Memories define our sense of place. Friends and family do too.
And sometimes, perhaps, a bit of magic
By the time I was thirteen, I knew I was too old to be sleeping in Mum’s bed. But that didn’t stop me crawling in beside her on that two-inch thick fold-out mattress every second night when I woke slick with sweat from a nightmare.
‘Try to go back to sleep, Maddie,’ Mum’d coo and kiss my hair even though we both knew we’d lie there awake until the alarm chimed at three-thirty and it was time for her to get up for work.
I never lived in a normal house. Well, I did—once. But I hadn’t since I was seven and we didn’t talk about it or actively remember anything of the life before we left. Since then it’s been caravans or share houses; granny flats in someone’s backyard; or a refurbished old shearer’s shed like the place where we lived now. Mum always told me to be grateful because it was the kindness of strangers and her hard work that kept me clothed and sheltered.
‘If I’m not waiting out front when the bell rings then I’ve had to do overtime and you need to get the bus home, okay?’
Mum told me that every day in case I ever forgot but I never would because her shifts at the abs were so unpredictable and no one at work cared that she had a kid at home she needed to look after. Mr Miller would drive me to the shearer’s shed in his dirty beige LandCruiser if he was down near the cattle grid when I hobbled off the bus to save me the one kilometre walk up the dusty driveway. He was a nice old man, Mr Miller—as rough and rusty as his old ute but he always had a bottle of cordial in the car for me and when I thanked him every day like Mum’d taught me he always grunted a ‘Too easy, love’ and waved it off.
There was no TV in the shearer’s shed, just a radio I’d listen to while I did my homework and help Mum with dinner. After, we’d just read. The local library wasn’t the biggest nor did it have the widest range but they’d special order books in from bigger centres if you asked and were patient enough to wait the week or two it took to come in. There was always something sad about having to return a book so if it was a good one I’d try to read it through a few times in case I never saw it again. We didn’t have the money to buy things so I only owned one book: a collection of British and European folk and fairy tales Mum’d got from Grandma when she was a kid. She said we had heaps of books and stuff back in our old house but this was the only one she thought to grab the night we left.
It didn’t go unnoticed that I was a high schooler reading a book of nursery rhymes meant for children. I’d be lying if I said bullying didn’t bother me but I found it easier to deal with than nightmares. You can’t fight back against something that’s attacking you from inside your head when you’re at your most vulnerable. More than anything, that was what I wanted to change about my life. Not the constant running or the lack of money or my classmates’ rude words.
It was the fear.
Fear of being caught. Fear of being trapped. Fear of the world of my nightmares becoming my reality. I wanted a magic lamp or a fairy godmother or a guardian angel or something like the heroes in the stories I read that I could use to cure my haunting dreams.
I wanted a wish.
‘Mum, do you think wishes can come true?’
Mum was grilling sausages in a wonky cast iron skillet on the little two-burner stove top, rice bubbling away in the saucepan next to it. She didn’t answer right away.
‘I wished for the strength to keep you safe and so far so good.’ She flinched from the spitting fat.
‘But how? And don’t say you closed your eyes and wished really hard because I’ve already tried that and it doesn’t work.’
‘Well,’ she said, cutting the gas, ‘I did what your Grandma told me her grandparents told her when she was a little girl back in England.’
Mum served the sausages on a bed of rice and set the plates on an old fold-out card table decorated with a candle stuffed in an empty jam jar like we were at a proper restaurant or something.
‘She found a tree once,’ Mum said, ‘When she was exploring her grandparents’ farm. It had these ridges of coins poking out of it like needles on an echidna. It was the strangest thing she’d ever seen,. She went straight back to the house to ask Great Grandma Joyce about it. Told her it was a wishing tree.’
I scrunched up my nose. ‘What’s a wishing tree?’
Mum shrugged. ‘Just an ordinary tree people used to make wishes. Gram told me all you needed to do was hammer a coin into the trunk. Sick people used to do it to transfer their illness to the tree, but eventually everyone just did it to make wishes for anything they wanted. Sounds silly, but they were quite popular back in the day.’
‘So any tree works?’
‘I guess so. Did for me.’ Mum put down her knife and fork and wiped her mouth with a serviette. ‘One night, I took a fifty cent coin from my wallet, went out into the backyard to that old bottle brush tree and hammered it right in to the trunk. The next time when your father was at the pub, I packed our bags and off we went.’
It wasn’t really solid evidence of wish fulfilment but at this point I was desperate enough to try anything. The thing about nightmares is that even though you know they aren’t real, your body doesn’t. The mind may calm on waking but your pulse still races and your stomach remains clenched and nauseated and it’s the muscle memory of the fear that stays with you and keeps the demons alive long after the lights are on. And I just couldn’t live like that.
So once Mum went to sleep, I pinched a coin from the savings jar above the fridge—fifty cents just like she did because the bigger the better right?—and carefully slipped the hammer out of the plastic bucket of miscellaneous tools we kept in the cupboard under the sink. I wasn’t really the type to go traipsing around outside after dark but nothing was more terrifying than what I saw inside my head so it wasn’t as daunting as I thought it might be. And I knew exactly where I was going: the lone ghost gum on the hill behind the shearer’s shed. I always liked it for some reason. Something about the pink tinge to its smooth bark and the way it kind of glowed despite the darkness of the night. If anything was going to have any magic around here it was most certainly that tree.
Holding the coin between my thumb and index finger, I lined the hammer up with the narrow edge like they showed us in D&T class at school. The first tap did nothing, just echoed hollowly around the empty paddock. I cringed and froze and waited for Mum to storm out of the shed and yell at me. She didn’t. I swung again and the coin wobbled a little less between my fingers. I kept going and going, all the while chanting in my head please take away my nightmares please take away my nightmares please take away my nightmares please…
The coin was a little bent by the time I finished. Surely that wouldn’t matter? I wiped away the sweat that beaded on my forehead and voiced my wish out loud.
‘Please take away my nightmares.’
I trudged back to the house, returned the hammer and slipped into bed.
That night I didn’t wake at all.
I didn’t have another nightmare for three years. The abattoir in town closed down and Mum had to move to find work and we found ourselves up on a strawberry farm in Queensland. She got the job through her friend Janice who’d worked at the abs with her and they found a cheap little fibro two-bedder they could afford to rent together not far from their new work. It was nice being in a real house with a real kitchen and a garden and it didn’t even bother me I was sixteen and sharing a room with my mother because at least I wasn’t alone when the nightmares returned.
Had someone taken my coin? Did Mr Miller cut down the tree? Did it die? Or had I just travelled so far from home that the magic binding my dreams to the tree no longer had any effect? I wondered that every night for years.
Mum and I had always moved forward, never back. We didn’t think about where we came from or the places we left behind. Only what was in front of us and what lay even further ahead. But Mum’s restlessness had started to settle and we stayed living with Janice until well after I finished high school—the longest we’d ever been in the one place. I kept waiting for Mum to move us again but she never did. It wasn’t only me who wanted to move, and not onto someplace new.
I wanted to go home.
It was hard to tell Mum I wanted to leave. We’d been together so long, just the two of us, it felt a betrayal to abandon her now. But she wasn’t alone, not anymore. And she didn’t resent me for wanting to go. She just touched my cheek and smiled that warm smile of hers, saying ‘You stay brave, Possum. Love you.’
The moment I stepped off the train in that old country town in rural NSW, a sense of calm washed over me like waves on the beach. My first impulse was to jump into a cab and head out to Mr Miller’s farm and check my tree but instead I booked into room at one of the local pubs. I could afford a few weeks’ rent and basic groceries, but Mum made me keep enough savings aside to get myself back to her if everything went arse-up. The economy was hardly booming in the sleepy little town and with the abattoir still closed, jobs were going to be hard to come by. But I had to make it work.
I never got to go back to the farm. Mr Miller and his family had moved on and the house put up for sale. I was anxious lying in bed that night, waiting to see if I could sleep. Waiting to see if I would be hounded by nightmares the moment I closed my eyes.
But I wasn’t.
I almost cried when I woke the next morning. This dingy pub room with its cigarette burns on the curtains, flaking paint and yellowed wallpaper curling at the corners, gave me the best sleep I’d had since we left the shearer’s shack on Mr Miller’s farm. I always thought home’d be where I’d lived the longest, where we’d made the most memories. But I was wrong. I was bound to this town just like my nightmares were bound to that tree. I’d grown up running, always moving around to keep safe because that’s what Mum’d thought we needed to do. But she found her stability, her corner of the world. And now I had too.
This was my town.
This was my place.
THE DREAMBOUND TREE was awarded Runner Up in the 2019 International Women’s Day Patricia Caskie Literature Award.
Theme: My Place, My Town.
(c) Jessica A. McMinn 2019
1 995 words.
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