There was a man dwelt by a churchyard, cradled within a thick-trunked yew. Dawn-fluttering roused him, as berry-smitten birds searched for red treasures and, at night, the wind sang lullabies across the wrinkled bark. The trunk warmed his winter shivers and the quiver of tiny needles cooled his summer brow.
His had been an angry life: berating ‘unworthy’ congregations, belittling the ‘close-fisted’ poor, sending the fear of God through the wretched meek. His red-edged eyes brimmed with spite; his plump cheeks swelled with pride; the tendons in his neck strained to keep his self-righteous head upon its shoulders.
When Christmas approached his forty-sixth year, he spurned its advances. Alms for the poor were gathered, but he couldn’t bear to look upon the grimy faces that clamoured for such meagre offerings.
At the churchyard gate, that Christmas Eve, he spied a young boy clipping a branch from the great yew’s coat.
“Hoi hoi! What devil’s work is here?”
The boy cowered – the branch really no more than a twig in his frost-touched fingers. “Begging your pardon, sir, it is a gift for my mother to hang at the hearth. I have nothing else to offer.”
Grabbing the branch, the man dashed the boy to the ground. “There! That’ll teach yer to steal from the Lord!”
But, as he raised his fist to beat the unresponsive child, he felt a sharp pain in his palm. Turning, he found the foliage had enveloped his hand, and now his arm itself sprouted needles. In confusion, he plucked the leaflets from his skin, but in their place, beads of blood formed bright red berries.
When at last the boy revived, he found himself alone in the yew tree’s shadow.
The man still dwells by the churchyard – forever in the dark embrace of the tree. At Christmas, the children of the village cut small branches to hang above their hearths. They wonder at the rich red berries gleaming in the candlelight, and at the power and the danger they possess.
And, later, when all candles are snuffed out, some say they hear weeping in the darkness.
This story was chosen for our Christmas countdown and the author wins 6 Retreat West ebooks
About the author: Jen Rowe is an actor, improviser and writer. She lives in Sussex with her husband and, as yet, no dog.