The last time I saw my father he stood tall as a tree, blocking the light for those below. His hand was raised high above his brow, as if to take a measure of the sky. It was the pose of a person examining the distance.
This image is always followed by a flare, a collision. The sound of light burning up a paper memory.
The last time I saw my father, his body was prone beneath the thick branch of a fallen tree. He was face down, his head obscured by bushy needles, the backs of his legs laid out straight, tips of his boots pushed into the soil by force of the falling tree.
Tell me which is real.
The second seems drawn from fiction. The picture in a copy of The Wizard of Oz we owned where the Wicked Witch of the East has been squashed beneath Dorothy’s house.
The first could be any day when our father was at work, checking the angle of a tree, finding the best way to cut it down.
The image I have dreamt is the one where he is standing. Put aside the steady creak of tall pines and there is a waiting world. A space to shout into. My father is looking up at the tree, as if waiting for it to fall on him. And the trees are looking up too, as if craning their long necks for a better view of the immeasurable space above them.
Our house backed onto a creek. Beyond that was a hill planted with fifty hectares of pine forest, which our father was paid to grow and cut down. Grow and cut down. The forest was a place of borrowed light; the sun never quite reached the needle-covered ground. Our house was not hard against the creek. Rising levels in springtime had led practical persons to place a good distance between the house and water, and so our mother’s kitchen had good light.
Our mother, Sarah, said our house was skew-whiff. The kitchen faced out to the world, the front door led to the creek. Visitors entered through the kitchen door. Sarah said that to be received properly, visitors should enter through the front door. Attempts to keep the garden at the front door tidy for receiving were thwarted at many turns by the creek and the towering pines across it, as if darkness, like water rising, could leak into the lighted world and drown it at the edges. Aside from some old peach trees and seven fiercely productive lemon trees, the fruit of which Sarah’s baking and bottling could never keep stride with, the garden was without ceremony. The paint on the front door slowly peeled, its hinges rusted until the door stuck and became a place against which Sarah stored jars of fruit, broken crockery she couldn’t part with, and toys that me and my sister, Anna, had no use for any more.
Sarah called the forest ‘the woods’, a name taken from a fairytale. She did this in order to scare us from going there. Even now that I have a baby of my own to look after, Sarah likes to recall the morning I wandered off. She holds my son up to the light and whispers to him. I was baking, or, I was washing Anna’s hair, she says. I called her and I called her — Ruthie, Ruthie, and she sings my name.
It was Anna who led Sarah down to the creek. They found me standing at the edge of the water, pointing across the narrow bridge to the hill-track that our father used to get to his work. In my head I’ve always thought of our father as the woodsman.
Joseph Lonie, our father’s real name, was not a woodsman by his own design. His brother Edward Lonie married a woman whose father owned thousands of hectares of forest, pine and beech. Upon a visit from our mother, six months pregnant and pleading him for a loan to cover missed rent, Uncle Edward went to his brother with a plan.
Our house was the old town library before Uncle Edward had it cut in half, carried on the back of a truck and placed down in a paddock before the creek. A parade-like event that most of the town turned out to watch and offer advice on. Whoever orchestrated nailing the house back together misjudged the ground levels. A case of too many cooks, said Sarah. The kitchen floor, our father liked to say, was like the galley of a ship lodged on a sandbar. When Anna and I were young we rolled our marbles starboard. It was a game that made Sarah draw in her lips. I have a vague memory of our father grabbing her by the waist and dancing her round the kitchen singing, What shall we do with the drunken sailor?, but this could be something I read in a book. Whoo-ray and up she rises.
For ten years our father attended to the business of tree felling. Sarah says, as if she were marking a school report, that it was something he was good at. He rose early and always carried an axe on his belt though the chainsaw had superceded the axe’s use.
Uncle Edward gathered fat around his middle like stuffing, but Sarah says our father maintained a lean, strong frame. Sarah says he never lost his looks, which makes me think she’s talking about Keats again. At Christmas when our two families got together, Edward would push his chair out from the table and pat his stomach.
I did you a favour, he would tell our father.
Do yourself a favour and pass me the last meringue, our father would reply.
In the evenings our father took himself off to the windowless iron shed he had built behind the laundry. Here, he developed his photos: small studies of cones and earth, tree bark, the worn handle of his axe. He rarely took landscape views, preferring to see the world close up. For him, the intricate weaving of lines and ridges on a piece of bark became an aerial shot of the land he tended.
He played with light. Attempted to turn the bark’s thickest ridges into mountains, threatening and dark with weather, a place in which a man might lose himself. Colour was available, but Sarah says he wasn’t interested. Black and white, sepia, suggested a depth lost in Kodachrome. Sarah says she agreed with this idea, mostly. She says our father wanted to enter another world. Colour belonged to the one he lived in. When he stood in front of the few photos he had framed and placed behind glass, he could see himself there.
Even the shots he took of Sarah, Anna and me were partial — Anna’s discarded game of skittles, the top left corner of my face. Sarah says this is the only time she interfered. She wanted to see in the photo that my eyes were green. She asked him for a family portrait, something to place in a frame and hang on the wall in the front room. He gave her a picture of her own hand resting on Anna’s bare shoulder. Anna and I made up our own stories. This is your shoulder Anna, the day we went for a picnic and a seagull pooed on your head. The beginnings of a story.