To the Soil We Go

I want to see a tree.

They say that trees used to grow everywhere, and they would sprout from the ground with green leaves and they would die each year and come back to life and they would crack and worm their way through concrete. That trees owned the land where cities now stand and where skyscrapers and malls now stretch endlessly. I do not believe them.

But, all the same, I want to see a tree.

There was a woman once. Someone important to me, but I do not know who. When I was young, the sky seemed far away and the lights did not hurt my eyes. She would talk about trees. Always in the plural, but they grew one at a time, I’m told. With her hungry face and soft eyes, she would tell me about their hard skin, wrinkled and cracked but whole, and I would ask if they looked like her wrinkles which had dust in them, and she answered yes. Because all living things are connected and trees are old and although she was not old, she was near the end and her body knew it. I did not believe her then and I don’t now. The wolf does not resemble the sheep, after all. I cannot remember who she was.

Stepping into an oily puddle that splashes and stains my sodden pants, I think about this idea of connection. I do not really believe in it, because the chains between things are made and built, forged by humans, and I do not understand this idea of a tree that grows without a fight. The concrete underfoot only grows if us humans make it. The sickly-sweet smell of petrol and smoke comes from the cars we build. The building that looms over me does not look like me — although maybe we are both grey, with scars and holes — but it too only grows when a hand works it. And for us to grow, it is always a fight, a struggle; I cannot believe this tree rises up without pulling something else down. I do not think about this for long. I am tired and hungry and tired again. So very tired.

This morning, the water of the shower dribbled over my face and although I stood there and could feel my heartbeat through my ribcage, which rattled like train tracks, I could not open my eyes again and I could not tell up from down. Stumbling back, my mind was alert and thinking, but my body simply could not. In the end, I had to turn the water to an icy cold and pull my eyelids up. It might have been yesterday.

However, I cannot be tired now because I walk the street and neon lights shine down on me and even when I blink the world is still bright. I can tell that my body is failing – I am wrinkled and grey like the woman and the skin of trees, and I am young too. My body’s usual smell of dust has been replaced with the odour of rotting fruit, my armpits are sickly sweet, and I fear that I attract flies. I need food. That is something I can understand; it is a simple thought of input and output. Maybe it is chartable. Maybe if I were smarter, I could think of a formula to describe it.

I have tucked a lump of knobbly bread under my coat, and it is raining. The bread I stole at work. It is half-eaten because whoever works in the booth next to me did not think I would hear them nibbling at it like a mouse. It has sat on the only table in my apartment and I have whittled away at it each day. Its brown crust nearly shone in the dull, greyed plastic of my apartment and under the single overhead light I have quietly scraped off any mould that grew. Today, I am too hungry and I have caved, I cannot make it through the day without something.

Trees ate rain from the ground like dogs eat trash, but they sucked it up like a straw. Looking at the puddles of water on the pavement, with their rainbow sheens and wavery imitations of the buildings above and my face, small in the corner, I cannot imagine drinking that.

As I descend into the subway and feel its stale breath wash over me, I wonder how much a tree now costs. Everything can be bought, and everything is sold somewhere, so a market for trees must exist. Whatever it costs, I know I could not afford it. I know I should be working hard, but I am tired now on the train to work and I will be tired at work and exhausted on the train home from work. My desire to see a tree is not my desire to purchase one, it is something more. I do not know what.

Load-shedding means the train starts in darkness. We bump and jostle as we file on and I guard my bread jealously. Its crust is hard and stale and my shirt thin, so I feel it grate against my skin as I am pushed and squeezed and shoved and at one point pulled, until I end up pressed against the window. The wheels scream and wail and I think maybe the train will not start, but it does, and we slide forward.

The darkness and warmth are comforting; maybe this is how a seed felt in the soil. If that woman was right, maybe it would have been like this, acutely aware of other things around it, but yet unseeing. I am not unseeing though, because in the darkness cigarettes glow faintly here and there, flickering an orange light onto the stubbled and dirty chins of their owners. Their dry smoke washes over me, and I inhale them. Maybe there is a cigarette forgotten in my pocket. I do not know, and I cannot check because I am clutching my bread without trying to look like I am, and if I move my hands, my bread will fall, and everyone will know, and I already cannot move, let alone fight for my bread. Instead, I lean forward and breathe deeply whenever the nearest smoker exhales. Too many of us do this, and so no one gets any and we just bump heads.

I am not sure why I want to see a tree. I like the idea of roots in the ground, drinking water and pushing forth. I wonder if trees ever fought each other, if their roots ever brushed up against each other and if, like dogs, did they bite and tear at each other? They say trees are harmonious creatures, peaceful beings, but I do not know about that. Everything struggles to survive, so everything must fight to survive.

When our train launches out of the tunnel, I am blinded by the sunlight. It is bright and orange and its rays are perfectly parallel, and for a moment I panic, not sure if it is morning or afternoon. It blazes like fire, wobbling in the smog, but its heat cannot pierce the clouds and the glass and so it is just a cleansing light, with no warmth. I stare forward because just as soon as we are out in the day we are back in the safety of the tunnel, hurtling along in darkness.

The station is a forest of people, and I am struck by how alike they all are this morning. With skin and ashy hair and mute clothes. And that same stench of rats and mould in the corners of our clothes. Everyone here lives in a similar-sized apartment, and I wonder what actual difference there is in the work we do.

Someone pushes me and I trip forward. My shoes are wet and slick with oil and my face stings when it smashes rudely into the concrete. But I do not care because the concrete is cold and almost soft compared to my bone, and I am watching the bread roll along, curving across the perfectly flat ground.

My bread.

I reach out for it and someone steps onto my hand, cracking it but not breaking it. Soon, I can feel several bodies on top of me, pushing me further and further into the ground. I am cocooned and warm beneath my colleagues but each of my bones is being crushed. The bread is brown and the world is grey but we can all spot food from a mile away.

Everyone scrambles now and the platform shakes, from the ruckus or a train I do not know. I try to explain to people that it is my bread, that I bought it this morning because I am so tired and I must eat, but they cannot hear me. They shove and jostle and swear and tear at each other and the concrete is so cold and smooth. The weight above me lifts off and then I am one of the many, in the fray, shoving and jostling and swearing and tearing just like everyone else. I forget that it is my bread, because it is bread and that is what matters.

A hand grabs my collar and pulls me back. Maybe they did not mean it, but I am so light and slippery that I slide backwards, backwards onto the tracks which are only a foot beneath the platform. Backwards onto the gravel. Backwards with my hands empty, my skull hits the rusted metal railing that does not ding, but thuds gently and then becomes quite wet. It is warm and reminds me of the shower. I can smell the wet metal and not even my hunger keeps me awake now.

I will never see a tree, and I am too tired to dream of one now. More than tired, simply fading away, crumb by crumb, like dirt on skin, washed away and purified into nothing. But I still do not understand why the rain would fall onto the trees, I do not understand why it would give like that. It does not matter; the trains scream for me, and I am falling asleep.

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.