A blog about creativity and connection in a living world
Monday, 8 August 2016
A Story: The Pear Tree – Part One
Is a story really a story if it isn’t read or told? Is it really alive if it is not shared?
I had to think long and hard about whether to make this story public. Initially I was excited about the idea … but, as often happens, I started to have doubts. I thought that perhaps it was too flawed, too immature. My writing has improved greatly since I wrote it over two years ago. Yet, it embodies many of the themes that are still important to me, and that continue to emerge in my work—gardens, growing things, healing; and it was my first long story, at around 8000 words—a very significant achievement at the time. I remember writing the last line and feeling absolutely elated.
For all its imperfections, the many things that I would probably write differently now, I am still proud of it. It shows part of my development as a writer. So I decided, in the end, that it was worth sharing, so the story can live, as stories so often want to do.
The Pear Tree is about a broken promise, a journey in search of healing and redemption, and finding—in fact, creating—a meaningful life (which is your very own story). And though I did not set out to write a love story, it became that too.
Due to its significant length, I am going to post it in sections over the next five days, which should make it more manageable (and less overwhelming) to read.
The Pear Tree
It started with dreams. More like nightmares really. There were six in all, six nights in a row, in the week when I fell apart, piece by piece.
In the first dream I lost my hands. My wrists were tied with rope and I was led towards a chopping block on which my hands were held down. A big man, wearing a black mask like a medieval executioner, and holding a huge axe, then chopped them off, the axe swinging down and slicing with a thud. I remember screaming as the hot blood spurted from my severed stumps. But when I woke in the morning it was already half forgotten. The early sun was shining through my window, the birds were singing, the world was waking, and the dream had flown.
I got up and dressed, ate a hasty breakfast of toast with butter and strawberry jam, and caught the bus to the library on the other side of town where I worked as a librarian’s assistant. It was a day like any other, so it wasn’t until my fingers started to ache that the events of the dream flashed back into my mind. My hands started to feel cold, cramped, unmovable, and I became more and more clumsy as the day wore on, dropping books, struggling to place them back on the shelf. By the time I arrived home that evening my hands resembled claws, my fingers curled and awkward. I fumbled through making dinner, and took about half an hour to undo the buttons on my blouse, and another half an hour to put my pyjamas on. The half-remembered dream about losing my hands seemed like a cruel coincidence, but nothing more than that. I hoped my hands would return to normal by morning and I went to bed.
The second dream was more vivid than the first. I was on a dark hillside with a storm swirling around me. Thunder rumbled above and wind buffeted me. I felt terribly exposed on that hill, and I noticed with horror that my handless arms were still bleeding, dripping blood onto the dark and wet grass. Then there was a sudden flash of lightning, and the immediate alteration from darkness to bright white light blinded me with glare. I rubbed my eyes with my bloody stumps, expecting my eyes to recover from the shock, but all I saw was blackness.
When I woke the next morning and slowly opened my eyes my sight seemed dim, blurred, and there was a pain behind my left eye. I got out of bed, noticing with irritation that my claw-like hands had not improved, and I walked over to the mirror. I was aghast at what I saw. My left eye was silvery, clouded over, and I realised with panic that it was completely blind. My right eye looked normal, yet everything I saw with it seemed drained of colour, like I was in a black and white film. I ran to the window and looked out over the garden. All the green was grey. Everything was grey. I staggered back to the bed and sat down. I was shaking and felt sick to my stomach. This could not be a simple coincidence.
I called in sick to work once I had calmed myself and worked out how to grip the telephone and press the necessary buttons with my ineffective fingers. I had turned into a freak overnight, so I couldn’t face going to the library, or even leaving the house.
I couldn’t help thinking that this was some kind of punishment. You see, I inherited this house, a small cottage on the edge of town, from my grandmother who had raised me after my parents died when I was just five. My mother had cancer and was dead within three months, and my father followed two weeks later, from a broken heart, Gran said. I was sceptical about whether it was actually possible to die from a broken heart, but Gran was always adamant that that was the way it happened, and I liked the fact that it sounded like the kind of thing that happened in fairytales. I liked fairytales. In fact, I liked stories of any kind. I was obsessed with books from the time I could read. And perhaps that was the reason for my punishment now.
My grandmother was old-fashioned, self-sufficient, growing a garden full of vegetables—potatoes, cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, kale—and a number of fruit trees from which she made exquisite jams. She also kept seven brown hens for their rich, golden-yolked eggs. Her garden constantly produced abundantly, as if it loved her and always wanted to please, and the hens always clucked around her ankles. She talked to the beans, hummed to the peach tree, caressed the hens, and liked to chant spells over the compost heap. Naturally, she had a reputation about town as being a complete loony, or a witch, but that never really bothered me, after all, I kept to myself. My gran was my mother and my father and my friend. She took care of me, fed me with love, and always provided for my needs.
However, her great disappointment was that I never took much interest in her plants. She tried to teach me about gardening, about how to sow seeds, how to tend them, and when to harvest, but I never really paid attention. Of course, I appreciated the food that she created from her home-grown harvests, and I always had a healthy appetite, for omelettes and colourful salads and peach cobbler with thick cream, but I was never drawn to the world of growing things. I was drawn to the leaves of books rather than to the leaves of trees.
I preferred to spend my time in my room with my head buried in a novel than outside in the garden. It wasn’t that Gran disapproved of books or reading. In fact, she had her own collection of books on an old shelf in the sitting room (and I had read them all by the time I was ten), but she believed the world outside was important too. She believed in relationships, in love—real love that consists of actions and devotion, not just storybook words. She always said, Books can teach you a lot, but they’re no comparison for dirt under your fingernails.
She tried and tried to encourage my curiosity in the garden when I was young, but I rebelled against dirt and worms and pecking chickens, and once I reached my teen years she gave up. I was lost to the world of books and she could no longer reach me.
When I was nineteen I was offered a job at the local library and obviously I was thrilled. I could spend all my days surrounded by books, by stories and knowledge. My life felt complete. But while Gran was happy for me I could see a faint look of disappointment in her eyes.
One day, after I had been working steadily at the library for four years, she called me outside and told me that when she was gone it would be my responsibility to take care of the garden, to water the plants, pull out the weeds, feed the chickens and sing to the trees. She said that she didn’t want me to just throw my life away on other people’s stories when I should be creating my own, when I should be loving the world instead of just loving books. She was still in good health so I had no reason to think she would die any time soon. I promised, rather absentmindedly, that I would look after the garden and the chickens and that she didn’t have to fret about a thing. I thought I would worry about all that later, when I was older. Much older.
Then Gran passed away in her sleep, without warning, only two weeks after that conversation, and I was suddenly overwhelmed by all the work. I had no idea what to do. I had never understood the love that Gran felt for the growing things, never understood her dedication, her seasonal rituals. I didn’t know how to build up the compost heap, when to harvest the kale, and I was terrified that I would forget to feed the chickens and they would starve to death, so I gave them away. I neglected the garden and it started to run wild with weeds, full of dead flower heads and fruit gone to waste, rotting in sickly sweet piles under the trees.
I felt dreadfully guilty that I hadn’t fulfilled Gran’s wishes, but I was out of my depth. All I knew about was books and the library, all I knew about was living in stories, and so that is why these afflictions, my crippled hands and blinded eye, seemed like punishments. I hadn’t bothered to put my hands into the earth, so now I couldn’t even hold a book, let alone turn the pages. I hadn’t bothered to see the beauty of the garden, the beauty of life and living things, so now I could hardly see, let alone see the words on a page. I hadn’t done what my gran wanted, and now I was paying the price. I started to think that perhaps she really was a witch and that she had come back to curse me, a full year after her death …