The Mulberry Tree

Nothing ever quite signalled home as much as its smell did. Big, viscous inhale in the backyard taking in that thick fermentation of soil and rot and with its layers of time and memory. So much depth and flavour in those tangent wafts coalescing around her, so much so that she could envision plunging down, forcing her hands into the soft dirt below and feeling the life move within. Tiny mites and insects crawling, digging, unearthing. No room for minimalism here when every movement was a desperate act for another moment of life. Everywhere, everyone was falling on top of one another, bodies on bodies and moisture and fluids and mucus combining and sticking so that she could feel it against her skin and tongue. She’d almost call it sweet, but really it’s just childhood creeping up again as it always does.

But there was a man with her today. Golden man, she thought as she watched him wash his hands under the hose hung to the fence. How to try and explain to him that the backyard in front of them, the old chicken coop and the sagging scribbly bark in the corner, was so dense with life? Layers on layers of life. Under the hose there, a hand’s width from where he stood, there once was a rabbit hutch. The rabbit inside  it had low ears and brown fur that got mangy as he got older.

She wanted to tell the man about the rabbit. Not even for the rabbit’s sake. (Was it for hers?) To make him understand that there used to be more here.

Her Dad had taken him into the shed earlier. She’d told her Dad the man did engineering at uni; that’s how they met. Dad had nodded with that look of his. It wasn’t hard to know what that meant, even if the meaning was just ambiguous. He might have been impressed or dismissive; she still didn’t know.

He didn’t tell her anything Dad had said to him in the shed, though she wanted to know. Wouldn’t put it beyond Dad to give a “talk”, though likely they’d just tooled around. Dad might have shown him his drawings to add a toilet and shower out the back of the house.

How to tell him that Dad never used to be like that, or at least that’s not the man she grew up knowing? He was the one holding the hose at the top of the slip-and-slide. He was the one who got down on his knees with a broom to scare out the snake from under the chicken coop. He’d never been serious or considerate in that way, at least.

“There used to be a mulberry tree on the neighbour’s side of the fence there,” she said to the man. Sunlight caught in his hair, and it reminded her of hay. He finished hooking the hose back onto the fence and looked up even though there was nothing there. “That was when there weren’t any apartments on the other side of the road, either.”

“Where’d it go?” He asked.

“I think it got some kind of rot,” she said. “People always used to complain because when it fully fruited, all the berries would stain the path and turn into this weird slushy mix with the leaves. I think someone slipped off their bike there because of it.”

“Did you ever use the berries?”

“We tried to make a tart out of them once, but neither Mum nor Dad are bakers, really. Mum made a jam out of them one year, I think. But usually, we just used to collect a few when we’d get the eggs and eat them on the way back up to the house.”

“That sounds nice,” he said.

“At the farmers market in the park one time a farmer gave me a bag of oranges because I knew what a mulberry was. I don’t think it was even a competition or anything.”

But she had to say it to the farmer then before he could even speak more about the free samples of his produce. Because just from the rich black colour of it, the size of it in his thick, leathery hands, she’d known exactly what it was. It had tasted the same as always. The seeds had gotten stuck in her teeth, as always.

“Hm.” Golden man said, looking back up to the house, to the scribbly gum.

She didn’t know why there was so much more to tell him. Why she had remembered it all now. Standing barefoot in the shade, everything was as it always was, and here he was, something new.

Here was where she had grown. Here was where she had learnt what it was to be alive. What it was to grieve, to rage. There, she’d pretended not to listen to her Mum’s conversations on the phone as they’d hung out the washing. There, the neighbour’s brother had taught her how to know when corn was just ready to come off from how rigid the husk was. Peeling back those fibres, peeling back leaves of the banana plants at the back of the house, and there was the clutch of eggs laid by the rogue chicken which had rotted months ago. The stink had been unbearable when she and her cousins had thrown them at the back fence just to see what would happen.

Because she wanted him to know her. Because she wanted to be known, not just for that exterior that he had come to see in the brick walls of their residential building.

She wanted to be seen, and she wanted to be understood in this place.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.