Roots by Jude Bridge
Roots – A Love Story
SCUFF, CREAK, SCUFF.
It’s a bright, snappy summer and the daily routine of photosynthesizing, leafing, rooting and providing for the homeless leaves me with little time to clean up the mucky reminders of last season. I’m eager to shrug off my dark, chapped overcoat and reveal the shiny silver tenderness underneath. Some of the chattier parrots help speed the process by cracking off crinkly dead limbs and discoloured bark. I’ve always liked parrots. They tell a good dirty joke and keep the sunlight humming. There’s no time to lose, the new tenants will be arriving soon.
Don’t assume that I’m a vain, anthropomorphised or sycophantic gum. I just don’t want to be chopped down on account of being unsightly or obscuring the view. I do what I have to do.
We work hard all week and eventually, I am fully silvered and tinged with soft pink where the parrots have been overly enthusiastic and the light overly romantic. My trunk is smooth, very smooth, like the slick underbelly of a lizard. Tiny recently hatched insects nicker under my skin and my branches are proudly sturdy or fashionably twiggy. It is time to meet my latest neighbours.
A woman emerges from the house and stands on the balcony, all big belly and floaty hair. She looks at the view and sighs. The river ripples, the possums scamper on cue, I shimmer. We have become a postcard.
“Anthoneeee,” she screams, in a voice like shattering glass, “Come and look at this viewwww. Isn’t it beeeeautiful!”
Anthoneeee steps out onto the balcony, bound ankle to neck in a serious dark suit. As directed, he looks out over the river between Limb Silver Sliver and Limb Trim Tender-Pink and is smitten by the sight.
Like the last nineteen couples before them, they lay claim to being the first people in the world to have found the perfect partner and the perfect house that will last until the end of time in their ideal universe. I try not to choke on my own sap.
Behind the sliding glass doors of the perfect house, there are many, many half-emptied boxes. This couple are serious gatherers. I had a plastic bag once, for about a week. We didn’t bond, so I passed it on to a struggling shrub who uses it for both condensation and signposting. Apart from the bag, there was a kite which I kept for a day and a half, despite the frantic efforts of the small child and his irate father. It bulged majestically in the wind and boasted a glorious shade of purple that I just can’t recreate.
“Let’s have dinner under the treeee,” Floaty Hair says to Anthoneeee.
Root 31B twitches. Could be a scratchy soil patch, could be her screeching, could just be my age.
The world’s greatest lovers spread out a tartan rug beneath my branches. They drink champagne and feed each other meaty lumps from a hamper. Some scraps drop into the leaf litter. The snufflers who creep in the dead leaves spring to action, guzzle and burp.
After the picnic, the woman heaves herself onto her swollen feet, waddles over and presses her pregnant belly against me.
“Look, honeeee, I’m hugging a treeee!” She has no concept of personal space. Her tummy is warm and fluid. Anthoneeee smiles, sharp jaw and dark hair in striking silhouette. He has a surprise. Oh, how very original. Poke snap, the blade of the half-blunt pocket knife cranks into my trunk. Bugger, there goes another phloem. It doesn’t hurt, it just pisses me off. Now I have to bypass that section. Ruined phloem aside, I don’t want “Anthony loves Marianne” on my silver lining. I’ve already got “Gemma loves John” on Level 6, “Pete luvs Jo 4 eva 2 getha” on Level 5 and something negative about Sally on Level 3.
“Oh, Anthoneee, I wuv you,” Marianne trills.
They kiss and canoodle and then she pulls wildly at his stalk until he spurts hot wet pollen onto the stacked leafy ground. Such a waste. If I were Anthony, I’d probably pump that last lot into Marianne’s belly and see if I could get a couple more babies on the boil before the first one comes out. As an ancient gnarled hybrid once advised, you can never have too many offspring and you can never rely on robins to do anything for you, although they will frequently offer their services.
I am often visited by robins. They are friendly little fluffies, willing to take on any number of tasks, despite their overwhelmingly busy timetable. They must move at almost twice the speed of their fellow birds just to get the housekeeping done. Early morning choir sessions are followed by intense periods of sitting cutely on tree stumps then pouncing savagely on ground-dwelling insects and worms. On top of these regular duties, they must splash appealingly in ornamental birdbaths, avoid cats and pose for glossy photographs to be used on Christmas cards, all the while feeding multiple children in a whirlwind of untested pesticides and a rapidly declining insect population. Robins find it difficult to cope with the pressures of everyday life. Their hearts beat faster and faster until they’re just one soft ball of thundering thumping blood with a feathery chaser.
So while robins mean well, they can’t do anything extra as there simply isn’t time. If you need a job done, ask a parrot, preferably one with a large proportion of green feathers. They do fuck all.
On the rare occasions when Anthony is home, Marianne lapses into parrot mode. Otherwise, she nests enthusiastically. Ridiculously early one morning, she leaves the nest and takes up gardening. She tiptoes down the slope, head jerking around like a pigeon, checking that she is not being observed. Fat chance of that. The parrots monitor her every step. Brunch by the river is hours away and they’re always looking for entertainment.
The tray she carries so carefully contains twelve tiny seedlings. Looking this way and that, she digs twelve small holes with a pointy trowel, straightening up from time to time to rub her back. Holes dug, she gently lowers a fragile greenster into each. I don’t recognise these plants; I have never seen this type before.
Over the next few months, Marianne attends to these green babies with utter devotion. She waters, fertilises, even talks to them. They grow as quickly as Marianne’s tummy but up, not out. Their greedy shallow roots steal my water and hog the sunlight. When I was a sapling, we treated those around us with respect.
Marianne drops her fruit and calls it Tanya several weeks later, when the rude plants are sticky and smelly. Baby Tanya has a floppy neck and skin that flushes red when she cries.
Her mother takes better care of the baby than some mother possums I could name. No feral cats creep around at midnight and bite chunks out of Baby Tanya’s head.
Quickly and secretively, Anthony pulls the wanker plants out of the soil. When “booful widdle girl” Baby Tanya has gone to “beedy-byes sleepums,” Marianne and Anthony jam crushed up bits of the plants into paper tubes and smoke them like cigarettes. This must be the marijuana plant I have heard about. The smoke makes them relaxed and happy. I find a pair of gambolling possums and a fanfare of parrots have much the same effect.
As Tanya becomes more alert and lively, one of the small trees in my area starts to look a little rough around the edges. He’s farther up the slope than I am, so some sort of run-off from the house might be trickling his way. From the slight wheeze tightening through the soil, I’d say he’s having trouble sucking. Root 31B is quite close to his roots. I might just curve that tip back towards myself for safety.
Tanya crawls, then toddles, then walks, then skips around me. She finds a featherless baby bird, still alive, on the ground. Unaware that he was thrown there by his mother because his insides were malformed, Tanya tries to rescue the tiny body. Her chubby hands sweat under the warm bird, which dies the next day, despite being force-fed Weetbix and milk (which it cannot digest) through an eye-dropper.
Anthony makes an effort to get home from work before dark so that he can attend the solemn burial of baby bird in cotton wool in matchbox, lowered into the soil pit above Root 12, gently covered and topped with a toothpick cross. Tanya sheds a few tears and Marianne strokes her daughter’s little blonde head. Underneath my surface roots there are twelve matchboxes full of cotton wool and baby bird, at various levels and stages of decay. Worms appreciate the food, but the bite of matchbox sulphur always gives me root-ache for a few days after the funeral.
A pushy wind howls over the slope, sending debris crashing into my upper limbs. I try desperately to hold myself together in the interests of self-preservation. If I wreck the house, they will cut me down; I’ve seen it happen before. Wrench, crack, my wooden missiles attack the balcony railing. Fresh branches, old twigs and whipped insects hurtle into the perfect house.
In the morning, the wind has pissed off back where it came from and I am a sorry sight. Limbs hang down awkwardly, twisted with broken neighbours and rough splintery edges.
The man from the Council brings some greasy mates with greasy chainsaws. All trees suffer amputations while Marianne and Anthony watch and nod. The men are not gentle. Fortunately most of me survives the slashing and I am allowed to stay.
As she gets older, Tanya spends more time with me, alone. Unlike her squawky mother, she has a gentle, tuneful voice. Sometimes I join in with the songs, playing with both wood and wind sections.
Pumped up with warm breezes and drowsy scents from my neighbours, I release the showstopper. Succulent layers unfurl and push off their woody caps, revealing creamy fresh flowers. Word spreads among the insect population. Party at the silver gum. They buzz and fly and hang around, humming high tunes and smearing pollen from arse to cheek. Honeyeaters follow and swallow some of the tastier insects.
Marianne watches over Tanya from the balcony. Occasionally a honeyeater will smack into the sparklingly clean glass doors behind her. With a broken wing here, an abortion there, here a neck, there a leg, everywhere a wham, thump.
Tanya starts school and takes up the piano. Marianne starts to get bored and takes up with Don the Doctor. They are often naked and fondling on the balcony. Marianne has a big scar on her tummy where she must have split to release Tanya. I’m a firm believer in multiple partners to ensure future generations, but they should at the very least belong to the same genus. I doubt that Don even belongs to the same species. He has excessive body hair and a head like a feral, and he grunts and pulls stupid faces when he is pollinating Marianne. The hardened stalk in the hole doesn’t seem to be a more reliable method than my insect-and-pollen process. Marianne’s belly remains flat.
I have been more fortunate. My swarm of insects have definitely hit the spot. I suspect that the pollen that they have rubbed onto my stalk is from the stunning silver beauty down near the river. Her leaves tilt on just the right angle to catch the light and reflect her beauty in the water. With fully extended peeled upward branches, she glows when the moon is high. She is tall and supple and glorious, not vain like the showy snow gums with their yellow-on-grey-on-brown-on-silver-oh-aren’t-we-stunning-here-for-the tourists-take-a-photo-stripy trunks. Nor is she competitive, like the towering blue gums, with their spindly elongated uppers and shrivelled waists, always fighting to be the tallest and thinnest. I may send her a bunch of parrots on Valentine’s Day, if I have the courage.
Anthony comes home later and later in the evening. He often sits out on the balcony long after Marianne has gone to bed. The pale blue hum of his laptop drones well into the night. Sometimes he pisses through the railing in a high arc that splashes my branches and drowns the ants on night shift.
Tanya learns to climb trees. One, two, rough little feet, three, four, trunk dip handhold, five, six, pull up hard on Limb Stumpy, slither with red shorts riding up along Limb Predictable, come to rest, puffing, in the Big V.
“Be careful, honeeee,” her mother calls.
Soon there are many hands and feet gripping and sliding over me. Tanya is popular and her friends haven’t got a tree like me at home. I’m the King of the Castle. I have many dirty rascals.
“Betcha can’t go higher,” they dare each other, breathy voices hovering in the stillness. “Betcha can’t get up there, to the nest.”
My fruit ripens and splits. The wind spirits my seeds away.
Tanya decides to try the big climb by herself first, so that she can show off to her friends later. She looks up at the nest sitting in the twisted V between Limb Twirly and Limb Bon Jovi, then scampers up the usual path. Limb Predictable reacts against type and crashes to the ground with a Tanya cargo. She hits the ground headfirst. Her skull crunches on solid soil and her body crashes limply to one side. One soft cheek smashes into the rock where she likes to play noughts and crosses with sticks and stones. Her face splits open like a ripe peach. Her neck bends, comes to rest on an angle, blonde eyelashes flutter, then nothing. She is perfectly still. Marianne rushes down the slope, hair streaming like ribbons, mouth wide open and screaming. I wonder if they will be able to find a big enough matchbox.
Life flickers. The ambulance men lift the small body onto a stretcher with cautious hands. The leaves crunch under their Doc Martens, squashing a mother and her backful of baby spiders flat. An extra dig of the heel and her silky children splatter. A lizard runs helter-skelter up my trunk, the imprint of a shoe crushed into his delicate back. He leaves a windy trail of blood. His tail twitches madly, metres away.
The family doesn’t come home for a while. We are not well here, either. The creeping sickness has taken hold. The leaves of fellow trees are turning grey and papery where they should be fat and green. Their bark is messy with sores. Panic seeps into my system. I must breathe, make food, produce flowers. The sickness is tumbling down the slope toward me. The wheeze drags through the soil. Whispery tendrils are playing with Roots 19 to 36. They are poking through, spreading, multiplying. The man from the Council comes and daubs white paint on some of my neighbours.
I don’t know if my flowers will be worthwhile this season. Already they are curling and dry inside their soft, bruised green shells.
Tanya comes home, arm bandaged, eyes glazed, big black stitches like resting spiders holding her face together. She and Marianne sit under my grey branches and she sings strange and unfamiliar songs. When she speaks, it is with slurred, half-formed words that no-one can understand.
Tanya and I wilt. She babbles and dribbles. I drop, I lean, I am half-starved, I can’t suck. Anthony’s words shake the balcony when Tanya is asleep. “Why weren’t you watching her?” he sobs. “Our baby…our baby…our little girl…” He chokes, throat raw from crying, the guilt of two thousand useless computer days howling in his heart.
“You were never home,” Marianne flutters, wings cranked up, beak hard and terrible. She wounds him further with the news that she is leaving him, moving far, far away with Don the hairy Doctor and Tanya.
They fall apart in their luxurious house, where everything was meant to be perfect.
Most days I find it difficult to wake up. The sunlight burns me, fries me, tatters my shattered bark. I can’t drink anymore. All is rotten. My roots have been invaded by another hungry life. The parrots still perch on my branches but their chatter confuses me. I no longer have any scent.
Marianne packs her bags.
Anthony comes to me one night when I am dull with darkness. His hair is plastered to his head, his breathing shallow. His suit is loose, crumpled, filled with rivulets of sweat and fear. He climbs my softened body with sharp-toed shoes and slickered sadness. A lumpy gasp flickers in his throat when he sees the healed, crusted carving. Anthony no longer loves Marianne. Gemma doesn’t love John anymore, either. Pete got Jo pregnant at fifteen and she had an abortion. Sally died.
The nylon rope grips well; he has chosen a branch that is not rotten. Limb Old MacDonald can take his weight. Tears splatter, hot, heavy, blinding, onto my aching limbs. He jerks downwards, welcoming the blackness.
Sling, slide, the rope twisting hot into his neck. Then, panic, no, this is a mistake, Oh Marianne, Oh Tanya, my loves. He kicks against my tortured trunk, tries to raise himself, grapples with the slimy sweat-soaked rope, there is already too much damage, he cannot hold his body up against the strain.
Morning. No. Sunlight. Too harsh. Burning.
One of my seeds has landed way beyond the bottom of the slope, taken up pure sweet water and tunnelled a fresh, white-green root into the clean soil. The small, grippy life has taken hold.
Marianne appears on the balcony, suitcase in hand, all tangled hair and churning belly. Tanya cries inside the house. The man from the Council pauses with his bucket of white paint before breaking into a run.
Anthony dangles, shoes tapping against my trunk.
SCUFF, CREAK, SCUFF.
© Jude Bridge
Jude Bridge was a stand-up comedian in a former life and a library technician in another, which seems to be ongoing. She regularly contributes fiction to that’s life magazine and was recently shortlisted in the Jeremy Mogford Prize for Food and Drink Writing. Her stories have been published in dotdotdash, indigo, The Big Issue (Australian Fiction Editions), Spineless Wonders anthologies and the Sand Journal (Berlin).
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