# 5 / The White Beech Tree

It must have been mid-October when the unfortunate man set out for a stretch of the legs. Frank enjoyed his afternoon strolls. He’d set out precisely after dinner which finished at 6:15 pm. He wore his white woollen socks to the rims of his knees, his khaki shorts with the two hidden pockets, his orange blocked button-up tucked in and secured by his leather belt where he’d punctured an extra hole. Not because he’d lost weight but because the belt was on discount.

‘A perfectly good belt,’ he thought, ‘going to waste.’ 

He was not a man to worry himself about fashion. He was a man of function; deliberate. A man of miraculous punctuality and mirthless structure. Although one could say his yellow-shaded glasses were funny. 

A lukewarm breeze slid over Frank’s cheeks as he pushed open the wooden fence.  Damp mist hung low over the meadow, almost purplish, the droplets cloaking the field in a silvery hue. Briskly he ascended the hill towards the old beech tree which roots dug firmly into the hillside. He didn’t notice the two shades on top of the hillside adjacent of the tree. A pair of men with arched backs and distorted faces.

Those men would come often on late afternoons, sometimes even at nights, when everyone has fallen in a nocturnal slumber. Their business is obscure; their intentions nameless. No good things happen when they are around. The pair is known by Blame and Pride if they’re known at all. They most certainly do not come from the village below. 

Their appearance is quite frightful, unlike anything seen before. Blame is a cup and a half taller than Pride, but Pride could fit into two Blame’s and is not embarrassed to say so. Pride’s somewhat like a creased ball of newspaper that tumbles down busy streets, kicked by leathery feet and taking into the air; a ball of paper with no location to go or a place to stay. His face is that of a fat sluggish-frog submerged in murky waters, eyes bulbous like preying night-cats. Blame on the other hand has the down-determined expression of a penniless salesman; he looks like the kind of dream you might have if you fell asleep drunk on a dripping-wet barstool in a Scottish pub; delirious, but stubbornly persistent, and after waking up, you’d carry a nauseous feeling in your stomach as if something you ate was a few days off. 

There exist no greedier, ruder or nastier pair.

They chuckled wistfully as they regarded the old man taking off his glasses, wiping them with a cloth, peering through the frame, squinting his eyes and wiping them again. At one point he stopped to remove a smudge with the side of his thumb. Mid-October afternoons are always foggy and bad here for the less-fortunate far-sighted folk. 

‘My dear friend, do your eyes spy the same calamity approaching?’ Blame spoke slow with a sound low, creaking like the crushing of desiccated bark. 

Pride, who had been digging the frozen ground fervently, jolted upward and pierced the twilight sky with eyes bright ablaze such as a cold fire. It didn’t take him long to spot Frank. 

‘He’s come too early,’ Pride’s high voice slithered through yellowed teeth.  

Blame nodded. 

Pride started to dig more urgently now, his shocking, slender body appearing to fight off the shapeless identity of time. The shovel slashed through the earth, sometimes with ease but more often it bounced back where it had hit a rock or a root. ‘He’s come too soon. I can’t finish the grave,’ he panted. Blame nodded and made a musing noise that could be interpreted as ‘let’s come back later’. Or perhaps it meant ‘there is still time; he’s stopped again to catch his breath.’ There was no way of knowing.

But it didn’t matter. Pride had had enough.

Both men regarded the shallow hole with jagged rims and strands of unearthed grass scattered through it like malachite shards. It was clearly not big enough for a human body. 

‘We could slice him in two,’ Pride said, ‘he’s very skinny nowadays. We’ll use the shovel; its edges are still sharp.’

‘You seem to think that the body is made of twigs and sand,’ Blame said.

Pride gave an insulting frown. ‘I’m no fool! I know that it has strong bones, thick muscles and lean flesh. In fact, I’m quite sure I know a lot more about many things than you do.’

‘You didn’t dig fast enough; that’s the problem.’

He was probably on time after all. 

The pair stole into the shadows, hiding behind the lowest branch. The hole concealed by the mists’ obscurity.

As Frank reached the top of the hill, he felt the burning of his lungs. He noticed that there were still leaves on the white beech tree, though not as abundant as you might see in summer. Some were fiercely bright as acidic wine and, on the ground, the leaves were evenly speckled like fragrant, sweltering oranges. If you happened to step on one of the old ones, they’d sigh and disintegrate under your sole with gratification. The tree always gave Frank the impression of a large eagle that spread-out its wings. It gave him reassurance. 

Hardly anyone came here except some children, to play. They’d hang upside down from the thick branches and laugh until they looked sick, or they’d bounce their ball against the fat trunk until it rolled down the hill and they had to climb up again. But today they weren’t here, and Frank was glad for it. 

He turned around. From here he could see the bird fountain made from marble that once was white but was now coated with a damp, furry moss that, according to some villagers, added to its magical appearance. And to the right, the Old Roman church where the back of the roof had collapsed and caused dreadful leakages when it rained, and, specifically frightened the tending pastor. 

Frank adjusted his shirt and gave his neck a quick rub, then rolled his shoulders up and down, let out a big puff of air so that his chest deflated. This was good, the walk. It took his mind off the thing he tried to forget so hard. If only his heart would have a little more strength. 

White Beech Tree

‘You have arrived at the perfect time.’

 Frank leaped around, scouring the dimmed surroundings. ‘Who’s here?’

There was some movement a few meters away near the line of the woodland. The second time the voice spoke, he couldn’t suppress a small shriek. It originated from the tree. 

‘You’ve arrived at the right moment!’ it said.

‘Alright! Heard you the first time.’ He searched for words.  ‘What do you mean, the right moment? Who are you? Where –’ 

‘To make amends for your mistakes,’ it said.

Thickness swelled up inside Frank’s throat. He moved closer, his head cocked, his left ear pitched to the tree, but not too close – he didn’t dare to lose the moonlight. 

‘What is it you want?’

Somewhere a blackbird shot out of the shrubs, screeching into the hastening blackness of the night.

‘Now, don’t be so brisk,’ the voice growled, ‘why assume there’s something wanted?’ 

He sniffed the cool air and tried to pull himself together. There could be no such thing as a talking tree, he knew, because he’d read it in books but never heard of it on the news; and the news always said the truth, awful truths, but things that were there, happening, in the world he was part of. Or used to be. He wasn’t actually sure whether he wanted to be part of it any longer.

Frank then was convinced that something else was at play. Something unnatural that he hadn’t yet encountered. The waxing moon surrounded the ivy on the tree with a halo, translucent as barrel-aged whiskey. 

‘There’s always something needed in life,’ Frank said as he fumbled the rim of his khaki shorts.

It was quiet for a moment.

The higher voice said: ‘Not if you’re good enough. Then, you have everything.’

The lower voice said: ‘There’s always someone who’s better. Who’s more successful than you.’

The soil was frost-bound. Frank could tell from the shuddering heather. He suddenly felt very tired. Tired of this game that was obviously a ruse and how dare the tree talk about being good enough and whether or not he’d had success in his life.

the white beech tree

Then the voice continued. ‘But now that you mention it, we do need something.’

‘Look, I’m not sure what you’re playing at, “tree”,’ he did quotation marks in the air and then felt very foolish since there was no way the tree had eyes, ‘but I’ve had enough. I’m going to start walking back now.’ And he turned around with determination, his eyes fixed upon the small village with the flickering light-bugs and the aged copper-coloured roof-tiles. In the embrace of the falling night, the town invoked a sense of bewitchment and trance. He wished he was back in his chair near the window. He wished he could’ve had more time.

After he’d taken a few steps he half expected to be called back by the tree; most certainly the voice would reappear after he was almost out of ear reach, but the tree remained silent. It stayed quiet for such a while he began to think that he’d imagined it all. Maybe he’d eaten something funny. An odd mushroom. 

But then the tree spoke again. 

‘You know you can’t go back.’

Frank knew. ‘Why?’, he heard himself ask. The white beech tree that suddenly felt like his only best friend. There was an uncanny familiarity to the voices as if he’d heard them before in a dream, delirious and hazy. Were they even real?

‘You know why. You’ve tried long enough,’ the voices both said. ‘You’ve thought about it long enough. Every time you opened your eyes in the morning when you made weak green tea for yourself. You asked yourself the question; every time you watched the creeping shadows engulfing yet another day, another day where it didn’t get better. Where nothing happened or changed. You’re tired, had enough. And it’s alright. We’re here. We’ve always been here.’ 

The silent breath of the wind caressed the clothes around his body and urged him back toward the tree. Was this really why he was here?

For the first time in his life, he felt that he could cry. He hadn’t been able to cry for a long while. He’d felt the emptiness alright, not just in his mind, but the mundane and bland coldness that flowed through his limbs and chest like a late November fall-day where the sky seemed ashen white but it was clouds that covered the sky and it was not truly the sky but the clouds, all over. 

Nothing came and nothing left. 

He’d gone through his life with no particular emotion. He performed every movement as if it were directed by a shadowed entity, face dark, dark eyebrows. He had regarded his life patiently as if it were a long moment to endure and even though he might’ve been youthful when he was young, he’d always thought of himself as old. There had been moments where he found he couldn’t breathe as deep as he liked, only shallow breaths and it had made his head fuzzy. Maybe it was the right time after all.

Frank stepped closer. He noticed the fresh soil dug up in a big pile next to a shallow hole.

The voices seemed to sense the question in Frank’s head. ‘It’s your grave. We’ve started it but you finished it.’

‘You’re not real,’ Frank said.

‘We’re glad to see that nothing escapes on old crook like you.’

Frank sighed and picked up the shovel and started digging. ‘I’ve let a fulfilling life, you know.’ The blade went into the earth and uncovered worms wriggling naked and pink in the black soil. ‘it was just the last years that were tough. After she passed, the only woman I’ve ever loved, it wasn’t the same anymore.’

The white beech tree moaned as the icy wind pushed and pulled its branches.

‘You couldn’t have helped her even if you’d been there,’ the highest voice said. 

The other one seemed to let out a howl so fierce that it rumbled the dug-up dirt and set the leaves to shiver. ‘It is because you weren’t there that she died.’

Frank’s insides turned to water. His legs felt too heavy and his body cumbersome. He wanted to lay down, just for a moment. 

‘I shouldn’t have left her.’ Frank said meekly.

‘It was your fault.’

The earth felt frosty and the cold seeped through his clothes and his skin and into his bones. He wondered if he’d see her again soon. At that moment, mortality seemed only a thin mist. One that would fade with the rising of the warm morning sun.

‘What do you need,’ he asked as he laid down.

His spine relaxed and he thought of her.

‘To make amends for your mistakes,’ Pride and Blame answered. 

Words: 2193

Inspired by ‘Stoner’ from John Williams

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In the Arms of the Childless Sister

The day I started to walk with a limp was the day I decided that I might as well just act the part. I knew that it suited my appearance; my right shoulder was positioned lower than the other and consequently, my head hung to the right-side in a cramped, agonising angle. I tried to squeeze my muscles to relieve the pain a little. As I was hauling the lifeless leg behind me over the pavement, I suppressed a muscle spasm. My foot is carrying a small residue of gravel on the top of my shoe. 

I pulled my olive coloured button-up down when I saw that I was approaching his house.

As I regarded the old naked man in the front window of his small middle- suburban two-story house, I watched how a few kids ran over the street without looking. How careless. A car could’ve hit them. Or a van could’ve intercepted them, captured them, and taken them to a far-off location in the woodlands and killed them. Or worse. 

They didn’t know the danger; the eminent luring presence of an accident that might cause your leg to fall off or your ears to explode. I consider myself lucky that my leg is still attached. It could’ve ended differently altogether. It was just a limp now. 

The naked man in the window waved and I smiled a half-smile and tried to maintain eye contact as I was waving back, but my peripheral vision couldn’t deny the dangling worm bouncing up and down. There was a rumour that I didn’t fully believe in, although it had some credibility since I had heard it from my mother. And there was the indisputable fact to the story that the naked man was indeed frequently seen naked, so that added to the story. 

People love good stories anyway although they might not be true. Stories are like this; the truth is the trunk and the branches of a tree and the leaves are the lies that cover the branches so you can’t see that the branches are actually rotten. Just like my limp.

Anyway, the story is in fact pretty sad; the naked man is a man who was born in a large household of an absurd number of children, sixteen or something. Clearly birth control was not a known aspect in that family. 

The parents did come to realise that they had an abundance of offspring when their savings began to suffer so badly that they had to give up colour TV and chocolate biscuits. When they heard the news that the sister of the mother of the family was infertile, I imagine they scratched their heads as to how to solve this enigma. 

Enigma is a tough word that I learned once from my high school teacher when I met her on the train to Winchester. I had graduated high school only two years. While she was sobbing, she told me that her husband had left her and that it was an enigma why he had done so. I tried to imagine the pain she was going through. I had no experience in partner dramas, although my life has been clouded by many other sad matters. 

But then I noticed how erratic she was behaving, and only now did I notice how aged she looked, with straw-like grey hairs in her black, short hair and yellow teeth. She was clearly not what he thought he was marrying at that time. How can she expect a man to stay with her looking like this? I felt disgusted at this pathetic person in front of me, so much so that I couldn’t stand her wailing any longer and I got up and left without a word. 

The story of the naked man starts after the parents of the absurdly large family and the soon-to-be parents decide that the next baby that is born into the nineteen-sized family, is to be placed into the arms of the childless sister. This promised baby was sprouted within a year and a fortnight and after labour, handed over in not so much as a blanket.

The child grew up loved by his adopted parents but shunned by his biological siblings and parents. Because he had no one to play with, he never learned to socialise. As a 6-year old he would walk over to the house where his siblings lived and wait outside in the bushes until they came out; and he’d ask if he could play along, but they’d say: ‘you’re not one of us. We’re not supposed to play with you.’ At first, this made him very sad. But then frustration took the better of him. One day, he waited in the bushes, seeing how his brothers and sisters played inside, ate nice bread-rolls with meat, and got hugs from their mother. He felt the anger rise in him; it overtook him, like acid in the stomach when you’re nauseous. When they left the front door, he sprang out, ran towards them, and then tried to set his youngest brother on fire with matches he’d saved in the small pocket in his jacket. 

The children dispersed in a flurry of frenzy when they saw the cotton shirt of their youngest brother flare up. 

If the mother hadn’t been looking out the window, the child would’ve sustained serious burn wounds – although I’m sure the shrieks alarmed the whole neighbourhood. I was never to see his siblings or mother again.

When his adopted parents died, he inherited the house and lived a lonely life as a pizza delivery man with three cats. Maybe it would’ve been better if he moved since everyone knew what he’d done, but I can imagine that he felt that his only possession was the house. He had nowhere else to go. 

Moreover, no one wanted to live next to him and so he became the lonely naked man from around the corner who waved at anyone crossing the street. 

I grew a beard to accompany my limp to look more dishevelled. 

The Yellow Wallpaper / A Review

There are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.

– Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I found this book through the Masterclass given by Carol Oates and I just went to it on Apple Books to see if I happen to have downloaded it, and then I just went to read a few pages but it hooked me; I had to read it ’til the end.

It’s astonishing how she can keep on going about the wallpaper without it beginning to bore you. I gave it a bit of thought and I concluded that it was because the wallpaper is a living thing – it starts out as ugly wallpaper, but as the weeks, months, go by, the narrator (some people argue its Jane, some say its a misprint of Jennie) starts to see that the lines in the wallpaper move and shake and then there are ‘bulbous eyes’ staring at her and then heads stuck in bars of the wallpaper who try to come out. Gilman does such a good job of describing this process. Without ever saying that ‘then she became crazy’ or ‘she knew it wasn’t real’ – the narrator (let’s call her Jane) truly believes that what she’s seeing is real, even when she starts to notice this ‘creeping woman behind the lines’. (When I read it for the first time, I had goosebumps. I imagined this grudge-like person staring at her and creeping.) It’s an unnecessary statement that Gilman is a good writer, but what she’s done in this book is beyond belief. The way she can describe Jane’s thoughts in such a believable way shows true skill.

I thought about it after and I thought what it would be like to write this story. You would have to ‘climb’ into this personage, be her, and then see and write through her eyes, and it seemed to me an unbelievably hard task. How can you imagine what someone like Jane is thinking, seeing? Then I found out (searching online) that it’s almost an autobiography; it’s inspired by the hardship of marriage and the struggles of depression she experienced in her first marriage. John, the husband in the story, starts out to ‘have the best interests for her’, by locking her up in a ‘haunted’ house, in the nursery where she’s hardly allowed to leave or do anything (?). She needs bed rest, and absolutely should she not write! As the story unfolds, you start to notice that John is not that nice at all.

How the book emphasises the struggles of marriage seeps through the prose in sentences like: “He (John) is very careful and loving, and hardly lets me stir without special direction” and “John laughs at me, of course, but one can expect that of marriage.” The book is being considered as a feminist, where Jane tries to be cut loose from the restrictions of marriage, and manages so, by literally breaking free from the lines/bars of the yellow wallpaper. In the end, she tears the wallpaper down, creeps around the room and shouts:

“I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!”

The Yellow Wallpaper
The Yellow Wallpaper

I initially interpreted that sentence as her being finally free of her mental struggle (in the book she has a nervous breakdown, but nowadays it would be considered as a postpartum depression/psychosis because she gave birth to a baby just before her lockdown). But readers interpret this also as her being liberated from her husband and ‘that she ain’t going back to his sorry ass!’ Good on her.

The Yellow Wallpaper is written as a diary without chapters, and the days melt into each other because of that. There’s no clear indication when Jane stops writing and when she begins, besides the occasional clue of passing time. I think that’s a very clever way because it adds to the tension build-up, and to the understanding of Jane’s mental problems. Besides the story being inspired by her first husband, it’s also a response to her doctor who treated her for depression by putting her on ‘rest cure’. I can imagine that anyone who has to lay in bed for a long, long time, and stare to the walls will start to see things move. I love that Gilman sends her doctor a copy.

Although Gilman’s mental issues are a thread that keeps coming back throughout her life, she’s shown a tremendous will and intelligence in her writing (and the impressive amount of pieces she’s produced). I am a fan, and I will definitely recommend this book to others. It’s given me inspiration on how to write about feelings of my main characters and how they can perceive them as true and real, even though they might not be so.

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# 1 / The Beginning of New Things

Short story The beginning of New Things

No one had ever died in this room. I had seen it coming and the doctor had seen it too, but the shock came anyway. My aunt Mary had known it as well and now I saw her crying in the corner as if she hadn’t known. Her shrieks echoed through the white-panelled house we lived in and I walked to the window that overlooked the road with the baker on the corner that sold those cinnamon rolls that made the house smell like brandy. My father had liked brandy. I looked at the creases in my hands and at my fingernails that had mud underneath them from the hole I had dug earlier this morning. It was not a big hole, just a small one. The silver sun had drawn lines around the apple tree in the backyard as I had felt the sweat glide in between my shoulder-blades. I had known my aunt was watching me, so close I could feel the heat of her body on my back. I had told her we needed to dig a hole because he was old and she had said that it was too early and that the sun was still young and I had said that no one else would dig a hole and she had swallowed her weak tea and had cast her pale eyes onto the hard-oaken side-table where we kept the medicines in a box. I had wondered how big a hole should be to fit a grown man. He wasn’t a grown man really, not any more. His skin had become loose and yellow and his back had been bent from crawling through those tunnels. I reckoned I could fold him in half so that the hole need not be as big as it would have been for a grown man. Like paper. 

I had thought those things as I had watched his dull face and had listened to the rasping sounds of his breathing. The sun had not warmed the porch yet and the currawongs had been asleep still. I had touched his deep-creased hands, eternally stained from the red dirt he had felt and handled in the tunnels. His straw hair still smelled of coal. I had placed my hands over his face and after, his ragged breathing had stopped. After that, there had only been the waving roar of cicadas and the rapid beatings in my throat. 

I had walked downstairs and had told my aunt that I had killed him. She had been sitting in the scarlet armchair that faced the hearth and the mirror with the broken corner and the terra cotta vase with the dried wildflowers. Her dog had been sleeping near her feet. I had said that I had killed him and she had said that I hadn’t because the tunnels had given him the poison and I had told her that I had been the one to take his breath and she had said that it was time for tea. She had been expecting the doctor to come round any moment now. 

The beginning of new things
The beginning of new things

I watched the doctor when he told her that her brother had died. He licked the saliva of his yellow teeth and wrinkled his nose when he said that we all had seen it coming and that his departure had not been painful. I saw my aunt drop on the floor as I held her dog’s mouth closed so he would not bark. He was a fragile little thing. I felt I could crush his tiny bones with one determined push but I didn’t. I watched the doctor leave through the backdoor into the backyard with the small hole and the silver-lined apple tree and I said that we should wash him and dress him in his dark grey suit with the pinstripe lines. I already had chosen a tie. 

My aunt sobbed when we laid him in the bathtub and I scrubbed his shrivelled skin and red-stained hands and she washed his straw hair that smelled of lavender. The vapour veiled the white tiles as the water vanished into the drain. We laid him on the bed and we dressed him in a crimson shirt and a black tie and the dark-grey suit and his eyes were closed as if he denied he had died this morning and my aunt kept wailing, along with the currawongs. He wore his good leather shoes. When we carried him down the stairs, my aunt held his head and his shoulders and I held his feet. She tripped and my fathers’ head smacked on the jarrah stairs and he laid there for a few moments with his eyes closed and his red hands and skinny arms laying alongside his body and I felt my belly turn. 

Then he was on the grass next to the hole. The hard sun shone on our hot bodies as it rose above the arid land that surrounded us. The eucalyptus trees casted distorted shadows over us and the dead body that lay in-between. My aunt said that we ought to say some words and I said that he had been a good man and we both knew that I was lying. She kneeled beside him and stroked his cold cheek. She said that he had loved me, always loved me and I said that I knew and I said that I had loved him too, but we both knew that wasn’t true. He hadn’t loved anybody. 

The hole was not big enough when we tried to lower him in and I had to dig a bit more. I went to the shed that stood in the corner of the garden and got the spade and walked back to the hole and started to dig. My aunt wept and howled and the jasmine flowers jam-packed the air with a pregnant fragrance that clouded my brain. The cicadas roared. The spade cut deep into the crimson dirt and as I the pierced the earth I felt the rush of blood through my chest and I heard the high-pitched noise my aunt created and I felt the unrelenting violence of the spade carving and wounding the ground where I was going to fold my father into. I turned and I saw the ugly gash gaping in my aunt’s throat and the fright in her pale eyes and I heard the shrill squeaks of her failed attempts to breathe. I watched her shudder in the grass. 

The fierce scent of blood fused with the jasmine and the eucalyptus and the golden rays of the sun glimmered the garnet puddle where my aunt lay in. I held my breath. I spat in my hand and erased the stains from my father’s suit with the pinstriped lines and held his red-stained hands and folded him in two and dropped him down the hole. In the silence of the garden, I heard the soft thump that felt like a sigh. I whispered that I had been a good boy. I picked up the spade and shovelled the dirt and the grass and the blood into the hole until the sun had reached its highest point in the sky and then I sat down on the grass and drank his brandy that smelled of cinnamon. 

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Inspired by Hemingway’s writing

Bird in the Tree

There’s this bird in our garden that picks berries from the tree. The tree is not big and has large leaves and bony stems and shudders when the wind travels through it. Not always are there berries in this tree, that looks more like an outgrown shrub, but when there are berries, the bird will find them. Magnetised by the scent, the bird appears. It could be a purple-crowned lorikeet or a musk lorikeet, a sulphur-crested cockatoo or a glossy black-cockatoo, but a gang-gang cockatoo or a western corella it can not be. Nor can it be a cox’s sandpiper. Now that I come to think of it, it is most likely a little lorikeet. The lorikeet sits on the bony branch of the shrub, its belly empty. The cicadas thrum and the newt that rests in the shade of the ornamental rock licks its lips. The grass has turned into hay. There’s a husky eucalyptus scent that lingers like a mist above it. [Skilfully], the bird picks one magenta berry from the twigs, but then it drops on the floor, rolling besides the rock and the empty spot where the newt had slept. The lorikeet cocks its head.