I have watched this tree for a long time now. It grows in the small, grassy paddock next to my place, my house. It’s not really my house. I just live here, renting, with my man, my husband Peter. We’re half an hour’s drive from town.
The tree stands between our house and the place next door.
Ash lives there. He lives by himself and I never see him. Peter does, naturally, because they work on the same property. Sheep.
But I don’t see the other people who work here. I live in this rather nice wooden cottage with a garden of roses that someone else grew, and I go to town every week. I don’t have a job, but I’m looking. Peter does the books here. And Ash, the man from next door that I never see, he’s a stockman. Well, sometimes I see him. He rides by at seven every day and he nods. If he sees me in the garden with the children on his way back in the evening, he nods again. If I ever saw him in town, off his horse and with no hat, I doubt if I’d recognise him. Peter says he’s a lonely man. Or a loner, I can’t remember which.
I’ve watched the tree through a whole year of seasons. I’ve not often been so long in a place. It’s nice to feel a bit settled. And watching the tree change from season to season gives me a good feeling, a feeling of belonging.
The silk of green screens the tree in summer and hides the geometry of its form. Then later it bears its fruit; fruit that hangs so heavy in its fragile skin, threatening to split, warmed by the sun so that picking those orange-gold balls and peeling, turning aside the skins to expose the wonderful jelly of its flesh, is an act so sensual, so innocent. Some people loathe the fruit of the persimmon, but they have not eaten it like that.
Peter knows that I watch the tree. He is charmed by its intrigue — he knows that I stand at the window and look across the garden, fence, wispy grassy paddock, to the tree. Sometimes I glimpse Ash on his veranda, but briefly. Peter sees him too. Funny bloke, he says, not smiling.
Peter is nice to look at. I used to watch him before we married. After, too, but less — or different. I liked his profile — clean, sharp nose, strong chin, sensual mouth. And nice hands. Yes, I suppose we watched each other, but having kids changes things. I never meant it to. I wanted to keep everything just the same between us, but it’s hard, when there’s so much more to do around the house and just me to do it.
Peter doesn’t see it like that. He doesn’t see that having kids should make any difference. He sees it like I’m one jar of jam and there are more slices of bread — I’ve just got to spread myself around a bit further. I try.
He accepts it OK, I guess. But I think he was also a loner, once. He doesn’t say much about his life before he met me. In fact, he says very little about anything. But he looks. His eyes reveal so many thoughts. Like, after work he’ll come home, he’ll toss his hat, flip, onto the hook, kiss me right on the mouth, and he’ll say, ‘Fed the kids yet? Have I got time for a beer?’ And he’ll sit, feet up on the veranda rail, can in hand, looking over the paddock. But he watches me; I feel his eyes picking holes in my clothes, my body, his eyes stroking my flesh that’s lapsed a little into softness with two babies. It makes me feel a bit frumpish.
Sometimes Peter works late or he goes over to Ash’s place. I don’t know what he sees in him. Who cares when there’s kids to bath, feed and put to bed with a story? Or two stories. Three. Once I fell asleep reading.
‘Caroline,’ Peter had touched my arm, gently shaking. ‘Wake up . . . it’s past midnight.’
‘Uh? Oh, hell, it’s that late!’ The room was dark, with a moon turning everything to tones of grey and the children’s faces still, like carved marble. Beautiful. But I was cold and I shivered.
‘Come to bed, Caroline. Here, let me warm you.’ And his body was so urgent, his desire so violent, I remember it startled me.
‘Where’ve you been?’ I asked, later.
‘All this time?’
‘It’s cold tonight. There’ll be a frost.’
In the morning all the ground was white, and I lit the lounge-room fire early, before breakfast. Peter had got up then and eaten porridge, toast and tea, vanishing before the children were out of bed. He didn’t usually do that. He always went in to say good morning.
Ash stood at his doorway. I thought he was looking at me. Our houses are just close enough to see the faces, but too far to see any features. Far enough, I thought; I didn’t want to hear the neighbours and I didn’t want them to hear me. Close by, a little path wound through the wispy grass. A rabbit, I supposed. Or a wallaby.
And now the tree is bare of leaves and fruit, a sharp outline in the clear, cold air. It must be a very old tree, to have achieved that shape. It looks like a Japanese drawing, done with black ink and a reed pen. A few angular strokes and there it is.
When Peter comes home he’s in a strange mood. At first I think he’s lost his job. It has happened a couple of times before when he’s fallen out with the boss of different places. I suppose that’s why I like it here; there’s always been a sense of security and permanency, and I love the house and garden. And the tree; the beautiful tree.
Peter has been to the fridge several times and I think he’s a bit drunk. Just as well the kids had a busy day and went to bed early. They wouldn’t like to see their father sitting there like that, his half-eaten dinner pushed to one side, his mouth slack. He says, ‘Caroline, c’mere a bit, I wanta tell you something.’
I go, sitting opposite him at the table. His eyes are downcast and I can’t read them. But troubled; his hands are shaking.
‘Caroline, I’ve asked for time off.’
‘For what? What time?’
‘I need a few days’ break.’ His voice is as trembling as his hands, and my heart slides into a pit. ‘I’ve been in trouble. I want to get away. I asked the Boss . . .’
He ignores my interruption, hurrying on.
‘The Boss says OK, I’ve got the time off coming to me.’
‘What about me, though?’
‘The Boss says it’s OK. You’ll be all right here. You’ve got the kids.’
‘Please don’t ask me. I could’ve made up an excuse and said Auntie Dot’s sick or dead or something . . .’
‘I’d’ve found out.’
‘Yes. So I’m being honest and telling you . . .’
‘You’re telling me nothing.’
‘I’m saying I’ve got to get away.’
‘Is it me?’
‘It must be. Or you wouldn’t want to go. Would you?’
‘Sometimes even when you love someone you have to get away.’
‘But I don’t understand.’ He smacks his hand down on the table, making the half-empty plate jump. His eyes are heavy and hooded — is it weariness, drink or what? I can’t tell anything — I thought I knew this man inside out. He looks like he could cry.
‘Caroline, you love me, don’t you?’
‘Yes, I always have. Always will.’
‘And no matter what happens . . . ?’
‘Yes. But why won’t you say what’s wrong?’ He takes my hand, my arm, pulls me down to his side and with his other hand behind my head, crushes his lips into mine in a drunken embrace that I don’t enjoy because of what he’s said and the roughness of it all.
Later in bed, he wakes and rolls over to me. It’s like I’m a virgin all over again, giving myself to a man for the first time. Yet his weight is oppressive, or is it because he’s troubled and now he’s laid that trouble on me?
He dominates me this time; there is no chance to reciprocate. But in my heart I do. Oh, I do. Because I love this man with his coarse dark skin, his heavy eyes, his strong hands. He is the father of my children and as strong and abiding as the persimmon tree that stands so dark out in the wispy paddock, all lit up by the moon.
In the morning he seems ashamed. We’ve woken early and it’s very, very cold. I can’t see a frost outside; normally in such cold weather the paddocks would all be silver with rime to the tree tops. A black frost; that must be it. It’s so cold, it’s got to be a black frost. The tree will be cracking its timbers and groaning. I smile a little smile in my head at the picture of the day, with everything so chilly and quiet and breath coming in clouds, the children snug in coloured caps pulled over their ears. I love the winter.
But Peter speaks, and it isn’t nice, what he says. It brings me right back to reality. He’s lying on his side, elbow bent, hand under head; today his eyes look terrible, like he’s been awake for weeks.
‘Caroline, I’ve gotta tell you. I didn’t want to, but it’s right you should know. I’ve kept it from you long enough . . .’
I can’t speak. And if I could, what could I say. He’ll speak when he’s ready. He keeps me lined up in his stare, like the rabbit that ran the little pathway between our house and the neighbour, in his gunsight. Level. Then he says,
‘All this time I said I’ve been working late nights, well I haven’t, I’ve been at Ash’s.’
‘So . . .?’ It comes out like a hiss.
‘So, I’m telling you. We’ve been, we’ve been . . .’ He almost chokes on the words as his eyes screw up and his lips lift showing the teeth; his fists clench as he throws himself back onto the pillow. Then collected a bit, but with his eyes screwed up still, he says, ‘We’ve been to bed.’
‘Bed? You and him?’
‘Yes. I don’t know how it happened, it just did.’
‘Just happened? That you and he . . .’ My tongue is a dry lump in my mouth.
I can’t help my voice cracking. ‘That’s horrible!’ I feel his body sliding in and out of me and I know where’s it’s been and I want to vomit.
‘Help me,’ he says, pleading, looking at me now; begging.
‘How? How many visits, how many times . . .? No, I don’t want to know!’
‘Jesus, help me! If I can’t ask you . . .’
His words are an echo in the pale room. I sit on the side of the bed, feeling the sweat on my palms although it’s so cold. From far, far away I hear my voice. ‘You drag us both down.’
‘That’s why I’ve got time off.. . I have to get away. Put it behind me. There’s never been anyone else, I swear.’
‘What’s it matter? It just shows I wasn’t enough for you .. . Or something. What’s it matter? You did it.’
I can only feel despair, picking white-knuckled at my knees with icy fingers.
‘I’ll still go away. It’s best. And when I come back on Friday, we can start again.’
‘Can we? Do you really believe that?’ He’s turned my world upside down, and now he expects that by Friday I’ll be my normal self again. Just now, I don’t think there’s a chance. I feel his body in me again and it seems it writhes like a snake. Grabbing my dressing gown, I slam the door of the bathroom.
When I’ve thoroughly scrubbed and rubbed dry and come out, Peter’s gone. He’s left a little note on the pillow saying simply, God knows I love you and the children more than anything. Forgive me. I’ll see you Friday.
I hadn’t heard him drive away, but he had and I’d have no car for several days. That doesn’t matter too much; we have enough groceries in the pantry and I won’t need to go to town. Anyway, I need a few quiet days to reconstruct myself; pull back together the threads of reality as I knew it.
I’ll have the children to care for, the chores, the roses to begin pruning; plenty to occupy me physically, and when my mind needs a quiet time — a moment of tranquillity — there is the tree.
But the tree has been visited in the night and what I see shatters the remains of my confidence. The brilliant black geometry of its limbs has been sawn away. Where once the tall trunk opened at the top, spreading in angular branches, now each branch is sliced through so that it stands like a bunched fist held towards the grey sky, stark in the cold. The tree has been murdered in the night while we, asleep in the house, all windows and doors locked, have heard nothing.
It was Ash who had done it. The loner. He must’ve crept out in the night. Feeling along each limb by moonlight, he’d laboriously sawn through every one. He must’ve hated it.
Sometimes when I’d glimpsed him on his veranda, I thought he’d been staring at me. He knew I liked the tree. I’d said once as he passed, ‘Aren’t the colours on the persimmon wonderful?’ so brimful of pleasure I’d been. He’d nodded but I never took much notice of his response. Perhaps it had been the tree he’d stared at?
The sun’s going down and I know I should be getting some dinner. I’ve been quiet all day; so have the children — it was too chilly to be out so we’d played with papers and scissors and drawn pictures beside the fire. Each time I went out for a block of wood, the tree sighed to me, stark and desecrated across the paddock.
I know that in spring a bunch of green will sprout at the end of each stumpy branch in place of the delicate filagree that I’d loved. And I see myself standing by a window, looking and looking . . . listening for the sound of a car on a gravel road