Fiction

New year of the trees

Full moon at the fall of the high season. The houses that stand empty look like old film cameras: Polaroids and Ektralites, the blocky ’80s instamatics of childhood Kodachrome beach holidays – smile, wait, sorry, forgot to wind it on, keep smiling – and maybe this is intentional, an architectural effort at recovery, the lost albums and shoeboxes of negatives flooded or burnt up or left behind. Or maybe it just encourages a certain kind of looking.

 

These are the packed-down, cleared-out places. Holiday homes and pandemic sea changes purchased in lockdown, sight unseen, and later regretted. For Sale signs having stood so long that southerlies have wrenched them from star pickets and they lie face down or advertise at wombat height.

Such houses have the names of ships – Caravel, Astrea – and the winterised feeling that goes with them, as if dry-berthed: tanks siphoned of fuel, spa drained, trampoline under tarp. This one no different, so that habitation feels akin to a haunting. Docked at the edge of wetlands filled with tiger snakes and abandoned things people didn’t want to pay the tip fees for. Bodies, surely? Or that’s just his stories of local history-lesson homicide, plus time on your hands and all this room for your mind to ribbon out.

 

Wind chimes through the dark, all week, from the weekend places on either side. The houses with lights on are the people you will come to know by name, finding and taking the back way through the casuarina and coast banksia to the beach. Names coming up as bruises in the skins of fruit bought from the servo. Donna + Tabby, between five-point stars. Initials in rocks and sticks assembled on the high, blank place in the dunes, like a billboard, when there isn’t a cock and balls. Someone practising a new signature in the light thrown by tritium stove clock, waiting for eyes to adjust and for the green comet (50,000 years) to pass, hidden by clouds.

This place pulls in a lot of aftermath, those who arrive with what they can fit into the back of a car, leaving behind deserts or bad relationships or fire. You recognise one another, gift herbs and honey and fruit. Small repairs, armloads of firewood too beautiful to burn.

Hands more eloquent than your own seeking out your hurt.

Is it that obvious?

Oh, yes.

 

Even on gentle days, waves thrash up the front beach without ceasing. But the estuary is a flat, bright thread of quicksilver that advances and retreats, traversed by geese overhead and stingrays below.

Bits of your old life resurfacing, as if: Ready yet?

And didn’t you live or dream this already?

For instance, years ago, when you thought you were writing about another town, but it was clearly this one:

the girl with the dog on the beach

the strangers’ weekender filled with gaudy holiday house tack

the ungendered narrator doing a bad job of drying out, recovering from some unspecified wreckage

 

This happens sometimes. Life turning tables, cannibalising art.

Synchronicity or the appearance of. Or otherwise – if you don’t happen to have the right language, or the literature – just plain delusion.

How else is it you arrived here fearless? Or at least, divested of all useful fear – snakes, rips, walking alone through the casuarina in the pitch dark.

Only: tyres in the gravel drive, when on the cusp of a perfect thought. And public holiday weekends.

How is it nothing knows to be afraid of you? Only rabbits, and only barely. Everything else might eat from a hand if encouraged. (But then what?)

 

His stories of the usual small-town macabre, winter cabin fever, sordid stuff of backwoods back sheds, dirty lengths of pipe. Bodies buried too shallow in dunes. Stories that are meant to keep you indoors at night, maybe.

In the meantime, enough happens.

The interior light of the station wagon going on for no reason, as it waits parked in the drive.

Something lacy and pink – not hers – crushed and matted to the bottom of the recycling bin.

A little silver radio bought from a man who says he recognises you from a previous life, and when you get it home and switch it on, someone talking about the quantum mechanics of reincarnation. A child remembering the end of her past life and still feeling “a bit squicky” about it.

Does it have to mean something? Meaning becomes oppressive, exhausting. Say you just want seven solid hours a night and a decent set of tyres.

 

It’s New Year of the Trees, reads the message you cannot, maybe ever, reply to, and I was just thinking of you.

 

To be honest, still feel a bit squicky about it.

 

Late in his life, the famous director stopped being able to distinguish between reality and dream. That happened late in life.

Bits of your old life breaking through. Old typewriter ribbon, a smell like high summer in the city where you left things, the subways melting down. At the edge of vision, her hips and long red hair flicking in pinball parlours.

What to do with it. Pull the car over to the shoulder and wait for it to move through like weather, the last of the daylight banked fiery in the plush heads of pampas grass.

 

The ocean almost always too rough for swimming, but it’s there whenever you feel like getting creamed. Out between the breakers, with no one else to see: a stingray so large and hovering so improbably still against the thrash of surf, beneath wave after wave, that at first you mistake it for a ship’s anchor.

And even as ship’s anchor, that dreadful wonder about it.

Dreadful because what if it means, what else could it mean, but Stay.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 8, 2023 as "New year of the trees".

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