SHADOWS FROM A BROKEN TREE

by D.N. Stuefloten

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     She entered the room like a flower blooming; but quickly the petals turned black, the stem cracked: she collapsed onto the floor. In that instant before falling her eyes rolled upward; the face slackened. But on the floor she twisted, and everything went hard. I sat there sipping my drink. The music continued. A few curious glances turned her way, and the man behind the counter shook his head while he mixed a drink. Her throat must have constricted, because she seemed to be gagging, her chest heaved with labored breath. Her full short dress, fluffy like a girl’s but without a girl’s innocence, gathered in a billow above her waist while her legs wound together. I put down my drink and got up and put a pencil between her teeth. A trickle of white liquid issued from the corner of her lips. I reflected the pencil would have to be thrown away. Nevertheless her tongue should be saved; in the fit she might bite it in two, or even swallow it. I squatted down watching her. Her long blonde hair flew around her face. Then her eyes opened and she smiled at me. For a moment she said nothing. She stretched, her arms above her head, legs straight out with the toes pointing. Then she sat up.
     “Thank you,” she said. “I knew you would be here.”
     “Did you,” I said.
     “Oh yes, someone is always here.”
     “That calls for a drink. What'll you have?”
     “A double scotch, of course.”
     “What else?”
     She got up smoothing at her dress and bunching her hair. When she sat down she swung her legs together.
     “Now I feel good,” she said.
     “After that?”
     “Now it’s all gone.”
     “Gone?”
     “Yes—death. Death is gone.”
     “Now youre alive.”
     “Dont laugh. You mustnt laugh. With death gone there is nothing to laugh at.”
     “That’s an original approach.”
     Now she smiled at me.
     “Youre young,” she said.
     Perhaps she was seventeen. Or eighteen. Or older? Could something older hide there? The dress was black and she was blonde. Her lips were red and gathered together very full. I was weighted down with myself. My pencil was in my hand and I studied it, the fine little teeth marks, the faint dampness from her mouth. “I'm sorry about the pencil,” she said. "But when I have a fit, biting comes natural." She laughed at that. Around us people chattered. Women wore silky dresses and the men all had dark suits and shining faces. What their talk was, I could not know; they didnt seem to be talking about anything, just moving their lips, the noise issuing from their throats, contorting in their mouths. I had just come off a boat, from another place; it was red there with heat, and dry, the wind coming off the sand until I could not see, everything stiff and parched. My heart pounded at the sight of the endless desert. In a red dress a girl had said good-bye. I was going now; the end had come. Her hair was black and hung around her face. She had been swimming. Her car stood crouched at the edge of the sea. And always the wind blew. In the dry air I could say nothing. My mind went around in circles. Did it matter? Perhaps not. The girl who had the fit smiled. Her knowing youth annoyed me.
     “Perhaps I’d better not sit with you,” she said.
     “Why not?”
     “If my boyfriend finds me with you, he’ll kill you.”
     “Will he, now?”
     “Do you mind?”
     “Being killed? I dont know. I’ve never been killed before.”
     “He’s pretty big. But you look strong.”
     She put one leg over mine. The music rose and cymbals clanged. Someone with a saxophone took a bow, and people clapped politely. Someone else raised a whoop. Grinning the saxophone player disappeared. Everywhere people raised drinks and smiled aloofly. Below me I suddenly realized that the floor was dark, as though it were not a floor at all, but a huge pit. I shuffled my feet to reassure myself; but the vision persisted. I felt like running, and I could remember running before: it happened in another place. Why I ran I do not know. I made the young man driving stop the car. “It’s all right,” I said. “I can run, and get away.” He smiled strangely in the dark. I thought perhaps he was shy; or perhaps feeling sorry for me: he did not know how fast I could run. But he stopped the car and I got out. It had rained earlier, and it was cold, and the rain-spotted buildings sparkled like ice. The night had drowned all sounds. I started off at a trot, looking back to see if the young man driving the car would wave; but he didnt. His face was an indistinct blur behind the windscreen. I ran (I can remember this: it is why that eludes me. Somewhere before there had been white faces, powdered, and smiles spotted by occasional teeth. There had been thumping music too. But beyond this I can remember nothing, except a need to get away.) and running made me warm; but the sound of my heels hitting the pavement hurt me. I found a huge park, peopled by tall trees, mostly shadow. The grass was wet, and the dampness was good. Soon in the distance, in the middle of the city, I saw a huge building on fire, and as I got closer I saw that it was a hospital with row after row of windows. The glow made everything red. Strangely enough the fire made no sound; but when I saw the two people at the window, trying to crawl out, I ignored this; soundless fire or not, these people were trying to escape, and it was my duty to help them. One I saw was an old woman strapped into a wheelchair. The other was a young girl with a piquant face. I called up that I would help them, and the old woman smiled benignly; but the girl was too worried to smile; she rushed around, trying to find a window that would open. I reached up—I could barely grasp the sill—and undid a latch. The girl threw the window up. She must have been strong, because she lifted the woman, wheelchair and all, to the window and tipped her down. The weight was almost more than I could manage. The girl was lighter and I set her on her feet and she brushed her hand over her forehead with relief. The old woman nodded her gray head. I never saw her again. The girl with the piquant face I would meet later on a beach with the sand blowing on the sea. Later I knew her name: Elizabeth. But first there was the dream. And in the dream the fire disappeared. Perhaps there had never been a fire. I dont remember if I ran after that: the shadows came into me. Trees spread everywhere. When the dream was over I was covered with sweat. An empty, strange room stared down at me. I cant remember where I was then: there have been too many places.
     The girl with the blonde hair leaned over the table and kissed me on one cheek.
     “What are you thinking about? You look so strange.”
     “Nothing,” I said. “Doll, you are beautiful.”
     “I cant wait until my boyfriend comes.”
     “You like to see fights, do you?”
     “Oh, yes—when the fight is over me.”
     “Perhaps I wont fight.”
     “Oh, you will, wont you? Just for me?”
     “And what if I win?”
     She whispered: “I'll give you anything you like.”
     “Drink your scotch.”
     She shifted her leg (the one over mine: her right foot on the floor and spread away from the other, in the bustle of petticoat showing flesh above the silk stocking to the crotch) from my knee to my thigh and moved it back and forth. My hand fitted nicely on her knee. “Do you have a car?” she asked. I shook my head. She screwed her eyes in disappointment. “Do you have a flat?” “An hotel room,” I said. With cracked walls. An empty bed. The ceiling full of eyes. (In another room in another town—yes, another country—I  brought Elizabeth with her frightened body. Outside the ocean threw itself onto the beach. A night fastened itself on the land. Somewhere mountains rose white into the sky, and in the dark dingy shanty town, at the edge of the city, near the room where I brought Elizabeth—with the piquant face, the serious silence—the dark colored people filled the streets. The wracked huts huddled together. Elizabeth put her knees under her chin wrapping her arms around her legs. It hurt, she said. It hurt.) “Which hotel?” said the girl. “The Railway,” I said. (Elsewhere, later, she moved her foot in the sand. She wasnt pretty then: the sea water twisted her long black hair. Her face was burnt by the sun.)
     “How long have you been here?” asked the blonde.
     “I got here yesterday.”
     “Where do you come from?”
     I told her.
     “What’s it like there?”
     “Nice,” I said. “Nice with mountains.”
     “What’s wrong with our mountains?”
     “You aint got none.”
     “Oh!” she said as I stroked the inside of her thigh.
     (Next to the sea, with the sand blowing over the water, she stood in her red dress moving her foot in the sand. Where does it end? I thought. Where does it end? On the sand, in a red dress; her car at the edge of the road, old and gleaming. In the shanty town music howled. I took her to the car and put her in and pecked her on the cheek. She put glasses before her eyes, and started the car. When she drove away I sat down and smoked a cigarette. Other cars rushed by. It was a holiday time of the year. Pretty girls with bright beach hats passed by with their noses in the air. Later I ran. This was a run across the sand. It felt good, my heels digging holes in the earth, my mind following the flow of my body. That night shadows came. In the ceiling were the eyes, and I could not answer them. In the streets below, the dark people sang and pounded their feet. Elizabeth did not say good-bye. The name became her face, and her face her breasts, and then the opening of her legs. But the heat was too great, and the wind knocked me about. The sand blew into the sea. Later I walked about through the town waiting for my ship; a black boy sold me his sister—“Very nice, very clean”—but the disinterested movement as she lay back—dark legs, small breasts; eyes that shut painlessly, a jaw that chewed steadily on gum—took away the passion I did not, anyway, feel. When I left she turned on her belly and went to sleep. It was a curious time. The noises were too loud. I wanted to shout at them, all of them, but lacked the energy. It didnt matter anyway. Later, on the boat, the harbor became tiny, and at last disappeared. The thumping of my heart stopped.) Here it was hot too, even in the darkness. I opened my shirt. The music had started again, the air jerked with it. I bought more scotches. The blonde peered at me over the lip of her glass, smiling. “Do you like my legs?" she asked. “Beautiful,” I said stroking them from her knee to her crotch, over the silky stocking and the hot flesh. Her boyfriend would not come, I knew that, there would be no fight; her entrance was faked, her blondeness came from a bottle; her flesh stripped of her colored clothes would be pale and weak, the smell familiar, the shattered room well known: too many of them, in too many places. There was no ending, it had never begun: it was always there, like shadows from a broken tree. The wind endlessly blew sand, and the heat pressed like a hand on the earth. The ocean made a roaring noise against the rocks. Beneath me was a yawning pit. I moved my feet on the floor, but it was not there. I stood up and pulled the girl upright. “Let’s go.” She threw back her head, and pushed with her little hands at her hair. Her hair became sand, the sand endlessly blew, the ocean roared; little rooms with little eyes jeered without sound; there was no good-bye, no ending: it had never begun: there were only shadows from broken trees, and sand on the sea, the heat pressing like a hand on the earth. Endlessly. Without end. Ai! Without end!

 

Text and photos copyright D.N. Stuefloten.
Contact:
don@dnstuefloten.com

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NOTES: This story was written in Perth, Western Australia, in about 1962. I was working as a dynamiter with a seismic crew: six weeks in the bush, in the northwestern desert, then two weeks off in Perth. I was 23 years old. My girlfriend, Elizabeth, had just broken up with me. I didnt know quite what to do. One night I had a dream, which is in the center of this story. Exactly how it all fit in with Elizabeth I cannot say, but somehow it seemed connected. Afterwards I showed it to a friend, Jake. Jake read it, then said, sadly, "You loved her, didnt you?" Perhaps I did.

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