A Clootie on the Tree of Stories
Arching over a muddy pool, by a Cornish holy well, there stands a tree that, even in the depths of winter, is ablaze with wild colours. Every branch, every twig within arm’s reach, bears strange fruit.
Strips of ribbon are tied there; offerings of feathers, flowers, beads and stones, shoelaces, tinsel, bits of plastic; whatever tokens pilgrims can find to tie to this tree of memories. The tokens are called clooties, the ancient Cornish word for these symbols that each represent a pain, a loss, a wish or a hope. As the clootie fades, disintegrates and disappears, so the pain eases or the wish comes true.
I tied a clootie to the Clootie Tree; a red ribbon for my Love.
A Red Ribbon.
No one saw me at the pool. There was no one there but me and my pain.
The rain had stopped as I parked on the rough grass of the empty car park. The wind died as I walked down the damp woodland path that I had travelled only once before – in a time when I was not alone.
“Careful,” I had said, as he struggled over the stile.
“I can manage,” he replied, and held out his hand, still strong enough to steady me, as I jumped down to join him in the small wilderness of sun-dappled trees, alive with butterflies and bees busy amongst the flowers.
Our first walk together for many a month.
Our last walk together.
He was dying then. We both knew it, and yet could not relinquish hope.
Now I was here alone, with my heart full of unshed tears, returning to this favourite place of his youth that he had wanted, so much, to show me before he died. Why had I come? Not just to tie a clootie, surely? What had drawn me back here?
As I walked down the path I whispered, “Are you there?” A foolish whim.
At my side a leaf moved in the stillness – up and down. My heart leapt, and I smiled at my foolishness. But, as I walked on, I could not prevent myself from saying once more, “Are you there?” And, once more, a leaf nodded at my side.
My breath caught. I found it hard to move, but would not allow myself to believe that anything unusual had happened. On I walked, in silence, until, unbidden, the words forced themselves from me yet again, louder, “Are you really there?” And, for the third time, a single leaf replied.
Three times I had asked.
Three times the answer came.
Now, I must believe.
No – I was just fooling myself. I so wanted to believe he was still with me.
Beyond the Tree of Clooties, where I tied my sad Red Ribbon, the path leads on to a roofless chapel in an ancient, sacred grove. Here birds sing; wildflowers grow by the old stone altar, and a spring trickles gently into a natural font of rocks. Here my Love and I sat and spoke of things that needed to be said.
He was frightened – and why not? Who would not be frightened in his shoes?
It was not death that scared him so but dying. He had never seen anyone die, except his dog, and that had been a peaceful, assisted death. But his own death – would that be full of pain and indignity? He knew I had no answers, but still he had to ask.
“What will it be like – to die of…… ‘it’?” He could not bring himself to name the disease that had destroyed so much more than his health.
I had been sworn to secrecy. His family and friends must not learn the truth. He was sure that anyone who knew would snigger and gossip, “Never thought he was one of those!”
“Why me? How could I have got this disease?” was the cry I heard so often in those final, exhausting months.
We could not share our distress with anyone else, just because that name, those four innocent letters, carry such a weight of stigma and prejudice. He could not understand where or how he might have met this virus that, according to the Tabloid Press, should not attack a handsome, healthy, heterosexual Englishman like him. It was a mystery that never would be solved.
There was little I could say to comfort him.
“You will stay with me?” he pleaded. “Please don’t leave me alone in the hospital.”
“I won’t leave you. I promise.” And I kept my word, sleeping in a chair at his bedside as the days crept by in the hospice.
Now, just a few weeks later, sitting alone by the font, I allowed myself to remember – so many memories from those a few, short years – from when we first met and loved; the happy walks on Cornish cliffs; the companionship of sharing work and play; the exhaustion and fear of long months of illness; to that final morning when he opened his eyes, smiled at me, and whispered a hoarse, “Hello.”
That was when the end was very near. As I held his hand, he seemed to relax and slowly his breathing changed. It became rougher and shallower. His forehead became blotchy as the circulation started to fail.
A staff nurse noticed the change. She stood close behind me, with her hands on my shoulders, as I kissed and stroked his face.
“It is alright, My Love. It is time to let go…… I love you.”
His breathing became irregular – a long silent pause, then a few more noisy breaths – another pause – and then another –
And then, it just stopped.
The end, at last, to so much pain. The start of so much loneliness.
And now I sat, in the ruined chapel, where nothing had changed, except the season. The trees were motionless in the moist, calm air. The birds were singing, while water tumbled and gurgled its way into the font. A small bunch of withered flowers lay on the altar.
It was here that he had asked me to hold him tight, and, with my face pressed against his chest, I inhaled that fond, familiar smell, a mixture of gardens, tweed, tobacco, brandy, and beer. It was here that he said, with formal, old-fashioned dignity, “Thank you, for loving me.”
My heart felt heavy, and tears were near. Why had I come? I couldn’t bring him back. This was useless; just as futile as it had been to collect all his photographs in one place, in the hope that they might, by some strange magic, merge together and restore my Love to me.
Why had I come? I was just making myself yet more miserable.
Perhaps this was the time to make my decision – where better than here, amidst the trees, stones and memories of this holy, peaceful place? A decision that had been postponed and ignored since those first dreadful days when we had learnt of the grim diagnosis; a decision neither of us had been able to face.
Should I have the test?
The doctor thinks I should be tested, and, if I were ill, if there were children to think of, or if a new Love were to enter my life – then, without hesitation, I could face the test and survive the result, whatever it might be.
But I am alone, strong and healthy.
If I am infected, I could take the new drugs…… No! Panic rises at the thought. They are cruel, toxic drugs, with terrible side-effects. They offer no cure, just a hope of control until a cure might be found. To take such poisons while I feel so well is not a future I would choose.
But to know that I am infected and not take the drugs…… each tiny ache of middle age would seem so much worse. Each headache would threaten to be the start of a brain tumour; each cough, the beginning of pneumonia; lack of appetite, tiredness, itches, rashes, hot flushes – every common symptom would seem, suddenly, so terrifying.
I could choose not to have the test.
Ah!…… Just that thought brings calm to my heart. I would not be endangering anyone else. No one can catch it by shaking a hand or kissing or sharing a cup. Even if I am infected, I could go twenty years or more without any symptoms at all – and by then, surely, a cure will have been found. The test can wait!
The decision is made.
Is it the best one? I begin to doubt.
“Please tell me, my Love! Am I right? Do you agree?” This time no leaf moved to give me reassurance. I was truly alone.
I knelt by the font to touch the clear water, as my Love had done before. It was then that the clouds moved, to allow sunlight to sparkle in the falling drops that trickled over the ferns. And there, in the depths, the sun revealed a glint of metal; of coins tossed into the pool as a plea for good fortune and happiness.
In my purse I found a coin to add to the pool, then rose and turned to go. Slowly I walked back up the path to the Clootie Tree and bade farewell to my dear Red Ribbon. Then the tears finally came, flowing gently and silently. I felt so lonely.
My Love, where are you?
Still crying, I turned to retrace my steps over the stile, and saw, lying on the stone step where, just a few moments before, I had placed my foot, a fragile flower – a perfect violet, freshly plucked, root and all.How did it get there? There was no one around, only the birds.
No bird could have plucked it so neatly. And why would a bird want to place this flower just here, where I must find it as I climbed over the stile?
No – not a bird.
I knew where this precious flower had come from.
I picked up the violet, cradling it gently in my hands, and whispered,
“Thank you, my Love.”
© Jill Lamede 1998
Blue Hairband on the Clootie Tree
A very short story – or, perhaps, a prayer…
Goddess, let him come home safe! And Cheryl’s Dad, too. Mum’s down Newlyn, at the Mission, waiting to hear if the other boats have seen anything of them. Let it just be the radio gone dead.
I don’t have a ribbon to tie. I never thought…. There’s this stretchy band round my hair. Will that do? Look… I can tie it here, there’s a space on this branch.
Ma’s frantic. She pretends she isn’t, but I know. When he didn’t call in on the radio yesterday… It’s the first time he’s missed calling in. He knows how worried she gets, especially when the sea’s up.
– some lost
– some saved
Promise – please save him
Must go find Ma….
© Jill Lamede 1998