Under the tree
He sits and I come out and I bring him breakfast, lunch, dinner, on a tray, and he says, I’m fine, Mum, don’t worry, but he doesn’t get up, doesn’t come in. Just sits, under the tree. And I sit, in the kitchen, and watch him. Then, when it’s too dark to see any more, I stumble upstairs, fall onto the bed. Next morning I get up and we do it all again
I was curious, puzzled, asked him in a jokey way, You trying out for the local drama club, is that it? Make a great plant, you would, I say, going for a laugh, for a fight back, for a getting-up-standing-up-stopping-all-this-nonsense. But what I got was a grin, a nod, nothing at all, no answers, all open, everything hanging, falling apart.
My stomach’s knotting itself, whispering words, burning words, not-normal-you’ve-always-known-it-better-call-someone words, and I’m trying to be Regular Mum, carrying out breakfastlunchdinner on a tray, Jokey Mum sounding thin, worry creeping in, urges to slap and shake just under my uppermost thoughts. Get up, get up, but I don’t say it, I’m humouring him humouring me, him in the same clothes as two days ago, in the same spot, but looking fine, teenagery, smiling. What would I say to someone, what would I say? Coming in? I ask like I was just tossing it out there, like it wasn’t important, like I didn’t want to get a bulldozer and dig up that tree, dig up the whole garden just to get him inside. It’s peaceful, he says. Right here, he says, looking up through the branches, up at something, and I’m losing it, all grip, all rightness. I take the tray and go.
John would say what needed saying, would sit with him, unearth what’s bothering, get it up and out. John and he had this knowing between them that I could never. Even though he came out of me. Out of me. But John’s gone, and that’s gone, and maybe that’s what this is, although it wasn’t a shock, it wasn’t sudden, John passing out of our lives, out of life. We watched it, we talked about it, we cried together, it was The Most Terrible. But it didn’t destroy us. I thought we were okay. I thought. But now there he is, under the tree, and I hear a sound and I think it’s something ripping.
My mind’s gone on holiday. I’m Robot Mum, preparing food, serving food, lips moving, brain frozen. He’s under the tree, still under, still the tree, and trains of thought are barrelling at top speed, carving ravines through me, losing, loss, empty, gone. I’m Pleading Mum now, almost on her knees, whiny-voiced, Why? What are you doing? Please, darling, please, stop this, please, and him placid, unmoving, unshakeable. I’m the storm and he is rooted, I try to pull, he digs in, and we’re standing still, still standing, sitting, he is, and crumbling, I am.
Someone calls, keeps calling, the phone keeps ringing and I keep not-answering because what do I say? Sorry, he can’t speak, he’s under the tree, yes, in the garden, the tree, been there for a while now, no, not hours, days, days, more than one, in the same clothes. What’s he doing? Sitting, isn’t it? Just sitting, from what I can see, from where I’m standing, trembling, falling.
Help me, I say at night, lying in the lonely bed, the marriage bed of not-John and me. Where are you? And there’s a whispering in my ear, a shuffling of John-ness, and I know I’m ungripped but I stay with it. It’s our boy, I say, but the John-ness, it knows already, it knows about our boy, fixed onto the earth outside. And then there may be words, maybe, justforme words, some sort of sense saying Sit with him, Be with him, Be him, See him, and I’m sleeping and the John-ness is holding on, holding on, until I drift.
I come down, I stand in the kitchen, I look out, and he’s gone. He’s gone gone gone, nothing there, just grass, rubbing my eyes, stumbling out, insides rising to a spill, but then. No. He’s there. A trick, my brain played me, deleting and rearranging, my eyes believed it, my heartsoreness. He’s there. There he is. I glide across, sink down, stare into him, drinking him. Still here? I say, Jokey Mum, Shaky Mum, Half-Mum, and he nods, smiles, nods, my Garden Boy, and then his hand is reaching, reaching over to me, gentle and warm, and I am pulled towards him and I sit, damp on damp grass, with a damp heart bursting, and we sit, under the tree, listening and breathing together as the day begins.
Tania Hershman‘s second collection, My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions, will be published in Spring 2012. Her first book, The White Road and Other Stories, was commended, 2009 Orange Award for New Writers, and her flash fiction and short stories have been widely published and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. She is founder and editor of The Short Review, an online journal reviewing short story collections, and writer-in-residence in the Science Faculty at Bristol University. You can find her online at www.taniahershman.com
Notes from the author:
This was one of the most difficult stories I’ve ever written. I had the idea but couldn’t find the language and structure to tell it in the way I wanted. I began it in 2006… at that time I hadn’t read much experimental writing, and it wasn’t until a few years later, when my own work started getting more abstract and, well, odd, and til I read the first short story I’d ever seen with titled subsections did it click. I am delighted to be included in Electric Velocipede, and that this story finally found a good home!