“Oh Willow, I don’t know.”
Night had fallen and the Roses had retired to their respective cabins. Oak studied the bookshelf. He had no intention of reading anything, but over the years it had come to be his default position. It was a wonder the spines of the books hadn’t faded from his constant gaze. Willow was busying herself making the beds for the night. She looked over at her brother.
“Don’t know what?” she said.
“Oh, anything. Not anymore. I’m so old.” He sighed, shoulders stooping and joints creaking. Willow went over to him and rubbed his shoulders. He felt as full of knots as his namesake.
“Rubbish,” she said gently. “You know more than anyone I’ve ever known or ever will know. Every tome, every tale, it’s all in that grand old head. And besides,” she leant over his shoulder and whispered seriously. “You’re not as old as me.” This was true. Willow was a good few years Oak’s senior, although her spritely spirit made her seem young. Oak looked his sister in the eyes and for the first time saw the toll the years had taken. The lines across her face had deepened and skin had softened to that of an overripe peach.
“Sister, I fear we have lived too long. I hoped I would never see the day that things began to change. But I can’t deny it, I just can’t handle it any more.” He turned to face her. “Larch worries me a great deal.”
“He always has, that’s just his way.”
“More so than usual. Every order, every request he questions. ‘Borrowing’ Holly‘s tools, abandoning poor old Moss – and I swear Reed is going to knock his head off one of these days.” Oak raked his fingers absent-mindedly through his beard, eyes closed and brow creased with worry. Willow tutted and pulled him into a hug.
“Don’t worry yourself so, that’s my job!” she chuckled softly. “You have always been an old soul, but I remember what it was like to be young and full of spirit. It will pass, and the children will come round when they need to. Just think, by summer we will have a new arrival! That will be just what we need to chase off these wintry thoughts.”
“I hope you’re right. At least we’re prepared – last thing this family needs is another accident.” Oak squeezed his sister tight, and just for a moment, out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw a figure move in the window.
Larch crashed through the trees, too angry to even think about finding the path. Every so often he would stop, snap off a twig and hurl it into the undergrowth, cursing and spitting like a mad dog. The words he had overheard rang in his ears. Accident. He knew very well what that meant: mistake. His ears reddened as hot shame washed over him. As if he hadn’t already heard that from Reed earlier. Just before they’d left the council circle, Reed had come up and started to lecture him, as though he thought he was somehow superior.
“There’s no need for that kind of tone,’ he had hissed. “It won’t get you anywhere.”
“It’ll get you to the bottom of your precious lake if you don’t just drop it, Reed.”
“Charming. You know, I’ll tell Willow you’ve been shirking your work to go off and sit in the trees if you don’t buck your ideas up.” Larch’s jaw tensed. Willow could be lenient if work was done badly, but if work was not done then there would always be hell to pay. He fixed a smile on his face and muttered some insincere apology, before turning his back robotically and walking slowly away. Just before he had gone out of earshot Reed had remarked to Holly:
“That sprout’s been a waste of time since Moss went and sneezed him out last year.”
Those words still stung Larch like a wasp in the throat. He thought of his father. Why hadn’t he defended him? He’d been behind them the whole time. Because he never did, he couldn’t. He was merely a broken toy, incapable of functioning in any real situation, or at least it seemed that way to his son. To Moss, he thought, I’m just another incomprehensible problem. He had asked Larch to move the compost this morning, a job he detested. Couldn’t he even see that? Larch took a deep breath of the cool night air and steadied himself. He knew his temper wasn’t in any fit state to return to the hut tonight, so he felt for the branches of his favourite tree and nimbly climbed his way up. To his surprise, a small package was nestled in his usual spot. Upon opening, he discovered it contained a handful of small fish cakes, still gently steaming. Rather disarmed by this apparent act of kindness, he took a bite. Tasty.
Gazing up at the moon through the branches, he took out a knife and began to whittle away at a stick, humming softly through his full mouth.