DANIEL SAT ON the damp earth between two buttress roots of the massive fig tree. They rose up beside him like the walls of a confessional, obscuring parts of him, but not all. He imagined these stanchions closing around him in a wooden embrace – if he stayed there long enough they’d seal him inside the tree’s trunk like an embryo, one never destined to grow or even to be born.
And yet this tree had already birthed him once, sent a new version of a boy forth into the world, a version with no mother to show him the way. Sixteen years later and he was still looking for direction, still searching for a life not controlled by the crime that had taken his mother from him.
He closed his eyes and thought about string and lessons and another time.
His mother had brought the ball of string with her to the park that day so she could show him that the tree’s girth was almost as great as its height. She traced the string in and out and over the many pleat-like folds of the fig’s trunk.
‘It’s like drawing the lines on a map,’ she said. ‘A contour map.’
He hadn’t understood what she meant – she’d only just taught him to hold up three fingers when anyone asked him his age – but he liked to watch her hands do or build things, so it didn’t matter.
It took her a while, but eventually the string traced right round the tree. She marked the length, shook it free, and laid it on the ground in one straight line. He looked along the length of it – his mother quite far away at one end, and himself at the other – then up to the tree’s top. Up, down, up, down, he looked, until he could see what she meant.
Daniel always marvelled at this memory, the clarity of it. His memories of his mother mostly lacked feature or form.
Now, he opened his eyes and looked at the other trees in the park. Last night’s rain had washed bark and leaves clean, brightened the place. Eucalyptus trunks, normally desert-combat colours, were lit by moisture in the early light to reveal fiery patches as orange as a goldfish. His mother’s tree – the fig – looked dark and sombre in comparison. Or maybe the darkness was in him and the tree was in fact glistening, deliriously drunk on rain.
He closed his eyes again and turned the soil of memory, dug through it, felt the filth of it under his nails, in his thoughts. The earthworm scent of real soil and damp bark did bring a few memory seeds to the surface. Here were kaleidoscopic images, ones he’d had before: long fingers, a silver cross dangling from an earlobe, tan lines on pale skin. He tried to grab at these fragments, gather them together and give them form, his mind working like a dreamcatcher. But today, as any other, the fragments remained frustratingly disordered, and before long they had disappeared again.
He wouldn’t tell his grandmother about seeing the silver cross. He still remembered her response when, as a boy, he’d first told her about having this vision.
‘He had a god?’ she had demanded, and there was the sound of something breaking in the sink.
He knew now that she hadn’t expected an answer from him. But at the time he believed that she had, and he’d cried because then, as now, he couldn’t give her one.
She’d gone to extra lengths that day to lay out as many new images of men’s faces as she could fit across her small kitchen table; wouldn’t let him up from his chair until he’d studied them all. But despite her years of effort, her scrapbooks held few faces that might bear any resemblance to his mother’s – her daughter’s – killer. And many of the men whose images were glued to the pages had earned their place there for no other reason than Dan – unable to stand looking for evil any more that day – had offered up any old face as sacrifice, just to appease her.
His grandmother didn’t cut men’s faces from magazines and newspapers anymore. Even she came to see the pointlessness of that particular madness. The man who murdered his mother would be even less recognisable to Daniel now at nineteen than he had been when he was that three-year-old boy, bewildered by the speed with which a knife could do harm. And so this criminal, who may or may not still have a silver cross dangling from his ear, lived freely, his face now conveniently camouflaged by age.
HE SCOOPED A handful of loamy earth and sifted it between the fingers of one hand into the other until nothing remained except a thin film of brown dust. The act made him think of a night when he’d slipped out the back door of his home, lifted the latch on the gate in the fence and entered the bush: he couldn’t have been more than seven or eight.
He hadn’t taken a torch. Hadn’t needed one. A full moon silvered the trail and led him easily to the tree where he sat now. Most boys would have been afraid of going into the bush at night, he supposed, but Daniel had never considered himself like most boys. Circumstances had always set him apart, and he had already set upon the path of disregarding risk; making his arms-wide challenges to the world. C’mon, I dare you. Calling on the night – on life – to do its worst; knowing daylight was no safer and that the worst had already been done.
Someone had put a rock through the council lighting again that night, and with its unnatural brightness removed, the giant fig made a more impressive cut-out against the creamy moonlit sky. Seeing the tree’s great girth had opened the way for that one small but honest memory of his mother’s measuring, with no length of string required.
The night had been warm; that memory was fixed too. No breeze to speak of. Still but not hushed. Fruit bats squabbled over the fig’s bounty and there was the odd splat as their shit hit the timber picnic table beneath it. An owl sang a couple of bars and things scraped and rustled among the low scrub beside the path. But not even the eerie cry of a curlew fazed him, despite it being the sound he’d come to think of as the last one his mother might have made, if she’d had the chance.
He had nestled back into the comfortable alcove formed by the two fins of the fig’s trunk, just as he was doing now. The memorial plaque his grandmother had screwed to the tree’s trunk gave off a soft sheen in the moonlight. Both tree and earth felt cool through his summer short pyjamas. He sat cross-legged, inspected the bare sole of each foot, which he could see, even in the dull light, were filthy. And he scooped the dirt, held fistfuls above his thighs and allowed the soil to trickle out so that it formed a small pyramid on each bony knee. He had wondered about its contents as he did this – he could remember that still, what tiny grains it might contain. Although he didn’t know the terms of composition back then – minerals, sand, clay; he hadn’t been old enough.
At nineteen, Daniel didn’t think of soil this way either. Whenever he held soil in his hands, he thought about holding the cells of a thousand – a million – different people. He held bones and teeth and nails and hair, all those things that remained long after the features by which people were recognised had gone. Perhaps he’d known more about the content of soil as a boy than he’d given himself credit for. That it was an anointment he undertook.
THE SKY WAS cruelly blue after the rain, far too generous a colour for his mood. Daniel scowled, tried to shame it into clouds. It glared back at him.
He picked up a jagged rock from the ground and pitched it into space. Given the sky began at the ground, it didn’t matter that the rock didn’t go far or high. He could lash out at the sky with his shoe if he wanted to, or jab at it with his fist, and imagine inflicting violence against it. What he envied most about this great cloche of blue was that it could absorb any manner of assault and show no trace of it.
The tree, on the other hand, had none of the sky’s impunity.
He took satisfaction in tracing the scars he’d left upon its trunk. He didn’t remember the exact moment of each, only the mood that had driven them – the same mood that made him want to punch at the sky today.
Now, he pressed a fist into one of the cavities he’d gouged into the muscle of the trunk with a pocketknife, rested the other hand on a cluster of iron nailheads whose thick square-cut shafts he’d pictured shearing the tree’s fibres as he pounded them in. He’d taken pleasure in seeing how sap had oozed and congealed around these wounds; that the tree had needed to take steps to heal itself.
And all the while he carried the irrepressible urge to inflict more.
Shifting his hand from the trunk, he traced the line of one low branch – the kind a child would enjoy swinging from. A collection of thin aerial roots grew about halfway along, and he imagined their slow but determined pursuit of the ground; a commitment that would take them years to achieve but one on which the future integrity of the limb depended.
He took a pocketknife from his jeans and opened the blade, gripped the fledgling roots in one hand and sliced them off at the bark with the knife.
After that, he quickly left, took the long way home. He had to share this place with his grandmother and had no desire for her to arrive, as he knew she would soon, and look upon him with shame.
TUESDAY AGAIN. NANCE tore a black heavy-duty garbage bag from the roll under the sink and put on her wide-brimmed hat and gardening gloves. She eased an arm through each strap of her daypack and headed for the front door. The contents of the pack tapped against her spine with each step down the front stairs of her granny flat. She glanced back towards the main house. Its windows mirrored the sun’s glow, brightening its otherwise plain facade. All seemed quiet inside.
The gate in the back fence opened noiselessly. Nance knew Daniel kept it well oiled so his comings and goings went undetected, but she noticed more than he realised.
She took the narrow cut-through that she and Daniel had forced into being over the years and followed it until she reached the main trail. Nance moved slowly, looked left and right as she went, the garbage bag scratching against the scrub alongside the track. She stooped to pick up cigarette butts, muesli-bar wrappers, tissues and water bottles along the way, dropped each piece of litter into the bag. Organic waste – apple cores, banana skins, orange peel – she left to rot. She picked the items up without judgement or anger. It was merely a task – a purpose – that she’d set herself a long time ago.
Four women walking two-by-two came down the trail towards her, each slick as seals in lycra. Their arms pumped like pistons, their feet stamped in sync; all were talking, none were listening. They blazed past. Nance had to put the garbage bag behind her and squeeze to the side of the track to let them through. She watched them march off, thought about how they moved without lightness. How there was a kind of violence to the way their feet struck the trail. How they saw nothing, were merely commuters.
Alone again, Nance resumed her careful search for things that didn’t belong.
The bag was half full by the time the picnic area came into view. Nance carried it slung over one shoulder like Father Christmas to the green council bin, felt the usual frustration at how little the lid opened as she forced the bag and its contents into the gap. She removed her gloves then and placed them on the picnic table where they obscured hearts and initials and obscenities gouged into the timber. Easing out of her pack, she took a small notebook from a side pocket, pushed the pencil free from where she kept it in its spiral binding and ripped a blank page from the book.
Today Nance walked counter-clockwise round the tree. She trailed her fingers over the rough bark, wove her way in and out of the trunk’s massive flanges. Rubbish and leaf litter had blown into their recesses. Some alcoves stunk of piss. In one she saw a condom.
She selected a spot at random on the tree’s trunk, pressed the paper to it. She tipped the pencil at a sharp angle and ran the flat side of the lead lightly over the white surface until she’d filled the page with smudges of grey.
The last bark story she’d made took on the shape of a dog’s head. The jagged edges of the tracing made the animal look fierce, too many teeth. They’d never owned a dog, so she had been disappointed with the image. Today’s bark story pleased her though. It looked like the ultrasound image of a foetus. She could make out its gently curved back wrapped around a collection of smaller shadows – elbows, knees, feet – topped by a bulbous, though somewhat caved-in, head.
Immediately it brought the ultrasound images of Daniel to mind, the ones Lily had shown her, their first introduction in shades of grey. Nance had no such images of her daughter. She’d had the ultrasounds sure enough, but back then take-home pictures weren’t offered.
And neither did she have the happy gas or fancy private hospital room Lily had when Daniel was born. Nance birthed her daughter alone. Just four big pushes it took, without hand or epidural to her back, and her daughter’s harried little body tore free, squalling, onto the bathroom floor. Nance trembled for a time, more shocked than cold, till she’d got the baby wrapped in a towel and held her against her chest till the ambulance came.
She wondered if this rush by her daughter to be born – and how later she seemed always to pack four days of living into one – was a sign of things to come. Maybe Lily was only meant to live for twenty-four years; maybe she was never going to be here for a long time, only a fast time. Nance wondered whether Lily, if given the chance, would have eventually learned to slow down. And if so, what would this steadier, less impulsive version of her daughter look like now? Another thought to add to the ever-growing list of things she’d never know.
Nance considered doing another tracing – taking one more lucky dip into the past – but resisted. She’d spend the day at it otherwise – she had previously, pressing bits of paper to the tree’s trunk, looking for memories in bark tracings, none of which would give her back her fast-living girl. It would only remind her of how quickly she’d left.
Besides, she had work to do.
She started with the memorial plaque. Loved then taken, it read, with her daughter’s name and the date she was killed, sixteen years ago now.
Nance looked for signs the tree was consuming it, checked for lips of bark easing over its metal edges. She’d moved it five times since her daughter’s death, edged it up or down the trunk, but always in a line with where she – they; Lily and Daniel – had been found, before screwing it into its new position.
The plaque’s wording was something Nance had wrestled with. Nothing seemed to adequately express either the love or the loss. She’d considered plenty of options. Mostly angry and bitter words: Murdered here or Mercilessly taken. Fortunately, she’d maintained enough grace at the time to recognise there was no merit in such an epitaph. But the bitterness remained as ripe as split fruit inside her.
Nance swapped paper and pencil for a square of old flannelette sheet from her pack. She put a smudge of stainless-steel cleaner onto the soft cloth then set to work on the rectangle of metal, scratching at something – bat or bird shit, it was difficult to tell – with her thumbnail and taking care to run the cloth all along its narrow edges.
She stepped back from the plaque once she’d finished and studied her handiwork.
Who was this glinting piece of metal for? she wondered. Who did it benefit? What was its purpose? Was it just for Nance, or did others – strangers – take something away from it too? Did anyone even pause to consider the name and the words that were inscribed on it or was it passed off as just another blemish on the tree’s trunk, a kind of gratuitous graffiti? She expected it prompted conversations at times, especially during family picnics.
Some girl murdered here apparently.
Heard someone say her kid was with her. Witnessed the whole thing.
And because a mother could, Nance pictured one indicating the children, mouthing, Not now. And they’d all go back to chasing flies from warming salads, taking sips from sweaty bottles of beer.
For Nance, the plaque brought a story to the place, gave it a heart. She swore there were times she could hear it beating.
NANCE HAD TRAILED her hand over some of her grandson’s anger when she’d lapped the tree – brushed over his nail heads, his welts and divots. Each scar a story in itself, she expected.
She’d come upon him once, gouging into the tree’s trunk with the blade of a pocketknife. She’d wondered about the origins of the knife as much as she had his motivation for using it for such a purpose. It had also raised a bigger question: what or where might her grandson be if the recipient of his violence were ever human and not this tree? The thought that he could end up a replica of his mother’s killer, brought into being by his example, terrified Nance.
‘Daniel?’ she’d called quietly.
He must have been thirteen or fourteen at the time. A difficult enough age without having to explain to your grandmother what it was that made you want to mark something so cruelly.
Without acknowledging her, he had folded the blade away and slipped it and his hands into the pockets of his grey school trousers. He stared at her then, face neutral, no trace of guilt or surprise at being caught; not even a chin-lifted dare for her to challenge him.
‘Why not help me tidy the place instead,’ she said.
‘What’s the point? It’s not like it’s a house.’
‘Brings calm. Purpose.’
He hadn’t look convinced.
‘Honours the memory of her too,’ Nance added.
He jammed his hands deeper into his pockets and lowered his gaze so that his untidy brown hair obscured his face. ‘What memory?’ he said and kicked at the ground, scuffing further an already scuffed black school shoe.
Nance resisted the urge to say, The memories are there. They’re all there. All you need do is think upon them hard enough.
‘Come on,’ she said instead, placing her backpack of tools on the ground. She removed a short-handled rake from inside, one she’d cut intentionally to length so it would fit. She held it out to the boy. ‘You can rake.’
When he wouldn’t take it, she tossed it on the ground near his feet for him to pick up when he was ready.
‘If you like I can give you a memory,’ she said and stooped to pick up a chip packet.
He didn’t respond but neither did he walk away, so she took it to mean he wanted her to continue.
She searched her mind for something small, something innocuous. Anything too direct and she knew she’d scare him off.
‘Your mother had a way of scratching your scalp,’ Nance started. ‘She had long nails, perfectly rounded at the ends and always painted…bright colours mostly.’ Nance looked to the ground as she spoke, hand dipping like an ibis’s beak to pick up sweet wrappers, pieces of broken glass, beer-bottle tops.
‘She’d hold her hand like one of those things that clutches for soft toys in a fun parlour machine. She’d press quite firmly. Never cruelly though,’ Nance was quick to add.
Daniel put his foot on the rusted metal tines of the shortened rake so that the handle stood upright. He bent down and picked it up.
‘She did it right from when you were born. Scratch, scratch,’ Nance mimicked the action in the air. ‘Scratch, scratch. And you’d push your head into her fingertips like a cat.’
Daniel rubbed the rake up and down his shin as Nance spoke. She wondered if he even noticed he was doing it.
She paused to look at him. ‘This wasn’t just some fleeting touch by your mother, Daniel,’ she said, ‘some token gesture. She wanted you to feel her in a way that you’d remember. Do you remember it?’
Daniel looked up sharply. ‘I only remember you doing it.’
Nance had tried to mimic the action after Lily had gone, but felt her pressure was never quite enough, her nails never quite the right shape or length.
‘Shame,’ she’d said then, struggling to hide her disappointment.
‘Don’t, Nan,’ he cautioned.
‘It can’t hurt to try,’ she said.
She heard the rake drop to the ground and soon after the sound of him fleeing.
‘They’re all there,’ she called after him. But it was too late. He was already gone.
HE WAS NINETEEN years old now, her grandson, and all she ever wanted was to be the midwife of his healing.
It took an hour to clean the ground around the tree’s base. She binned juice boxes, the plastic wrap from a tray of cheap supermarket sausages and squares of grease-stained paper towel. The condom went into the bin, as did a faded and tatty hair band, two halves of a bald tennis ball. She raked through the leaf litter, scouted around for ring pulls from soft drink cans. Found two five-cent coins, left them on the picnic table for someone to pocket.
The area looked swept once she’d finished. But Daniel was right, it wasn’t a house, although Nance wished it was and this area a room within it. One where she could switch off the light and close the door, leaving a capsule of care and order restored. Instead she left the site knowing that despite her best efforts, it was a house that would always be in disarray.