There was a yew tree in the abbey. A pulsing, near-sentient thing that stood deep-rooted in the cloister. Its boughs with their needle-like leaves were the only roof the ruin had known for centuries. Its trunk seemed skeletal, bone encased in moss and bark. Arched walls that broke off into passageways and tunnels surrounded it, but they could not make it feel trapped. It had grown there long before the stone enclosed it and would continue to grow there for centuries after they finally return to dust.
The yew tree had watched them build those walls many years ago. Newcomers to the land had felled many of the surrounding oak and ash trees but their efforts had avoided this one. Most of the men felt a deep unwillingness to be the first to lay his blade into the gnarled trunk, felt an instinctual revulsion at the thought of splitting it open to reveal the poison lifeblood beneath. One scoffed at the thought that any heed should be paid to the old pagan rituals but could not rid himself of the gooseflesh that crawled under his skin. The back of his neck prickled in the presence of the imposing column and the handle of his axe became suddenly slippery.
One man did not feel the same reluctance. The tree was aware at the edge of its vast consciousness of all the scorn and derision he felt for the people here and their old ways, of how it fanned a fire in his belly and a tightness in his throat. Hatred grasped his fear in a stranglehold and tightened until it was all he could feel. This tree was a stain on the land, an artefact of the past. It needed to be removed.
That night he crept out to the deserted copse and clambered up into the canopy accompanied only by his axe. Hacking and sawing at one of the heavy boughs, he did not notice the branch beneath had started to move. It yanked out from under him and he fell like a stone. Plummeting, plummeting, plummeting. A particularly sturdy branch snapped against the trunk as he crashed through where the gap once was, clamping around his neck with an ominous creak and bringing his descent to an abrupt halt. All the breath left his body as he was crushed against the mighty trunk. His feet kicked desperately at empty space. His fingers clawed at the branch suspending him until the rough bark had gouged through them. Coarse gurgling and gasping were the only sounds in the clearing, loud and crude in the black night.
He still hung there like a grotesque ornament when the other workers returned at dawn. Bloated, ghastly, swaying slightly despite the oppressive lack of a breeze. The yew appeared unharmed. However, if any of them looked close enough they would see a glisten of new sap on an otherwise unharmed branch. The sight burnt itself into the corneas of all present – an omen, a promise, a whispered threat – and the tree was left where it stood.
A short story by Ashlin O’Sullivan.