The Juniper Tree
Extract from a novel
The lake was always a surprise. The edges were his. He could cut their shape into the ground with a knife, but the water made him stare. Grey-blue eyes sinking in to find something. For a while it was still. Mountains bowed deep into its bed. Hemp sat with him, mouth slightly open, his head flicking occasionally to one side of the lake, then the other. Then the sun lit up the banks. It yellowed the grass. His mother would be baking, he thought, or maybe Catherine will be up and folding sweet, creamy mixture into her black trays, her buckled hands clasping the spoon. He wondered what the hall felt like without him or his father there.
His bag was tightly packed with packets of soup, tins of corned beef and sardines, but he pulled out a tub of cake, vanilla sponge with gooseberry jam. The taste seemed perfumed compared to the stillness of the view. He watched and slowly felt a lump in his chest and then pressure in his head before tears. He could hear the radio, listening to the races back by the hearth in the farm; him and his father with a bet on. He saw the paperwork on the table, a mug of tea, the checked notebooks of annual bills and his school books, pages of homework done, his football cards sorted by the window: Moore, Charlton, Wilkins. He watched and the length of time felt weary.
He fed Hemp, rubbing the dog’s belly under his long white fur, and checked his blue eye again for leadening. And after some milk chocolate, he set off along the water’s edge and into the wood. Sheer streaks of slate cracked into the lake. His headache made his eyelid flicker. On the far side, he moved past the rushes and mallow ponds and through McKenzie’s field, but soon became aware of Hemp growling. ‘It’ll be one lambing,’ he said, as if his father was near, racing back together. And the ewe was on her side, belly swelling in and out like bellows to a fire. He knelt near, not wanting to scare her, and watched as the milky sack ballooned out and muddied. He could just see the lamb, the beginning of a white face, black eyes and dots of hooves, the sack swaying. Hemp was on the other side, lying low.
‘Ye daft mottle. Git ere.’
He held his arm open for the dog to curl in and watch. But the sheep saw Hemp move and tried to bolt, scrambling to stand, heaving belly falling back onto the head, bursting the sac. Stephen lurched forward, grabbing the sheep and pressed her to the ground, cutting his thigh on a stone, leaning his knee on her leg, his hand on her head to stop her jolting, to free her belly.
‘Down now, down.’
The sheep looked at him from the side with a wide, maddened eye and Stephen jerked with shock. His belly stung and he roared. The sound scared him, he felt pain in his joints and his gut. He spat and burst, straining to hold it in, pressing on the sheep’s neck and roared again. It filled the space across the lake. Hemp began to bark and Stephen saw his father on the ledge of Wandope, curled for the night, cold. He remembered his father’s eye, wide to the side and the way he didn’t know him, the sounds he made, reluctant to be moved. No words, just sounds of disgust. And then, as he pulled his father’s arm around his neck and tried to help him up, the heavy weight of his broad body slumping down, falling loose.
‘Come on, Dad. We’ll be having you home.’
But his father just wept, slapping his outspread legs with his knuckles, hands clenched with the pain, head falling forward.
‘Dad, it’s me, Stephen. It’ll be all right now. We just need to get you home. We’ve all been out looking for you again. You’ve been up here in the fells into the night, Dad. Come on now.’ But his father knelt, head in his hands and shook sobbing to the ground, to the muddy shingles, leaning his head onto them. And then he began to bang, forehead thudding into the slate.
‘Ey, no, now Dad. Not that, no,’ Stephen called as he struggled with his father’s broad shoulders, trying to pull him up, but the hitting got stronger and the murmurs of sobs became a rage and he roared. And then he roared again, and again as if he were vomiting sound until he pushed and Stephen swung back to find his father up and facing him, bloodied brow dripping, shouting, ready to flatten him.
‘Away, ya devil! Awe’eth ya! I see thou. Away!’ Staring from under his bunched brow, breathing heavily through his dripping nostrils like a bull.
‘Dad, it’s me.’
‘Away, no, away now.’ He staggered, blinking to the ground, fists poised for battle, his head wet. Stephen stepped back, choking tears.
‘Please Dad, come home.’
‘No, I’ll not go home, no place for me,’ he swayed. ‘I’m not beaten yet.’
‘Please let me help,’ Stephen cried and the old man looked up to his son, wild, but recognizing something of him for a moment.
‘No, lad. It’ll be in these fells or not at all.’
‘But Dad, you’ll be alright, just come home.’
‘Get yourself away now, or I’ll thrash yer!’ He said, fists clenched, body shaking and he tumbled towards Stephen. ‘I mean it! I’ll thrash yer! Get away! Get away!’ And Stephen ran, vision blurred, teared, to get help, leaving his father on the ledge, overhanging the sheer slate scree, heavy with night.
Breathless, Stephen focused on the edge of the lake, the grass and then the sheep. ‘Come on now!’ he called with tears and let his heavy head fall forward while he reached over and slipped his hand around and under the back of the lamb’s head to pull it out, the sticky sack covering his skin, warm water down his arm. He pulled, mindful of the suction, and the sheep kicked while the lamb’s head slid out and rested, complete in itself, white and asleep. Then its body: yellow wool swaddled in glutinous white.
Thighs holding the sheep, Stephen scraped his finger into the lamb’s mouth, scrubbed its nostrils with grass and gathered it into both hands, bringing its limp body, in as much sac as possible, over to the mother’s face. He stayed close, lying behind her, holding her in, his chest on her back, his blood blotting her wool, carefully bending her towards the lamb, to the smell.
‘Come on mother,’ he whispered gently. ‘Come on there now,’ and he held her till he felt her licking, while the twists of umbilical chord slithered out with the placenta and, as she licked, he gently rolled away, leaving them together. The lamb waking, shuddering its head, soon splaying its hooves, ready to stand and then to feed, darting at the underbelly, tail wiggling.
Over the far side of Crummock Lake, Stephen refused the presence of Red Pike, pushing the purple grey away, as if there were lakes on either side of him. When he got to Lingcombe Edge the light changed and he quickened towards Melbreak valley as it opened in front, sun deepening the green of grass here and there, lighting the side of a tree.
By early evening the clouds parted fully in the nook between the twin fells, Lingcombe and Melbreak, and veins of rusted yellow slowly climbed down the valley at their own pace. Stephen’s camp was set under the tall juniper, a silver birch partly entwined. A good place to rest, he thought. He threw a large stick into the lake and watched Hemp’s white nose and black ears bob after it. His arm was cramping so he moved around, taking in the stringent air, and then walked the valley, luscious in its meadow mint, dandelions, forget-me-nots and speedwells; their colours pulling him this way and that, catching the sun.
As he ate, the light threaded into blood amber until twilight thinned the air and then, for a moment, a breathless silence drew his sight to the distance where dark streaks pulled over the lake: rain making a stake in the ground. It came in fast, hissing at the waters, stinging the waves to break in on each other. He made a cover with some tarpaulin under the branches of the juniper tree and pulled Hemp by his collar onto his lap, his long fur soaked. The sky cracked, thunder raced on the ground and thick, purple clouds hammered.
He must have slept wet that night. The following morning the lake was white. Mist so still, it absorbed him and the valley. The haze thickened to pearl before light came from behind Robinson, steaming, unwrapping the mountains. His body was numb with cold and as the sun rested on him he warmed and felt his father there. Remembered the feeling as they leant against the tree, the weight of him. Tenderness pressed on him and burrowed into his heart like a fist, knuckles twisting, and the dust around him lifted in the heat like smoke from fire, incense into clear skies. He leant out towards the lake and reached, hovering, fragile over the waters. Sadness seeped out of him like spring rain, lilting in the light. Colours lit from the dust rising.
That afternoon as he walked, he cleared the grasses of last year’s twigs and old wood. He pulled out bracken, bent and frayed, black rotten roots, dragging the gnarled branches left to moss and crumble. He wasn’t sure why he gathered old lint, just bent and clawed the reeds, tugging gorse with prickled hands, buttercup pollen on his sleeves, freeing thorned bushel. He worked till the sun blazed its final red once again, and he kept working as lines of puce pinched into dusk-ochre and faded with the taste of lemon. The mountains still neon, backlit, like peering through a door.
As darkness settled and the chill of clear sky pricked his skin, he lit the mound of fire blazing into the night. Silt and smoke raced in tar black. Sap spat and tinder sparks snapped, hot tendered, stoked through the early hours till the fire’s embers joined with the dawn. And there, covered in ash, he felt worn and heavy enough to sleep. Kneeling, pink eyed, a quick glance to up to the nook between the twin fells, and he saw something moving, a man, maybe someone he knew. Too bright at first, but in time it was clearer; a stranger walking down through the valley towards him, the spring of cowslip, yarrow and heather beneath his feet. Meadowsweet morning seeping through the grasses, lifting their heads, marrying cotton-soft smoke. Stephen was so tired he could hardly watch.