‘The Grandma Tree’ by Louise Tondeur
Here is our short story for March 2016, ‘The Grandma Tree’ by Louise Tondeur, part of our celebration of International Women’s Day! Louise Tondeur’s first two novels, The Water’s Edge and The Haven Home for Delinquent Girls, were published by Headline Review. She has also published poetry, short stories and essays, including ‘First Time’ in Litro Magazine and an essay on dyslexic writing in Writing in Practice. She has also contributed to two Anthologies of Dyslexic Literature (RASP), in which this story first appeared, and is a principal lecturer in creative writing at the University of Roehampton.
The Grandma Tree by Louise Tondeur
My grandmother liked knitting and she made me wind her wool up for her in tight balls. Before the kitten drowned, it liked to chase my grandmother’s wool across the floor. Sometimes different colours, green, blue, pink, purple, would criss-cross each other from the kitten-wool game if my sister had been playing for a long time. It depended what my grandmother was making. If she made something multi-coloured, and my sister played for a long time, then it would happen. Once, my grandmother made me a stripy scarf that went all the way down to the floor. Another time, she made me a jumper to go with the scarf. When she was doing that the wool went to and fro across the floor in a giant Technicolor spider’s web. I wound it up carefully afterwards. I didn’t mind doing it. I liked it. The fire jumped around excitedly. My grandmother’s needles went click click click. My sister held the kitten to the window so she could watch the snow falling. I could smell dinner simmering in the kitchen. I wound the wool back up tight into balls and arranged them in her knitting bag, like jumper seeds ready to spring into life.
My grandmother would sit in the kitchen with me sometimes while I drank milk and took bites out of my sandwich so they made a pretty pattern. She put her arm around me and said she was going to tell me a story. Her stories would always start in the place where we were. If we were in the garden, under the oak tree, that’s where it would start. Once there were two birds sitting in an oak tree. If we were by the pond, that’s where it would start. Once, there were seven sisters who sat and sewed by a shinning silver pond. If we happened to be strolling through the garden and kicking the leaves with our feet, it would begin there. Once two boys shuffled through the leaves and ate baked potatoes as they walked. Or: Once there were seven sisters who stood in the autumn wind and played with each other's hair. Sometimes it started in the kitchen.
‘I knew a woman who told me about a girl who liked to sit at her kitchen table all day long,’ my grandmother said. She put her arm around me when she told her stories. Her arm told the story as well. If it got frightening, she would hold me tighter. If there was a storm on a boat, she would rock me to and fro. If there was a wishing well, she would move her hand to my shoulder and we would pretend to look into the well together to make our wish and wait to see if it came true. If two people fell in love, she would stroke my elbow and gaze into the distance as if she was remembering the time she fell in love with my grandfather. That was in a field. I knew because she had told me about lying on her back in the grass. Her arm was like a thick rope binding me to the tale.
I had a crush on the gardener’s daughter. She had blonde hair and a turned-up nose and she sat cross-legged under the window, next to the dog roses. I leant against the oak tree, sewing beads onto my purse and watched her. I liked her blue eyes. They shone whenever she looked at me. She gave me an earthy feeling, or rather, a turned-up earth feeling, like someone was digging there, turning me over. I sat down next to her and crossed my legs too. She looked at me solemnly and didn’t say anything at first. She just dug around in the earth with a stick.
‘See the oak tree?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘I bet I can hang from that branch by my knees, with no hands.’
‘OK then,’ I said. She checked to make sure her father wasn’t looking, ran over to it, climbed quickly and hung from the strongest branch, upside down, her hair falling towards the ground, her arms dangling, her t-shirt falling over her face. I watched. After a while, she righted herself and ran back over.
‘Does it hurt?’ I said.
‘A bit,’ she said and shrugged. After that, we gazed up into the branches together and they criss-crossed over our heads. Then I heard my middle sister coming and for some reason I didn’t want her to know we were there, so I pulled my new friend behind the tree trunk. No one could see us anyway, the branches hung down towards the earth like a skirt. The gardener’s daughter giggled as we watched my middle sister’s feet go past. I suddenly felt happy, being next to her and next to the trunk of the oak. All summer, we lay under the branches of the old oak together and looked up and the criss-cross roof above us. One day we were lying on our backs and it was cold. She gave me her jumper and I draped it over both of us, so it was like we were in bed together. I thought it was funny.
‘What?’ she said.
‘Nothing,’ I said. I was embarrassed.
‘I’m going away,’ she said, suddenly. I sat up so I was leaning on my elbows.
‘Why?’ I said.
‘For gardening school. My dad’s sending me.’
‘How far away?’ I said.
‘I don’t know. A long way.’ She dug in her pocket like she was digging in the earth and pulled out a silver sphere on a long chain. She held my hand and pressed it into my palm.
'What is it?'
'Open it,' she said. I did as she told me. I lifted the lid and watched as a needle bobbed over a curling N for North. A compass.
'To show you the way,' she said.
I cried when she left. It felt, not like a friend leaving, but like I had lost my arm or my tongue or my foot. I had that same phantom sense that the lost thing was still there, haunting me.
My pet guinea pig died on the day you left. My father told me and my six sisters to bury it in the muddy patch beyond the oak tree. I wrapped the small black body in cloth and laid it in the grave. As I watched my eldest sister cover it over, I cried and they thought I was crying for my pet, but I wasn’t. I was frightened that a tree would grow up on the spot where we had planted her, a whole tree of guinea pigs, which would start out as giant black and brown flowers and blossom into squeaking furry bundles wrapped in see through silky leaves, waiting to fall like apples did. How frightening it would be to stand under the tree and listen to the squeaking. But though I waited, and looked out of the window, at the fallen brown leaves, at the snow and the hard ground, at the new green buds, the guinea pig tree didn’t grow. Even though I had been frightened, I watched even harder, for longer, because I thought that maybe watching made it happen.
One night, when it got truly dark, and everyone else was in bed, I crept outside. I knelt down near to, but not quite next to, where my pet guinea pig lay, put my hands into the dark earth and let it crumble between my fingers. Then I dug a bit deeper. I scooped out a whole handful and then another and another until I had a hole. Quickly, I dipped my hand into my pocket and pulled out the purse I had made myself out of soft pink cloth and coloured beads. The beads made a spiral pattern like a wave across the surface in blue and white. I watched the wave for a while, but I didn’t press my fingers to it like I wanted to because they were caked in earth from digging. I held the purse carefully trying not to get it muddy. All the same, when I opened the clasp, I left two fingerprints either side like I had committed a crime. I took out the silver compass you gave me from inside and settled it in the hole I had made. Then I covered it with the soil I had disturbed.
One day in spring my eldest sister found me behind a curtain and asked me why I was hiding. I couldn’t tell her about the guinea pig tree or the compass tree that I might find growing one day below my window with black flowers blowing in the wind, or humming silver berries. I let her sit in the window seat and hold onto me, and I cried into her shoulder. After that, I didn’t watch anymore. I felt as if I had changed, like some girls change from playing with dolls to suddenly throwing their dolls down the stairs. I had changed from a girl who watches for a guinea pig or a compass trees to someone else, a new person, as if I had been buried in the earth myself and now I was shooting up through the soil, pushing up my green fingers, reaching up so my chin and mouth and nose broke the surface, taking a breath, admiring my own trunk. I couldn’t have spoken about it then, but I knew it inside, like a tree must know that it’s a tree inside its trunk, because it doesn’t have a head to think with. I never told anyone about it. It sunk deep into the bit of me that would have been my trunk if I had been a tree myself.
I got a sharp guilty kick in the stomach, from the inside, the first time my sister suggested that we plant a tree, like I was remembering a guilty secret. Like the time when I ate three shortcake biscuits under the covers in the middle of the night. It was like that, when I remembered planting my pet guinea pig and the compass. I was a bit older and taller. My eldest sister had a baby by then. I was an auntie and a godmother.
‘Why don't we plant a tree?’ she said. ‘So the baby can watch it grow.’ I wondered how she knew about planting trees, because I hadn’t told anyone at all. I hadn’t even whispered it into my pillow at night.
My middle sister had a kitten which drowned in the pond. She said that the kitten’s ghost slept on her pillow, but I said she was stupid because ghosts don’t have to sleep. The kitten that drowned sunk under the water, right down to where the weeds are. We saw its nose and its eyes and then its ears go under. We waited to see if it would fight its way back to the surface, but it didn’t; it sunk like a stone. I wondered if my sister watched the pond to see if kitten water lilies would spread across the surface, just like I watched for the guinea pig tree and the compass tree, but I didn’t think about it much at all, because it was her kitten and so they would be her water lilies. Anyway. We didn’t plant the kitten. It sunk all by itself. I wasn’t sure if things grew if you hadn’t planted them.
Just after the kitten drowned in the pond, that spring, when the waters were swollen, my grandmother died on the sofa with her knitting needles in her hands. My father decided that she would be buried in the gardens. My sister came to stay with her baby so that she could organise it. She called the priest and the gravediggers and the stonemasons, and ordered wandering flowers around the edges of the stone and much loved mother and grandmother for the words. That was when my sister suggested the tree again. That evening we were sitting on the sofa where my grandmother had died. My sister held up an acorn she had found in the garden, under the oak tree, which my father said was four hundred years old.
‘Do you know what this is?’ she said. She showed it to the baby as well as me, so I wasn’t sure who she was talking to at first. Of course I knew what it was.
‘It’s an acorn,’ I said. My sister jigged the baby on her hip. I looked at its bald head and tiny fingers and remembered that I was a fairy godmother and one day I would have to turn pumpkins into coaches. I wondered how I was going to manage it.
‘If you look really really carefully, you can see the oak tree curled up inside it, waiting to come out.’ I took it in my hand and looked. I couldn’t see the tree at all, but I just nodded anyway.
‘I can see it,’ I said.
‘When we have the priest come to put grandma to sleep in the earth, shall we put the acorn in too?’ my sister said. ‘Then she can grow into a big tree. As big as the old tree at the bottom of the garden, that you can hide under.’ I looked at her sharply. I got the inside kick in my stomach. I imagined watching a tree grow from my bedroom window. In the spring, big white flowers would grow, with multicoloured balls of wool for berries around them. Then in the summer, the flowers would turn into grandmas, wrapped in cotton, ready to fall.
‘A grandma tree?’ I said. My sister smiled, took the acorn back, and put it in her pocket.
‘Yes,’ she said.
Nothing happened all summer. Through the autumn the grave with the grey stone was covered in brown leaves. In the winter it turned white as grandma’s hair. In March, I saw something from my bedroom window. I ran down into the garden before anyone else was up. The grandma tree had started to grow. I watched it all year long. I sat next to it when the first leaves were unfolding like tiny hands. I felt the thin trunk, which was thinner than my little finger. I phoned my sister. The baby was starting to walk now. I could hear her crying in the background.
‘The grandma tree has leaves now,’ I said.
‘Good. I’ll come over and see it later. Have the others seen it?’
‘No,’ I said.
‘Good. It can be our secret for now, until they find it for themselves.’ It was our secret until, one by one, by sisters found the new tree. I watched them from my bedroom window. They went one at a time, when they remembered that Grandma wasn’t on the sofa anymore, to look at the stone. It was still cold and their breath sung around their heads as they looked. Two, three, four, five, six. Two knelt to pray. She was religious, but she didn’t mind who she prayed to. She prayed to fairies and clouds and trees. Three with a candle, which the wind kissed out. Four with a ball of wool which she wound around her hand like a rosary. It was the one she kept under her pillow for the dead kitten to play with. Five with a storybook which she read from early in the morning, and six, who ran back for a watering can. We never visited the tree at the same time. We had our unspoken days. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. My eldest sister, who had her baby on her hip, and I were one and seven. Sometimes on a Saturday we stood together, reading the words on the stone, and watching the grandma tree grow. Sometimes on Sundays, I went on my own.
One Sunday night when the world was quiet, I stood watching the grandma tree from my bedroom window. I imagined grandma below pushing up through the soil, reaching up an arm, pushing with her head, straining her fingers, wriggling until she could feel herself being sucked up into the roots and pushing up into the thick trunk. But it wasn't ready for her yet. So grandma was waiting, I thought, just under the soil, until the trunk and the branches got thick enough to hold her, then she would climb up and sit inside. Then she would push an arm into each branch. She would grow extra arms so she could feel a bit of her inside each one. She would grow extra fingers so she would be in every leaf. But that wouldn’t be for a very long time, a hundred years maybe, I thought to myself, until the trunk was thick enough. Just then I noticed, glinting in the moonlight, a bush had grown up around the grandma tree for a skirt. It had silver-white branches like fingers of ice. I ran downstairs, and out into the garden. I knelt in front of the silver bush. At the end of each branch were tiny seedpods. I pressed one of them between my thumb and finger, and out fell a silver sphere, tiny, pea-shaped, with a hinged lid. I opened it. I listened carefully. I could hear my guinea pig squeaking like a ghost when I lifted it to my ear.
When I looked over my shoulder, you were waiting for me in the middle of the frosty grass. You were grown up, but your hair was still in a bob and your nose was still turned up at the edges.
‘Hello,’ you said. You looked at me with shiny blue eyes.
‘My grandma died and now she’s growing into a tree,’ I said. You thought about it.
‘That’s good,’ you said. I stood up and took your hand.