There are orange and yellow leaves with markings on them. These markings look like they come from a cat’s paw and I pick one up and study it, tracing my fingers around its edges. The leaves have fallen from the big brown tree in our backyard. I wonder how long the tree has been there – who planted the seed – and I am curious, thinking about all the things this tree must have seen. All the things this tree must have heard.
I push a leaf to my nose and breathe in its scent. It smells woody and it smells like bush and it smells like autumn and it smells like tea and it smells like bread in the morning. My fingers crumble it slightly and it begins to lose shape. To lose form. I like the way it feels between my hands, the coarseness of it. There is also something soft about it, a delicateness that I’m not sure how to put into words.
I stand in the backyard for a while, staring at the tree and the leaves scattered around it. I imagine what it would be like to be a leaf – and the truth is, I am not sure why I am thinking this or what my thoughts mean but I try not to worry.
There has been smoke in the air all day. Charlie – that’s my three-year-old son – doesn’t understand. He keeps pointing at the smoke in the air, the thin wisps of it, and asking what it does. It’s an interesting question and it’s one I don’t know how to answer. What does the smoke do? What is its purpose? Finally, I tell him that it doesn’t do anything. That is not a good enough answer – he demands a better response but I do not have one.
The smoke is coming from the fires up in the hills. The fires have been going on for days – it is due to the hot weather, the constant beat of the sun. It has been all over the news – people leaving their houses, packing their cars with all their belongings, in a rush to get out and away. But to go where? Surely not everyone has a safe place. What happens to those people?
Charlie sees me watching the tree and comes out of the house. His tiny feet make creaking sounds on the lawn. The lawn is short and stubby – it never grows the way I want it to. Charlie looks up at me, pushing his red lips together, but doesn’t say anything. I am glad. Sometimes I don’t know what to say to him – sometimes I feel stifled by motherhood, this thing that I seemingly entered willingly – and my whole body locks up. Sounds become trapped inside my mouth and I cannot pull them out, no matter how hard I try.
I let leaves drop from my hands. Charlie bends and picks one up. He holds it out in front of his face and waves it, as though it is a flag. For a second I wonder if it is and I wonder what kind of country is made from leaves before shaking the thought from my head. I am always having strange thoughts: it is as though I am situated in an in-between place, a realm that isn’t completely real. The truth is, lately, I don’t know what is real or not.
‘Mumma,’ Charlie finally says. The leaf floats out of his hands and onto the ground. We both stare at it. ‘Mumma, what are you doing?’
I turn my head to face him. My son. My only son. He is probably the only child I will ever have. It is not that I don’t like kids – they are fine – but I am bored. I am bored of being a mother and it is not that motherhood is boring because it isn’t. Motherhood is wide and open and full and bright and raw and red but still, I am bored. I see Charlie and a dullness takes over. Nobody told me I would feel like this. Three years into this life-long commitment and I feel this way. Will this ever change?
‘We need to rake up all these leaves,’ I tell him, smiling. Why? Why am I smiling? I am always smiling without really smiling. Charlie nods: he stretches out his arms – Charlie has very pale arms, they are dotted with small freckles and I’ve even seen him try to connect the freckles with coloured pens before. He spins around on the spot, using his arms like helicopter paddles, and nods again.
‘Why?’ His face is clear. Crisp. It reminds me of an apple. Of eating apples on my father’s farm. Of paddocks and tractors and dewy mornings.
‘Why what?’ I say impatiently.
‘Why do we need to rake up all the leaves?’
‘Because.’ I am aware that this isn’t an answer but honestly, what kind of question is his question? Isn’t it obvious? But then, even as I’m thinking this, I know that it isn’t obvious. Nothing is obvious, not really, and besides even if it is, there are always other reasons too.
‘Because why?’ Charlie’s little face is bright. He leans down and picks up another leaf. He scrunches it up – it makes a crackling sound – and then he throws it up into the air. The pieces of the leaf fall down around us like snow.
Not that I’ve ever seen snow.
Once upon a time, it had been a dream of mine to see snow. To travel. To explore, to do things I had never done. Motherhood has changed all that. Motherhood has blunted – flattened – those ambitions. I don’t know if it is this way for everyone. I suspect it isn’t. My mother’s group would be horrified to hear these thoughts. They would shake their heads and purse their lips and look at me with sadness in their eyes. Pity. I don’t want their pity. Well, what do I want? I am impatient, thinking a flurry of thoughts that frustrate me.
‘Mumma, why? Maybe the grass likes having them there.’
‘The grass,’ he says again. ‘Maybe the grass likes having a friend.’
‘A friend?’ Charlie’s words confuse me. He is not making sense. He never makes sense. That is the way of children. Even their voices are unusual: oddly-shaped, lyrical, musical in a way that doesn’t resemble music at all.
‘Yes.’ Then: a pause. We sit in it. Charlie sucks on his fingers. ‘Everyone needs a friend, mumma.’
‘Yes,’ I say softly in response. ‘Everyone needs a friend.’
I think about my friends. I am not convinced they are really my friends. They are people I know, people I spend time with, people I drink coffee with and go to the cinema with but surely there is more to friendship than that. Do those people understand me? Do I understand them? What is understanding anyway?
‘Look, a plane!’ Charlie points to the sky, his mouth wobbling with excitement. ‘There’s a plane, mumma.’
‘We should go inside,’ I tell him. ‘Have a snack.’
The smoke is getting thicker. It smells like dirt and sadness and something else too – something I can’t put into words. It has been around for days, for weeks. The fire fighters are doing their best – better than their best. They are saving lives and saving houses and yet – well, what if some things are meant to burn? I’m not talking about regrowth – I know that the bush has to burn, to come undone in order to rise again. I am talking about something different. About the end of something. Also the start of something. But endings and beginnings are almost the same when you think about it.
‘I don’t wanna go inside,’ Charlie says, poking his tongue out. His tongue is blue – he has been eating the sweets I told him not to eat – and I can’t help the prick of annoyance that surges up through my body. Why can’t he just do as he is told? Why must he be this way?
‘We’re going inside,’ I say. And I say it kind of rudely and I don’t mean to be rude but that’s the way it happens. I am a rude mother. I am not the mother you see on TV, the one with a perfectly made up face and a cheery disposition. I am tired and grumpy and my edges are complicated.
‘I don’t wanna,’ Charlie says again. Just for a second I hate him. My whole body fills with it – a cool blue-black hate, and it drifts over me, like a wave crashing over a rock. Then it’s gone.
‘You don’t wanna?’ I say. ‘Well, guess what, Charlie? I don’t want to…’ But then I stop. What am I going to say? I don’t want to what? To be a mother? To be a single parent living in the suburbs? Well, isn’t it a bit late for regrets?
‘Come on,’ I say, lowering my voice. ‘Come on Charlie, let’s go inside and I’ll make you a peanut butter sandwich and we can watch cartoons.’
‘Are the people going to be okay?’ he asks as he follows me into the house. I can still smell the leaves on me, their dust, and for some inexplicable reason I want to go back and stare at the tree again.
‘What people?’ I say. The house is warm and the windows are open. Rafts of sunlight push through. I go into the kitchen and take out a loaf of bread.
‘The fire people.’
‘Oh, the fire fighters? They’re very brave, Charlie.’ I spread a thick paste of peanut butter onto a slice of bread. ‘They’re very brave and very good.’
‘Are you brave?’ he asks.
‘Am I brave?’ I repeat. The question hangs off my lips; I feel it tickling. ‘Why would you ask that, Charlie? I’m not a fire fighter.’ I hand him his sandwich. He takes it and bites into it quickly. Peanut butter is Charlie’s favourite.
‘Are fire people the only brave people?’
I think about people. About how many there are in the world. Thousands. Millions. More than millions. Why are there so many? Where do they all come from? Do we need them all?
‘Mumma?’ Charlie asks, leaning forward and rolling back and forth on his heel.
‘There are a lot of brave people in the world,’ I finally say. ‘There are people who confront their fears all the time. People who do things they don’t want to do. People who keep trying even though all they do is fail again and again.’
‘Am I brave?’ His voice sounds like a song again. There is peanut butter smeared on his cheek – I smile and brush it away. My fingers are sticky.
‘Yes,’ I tell him. ‘You are brave and strong and funny and kind.’
‘Am I? Am I really?’
‘Yes,’ I say but he has already lost interest, is already walking away, towards the TV. He switches it on, plays with the remote, flicking through the channels. I stand in the kitchen and close my eyes. I take a deep breath and concentrate on the way my breaths sound – light and full and soft and hard. Outside, I can hear a bird. My body sways from side to side.
‘So are you,’ Charlie calls out after a few minutes. It is only a few minutes but it feels like a lifetime. Like I have been turned around, moved, spun, pushed in a circle.
‘What?’ I call back, opening my eyes.
‘You are brave and strong and funny and kind too.’
It takes me a moment to realise there are tears are in my eyes. I leave the kitchen and go to sit with him on the couch. The news is on the TV. We stare at the images of the fire spreading through the bushland, the hills. The fire burns and burns. I squeeze Charlie’s hand. He squeezes back.
Represented by Hindsight Literary Agency, Katelin Farnsworth is a writer from the Dandenong Ranges. Her work has been published in Overland, Award Winning Australian Writing 2015 and 2017, Tincture Journal, The Victorian Writer, and others. She is currently completing a degree in Professional & Creative Writing at Deakin University. Find her on Twitter: @ktnworth