Poetry: BELLA AND THE WYCH-ELM by Jessica Drake-Thomas

Poetry: BELLA AND THE WYCH-ELM by Jessica Drake-Thomas


Based on the occurrences in Hagley Wood in 1943.

Four boys found her
on a Sunday morning
playing King Arthur’s court.
Lancelot hit the tree with
a stick-sword,
her jaw fell out
of a crack in the old elm-tree,
its trunk squat and ancient.
Her weathered skull,
a bird’s nest still firmly
tucked like a crown
within her brunette hair,
tumbled out next,
clunking grimly
on the ground
beside the scattered bones
of her left hand.

Gawain screamed,
and the King turned pale,
while Lancelot and Perceval
turned and ran.  

The words, like wildfire, began to appear
on the schoolyard’s brick wall,
and the dumpster behind the grocery store,
emblazoned across the hermit’s house
(he might have done it himself
sometime in the night),
the Wychbury church’s sign, and
the cemetery’s lone obelisk
in white chalk:

Who put Bella in the Wych Elm?
Who put
in the witch-tree?

The bones and flesh of the tree
have enveloped Bella,
fingers closing in a fist.

Bella? Who put you here?
Speak. Will you

Her jawbone detached,
mouth a slack-jawed scream
as her teeth fall out,
the faded taffeta
behind her chin
the only bit
left holding it in



of its secrets.

In the gloom,
a dry whisper,
as green wick twigs
from her pug-like nose
and weeds blossom
from her eye


I don’t want anyone
to see me like this.

There’s a nakedness—
an honesty found only in death,
that the living can’t respect.

I can’t speak for myself,
so they all speak of me,
breath from their lungs,
dust from the chalk.

I can see it again—the cycle
where people start
to fail me.
Then silence as

woman becomes tree,
tree becomes woman
woman becomes skeleton

and alone.

Until the police come

and wrestle her from
the grave
to poke and pry
apart what’s left.
Try to piece together
a woman, a corpse
that’s already
a few navy-blue striped rags
with the tags
cut out,
peach taffeta underthings,
battered shoes,
a fake wedding ring,
and silence.

Who put

Rumors ebb and die.

Bella sits in a box
at the morgue,
dreaming of the shelter
of trees
and a winter morning
when the stars faded.

I remember, she says
to no one, for
who listens
to a pile of bones?

I remember when
I had two lips,
a tongue. Skin.
Breasts, thighs.
To do lists, long drives,
wine, warm blankets.
I, too, experienced
hunger, desire.
I had a voice.

Historical Notes

“Who put Bella in the Wych Elm? is graffiti which first appeared in 1944 following the 1943 discovery of the skeletonised remains of a woman by four children inside a wych elm in Hagley Wood, Hagley (located in the estate of Hagley Hall), in Worcestershire, England. The victim—whose murder is approximated to have occurred in 1941—remains unidentified, and the current location of her skeleton and autopsy report is unknown.” (Source, Wikipedia)