by Natalie J. E. Potts
It was the last summer of my innocence. Now so many summers in the past, and yet the memories feel more plump and fresh than those of this morning’s breakfast. Just thinking about it brings back the bush-perfumed scent of Aunty June’s garden, and the relaxing trickle of the nearby stream.
Aunty June wasn’t really my aunt. She was just an old lady who lived down by the river in a house with no electricity and no running water except the river. Her garden overflowed with flowers and herbs, with a grand old oak watching over them all.
My mum told me not to visit Aunty June. But then mum took a job at a café which kept her busy until after six, so I figured what she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.
I used to see Aunty June nearly every day on the way home from school. I’d sit in the heavy air of her well-used kitchen and listen to her stories. Cerberus, her big, fluffy, black cat, would sit purring on my lap while I scratched into the waxy folds of his ears. Aunty June didn’t tell the usual fairytales that other adults told; bland tales softened for children’s ears. Aunty June made up her own stories and pretended they were real.
One day she told me that her skin was so dark because she was born out of the soil, plucked like a potato from the dirt and it never fully washed off. After that she started to rub mud on my cheeks each time I came to visit, but it always rinsed away, usually at the hands of my angry mother back at home. Mum had no soil on her skin either, which used to make me wonder if she to was jealous of Aunty June?
Sometimes while we talked, we would mix up tonics and make ointments from the herbs in the garden. I would dip my finger in and have a taste, while Aunty June acted like she didn’t see, but I know she did. Once when I slid my finger along the edge of the bowl she grabbed it so quickly that it gave me a fright. She roughly wiped the green paste off before dragging me down to the stream to wash off every last trace of it.
That afternoon we sat by the edge of the stream for what seemed like hours, the water lapping at my fingers, which went numb in the cold water. The shadow of the giant old oak sheltered us from the heat of the sun, big enough that it could shade us both and most of the garden too.
“That tree looks like it has been here forever!” I said. “It must be over a hundred years old.”
Aunty June looked up and down the creek, as if checking to see that no one was around before she spoke. “I’ve been counselling that tree for a great many years,” she said sadly. “Its time is near.” Aunty June didn’t tell any stories that afternoon, so when she determined it was safe, I took my hand out of the stream and went home.
A week later the oak was struck by lightning in storm. When I dropped by Aunty June’s house I found her standing in the garden, staring up at the charred gash where the bolt had burned down the trunk, killing the old oak in one violent, fiery act. She didn’t seem to hear me approach, she just kept looking up at the dead, old tree, almost like she had fallen asleep standing in front of it. Then, with no warning, she walked over and snapped a twig from one of the lower branches. She then turned to me as if she had known I was there all along.
“Come little one,” she beckoned. “It is time to pay respect to the fallen.” I didn’t know what she meant, but I wanted to see what she was going to do, so I followed her inside.
All the curtains were drawn, making the inside as dark as night. Cerberus, with his silky black fur, melted into the shadows on the bed. I wouldn’t have even known he was there if I hadn’t caught the reflection of his green eyes in the soft light of the candles that burned on the table.
Aunty June looked very serious as she placed the twig onto a small silver plate in the middle of the table. I realised that I was holding my breath and suddenly let it go so hard I nearly blew one of the candles out.
“Hand me that vial,” Aunty June said, pointing to a large, glass tube on the mantle. I hadn’t noticed it before, but with so many jars and pots and vessels in her house it was hard to take note of any one of them in particular. I silently got off my chair to get it, then came back to the table and passed her the glass container, splashing its colourless liquid around inside. I watched as she slowly uncorked it. It was almost as if she was frightened that it might explode in her hands with the care she took to wiggle the stopper out. I’m sure it wouldn’t have, because she should have asked me to wait outside if it was dangerous, but all the same I was glad when she had finished pouring a few drops of the liquid onto the dead stick and corked it back up again.
She stared at the twig in a manner which made me wonder again if she had dropped off to sleep (she did that sometimes). Then she looked at me, with big green eyes, almost as radiant as the cat’s. “Do you know what this stick is?”
“It is part of the dead oak?” I said, knowing I was giving the right answer, but not sure if it was the one she was after.
“It is so much more than that.” She looked at the twig lovingly before picking up one of the candles and touching it to the stick, setting it alight. Something very sharp dug into my leg and I nearly jumped off my chair with shock. Cerberus had leaped up onto my lap and was so excited he’d forgotten to pull his claws in.
“Coming to pay your respects?” Aunty June asked him as he pawed the top of the table. It was all so dark and the smell of the burning wood made me a little dizzy, but I swear the cat mewed a response that almost sounded like words before he placed his front feet back on my lap and turned his little nose up to sniff the smoke from the twig. In the low light it looked like Cerberus was smiling, but I couldn’t be sure because just then everything went black.
“Aunty June?” I asked in the darkness. Cerberus leaped off my lap, but I didn’t know if he had jumped down to the floor or climbed up onto the table. “Aunty June, why did you blow out the candles?” My voice trembled. It felt like the darkness was getting thicker, actually pressing against my skin. The pressure of the room squashed me into my chair and I wished that I could feel the bite of Cerberus’ claws in my leg or the weight of him on my lap just to prove that I wasn’t the only living thing left in the void.
“All done now,” Aunty June sang, throwing the curtains open and parting the dark like Moses with the Red Sea. The mausoleum turned back into her little house and Aunty June stood by the window like an angel, haloed in gold. With the sun pouring in, I could feel how cold the air had become as my skin began to warm. On the table, the twig was now just a black piece of charcoal.
“It is time to return this lost soul back to the ether,” Aunty June said. She picked up the silver tray with held the burned stick, and she walked outside. I was eager to be free of the cold little house, so I quickly followed her out into the heat of the yard.
“Back to the four elements,” Aunty June said. She snapped off a piece of charred twig and rolled it between her fingers, crushing it to dust. She opened her hand and littering the black powder into the warm breeze that was rushing down the gully. “Back to the air, which breathes life into us all.”
She cracked off another piece and bent over to drop it into a little hollow in the ground she had dug with her foot. “Back to the earth, which nourishes us.” She patted the disturbed dirt back into place with her hand, soiling her ash covered fingers.
I followed her over to the stream where she broke off another piece of stick. “Back to the water, which sates our thirst.” We both watched as the blackened bit of twig floated on the current, bobbing up and down on the miniature waves until it floated too far away to see. We walked back to the base of the old tree in the garden.
“And finally…” Aunty June turned to me and showed me the last small piece on the tray. “This must go back to the fire, to purify the penitent soul.” The blackened twig burst into orange flames. It must have heated up the tray, but if the tray was too hot to hold, Aunty June gave no indication. The flames went blue as the last of the twig burned away, leaving the little silver platter perfectly clean.
It was a cool trick.
“I think you are ready to know the truth about trees,” she said.
I didn’t like the tone of her voice and had a strong desire not to know what she wanted to tell me. “Seeds,” I said quietly. “We learned at school that trees come from seeds. All plants come from seeds.” I looked at the open gate that was past Aunty June and wondered if maybe I should just go straight home like mum told me.
“No, I think you know that is not the truth,” Aunty June said with a smile that didn’t look right on her old lips. “Some seeds are more than seeds, some seeds are portals, a path to redemption. They are the doorways.”
“Doors to where?” I asked, and immediately wished that I hadn’t.
“It is not the where that is important so much as the who. They are the means of escape from the underworld for the tortured souls of hell! When you put a seed in the ground you are giving the sinners a chance for atonement. It is up to them if they will use it to get out, or not.”
I didn’t know what she was talking about, but I did know that I didn’t like her talking about hell. I looked at the gate again, and Aunty June must have seen where my eyes were going because she grabbed my hand and pushed me in front of the dead, old oak.
“This particular tree is the prison of a soul who did great evil on this earth. He stood here contemplating his actions for over one hundred years. Over one hundred years of living with his sins, unable to walk away, unable to talk to others, allowed to move only when the breeze touched him. And now he has finally found peace. His penitence is up, God struck him free of his cell and at last he is clean enough to move on.”
I tried to pull my hand away, but her bony old fingers held firm. She squatted down and turned me to face her, eye to eye. “When you see a tree that fruits more sweetly, more abundantly than those around it, a bush covered in bloom when others are just dotted with flowers it is a sure sign that they are the souls from hell paying the price for their sins.” She searched my face as if looking to see what tree I might one day become. “Their flowers and fruits are apologies, and we should respect their remorse by taking pleasure in these gifts of shame. And never, never, cut them down before their time. It is not our place to make that judgment.”
“No Miss,” I said like I did with the teacher when she was telling me off. Aunty June wasn’t telling me off, but she did sound scary, so I didn’t want to upset her further.
“Live well and at worst you may just have to suffer the repentance of a bunch of basil; one season of remorse and no more.”
“Yes Miss,” I said again shakily.
She finally let go of my hand and relaxed her face back into the kind old lady she had always been. “Now, let’s go back inside, I have a new batch of biscuits that came out of the oven just before you came by.” Even as she said it, the aroma of warm almond cookies that had not been there before scented the air. Cerberus slinked out of the doorway and sat down to watch us. He had a knowing look on his face and I wondered if he also knew the truth about trees?
Aunty June looked frail and old again as she walked over to the door, bending slightly to scratch Cerberus behind the ear. He purred loudly in appreciation, but did not drop his stare from my face.
Now, looking back on it, I don’t know why I was so sure that if I had walked back into that house I would never have come out again. But standing in the cloud of almond scent, I was convinced that I had only one chance to escape. I took two steps along the path, as if I was following them, before turning around and running out the front gate as fast as I could.
I don’t know what I really would have seen if I had paused to turn around. But I dream about it often. I dream of cats that change into tigers, women who fly, but most of all I dream about the tortured souls of hell following in the blades of grass and leaves of flowers by the river. I don’t sleep very well any more.
I never went down to see Aunty June again. I changed my route to walk home via Main Street, past the café where Mum worked. One of my friends would sometimes walk by the river, but he didn’t know what I was talking about when I asked him about Aunty June and her little house. He said there were no houses down there. Sometimes I’m tempted to go and see for myself, even now, but I’m too afraid of what I might not find.
I still see Cerberus around town, he must be over forty years old by now, but he never comes when I call. I try to pretend they are just different alley cats, with the same luxurious fur and luminous green eyes, but I know it is him. He watches me with a knowing stare, making sure I stay faithful to the truth I now know.
So even now, over twenty years since that hot summer day, whenever I walk past an abundantly flowering bush or a fruiting tree I stop and smell the flowers or eat the fruity gifts. Sometimes, if no one is looking, I talk to them as well, saying nice things and wishing them luck, hoping they are not too lonely.
But the giant older trees make me shiver, I quickly pass by them. I do not want to commune with them. They remind me that even now, all around, are many future grand old trees; people sowing their evil for a penitence yet to come.