Oliver’s father, before he left, said the old books were scrawled in ink on birch from Kashmir long ago, crumpled to dust. When the frost coated the birch branches Oliver picked them up, coating his hands in a glassy silver crust. Birches dotted the coast and moorland, coddled in icy hungry lichens.
They were up from London to help with the shaving. On Sundays Oliver brought the soft brush—ivory, his brother Philip horror-whispered—and a bowl of foam. His mother gave his grandfather a beard and ran the blade swish about the planes of his face, scraping dark peat and smoothing the skin with a damp towel.
He was as tall as a blunt nub on the birch bark, a ripple made large. Oliver placed the razor at the end of a paper curling, and stripped paint curls to his feet till he laid bare muscled striations of wood and gasped. He pocketed the scraping and removed the flesh around the pencil so he could rasp the lead against the page of his notebook, which said: Oliver Graham, eight, Leith, Edinburgh, Lothian, Scotland, United Kingdom, Planet Earth, heaps of freckles.
At home he lined up the tip of his thumb with the base of the left doorway and flicked a red marble down the way to knock out the bit of wall that covered the mouse hole, which now cradled the bark, blade, and paper in a handkerchief.
The rowans slanted on the hillside; there were no clues to their dangling fleshy jewels heaving wet pomegranate blood and eleventhumbed palms, but pale, soft glowing arms humming like the moon. He dug in his feet and trudged upward through the ooze. Oliver dried a patch of bark with his jacket and took a rubbing in red crayon.
Running back to school he slipped and trudged and the girls laughed and shouted you look like a bog monster. Outside there were a couple of older boys. Lookitim, croaked one. Smearing himself.
After school he trudged up Leith Walk for the first time. It was farther away than he remembered. He couldn’t see past his anorak and ran thwack into bellies.
He pressed number 1.
Who is it? His grandfather bellowed.
Do you want some duck? Orange. Vitamin C irritates the stomach.
Oliver smelled a plate of ripe chicken with currant jelly, which he nevertheless licked clean.
Afterwards he asked to skim stones by the sea. His grandfather said no: All the ash trees in the north were going to die. Manannán mac Lir, who kept them from drowning, was on strike. The waves were too sharp and the stones were too round.
A strike means you don’t get the post and rubbish runs through the streets and into the water, his grandfather growled.
Waves spiraled and slackened against the rocks. Far away locomotives crossed the Forth Bridge, back and forth, along the firth. Then, up: the Firth of Forth a fortunate fjord. Fie on the Firth, said his grandfather. That’s Fife, to the North.
Oliver saw a mountain of sharp rocks. Stumps in the sand. Moss everywhere. His grandfather said: If you tell three lies it breaks. If you tell three truths it becomes whole.
Oliver furrowed his brow and yawned so they could go home. They turned around, listening to a harp in the distance.
Saturday afternoon he followed his mother and the Water of Leith to the New Town. Oliver dallied at the alders, his other brothers: Up close his face was splotchy-freckled; a brown-and-tan giraffe. His mother’s pink and white like their sister, a freckly fetus. The alder’s freckles, grey and fat-marbled, in sanctuary from the wild cows. Gently he took the scratching.
Barbershop hour. Men queued for his mother in a black smock. Oliver whirled in the spinney chair. When he lost his balance he kicked out his left leg to stop. A wallop flipped his ankle.
Whose bastart is this! shouted a round rosy man.
His mother sent him out. It was warm and the land dripped. Oliver saw a seeping marsh speckled with pinecones and took off his anorak to lie as if on a bed of nails in the Guinness Book. He slipped and was spattered in mud.
When he came back Oliver wore only a smock and hid with his notes in the cupboard, which had an extra chair. At six they walked home. Ravens cawed.
You can’t do this, you know. You don’t look like me.
Dad said come home.
Amn’t I your mother? You’ve got no father.
November was warm and windy; Monday the whole school munched sleepy apples and heard the choir hum from under the billowing willow, draped shaggily in whips and leaves. The Lord didn’t want a Shepherd. They were calmed, ovine, to gentle standing slumber.
Oliver slipped behind the tree and reviewed his notes: The birch bark. The red rowan. The spongy ash. The cow-splotched alder. He could make a poembook like the ones his father did for their mother, or the one when Philip was born, to Philip. One when Oliver was born, for Oliver. One for the sister, when she arrived.
After pressing paper against the damp willow, Oliver tucked the notes in Robinson Crusoe when Philip rounded the tree and hissed, Get back there.
They’ll eat us, said Oliver.
When Oliver returned, everyone was snorewhistling, chests puffed outward like frogs. When the rain came they chirped and hopped indoors.
He was about to ring the bell when he heard, from outside, a scream into the telephone.
Days had passed; everything dried. After school he began to join the others for football. On the walk home he tore a page rubbing crumbly hawthorn bark. He folded the layers and pressed them taut and brushed them in circles with a black crayon. There was enough wax to smudge his fingers. Laid bare the bush was flat, sprinkling fingers singed of flesh and flower, all thornscratches. Inky and coal-smudged he continued home alone again.
Months ago, back in Cricklewood, they lived next door to an older Chinese couple with a kitchen full of flowers. Sometimes they gave Oliver and Philip toast with ruby-studded hawthorn jam.
One evening their father burst in to pick them up. As Oliver’s mother tried to follow in, he slammed the door and shouted, Latinless lass says I’m never there. Ecce homo!
But today, the scream. He and Philip were led, quickly, for a walk by the sea.
After the overnight to London and the bus to Neasden they woke up Friday to the winter solstice. At their father’s parents’ home, they were told not to go the sitting room, where the body was being prepared.
Their father’s father told Philip in a slow growl to spot their father’s forehead with sandalwood paste and to walk circles round the casket in Sanskrit. Their father’s mother objected, He hasn’t even got our name, and let them go.
Limpid English poets—whistlers and buffoons, their mother chastised—lining the stairwell, murmuring; Oliver heard the high feline howl from his aunts in the kitchen. A plump silkwrapped moon of auntie scooped him up by the underarms and clutched him to her neck. I’m sorry about your baba, she wept. Oliver jumped from her clutch and fell.
He stumbled jambrained out the storm door to the oak in the dark, listening to the creaky house chant and wail. Outside the wind hollowed the ground like a steep-sided valley. Tears froze and numbed his cheeks. His hands pickled in his pockets, but he scraped chalk against the paper and folded up dry leaves.
At Christmas, from the barber’s chair, Oliver’s mother was told a church in Leith held dinner every year. The pig’s apple swallowed your pride, their grandfather scoffed—he was spending Christmas with the army men—as the rest of them left.
They waited, sitting in basement beds that smelt of matted hair. Beady holly with waxen teeth; sprinkly pines, needly lightfruits. Bales of turkey hair, slippery snake beans, a viscous gurgle of cake. A holiday of mouths, eating chomp chomp chomp, gulping, smacking, whistling, clucking, nibbling, spitting, coughing. Outside, his mother, in a cloud of cigarettes and laughter with a blurry baton. Jamjars splayed spilt currantguts. Puddingsludge and ducksflesh and teaglugs.
At home Oliver joined the army men in a bale of smoke. While his mother was on the phone his grandfather gave him a Swiss Army knife and a two-pound coin.
Glueslick the dry leaves curled upwards from the page; he tamped them down with his fist and slicked them down again. There was too much sticky sludge for it to dry. The library filled with fumes.
Oliver, where’s your book? demanded Mr. Stubbs.
This is my book of trees, said Oliver.
Get a book from the shelf. No glue in the library.
I don’t want another bloody book!
Oliver was sent to the headmaster’s, at the end of the basement corridor, which reeked of sulfur. He waited in the wooden chair outside the door, counting the number of ways his legs could cross. He reached fifteen when the headmaster shouted his name. There was a small chair, bent and dismantled. Oliver dangled his legs from the other one.
Neither glue nor foul language are permitted in the library.
I’m making a book for my father, Oliver explained.
I know, said the headmaster, but it won’t bring him back.
Afterwards in the loam Oliver found a curlicue-branched hazel tree, which he gently shook, fruitlessly, for filberts, in whose dust his grandfather liked to fry bright, oily salmon.
They put hands on shoulders and ankles on heads and could not leap lightly like spring frogs. Oliver, wizened, nibbled sultanas on a bench in the Meadows.
In school we have been waiting for the tadpoles, he said.
His grandfather snorted. It’s too bloody cold.
Why can you curse? Oliver demanded.
Because you understand what I mean, said his grandfather, but not what you do.
When dusk fell, they walked to the pub where his mother worked Sunday lunch. She was rubbing the glasses of their spots. His grandfather ordered a glass of burgundy for himself and a Coke for Oliver, who didn’t like Coke, because it tasted only recognizably as itself.
Why do you suppose he drowned? Oliver asked. He can swim.
Why can you drink and he can’t?
It’s because he was a lazy wog. Always running off. In my day poets weren’t bloody drunks.
Am I a polliwog?
It’s OK, lad. You’re not from here.
He stopped asking where his father was buried. He was nowhere, dried and burnt and again with the sea.
Outside he plucked some stems and leaves and vowed to ink them. When he came back, his mother, behind the bar, and a drunk demanding drink smacked away. It was four and the light filtering through the ivy-covered windows snuffed out. A glow came only from the bar. Oliver was cocooned in loud, awful cobwebs.
The wind may bla’, the cock may cra’, the rain may rain, and the sna’ may sna’, they sang, gurgling and coughing.
It’s about an execution, his grandfather explained cheerily. Plug your ears.
Oliver put one finger in each ear. He was underwater.
Come, lad, said his grandfather. Let’s go home.
I don’t want to, said Oliver, wincing. I like this song.
They went to the sea, but only to the walk. It was not quite raining—the coast was shrouded in mist—and their feet were stuck in sand clods and mudclumps.
Oliver asked, Was it because of Manannán mac Lir? He abandoned the sea.
It’s all the same sea, he said. Dad told me about two French giants who burnt their village and attacked cities and went sailing. Then they bought all these animals in Asia and sailed through clouds of sound. And the church was run by birds.
It’s not Manannán mac Lir’s fault, said his grandfather. He doesn’t decide. He isn’t human. He’s got no shape.
I’m going to do archery. To fight off sea monsters. Oliver ran ahead, leaping long strides. On the way back he saw a birch covered in hair. He took a rubbing: It was the same as the first.
Their father’s mother came to Edinburgh to help with the baby, who still hadn’t arrived. She took their room. Oliver and Philip slept on their grandfather’s floor.
I think she’s a witch, whispered Philip once they heard snoring.
Don’t be superstitious, yawned Oliver.
Both her eyes are evil. She makes smelly tea from nettles. She won’t let us call her gran. Or anything really. She tells Mum not to work or she’ll kill the baby. She tries to rub us with garlic. I had some elderflower cordial and she goes don’t be a drunk like your dad, said Philip.
Her head and shoulders and icicle fingerclaws were housed in a woolly black shroud. For breakfast she made an oily, groaty porridge. She sent cold tins of curry with them to school, left from dinner.
Oliver came in at dusk with the tree book. Do you want to poison your sister? she demanded, shaking the sticky muddy book; she shrieked when a piece of elder bark tumbled out.
The hospital walk was new and coated his soles in frozen coal. In the thaw Oliver saw the tracks of Christmas needles in fourfold forks, short green snakes, bleached dry, plumped up, mashed.
The tree book was ready and tucked in Oliver’s jumper. They washed their hands and wore pea-soup scrubs.
Oliver asked, Can I give her the book?
A nurse laughed. It’s filthy, and led them to the ward. His mother was being handed the baby, Isobel, who from a distance looked like a cooked tomato vine. Up close she was paler, rosier, with muddy silt on her scalp and large blue-black eyes. When Oliver took out the tree book he was shoved, gently, out of the room.
Afterwards the pines sprung lush shocks of hair against the winter chalk. He enjoyed their height and sturdiness and kicked the bark with springy trainers. He felt like a ball. Oliver took rubbings of the pine, all over, full of knots, and pressed his soles against the page.
Filtered through diaphanes the sun plucked his spine like a harp. His grandfather said that after the vernal equinox he had several extra seconds to live each day.
At night he had a terrible dream; he and Philip and his mother and his grandfather took a broomstick offered by their father and watched the witches, led by his father’s mother, dancing in a ravine, thick with furze and bramble and thorn and kudzu; screeching in the dry swamp.
Then emerged Isobel, many months bigger than now, with dumpling limbs and raspberry mouth, giggling and smiling. She took Oliver by the hand and, larger and with their father’s mother’s face, dragged him into the sea. He screamed and found himself at the top of a hill and vale. There was a witch wedding. They danced and ate each other.
When he woke he found a furze and tried to take a rubbing but it crumpled to dust, like the old books.
In the warm sun Oliver and Philip discovered sugar-floss clouds of heather down the hill, dotted with bells and bees, much to the dismay of Philip, who was allergic. Oliver plucked the blossoms and spread them thin in the notebook so they bled into the page, over time.
They went home for some buttered toast with honey before he crept out again. Afterwards he practiced tumbling downhill. He turned himself into a sphere. He curved his arms like a straw. He flexed his feet so he went flop flop. Finally he let himself go, rolling, rolling all the way down till he reached the soft pink duvet at the bottom.
When he opened his eyes at dusk the pinks flooded together like his eyelids and he heard Philip shout his name from the top of the hill. Oliver bolted upwards.
Isobel, at once in eight large gowns, was baptized Easter Sunday; they arrived at the candleflickering church as dawn fluttered over the horizon. Unable to comprehend the minister’s musical growl, Oliver and Philip wrote anagrams on the back cover of the tree book.
Eucharist: Reach suit, air chutes, at ice rush?
Baptism: Bats imp, map bits?
Presbyterian: rabies ten pry, bairn tree spy, nearby priest?
Easter, rat see, as tree?
After chocolates and ham, they all walked home through the wood. There were poplars, riddled with diamond bullet holes, sprouting their last breaths: white earclouds for leaves. When he took a rubbing the paper wrinkled and he ran to a flowering dogwood; Oliver picked up fine twigs and twined them into little letters X.
He was nine now. Oliver saw the ancient yew in Fortinghall, thick and dark as a storm cloud and older than time; he took rubbings and traced its vines. Meanwhile, he had taken up archery; he and Mr. Stubbs aproned slender columns with large gazing eyes, which lived, somehow, when they were shot at.
The tree book was in pieces; the mousehole and his notebook and last year’s notebook. Still, sometimes he took rubbings from tombstones: The letters were firm and sharp with fine-haired serifs. There was, of course, no tomb for his father. But there were some for Oliver and his mother and Philip and his grandfather and even Isobel.
One day he dropped the book. He didn’t again see it till the following week, and the following. It said Tree Encyclopedia by O. Graham. Then:
O. Gr ham
O. G ham
h, at long last, long forgotten.