A story by Rianh Silvertree
“Nestled in 110 acres of natural bushland the Mt Helen Campus of Federation University…” the wind whips the brochure out of the hands of Kelly Maguire. The blue and white promotional flaps from the doorway of the upper reaches of the Albert Coates Centre and stops abruptly, pinned by the wind to the most enormous tree on campus. Kelly climbs over the barrier from the path and strides through the mulch and onto the grass beneath the spread of the ancient monument. It feels people-less here, away from the fracas of O week celebrations. The wind’s rush through the leaves above creates a constant noise that provides a barrage of sound between Kelly and the rest of the world. People walk by on the new recycled plastic walkway. They pay her no attention.
Kelly finds the view upward of the majestic tree trunk reaching into the canopy, and into the clouds, sublime. She leans in to touch the little mossy strips of greenery, so like a tiny vertical forest. She drops the end of her lunchtime pasty which comes to rest under a long strip of bark. – ‘You could be the Magic Faraway Tree’, she whispers. She does not see the brass plaque which reads: “planted on Arbor Day 1896 by Mrs Elizabeth Downing”.
“You’re a little tiny thing now,” says Mrs Downing, dropping a pair of seeds into a poker hole in the damp soil near the lavatory, conveniently located twenty paces from the backdoor of the farmhouse she lives in, “but one day, you will be mighty. Don’t forget who planted you,” she laughs.
Many generations of Downings poop into the long drop dunny as the tree grows. Their human detritus seeps into the soil, feeding the roots of E. Globulus twinsii. Twins, because two seeds sprout from the planting in the poker hole, and two saplings grow, eventually melding into the one tree.
Sheep are gutted here. Strung up by one foot to the lower branches, they bleat their last. Throats slit, sheep choke, and blood waters the soil in a splashing rush. Guts, feet, tails, buried in a hole. Iron, protein, platelets, viscera, supped upon by the growing trees.
The spirit of sheep is now in the wind.
The Downing children play at soldiers.
Before the tree, there was a meadow spotted with trees that covered the land from sea to mountains, fed upon by vast mobs of kangaroos, stretching into the distance of time to encompass megafauna and the first people.
The Wathaurong walk through. They hunt, and camp here, on the site of the future tree. Their babies play and their young men practice the art of spear throwing. The universal sound of family joins the wind. Laughter, cries of sadness and joy. Expressions of love. Bare feet tread on soft mosses and prickly grass. Rich loamy soil squeezes between toes, and bugs run across feet. Birds rise up from the grass, form enormous flocks which circle, cawing, then settle, roosting in trees. Children climb trees to steal eggs and in equal numbers they climb up to return wayward fledglings. The women find the thin stalks with the yellow flower, and dig for yams. Lizards scurry, make more lizards, and get roasted on sticks. The smoke from camp fires joins the roving wind. Broken eggs, lizard skins and the bones of kangaroo, break down in the soil, digested by the seething, writhing earth. The clouds pass over, following cyclical weather patterns, formed for reasons to do with the moon and tides and the rotation of the earth. The wind whistles through the grasslands, like a spirit at play, catching some people not paying attention. It steals their breath. Others, gasp their last gasps. The wind gathers their souls.
The Wathaurong fight for their country.
The squatters fight for theirs.
The Wathaurong bleed out. The earth, like gently cupped hands, catches their blood while their souls seek the wind. The insects, and microbes in the soil take away the exciting parcels of red stuff and break it down. The introduced foxes crack the rotted bones of all the things that die and the brand new rabbits decimate the grasslands. The few trees are clear felled by farmers to build their houses. They keep the Wathaurong away with their guns and their fences and their fat, stupid, cows and jolly, woolly, sheep.
Murder, in double talk, is called squatters rights.
Mrs Downing plants a double tree.
The jolly, woolly, sheep eat the yam flowers. The yams wither and die.
Downings junior go to war.
The wind travels across the ocean, to a beach full of death, and over to France where men dig ditches to live, in shit and mud, and then to die. The wind snatches these Downing souls, and continues on its journey until it reaches the home they foolishly left.
The land is acquired by Federation University. The big tree is named “The Tree of Knowledge”, and so it is. It knows a fair few things.
The buildings absorb heat through the day and release it at night, for such is the nature of concrete. Under the buildings lies a burial ground of dead worms, crushed wombats and deoxygenated microbes. Result of an earth-borne toxic event. The wind, channelled through upright concrete barriers is fast and furious. The tree, whose roots finger through the soil, routinely crack the sewage pipes for water to sup upon. It tastes the detritus of thousands of humans who exist within this bizarre landscape. The wind is no longer a spirit at play, but a demon possessed.
“I think I’ll study History,” decides Kelly Maguire.
Kelly rearranges her hair, and loses several strands, which the wind toys with before it leaves them at the base of the tree. Possums in the tree defecate from the branches. The rain falls in a gentle mist. Worms rise up through the soil and incorporate the possum shit and Maguire hairs into the beast that is the earth, constantly replicating itself. Kelly muses that the water misting down is a result of a Blytonesque washerwoman pouring water over the Angry Pixie. The tree is tall enough to conceal a foreign land above.
‘I could as easily be Yggdrasil’ sends the tree, in a thought form Kelly does not understand, ’I could shed a limb and kill you,’ it sends.
The demon wind howls through the tree’s top. It makes the sound of an entire First Fleet, sails flapping, setting course majestically for an earlier Terra Australis.
“Yes, definitely History, and Literature,” smiles Kelly.
The wind hits her with all its pent up rage and her hat flies off. It bounces into the distance, through the gap twixt F and S Blocks and into the more peaceful quadrangle there. Kelly yells epithets unfit for publication and chases after it. It is bedraggled in a puddle. The wind, satisfied, becomes playful. It sends a flurry of left over autumn leaves into a spiralling willy-willy then dissipates abruptly. The leaves hit the ground ticker-ticker-tack, echoing the sounds of long ago Wathaurong children laughing in a meadow full of yellow flowers.
Kelly resolves to eat lunch each day with the Faraway Tree, for she has heard the laughing of the faraway children. That night, the child of the shitting possum climbs out of the tree and eats the crust of the Maguire pasty.
The wind pools at the base of the tree.