We're delighted to present The Alphabet of Trees, a new short story from author Paul Lynch, as featured in Winter Papers 3, an annual arts anthology for Ireland and beyond, edited by Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith.
The Alphabet of Trees
The first time I saw a deer die I was thirteen. Another boy called Bradley standing rigid with the rifle. The moment opening up so long you could fall into it for the rest of your life, and perhaps I did. That animal caught motionless in the torch beam. She had probably never seen anything like it, must have looked to her that she had met her own god, for the moon that night had come down into the trees. We had marched into the forest not knowing how a breeze could carry advance of our intentions, our noisy unwashed bodies, our feigned indifference and covert yearnings, the aliveness we sought in wanting to bring death. The deer is an intelligent creature but we had bewildered her with that torch beam. Four of us with pale faces secret behind the light, our breaths trembling, my own breath sucked so deep I thought I might not find it again, had to take a puff from my inhaler. An electricity running through us that was both terror and excitement. Those are but short-lived things, but the shame that came afterwards burns for a life. I think of all this as I go upstairs to wake him, my teenage son who is here for the night. The rain whispers outside when I shake him and I meet his mother’s angry eyes. Everything is ready, I say. He grabs his phone to check the time and suddens a message to somebody although it is six in the morning. I say, hurry up with it. Then, in a lower voice I tell him, I boiled some eggs.
The kitchen’s fluorescent top light keeps at bay the dark pressing against the window, an ancient feeling of something unseen wanting to get in. I watch Liam spoon at his cornflakes. Fifteen years old and you can see the attitude his body will take, the height already he has over me, though what I see is a boy slurping milk. I realize I am watching another, that who I see is my brother Conn long dead. A something almost seen that is a memory pressing into thought, though when I try and summon it, it will not come. Perhaps it resides in Liam’s demeanour. Not the moustache he cannot grow to full just yet but that jawline that narrows to an abrupt chin. It is Conn’s chin and those are Conn’s sly eyes.
I hear myself saying, that bright anorak of yours has no business where we’re going.
Liam says, you said it’s gonna rain. Look, it’s raining outside.
I go into the hall and open the under-stairs, take out our equipment. I have checked each thing last night but I will inspect them again before him.
Here, I say. I throw him a camo jacket and when he puts it on he stands with a mocking look.
My arms are too long in it.
Nobody is going to see you.
There is ritual comfort in the arrangement of equipment. Satisfaction in the precision of each item. I unpack the knapsack and for a moment I can see that what is hidden in the exactness of each tool is a story of knowledge passed by father to son in numberless line from that very first tool. But Liam is not interested. I catch him staring at the two rifles leaning in their travel pouches. I arrange our equipment on the table and give a name to each thing. A Nomark compass. The binoculars, a Leupold 9x25. I empty a black belt-pouch and tick each item off the checklist. One Maglight with fresh battery and spare. Leatherman Tool. Lighter and matches in a ziplock freezer bag. Insect repellent. Water purification tablets. A pair of tweezers. First aid kit. Two Mylar blankets. I place two knives side by side and unsheathe the larger one, a four-inch Olsen, and I wet the stone and show Liam how to sharpen it. I wipe the blade on a cloth and flourish the air with an X but his eye is on the shooters. I slice an apple and offer him half but he reaches instead for the box of ammunition, takes out a cartridge and weighs it in his palm seeking not, it seems, its actual weight but some philosophical measure. He nicks at the cannelure with his thumbnail and then lobs the cartridge back in the box. He nods and says, what do you need tweezers for? That sly mocking look that goes all the way back to Conn.
That moment in Gortnareck forest happened twenty-five years ago. It must have lasted all of five seconds. I would like to say to Liam, the first time I saw a deer die I was your age and I still regret it. Loguey with the lamp. Maybe he was just fifteen but we used to joke he had boulders for shoulders. Bradley boasting about the high-powered torch, said it could spot-beam fifty yards. Any fucking thing comes near here we’ll lamp it. Bradley always in charge and Loguey following in a slouch, a great complainer, for that was his thing. The trees wet with rain and moonlight. The soaking insides of my Clarks shoes. I remember Conn taking hold of my coat for a moment, Conn who had been egging us on. And yet I sensed the thought he wanted us all to stop before anything happened. But he just walked past me and began to walk with Bradley. And the truth is that Conn would find in that night not a limit but an opening, this boy born with a hole in his heart and who had not so long to live. This boy who filled up that space in his chest with an unheeding fearlessness, and I was too young to know that both the fool and the hero’s heart rush with the same blood.
I step outside now and think, morning makes us feel the night differently. We watch the first light and see how the world rose without witness in prehistory. To surrender to a world absent of yourself. I move off the back step and into the cold and the air is raw in my throat. The sinks of last snow are needled by rain and I tune my ears to what I cannot see. Wingbeat in the air. The faint settle in a tree of a bird. I pin it to that sycamore that threatens the side of the house. A lone car drones upon the main road a half-mile away. I guess at the wind and think how a deer does not even need to guess it.
Liam sits an embarrassed slump in the passenger seat of my old Renault Laguna. His thumb spidering some text message. I wonder again what pal can be up at this hour. He rocks the dashboard with the heel of his hand as if to shake it loose, turns the radio on and off and on again. He says, when are you going to change this heap of shite? I’m freezing. Can’t we wait till the rain stops?
Then he says, when was Dog put down?
Dog was put down last month.
Car still stinks of her.
I close the boot with everything packed and think of Dog. I go to lock-up and Dog pads alongside me into the empty house. I stand looking at the truss rope I have left on the table and decide I won’t need it, put it quickly under the stairs.
I take the main road out of Baltinglass. The road slicked from night-drifts of Paul Lynch 137 sleet. The rain catching fright in my headlights. I drive with my hands alert to any nuance of black ice. Soon we are a cocoon of warmth, the headlamps prising open a dark that closes shut behind us. Liam falls into a doze or pretends at one but I have the radio for company. Fair Head to Carnsore Point to Slyne Head, the marine forecast announces. And as I listen I imagine these places forlorn in the dark taking upon themselves quietly the sea’s desolation. The roads almost silent at this hour and I slow through each sleepy village. Ahead lies the Glen of Imaal, a remote valley with Lugnaquilla soaring over it, the mountain catching now the dawn’s blue-cold colour.
I look towards my sleeping son. I am not sure how to make him mine again.
He startles when I knuckle the window with my trigger finger. Come on, sleepyhead. Our bodies throw blue shadows upon the snowmelt. We follow a track into a clearing carved by chainsaw and are surrounded by a tinkling meltwater in the trees. I pin a sight upon a Sitka spruce and step back some fifty yards, summon Liam who stands with his hands agitating. I tell him, this is how you unsheathe the weapon safely. The safety here is the first thing you check. This is how you cycle the bolt-lift. Hold it to your shoulder like this. I give him his rifle, a Tikka T3 Lite borrowed from Tim Haugh for today, and stand close behind him, adjust his sight and elbow. I cannot remember who taught me such things. I would like to pull him closer but cannot. Our breaths fog together and I catch his smell of Lynx spray and car oil and cigarettes. Like the toddler he once was he wriggles free of my grip.
When I ask him if the rifle is on safety or not, he shrugs.
I know how to hold a gun, he says.
And yet I see he is careless with it. He slowly sights and takes a shot but the bolt pulls upon an empty chamber. He turns then upon me glaring like his mother.
You didn’t tell me it’s not loaded. Why isn’t it loaded?
I tell him, in the field we carry the weapon with two hands like this.
He shoots me a dirty look but I tell him to step behind me. I slide my rifle from its protector, a Mauser M12, black and sleek. I topload and draw the bolt and sight it and become aware of an explicit power and how quickly my mind becomes quiet, thought narrowing to a point that is an unbecoming of sorts, and it is this I seek, my aim quick upon the bullseye but just for kicks I adjust for the outer concentric and pull the shot. The sound shatters off the trees and perched snow falls from its rest. Liam stands half-bent with his fingers in his ears. I put the rifle into resting position and watch Liam pull the target from the tree. He is pointing towards the bullseye and shouts –
Ha! You missed.
Never have I given account for my missing years and he has not asked me. My son so soon a man. He has giddy eyes still but I can see in them a hardening that seems like knowing. The slyness to sidle around things. The same slyness that belonged to Conn. His mother tells me he drag races cars on the back roads at night and I shudder at the thought of it. When we get back to the car it occurs to me how close we are to Gortnareck. What was I then? Two years younger than he is now? I do not recognize myself in the body of that boy and yet I still account for him.
That night was sprung on me. I’d fallen asleep with my torch mooning the duvet and I awoke to Conn shining it in my face. He said nothing about what we were doing, just said to put on some clothes. I saw he was wearing Dad’s old army coat, the one we had found malodoured in the attic, and we often took turns wearing it. The air outside smelled of rain and I heard the shed door sudden a squeak and I stood still and listened. Had we woken her, I wondered – the old lady – my poor hassled mother, and I saw Conn wheeling our two bikes from the shed. My dynamo droning and the front light faltering as I peddled furiously to keep up. The yellow flag on his Chopper fluttered bluely and then he turned and told me to turn off the light. And so we rode the dark and I talked to other truckers on the CB radio in my head. Keep your eyes and ears open. Keep your black stack smokin. Moon Cat over and out.
There’s a stone house at Smith’s corner still crumbling onto a tangle of thorn and fuchsia and that’s where we went. Again I asked Conn what we were up to but he told me to shush. I said, just who in hell would be listening? Ten past one according to the light of my Casio and I’d never been out so late. The night more brilliant because of it. It is unforgettable that first time you behold the night in all its vastness without a grown-up beside you. How the night bestows mystery upon simple things, gives to the world a vast conspiracy.
We stood waiting, Conn scrambling about like he always did, pulling at things and I shone the torch and saw him throw a rock into the ditch. A sudden rustling then and two shadows leapt with a roar and I ran and I ran until I realised it was a joke, that the laughing belonged to Bradley and Loguey, Conn’s friends. I put my torch upon Bradley and saw he carried a rifle that sloped easy off his shoulder. The night then took a sudden turn. I’d never been in the company of a real gun. An air rifle I’d once held, a weapon that was the prize possession of a boy called Robert Gray who had moved to Ireland with his divorced mother. We’d fired pellets at cans and I took a shot at a crow and watched it fall, discovered I could shoot. You get real eager then to try the real thing. I looked at Bradley with wonder, the way he stood pleased with himself, wore camouflage fatigues tucked into army issue boots and an olive baseball cap. I pointed at the gun and Bradley pointed at me and said to Conn, why bring the runt?
Leave him be, Conn said, and I took strength in my brother then and I said aloud, call me Moon Cat.
Bradley hocked his thumb in my direction. What’d he just say?
Loguey scoffed. Moon Cat! I heard him. What are you, some kind of shewolf?
My face burned and yet I kept on at it.
It’s my CB handle.
Bradley shone his torch in my face.
Have you got one of them radios? he said. Moon Cat? Would you not go for something manly? Moon Dog would be better.
I had in mind a lion or a tiger but I could see how he saw it.
Loguey said something to Bradley about spare batteries and Bradley said he’d brought none and it was then Conn leaned towards me and whispered.
We’re going lamping.
I couldn’t say anything, just stared at him.
Bradley took out a pack of fags and offered them to the others. I knew he was pausing for effect. A Johnny Blue for Moon Cat? I reached and pulled one, wanted to show I could smoke expertly, that I could chat with the fag hanging from my mouth. But I could hardly suck on it for my heart was a hundred hammers.
Going lamping for deer.
I park the Renault off-road and survey the open moor. The highlands above. The scrim of eastern cloud and the forestry spread far below. I am surprised to hear myself ask Liam what I have already told myself not to ask him. If he smokes yet. I have him in my sights and watch him wriggle, know the answer for a lie. And yet I grow angry. Why seek a truthful answer when you know you’ll not get one? He refuses gloves when I offer them and he slaps his hands against the cold. I watch the air smoke off his breath.
We load our gear and climb the ribs of a gate and begin for the forest. I cut a sprig of holly with the Olsen and fix it in the roll of Liam’s hat but he tosses it away with a glowering look.
He says, why haven’t you loaded my rifle but you have yours?
I hear myself answer. Just.
He stops walking for dramatic effect, looks at me and says, then what is the fucking point?
I sigh and help him load the weapon and check again that his rifle is on catch. He seems pleased with himself then, more alert, walks with a roll in his shoulders.
I tell him, you do not lift and sight your weapon until you have my say-so. It is the sika male we are after, a creature with supernatural senses. We will not shoot at the female. That rule is cardinal.
I tell him, the sika were brought here from Japan in 1860 but the Irish red deer and sika have since mated into a hybrid because nature is blind and sees no such distinctions.
I tell him, stalking is the only true way of hunting, that there are rules of play, that such rules allow for chance. That the satisfaction in stalking is the marshalling of your own innate skill and intelligence against the chaos of chance and nature. This is a game of patience. When the moment happens it all comes down to the breath.
I tell him, poaching is a fool’s game. It is a cruelty that eliminates chance.
You hear stories of poachers who go lamping at night, they startle the animals with powerful lamps and shoot them. It plays to the animal’s weakness. It is the work of a man who feels a need to experience an easy power over things.
I do not tell him it is a long time since I have killed anything. That I have left all that behind me. That what I seek now is the quietening down of my mind.
I do not tell him what I know, that there will be no deer in this forest today. I do not tell him that there is no bullet in my chamber.
We walk the whitened tree lanes with our eyes and ears peeled to the beauty that is winter’s stillness. Liam’s cheeks are growing red with the cold and I see him as a child again. An hour passes without word. For most of it I am thinking how I should talk with him, what I should ask about his life. How to step back into his life and get him to where I want him to be without unsettling him. We stop in a clearing and I do not hear him behind me, turn to see he has leaned his rifle against his leg and is thumbing a text message. Again there is that angry look when I shout at him. I search for a way out and say, let’s have some coffee.
I sit on a mossy rock and pour two quick cups from the vacuum flask. I could watch the shapes of trees all day, even the humble spruce. I watch the way Liam sits and holds the rifle on his lap and do not like it.
I tell him about the trees. How each one corresponds to a different letter of the Ogham alphabet. The ancient alphabet of the druids, I say. Whitethorn – uath. Pine – ailm. Ash – nion. Oak – dair. Each name bearing its own unique symbol drawn out of straight lines. The Celts and their druids making a language out of the world around them.
I think how beautiful this is, that everything is written out of nature.
Liam does not seem inclined to answer.
I turn and catch him cutting into the bole of a tree with his blade.
I’d heard whispers in school. Stories of poaching. Then one night I was awakened by Conn tapping at the window. He climbed in wearing a grin, the shoes in his hand reeking of manure. What did you close the window for? he said. He made me promise not to speak a word and I met him with my fiercest look. Told me how they’d taken to the fields that night in army gear and balaclavas. Pat Collins hard as nails wearing just a t-shirt. Lamping for rabbits, he said. We caught them in a spotlight. The two lurchers mad for it, a bitch and a dog, pulling against their leashes. We’d catch the rabbit in the lamp and its eye would light up orange, he said. And then the dogs would make for it and it was hilarious, like a cartoon, he said, the dogs skidding into the bushes and the lads shouting as they tried to keep the lamp fixed on the rabbit’s path. You almost need to know where the rabbit’s going to turn, he said. Climb inside the mind of it and feel its terror. Sometimes you’d lose sight of the chase, the dog and rabbit skittering away into the dark and then the beam would find them again and one of the dogs would have its jaws around the rabbit’s neck. You had to shake it from the dog’s grip, he said, and usually the rabbit was dead. And I could imagine the whooping and the rabbits laid out with their hearts burst from fright and their lips drawn back. We didn’t know what to do with them, Conn said, so we just threw them into a ditch.
I couldn’t understand what he was doing running with those older fellas. He must have got Bradley and Loguey in on it too for that night in Gortnareck was his doing. He ran on energies that were mysterious to me then and there was wonder and horror in the telling.
I said, next time, you have to take me with you.
No chance, was all he said.
My teeth tighten as I listen to Liam drag and sigh behind me through the trees. We come across the rusted wreck of an old car and I wonder how it even got here. Liam is suddenly alive. He goes straight to it and begins to pull at the door, his eyes running over the rust-spored metalwork. Come on, I say, but he does not hear me, and for a moment true-as-day he is Conn. I remember how the three of them bought some banger for twenty quid, a bashed up Cortina, and raced it through the fields. They took turns driving, swinging handbrake turns in the mud. The exhaust ripping smoke without a muffler and yet you could hear their hollering over it. They tore up fields and snapped the car’s axle trying to clear a ditch and someone had to come in a tractor and tow it away. They overturned their next car, a red Datsun. I was not there but heard the wails of my addled mother when she saw Conn’s split head. That was when he had to start using my bedroom window for a door. I think of this now and think of when I heard how Bradley died a few years later, saw a picture of the wreck in the paper. Not a soul in that car but himself and that tells you everything. He was just doing what he needed to be doing. To push against the forces until he found himself calibrated right there at the edge, the world reduced to a racing line. His mind in light.
There is a light in Liam’s eyes as we leave the car behind us and I am suddenly angry. There is no point telling him he knows nothing for he will not listen. And yet I hear myself ask him, your mother says you want to leave school.
It’s a waste of my time.
And what about a career?
I’ll get a job fixing cars.
And what kind of life is that?
Again, I see that sarcastic smile.
He turns and aims his weapon at the trees.
Bam, he says.
I cannot begin to think what mad dogs he runs with. What he gets up to at night on those back roads. I try to see things as Liam would see them but the truth is I do not want to know. And though his mother has asked me to speak with him, such knowledge would change forever how we deal with one another. It is best left alone.
I see my younger self heeling a fag in the mud. The way we set off for Gortnareck that night. Bradley assuming control, his cap lowered over his eyes. I’ll take point, he said. We kicked through a damp cattle field with Sampson’s farm in the moon’s silhouette. The glow of Bradley lighting another fag and I imagined him then as more than Bradley, some kind of platoon leader, for I had begun to imagine we were army. Moon Cat on the prowl. I swatted mosquitoes. Heard the sky thump with Huey. Moon Cat on the field radio. Bravo Six, Bravo Six. Be advised there is enemy presence in the forest ahead. Roger that.
Soon my feet were soaked and I pulled at Conn’s coat and told him my Clarks had holes in them.
Don’t be a fucking spastic, he said.
The trees closing around us in sudden conspiracy and a bird whooped in warning. I studied Conn as he walked and could hear my heart beat in my ears. The noise we must have made that night. The hootings and constant abuse we slung at each other. You fat fuck. You spastic. You white-socks cunt. Walking as if we were on army manoeuvres, the way Bradley had us advance with our knees swinging high and outwards, SAS technique, he said, it allows you to feel your way in the dark. Loguey lighthousing the lamp as he moaned about being hungry and moaned about the cold. We marched about like that for an hour too loud and too eager. The night growing long and Bradley began to abuse Loguey’s way with the lamp and it was then Conn decided he was going home.
You can all go and fuck yourselves, he said.
I tell Liam, if you stand in a forest at night for long enough you start to see with different eyes. Shadows come to life. The blacks give way to subtler tones – charcoals, blueberry, plum and such. These are the night’s true colours.
He does not answer for he has given up, walks with an aggrieved slump, looks fit to drop the rifle. We have eaten our bananas and cooked-ham sandwiches. I continue to tell him about some of the things I know. I point out different types of fungus. I give name to the unusual clouds that striate the western sky. He isn’t interested and will never be interested and I remember how it was when we were almost out of the forest, Conn walking beside me, the two of us finding again some familial complicity as the group began to diverge, Bradley skulking ahead, his gun over his shoulder, Loguey with the lamp switched off and held to his chest. Not a word said among any of us. And then I almost walked into the back of Bradley, sensed him just before I hit him. Shush, he said. The whisper near inaudible but yet we heard. How the forest then seemed to fill with sound and something shook up in the trees and I heard the forest floor crackle. Not one of us moved. And then by some instinct Loguey powered the lamp and swung the beam until it met directly the body of a deer not twenty feet from us. The creature just standing there staring into the lamp. And time did open, Bradley swinging the rifle off his shoulder and bolting it and in the same instant levelling it, and I wonder still did the deer in those few seconds come to know our intent and yet she stood transfixed in that beam. And after the sound of the shot we stood hushed and watched the creature fall. Then Loguey leapt and shouted. Conn began to cheer. And I did not know why but I began to run towards the deer and it is this that I think of, what strange intuition made me put my hand to her belly. And the truth is, I want for Liam to remain an innocent. Or I want for him to remain an innocent at least in my own mind.
We trudge back uphill towards the car and I think to myself there’s a madness in some men to which modern life just isn’t suited. They feel old, these energies. You must find something to do with them. I think about the men from the club and how they would laugh to find us hiking where there are no deer. And then I sense it and stop breathing and I turn and cannot move. Liam stands before me with his rifle aimed straight at my body. What is in his eyes as he stares at me. I cannot open my mouth.
He says, there was a time when you hit her, wasn’t there? Did you hit her?
Why did you hit her?
I cannot move until I do. I turn my back to him, turn away towards the trees as if there were something to see there.
Then I turn to meet him again and see the gun is lowered. I walk towards him and see the residue of car oil on his hands. I see the height he has already over me. I see the look in his eye that is pain walking in plain sight and such a look never belonged to Conn. I cannot tell him what I need to say. I cannot begin to say that there are things you do in your earlier life – things you do without thinking that will forever betray you.
I watch him go and know now I have lost him.
The things I want to tell him. I want to tell him that when I laid my hand on that deer’s belly I felt inside a kick.
I want to tell him that we learn to hate our fathers and something in that hating makes us become them.
About The Author: Paul Lynch is the author of Grace, The Black Snow and Red Sky in Morning. He won France’s Prix Libr’à Nous for Best Foreign Novel and was a finalist for the Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger (Best Foreign Book Prize). He lives in Dublin.
This story is published in Winter Papers 3, edited by Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith, which is available now.