Here is a non scary Halloween tale, for those who prefer gentle ghosts.
She could see the old tree from the kitchen window, it stood on the crest of the hill opposite. The lonely tree, braced against the wind and weather for hundreds of years… or maybe ten, she didn’t really know anything about trees. Trees communicated, or so she had read somewhere, although that tree was alone, perhaps it needed a hug. Hell! She needed a hug! Mind you she probably needed a walk more. Outside, blue sky haunted the clouds, a hint of warmth whispered on the window. There was the merest blush of green on some of the hedgerow and the telltale whisper of white on the blackthorn. She didn’t really have an excuse, she should go for a walk.
She was a wimp walker, a fair weather wanderer, not even lockdown could tempt her out on a bitter day, but it was either that or have nothing to say to book club on Zoom. A brisk walk could provide a topic of conversation, more than just the frustrations of unread books, no shopping and no haircuts. They all obeyed the rules, they just did so loudly; she just waited. A walk then, there was bound to be a dog or two, some birds, more signs of spring. She put down her coffee and looked again at the tree, it seemed more distant now, but hey, she wasn’t that old, she could still do it, although she might take a stick.
The wind was colder than she had expected, but the blue sky deepened as she headed out. She put on her mask. She liked it, it kept her warm, it hid her from the world, kept her safe, so she ignored the disdainful looks of the mask-less as they breathed past her. She would not be diverted from her walk. She was determined, her objective was to hug a tree… it was further than she thought and an uphill struggle. She arrived at the crest breathless, mask less and grateful for the bench, but the tree, the tree was not alone.
A young man stood next to it, ill dressed for the weather, just a light hoody, cotton trousers and bare feet. Bare feet! Her well honed late middle age disapproval came to the fore, some half baked hippy perhaps, or a proper tree hugger. Although maybe she shouldn’t disapprove so much, after all she was there to hug a tree. She watched from the bench, a safe distance away, if he was aware of her he didn’t show it. He stood very still, very straight, and, as she watched, he raised his knee and stood on one leg. Then he positioned his foot against his thigh and lifted his arms to the sky.
“Tree pose” he said. Clearly he was aware of her “You should try it.”
“Oh I’m a bit old for all that.”
He lowered his leg and turned to her. “You’re never too old.”
She had known he was going to say that. He was right of course, late middle age was precisely the time to exercise, especially in lockdown. He turned back to the view, repositioned himself and set the pose on the other leg. He was a cliché of all those yoga videos on YouTube. The ones that feature the beautiful young, standing in impossible poses against a magnificent sunset, by the sea, or in the mountains. She looked away and took in the view, time for an old lady to stop looking at a young man.
That night she slept well and rose rested. The walk had done her good, so she resolved to go again that afternoon. This morning though, she would have a little go at tree pose. Well why not?
It was not a resounding success, more of a learning curve and far too much time was spent trying to find an instructor on YouTube who didn’t irritate her. There was talk of savasana, chaturunga, vinyasa, all of which sounded like food. At last, she found a smiley lady whose simple demonstrations and explanations of how this was a practice, always a practice, got her standing on one leg for a second or two without holding the chair, although she should have moved her coffee cup.
He was there again, breathing deeply, on one leg, blocking the tree, so there was still no chance of a tree hug. A little dog shot up to the tree and started barking, it jumped and circled, keen to be heard. His owner called him, he responded, well trained, but trotted first to the bench where she was sitting, breathless. He growled intermittently and sniffed at her feet. “Sorry” said the owner as he passed. “I don’t know what’s got into him today.”
Practice became her day. Her body tensed and centred, her naval drawn to her spine, to support the core… sort of. She pressed into all four corners of her foot, whatever that meant, and her focus (or her dishtri apparently) was on the distant tree, her now regular destination after lunch.
She watched him as he changed his moves. “What’s that one?” She wasn’t going to pretend that she wasn’t interested, that she didn’t come any more to hug the tree, but to watch him stand. “Sun salute” he replied. “It’s warm today, seemed right. How’s your tree pose?” He asked.
She was a little surprised, she could have denied it, but then she realised she had not sat down, that she stood straight, not breathless. “It’s coming on.”
“You’ll have to show me” he said.
“Oh I don’t know about that, I’ll fall down the hill.” He didn’t reply, but stood in tree pose, his stillness silenced them. A family wandered past, a toddler stopped to watch. She imitated, her hands raised above her head, her foot lifted. “She’s doing yoga” her father said.
“Tree pose” said her mum. “God knows why.”
It had been three weeks and she had practiced every day. She was gratified that, even at her age, her muscles could respond, improve and strengthen. She could do this. She could be one of those still, strong humans, who could gaze at a view while strengthening their core.
They didn’t know each other’s name, but she assumed that this moment in his day anchored his lockdown loneliness as it did hers. She took a deep breath, took off her walking shoes and her jacket and positioned herself in mountain pose. She shifted her weight, lifted her knee and guided her foot to her thigh. She didn’t raise her hands above her head, but to her heart and she stayed, still and silent in that view, in the sun, then, with control, she lowered her bare foot to the grass.
“Well done!” He applauded. “Clearly my work here is done.”
They laughed. She stayed a little longer than usual, to see the sun begin to set and then set off home, no longer struggling with breathlessness. “Have a nice life!” He called to her as she set off. She turned and watched as he stretched into a sun salute, gleaming.
He wasn’t there the next day, somehow she had known he wouldn’t be, he was young and lockdown was lifting. This was her chance then, her chance to give the tree that surreptitious hug. She crept up to it as if she would make it jump. She looked up into its branches, leaves were springing green, new life, new hope was harboured in its breath. She pressed against it, her arms barely reached half way, but it was warm and somehow comforting to feel the solid stillness of this living thing. Contented she turned to go, but she was no longer alone. A young woman was standing on his spot. “My husband used to do that.” The stillness shivered and a cold wind whipped up from the valley. “He came here at least once a week for years, said it helped him with his work.”
“It’s a lovely view.” She knew though, she knew he was in the past.
“He was a paramedic, that’s how he got it.”
“I’m so sorry” and when the woman spoke again she knew what voice she would hear, what figure she would see, what photos she would have.
“He was delirious at the end.”
They were sitting on the bench, at a distance. “He said he could see this view, the sun setting, a woman on this bench. He talked to her. I heard him talking to her. He told her to do tree pose.” The young woman paused; she knew what she was saying. “He was a strange soul, loved yoga, obsessed maybe.” Her face crumpled. “Astral projection, is that what they call it, or just madness?” They both paused and looked at the view, fields spread to the horizon, the shining river heading to the sea. “The last thing he said to me” she went on “was – ‘have a nice life’.”