Vampire, for J.N.

The lines are fading in my kingdom
Though I have never known the way to border them in
So the muddy mouths of baboons and sows and the grouse and the horse and the hen
Grope at the gate of the looming lake that was once a tidy pen

Joanna Newsom, Emily
It’s the end of a long, syrupy summer in London. The hot and cloying mistakes of July and August have drained me, leaving something hollow-itchy. I’m happy when the equinox weekend presents an opportunity to join a group going westwards to the countryside. On our first morning we set out early, walking for hours across hooded trails and pastures. The day starts to close and the seasons tilt as we pass through a small grove. I tell my friends to go on ahead so I can spend time alone there. At the centre I find a silver birch, it bears an eerie resemblance to something I thought I had left 150 miles behind me. Intrigued by the sense of familiarity, I regard the tree for a few moments and speculatively map its history. Following the last ice age the monoecious birch, a pioneer species, was among the first to repopulate the stony, glacier-scarred landscape. The word birch is believed to derive from the Sanskrit bhurga that translates as a 'tree whose bark is used to write upon'. I recall that witches’ brooms were traditionally made of birch twigs. I imagine the birch starting life as a short, straight tree then, at around six feet tall, it grew quirky. A knot swelled outward, birthed two thick branches at a forty-five degree angle and hundreds of bright lime leaves burst into the sky.

I rest a hand against the pale smoothness of the trunk and appreciate the full, completeness of its design. One part of the lower offshoot is the ideal height and proportions for stretching out my aching body; I reach above my head and find an easy secure grip. Hanging there I celebrate the birch’s thriving presence, the green shivelight the late sun flushes through the canopy, and the rising juniper-tinged scent that floods me. I remain suspended a while — noticing the disappointments of the city begin to loosen — then I swing back and forth until I find enough momentum to hook one leg then the other up onto the branch. With some awkward manoeuvring I find a comfy spot against the knot and lean forwards, pressing my torso against the upward pointing bough. The tree is a drip feed, radiating directly into all areas that make contact. I touch a spirit that is dark and sparkly and reminds me of nobody I ever met. I’m surprised as the sublime grazes a nerve and salt and wetness coats my cheeks.

The silver birch is a needed absence of human embrace: no warmth, no saliva, no pliable joints. There’s no round stomach or too soft hands, the tree is effortlessly still, relentlessly available. I’m thankful for everything about the tree. I love the way I can slip my head neatly into the gap between the two main branches and leave it there. Cocooned and held totally in an embrace that flips my perspective; I imagine the ground unfurling and rolling away down an illusory slope. I relish the sensation of sinking into the tree, intimate timber embrace, bones find distant cousins in branches, bark and skin comingle. Elevated with legs dangling freely, there’s a charm-infused space between the soles of my feet and the sweet lichen floor.

It’s darkening by the time I move from the birch to explore the grove. Slowly in the gloom, arms extended like the walking dead, I find an elm tree, so straight and tall that I think maybe the top would remain unseen even in daylight. It if were a human it would play piano with thick but elegant fingers, it would be great at sports, would sometimes send me nude pics, we’d read short stories in bed during hot, ungodly hours. I lick its rough mahogany and kiss it as my hands find each other across the diameter; the perfect width fills my arm span entirely with itself. There’s no lower branches for me to gain a foothold and I’m restricted to ground level yet am absolutely content looking upwards and marvelling at its uniform linear movements to the sky. I’m so turned on by its sincerity of form, which to me seems like a promise of always, eternal reaching and motions ever upward inside this West Country air that continues to thicken with darkness. Then, feeling a hunger for one last encounter I move off and follow my intuition to an elm, this time of severe composition. It stands at the forefront of the grove of trees, facing the onslaught of the elements. It protects the others, soaking up the conflict of winds and rains, digesting and processing these frictions into freshness for the circle to bounce around between them. Reflecting on the battles I’ve pursued in London I’m so tired. The chill of night air, which has been lingering at my ankles, begins to slither up my calves.

I return full circle, it’s now so dark that my eyes are not longer able to roam the contours of the silver birch. Sitting on the crunchy and textured clearing with my back against the tree I reach behind and with fingertips explore the bark, creating a semi inversion. I’m surprised by the sensation of a slippery nib, a bantam slug, then accept her as a dependent like me, a fellow passenger of the grove. I use my phone torch to interrogate the surroundings. My eyes haven’t taken in artificial light forever and the white blaze is a violation, a return to the world of artifice. All is teeming, the secrecy of the nocturnal is diminished so I can see that woodlice abound, worms roll and a procession of tiny slugs writhe the length of the trunk. Breached by light, suddenly this place is menacing, desolate. The exhaustion of fighting for months delivers me to the floor. Octopus roots rise: fertile brown wires, an intricate system clamping itself over my limbs. The ties that bind, they are barbed and spined and hold us close forever. A wild vapour sweeps across the grove. I’m engulfed in an abundance of damp twigs velvet moss and gold ferns. All around me is rotting foliage, orange fur, and chanterelles promising renewal. Purring spiders encase me in a translucent tomb of silver and gold. There’s no road, no path, no track. Then the wandering full moon drops beams of jade through a gap in the veil. As the celestial rolls atop me the layers of sediment fall away. I’m brought back to an awareness of my body: it’s full of heat and scratchy. I touch many raised bumps on my skin where parasites have been. Fingers find a braille archive, an adventure in sixty little vampire bites — thirty mapping each leg, perfect equinoxal balance.

‘Vampire, for J.N.’ was published in LIOT in Summer 2019.