Ingrid Banwell (Macquarie University, Australia)
On Good Friday, Fraser decided to kill the tree. It had huge leaves that blocked the gutters and a root system no doubt sniffing out his drains. The tree wasn’t a species he recognized. Best to exterminate the alien invader now, before it took over the garden.
He hired a chainsaw. The moment the blade breached the trunk an odd smell drifted from the wound. He stopped and inhaled. I know that smell, he thought, yet he couldn’t place it. Something heavy and formless grew inside him.
Ignoring the ache blossoming beneath his ribs, Fraser drove the saw harder. When the canopy finally collapsed on his lawn in a shower of leaves and sawdust, the smell overwhelmed him. His throat constricted and his eyes watered. Jaw set, he dismembered the fallen tree, bundled up the limbs and covered them in a tarpaulin weighed down with bricks. Finally, he slapped a lurid yellow concoction over the stump to stop regrowth.
Katie, his daughter, arrived as he was raking up the fallen twigs and leaves. Her gaze fell on the weeping trunk. ‘You’ve destroyed a whole ecosystem,’ she said.
‘It was getting out of control,’ Fraser explained. ‘If I’d let it live, it would’ve run amok.’
Giving him that familiar look of recrimination, Katie lifted her nose and inhaled. ‘That smell reminds me of mum’s perfume.’ Her eyes glazed with sorrows.
Fraser regarded his daughter; that strange, wild creature who, apart from her tattoos and piercings, looked so much like her mother. The pang returned, sharp, heavy and deep in his throat. He thought of all the things he’d killed over his lifetime: rats, bugs, weeds, his wife’s spirit. Feeling as though some lurid yellow poison was coursing through his veins, he tightened his grip around the wooden handle of the rake.
Fraser wanted Katie to stay a while, so he spoke kindly of her mother – his ex-wife – now passed on.
‘She was a good sort,’ Fraser managed as he carefully returned the tools and paint to their allocated spots in the garden shed. ‘She loved you.’ He refused to make eye contact with Katie and instead, addressed the rake. Speaking of his ex-wife hurt. It forced him to recall his betrayals. The secret still pressed hard against the boundaries of his being. When he joined the Department of Defence, he’d signed a legal document peppered with threats. The confidentiality contract extended until the end of his life.
Heavy with the burden, Fraser dropped into a chair on the veranda. In a flurry of irritation, he dusted gold flecks of sawdust off his trousers.
‘Evidence of your crime,’ said Katie, still resentful he’d chopped down the tree.
Fraser drew a shallow breath and suppressed an urge to snap. ‘Let’s get some dinner,’ he said. ‘We can order Uber Eats.’
‘Fine. You can pay.’
The fragrance of the tree’s severed limbs followed Fraser inside and hovered over him as he ordered their food. Katie stayed outside, watching the day die as evening stole over the garden.
When their food arrived, they sat on the deck as the clouds on the western horizon turned to fire. They gazed at what was left of the tree, the lurid yellow paint he’d put on the stump suffused in a uranium glow.
‘You really like destroying things, don’t you?’ Katie said as she sank her teeth into her vegan burger.
‘I like orderliness,’ Fraser replied, unpacking his bacon cheeseburger.
‘Mum really liked that tree,’ she said. ‘In spring, it had pretty pink flowers.’
‘Flowers mean the thing’s breeding,’ Fraser said. ‘If I’d let it live, it’s spawn would have spread.’
When Katie looked at him, her eyes reflected the sunset’s fire. ‘You are so fucked up, Dad.’
Fraser’s stomach tightened. This is how things always went. A few forced pleasantries before everything collapsed into war. He wanted to say something that would hurt Katie back. Instead, he said nothing. He bit hard into the bun, the Angus steak patty filling his mouth with juice. He inhaled as he chewed. He noticed it was faintly flavoured with the perfume from the tree. The perfume Katie said reminded her of her mother.
A wall of silence sat between them. A distant bird wailed at the falling sun.
‘All that work you did at the Defence Department; that shit you still can’t talk about,’ Katie continued. ‘It’s an institution that feeds off fear. A parasite, nourished by taxpayer’s money.’
Fraser chewed vigorously and thought how, since she’d been at university, Katie had started getting all feminist and left-wingy. He regarded her purple-dyed hair, and the nose-ring that made him think of a piece of snot. ‘That taxpayer money helped pay for your private school education and this house.’
‘I could have been home schooled. And I would have been happy living in a yurt.’
Again, Fraser wondered where this spikey creature with her tattoos and piercings had come from.
Struck by a hungering in his lungs, he drew a breath, inhaling the fragrance suffusing the garden below. That smell could be a warning. It could be poison. Perhaps that was why he felt so out of sorts since he’d cut down the tree.
Again, he managed to say nothing. As the garden crept with shadows, he thought back to his work as Chief Security Officer at the Department of Defence. He’d seen the thing. Twice. Sequestered behind a thick panel of shatterproof glass, its roots pressed against the window as if it yearned to escape. Dotting the surface above the liquid line of hydroponic fluid, sat brown puff-balls encasing their deadly cargo. A weapon. Bio-engineered by his own government.
‘I take my responsibilities seriously,’ Fraser finally replied. ‘I wanted to protect you and raise you properly.’
He recalled how he’d once caught a colleague trying to smuggle a flash drive out of the building. Afterwards, he’d followed protocol and reported the incident. A week later, the colleague died in an accident. That was all he knew. Contract killing was a different department.
Katie snorted. ‘Protection? Crap! All that wanker stuff about your job being so important that you couldn’t tell us what you did. What a load of pompous, patriarchal shit.’
Lips crimson with beetroot, particles of nut burger spat into the air as Katie spoke. ‘Instead of competing with one another, did any of those assholes at the Defence Department ever consider peaceful collaboration with foreign powers? Or were they too busy waving their penises at each other?’
Flinching, his blood starting to heat, Fraser swallowed hard. He could see Katie’s teeth, bright in the darkness. He’d paid to straighten those teeth with taxpayer money via the Department of Defence.
For a moment, he felt like one of those puff-balls, poised to release his toxic payload under the pressure of his daughter’s words. He recalled how her mother had described her once. ‘She’s stubborn, just like her father.’
Fraser monitored what might come out of his mouth and braced himself for more reprimands. He felt, in a strange way, as if some cosmic mirror was firing a lifetime of deployed verbal bullets back at him. Again, he remained silent.
‘It may surprise you dad, but I have a secret as well,’ his daughter snarked.
As if in reply, the electric bug-catcher on the veranda sparked.
Fraser shovelled the last piece of burger into his mouth and carefully wiped his fingers on the serviette, making sure he didn’t miss a crumb. What kind of secret? he wondered.
He felt his stomach muscles contract as he recalled the day the alarms in the laboratory went off; warning of a security breech, the moment everything went into lockdown. A single escaped spore would spell disaster. Fraser regarded his daughter and said nothing. Jaw tight, he waited for her to elaborate.
Instead, burger finished, she rose from her seat. ‘I have to go.’
Katie gave the stump one last glance. ‘It was mum’s tree,’ she said. ‘And you killed it.’
His back tensed. What could he say? Ever since he’d seen that frankenfungus, he’d harboured a deep suspicion of unfamiliar flora. After Katie turned from him, yanked open the deck’s screen door and went inside, he followed her down the hall, feeling old and tired; his secret sitting heavily inside him like an unhealthy meal.
In the hall, Katie paused and gazed at the framed family photo of the three of them laughing at the camera in front of the turquoise-tiled sunlit dome of a mosque. She was just five when they’d taken a holiday to Marrakech and her two front teeth were missing. He looked away from the unbearable joy, recalling how he’d left all his ex-wife’s funeral arrangements to his daughter.
After she opened the front door and let in the shadow-scented night, she sniffed lightly, and turned to him one last time, her eyes shining. ‘Despite everything Dad, I love you.’
Fraser’s insides tore, opening an inner darkness, its edges rimmed by fear. The grown-up Katie had never said the love word to him before. His reply stuck in the back of his throat. All his life, he’d tried to protect her. Protect the secret. He coughed to fill the waiting silence.
With an audible sigh, Katie turned and melted into the darkness.
Above the gap where she’d once stood, the light from the street lamp caught a halo of moths and tiny, dancing spores.
Fraser stared into the darkness, listening to Katie’s fading steps mingled with the whisperings of the wind in the trees above. As soon as he heard the metallic scream, he knew his life had been sliced in half. He raced towards the sound, towards Katie. Gazing at the carnage at the end of his street, he felt it in the pit of his stomach; the knowledge that this was part of his destiny, punishment for misdeeds past and present.
The ambulance arrived swiftly, as though anticipating the calamity.
Following surgery, Katie lay in an induced coma in intensive care. Allowed only a brief visit, Fraser gazed at her and thought how all her anger had drained away. She looked at peace for the first time in years. Calm. So much like her mother.
Cracking and uncracking the joints of his fingers, he sat helpless and mulled over their final words, plagued by the feeling she’d wanted to say more. Like everything else, he had killed their conversation and oppressed her with his stubborn, threatening silence. As he always did.
At that moment, he wanted to tell her everything while she couldn’t answer back and reprimand him. But the walls of this government hospital probably had ears. There was no safe place to speak. Officials listened everywhere, for a slip of the tongue, for leaked secrets, for betrayals of confidentiality.
Fraser lost track of time. Slumped in the chair by Katie’s bed, he watched the world outside the hospital window change shape. The wind’s fingers tore at the trees, the clouds grew thick and heavy, rain arrived and beat at the glass. Still Katie wouldn’t wake.
Finally, a nurse came in. ‘Fraser, you’ve been here for two days,’ she said. ‘You should go home and get some rest. We’ll call you if there are any changes in Katie’s condition.’
Exhausted, his thoughts in chaos, his heart wrung and shredded, Fraser arrived home after the sun had set. When he glanced outside, he noticed a milk-blue glow emanating near the compost heap; the place where he had thrown the tree’s dismembered corpse. The wind had torn off the tarp. His insides flared with a sudden fury. This whole disaster was that fucking tree’s fault. Tomorrow he would bury its remains.
The next morning, he woke, remembering a dream.
He’d been back by Katie’s bedside, confiding in her as she lay there silent and unable to challenge him. ‘You and your mother were collateral,’ he explained. ‘The government used you to make sure I stayed silent. If I’d broken the confidentiality clause, they would have punished me by hurting you.’
Words had spilled into his dream in a great, cathartic gust. He’d told her about the frankenfungus – that genetically engineered monstrosity their government was using as a biological weapon. He explained how, even though he was retired, it was still his job to guard the secret. Until the day he died.
He told her about the day he learned of their government’s covert use of the toxin to exterminate dissidents. Spin-doctors had managed to manipulate the press and tell the world that the neurotoxin carried the signature of another nation’s evils.
Afterwards, security at the Department of Defence had been tightened. In his dream he explained to Katie how he’d endured another round of inductions, tests and probes to ensure his loyalty.
‘I had to keep you both at a distance, pretend you meant nothing to me,’ Fraser whispered. ‘I was horrible to your mother. I even accused her of having affairs. I pushed her away to keep her safe…’
‘I was angry,’ he added. ‘And I took it out on your beautiful, kind mother.’
An effulgent knowledge bubbled up from the depths of Fraser’s being as he adjusted to the waking world. Last night’s dream carried with it an echo of something deep and true inside him.
He shook his head to dislodge the dream, and, without pausing for breakfast, marched outside and pulled the shovel from the shed.
Now, as he carried the shovel to the compost heap, he realised that dreams and thoughts were the last bastions of privacy. In this interlinked, security-obsessed, eavesdropping nation with its data-hungry contagion of algorithms, cameras and listening devices, no spoken or written word was truly private.
His hand closed around the shovel. He was going to dig a great hole and bury every single accursed branch of the alien invader. Plunging the shovel harder, Fraser realized he was taking his rage out on this unknown species of tree.
When he paused from his digging to break up some of the smaller branches, that sweet, woody and floral smell of his wife’s perfume rose from the wounds. Was it just yesterday he’d had dinner with Katie? It seemed a lifetime had passed between now and then.
He recalled how something else had happened in that twilit zone of sleep. Katie had woken and confessed her secret. And in that unconscious moment, he had understood.
Yet when he tried to resurrect her words, they slipped from his mind’s grasp, like sand between his fingers. Katie was no longer laying in bed when she she’d spoken. She stood in a swaying shadow and he sensed another presence there, another something that eluded him.
All day, the dream, dusty and evanescent, popped in and out of his thoughts. What was that shadow that seemed to carry some secret in its shifting, purple depths?
Weeks passed and Katie refused to wake. Nightly, their dream conversations continued. Many times, Fraser’s dreams felt more potent, more real than the world into which he woke. More than once, it occurred to him that he was the one in a coma.
Gradually, something inside Fraser shifted. A resolution grew and took shape.
He began to write on an old foolscap pad, taking care when he went out to hide his notes behind the picture frame in the hall. You could never be too careful. Spies were everywhere.
For eight months, Katie slept.
Alone on Christmas Eve, Fraser stepped into the garden and inspected the compost heap, noticing a fresh green shape had taken root amidst the decay. Curled into a gentle spiral against the fence’s grey backdrop, the limb sprouted three pea-green leaves and the pink-white bud of a flower. The shape brought to mind the delicate and magical Medieval tapestries they’d seen when they’d visited Paris museums, when Katie was just a hope in her mother’s belly.
Impossible, he thought as he stared at that fragile sign of life trembling in the evening breeze.
His heart ached. Yesterday, the hospital had asked him at what point he wished to switch off his daughter’s life support.
He regarded the seedling through watering eyes. It wouldn’t survive for long there, in the darkness of the compost heap. It was in the wrong place. Right then, the words Katie had spoken to him in his dream, came to him, bright and clear.
‘After she was cremated, I sprinkled mum’s ashes around that tree.’
In that dream, she stood under the cooling shade of the resurrected tree, spangled with pink flowers and bright green leaves the size of dinner plates.
A resounding quiet shook through him. ‘Of course,’ he murmured to himself. ‘Of course…’
On Christmas Day, he transplanted the blossoming branch, placing it in a sunny spot, inhaling its fragrance as he pressed soil over its roots.
Afterwards, he went inside and reviewed the document in which he had outlined the violations of his government, the manner in which taxpayer money had been spent on secret projects, fuelled the economy of war and lined the pockets of those prepared to participate in its corruptions.
Fraser opened his computer and typed in the email address of the journalist he had covertly contacted.
Glancing outside at evening’s purple shadows, he noticed the transplanted branch – unfurling after a day of sunshine – glowed amber in the setting sun’s light.
As though he were about to leap off an abyss, he drew a long, last breath. What did he have to lose? Everyone he loved was gone. Fraser had just pressed the ‘send’ key on his computer when the telephone rang.
‘Your daughter has woken up.’
Ingrid Banwell is a New Zealand born artist and writer now living in Sydney. She is currently studying for a Master of Creative Writing at Macquarie University. Ingrid holds a Master’s degree with First Class Honours in painting from the Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland, New Zealand and her artwork hangs in homes and offices around the world. Her three-dimensional work is also featured in several key publications on New Zealand art. Thanks to travel-hungry genes, she has lived in Mexico City, Vienna, London and New York.
On the writing side, Ingrid has been published in Cosmos Online, Andromeda Spaceways and the Writing NSW Magazine as well as numerous other online publications. In 2015, she self-published The Infidel’s Garden, a historical romance novel set in medieval Europe. She is also currently preparing to publish her second novel: Men of Earth.
Her art and writing (plus a trailer for Men of Earth are also featured on her website.