Thinking of a tree.
It is the tree of my childhood.
It is an Australian tree. It was always big, but the smaller you are, the bigger it seems. It looks like it touches the sky, when you think the sky is a blue dome in which you live. Before you know the world is round. Before you believe such a farcical idea – that sometimes we are up and sometimes we are down. That if you sail to the horizon you will not fall off.
But back to the tree.
It has a silver-grey suit that changes depending on the season. It is at its most beautiful in the autumn when it is smooth like seal’s skin. The trunk has ripples and dips in its surface. Almost liquid. Your branches are really arms with biceps and triceps and beneath you we play our childhood game. You are always watching. Slowly stretching your deltoids and pectorals – all twisting and twining. Your canopy is sparse and flimsy really. The leaves are skiffs for gum-nut babies, dangling for sale from the tips of twigs. They swivel and turn in the heat and the breeze. They show their pale sides and their silver green. They are beaten and shoved by the wind. They are whipped and thrown around, like a cheer girl’s pompom at the end of her frenzy.
Tell me what you see from up high, Mrs Tree. Below we play on a yellow painted bench. Our father chooses high gloss enamel to cope with the weather. A sensible man. Two girls stand on the seat with arms held wide. We are in a plane, of course. The aeroplane is going down. Everyone will die. Except us. Jump from the bench to the spongy over-watered grass and roll. Prickly buffalo pokes indents in your eight-year-old skin. Away from the burning wreckage. We run around the bench. The dog runs too. This time arms are mimicking swimming. To the tree. Hug it. It is land. We are saved if you get to the tree. Of course our parents perish. What game can be played where the parents survive? Not a desert island game. We have to revise the description of it to our delicate mother; so sensitive is she to think we play a game daily where she is dead.
We have the same species of tree in our communal driveway. No one owns the tree. The four houses that surround it all love the tree. At the end of the day we find ourselves drawn outside. One neighbour hears the voice of the others. The children hear their friends. Gates are opened and the dog brought out. Scooters on smooth red driveway. We sit beneath our tree on a limestone ledge. When her leaves look brown and sad we bring her the hose from the nearest yard and let her drink. We look up at her dead branch and ask that she not drop it on our cars, or at the very least, not our soft heads. In the storm she lets her hair out and really throws herself around. I am reminded again of my childhood’s Lemon Scented Gum. At night, in moonlight, in a storm she was ferociously alive. Like she wanted to up-root herself and be free of the strangling earth. She shook. But she never put her boots on and left. In the morning the grass would be strewn with leaves and small twigs that she had shaken free. In big armfuls my father would take her cast-offs to the incinerator in the far corner of the yard. Her oil would scent the air.
Sometimes a bigger branch would crash down on a neighbour’s fence. Repairs were needed. There was always talk. Men across the fence to my pullovered father. She’s too big. Dangerous. A lot of work. Not called a widow-maker for nothing. But my father protected her. He loved her. He tended her. Raked the bark from her surrounds. Piled the leaves on a tarpaulin and hauled them down the back. Like pulling a body from the surf. Rescued, but still drowned. Till he knew not the difference between a tree and himself. Wood as flesh. Leaves like hair. Bark like nails.
Today ravens sit in our tree and call. Craw. Craw. You either like the black shiny birds or you don’t. Their chalk-white eyes are to one clever, to another evil. Their heavy feet walk the iron roof above my head. Like portly short-legged men. They have something to bang on about. To one another. Perhaps they speak of the swimming carnival across the road. It is that season. The barracking goes on. The air horn signals the races’ start. Butterflies at the starting blocks, the slap of the water on the dive. A volunteer on the loud-speaker assigning the winning faction its points. The splash of churning arms, the gulping of air. Misty goggles. Tears for the ones who find it all too much.
Our tree is youthful compared to my father’s. She has still height to gain and girth to add. One day it will take several children holding hand to hand to ring her base. She will work on the red bitumen about her and seek more dirt. From beneath her, looking up, she has the shapes and curves of a woman. She has bulges and sinkings. She has a collarbone, a belly button. She has moles and scars, dimples and piercings. She stands brazenly naked, ripe. She will see us lose our marbles, just as my childhood tree watched the man stoop and fall in his garden bed of roses. She heard him call out for help, but she could not bend to pick him from the turned soil. He lay still and looked at her. All she could do was offer her shade.