When I first heard the legend that a sycamore tree stood at the eastern gates of heaven and rewarded those who lived within its shadow, I didn’t realize they meant my tree—the one on the hilltop at Two Rivers. I didn’t believe in the magic until I turned seven and dreamed I’d died.
I stepped outside into the morning shade of the three-hundred-year-old tree. Legend said that if the goddess allowed, anyone born within its shadow could be reborn there. But rebirth was the last thing on my mind, and I rubbed my chest, fresh from the death dream memory of car exhaust fumes, hot engine oil, and grease.
I ran to school because Games Day was the school’s big event of the year, and I was late. I kept to the edges of the oval, away from teachers and sports jocks.
Hugh Wintergreen ran past with a stupid grin plastered over his face. He tugged at my shirt. He said, “Catch me!” and headed toward the main gate.
I gave chase. I caught him and we ran onto the road, into the traffic, where he dared me to follow and play chicken.
I recognized the car and a feeling to stop tore at me. With the death dream fresh in my mind, I froze mid stride, and tried to grab Hugh.
He kept running and dodging cars until the car I’d seen screeched to a stop. Hugh disappeared underneath it.
I screamed and felt every one of his ribs snap.
The smell of hot rubber, car oil, and engine grease, tore at my nostrils. My stomach churned and I threw up into the gutter.
People came running.
Mariana Blackburn, a girl from my class, arrived first. She screamed. “Stu McBane pushed him.”
Her family didn’t approve of my single mum and her birthing clinic. I looked up, wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, ready to deny I’d pushed Hugh, but I recognized her voice as the girl who yelled in my dream. The dream had come true, and I couldn’t understand why it hadn’t been me who’d died.
The taxi driver was Hugh Stevens’ father, another boy in my class, and he vouched for me, but still, a seed of doubt grew from Mariana’s claim.
Games Day was cancelled, and I trudged home. Mum waited in the kitchen. She’d heard. Two Rivers was a small town.
She checked me over. “You’re fine.” She ruffled my hair. “Go and thank the goddess in the sycamore tree.”
I frowned. “Now?”
She put her hands on her hips.
I nodded and put my boots back on and stepped outside. The door slammed shut on its sprung hinges and I heard her again.
“Take a bag of compost with you and sprinkle it around the tree when you’re there.”
Mum ran a birthing clinic by the tree when the moon was full, and didn’t care what the rest of the town thought. I always thought her a bit crazy, but I loved her all the same.
The day I turned eight, Two Rivers Elementary School hosted another Games Day. They dedicated it to Hugh Wintergreen, and the local protestant minister came to say a few words.
We stood on the oval, and when the minister commenced his sermon, we faced the school gates. He mentioned the accident and paused, glanced over at me in the second row and nodded.
My ears burned. I blamed my mum’s non-protestant beliefs in the sycamore tree, but whatever the reason, he knew I’d been with Hugh when he died.
After prayers, everyone dispersed to the running tracks, the high jump, triple jump, and the areas set up for shot put and discus. I ambled over to the start of the 200-meter sprint. I had never won a race and wanted to see how I’d go now that one of god’s ministers had his eye on me.
I lined up and waited. The starter pistol fired, and I ran to lead place and stayed there. I pushed on and powered ahead until my legs grew heavy. At that point, Hugh Stevens leveled with me. I grit my teeth, pushed harder, determined to beat the boy whose dad had killed Hugh Wintergreen. Ahead by a pace, I approached the finish, but Hugh leveled with me. He took the lead and crossed the line half a step ahead.
I doubled over, hands on knees and gulped in air. Hugh approached, as puffed as me. I smiled.
“Well run.” He grinned and raised his hand in the air, palm toward me.
“Congratulations,” I said and slapped his hand in hi-five style.
He waved Mariana Blackburn over, the girl who, the year before, had accused me of pushing Hugh under the taxi. Inside, I groaned.
That feeling returned, and an urge to distance myself from Hugh.
I took three steps backward and air whooshed past me.
A stray javelin struck Hugh and pierced the center of his chest. He never flinched. A breath later blood swelled over his shirt and Hugh’s eyes bulged. He fell to the ground.
Mariana screamed, and pushed me.
Had the javelin been for me? Now death had passed me over twice on my birthday.
Some of the town said it was a strange coincidence. After all, Hugh Stevens’ dad had driven the taxi that killed Hugh Wintergreen.
Mariana said it had to do with me, but she was always a mean girl.
At school I mentally projected the same message. It was an accident. I hadn’t pushed Hugh Wintergreen or touched the javelin that killed Hugh Stevens.
After school, I spent that month at the sycamore tree and made the area around it weed free.
Perhaps the tree goddess watched out for me, I couldn’t be sure, but Two Rivers was a small town with only one school and memories ran deep. Nobody forgot I had twice been death’s companion. Nobody wanted to stand near me after that and my small circle of friends dwindled. I hoped people would forget soon.
I first noticed Joanie the day of my twelfth birthday. She and her twin sister, Fran, were the hottest girls in school, and they were two years older than me.
Whenever I crossed paths with Joanie, I’d smile at her, but Joanie never noticed. I didn’t exist. I’d grown accustomed to that.
At the end of last period, Joanie dropped her notebook at her locker and walked off. I picked it up and followed her outside to return it.
“You dropped this.” I handed her the notebook.
She took it and smiled. “Thanks—”
That feeling returned, a desire to move away, to flee.
“No worries.” I hurried away, lost in thought and stumbled into a group of boys outside the school.
“McBane,” one of them yelled.
I recognized Wolfgang and smiled. He was older, trouble for some, but we got along well enough.
His troublesome grin vanished and with it my smile fell. “What?” I asked.
He leaned in and poked me in the chest. “Leave. Joanie. Alone.”
I didn’t understand but stepped back until I found myself trapped in a tight circle of older boys.
His fist landed in my face before I could dodge it.
“Don’t,” I yelled. My vision blurred and tears streaked my face.
I raised my arms but a fist hit me from behind. Somebody kicked me in the ribs. I doubled over and a foot smashed into my face.
Warm fluid ran down my chin. I tasted blood. They picked me up and threw me into an industrial rubbish container. I smelled a match flare, and the contents in the container caught alight.
I choked on smoke and climbed out to their laughter, and I pushed through them and ran toward home, angry I hadn’t thrown a punch. I didn’t want anyone to see my blood-covered face, convinced my nose had been broken. I skirted the town and out of impulse I climbed the hill to the sycamore tree.
I was out of breath by the time I reached the top, and as always, I stopped to admire the glorious view of the town and distant hills.
“Hello,” a girl said.
I faced the voice, and Joanie stepped into the sun from behind the sycamore tree, a book in her hand. She smiled. “Fancy seeing you here.”
“Why’d you run off today?”
“I had a feeling it was for the best.”
“Ah. That feeling. Did anyone die?”
I wasn’t surprised by the comment, but I didn’t want to talk about it. “What’s with you and Wolf?” I asked.
She shrugged. “He thinks he owns me.”
“Does he?” I grinned.
Our eyes locked, and something like electricity passed between us. I shuddered and a tingle climbed up my spine.
“Nobody owns me,” she said. “Wolf’s an idiot. He’s going to be sentenced to Juvie for breaking into old man Steven’s home.”
I nodded. There was that mention of old man Stevens, one of the dead Hugh boys. Perhaps that was why I had the urge earlier.
“He won’t bother you again.” She walked over to the tree, spread her arms, and swayed about its base to music I couldn’t hear.
She looked beautiful. Enchanting.
Joanie squeezed my hand, and a warm flush filled my cheeks. “So you know about the magic of the sycamore tree?” She raised her eyebrows.
I remember mum’s stories and nodded.
“I come up here all the time, to pull out the weeds, keep it tidy for her.”
“Her?” I said unsure.
“The tree goddess. Don’t you know anything? She’s what’s takes care of us down there.”
I thought about my near misses with both Hughes and the fact that I stood alone with the hottest girl in Two Rivers. Perhaps she was right.
Joanie became my new friend. She called me Stuart, and I liked that. I became interested in school again, and my grades improved. But Joanie had a wild side too, and we were always in trouble for swinging from the rope under Patterson’s bridge, or standing underneath the live cables from the town’s power station. Life was fun around her. I spent all my weekends with Joanie, and time before and after school. I carried her books. I read teen-girl magazines. I talked about hair removal. By the end of our second year we were in love and inseparable.
At fifteen, too young to know any better, I proposed underneath the sycamore tree. We planned our lives together, where we would get married, who we’d invite, when to announce the news to our folks. We confirmed our feelings to each other on the sycamore tree, the place we first kissed, and carved our names inside a heart shape, deep into its bark.
One summer afternoon after school, I stood at the sycamore tree with Joanie and felt the wind blow over me. Joanie walked over to me. I loved the way the sun lit her hair so it glowed. “We’ll die old together.” She put a finger to my lips, and her eyes dilated and took on a faraway look. It gave me goose bumps. “You’re not the only one with psychic powers, Stuart.”
“I’m not psychic.”
“It’s true,” she said. “I’ve seen it. Never forget. I’m coming back to this tree. This is a magic place where events unfold. No matter where I am, when I turn twenty, I’ll come back and say something clever. We can plan our wedding.”
A trickle of dread ran over my scalp. “Where are you going?”
“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “Perhaps nowhere?”
It felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. How could she leave? She refused to take her eyes from me, so I kissed her, long and hard. “You’re crazy,” I said, and my voice caught in my throat. “What’s so clever that you’ll say it when you come back?”
“Burghers. The town is full of Burghers!”
“What?” I frowned. “You mean like take out?”
“Not burgers. Burghers—town managers, leaders of society.” She laughed. “It’s just a way to say something weird and drive the olds crazy.”
“You’re weird,” I said, and I kissed her again.
She stood and twirled her hair between her fingers. She did it often, and her blue eyes sparkled like jewels.
The next day she had gone. She’d said her goodbye. Her family moved. I didn’t know where or why. I tried to find her but I couldn’t. She didn’t contact me, and I withdrew. I became a loner and dreamed of death all over again.
I never forgot about Joanie, but I never talked about her either. It hurt too much.
At the end of my final year of school, I rode down the main street on a bicycle I’d outgrown. It was just after Two Rivers’ had shut up for Saturday afternoon.
A taxi drove by.
I stopped and stared at the driver. I recognized Hugh Stevens’ dad. I had never forgotten him since the day he ran down Hugh Wintergreen. He drove slow and smiled at me, adjusted his black suit and tie.
That compulsion, the odd feeling, returned, and I shivered. I wondered if Hugh’s dad was going to die.
He looked odd all dressed up, and I followed him out to Church Hill, just to the north of town, where he pulled up his car and entered the church.
I sat on my bike a safe distance away and waited.
Another car arrived, an antique one from up on East Downs, all decked out with wedding ribbons. I smiled. Old man Stevens was getting hitched again. I wanted to step closer, but that feeling returned, and I waited. Hugh Wintergreen’s mum climbed out, and I shook my head in disbelief. How could she marry old man Stevens? He killed her son. Both their children had died near me. I pulled at my hair. People called me Stu McDeath. They never let me forget I had been at both Hughs’ deaths. I didn’t understand, so I waited near the church.
The newlyweds stepped from the church together, had their photos taken and made their way to the reception. They looked happy.
The feeling left me and nobody had died. Perhaps my life had improved.
I stood outside of their reception for a long while. I think I lost sense of the time until hunger called. I decided to go home, but one of the town councilors stepped out, and I smiled. “Who got hitched?” I asked as if I didn’t know.
“Archie Stevens and Winsome Wintergreen.”
“How was that possible?” I frowned and didn’t hide my surprise. “Didn’t he kill—”
The man held up his hand, and he lowered his voice. “Yes. But that be distant water under a very old bridge.”
“Yep. Seems that it brought them together.” He leaned closer, and I could smell wine on his breath. “Now that their other kids be old enough, they’re doing the right thing. I heard there’s a child on the way.”
“Really?” I was shocked. “Aren’t they a bit old to be starting another family?”
He shrugged. “They’re in love. Who can argue? Anyways, it’s happening everywhere. All manner of folk are hitchin’ up again and populating the world over.”
I left him. Good luck to them I decided.
I joined the state force as a police officer and heard the Hughs’ parents had twins. They named them Joanne and Hugh. It was the same time I suggested that mum should come and live with me, but she wouldn’t entertain the idea.
“The tree needs me,” she said.
I had to agree with her, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. Over several visits back to Two Rivers, I stated the tree had been around hundreds of years longer than her, and it would survive.
Two years late mum moved. Perhaps she had an inkling of those moments when she forgot, and bit-by-bit, the slabs of her life’s memory disappeared. I made the arrangements to have her things shifted to my home and arranged for Harry, the local bookseller, and his wife, Alice, to keep an eye on the tree.
When you’ve had a taste of wonderful it’s hard to settle for second best. Joanie was like that for me. There wasn’t another woman alive to live up to my memory of her. Nobody I met could match her humour, her beauty, the way she rolled her eyes. She made me feel right. Perhaps it was that she was my first love. Whatever the reason, Joanie had spoiled me, and I had little interest in other women.
On the day Joanie turned twenty, I drove back to Two Rivers and had a picnic lunch at the sycamore tree. I waited, still caught in the dream of my Joanie. I even pinned a note to the tree, but I never heard from her. I wondered why I had those feelings. What was it that made me special enough to deserve them? Without them I might have died at the hands of a taxi, or a javelin.
As a police officer those feelings saved me from being shot by armed robbers. Another time, an overzealous cache of stolen dynamite exploded, and I had wandered away to answer the radio just before the house I’d been inside disintegrated. It helped me find a wayward blind girl in the Badlands after she wandered off at night. I found a use for it within the department, and I racked up quite a collection of successful case closures, even a murder. I thought that perhaps, in my own way, I had found a way to serve the goddess and the sycamore tree.
Still convinced I’d see Joanie again, I always returned to the sycamore tree each year. It was like it had a hold on me. I visited the majestic tree for twenty–eight years and each time I wondered where Joanie was. I wondered what the mother tree goddess could tell me if she spoke.
Mum got sick with cancer. She was as light as the wind the final time I took her up to the sycamore tree. She sat there in her wheelchair and basked in the tree’s shadow. Half lit up by sunlight, she smiled but didn’t say a word. Her memory had gone by then, although every so often the light behind her eyes came to life and the skin in the corners of her eyelids crinkled.
I expect she remembered the high points of her life with the tree. Perhaps she thanked the goddess for her protection. Perhaps she thought about the children she had brought into the world on that windy hilltop. I couldn’t be sure. All I knew was I would miss her when she was gone.
She passed away a few weeks later, and I became even more lost and empty. I knew it had been coming but you can never be prepared enough. I kept her ashes after the cremation service and quite my job. I’d had this idea to move back to East Rock for some time, perhaps even to Two Rivers and find work.
I drove back to Two Rivers to sprinkle her ashes around the sycamore tree. The town had changed. It had lost some of its vibrancy, but mum would have been pleased to know East Rock, her birth town, shone.
I checked into my room, and I found a park at the mall. Long shadows from the sycamore tree kissed the ground where I stood. It’s funny how all these years on I would still look for her shadow. I walked into the shopping complex in a hurry to buy flowers for tomorrow’s dawn ceremony before the shop shut.
A woman with two screaming kids crashed her shopper cart into me and pulled me from my daydream. I stepped away, backed into a man and turned and apologized.
Joanie’s dad stared at me. I stood, mouth open, speechless.
He shuffled past. He hadn’t recognized me.
I stood silent. I never asked after Joanie, and he walked away.
I walked toward the flower shop, torn between chasing after him and buying flowers. My heart pounded until I turned and ran after him and searched the car park.
I found him as he reversed out of the parking space, and I threw myself in his way.
His knuckles whitened on the car steering wheel. I half expected him to drive away, but he waved me closer and wound his window down.
My heart raced. What would I say? Did I have the courage to ask what had been on my mind for almost 30 years?
“I was Joanie’s friend at school.” The words tumbled out.
His eyes clouded. “Sorry. My memories aren’t what they should be.”
He stared at me for a moment and half smiled. “Stuart!”
“Yes.” I felt warm tears slide down my face. “How is she?” Pent up emotions churned and sought release.
He looked at me and I saw his pain.
“She’s dead, Stuart.”
My heart almost stopped. Pain racked my insides. It tore at me with daggers.
“Both my girls are dead. They died in a car crash just after they turned eighteen.”
I didn’t know what to say. I nodded, drained, and I stepped away from the car. I had no right to revive those painful memories.
“She always talked about you, Stuart.” He forced a smile. “Even after I took her away.”
I nodded. “She made a difference in my life.”
He reached out through the window and grabbed my hand. “I’m sorry I took her from you, but we had to leave. Her mum, my beautiful wife, had cancer.” He let go of my hand. “I tried to save my Alice, but all I did was lose them all.”
I was dumbfounded.
That was why they moved? I was lost for words.
“She made a difference in my life too, son, they all did.”
I nodded and wiped away tears.
“It would have been their birthday tomorrow. I’ll send them your wishes in my prayers.” He smiled at me.
Numb, I stood and watched him drive off. I think he left happier, perhaps because he shared a memory with someone who cared. Perhaps I was the son–in–law he never had.
I looked up at the clear view of the sycamore tree and noticed I stood in her shadow. It was too late to ask the tree goddess for help, but I knew what I could do.
The next day, when the sun just cleared the hill above Two Rivers, and the goddess cast her longest shadow from the sycamore tree, I sprinkled mum’s ashes around the tree. I laid flowers on the ground at her base, for mum, for Joanie, for her sister Fran, and for their mother, Alice. I wondered if it might be my last visit.
I had closure in the sense. Joanie had passed from this world.
I stood at the tree for a long time and remembered Joanie. I put my hand on that heart we’d carved and said goodbye.
The feeling returned, so strong it almost bowled me over. I knelt down, giddy.
“What are you doing?”
The young woman’s musical voice made me stand, and I faced her and rubbed my tear-stained face. “Who’s there?”
My vision cleared and I watched a woman size me up. Her eyes danced over me. She put a hand on her hip. “I’m—”
“Joanie?” I had a crazy sense it was her; that somehow she’d found her way back to me.
“Close.” She laughed and tilted her head. She brushed the long golden strands from her face. “I’m Joanne,” she said. “I’m thinking about setting up a birthing clinic here.”
“I’m a midwife.”
I remembered the way the town had treated my mum, and I smiled. “Good luck with that.”
She held out her hand. “I’m Joanne Stevens.”
I took her hand and my arm tingled. “Joanne Stevens? Does your dad still drive the local taxi?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“It’s complicated…” I wiped my face free of tears. I daren’t say I’d been at both her stepbrothers’ deaths. I recalled the compulsion to avoid the church the day Hugh Stevens’ dad married Winsome Wintergreen. Her folk. She was their Joanne, a twin like my Joanie. I opened and closed my mouth, tried to form words.
“Don’t die on me, Stuart. You look much younger than I had imagined.”
I frowned. She knew my name.
“How do I know you?”
“Well burgher me if I didn’t have a dream.”
Time stood still.
I was back with my Joanie. Her words echoed loud inside me, and I heard her say it again as if she was there now: I’m coming back to this tree, no matter where I am, and I’m going to say something odd that will pull at your memory.
My knees buckled, and I sat down. “What did you just say?”
“I said burgher me!” She laughed. “It drives my old mum crazy. She thinks I’m swearing every time.”
“What are you doing here?” She could have been my Joanie.
“I had a dream about you, Stuart. I’ve been dreaming about you and this tree all my life. There’s magic here.”
I could feel my face crease when I frowned. “It’s the tree goddess,” I said.
“Of course it is,” she said. “Otherwise, how odd would it be to dream about the man responsible for my folks meeting?”
My frown couldn’t deepen any further. I didn’t know what was the strangest, that she dreamed about someone she’d never met, or that she was like the ghost of my Joanie.
“My twin, Hugh, was named after them both, and you were there when they died.”
I closed my eyes and nodded, struggled to push away the powerful memories.
“You’ve come back to live here,” she said it like it was decided.
“I have no idea,” I said, although I had decided to stay. There was a lot to like about Two Rivers.
“You will.” She grabbed my hand and pulled me away from the tree. “Come, and I’ll show you where I want to build a birthing unit.”
We stopped and stood away from the tree. She pointed and described what she wanted to build. “I can’t do it alone, Stuart. What do you think?”
I was speechless. I squeezed her warm hand.
“No, on second thought, don’t say anything.”
I faced the tree. This was where I’d grown up, and I was convinced it was where I would also died one day.
“Come on, I want you to meet someone.” She tugged at my hand, and I allowed myself to be led away.
Joanne marched me down the Two Rivers’ Main Street. She stopped outside the second hand furniture shop, the one with the front windows filled with antiques, and she led me though the wide double front doors.
We climbed the stairs, and I slowed at the top to admire the stained glass windowpanes over the table tops. A woman stood at one, soldering. She could have been sixty or seventy.
“Mum, there’s someone I want you to meet.” Joanne stopped in front of the woman.
The woman put the soldering iron down and looked up, startled. She removed some earphone buds and music chattered through them. This was Mrs Stevens. The last time I had seen her was her wedding day at Church Hill years before.
She squinted at us. “Sorry, Jo, I was miles away.”
Joanne glanced at me and grinned. “Mum, this is Stuart.”
Mrs Stevens’ eyes widened, and her smoky-blue eyes sparkled when she smiled. I had a sense of what Joanne would look like once she grew older. “So he was there.”
“Everything. Just like my dream.” She laughed.
It was beautiful to hear, and I realized I couldn’t remember the last time somebody laughed so much in my presence.
“Stuart,” said Mrs Stevens and offered her hand. “I remember you growing up here.”
I shook it. “Lovely to meet you again, Mrs Stevens,” I said. Her grip surprised me, strong and determined.
“Call me Winsome.”
I smiled at her. “Okay.”
“We’ve talked about you often,” said Mrs Stevens.
“Seriously?” I couldn’t help it and laughed.
“The virtues of a small town,” said Joanne.
“Have you told him the rest? Joanne’s mum threw her daughter a mischievous smile.
“That I’m going to marry him?” She put her hands on her hips in mock anger. “I was going to give him a couple of days to find out.”
I laughed again, this time with disbelief, unsure if I’d been teased.
“Did Joanne tell you she cancelled a trip away with friends to visit the sycamore today?”
Caught in the love these two women held for each other, their warmth was contagious, and my cheeks flushed. “She’s very determined, isn’t she?” I said to Winsome.
“You’ll find that it’s not a bad attitude to have in a daughter.”
It was as if Joanne had grown in stature when I faced her. “I had a dream we are having a boy first.” Her face colored as red as my cheeks felt.
I chewed my lip and wondered what else I didn’t know about Joanne’s dream.
I stepped up from the sycamore tree and breathed in over the sharp pain in my arthritic knees. I stared at the compost on my worn sandals, and the dizzy twenty-five-year-old memories faded.
Young Winsome ran ahead of Joanne toward me. I smiled at our granddaughter, and at our daughter, Joanie, who followed. She looked fresh out of college, arm in arm with her husband, Mark.
I never doubted I’d been blessed. Why else would Joanne and I marry a month after we’d met by the sycamore tree? And like Joanne had seen in her dream, we’d had a son first, and it seemed right to call him Hugh. When Joanne suggested we call our daughter Joanie, I had cried.
We bought the land around the sycamore tree, built our house in its shadow, and Joanne started up her birthing clinic that year. I was thrilled not to have to traipse up the hill and sprinkle manure anymore.
I gestured to Winsome, “Come over here, little poppet. Stand with me in the shade.”
I put my arm around Joanne, and I ruffled young Winsome’s mop of long, golden hair and stared up at the tree.
I smiled. In my heart I understood there was magic here. Only family, the blessing of a goddess, and a sycamore tree mattered.
I knew if I looked hard enough, the heart and the initials Joanie and I carved out would still be visible.
I squatted down and groaned as my knees gave way. “Winsome,” I said and pointed to where Joanie and I had carved out our initials on the tree’s bark all those years ago. “I wrote my name up there once. Maybe one day, you can do the same.”
“It’s healed, Grandpa,” she said with a smile older than her years.
A frown creased my smile and I forced a laugh. “Why would you say that?”
“The lady in the tree said so after I had a dream.”
A shiver tickled the back of my spine. I turned and leaned closer. “Lady?”
“You know. The one that makes us sprinkle stuff around her base. She looks after the babies.”
Joanne laughed and put her hand on my shoulder. She looked at me and I knew what she was thinking.
“I think the tree goddess has chosen wisely,” I said.