by Ashley Kemker
On a tree-thick road snaking towards a thatched-roof village Boniface had asked a little wench: How big is Gaesmere? Finally, he had almost preached his way out of the land of the Saxons and into Hessia. How heavy is the trunk, how close to Heaven does it reach? Her tangled hair fell past her barely discernible breasts hidden by her tunic, her skin was white and supple under her dirt-smeared face. He stirred as she licked her young lips in thought. A flash of annoyance sped imperiously through him, his thick, weather tired body damp and sweating under a scratchy black wool habit in this heavy, unseasonably hot air.
I know of no Gaesmere, only Donar’s sacred Oak.
Yes, where is it and how tall? How wide? Do not presume to hold me up, or waste the day. By Christ. It was not enough that he’d suffered the indignity of biting insects and mud up to his knees, woebegone God-behated country halting him at every turn. The chit had looked at him coyly and chewed those maddening pink lips. Perhaps he’d ask shelter under her savage father’s roof, but then, these unwashed people could not be trusted.
The Oak of the thunder lord is as heavy, they say, as thousands of sacks of barleycorn, it reaches as high as five hundred gyrds—
Then Boniface had called her a bitch, with her ludicrous backwoods measurements, but the wench only laughed, dodged his snatching fingers and disappeared like a little flame down the mud road into the fog. Then it had not been easy to find, going in miserable circles in the gloom, the greatest tree he had ever seen, in a clearing near a leering white Irminsul pillar, greater than the groves near his own village far away in Devon where they had called him, Winfrid, Winfrid, it’s time to light the torches. All he had to do—mud was sucking at his leather boots again—to fool them, was to find and bribe some of their own to help him cut the demon thing down in the night, the Holy Father in Rome had given him plenty of coin to do this.
The Lord was with him. He knew it would be no easy undertaking. But every bite of the axe sent an electric misery through his body; long after dusk, he had barely dented the trunk of the monolith Gaesmere. The Lord was carrying him through the night, bolstering him above the cruel laughter of Octric and Baudemund, two of his nine tree-fellers. A cone-ridden spruce branch had smacked him full in the face when he staggered, tripping over his habit to relieve himself deeper away from the clearing near midnight. They absolutely howled some hours later as a little shape detached itself from the black and became a furry silver-striped cat no doubts following the complaints and squeaks of woodmice and squirrels their thwak-thwaking scared away out of the tree; it brushed against Boniface’s leg. He started and shrieked, hurled his axe at the little devil—but it was gone back into the trees. His shoulders turned in their sockets, if he stopped, he would begin to tremble. And the acorns were sharp and cutting as they were hurled down on his head. The Lord was with him, he thought. But as the night dripped by something crept on him like cold sweat. It was just the blood running down his brow. It was only the shriek of his backbone. It is the presence of the Lord. It was the Devil trying to halt his progress. The tree hated him, it was sure. Trees couldn’t hate. It was throwing chips at him, in his eyes, at his sweat-slicked body, where they clung and dove into his silvery chest hair. There was a sick lightning pulsing through his limbs as the tree fainted over and fell with a sound like an apocalypse, missing a low stone shrine with melted candles and crude figure inside, roots as thick as sin flinging dirt into his mouth. So for good measure, while his nine growled with exhaustion, he turned as one possessed and begun to hack over their Irminsul, the pillar that stood as high as two men, thick as his torso, two arms flexing upwards towards the sky lightening behind the clouds, white as the corpse of a dead man, there, close in the clearing near Donar’s Oak. Now the little wench would weep. Now she’d bury her face in her toothless dam’s chest—.
His axe head had flown off the handle before he finished. God!
But the nine fled right at dawn and would not give him one of their axes. That is a quandary for you, Father, Octric hissed, and they left the Benedictine, bare down to his waist, his heart hammering so hard he thought he was like to fall over, covered in grime and wood chips. They were in a thousand splinters under his skin, and there was a terrible pain in his side. The Lord was with him. That is what he told himself when the people began to gather, incredulous, their morning ale still on their breath, sullen men and women in their tunics and unlaced boots, some men only in their braies and hose, shook out of bed by the thundering tree. Boniface opened his mouth to ask them where red Donar in his goat-chariot was, where was Wodan and Tirwaz, but only repent and you shall be brought into the fold of—. But he was choked. When he drew a breath to speak he breathed in soil and wood dust, choked, and coughed there in the clearing. Every pore impaled by the Oak, and he was not a young man. Blood coagulated around his hairline, habit pulled down to his waist, filthy hands clutching his chest, choking and sputtering red. Watched by the people. Your giants are only the flickering of the flames of the devil. Winfrid it’s time to light the torches. Amidst his miserable guttering, Boniface looked up. Through weeping eyes he saw that through the tangled grasses and a little ways away from the crowd under a linden stood the blonde wench, the little striped cat in her arms. Her face was stone-like immovable.
ASHLEY KEMKER is a native Floridian and first-year MFA student at the University of New Hampshire. She enjoys Norwegian black metal, obscure history, existentially terrifying her classmates, and eating midnight snacks with her cat. Her work has appeared in TERSE Journal and the audio chapbook series EAT Flash.
Photo: “Angel Oak” by Hurricane Holly Photography