Our Father Who Art in A Tree

Our Father Who Art in A Tree

by Judy Pascoe

Hardcover

$29.95

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679312048
Publisher: Random House of Canada, Limited
Publication date: 02/04/2003
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 4.80(w) x 7.50(h) x 0.51(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

It was simple for me, the saints were in heaven and guardian angels had extendable wings like Batman and my dad had died and gone to live in the tree in the backyard.

Weeks he'd been calling out, imitating the way I called over the back fence to my friend Megan. I didn't get the joke though; there was my dead father trying to get my attention and talk to me in a way I might understand, and every evening was the same. I thundered up the garden past the tree and sped up the back stairs, humming a mad tune all the way, trying to block out his voice.

The first time I heard him call was the evening after we'd been to the cemetery. I'd stood at his grave and watched the ants crawling across the dry earth; their pinhole nests perforated the red soil. It was too scary, I'd said to myself, meaning the ants.

"Don't worry about the ants." That's what I heard him say. I replied in my own mind. "They're everywhere, why are there so many?" Meaning, "Is that you I'm talking to?"

"They're busy," he'd said. "Yes, it's me."

I hated thinking of him underground. I'd dreamt one night he pulled a rope and a light turned on in his dark coffin. The dream was a cross section of earth. There was a thin green line of grass, then a weight of brown earth, then my father lying in the coffin, with a bare bulb by his head illuminating the box.

That afternoon I stood at the back fence. Between me and the house was the great tree, enormous and dark with hanging branches dipping so low they brushed the carpet of coarse couch grass. It loomed above me, looking down on me like a giant. A circle of leaves at the top of the tree moved. I bolted across the grass on my pin-thin legs, holding my breath and running like billy-o past the tree. I could hear it calling to me in much the same way I called to Megan when I lamented by the dry paling fence.

"Me-gan," I would call, dragging the word out for up to fifteen seconds. It drove the neighbors mad. Mrs. Johnson, who lived on the other side of the tree, protested to my mother.

"Does she have to call out like that? Sounds like a wounded animal."

"Me-gan," I called the second time. Starting with "Me-," then sliding down a note to "-gan," dragging out the n, annoying the suburb with my migrating goose call.

The tree calls, "Simone," with the emphasis on the "-on." The second time it calls, it extends the "-on," as I do with Megan's "-gan," much longer than I think it needs to; trying to get my attention. The third, more desperate plea always comes as I reach the back stairs, and it lasts all the way up the twenty-two steps until I have slammed the back door too hard.

I flop down at the kitchen table. My mother's back presents itself as her front, married as it is to the electric frying pan. Although, in the last three months she has barely cooked and it's been my brother's back I've become more familiar with. Her pores widen in the heat from the sizzling meat.

Three festering grins in various states of disinterest watch as I sit at the kitchen table. Christ hanging from what appears to be like a great plus sign looks down on me, the eternal victim, and the orange seersucker tablecloth mixes with the fluorescence of the bar light above to color my tanned skin tobacco yellow.

Much later, after fifty spelling words revised halfheartedly at the kitchen table in the pools of dampness left after it had been wiped clean in random circles by Edward, my eldest brother, I put myself to bed.

"Simone. Simone." I thought I heard the tree, its voice whispering through the screens.

I eventually flung back my covers and dashed across the floor to my brother's bed, ramming an elbow into his side and pushing him in his sleep closer to the wall to make room for me.

The tree was quiet for some minutes and I lay watching the space in my empty bed where I should have been sleeping. Through the stud walls I heard voices conferring; gentle murmurings and the reassurance of Mr. Reardon. His chocolate brown eyes unblinking as he watched my mother weep. The dark timbre of his voice rose from a baseline of shuffling papers.

I had seen my mother standing on the kitchen chair after dinner while Edward was mopping the table in idle circles and James was wiping the dinner plates. I looked up from my spelling to see my mother's calf muscles flexed as she stood on the chair and stretched to reach the shelf on the top of the hall cupboard. Mr. Reardon was the accountant for the church, and now he shuffled the papers that lived in the shoe box from Edward's size fourteen and a half black school shoes. I heard the rise and fall of their voices. My mother sobbing, Mr. Reardon consoling, then more shuffling of papers. The scratching of a pen on paper, then the voices moving to the front door. The closing of the heavy glass door. Then the light feet of my mother, the dragging of a kitchen chair across the tiles, and the shoe box being lifted back into place.

Gerard sniffled in his sleep, and his arm thrashed out. I was thrust out of bed as he rolled over to take up the space he had previously occupied. He had no idea, I thought as I crawled across the floor to my bed, sleeping with his teddy, waiting for school to start; he'd find out then you couldn't spend all day playing.

Outside the tree frogs belched and I made a dash for my bed, jumping the last bit. I pulled the covers up and put a pillow over my head and attempted to sleep, but my mother's tears were too loud to ignore. I tried to block them out. "Hello, Catholic sitting on a log." I repeated the stupid phrase I had heard the children from the state school call at me. They hid behind the grasshopper-infested hibiscus tree growing out of a black tire on Mr. Beatty's footpath and tortured me with the meaningless phrase that I now sang over and over to try to banish the sound of my mother's tears and my father's voice from the tree outside, which had quietened now to a wheezing breath.

I pushed the door to my mother's room open. I felt the weight of her pain in the walls and in the cupboards. The furniture was full of it. There was heat from her tears. My mother jumped when she saw me, then she opened her arms.

"I'm sorry, love, I'm crying again."

"I know," I said, crawling into the hug.

"I'll stop. I'm sorry."

It wasn't the right time to tell her that Dad was in the tree outside. When would I find the correct moment to let her know that she could go and talk to him if she wanted to.

***

Chapter 2

"Megan," came a call from the laundry door. "Come in now." The voice waited for dissent but received none.

"Coming," Megan called back to her mother and jumped down from the huge carriage-like swing we were sitting on. It tipped back unexpectedly, giving me an eyeful of upside-down sky. There was a scalloped edge of orange cloud in the west, pinpointed with a bright white light.

"Evening star! Saw it first," I said, landing beside Megan. "You win," she said, skipping down the cement path that led to her laundry door.

Over the fence at the Lucases' house the light above the stairs switched on, and Mr. Lucas swung out of his back door. He strolled down the steps, stopped for a moment to consider the evening light, then turned on the garden hose. Lying across the backyard, it wriggled like a cut snake as the water lurched through it.

I opened the gate on the paling fence that separated my garden from Megan's. The blackened wood was spattered with curly green fungus, bleached to white by the summer sun. The gate swung shut and the lock dropped as the purple dusk fell.

"See you tomorrow," I called, but Megan had already disappeared into the dark antechamber at the back of her house.

"I've got spelling." I spoke to no one in particular, then I turned to face the tunnel of darkness before me.

"Simone," I could hear my mother. The screen on the back door softened her voice and gave it a lilac tone.

"Coming," I replied.

The melody of our voices was like a lilt crisscrossing the suburb.

I prepared to run across the grass. This afternoon, though, the tree was silent; it had stopped its mournful calling. So then I knew my dad was dead, the ants had got him now, well and truly. I didn't bother to run up the yard. I walked slowly, getting used to the fact that he was no longer in the tree; maybe he never had been.

The next thing I knew I was climbing the wood ladder nailed to the base of the tree, just to make sure he really had gone. I climbed higher, there was no sign of him, still higher I went, checking for his occupancy, until I found myself perched on a branch at the top of the tree, peering out at a dusk whisked with great spraying fans of cloud. I'd climbed the tree a hundred times, but never beyond the fuzz of foliage, now below me, to this new throne, this new perch I had found ten feet farther on. That last stretch had made all the difference. The extra blanket of silence that layer of tree provided blocked out the noise of the world, muffled it, so there was only the last tuft of green above me, then the sky. Now there were other sounds, other voices, and a wind through the branches in a different pitch, the beating of birds' wings, and a voice coming from over my right shoulder.

"It's taken me a while to realize where I am" was how he started. "I woke up and saw your grandfather, and then I realized I was dead."

It was my dad talking. I think I nodded because it was so exciting to discover what I'd always known. If you climbed high enough in the tree in our backyard you came to another world.

"I realized then that I'd left you all. I didn't mean to die," he said. "But it's not that bad. Tell your mother I'm all right. I'll always love her."

The world suddenly seemed perfect from where I sat. Cupped in the fork of the tree, I felt as if my father were holding me. I remembered him again, not as a dead man buried in anty soil but as a living person. The wind filling his old gardening shirt, making it billow out from the ash gray hair on his chest. This was a father I had already forgotten, the father who went to work and came home, who sat in the now empty chair at the end of the table, who could swim and do math, whose wallet was always open. I didn't hate him now so much for dying, because for the first time since he died I could remember what he was like when he was alive.

The clouds on the horizon had settled into a dots-and-dashes pattern that encircled the suburb. I was starting to feel cold. It was winter now, and the mornings were so icy that I kept my clothes at the end of the bed so I could get dressed under the covers when I woke up. The sun didn't carve a path across the sky with the same intensity as it would in a few months. Then the heat that could melt the bitumen and fry your face to bright red would return, and the grown-ups would be complaining about that; right now they were irritable about the cold.

Then below, the sounds of the mortal world seeped in. Megan's father and her brothers had finished tea and were in their garage. They were lowering the model railway set with ropes and pulleys from the side wall of the corrugated garage. I could hear the transformer vibrating on the chipboard table as the train began whirring around the track, revving up the hill to a station where miniature people waited to board. In her kitchen Mrs. Johnson was clattering pans and emptying the contents of a saucepan through a sieve, the steam rising to fog her glasses. A line of bats flew almost silently overhead; then in the distance, a faint tinkling, milk bottle lids strung up to keep the crows away from Mrs. Pitteville's tomato plants.

All the sounds conspired to distract me from hearing what my father was saying. Then there was a scream from the back steps. It was my mother, her hand pushing a faceful of unkempt hair back from her forehead.

"Oh my God," she screamed, and her feet thundered down the boards of the back stairs. My three brothers followed behind her. Edward, my eldest brother, who was sixteen; then James, who I saw for the first time was taller than my mother, he was thirteen; then Gerard, the youngest, who was five. Their grins slipped slightly from their tracks when they saw how high I was in the tree. They looked frightened. I wasn't. Their voices were muted as they were funneled through the dew-beaded foliage. Louder in my ear was the voice of my father telling me to stay where I was.

The fire brigade came, but their truck couldn't fit down the side of the house. Hysterical now, my mother beat on the chest of the head fireman. I'd heard their sirens coming down the hill all the way from Keperra, past the drive-in movies, past the Redemptorist monastery where the old priests with ears the size of African elephants lived, past the playing field shaped like a picture I'd seen of an amphitheater in Greece. I'd heard their sirens, but I didn't realize they were coming to rescue me. The fire crew had to deal with my mother, swearing at the tree, at my brothers. Screaming at them first to climb the tree, then to stop, then to climb, then to stop. Getting my age wrong when they asked her. Telling them I was nine, when I was ten and a quarter. Edward was below me somewhere. I heard him calling to me, not as my father had in two syllables but in one stern word -- "Simone."

A ladder hooked onto the branch below. It was followed by a fireman's head.

"Hello, love," he said. He took my hand, and I started to back down the ladder. Easily I could have done it myself, I didn't need a fireman and a ladder to help me. I had an audience below. Little figures like the people waiting on the platform of Mr. King's train set, they stood in their backyards looking up. I waved down. Megan was below on her carriage-shaped swing straddling the seats like a Russian acrobat, rocking the swing back and forth and waving. "I can get down myself," I said.

"Yeah, well, I'm here now," he said, "and your mother's having kittens down there. So let's use the ladder."

Reading Group Guide

Through the eyes of a precocious young girl, Judy Pascoe brings us a magical tale of love and loss that is infused with lyrical beauty and spiritual depth.

For ten-year-old Simone O’Neill, the death of her father is shattering: she blames him for running away, and has nightmares about him lying awake in his grave. It’s been three months, but still her mother Dawn cries herself to sleep at night and cuts herself off from her children, unable to cope with the curve life has thrown her. Simone’s brothers have also retreated into their own worlds, and as tension overtakes the home, leaving each of the family isolated in his or her grief, Simone’s sorrow begins to turn to hate.

Then one day, soon after a visit to her father’s grave that left her scared of the ants that worked the soil, something magical happens as Simone stands in her family’s backyard. “Don’t worry about the ants,” she hears, and it seems to be coming from a massive tree. “They’re everywhere. Why are there so many?” she asks the air. “They’re busy,” is the reply, and “Yes, it’s me.” It is then that Simone realizes that her father is not trapped in his grave or up in heaven, but has gone to live in the large tree behind the house. At first she’s terrified, spends weeks sprinting through the yard avoiding the tree’s calls, but then one day she decides to face the truth, and climbs. And when her father begins to speak, she embraces his presence: “I didn’t hate him so much now for dying, because for the first time since he died I could remember what he was like when he wasalive.”

With this discovery begins Our Father Who Art in a Tree, an enchanting and enchanted novel about life and death and all of the layers of love, loss, family, belief and community that lie in between -- or in the way. In an effort to console her mother, Simone shares her secret and brings her into the fold, so Dawn can at last unburden herself of some of the grief that has consumed her and try to move on. In the tree, Simone’s mother is able to share her pain with her husband, and also recapture some of the joy of their marriage. But when a new man enters her life, Dawn is faced with the hardest decision of all: whether to hang on or let go.

In the unbearable heat and drought of a single Australian summer, Dawn’s inability to choose torments both her and her children, and the tree begins to take over their home as well as their thoughts. The branches scratch a nightly warning on the sides of the house. Roots begin to fill the drains and attack the foundations. An errant limb crashes through the window and sprawls onto Dawn’s bed, coming to rest on the husband’s side. Gradually an entire community is pulled in by its force: extended family members arrive and try to help Dawn cope; neighbours intercede, withdraw. But it is not all anguish, here. The ladies of the Neighbourhood Watch, concerned for their suburban calm, face off against Simone’s elderly aunts, who totter around on high heels and understand that Mr. O’Neill is just not ready to go, in an Us versus Them bridge tournament that puts the life of the tree at stake. Yet it is only when the weather finally breaks and a storm of cyclone strength and fury hits the neighbourhood that Simone’s family -- and their faith in the future -- is put to the ultimate test.

Interviews

1) Can you tell us how you became a writer?
As a stand up comedienne I had to write my own material, and before that, working in the circus to some extent I had to create what I was going to perform. It seemed a natural progression to start writing things I wasn’t necessarily going to perform.
2) What inspired you to write this particular book? Is there a story about the writing of this novel that begs to be told?
A tree, I suppose, did inspire me to write this book, and just a feeling that I had -- What if it could come to life and tell me its secrets? I have written a book about trying to write Our Father who Art in the Tree. I wrote it before I wrote Our Father, but luckily it got wiped from my computer. Maybe I'll go back to the idea someday.
3) What is it that you're exploring in this book?
I was trying to understand death and figure out a way of dealing with the pain of it.
4) Who is your favourite character in this book, and why?
The mother. She is wild and expresses everything she feels. She communicates in this very blunt way that is so honest it would be disarming to have to confront her. I would be terrified of such a woman. That would be the part to have in the film.
5) Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book?
I would discuss each person’s relationship to the afterlife and whether or not they think it exists, and how that uncertainty effects the way they live.
6) Do you have a favourite story to tell about being interviewed about your book?
The fact that I haven’t been interviewed enough to have a favourite orfunny story about it.
7) What question are you never asked in interviews but wish you were?
No-one ever asks me when I’m going to write something set in England, even though I’ve lived here for fifteen years, but I don’t mind that they don’t ask because I don’t know myself.
8) Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?
No, because I wouldn’t know how to change the way I worked. You have to strive to write the truth, and when you’re not you know it anyway, but the criticism still hurts momentarily.
9) Which books or authors have been most influential to your own writing?
English classics. I read a lot of them when I was a kid, when I think fiction has its biggest impact.
10) If you weren’t writing, what would you want to be doing for a living? What are some of your other passions in life?
If I wasn’t writing, I’d go back to performing. I don’t know what. I don’t think I could face the rigours of stand-up comedy again. But I do miss standing on stage and showing off. I love tennis and I don’t get to play enough, and I love my friends who are all over the world --- I don’t get to talk to them enough.
11) If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?
Brideshead Revisited
. In my opinion, it’s the best book ever written about Catholicism and death, and it’s got a big old English house in it as well.

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