She pushed aside the stagnant air with her body as she passed off the walkway from the dwelling block, and turned to descend the narrow concrete stairway into the deserted square. It didn’t take much. She was small for her nine years and moved like a jerky kitten, shining jet hair hanging straight to her shoulders. She began her aimless descent, and, when sure of her footing, looked up, wincing against the relentless midday sun.
Then she froze.
Ahead of her, on the blank, whitewashed side wall of the building, was a shape. An outline in black stretched from the hardscaped ground to the middle of the once blank canvas – two storeys high.
It was…a tree.
She stared and put out a hand to the solid balustrade. She felt the rough surface and gripped it without realising, transfixed by the apparition before her.
That had not been there yesterday.
Why was it there? How had it come to be there?
It was a visitor from another reality. There were no trees here.
With solemn, dark eyes devouring this strange addition to her world, she descended the remainder of the stairs and approached the wall.
She put out a tentative hand to the trunk depicted before her, a forefinger uncurling and touching the black.
She then withdrew it sharply, as if mistrusting the picture for a dimensional portal that would suck her away from all she knew.
In carefully inspecting the end of her digit she saw that there was a faint inky blackness imprinted over her swirling skin.
So, it was real, someone had made it. It had not simply appeared, fairy-like, from nothing. No magic. Or was there?
Often checking her finger, the child walked on, going about the obscure business that a nine-year-old feels no necessity to analyse or explain. On, through the sleepy deserted town that baked in its blistering dryness; adults lazed or slept, old people and other children lolled, but this little girl was on her meandering escape route from hard fists and heavy tongues.
As she turned the corner down into a narrow, a blind-sided alley, she gasped, for there…there grew a tree.
She ran down the rough dust slope and stopped herself gingerly with a hand on the treeless side of the built chasm, then tipped up her chin and squinted to see how far the tree had stretched. One tiny leaf touched the very eaves of the flat whitewashed facade.
She looked quickly about her, up to the alley entrance and down to where it met the brightness of another small and equally depressing concrete square. There was no-one about. Who had put this here? Grown this here, she corrected herself, gravitating to the base of the wall where the monochrome tree appeared to part the urine-scented dust and anchor its trunk. And, she just knew, its thirsty roots were even now burrowing deep, deep, deep, seeking just a drop of moisture to keep its sketchy leaves alive.
She backed up to the opposite side of the alley again, shoulders hitting the wall hard, and stared her fill.
She could hear something.
A pleasant whispering.
Were the shapes moving?
After just one more moment, she dragged herself away and let her eyes fall to the stained, parched earth beneath her bare feet, listening hard, and wandered on down the slight incline to the square, following the strange muted hiss as the tree’s roots grew and searched, grew and searched.
She walked wearing a frown of increasing concern because she feared that it would find nothing to sustain it.
When she reached the opening to the square, her burned-in self-preservation lifted her head and she slipped against the wall as if part of it, and surveyed the scene. Two dead-eyed shop-fronts, windowless walls, concrete stairs to gantries of apartments just like her own… Nothing but a cube of blaring heat and heartless shut-up homes.
There was, however, an anomaly.
Squatting far off to her left, facing a wall, and unwisely unaware of everything, was a young man.
By his side was a pail, and in his hand he held a brush. A ladder rested against the wall to his other side. It was perilously tall.
Like a moth to a flame the little girl moved, crossing the square, drawn out into its centre, risking exposure as she would never normally do – hypnotised by the swift and skilful movements of the man’s arm. He was on his feet now, his whole body twitching, swaying, and eventually stretching as he moved before the growing trunk of a tree.
Even the ignorant eyes of the child could see that it was different to the one in the alley. It had rougher bark on its trunk, and its leaves were smaller, longer, finer, slender.
And as she reached the man, he in turn reached for his ladder.
He caught her movement out of the corner of his eye and span around.
The eyes were brown, sunken and filled with fever under a crazy short mop of curls, and he was immediately on his guard.
Seeing that the girl was alone, and did nothing, he put a finger to his lips. Then he seized his ladder, nimbly alighted, and began to reveal the tree with terrifying alacrity. It grew with arching, weeping branches that drooped down to kiss the musty dust. Each new layer seemed to want to do the same but could not reach. Each bough appeared with swiftness and longing.
Paint and sweat dropped from the man who was naked to the waist, a rag-like shirt tied roughly around his hips and baggy, sadly-stained trousers stuck to his thighs, darkened with human dew.
With a peculiar coolness under this relentless hazy sun, the child stood watching the frenetic painter climb higher and wipe away nothingness with his brush, to reveal the topmost branches of the tree.
Four times he moved his ladder, with its muffled tips never making a sound. A sound would have ricocheted around this square like dice in a cup, and some unwelcome and threatening pair of eyes would have been alerted. Spoiling the magic. Soiling the purity of the birth of a miracle.
Finally, the man climbed down the ladder for the last time, deposited his pail and looked up.
He was now a man standing beneath a tree.
With eyes still caressing the image above him, he panted and wept silently for a moment. And then he carefully lifted his pail from the ground, his ladder from the wall, and moved on, away down another narrow street.
The little girl closed her gaping mouth with some effort, tore her gaze from the exuberant, handsome apparition before her, and crept after the quietly barefoot man moving ahead of her. He put one street between him and his brushwork before retracting the ladder, with a muted clatter, to a smaller and less unwieldy size.
At this point he looked back and saw the child following him.
He turned his haggard face upon her and made a shooing motion, but she could see that it was half-hearted. He did not care, he was drained of all passionate response. She was safe from cries or blows – this innate ability for accurate assessment had kept her alive and as minimally miserable as her world would allow. So she trotted after him, unphased, as he shouldered his load once more, and stuck at his heel like a hopeful dog until he stopped before a solid gate, stood his ladder to one side and opened it.
While he took up the ladder again, she dodged in through the gate and hung back with a thumping heart and calculating eyes as he reversed the procedure and came down the narrow passage towards her. He pushed past and on into a tiny, high-walled courtyard, overlooked on all sides by several storeys of small, deep-set windows in relentless regiments.
The man leaned his ladder against the wall, placed the pail quietly down with the brush inside it. Then he pulled off his shirt, peeled off his trousers, and with his naked back to the girl took a pan from the top of a water barrel, drank deeply and then poured another two scoops over his body, madly scrubbing with his free hand to sluice away as much of the salt tide as possible. Another guzzling drink, and then he pulled on his long linen shirt and dragged himself like a sick old man into the single doorway of this tiny corner yard.
The little girl, hesitant as a gazelle, stepped closer and closer to the dark opening, and crossed from the searing light to the still shadow of the one room apartment.
As her eyes adjusted she could see him lying flat out on a slightly swinging rope hammock.
The room was a bare, grey, storage space. No sign of personal adornment.
The man was already breathing heavily and his eyes were shut – she could not tell if he was still harrowed and unhappy. His task was complete. Surely he should be at peace.
Compelled by curiosity, she stepped onward toward the hammock, and studied the hand that hung over the edge of the net of rope. It was stained with black.
She looked down at her own smudged fingertip.
Then, with it, she poked the arm of the man and watched his face warily.
Slowly his thick lashes parted, but every other facial muscle remained passive.
He focussed on her.
The girl poked him again for good measure, fearing that he would slip away, uncaring, ‘The trees,’ she murmured urgently, ‘why do you draw them?’
His answer came on a fatigued out-breath and his eyelids dipped, ‘I do not draw them, they are already there.’
‘Yes!’ The child exclaimed in a triumphant whisper, ‘I saw you wipe the wall away.’
The man yanked up his eyelids and, catching the girl unaware, ensnared her wrist with a rattlesnake move.
She gasped and leaned back.
‘You did not see me do anything, understand?’
The girl nodded mutely and her hand was released slowly. The man let out a breath, ‘I do nothing. They are already there, anyone can see.’
The girl waited, fascinated, but the eyelids descended and the once threatening arm lay slack.
She scratched behind her ear. There was a dissonance, ‘But, I did not see them.’
‘I did not see them,’ she persisted.
The man turned his head away from her, eyes still closed.
‘Mister,’ she poked his arm, more cautiously this time, ‘they weren’t there before you came.’
He moaned and his jaw tightened. Between clenched teeth he spoke to the back of his eyelids, low and despairing like a spent escapee hearing the hounds, ‘They were always there. They have always been there.’
The girl stared with a pounding heart as the man became a pan of broth – she felt the energy build.
The man screwed his closed eyes tighter and whispered, ‘They never stopped.’
‘Stopped what?’ she asked softly, her eyes wincing slightly, protectively, as she perceived the broth beginning to bubble at the edges…
‘Calling to me…’
‘What did they say?’ whispered the awed girl, as she monitored the sweat-sheened and twitching face before her, hypnotised by its volatile eyebrows.
The man’s lips twisted and he put a hand to his eyes, a thumb on one and a finger on the other, whether to hold them in their sockets, disable persistent images, or protect them, she could not be sure.
‘They call to me when I pass by. They loom over me in my dreams. They do not use words, they make sounds…’
‘I heard them too!’ cried the girl softly, in triumph, and the man’s hand moved, his eyes flew open, and his head turned sharply.
He inspected her, seeing her for the first time, almost scowling in his suspicious appraisal. Then he swung himself upright and put his feet to the concrete floor.
The little girl stood her ground.
He put his face close to hers and hissed, ‘What do you know of them?’
She looked into his burning eyes and quailed slightly, ‘I heard the one in the alley growing, under the ground…’ she waved her arm like a travelling snake and made shh-shh noises, imitating the unseen roots that she had followed.
He blinked, ‘Not before?’
The girl shook her head, hardly daring to move under such violent scrutiny.
He snorted and his eyes flashed, ‘“Not before”.’ He looked away for a second and the eyes were then filled with anguish, ‘I have heard them for months now. Since I came here. Ceaselessly. Every day, every night. Wind when there is no wind as I walk – my mind is never still – rustling, tapping, creaking. At night I hear them suck in and transpire, like a breathing bedfellow.’
‘Do you have one inside here?’ asked the girl, suddenly anxious.
‘No,’ an unexpected smile flashed tight and short, ‘these walls are thick.’
The girl relaxed her stance slightly and considered the man and his predicament with the indefatigable logic of her life’s phase. ‘If they’re scary, why do you draw them? Why make them real?’
The man blinked and sighed, ‘You don’t understand, little sunsprite. They are already there, they are already real. They torment me because they belong in this place. I hear them, so they tell me their story; but they never stop…’
The girl’s eyes widened and she drew closer, ‘What stories do they tell?’
He gazed past her, his expression almost puzzled, ‘They show me their memories; of green, of green leaves, many trees all around, and…and water.’
He nodded his head, strangely calm now as he appeared to see with his mind’s eye, ‘Rain. Rain all the time. Moist air. And the last one I drew, just now…that one sang always of water running by its roots, all day and all night…’
The little girl tried to imagine continual water. Water pouring through the dusty square.
‘…And the ground, it was soft enough to bury your hand in, not hard like stone, not blown like powder – it heaved with billions of minute lives. The earth was never ceasing, never still.’
He looked at the little girl sadly, ‘They mourn such beauty. So rich. So fragrant. It is too much to bear.’
Slowly he raised himself from the hammock and stepped towards the doorway, stopping before the glaring hot oblong of light that reached in, ready to sear his toes. He put a hand to his head like a confused child and then turned back.
‘I don’t know,’ he said, dazed and uneasy, ‘if I do the right thing. I just want them to stop. The trees…the trees do not forget this place is theirs. They do not…forget us. I thought, if I reveal them, others will see…others will know…that the trees want to be remembered.’
The child nodded solemnly, watching the silhouette of a weary man, at a loss, in the centre of a concrete cell, ‘But now you have given the trees their life back, and they are growing again.’
‘No,’ corrected the man softly yet with a darkened expression, as he shook his head, held out a warning finger, and fixed her with a gaunt-cheeked stare, ‘They are still dead. And they never went away.’
‘But they are growing again,’ she insisted petulantly.
‘No,’ countered the agitated young man with an old man’s face, stern finality in his voice.
He turned to the open door, pupils slammed to pinpricks by white-light and adrenalin. As he scanned a horizon composed of vistas invisible to the child, he murmured the truth of his unquiet soul.
‘They are haunting us…
© F. Fidelio
Beginning sequence from a dream 30th October, 2018…