The Churchyard Yew

Catacombes de Paris, Elle Griffiths

Granny always told me that the yew is the tree of death, and that I should never go under it. In college I learned that every single part of the yew, except for the skin of the berry, is poisonous. Even inhaling sawdust from a yew could kill you. I had a great-great uncle, Granny said, or some relation, who died eating berries from a yew, but he did it on purpose. We had a dog who did that and died on accident. After that we never let the dogs near the churchyard anymore.

The yew hunched at the corner of the grassy churchyard. The old people say it cast a shadow on the dead at all times of the day, and I have no evidence to disagree with them. I never saw that churchyard but when the yew’s twisting branches cast shadows like bony fingers stretched over the graves. The tree had frightened me since I was a little girl. I imagined it stooped, curling over the churchyard and making a fist with its dark branches, scooping mounds of soil and bones into its grasp. When my brother told me it had killed the dog, that’s what I imagined, and I pretended to be sick the next two Sundays so I wouldn’t have to go near that churchyard and that tree. 

On the third Sunday, on the walk home from church, I timidly asked him how the tree had killed the dog. He told me the whole tree was poisonous because the yew sucks up all the dead people in the graveyard into its roots, so anybody who eats it eats death. 

“That’s ridiculous,” I told him. “You’re making that up.”

“Ask Granny, then.” He pushed me. “Or go try a berry yourself.”

I ran home crying to make Granny tell him that he was wrong, but I was disappointed. Granny confirmed his words. Then she explained to me that the yew stands guard over the dead. In the corner of the churchyard, it stands sentry; not a bony hand, but a thick wall against all the devils who want to steal the dead. When she was a little girl and her own granny had died, they had rubbed her body with yew leaves to ensure her protection. “When I die you better do the same for me,” she told me. I told her she would never die.

I remembered that, standing in the churchyard under the yew. I remembered it too late, for she was already dead and buried, and the last of the black-dressed funeral-goers were leaving the church. “Fascinating,” my professor had said when I’d told him we had a two thousand year old yew in our churchyard — or so Granny says. He then showed me pictures of an old longbow in a museum somewhere, lectured me about how the wood of the yew was often used in such weapons. But as he did my mind wandered back here, to this churchyard, to Granny. 

She was still alive then. I called her that night. When she answered she sounded tired, more tired than I’d ever heard her. When I asked her again how old the yew was, I had to repeat myself four times. “Lizzie Bell,” she said at last, as if finally realizing who I was. “Are you sick?”

“No, ma’am. I’m fine.”

“What? You haven’t called me in so long, you must be sick. Do they feed you up at that college?”

After I talked to her I called my brother to ask about her hearing. “Can’t she see a doctor?” 

He seemed exhausted by my questions. After all, Granny was ninety-four. “There comes a time,” he said, and then nothing else. Angry, I hung up. The next time I talked to him, he told me Granny was dead.

She had never answered my question, but in the past I’d heard her say it was at least two thousand years old. The Saxons had planted it, or someone, anyway, she said. In the churchyard now, I looked up into the arch of its branches above me and wondered how many funerals it had seen. Hundreds, I was sure. But it had never seen a woman like Granny. 

My brother approached me. Besides the priest, we were the only two that remained. “When do you have to go back to school?” he asked.

I didn’t have an answer. I didn’t want to think about it, or leave. When I looked around the grassy, windy expanse, dotted by glades rippling in sunlight, shadowed with low-running brooks, scraped clean by the cold and the wind, I wondered how I had ever left. This place, this wild, was my home. Granny had known that, too.

The night I left for college we had the bitterest argument we’d ever had. Granny wasn’t an easy woman to live with, and I was determined to be out of her white hair and to shake her — and this place — off my heels. I wanted the science behind the tree of death and history beyond the Saxons. I thought I could be better than this place, this place that has stood for millenia, this place that saw the world empty and will see it empty again. I thought I could be better than Granny.

“I’ll leave tomorrow,” I said.

He looked down, like he was disappointed but not surprised. It was a familiar look on his now-creased face. He often faced me, or rather his shoes, with it. The toe of his shoe kicked at the yew’s mounded root. “You can stay, you know,” he said. “Kids can bunk up. Plenty of room in the house.”

“I need to get back to my classes.” 

“Right. I understand.”

I picked at the bark on the tree. Beneath the dark, rotting exterior, new white flesh bared itself to the fading sunlight. Each branch grew with newness bursting out of the old, ripping away dead flesh before growing old and breaking apart in new birth once more. It was a tree of death but a tree of life, too, for it had seen two thousand years of funerals and births, and if it could speak, it would be a god among us. It would remember Granny climbing up into its branches, a petulant ten year old girl avoiding her prayers; it would tell how she fell and hurt her leg so badly that when she grew old she learned to tell the weather based on the aching in her knee. 

Once, when she told this story for the hundredth time after predicting afternoon showers, my brother asked her what she could see from up in that tree. Her face grew somber and her voice solemn. In the branches of a yew, she said, one could see things unimaginable and unexplainable, things beyond the veil. My brother laughed and told her there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It rained later that afternoon.

I only ever dreaded leaving this place once, one night the summer before college. I was drinking with my friends, and as we drove past the churchyard, I made them park the car so I could scramble over the wall and climb the yew. As I picked my way up its branches I mocked Granny’s morbid solemnity about the tree. When I sat down in the branch and looked around I saw nothing, because it was dark — nothing except stars. And I wept, because I never wanted to leave this place where I belonged. I cried like a baby at the top of that tree. My friends couldn’t coax me down until dawn.

“They’re talking about cutting it down,” my brother said.


“The tree.” He kicked its roots again. “The priest told me it’s busting up the foundation of the church.”

My gaze traveled to the stone church, thirty feet away from the tree. “The roots are that long?”

“How old did Granny say? A thousand years or something?”

“Two thousand. Saxons planted it.” I grew anxious. “They can’t cut it down. It’s a — a historical landmark. It’s just as much a part of the church as the foundation, isn’t it?” 

“Hey, no need to attack me,” he said. “Some of the old people agree with you, too. They’re trying to preserve it, but the priest says they’ve got to pick between the tree and the church, and they’re going to pick the church eventually.”

I said nothing, still peeling back dead bark. They’d tried this once before, when I was a kid. They were worried about the tree roots lifting up coffins, making a mess of the graveyard. Granny led the charge against them. She would have chained herself to that tree before letting any saws come near it. It never came to that, because everyone was afraid of Granny.

Granny belonged here, too. She was just as much a part of this land as the yew tree. I hated when my brother put her away in that nursing home, but I wasn’t about to come back and take care of her myself. It took me years to forgive him for that.

Is that what my life has been? A series of grudges and forgiveness? It had taken me years to forgive Granny, too. To forgive this town for being small, old, superstitious. To forgive myself for leaving. 

“They got some scientist to come measure it, you know,” my brother remarked. “They wanted to prove it was historical. You know how old this guy said it was?” He reached up and grabbed a branch, picking off a long skein of bark. “Less than two hundred years.”

Without answer I reached up to the branch and used it to hoist myself up. He groaned. “Not this again,” he said, because he’d been the one to coax me down last time. 

As I climbed, I imagined ten year old Granny making the same ascent, working her fingers into the same handholds, pressing her feet against a layer of bark long since shattered. The priest had said that death was powerless, that Granny was never truly gone from us because she remained in the old stories we repeated and the memories we hold closest. She was here, like a song in our head, forever, and no power of this world, not sickness nor death, could take that away. 

When I reached the top, I turned my back to the trunk, and I pushed aside the berry-laden branches to look out. The wind made the tears on my face grow cold, but I smiled against it. If Granny was a song in my head, I thought, she’d be a loud song, like the ones that make the old ladies sway and clap in church. The priest was wrong. She wasn’t just alive in stories and memories. She was here — I could feel here — in the yew tree. She lived in the way my brother told his little boy about how Granny could predict the weather with her knee, in the way the wind dried my tears as it always had. She had saved this tree. She may have been dead and buried, but death was nothing in the face of the life she had lived. 

The yew embraced me. “But if you plant a yew tree outside of a churchyard,” I reasoned to her once, “won’t it have nothing dead to eat up, so it won’t be evil?” 

“Let me tell you something, Lizzie Bell, and you listen close,” she said, holding tight to my shoulders. “There is death everywhere in this world, not just in churchyards, and there is nothing evil about it.”

“Lizzie Bell?” my brother called now, worried. “You coming down?”

I wiped my cheeks with the back of my hand. “Yeah. I’m coming.”

About the Author

Allison Whitehead · Mercer University

Allison Whitehead is an undergraduate at Mercer University. Her work has appeared in The Dulcimer, Cumberland River Review, Laurel Moon Magazine, and Deep South Magazine. She was born in Dickson, Tennessee and currently resides in Macon, Georgia.

About the Artist

Elle Griffiths · Drexel University

Elle Griffiths is a senior at Drexel University, studying Secondary English Education. She has several works of nonfiction, poetry, and photography published in Maya Literary Magazine. Elle currently lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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