This is the story I submitted for my first Open University assignment. My tutor gave me some really encouraging and constructive feedback, and I was relieved that a) he completely 'got' the story and b) the criticism he gave was absolutely spot-on. What's posted below though is exactly what I submitted, without any tweaking following his comments.
It was obvious that the tree had a face. Something – disease, perhaps – had given it gnarled, bulbous features two-thirds up its trunk. Crawling ivy formed a beard below, and branches fanned like extravagant hair above.
‘It looks like a giant,’ Marcus said. ‘Or a god. A tree-god.’
The fields were full of discoveries: a stream emerging from a dank brick culvert, lithe hares tearing across the meadows, the occasional sheep’s skull, and a bog, surrounded by trees and full of thick, black mud. When I poked my foot into it, it grasped and sucked at my wellington boot before eventually giving way to my tugging with an aggrieved slurp. And on the edge of the steepest bank was the tree-god.
‘Perhaps it wants people to drown,’ I said. On the bog’s far fringes, protruding from the weeds, I could see a rotting plimsoll. ‘So it can feed on them. They rot to liquid and he sucks them up through his roots.’
‘He probably entices people in,’ said Marcus, making a gleefully sinister beckoning gesture.
‘The pagans had tree-gods,’ I said, without being entirely sure this was true. ‘They made offerings to them.’
‘Like human sacrifices?’
Marcus and I were united not by being neighbours and the same age, but by vivid and grisly imaginations. Other boys played football; other girls read Jackie magazine. Marcus and I liked MR James and staying up late to watch Hammer House of Horror. However, a game in which people were slaughtered for the tree-god clearly wasn’t going to work. We didn’t have any other friends, and once I’d sacrificed Marcus, I could hardly be expected to play at sacrificing myself.
‘I think they just left them a gift. Like fruit. Or ale. Or blood, when they slaughtered a pig.’
‘We could leave this one something,’ Marcus suggested. His face, bright-eyed and somewhat girlish, was becoming increasingly animated. ‘Or it might trick us into the bog and we’ll be dragged down and suffocated.’
Unfortunately we’d already eaten our sandwiches, so we gathered a handful of acorns and placed them, bowing our heads respectfully, at base of the tree, on a square of foil from the sandwiches. Then we stared up at the tree-god’s face and waited.
‘I think its mouth moved,’ Marcus said solemnly.
‘Yeah,’ I said, still looking at the motionless face. ‘Just a twitch.’
The next day, the acorns had gone. Along with the silver foil.
‘Magpies,’ Marcus said. ‘They like shiny things.’
That afternoon, we left a Kit-Kat.
We continued this daily, leaving the tree-god offerings. An apple. A jam tart. A marble. And every day, the previous offering had disappeared.
‘This time,’ Marcus said to the tree-god, after the marble, ‘we’ll leave something the birds couldn’t take. Then we’ll know if you’re real.’
And we lodged an old brick in the crook of the tree-god’s roots. It was something a dog-walker wouldn’t even notice, let alone move. The brick, I was certain, would break the spell, the spell we'd created for ourselves and both knew was there, yet didn’t want to acknowledge.
But when we returned, it was gone
Grotesque features twisted into its habitual blubber-lipped sneer, the tree-god stood before us. The wind whispered through the ivy in a mocking hiss, and a crow jeered from above.
‘I’ve got a bit of a stomach-ache,’ Marcus said suddenly. ‘Let’s go home.’
Despite Marcus’ stomach-ache, we ran most of the way.
As it turned out, Marcus was stretchered out of his house three days later and taken away in an ambulance with a ruptured appendix. By the time he’d recovered, November had set in and brought with it a howling, front-page-news gale, and the first time we went out was to inspect the aftermath. The fields were strewn with bits of fence panel, tossed there like litter by the wind.
‘Shall we just –’
‘No,’ said Marcus.
‘Just for a minute,’ I said. ‘I just want to – I don’t know. It might be angry with us for not coming back. We can offer it something to say sorry.’
But when we got there, the tree-god had fallen.
It lay helplessly on its back, bridging the bog. Its torn-up roots clawed skeletally at the mist, and its face, staring at the sky, was slick with rain. Its ivy beard straggled into the mud.
We stood and stared at the fallen tree for a long time. From this angle, the deformed trunk didn’t really look much like a face any more, only a few big, pudding-y lumps. A weevil was busily circling what had once been an eye.
‘Well,’ said Marcus. ‘That’s the end of that.’ And we went to play by the culvert instead, where there was a dead badger.