more fantastical claims were put down to having imbibed too much moonshine, combined with an overactive imagination.
However, the events of one particular All Hallows Eve may lend some truth to such ‘imaginings’. For that we have to travel back in time to October 1788…
At that time part of a well-used smugglers’ route skirted the edge of the forest where the Great Oak stood. The trail began some 12 miles or so away, at the coast and
continued on for another ten miles beyond Little Wychwold. Rum, lace, wine and other such desirables were regularly transported by ‘Runners’ on horseback or by the use of ‘pack’ mules. The hours from dusk until dawn were obviously preferred, to better evade the Excise men.
On that fateful day in October 1788, a storm had been brewing from late afternoon and Thomas Emanuel, a particularly brutish member of the coastal smuggling ring, had been sent inland, to pass an urgent message to a Runner, who lived in the next village to Little Wychwold.
A cruel and vicious man, Thomas had slain a number of souls over the years without a moment’s hesitation or remorse, including two of his own kin. This only added to his reputation as one of the most bloodthirsty of cut-throats to have ever terrorised the Southern Coast.
That day, as usual, he had driven his horse extremely hard and by the time dusk fell and they had reached the Forest edge, both rider and mount were weary, wet and cold. Although Thomas had used these secret pathways and hidden tracks many a time, on this occasion, a feeling of disquiet that he could not shake off, had settled upon him, shortly after starting his mission.
The driving rain and the thick, heavy fog that had descended, only added to the sense of ‘other worldliness’, as it swirled around, making it harder to make out exactly where he was.
From somewhere an owl hooted, making Thomas jump. It suddenly swooped low and fast, over rider and horse, breaking through the mists without warning, startling Thomas’s horse into bolting. Thomas was thrown off and tumbled to the ground, to end up amongst fallen branches and wet bracken.
Struggling to get up, battered and bruised, he first let out a string of curses at his departing horse and only then did he consider his options. As the storm was showing no sign of abating, the rain was getting heavier and the strange misty-murkiness remained, he decided to venture further into the forest to find some form of shelter. He recalled there was a woodsman’s hut not far from the trail, if he could reach that, he would be safe. So was his thinking…
Eventually, after stumbling around in the dank swirls of mist and rain for what seemed like hours, the storm clouds parted just enough to allow a little moonlight to penetrate the clearing he found himself in. Thomas thought he could make out the shape of what appeared to be a very large, hollowed out tree a little distance away. As he got closer, to his surprise and delight, he discovered the opening in the trunk was almost cave-like in size. Overcome with relief, Thomas scrambled over roots and vegetation into the apparent safety of the natural shelter.
He slumped down within the cocoon-like interior of the tree, intending to rest before making his way back to the trail. However, with each passing moment, his eyes grew heavier, until he fell into a fitful doze, neither fully awake, nor fully asleep.
Thomas was unaware that in his hurry to get into the shelter of the tree, he had brushed against a ring of toadstools, causing them to release their microscopic spores along with a noxious, invisible vapour, which rapidly sent Thomas to an altered state of consciousness…
‘Betwixt and between’ one world and another, the hours crept ever closer to midnight on All Hallows Eve, 1788 and as the Ghost Oak wreaked its revenge, doling out its form of supernatural justice, Thomas Emanuel was beset by chaotic and terrifying visions.
At one point he believed he heard the snorting and snarling of wild hogs, whose foul breath assaulted his nostrils. In his disturbed state of mind, he felt the flapping of wings on his skin, followed by the peck, peck, peck of needle-like beaks on his head and neck. Coming to the surface briefly, Thomas discovered he could no longer move his body, nor open his eyes and the power of speech had also left him.
Periods of sporadic semi-awareness followed, until finally, as the ‘Witching Hour approached, Thomas stirred for the last time, with a strange sense that the space around him was getting smaller, as indeed it was. Eventually and inevitably, held in a crushing and deadly embrace, he became ‘as one’ with the Ghost Oak, entombed in amber-like form, a resource to be gradually broken down and ‘absorbed’.
And so it was that Thomas Emanuel became the latest human to be taken, to sustain and feed a mysterious entity, with an image of his face now destined, along with so many others, to ‘stare out’ in anguish from the Ghost Oak for centuries to come.
Postscript: 1st November 1788
“Look! A new face on the Ghost Oak!” and “That wasn’t there before!” exclaimed a gaggle of children from Little Wychwold, who had been sent out to the Forest to gather fallen branches for firewood, following the storm.
(wordcount: 1514 approx including title)