Those Who Cut The Holly Tree
The two men always came to the hospital grounds in the second week of November. They could have been ghosts or hallucinations for all that Callard knew. He watched them from his barred window, but no one else acknowledged them. Though they came and went as they pleased, they mostly arrived very early in the morning, around the time when he woke before the rest of the ward.
Callard never spoke, because he knew nothing he said was true. Even to say good morning to a nurse would involve several layers of lying that he could not extricate himself from. He silently studied the impassive visitors, the old man and the supposed son among the evergreens. For five seasons he observed them from up here, from soft boy to mad man. A careful picture, disordered and laid away for the rest of the year, unwrapped itself at their arrival. He knew exactly what they would do.
Among the mist they worked, cutting the spiky leaves from all the parts of the holly trees they could reach. Carefully they pruned the trees. Two inches, four or five leaves, putting them into huge sacks, moving from grove to grove. It seemed they were performing a religious duty. Callard came to admire their mystery. He revered their gathering patience. Not a sound was made while they laboured. Their torn hands moved as though conducting invisible choirs of elemental minions. The men never wore gloves to protect their hands; they did not flinch when thorns ripped their skin and snagged their clothes.
‘They are priests,’ he told himself. ‘Sent here for some purpose, I think.’
But trying to force the revelation sent it spinning through the beached ship of his mind. For the next fortnight the two came each day. They picked their crop in silence, bagged it, and vanished like rabbit thieves. It weighed down Callard’s wondering considerably. Each day they left the trees he thought they would not return. At the end of the first week he was crazy with concern. These nights he dreamt tortuously, which he never did at any other time. The nightmares returned as his confusion grew; in them the men’s purpose changed every time. One night they were plucking the poor marbled souls of those inside the institution, the next they jousted with ungodly Christmas tree symbols on every branch.
Then the month turned. There was snow. As he always did, Callard lost his memory. He pulled the dazzling coverlet off the land and used it to insulate his insanity. Christmas came. The doctors made the inmates pantomime their madness and play act their lunacy. It was therapy, they said, to open the hidden goldmine of their desires, complexes and motivations for them to delve into. They tackled the glittering play like children tearing open gifts. Wisemen and messiahs were the favourite part for patients.
This year Callard carried the coup. Arrayed in shimmering white, silver hair flowing down his neck, his bald crown shoe in the light. A look of dignity occupied his features. His right hand held a sickle made of golden paper, which he used to cut mistletoe from the stage Christmas tree. The eyes in the front row glittered, the doctors coughed respectfully; none of the nurses laughed.
In the fifth year he discovered the truth. At Halloween he suddenly remembered the two men were due. Such was the shock of memory that his mania receded in a tide. It was an anticipation where fear felt up, entwined with wild joy. The danger was personal. Callard felt he had to tell someone about their arrival. But patients and staff were fools alike. He was not sure he could still talk. They would think it all lies anyway.
And tell them what? That two strange men were coming to train the trees? Nothing sinister or unusual in that, surely. They would be said to be gardeners, pure and simple. But they were more than that. He had to discover what their true purpose was, otherwise he would miss out.
Change was evident on the wing, a dreadful calm in place of howling and chatter. In bed he listened to the wind walking in the woods. No matter how he wished, he could not escape the sound, which flooded the wards like the sea. In the morning the window drew him like a magnet. In the morning mist they were clearer than he had ever seen them, standing between sentinel trees, and their eyes found him as quick as lightning.
They had sought him out. He wondered if they were going to cut him down. But they could not injure him, not in that way. When their arms lifted the metal tools flashed, both to warn and to beckon him. He felt cautious and unafraid, knowing their motivation.
What did they do with the holly? An image of a thorny crown, very bright and green, thrown into the water to rescue the drowning. Or, another way, a wreath laid on a new grave. What use was that? As he was dead in life he could not see the point of honouring the dead. Then he saw the hills fiery with dawn, with dark trees beneath. There were other, secret places the men went to gather moss and firs.
Callard’s eyes shut. He opened them again and the men were gone. A thing moved in his throat, a rusty gear. An odd, embarrassed sound came out. He would have to tell the people and enter the world again. Now he saw it all laid before him, as if he was soaring, looking down at the contours of the future. He was free and on the grass, trembling and ready.
Not a thing in the world stirred for a moment. Then they came at him from either side so he could not run away. His arms were lifted high, powerless to resist. None of his pleading prevented them lifting their weapons. Then they fell in a downward arc, paring him to the bone. He screamed loudly, but no one cared. The hospital was still. Only the two men, smiling as they dissected him.
Callard joined them afterwards. It was different from how he imagined it: the steadiness of cutting away the crowns of leaves. The repeated action relieved the mind of the need to think. Not one of the three of them talked. Methodically they took the best greenness off the branches, moving from tree to tree, never stopping. There was no need for them to rest, and the task was endless.
One day he paused in his work and looked up at the large building. He wondered who lived there; it looked so colourless and forbidding. The two men smiled at him. The secret was being broken.
Then they came like a flood, or starlings out of a new sky. People surged from the house in their droves. Men in white coats, in billowing gowns, pyjamas, naked men, oblivious in the dew. They coursed towards the groves of holly, ready to tear off the prickly leaves. And their faces were bright as the berries.