Book extract: The Burning Bracken
The sun had crested the rim of the hill and shone down between the trees where the heads of the sorrel opened and turned their purple veins to the coming light. In the clearing below, bugles had broken the earth with their blue spears, spreading in formation across the exposed ground.
On the slope, Evan began to ready himself, taking hold of the long handle of the winch with both hands and digging his heels into the woodland floor. The hill rose sharply, so that the roots of the upper trees grew high above the tips of their cousins below. As he dug in, he crushed the fat blades of the ramsons into the soil, releasing more of their pungent sweetness into the air.
Across from him, Rhys bent over the chainsaw and yanked at the starter rope. The engine fired but did not start, and a pair of wood pigeons blustered away through the branches. He tugged again, and the woods throbbed with the violent rasping of the saw. He bent low next to the tree and began the first sink cut into the trunk.
The blade bit into the flesh of the tree and the bright, white innards sprayed out in a heavy mist across the ramsons. Evan began to work the winch, feeling the rumble of the saw through the handle as he moved it back and forth. It was still cold and the streaks of sunlight through the trees shone on his steaming breath.
Rhys moved to the rear of the tree and began the felling cut. Evan could see the trunk beginning to lean as he shortened the cable with the winch, directing the path of its fall away from the other trees. Rhys stepped away from the tree and called. Evan let go of the winch as the cable grew slack and moved quickly behind the anchor-tree next to him.
The birch gave a bow then flung itself at the ground, fracturing branches and skidding a short way down the slope before coming to rest. With the chainsaw still running, Rhys came away from the raw stump that remained and made his way down to begin butchering the tree.
Evan watched him as he worked. His face was hidden behind the visor of his forestry helmet, but the delight was clear in his movements as he trimmed the branches away. Rhys loved his work and despite his stocky frame, skipped nimbly over the slashed and silvery trunk, methodically dismembering the boughs from the narrow body. Evan reached down and unhooked the strop from the anchor tree. He was about to fold it together when something made him look away and up the wooded slope.
High above them, someone was moving amongst the trees. The figure vanished, then re-appeared, the outline dark against the sun for a moment before disappearing again. Whoever it was, they were making their way across the hill.
Evan dropped the strop and started moving briskly up the slope, cutting a steep path through the woods. He looked upwards, trying to track the movement through the trees. The holly grew thick between the trunks and twice forced him off-course, so that when he felt he had drawn level with the stranger, there was no sight of them ahead.
He stopped to listen but could hear nothing above the noise of the saw working below. There was only stillness. Alone amongst the trees, he leant against one of the slender columns to catch his breath, feeling the crisp body of the lichen beneath his glove. The woods came to an end a short way ahead and rather than pursue the stranger any further, he turned instead in the direction from which they had come.
He traced what he thought must have been their path. When he reached the boundary of the woods, he examined the stock fence and found it bowed at the corner post. The staples were loose, and the wire deformed.
By the time he made his way back, the sawing had stopped. Rhys removed his helmet, held up a gloved hand and sniffed one of the logs he had cut.
‘Having a moment, were you? Smell that,’ he said and thrust the log under Evan’s nose. ‘You can’t beat that smell. Lovely. This one’s good for carving as well. Look at that. Beautiful.’
‘There was someone up there you know,’ Evan said. ‘I saw them.’
Rhys shrugged. ‘What are you going to do about it?’ he said.
‘Who do you think it was?’
‘I don’t know, do I,’ Rhys said, picking up another log. ‘Could be ramblers, kids, Scouts, anyone. Are you going to help me with this wood or not?’ Evan joined in, the two of them sorting through the wood and grading it into different piles. He kept glancing back up the hill.
‘Why are you so bothered anyway?’ Rhys asked.
‘Whoever it is, they’re wrecking the fence.’
‘I can let Gwilym know if it makes you feel better.’
‘What’s it to do with him?’
‘They’re his woods.’
‘These were Dad’s woods,’ Evan said, putting down the wood he was carrying. ‘I thought they were yours now?’
‘No, no. Dad sold these before he went. They’re Gwilym’s now. He lets me take a tree from them when one needs taking out. Like this one here.’
‘He didn’t tell me he’d sold them. I thought all the woods went to you?’
‘All the woods? There’s the pines at home and you’ve got them. No, the woods are long gone. Suppose he didn’t want to hurt your feelings. Besides,’ he said, lifting the saw onto his shoulder, ‘you’d only have cut them all down if you’d thought it meant more grazing for your sheep.’ He carried the winch away towards the waiting trailer.
Evan had found their father dead in the bottom field, lying on his back, as if asleep. A waxcap was growing close to his ear and the sheep were still grazing indifferently about him. He had felt the dampness of the dew in his dad’s hair as he held him and waved the flies away from his lips. He wondered now what else the man had kept from him before his mouth closed forever that morning and the fingers of grass stole his warmth away.
‘We loading up then?’ Rhys said as he came over. ‘It’s not that good for burning. Leave it to season at least six months. Don’t try burning it before then. It’ll go quickly as well.’
Evan adjusted his gloves and picked up the coiled cable, slinging it across his shoulder. Before he turned to head back to the trailer, he looked away again and up into the woods above.
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