mother of all trees

the young man sucked in a lungful of air and released it slowly through his nose.
he bent down, his big hands tugging at the laces of his boots and then looping them into a knot. he licked his thumb and rubbed it intently across a scuff in the black leather of the shoes, then peered at it; sighed and straightened up.
“mum?” he strode into the kitchen.
his mother sat in the corner. she looked the size of a pea in the swathes of heavy woollen blankets wrapped around her. she clicked her tongue at the roof absently; the rocking chair protested quietly as she swayed back in it.
“not as cold this morning, i hope, mum?”
she looked faintly amused at this and sadness curled in the young man’s stomach. wind whistled through their small, two bedroom flat.
“can i get anything to warm you?”
she shook her head no. her eyes crinkled affectionately as she looked up at him.
“there’s bread, i think, in the freezer? you should eat something,” he implored, running fingers through the tangled curls falling over his forehead.
his mother smiled. she tilted her cheek for him to kiss and the young man sighed and gently pressed his lips against her weathered skin.
he said, “well. i’ll see you later, then. i love you,” then grabbed his keys and closed the door with a quiet click.
the tools he had borrowed were already in the back of the car. he sat in the front seat for a moment and rested his head against the steering wheel. his mum was the root of his entire existence. she was the tree of life, giving until she could no longer. and yet she had created his world and nurtured him from seedling and he failed to protect her old bones against merciless days of winter.
the car drive was long to get to the job. the young man looked nervously at his petrol gauge. but it paid well, this job.
he pulled up outside a house and turned off the ignition slowly. then he stepped out of the car, shading his eyes against the sun.
a tree was yelling at him. it was a gumtree, ancient and magnificent, soaring branches filling the sky over the naturestrip. the young man shivered, and huddled into the fluorescent work jacket. what was the big deal? it was breathtakingly old but it was a tree. it meant money. and a working heater for his mum. it was a tree, he thought again. his mum’s life, for a tree.
he shoved chilled fingers deep into his pocket, hesitated, and then yanked them out again to cross his arms over his chest. he looked up at the ancient woman sitting on one of the gumtree’s branch, shaking her fist down at him.
he sighed, “look, lady. i am really sorry but you have to get out of the tree.”
*
“look, lady. i am really sorry but you have to get out of the tree.”
the young woman sucked in a lungful of air and released it slowly through her nose. “go stuff a splinter up your bum,” she hollered, shaking her fist down at the boy in his big worker’s boots and bright vest.
she saw him roll his eyes. “don’t you roll your eyes at me, young boy.”
gusts of breeze whipped pale sandy locks of hair against her cheeks. her legs were wrapped comfortably against the gumtree’s thick branch and her feet were bare.
suddenly, toes clinging to the bark like a possum, she stood.
“lady, stop acting crazy. you are bloody high,” the boy yelled up at her.
“and you are acting awfully high-and-mighty,” the young woman shouted back. “what would your mother say?”
the boy paused. “my mother needs the money logging this tree brings us,” he informed her stiffly.
“i need this tree and the memories it brings me,” she shot back immediately.
“it is just a tree,” the boy exclaimed, his voice childish.
“your mother is just your mother.”
the boy’s face was ashen. “how dare you,” he said.
“does your mother actually exist?” the young woman suddenly demanded.
“what?”
“how can she be real for me, if i have never met her?” she paused for a second and looked at the small house, at the window overlooking the street, this tree. her throat constricted as she said, “and my beautiful mum. you never met her. did she ever exist?” she stroked the rough bark slowly; letting her head rest against the trunk. memories flashed behind her eyelids. belly-aching laughter. warm sunshine. snuggly cuddles on lazy school mornings and picnics in the park, by the river with the dog. bicycle rides in the pouring rain; sloppy kisses; squealing dances in the sprinklers on the dry scratchy grass under a steaming summer sun; stories read aloud, tucked into her side; bedtime misbehaviour and reprimands to settle down or else. the smell of warmth, of sweet things, of washing-powder and sweat and home cooked dinners. crinkling eyes and smiles that made the rest of the world feel tiny.
“your reality is that your mother is your mother, and this tree is just a tree. but for me, this tree is my mother.” the young woman’s voice was soft, carried down by the wind to the boy’s ears.
“who is to say which is more real?”

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