Some time ago, I began planning a book called First Drafts, Notes and Unfinished Tales. The point was to gather together what notes existed for the stories which I had done, not necessarily with the intent of publishing them any time soon.
As I was trawling through all of the things which I had written, I realised that there were some stories which had not seen the light of day. They had not appeared in Ghosts, Strange Tales, More Strange Tales, or any other compilations of short stories which I had released on the unsuspecting public.
A few were for collections which I had never completed. Once I had the idea of writing a few stories with snow as a theme. Other stories were vignettes with a specific colour as the theme of the tale.
A lot of the stories have briefly appeared before, in a very small press publication called kryptophilia. It was something which I photocopied and distributed among my friends. I don’t think that the stories were ever read by more than half a dozen people.
So I decided that I might as well put all the stories out there. I decided to call the collection Retrograde Juvenilia as a bit of a joke, and because these were among some of the first prose pieces I ever wrote, in my attempt to carve a career for myself as a writer. So the pieces of prose reflect my beginnings. I don’t think that they are the way that I write now. Writers do change, over the years.
Having come to the decision to publish these old stories I searched through all of my completed short stories, checking each title against the short story collections which I have published. I was not entirely sure if there would be enough unpublished pieces to justify a short story collection.
I discovered, though, that I had enough stories for two collections, just about. That is why there is now Retrograde Juvenilia Volume I and Retrograde Juvenilia Volume II.
From the second of those collections, as a sampler, is the short story The Hanging Tree:
The Hanging Tree
They called it the Hanging Tree. I first saw it when I was ten, accompanied by my best mate James. The tree grew at the far each of the fields and countryside in which we were allowed to play. To be truthful, it lay a little outside the limitations of our range. But, after hearing about the tree, we both decided that we had to see it.
It had once been a mighty oak. Some time, years and years ago, it had been blasted by a bolt of lightning, almost splitting the tree in two. Half of the tree had died, the bark peeling away, the revealed wood bleached white by the suns of many summers. The other half of the tree clung stubbornly to life, though it had become festooned with various moulds, and moss hung from its branches.
The moss wasn’t the Reason why it was called the Hanging Tree, of course, nor did it explain our unquenchable desire to see it. It had been thus named because, in the eighteenth century, before the flowering of the Age of Reason, people had used to string up witches from its branches. We did not burn witches at the stake in this part of the world; we were too humane to do that – we merely strung them up. Perhaps they weren’t humane; perhaps they only wanted to save on the firewood. Not all of them had the luxury of a trial, either – sometimes impromptu mobs would lynch a suspected witch – or other criminal – hanging them from a tree or the rungs of a ladder. Walk near, or beneath the ladder, and you could be suspected of going to aid the victim by cutting them down, and then joining them on the impromptu scaffold. A very good reason not to walk under ladders: and how good it is to live in an age where people are not condemned without trial.
Of course, at age ten, James and myself were fascinated by any tales of witches and warlocks and things that went bump in the night. We would scare ourselves with tales of headless horsemen, and ghouls, and ghosts, and pirates condemned to sail the seas forever. People no longer tell such stories to frighten children. We have other monsters now. But, then, we only thought of ghosts and goblins – and with minds full of such legendary fears, we decided that we had to go and see the Hanging Tree.
It was the summer holidays. I remember that clearly, because we had days of indolence and sun. It might have been a Saturday morning. We had lunches packed by our families, and we were going on a hike for the day. We never said that we were going to go and look at the Hanging Tree. I think that our families were simply happy to get rid of us for the day. Bored ten year olds can be very irksome, believe me.
The weather had been fine. I can’t remember rainy days from my childhood. I guess that I spent those indoors, doing something interesting, like tormenting my kid sister. It’s funny how the summers are always sunnier in our memories.
We got to the Tree before lunch-time, although we had already dipped into our rations by then, fearless explorers that we were. Penguin biscuits and orange Cresta – it’s frothy, maaan.
The Tree stood alone at the end of a field. Beyond, there was open scrubland on which a few sheep grazed. A small hedge ran near the base of the Tree.
The Tree towered over us, and the rest of the landscape, half-white, half-green, half-dead. It did not look too scary in the sunshine. But neither of us would have liked to have returned during the witching hour.
Where the Tree had almost split in two there was a hollow inside, darker than the rest of the tree, and smelling of damp and darkness.
We dared each other to climb into the hollow. We could not see how far down it went. Neither of us had the courage.
The sun was directly overhead, beating down on us. The walk had made us tired. We sat down, with our backs to the tree. I think that I teased James about his name. I always teased James about his name, I could not get my head around the spelling. I always said that his name should be pronounced ‘Jah-Mess’. He didn’t find it funny.
I think that we must have fallen asleep. When I awoke, the sun was no longer directly overhead. I got up, stretching and yawning. I looked to where James should have been, but he was not there.
At first I did not worry. I thought that he was playing a game with me. So I looked for him – inside the tree, behind the hedge, crouching down in the long grass. There was nowhere else to hide.
I called his name – his real name, not Jah-Mess – but he did not come. I began to get scared. He would surely not have left me there, and gone home by himself?
I shouted for an hour or so, until I could shout no more. But all I succeeded in doing was getting some sheep to run away from me. In the end, I had to walk home by myself, hoping that James was playing a trick on me, knowing that he wasn’t.
By the time that I arrived home it was late, and it was already well past the time that I was supposed to have got back for. So I was already in trouble. But that was not the worst part of it. The worst part was telling my family that I thought that James was missing. My family rang James’s family (I can’t recall their surname any more. Does this make me a bad person?) James’s family rang the police. The police came around to interview me. It was dark, and very late, by the time that I got to bed, only to lie there and not sleep. I don’t remember anything else about that evening. My family never let me go for walks out across the fields again.
I never saw James again. No trace of him was ever found. Nowadays, I know what people believe happened to him. I was lucky that it was not me. But we were more innocent back then. We did not worry about such things. Children played outdoors, instead of a computer screen. We left our houses unlocked (well, we had far fewer possessions to nick).
James’s family moved away before the year was out. I haven’t seen them since, either.
I stayed in the area. I’ve just earned enough money from my writing to purchase the land on which stands the old Hanging Tree.
Here I am, standing in the field, staring at the Hanging Tree. It is midday. It is exactly thirty years since I was here last.
I walk slowly towards the tree. I’ve got all day. As I walk, I pull the ripcord on my chainsaw.