Edition 31: Old Growth by J. Ashley Smith
“Look, Dad,” says Mika from the back. “Look at the faces!”
Scott adjusts the rear-view mirror. The last he checked, Mika was slumped in a chaos of Lego, two minifigures squabbling inches from his face. Now the boy is fully upright, forehead pressed to the window.
“What do you mean? What faces?”
“In the trees,” says the boy. “Bubbly heads poking out of the bark. Look, Dad, can you see?”
“What’re you talking about, retard?” Ashley is scooched way down in the passenger seat, semi-foetal with her toes on the glovebox. Scott would think she was asleep if it weren’t for the dance of thumbs over the screen of her phone.
“They’re probably galls,” says Scott. “Some trees grow them in response to bacteria, insects, that sort of thing. It’s a kind of symbiosis: the trees grow galls to protect themselves, but the galls also protect the wasps, or the greenfly or whatever, by drawing them in, growing around them.”
“Ha,” says Mika and smiles, stares out at the milky light strobing through the trees. “Galls.”
The car climbs, clings to the narrow snake of highway, winding upwards, out of the rainforest and the stop-motion fireworks of ancient tree-ferns, up into the dry alpine region and the edge of the burn zone.
“Whaaaaat!” Ashley thrusts her phone up against the windscreen, holds it over by the window. She shakes it, thrusts it out again. “No… Don’t do this to me!”
“Dad,” says Mika, still hypnotised by the flickering trunks. “Dad, I’m starving. How long ’til we get there?”
“No reception?” Scott asks Ashley. To Mika, he says, “Not long, mate. Greenville’s about ten minutes away. We can stop there and grab some bits for a picnic. Looks like there’s a nice spot in the bush just outside town.”
Ashley groans and rolls her eyes. “Great,” she says. “More trees.”
Scott breathes slow and deep, lets his daughter’s sarcasm wash over him, trying not to bite. He hoped this holiday might bring them closer, heal some of those old wounds Ashley loves to keep scratching. But the gulf between them is wider now than ever. Next year she’ll be eighteen: old enough to make her own decisions; old enough to turn down this yearly trip and sever all contact with her father.
“See how the trees are charred down one side?” Scott says. “There’s some up there that’ve really burned. They should be dead, but they’re putting out leaves; new shoots literally bursting from the trunk. Epicormic growth, it’s called.”
It hurts, Ashley’s obvious distaste, the sense she genuinely dislikes him—although perhaps it’s better than that other impression she gives, that she feels nothing towards him whatsoever. It hurts, but only so much. Their relationship has been complicated ever since he first held her wriggling and squawking in his arms. To think he might not see her again is painful, but it’s a pain he’s long grown accustomed to, one that brings with it a guilty sense of relief.
Perhaps it’s not too late, though. Ashley might be a write-off, but Mika…Perhaps there’s still a chance with Mika.
“Isn’t it amazing?” he says. “This mechanism they’ve adapted for survival. They can be dead inside and still go on living.”
Greenville is deserted. No one walks beneath the stands of gnarled, flesh-coloured trees, through the dappled shadow and the drifts of leaves that rattle along the empty street. Lights are on in the shop windows, Open signs hang in the doors. Yet everywhere there is silence, as though the town has been abandoned.
“There’s a café,” says Mika, pointing across the street.
“Looks closed to me,” says Scott without turning. All week they’ve eaten at cafés and diners, in pub family rooms and bistros, the kids choosing overpriced meals they don’t finish, brother and sister bickering without cease. Not today. Today they’ll buy picnic food and take it out of town; show these kids a corner of the real world—the world outside—before driving them back to Melbourne and Marion and their safe, suburban lifestyle.
He drives at a crawl, scanning the shop signs for a general store, but his attention is drawn by another of the huge, pink-skinned trees. So unusual. Like coastal angophora, with smooth, dimpled bark, but as vast and gnarled as a Moreton Bay fig, with great, fleshy boughs engulfed by the canopy. And, as Mika had said, the galls; or rather, the faces. He’s never seen anything quite like them, organic gargoyles bubbling with deformity. Scott would love to stop the car, to get out and search among the leaf litter for seed pods, gum nuts, anything he could use to identify them later. But, mindful of the time and the children’s mounting irritation, he turns off the high street, follows a sign to the supermarket.
Apart from a silver Toyota and a grubby white ute, the car park is deserted and grey, untouched by the afternoon’s last light. Ashley zips the neck of her fleece as far as it will go, rubs her arms, shivers. Lego clatters to the asphalt and Mika tumbles out after. He’s wearing only a T-shirt but seems unmoved by the temperature. Scott thinks about making him put on his hoodie, but he’s not about to ruin their last day with a fight he can’t win. From tomorrow, if the boy catches cold, it will be Marion’s problem.
Scott fills a basket with tomatoes, sliced cheese, packet ham, lets the kids throw in any old crap without complaint: jelly snakes, lurid coloured drinks, Doritos dusted with toxic waste. When he heads to the front to pay, Mika’s on the floor by the counter, fondling a disposable plastic toy taped to a comic. The shutter-rolls of the cigarette display are papered with photocopies, black-and-white headshots of a man, an old woman, two girls that might be twins, and phone numbers. The woman behind the counter does not smile when Scott hands her the basket.
“Looks like you got lucky,” Scott says and gestures with his thumb towards the car park.
The woman has a pinched, mean-looking face, and sucks a lozenge with odd little jerks of her chin. She stares at Scott as though he were drunk.
“The fires, I mean. Everything round here’s burned, but you seem to have done alright.”
The woman drags a pack of bread rolls across the scanner. The twitch of her jaw quickens.
Scott rummages for his credit card, pretends not to notice when Mika slips a comic into the basket. Ashley rests her head on his shoulder, takes his arm as though such gestures were common currency between them.
“Daddy,” she says, drawing out the vowels in a wheedle that sets his teeth on edge. “You’re looking so tired. Perhaps you’d like me to drive the next bit?”
Scott groans. “We’ve been through this, Ashley. You’re not insured to drive the car. If anything were to happen—”
She roars in frustration. “What is going to happen? Troy would—”
Scott puts up his hand. “Enough. We’re not going over this again.”
It takes the eftpos machine forever to approve the sale. The woman makes no apology for the delay, just sucks and sucks and stares at some distant point beyond Scott’s ear. It’s an effort to stay calm, to pretend he’s not anxious that his last card will max out in front of his kids, but at last the receipt chugs from the machine and he reaches for the bags.
“Your card,” says the woman. The words drip spearmint.
Scott thanks her and reaches for the card, but the woman does not loosen her grip. Her fist is clenched, knuckles white. Scott feels Mika at his legs, rummaging for his comic in the bags. The woman glances at the noise and Scott tugs the card from her fingers.
As they turn to leave, Scott looks up at their reflection in the domed security mirror. The woman is staring after them. Her lips move like she’s muttering under her breath.
The automatic doors whirr behind them as they step out into the car park.
“Shotgun!” yells Mika, hopping and bounding around Scott like a spinning top knocked off its axis.
“Turd,” says Ashley.
“It’s about time Mika had a turn in the front,” says Scott. He tries to sound impartial, but can’t help feeling a small thrill putting Ashley in her place, bringing the boy up to sit with him.
Perhaps, on the way, they’ll see more of those interesting trees.
Ashley misses nothing; he knows that. Knows too that it all goes straight back to her mother. Those endless frantic text messages, no doubt, a moment-by-moment account of the trip and its horrors, a mounting tally of Scott’s shortcomings: the unsatisfactory living conditions; the inadequate personal hygiene; the dwindling financial resources. Not that Marion can take any more from him than she already has. These days even pride is in short supply.
Yet Scott had longed for the divorce, had fantasised the separation years before their marriage actually fell apart. What the world could not deliver, his imagination supplied: a picture of the life he wasn’t living, a life that better suited his temperament, his need for simplicity, for solitude and the outdoors. Not the stifling restrictions of suburban family life, the daughter and the wife with needs that he did not understand, the hidden grief, unending and unnamed. In these fantasies, he pictured himself in a small house on the outskirts of the city, a weatherboard cottage backing onto the forest. A slow-combustion stove. A rickety workshop. Silent hours working with his hands, caressing the grain of newly chopped wood. The crackle of flame. Orange sparks bursting into darkness.
In these fantasies he was always alone; alone except for the trees. The unmeasurable expanse of bushland became the landscape of his longed-for inner life. The Candlebark, Peppermint and River She Oak, Yellow Bloodwood, Yellow Box and Mountain Blue Gum became a pantheon of heretical gods, unknowable, inhuman and infinitely patient; waiting for that day when he would close his ears to the world of things and people and, at last, listen only to them.
His dreams for Marion were not so lofty.
Failure. Destitution. Charcoal and ashes. Fitting reward for the years of carping and bitterness, the neuroses, the…shrewery.
But, five years on, Scott was no closer to that house of his dreams; further from it perhaps, because now the dream itself seemed distant and vague, the images sapped of the power they once held. He still lived in the same two-room apartment off Parramatta Road, still drove the same shitty old Holden Viva, still sat in the same gridlock each morning on his way to the same job at the same second-rate consultancy. The closest he came to the woodland of his imagination was his work, the fauna and flora reports he daily half-baked. Appendices to appendices, the reports were little more than technical footnotes to the development applications they justified, for dams, for railways, for open trench excavations, highway expansions, and mining sites on Aboriginal heritage areas. His youthful idealism had eroded many years before, along with any sense of value in his work. Or in himself.
Not so, Marion. Barely eighteen months after the divorce, she’d married an estate agent—nauseatingly wealthy—moved with the kids to a McMansion in suburban Melbourne. Each morning, she dropped them off at private school in her gleaming, silver Pajero, drove to the studio of her successful online business: designing boutique terraria for offices and corporate waiting rooms.
Worse than all of this, she seemed happy. Genuinely happy.
The picnic site is not what Scott imagined.
The map on Ashley’s phone shows a picnic table icon surrounded by unbroken green. The reality is a browning grass verge bounded by charred logs. There are picnic tables—that much is true—one so badly burned that all that remains is the bent metal frame. Another is only half-devoured, with great black bites scorched from the boards.
Beyond and above the tangle of regrowth, the sloping mountainside is a graveyard of grey and black. The forest is devastated, hundreds, perhaps thousands of trees reduced to twisted wreckage, the half-cremated skeleton of a vast, unknowable life-form.
The engine idles. Scott grips the steering wheel, stares at the landscape. Unutterably desolate, it reminds him of his dad’s old picture books of World War One, of the Somme. Maybe they should go back to town, see if that café is still open. It could hardly be worse than—
But Mika is already out of the car.
“Seriously?” says Ashley from the back. “This place is a shit-hole.”
Scott doesn’t answer, just pops the door and steps out, trying to see where Mika has gone. He leans back in for the shopping bags, carries them over to the half-burnt table. The crinkling of plastic seems overloud, an intrusion in that funereal silence.
The boy has found a gap in the trees and a creek running behind, is halfway across on a path of wobbly rocks and half-rotten timber.
“Look, Dad. Look at this!” Mika is teetering on a boulder in the middle of the creek. “This place is amazing! Look, it goes all the way up!”
The boy points along the creek, to some distant wonder Scott cannot see.
“Come on, Mika,” says Scott. “Lunch is out. Let’s go and eat.”
“Okay okay,” says the boy, arms out for balance as he pitches left then right. “But let’s explore first. This place is amazing!”
Mika hops back to the bank in three steps. A wall of foliage obscures all but this narrow entrance to the creek, and he runs alongside, past the car, past the picnic table, disappears into a gap at the far end of the thicket.
Ashley hasn’t moved from the back seat. Sulking, no doubt. The front doors are still open, the rental like a swollen beetle preparing for flight.
“Come on, Dad!” Mika’s voice from the trees.
Scott follows the voice, but half-heartedly. Something about this place makes him uncomfortable leaving either child alone.
“Follow me, Dad. In here!”
An impenetrable understory has shot up since the fire, strangled by the shoots of an unfamiliar creeper. Mika has made just enough space to squeeze between the poles, carved a fairy path to the bole of an ancient, half-burnt tree. The unburned side has the same smooth, pink skin as the trees in town. The fire must have blazed through here faster, or with less ferocity than the slope above. The older trees are scorched up one side, but few have been gutted and fingers of new life are already bursting through the blackened shells. From every trunk, the epicormic sprouts seem to quiver.
“Come on, Dad. It’s amazing in here! Look, I can see the creek!”
Stepping over a fallen tree, Scott parts the barricade of poles, draws his hand back in surprise at the scratches on his palms. The skin begins immediately to itch, some irritant released by the creeper.
A door slams. Ashley is out of the car, hugging her elbows.
“Come back now, Mika,” says Scott. “It’s time to eat. We can explore after.”
Both kids ignore the sandwiches Scott makes, filling up instead on fluorescent sodas and bright-orange corn chips, jelly snakes for dessert. Scott isn’t hungry, but eats anyway, picking at his sandwich and half of Mika’s. They’re all squeezed together on the one unburnt side of the picnic bench.
Scott is far away, his mind on the hilltop and what remains of the forest. Unlike this side of the creek, the fire up there must have raged and raged, burning the life out of every trunk until there was no hope for regrowth, until the once majestic wilderness was reduced to a plain of blackened stumps. Those charred wooden stalagmites are like gravestones, like tiny, forgotten burial markers. Something inside him aches, weighed down by the ravaged bushland and its eerie calm. With every bite of the unwanted sandwich, the lump in his throat tightens.
When their second child was born still, when no cry came from the tiny lungs and the nurse carried off that helpless, motionless body in its swaddle of striped terry-cloth, Scott had felt it would never end. That germinal grief was so intense it transcended pain, became instead a landscape of exquisite, deadening absence. It blazed through him with all the intensity of a bushfire, leaving him scorched and empty as a husk. Only with time did the nerve endings reawaken, and despair crackle in his every fibre.
It was Marion that wanted to try again, wanted another child to dress the wound that would not heal. Scott accepted her decision, yielded to those months of joyless coupling, not because he believed that a living child could balance the vacuum left by the other, but because change of any kind was better than the unbounded wilderness of his grief.
She believed he had a lover, could see no other reason why, in the first months after Mika was born, Scott should routinely fail to come home. But it was nothing so complicated. He was stalled on roadsides in State Forest and National Park, car parks and picnic sites so very much like this one, gripping the steering wheel and staring, just staring out at the trees, at the green, at the life that persisted whether he willed it or not.
Divorce by then was inevitable, though neither blamed the black emptiness that yawned between them. By then the reasons were so many, and so distinct, that the din of those thousand small certainties overwhelmed the whispers of buried silence.
Marion clung to her new baby boy. Ashley disappeared inside herself. Scott turned away.
“—and you come along the creek and find me.”
Scott turns away from the hillside, from the corpse-shells of old growth, looks into the face of his son. Mika beams.
“A game. I’ll go through the forest and you go along the creek and we’ll meet up in the middle.”
Scott smiles. And behind the smile there is an ache, the pressure of irreclaimable time. He stands.
Ashley rolls her eyes, bites the head off a jelly snake.
It was a nice idea, but it cannot work. There is no way he can get through.
Leaning out from the bank, Scott peers upriver, up towards the wall of unbroken green from which Mika, by the rules of the game, should appear at any moment. But he cannot go any further. Beyond this dirt promontory and the makeshift bridge of stones and deadfall that spans the creek, there is no path upstream. The stepping stones end at the edge of the bank, where the regrowth forms a barricade along the creekside, leaving no space for footholds. The flaming itch in his palm warns against searching for grip in the tangled foliage.
He attempts the passage anyway, not wanting reality to interfere with what may be the last chance to connect with Mika this trip. For his efforts, he is rewarded with more cuts to his hand, a foot submerged to the ankle in icy water.
He gives up, climbs the bank with his shoe squelching. He’s almost back at the picnic bench when Mika starts to scream.
“Help, Daddy, help!” The boy’s voice, shrill in the smothering quiet. “Daddy, quickly! I’m scared!”
Scott doesn’t think, just runs. Past Ashley on the blackened bench, past the skeletal steel frame, over a fallen eucalypt and into the thicket of poles, tearing at the undergrowth.
“I’m coming, Mika. I’m coming,” Scott yells. “Where are you?”
Scott forces his way between the staves. His face, his neck, the backs of his hands burn at the creepers’ toxic scratches. Inside the underwood, what little remains of the afternoon sun is choked to a dusky gloom. He drags through snarls of vine, pushes against the unyielding brake, locating the boy by the sound of his voice.
“Daddy!” Desperate now, panicked, but the voice sounds close.
“Mika, where are you?”
Disorientation. The voice comes not from ahead of Scott as he’d expected, but from behind and to his left. He has pressed too far into the cage of scrub. He pauses, catching breath, hands and face flaming with welts.
The voice again, but farther this time, as though Mika is moving, as though he is being carried away.
Stifling panic, Scott doubles back, pushes on in the direction of Mika’s last shouts. The understory is thicker here, the poles closer, the vines more deranged. There’s no hint of a breeze, but epicormic shoots on every charred trunk are quivering.
He calls out his son’s name again and again, but the sound is deadened, suffocated by the foliage.
Ashley looks down at her phone. Still no bars.
She sucks air noisily through her teeth. No phone means no escape, no alternative but to be here in this miserable nowhere car park, trapped with her dipshit brother and their pointless biological dad.
They ran off to play their faggy little bush game. No one thought to ask her. Not that she’d have said yes. But still, it hurt not to be asked, to not have the chance to refuse. The little turd had started yelling about something-or-other—typical drama queen—and Scott ran off after him. She can still hear them shouting to each other from inside the forest.
She tugs the last of the jelly snakes from the bag, ties it in a knot and pops the whole thing in her mouth.
Worse by far than being with them, though, is being alone. The sun is gone now, the hillside a silhouette, the foliage leached of all colour. Only the shadows have depth.
A cold gust makes the leaves rattle and Ashley shivers. Then something moves on the edge of the clearing.
“Where the fuck’ve you been?” says the girl.
“Oh, hey Ash,” says Mika, brushing himself down. He limps over to the half-burnt table and drops down beside his sister.
“What’s with all the yelling, retard?”
“I was afraid of snakes,” he says, thrusts a grubby hand into the lolly packet. “You finish these?”
Ashley pokes out her tongue, shows him the half-sucked knot of goo. Mika scowls.
“You know, you were right,” says Ashley and nods towards the trees. “They do look like faces.”
Scott rips at the confusion of vines, hoping to find some small clearing where he can catch his breath, get his bearings, find his way to Mika. Through the murk, a half-burnt trunk, the smooth flesh-like bark bursting with galls.
He remembers how he was going to look for gum nuts. But, in the gloom, he can hardly see his feet, let alone details in the leaf litter. Besides, he doesn’t care anymore what species or variety of tree these are. He wants only to find his way back out, find his son.
“Mika!” Scott yells.
But there is no answer; he might as well be alone here in this wood. Only he is not alone.
In the wood to his right, poles rattle.
Then a clattering, but from the left. Closer this time.
“Mika?” But he knows it is not Mika.
Scott backs towards the tree, hands trembling, half falls against the charred bark. Feet enmeshed by creepers. Legs snared by cords of vine. A wall of ancient roots. A trunk so vast it’s engulfed by the darkening canopy.
His palm connects with something smooth—a patch of the tree’s unburnt skin—and he recoils, nauseated by its warmth. But the vines are tightening, the understory pressing on him from all sides, forcing him up against the bark. He tastes charcoal.
The clatter of poles is all around him, louder now. Creepers snake up and around his thighs, wind between fingers, twine round and around his throat, lashing him to the trunk. Worse than the fear, the itch. His face is on fire where the vines have touched, the skin swollen and bubbling. The bark has a pulse.
The clattering crescendoes—takka-takka-takka-takka-tak—a cacophony of bickering wood rising to a climax, to an unknowable, ceremonial peak.
Scott gasps as something moves beneath him. Something deep within the burned surface of the tree.
Sprouts burst from the charred bark, thrashing against his cheek, his chest. They convulse, searching like palsied fingers, whispering.
There is a stillness, a lacuna that expands between the mad fire of the itch, the seething of the shoots, the racket of the rattling wood, as though those vibrations, each insufferable alone, in unison harmonise. The pain is still there. And the fear. But beyond them is an emptiness both vast and ancient, an immeasurable landscape of silence.
And Scott is ready to listen.
He sighs. And something slips between the buttons of his shirt.
J. Ashley Smith is a British–Australian writer of dark fiction.
Born in Cambridge, UK, J. spent his childhood hiding with imaginary companions in the foundations of an Edwardian townhouse. He studied film and creative writing, then lost fifteen years to the British indie music scene, clothed in unfashionable sweaters, releasing unpopular records. He now lives with his wife and two sons in the suburbs of North Canberra, gathering moth dust, tormented by whispers from the Hills Hoist and the desolation of telegraph wires.
J.’s story, On The Line, won the Australasian Horror Writers Association Short Story Competition 2015.