“This is it,” she said. “Look at the leaves that are around his face. Look at the leaves that are his face. Look at how the branches are sculpted as if they are real. He seems frozen, yet so very much alive.”
“A bit like Brexit,” I responded.
My twin sister looked at me and shook her head.
“Right,” I said. “So, we’ve found the Green Man. Is there a Green Woman as well?” “Not as far as I’m aware,” my sister said. “If we found one, she would be extremely rare.”
My sister stroked the leafy beard of the stone sculpture. It was carved in a pillar, in one of the far corners of the church we visited. We’d driven all the way here just to see this tree figure. My sister was really excited. I was kind of cold and hungry.
“It was a woman who brought the Green Man to people’s attention in the 1930s,” my sister suddenly said. “Before that, people just hadn’t really paid attention to all these foliate heads. The Green Man is in churches all over Britain and Ireland, but people didn’t realise. Can you imagine that? It’s the perfect fusion of pagan beliefs and Christianity. Or, depending how you see it, the Church swallowed paganism whole.”
“And now you want the Green Man to become separate again, and write your thesis about it,” I said.
“Yes,” she nodded. “I want to go back to the roots. Haha, roots, get it?” “I get it.”
“I’m reading a story that features a man dressed like a tree as well,” she said. “What, Macbeth?” I asked.
“No, it’s called Autumn. It’s about Brexit, too.”
“We’re not supposed to talk about Brexit, remember?” I reminded her. “You started it,” she said.
“I did not.” “Yes, you did.”
“I did not. Not really.”
“This is starting to sound like Monty Python,” my sister said. “Don’t mention the Brexit. We promised, remember? Otherwise we would get into a fight, again, and you would blame me for voting Leave, again.”
“Leaf, haha,” I said. “Get it?”
My sister didn’t respond anymore and took out her phone. She made some pictures of the Green Man and we left again. The church had been empty all the time.
“Where shall we go to next?” I asked as I browsed through the travel guide. We were having a week-long holiday in Northern Ireland, at the outer edges of what remained of the British Empire. We’d arrived from London two days ago and crossed the border with Ireland several times yesterday. The first time, I hadn’t even noticed we’d entered the Republic
already, so I was accidentally speeding until my sister kindly reminded me to slow down. Miles aren’t kilometres. My sister’s stance on the Irish border was slightly ambiguous, but we’d promised each other not to fight over it. Well, at least for the duration of our holiday.
“There is one more Green Man I want to view this week, but we could drive up to the Giant’s Causeway tomorrow?” my sister said, but she made it sound like a question. She had done this for as long as I could remember.
“It’s going to rain,” I said, pointing to the sky.
“Well, we could visit this history theme park, which is quite nearby?” she said. She took the travel guide from my hands and showed me the right page. “It’s all about how gruesome and hard life was in Northern Ireland a couple of centuries ago, and they rebuilt houses and hired actors to make it come to life. And then there is a part which is about the immigration to America. It teaches a lot about the immigrant experience, and how life got better for them.”
“Alright, let’s go,” I said, as it started to rain. We drove in silence, until my sister turned on the radio and we listened to an analysis of Boris Johnson’s first speech as PM. His body language was telling, one of the analysts argued. As he was speaking about Brexit, his arm gestures were energetic and open. Whereas when he talked about poverty, his hands were in his pockets.
“I think it’s a good idea to turn this off?” my sister said, but she’d already switched channels before I could answer. We were driving through streets with excessive bunting in red, white, and blue. I had thought politics was everywhere back in London, but I now realised I’d been naive.
“Do you already know what you’re going to write your Master thesis about?” my sister asked. “You’re starting in autumn, right?”
“Yeah, I’m not sure. I thought I had something, but it kind of slipped away.”
I wanted to tell her what I thought and about the various ideas I’d had, just like we used to brainstorm with each other a few years ago. I studied English literature and she studied history, and we’d often be interested to hear each other’s perspectives. To me, my own ideas always felt slightly empty until she became enthusiastic about them. I missed talking to her.
There was music playing softly in the background. We both seemed lost in thought, only interrupted by the satnav telling me which way to go. Honestly, I had no idea where we were exactly, but apparently it was only ten more minutes before we’d reach our destination.
“Wait, stop!” my sister exclaimed. She pointed excitedly to a pub we’d just passed. “Look!” she said. “It’s called The Green Man. It’s a sign.”
“It’s a sign that we should eat something,” I agreed.
Inside, there were only a few customers. They glanced at us and then did a double- take. My sister and I were identical – and very used to this reaction.
There was a doormat with the English crown on it. We wiped our feet and took a seat. “What does the Green Man stand for?” I asked while we were waiting for our chips to arrive.
“Rebirth,” my sister said.
“And what about that novel you’re reading, is it any good? I’m thinking about maybe comparing several Brexit-themed novels for my thesis.”
“We promised-” my sister started to say, but I interrupted her.
“I’m not talking about Brexit!” I said. “Well, not primarily. The main focus is my thesis, right? I was just wondering what you thought about it.”
“I prefer not to talk about it,” my sister said. “Because, somehow, you keep blaming me.”
“But… we should be able to talk about it, right?” I tried. She didn’t respond. I was becoming angry again, but I was tired of fighting, so I directed my attention to the room around me. There was a picture of the Green Man hanging on the wall. It was different from the head we’d seen in the church, which had been covered in leaves. This Green Man’s head had leaves sprouting from all its orifices. He was blinded by the branches, deafened, and bereft of smell. Unable to speak.
“I’d like to visit one of the sites where they filmed Game of Thrones,” my sister said. “That road lined with trees. You know, the Dark Hedges. I saw some great pictures on Instagram that were taken there.”
“I only watched the first season of that series,” I confessed. “One of the few things I can remember is that winter is coming. Well, winter is definitely coming this year. Since we’ll leaf the EU in autumn.”
“Halloween has always been the scariest day of the year, but this time I’m actually a bit worried,” my sister said. “Please don’t say I’ve told you so,” she added.
“Trying not to,” I said. I was honestly trying, because it was the first time I’d really heard some doubt in her voice.
The door of the pub opened, and in came a real Green Man. He was dressed in green clothes and there were branches and leaves all around his body.
“Hello there,” said the Green Man.
“Hi, Tom,” the bartender greeted him. My sister was looking at the Green Man as if her thesis had come to life.
“Why are you dressed up like the Green Man?” my sister asked, curious. “Why not?” the Green Man replied.
“This is unbelievable. I’m actually doing research on the Green Man.” My sister was smiling and took out her phone.
“Do you want to take a picture with me?” the Green Man offered. My sister nodded and took my arm.
“Come on, I want you in the picture as well,” she said. “Do you like being a green man?” I asked.
“I’m not a green man,” he said, earnestly. “There’s only the Green Man and he takes many forms.”
“But why are you doing this?” “Why not?” he repeated.
“This is so exciting, I can’t believe this is happening,” my sister exclaimed. She took the picture.
It was all over in a flash.
Written by Suzanne Korteweg
Suzanne Korteweg received second place in the 2019 One Book One Campus contest. Students of Utrecht University College and Utrecht University alike were invited to create a response to Ali Smith’s Autumn. We thought Suzanne wrote a wonderful piece that responded well to Smith’s style and subject. Green Women is a beautiful narrative that entertains and mesmerizes both dependent on and wholly independent from Autumn. How would you interpret this piece? Let us know in the comments what you think!