When I ask my father why he talks to the trees, he says it is because he is poor. He and my mother had no telephones when they were young, so they leaned into hollows and whispered poetry to one another. The words seeped into the wood, he tells me, and travelled along the roots. They always found where they needed to be.
It’s hard to believe this small, bitter man read poetry – he who was once of broad shoulders and thick fingers. The fluorescent light flickers above while he diminishes; the sheets pop as he turns. Other small, bitter men line up in a row beside him –indistinguishable from one another like babies in a nursery – balloons after a party. Arrhythmic beeps cut through the atmosphere as each machine strains to be heard. A woman appears by his bed. It’s his turn. His veins pulse like cracked paving stones beneath his skin, a tired mosaic in the spaces between. She pulls up her mask and sighs. He cannot afford a will, he tells me as an orderly pulls his bed; he left me a message instead.
I wonder how many messages it takes to build a coffin. My sister is weeping; eyes like torn paper. She didn’t speak to him for fifteen years. I tell her I don’t blame her; she tells me the oak is only a veneer. Her wife squeezes her hand while distant relatives repeat our tragedy back to us. I think about how, had he been stronger, he would have insisted on making his own coffin. He who loved to saw wood and tell it secrets; to be busy; always moving.
The trees outside his room don’t speak. I tap a trunk, scratch its bark like a scab – maybe there’s a trick. I peer into a hollow like Pooh searching for honey. We loved the film as children. Even my father, with his heart penned in barbed wire, couldn’t help but laugh when Pooh got stuck. We spent an entire summer searching for honey trees in the forest until he stopped us, frightened what we’d hear.
Frozen dew cuts like glass. A splash of blush bruises my face and snow crunches beneath my boots. I have searched longer than he was dying. It was the last place I thought of: childhood in the mountains. The forest sings with messages; trees stacked on the incline like travel brochures. They can be accidental – like catching the backend of a conversation as you pass in the street. I stumble upon myself, crying as my father tells me to be a man and picks up a limp rabbit. I gave it a name he never heard. I focus on the others: declarations of love, unanswered prayers, unsavoury bargains. Each hollow is teeming with voices like bees in a hive and it’s loud enough to be uncomfortable.
As soon as my sister sees the cabin, she cries. We roll ourselves into a ball and hold each other as memories wobble in our hands.
Later, we dry up – trembling like scattered dice. We share a beer, drunk from old mugs, and I tell her about my search. Just like him, she says, to leave something and not tell me where to find it. She puts on his oaken voice and tells me I’m supposed to be the smart one. We only laugh because we can’t cry anymore. She wants to fix up the house; pack up the trauma and sell it. I tell her I’m not sure.
Childhood teeters in boxes piled against the wall. Dust, disturbed by my return, hustles in the last sunlight. My sister and I used to hide sweets beneath the floor, in a gap made by knots in the boards. It gapes in the corner like a maw; one more hollow into which a poor man might speak. My back creaks as I kneel, my ear in the ink-dark opening. A draft disturbs discarded wrappers, the house whines, a mouse stirs, and finally his voice. It is a memoir of his insularity for my hearing alone. Judgement, confession, beer-soaked disappointment – they all cascade through the gap. A face full of wet floorboards.
He built this house himself – he who was once of hammers and nails. It was the only thing he made he was proud of. Now his words bounce through the hallways like ricocheting bullets. He is the walls, the floorboards; the beds in which we once slept. He is the cracked dishes and groaning pipes. The crushed beer cans lost beneath kitchen units and the scuffs on the carpet. His spectre owns this place as he knew it would. Everywhere I go, his last message seeps from the wood like honey.
My sister sits at the kitchen table, her knuckles white around a coffee cup. Steam swirls in vermicular patterns around her raw face. Memories have passed in the night. She is recalling the clenched fists, the broken bottles, and the axe-blade grin that preceded them. Old salt bleaches rivers in her cheeks. I resent she got out. I take her hand and tell her I’m sorry all the same.
I wonder how many messages it takes to build a fire. His messages soaked into the wood long ago and now they are gasoline. He burns quickly – he who was once of sawed logs and a clenched heart.
Geoffrey Bunting (he/him) is a writer and book designer from the UK. His work has appeared in Bridge Eight, History Today, Modus, Superjump, The Historian, and others. He can tie his shoelaces really well and hates moths. Website: geoffreybunting.co.uk Twitter: @geoffreyreads