There was once a child born to a woodcutter and his wife, a child so beautiful that the midwife, lifting him from the sodden mess of the birthing sheets, nearly dropped him. ‘Saints preserve us,’ she murmured, crossing herself.
The mother, raising her head from the mattress, looked at her son. ‘O,’ she said. A long, low sound. Her mouth a perfect, round simulacrum of the letter.
His was, you see, a beauty so surprising, so arresting that it was impossible to look away. The mind got snagged on those wide blue eyes, the long lashes, the perfect symmetry of his lips. The other mothers of the village sneaked away from their houses, from their own children, to climb the steep path to woodcutter’s cottage and peer in at the windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of this astonishing child. Time and time again, the infant’s mother would let the bread scorch in the stove, the milk overboil, the stew burn hard to the bottom of the pan because she was distracted by the sight of her son’s face.
If anything, he grew more beautiful with each passing year. By the time he was three a mass of white-blond curls haloed his face. His mother carried him close, passing through crowds of people who said, ‘O,’ and turned to see them go.
By the time he was fifteen, things came to a head. The problem was that when he walked down the main street, the girls of the village turned away from their work. They left their churning, their spinning, their baking. They put aside brooms, skillets, washing dollies, hot irons, whisks, mangles. They let slip from their hands their needles, their mops, their polishing cloths. They crowded into windows, they stoppered up doorways, they clustered at the pavement edges, just for a glimpse of his burnished curls in the breeze, the flex of his hand as he gripped the shaft of his axe, the muscled movement of his legs inside his woodcutter britches. ‘O,’ they sighed to each other, to him, to anyone who would listen. ‘O, o, o.’
The village elders called a meeting. It wouldn’t do, this kind of slipshod, female behaviour. And in the streets, too. Would it be possible, someone said, for the woodcutter’s boy to wear some kind of cloak or covering, so that the womenfolk wouldn’t see him as he passed by? But, someone else pointed out, how was the boy to perform his duties as a woodcutter, wearing a cloak? No, it was best all round if the womenfolk could be fitted with eye-shields, much as horses were, to prevent them from getting distracted.
The village elders called a meeting. It wouldn’t do, this kind of slipshod, female behaviour.
The idea was an unparalleled success. The laundry was ironed. The bread was baked. The ranges were blackened and gleaming, just as before. True, the women complained about the eye-shields, said they hurt, were too tight, caused headaches. But the work got done. All was right in the village.
It just so happened that three girls who lived on the other side of the forest walked out from their village one day, with baskets to fill with blaeberries. They walked a little further into the trees than they normally did, and then a little further and further again, until they came upon a clearing. Through the hazels, the blackthorns, the red-berried rowans, they saw a boy bringing down the gleaming blade of an axe with a single, clean movement. They saw his halo of curls, the fit of his shirt, the deep water blue of his eyes. The heart-shaped leaves above him trembled and fluttered, showing their pale undersides. ‘O,’ the eldest girl said, bringing up a purple-stained hand to cover her open mouth. ‘O,’ said the middle one. ‘O,’ said the youngest.
The boy glanced up. He thunked his axe deep into the trunk of the lime tree and left it there for a moment while he wiped his brow with a handkerchief that the girls immediately coveted. He looked at them; they looked back at him. Then he shrugged and picked up his axe again. He was quite used to women gawping at him.
But having never seen the boy before in their lives, the girls from the other side of the forest were even more struck by him than the women from his own village. His effect on them was ten times as strong, twenty times more devastating. They stood and stood and stood. ‘O,’ they said. ‘O.’ They stood there for a long time, well after dark and into the night, well after the woodcutter’s boy had packed up his tools and gone home. So long, in fact, that their toes began to curl downwards, into the soil. They reached their arms out for him – ’Please, please’ – but he did not come to them. Their arms became stuck: stretched out, scooping at empty air. Their toes, deep in the soil now, like roots, would no longer move. Their skins hardened and turned brown in the sun. And still they murmured, ‘O.’ Very soon in the grove of lime trees there were three new trees, the likes of which had never been seen before.
The boy’s father, chancing upon them one day, circled them once, twice, three times. ‘Hmm,’ he said, fingering one of their strange leaves. His son said nothing.
And this is how the oak tree came to life. The noise when the wind passed through their leaves – a wistful, longing sort of sound, like a sigh, like a sob – lent itself to the name the villages gave these unusual trees: O, they called them. O trees. Which, after a while, because it was easier to say, became ‘oak’.
The oak’s leaves are the shape of the last thoughts that passed through the girls’ heads. Wavy, curled. Massed together, in spring, and at Lammas, they look like a halo.