Category C: Third Place (2016) Monash Short Story Writing Competition
Author: Ashleigh Oldfield
Title: Coming Home
The air in the mountains forested by eucalypts is unlike that of anywhere else. It’s steeped with moisture that’s both cool and refreshing. Each particle of water has purifying properties. They seep into your lungs with each breath you take, cleansing away the dust and exhaust fumes from the city. As I climbed from my car I gulped the air in greedily, letting it soothe me, willing it to regenerate my spirit. I felt tight and constrained after too much time spent in the city. I was wound up like a coiled spring. The pressure was so great I thought I would snap in the middle. On a whim I had jumped in the car, not telling a soul where I was headed, and drove as fast as I could to the mountains. Towards my home.
I parked my car in a dead-end street, the base of which opened up into an overgrown forest trail. Winding my scarf tight around my neck, I headed deep into the forest, revelling in the feel of leaf-litter and bracken crunching beneath my feet. I kept well clear of the tree line that bordered private houses perching precariously along the steep mountain slope. I wasn’t entirely sure I was allowed to be here and I didn’t want to risk being sent away before I had achieved my purpose.
As a child I had whiled away many happy hours in this mountain forest, and now I greeted each tree like an old friend, pausing now and again to place a gloved hand against the trunks of some of my favourites. That scraggly manna gum, for instance, looked just like the one my brother had climbed on a dare. He had managed to climb the limbless trunk a whole two metres before he lost his grip and slid down, scraping off the rough bark with his boots as he passed. Spiders and insects rained down upon my head with the falling bark, some falling down my top and making me wriggle and scream. Geoff laughed so hard at me he fell over into a pile of kangaroo droppings. He smelled so bad Mum and Dad made him sit on newspaper during the car ride home.
I continued my journey and spotted a mound that was covered with the spindly fern-like bushes that we loved to crush underfoot. My grandpa had told us it was a wombat’s hole. We’d poked our heads inside as far as we had dared, and scouted around for animal tracks, but we never saw the slightest sign of a wombat.
I smiled fondly at the memory of my grandpa and his tales about the local wildlife. Such as the information he imparted to me on the day he handed me a garden hoe.
‘I’ve seen a dangerous brown snake loitering around the wood pile,’ he’d said. ‘Must’ve been at least a metre long and as thick as your wrist. If you see it, chop its head off with that.’ He made a slashing motion with the hoe before passing it to me. I pretended to be brave, marching through the forest, holding the hoe before me like a bayonet. To be honest I was more afraid of having to cut a snake’s head off than I was about a snake biting me. To this day I don’t know if there ever was a snake, or if it was my grandpa’s idea of a joke. I guess now I’ll never know.
Despite myself I smiled, picturing my serious child self brandishing gardening equipment like a weapon. I followed that child’s footsteps, nearing my destination. The old fire-track, kept clear for the fire fighters in case of a bush fire, told me I was close. I scrambled down the mountain toward the tree line, tripping over fallen branches; my eyes too busy seeking the property I had come here to see. I crashed through the trees into a clearing, and my heart stopped.
My location was true, but you wouldn’t know it from the sight that greeted me. An involuntary sob clogged my throat. Before me was my grandparents’ old property, but not how I had always remembered it. Gone were my grandpa’s carefully cultivated trees of hazel, walnut, chestnut, holly and maple. How old had they been? Forty, fifty years? Hysterically I wondered if the new owners had managed to get a good price for such invaluable wood. The rose bush that marked the grave of a treasured dog had been mercilessly ripped out of the ground. There, in the place where I used to scramble about in the damp leaves, searching for fallen nuts, the walnut casings dying my hands a strange purple-brown, the chestnuts pricking my fingers and almost always disappointingly empty; there, heedlessly covering the place that I loved, was an ugly concrete slab, complete with a monstrous shed plonked perilously on top. I backed away in horror, walking and walking until the abomination was well out of my sight. A fallen tree, lying on its side, struck the back of my knees and I plopped down despondently on the mossy trunk. I allowed the sobs to take hold and I bawled uncontrollably.
What had they done? It was as if my dreams had been twisted, my memories defiled and replaced by a nightmare. I willed myself to wake, all the while knowing deep down that what I had seen was real. There was neither grace nor majesty left on the property. The land had been robbed of its beauty and charm.
This was not what I had come here for, was not the cleansing of my soul that I had needed so much. I loosened my scarf so I could breathe easier, but instantly had cause to regret it. The damp air now felt as if it were drowning me, and in desperation I gulped like a fish that had suddenly found itself on dry land after falling for the promised treat of a worm, only to be betrayed by an evil hook.
The sun was well past its zenith by the time I had stopped gasping for breath. I looked around me as I retied my scarf. I was surprised to see how deep into the forest I had retreated in my despair. I was sitting on the fallen tree that my brother and I had been forbidden to explore beyond, although we had sneaked past it once or twice.
‘Terrible monsters lurk there,’ my Mum had said jokingly when I asked why we couldn’t go beyond the fallen tree. I knew she just hadn’t wanted us to become lost, but to this day I liked to imagine that there was a whole world up there filled with bears, wolves, and even panthers, roaming freely and yet too scared to cross an arbitrary boundary that had been set by my mother.
The memory soothed me a little, and step-by-step I made my way back the way I had come. I didn’t pause at the strange forked tree that I used to use as the base for a bark hut, and I didn’t stop to admire some of the more regal specimens of mountain ash trees. The cool damp air became refreshing once more. I breathed it in deeply, feeling much more relaxed by the time I had reached my car.
The concrete slab, that shed - they were just features on the surface. What lay beneath were precious memories, treasures that I stored away in the very corners of my heart, keeping them safe for the years to come. These trees, this crisp mountain air, were all I needed to replenish my spirit. Nothing could take that away from me.
I climbed into my car and drove the long winding road back home.