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The Spike [: or, Victoria University College Review 1957]

The Time of the Tree

The Time of the Tree

As The Bulldozer backed away the big tree swayed and slowly began to topple. It fell reluctantly, gathering more and more speed until it hit with a crunch of snapping branches as the trunk settled into the cloud of dust billowing up from the new roadway. The bulldozer driver turned his engine off and climbed down out of the cab. He was a tall, heavily built man and the sweat of the hot Waikato afternoon rippled and glistened on his neck, above the greasy black singlet, and on his forehead, sunbrowned from years of outdoor work.

Back as far as he could see, the road workings snaked across the pasture lands; the new bright clay of the road-bed where it had not yet been surfaced shining in the sun. It ended where he stood, at the foot of the felled tree. Looking at the tree more closely, he saw where it had broken off, at the wide, deep slash put there by the advance gang, a bite into the still-living wood from which sap oozed slowly on to the stump like blood from a wound, and to the earth near his feet. And as he stood there he raised his eyes, seeing for the first time at the top of this same garden where the tree had once grown, a house nearly hidden by a thick screen of bush. At the head of the pathway leading up from the garden a door opened and a figure leaning on a stick came slowly walking towards him. As it drew nearer the outlines became clearer, until a tall, thin, elderly woman with stringy grey hair and page 56 dark eyes in which tears could still be seen, stood a yard away. She was dressed in the fashion of thirty years before, the dress faded and almost in rags; at first she said nothing but just gazed at the newly felled tree. Then she looked at the bulldozer driver.

"So you've killed it," she said simply. Deliberately she raised her stick and struck the mudguard of the bulldozer once. The stick clanged on the dull yellow-painted metal; she turned and slowly walked back to the foot of the path and along the ruined garden, her figure dwindling and losing outline in the heavy heat haze until the door snapped shut after her with finality, seemingly gathering up the woman and her years and removing them from the sight of men, of machines and especially the man and machine still standing silent in the freshly churned dust and clay of the new road. The driver was not a young man and in his time he had met many strange people. And because of this he could not be surprised or even taken off his guard by the old woman, nor by her actions, seeing the grief in her face, nor by the remains of what had once been a very beautiful garden with this tree as its centrepiece. As the dust subsided the foreman came along the road.

"What's the hold-up?" he said. The driver nodded in the direction of the tree.

"You'll have to get that out of the way before I can move on." The foreman strode off and soon the rumbling of a tractor echoed in the distance. Heavy chains were linked round the trunk and, as the tree began to jerk backwards, the foreman returned.

"There'll be a few feet of timber for someone there," he said to the bulldozer driver.

"Yeah ..." said the driver. He was looking at a little heap of leaves that had been a bird's nest, left behind by the trunk. To one side lay the remains of an egg, a few green fragments of shell and a yellow pulp sinking into the ground. And he was thankful, now that the tree was jerking and sliding down the roadway, that the woman had not remained. He would not have wanted her to see the broken nest and the egg, or the tractor, like an ant dragging off a once-powerful prize, taking the tree to where it would cease to be a tree but a stack of straight boards and a pile of chips and sawdust for some city man's fire in a few months' time. Climbing back into the cab, he re-started the engine and moved up to clear away the bank beyond the stump. As he passed by the house he looked at it long and steadily, noticing that the blinds were all drawn in the front rooms and there was no sign of the woman, nor anyone else round about.

* * *

When she was a small girl they told her that the tree had been planted as a seedling a few days after her birth. From that time on her nurse had been bidden to take her down to the bottom of the garden nearly every fine day so she could inspect the small sapling to see if it had grown since the last time.

"They grow very slowly, dear," the nurse always said. But week by week and gradually season by season she saw the first buds appear on the embryo branches and the root spread rippling under the soil; saw the young tree slowly take shape page 57 and begin to overtop the bushes nearby. And when her mother had scolded or her father had spanked her or the nurse, now her governess, had upbraided her for neglecting her lessons, she would creep down after she had been sent to bed; down through the rustling bushes and the dry chirp of the cicadas to where the young tree grew, its branches uplifted against the sky and with the moon shining palely on its trunk; there she would press her face to its cold and familiar bark, talking to the tree through her tears until she was comforted, or it had comforted her. Then, and only then, could she go back to her bed and sleep, with all the momentary hatred for her mother or father gone; and even her dislike for the governess, who was grey-faced and ugly and growled at her many times. At Christmas the tree was carefully hung with bells and lamps, and all kinds of parcels gaily wrapped in tinsel were piled at its base. They sang and danced to the tune of the tinkling bells, all the children and their parents from the neighbouring farms, and her father ran laughing up and down the lawn and round the bushes with her, his only daughter, on his back, pulling his great moustache; and all the other children would follow them, laughing and calling until it was time for the Christmas meal. Then they went into the big front room; from her seat at the head of the ever-noisy table she could see the tree sparkling in the half-darkness, guarding, as it seemed to her, the undisclosed treasures at its feet. At such times she wanted to fall on her knees and worship it.

But these times passed: suddenly she was no longer a child but a girl and a young woman, lying in bed on early Spring mornings and delighting in the vague tremors and desires in her body which grew and ripened with each slow change of season. Across the aisle in the church she met the self-conscious glances of the young men"—boys who had grown up in the same district with her, and who now were almost strangers. Sometimes, during her mother's social evenings, she would know the touch of their hands and would shrink away from them, compelled by a strange fusion of fears and a sense of urgency and loss; afterwards there would be crying fits and unexplained tempers that no one seemed to understand, and no one could assuage. Always she was frightened of her own feelings made more distressing to her by the frequent admonitions of the governess.

"You must love only God," she would say; "and fight against the wickedness of the flesh." The lines round her mouth always deepened when she spoke of such things and her eyes would never meet those of the girl. She often wondered why the governess put so much bitterness into her voice. ...

Only the tree did not change although nearly everything round it did: her fathers moustache and hair with their first streaks of grey, the governess who seemed to wither away before her eyes one winter, dying suddenly of a heart attack, and her mother's voice growing deeper and older, yet somehow weak"—the tree however flourished, put forth new twigs and branches with new bright leaf, spreading its crest wider with each year.

Almost everything changed ... there was someone else she felt had grown up with her, and the tree, which was beginning to flower with her approaching womanhood. She had known David Hanson for as long as she could remember. As they began to grow up they singled each other out from the large circle of mutual acquaintances and were seen together more and more. He was quiet and people said he read too much for a farmer's son. Also, he was very shy; she tried to encourage him in the few ways the strict morality of the day permitted, but he page 58 did not at first respond. Until, during one of her mother's "evenings" after she had wanted and anticipated for what seemed an age, she was with him alone in the darkness, under the tree. ... Afterwards with the night wind rustling in the branches over them and the cicadas of her childhood still chirping as they had before, she remembered the dead governess's words and smiled to herself. Perhaps she never knew this, she thought, or perhaps ... she felt suddenly cold and whispered to David that they had better go inside before her mother missed her.

Then it was 1914 and August: the man she now knew, who was born to be a teacher or a clergyman but was instead a farmer because the land belonged to his family, was in uniform, awkward and self-conscious, nearly but not quite a soldier in the new-smelling rough khaki and single pip of a subaltern in the Mounted Rifles. He had not told her he was joining up in case she would dissuade him: when she first saw him in the uniform she had felt pride, but later she came to dread the hour of his return from camp, when he would go on final leave before embarking. She wanted to be married but he said No, it wouldn't be fair to her if he should. ...... Fair, she cried to herself, what else would be fairer? But he would not give way. The embarkation time arrived more quickly than she had prepared for, as they needed reinforcements after the first great battles: soon he was irreparably gone from her, leaving as a reminder of what lay between them, a ring with two diamonds and a promise, cheerfully given on the wharf, to return in the near future with his uniform barely soiled, as it seemed to him. If he had known what an effort it had cost her to smile at that. ... She had her woman's forebodings, writing letter after letter to a name in the middle of the Pacific and then the Indian Ocean, receiving back as many as she sent and as regularly"—until a great gap of time elapsed with no word from him, and no news. She feared the worst and her fears were realised: in a city newspaper she saw photographs of a sinking ship and above them, bannered headlines.

After that there was the interminable waiting for a confirmation of life or death: the military telegrams with their clipped messages engendering grief foreign to their very words, giving rise to suddenly grave voices, and a sermon from the pulpit of a cathedral, delivered to a congregation of dry-eyed women who remained that way because of a great numbness, and the realisation that nothing else could help at that point. The telegram duly arrived at his parents' home, but by now she had been expecting what it had to tell for a week or more, and its arrival was no more than a full stop, a finality to a completed short episode, now drained of potentiality and any power of tears it may have had over her. Her parents were surprised and more than a little shocked at the calmness with which she accepted the news. And now she was left with a parcel of letters full of soldier's banalities, from a man who had never been given the chance to become a soldier, a photograph of an awkward young man in a brand-new subaltern's uniform, and a ring which no longer held a future, the promise of fruilfulness. She took it off her finger as soon as she heard the news of the telegram, and put it in a drawer.

It was early autumn and the tree was fast losing its leaves. For the first time in her life she felt old. The tree was now nearly half-grown and its gaunt adolescent branches stretched above her, moving slowly against the sky and the low-lying clouds. She felt altogether a different person, almost as if one self had drowned with that torpedoed ship, leaving someone else behind whom she did not yet know, but who would be revealed to her with the gradual maturing of the tree across the page 59 future years. Somehow, she knew that what was to happen to her was all bound up in that tree. Yet there was so little she seemed to know. ...

The years passed. The end of the war signified nothing, as there was nothing and nobody returning from it, and to her. There was one year, much later, that stood out in her memory for a long time, as it seemed to her an affirmation of her gradual process. It was the year both of her parents died, first her father and later her mother, who gradually wasted away, taking no heed of anything; until in the final storm of the year she caught cold and died. She could feel no sorrow but rather happiness as nothing was undone by their going: part of her pattern was completed. Now there was no one else in the house and for the first time since the war she felt secure; and for the first time since her far-distant childhood she could tend and watch the tree. Over the years she saw it breast the winter storms, sometimes losing a branch but always steadily growing and waxing out of the soil she carefully nourished. As the memory of the soldier faded with the gradual yellowing of the single photograph she had retained, she began to give herself over utterly to the tree until her whole existence centred round it and it was to her the true consummation of all the beauty and fecundity of everything she had ever known. Almost, the tree grew out of her own body as if it were her child: sometimes she thought herself wedded to it as a nun to God, or a priestess of Isis to her strange terrible idol"—to her it was God or a vision of Him which she alone could know and cherish"—and all of God she desired was now contained in that tree. She was content to watch it from her window, or windows, now: she lived in various parts of the house as the rooms had begun to deteriorate. Another war came and left its aftermath, new people walked abroad in the district, but she saw none of these things. Except for occasional visits from the lawyer who called to inform her of the condition of her father's investments, and her weekly trip to the general store for provisions, she contacted no one, stubbornly resisting the advances of nearby families and people who had known her in her youth. The vicar was both puzzled and hurt because she had given up coming to church. No newspapers were left on her doorstep and except for the monthly interest cheques, no mail but that it was torn up and burned, passed the threshold of her house.

One morning, near the end of a summer, she woke to hear the sound of heavy machinery in the distance. Day by day it grew nearer until she could hear men's voices shouting above the din of the engines. Later in the week a man came to her front door. He was one of the engineers in charge of that particular section of roadworks in the county. The end portion of the garden lay in the path of the road, and every notification that had been sent to the owner had been ignored. It was a situation he had come up against many times before with old people. Oh well, he thought, I'll just have to be firm and tell them what's going on, face to face. Once he had hated doing this sort of thing and had avoided it wherever he could, but now. ... By the end of that day the scheduled part of the road would be complete, or so he hoped, for there was a bonus depending on the early completion of the whole project and he needed the money.

"You'll take my tree?" said the old woman who answered the door. The engineer nodded. "We wrote to you about it exactly three months ago."

"You'll take my tree?" she repeated. The young man glanced down the road to where the advance gang was coming up slowly.

page 60

"I'm afraid I can't avoid it. You see, it's on the only piece of solid ground in this particular section."

"Of course it is. Why else would it be planted there?" she replied scornfully.

"Well, it's got to go. I'm sorry, but we did advise you. Of course, you'll be compensated." She laughed and shut the door in his face. The engineer turned away, shrugging his shoulders as the foreman came up. "Any trouble?" he asked.

"No, not really. She's a bit queer, that's all." Already the advance gang had left and a bulldozer began to move along the strip of finished roadbed. It bit into the hedge border, removing it in a couple of mouthfuls and very soon the bushes round the tree were cleared, giving the bulldozer an unimpeded run.

She watched it all take place from an upstairs window. Her feelings mixed and knotted inside her like the clenching of a fist with every blow of the machine against the tree. It was worse, much worse than the time she had waited for the telegram so long ago now. Then, she had been able to prepare, but this. ... It all happened so quickly and brutally; somehow she could find no tears, but sat dry-eyed as in that former time, watching tensely the man in the black singlet who drove the machine which backed away and rushed forward, the tree shuddering as if in pain and heeling over with the birds flying out of it with shrill cries of distress. It's going to die now, she thought, it's going to die ... and it seemed to her as she sat there that another self came back to her, one she had known forty years ago, a young girl; and in the driver's seat of the bulldozer sat one who was also familiar, or had once been familiar to her.

"So you have hated it, David," she murmured, watching the man in the black singlet, "and now you are destroying it." As she spoke the tree gave a final lurch and fell slowly into the roadway, hidden from her by a great cloud of dust and shimmering heat haze. She ran into a corner of the room, crying. Then she slowly straightened up and walked to the front door and out into the garden, down the pathway to where the tree lay, and the man still stood. As she came closer she saw he was middle-aged and had a broad, pleasant, stupid face and great workman's hands. She took the scene in coldly, without emotion: the man standing with his face expressionless, the now subsiding cloud of grey dust, the yellow painted machine, and the tree. These are the last things I will see, she said to herself.

"So you've killed it," she said. She no longer saw the man standing there nor knew whether it was the dust or suffering that suddenly contorted his face: like a gesture of defiance or simply a renunciation and the defeat of an old woman's or a child's fist against the iron wall of a prison house, her stick rang against the side of the bulldozer. Then she turned and made her way slowly back to the house, carefully shutting and locking the front door after her. She went' to each room, drew the blinds and put dust-covers over the furniture. Upstairs a photograph rested on the dressing table next to the bed; she looked at it for a long time, at the yellowed portrait of a young man in khaki. Then she locked the bedroom door and got into bed.

"I'm coming now, David," she said, as the faint sounds of machinery and men's voices and chains outside in the garden broke through the summer stillness of the room.

John Boyd