Sometimes, not very often, but sometimes when the winds blow right, the summer heat is kind, and the rain trickles down just-so, a woman is born of a jacaranda tree.
The indigenous inhabitants leave these women well alone. They know them to be foreign to the land for all that they spring from the great tree deeply embedded in the soil. White-skinned as the moon, violet-eyed, they bring only grief.
So when, in 1849, James Willoughby found one such woman sleeping beneath the spreading boughs of the old jacaranda tree in his house yard, members of the Birbai tribe who had once quite happily come to visit the kitchens of the station, disappeared. As they went, they told everyone they encountered, both black and white, that one of the pale women had come to Rollands Plain station and there would be no good of her. Best to avoid the place for a long, long time.
Willoughby, the younger son of an old Sussex family, had fought with his father, migrated to Australia, and made his fortune, in that order. His property stretched across ten thousand acres, and the Merino sheep he’d purchased from John McArthur thrived on the green, rolling pastures spotted with eucalypts and jacarandas. He had a house built from buttery sandstone, on a slight rise, surrounded on three sides by trees and manicured lawns, a turning circle out the front for carriages. Willoughby made sure the windows were wide enough to drink in the bright Australian light, and filled its rooms with all the finest things that reminded him of England. His one lack was that of a wife.
He had in his possession, it must be said, a large collection of miniatures sent by the parents of potential brides. Some were great beauties—and great beauties did not wish to live in the Colonies. Some were obviously plain, in spite of efforts the portraitists had gone to imbue them with some kind of charm; these girls were quite happy to make the arduous journey to a rich, handsome, dark-haired husband, but he did not want a plain wife. He had not made his way in the world to ornament this place with a plain-faced woman, no matter how sweet her nature might be.
The silver-haired girl he found early one morning was beyond even his dreams and demands. Long-limbed, delicate, with skin so pale he could see blue veins pulsing beneath her skin—for she was naked, sleeping on a bed of brilliant purple jacaranda flowers, crushed by the weight and warmth of her body. As he leaned over her, she opened her eyes and he was lost in their violet depths.
Ever the gentleman, he wrapped his proper Englishman’s coat about her shoulders, speaking to her in the low, gentle voice he reserved for skittish horses, and steered her inside. He settled her on his very own bed, the place he had always hoped to bring a suitable wife, and called for his housekeeper. The broad, red-faced Mrs Flynn bustled in. She was a widow, living now with Willoughby’s overseer in a fine arrangement that suited both of them. In Ireland, her three sons had been hung for treason against the British, and the judge who sentenced them decided that a woman who had produced three such anarchists must herself have strong anti-English sympathies. She was arrested, charged, tried and sent to live in this strange land with an arid centre and a wet green edge. She’d been allocated to Willoughby, and although her heart would always have a hole in it where her sons had been torn away, she had, in some measure, come to feel maternal about her master and directed her energies to making him happy as only a mother could.
The sight of the girl on the bed, lids shut once again, and the mooncalf look in her master’s eyes troubled her but she held her tongue, pushed her greying red hair back under its white cap and began to bustle around the girl. Willoughby sat and stared.
“She’s perfect, Martha. Don’t you think?”
“Beautiful for sure, Master James, for all she’s underdressed. Who is she? Where’s she from?” Mrs Flynn surreptitiously sniffed at the girl’s mouth for a whiff of gin. Finding nothing, her suspicions shifted; surely the girl was addle-pated. Or a tart, left adrift by a client of the worst sort. Or a convict on the run. Or a good girl who’d had something unspeakable visited upon her. She’d check later, to see if there was any bleeding. “Perhaps the doctor . . . ”
“Is she hurt?” The urgency in his voice pierced her heart and she winced, like a good mother.
“Not that I can see, but we’d best be sure. Send for Dr Abrams. Go on now.” She urged him from the room, her hands creating a small breeze as she flapped at him. Turning back to the girl, she found the violet eyes open once more, staring around her, without fear, and with only a mild curiosity.
“And what’s your name, little miss?” Mrs Flynn asked, adjusting the blanket she’d laid over the girl. The eyes widened, the mouth opened but the only thing that came out was a noise like the breeze rushing through leaves.
Martha Flynn felt cold all over. Her bladder threatened to betray her and she had to rush from the room and relieve herself outside. She wore her sweat like a coat when she returned (it had taken all of her courage to step back inside). The girl eyed her mildly, a little sadly perhaps, but something in her gaze told Martha Flynn that she had been entrusted with a secret. It moved her fear to pity.
“Now then, the doctor will be here soon. You make yourself comfortable, mavourneen.”
“She’s a mute, you see,” explained Willoughby to the parson. “No family that we can find. Someone has to look after her.”
The Reverend St John Clare cleared his throat, playing for time before he had to answer. Willoughby saved him for a moment.
“She seems fond enough of me,” he lied a little. She seemed not to hate him, nor anyone else. Even ‘fond’ was too strong a term, but he didn’t want to say “She seems slightly less than indifferent to me.” Sometimes she smiled, but mostly when she was outdoors, near the tree he’d found her under. She was neither grateful for his rescue, nor ungrateful; she simply took whatever was offered, be it protection, affection, or food (she preferred vegetables to meat, screwing her nose up at the plates of lamb and mutton). She did, however, take some joy in the new lambs, helping Mrs Flynn to care for them, feeding the motherless ones by hand, and they would follow her.
He’d named her Emily, after his grandmother. She had taken up painting; Willoughby had presented her with a set of watercolours, thinking it would be a lady-like way for her to pass the time. She sat outside and painted the jacaranda tree over and over, her skill growing with each painting, until she had at last produced a finely detailed, subtly rendered image, which Willoughby had framed. It hung over the fireplace in his study; he would stare it for hours, knowing there was something he was missing, some construction of line and curve, some intersection of colour he had failed to properly see. She would smile whenever she found him thus engaged, lightly drop her hand to his shoulder and finally leave as quietly as she had come.
“Does she want to marry you?” asked the parson.
“I think so. It’s . . . ” struggled Willoughby, “it’s just so damned inappropriate to have her under my roof like this! She’s not a relative, she’s not a ward, she’s a woman and I . . . ”
“You love her,” finished St John. Mrs Flynn had spoken to him quietly upon his arrival. “There’s always a charitable institution? I could find her a position with one of the ladies in Sydney Town, as a maid or companion?”
“No! I won’t let her go!” Willoughby wiped the sweat from his brow, felt his shirt sticking to the skin of his back. “I can’t let her go. I want to look after her. I want her to wife.”
St John Clare released a heavy sigh. He was, to a large extent, dependent on Willoughby’s good will—what mind did it make to him if Willoughby wished to marry a mute who’d appeared from nowhere? Younger sons were still kidnapping brides in England—this was marginally less reprehensible. “Very well. I will conduct the ceremony. Next Sunday?”
“Ah, yes, tomorrow. Very well.” He did not use the phrase ‘unseemly haste’, although he knew others would. What Willoughby wanted, Willoughby would have, and if it benefited the Reverend Clare in the long and short term then so much the better.
The ceremony was short, the groom radiant and the bride silent.
Mrs Flynn had dressed the girl in the prettiest of the new frocks James ordered made for her. It was pink—Willoughby had wanted white but Mrs Flynn insisted it would wash-out someone so pale and she had carried the day, on territory too uncertain for a male to risk insistence.
The ring was not a plain yellow band, but something different, white gold set with an enormous amethyst. She seemed to like the stone, staring at it throughout the ceremony, smiling at the parson when he asked if she agreed to the marriage. Willoughby saw only a smile but heard a resounding “Yes”, and convinced himself that she loved him.
She didn’t seem to care what he did to her body—having no experience of men, either good or bad, having no concept of her body as her own, she accepted whatever he did to her. For his part, he laboured over her trying to elicit a response, some sign of love or lust, some desire to be with him. Never finding it, he became frustrated, at first simply slaking his own lust, quickly. Gradually, he became a little cruel, pinching, biting, hoping to inflict on her a little of the hurt his love caused him. For all the centuries men have dreamed of the joy of a silent wife, Willoughby discovered that the reality of one was entirely unsatisfactory.
It was Mrs Flynn who first noticed the changes in her. Not her husband who stripped her bare each night and used her body as he wished. It was Martha, with her unerring woman’s instinct, who pulled him aside and told him the girl was pregnant. Willoughby became gentle once again, no longer insisting upon his conjugal rights, but sleeping wrapped around her, his hands wandering to the slowly swelling belly, praying that what he had planted there would stay, and would in turn, keep her by his side.
More and more, he found her under the jacaranda tree. She sat silently for hours, no longer interested in painting, but stroking her growing belly as if soothing the child inside. Whenever he arrived back at the house at the end of the day he would go straight to the tree, for he knew that was where he would find his wife.
“Where’s Sally?” demanded Willoughby. On one of his infrequent trips to the kitchen, he found Martha alone; no sign of the indigenous girl (re-named ‘Sally’ in spite of her protests) who helped around the kitchen.
“Gone. They’re all gone, all the natives. They won’t come here anymore,” said Mrs Flynn, her skin shining, hair trying to escape the cotton cap as usual.
Willoughby paused, astounded. “Why not? Haven’t I always been good to them? I’ve never abused them or punished them unduly. I don’t understand.”
Mrs Flynn was silent for a moment, weighing her words, wishing she’s not opened her mouth in the first place. How to explain? “It’s Emily. They’re scared of her,” she said reluctantly.
“Scared of Emily?” His laugh was sharp. “How the hell can anyone be scared of Emily?”
“She’s . . . different, Master James. Leave it at that. It scares them. They have their legends and she scares them.”
“What bloody legends? What are you talking about?” He gripped her upper arm tightly, squeezing a slight squeal from her as the flesh began to pinch between his knuckles. She could smell the sour brandy on his breath. He let her go, but insisted, “What legends, damn it?”
“Sally said they come from the trees. They don’t belong anywhere. They bring grief and eventually they go back to the trees.” Mrs Flynn batted away tears with the back of her hand.
Willoughby stared at her. “And you? What do you think?”
“There are superstitions and then here are things we cannot understand, Master James.” She bent her head, new tears fell onto the dough she was kneading; she folded them into the rubbery mixture and refused to look at him again. He left the kitchen, swearing and shaking his head.
Willoughby rounded the corner of the house, raised his eyes and saw his wife, her curved belly seeming to defy gravity, walking slowly towards the jacaranda tree. She stood before its thick trunk and placed one hand against the rough bark. As he watched, the slender pale limb seemed to sink deeply into the wood, and the rest of her arm looked sure to follow.
With a yell, he charged at her, pulled her away with a force driven by anger and despair. She was flung about like a leaf in the wind. Finally settling, she stared at him with something approaching fear, something approaching anger. He was too furious to see it and he ranted at her, finger pointed like a blade. “Never, never, never. You will never go near those trees again. You will never leave me!”
He locked her in their bedroom, then gave orders to his station hands.
“Get rid of all the jacarandas. Cut them down, burn them. Destroy them all, all the ones you can find.”
So all the jacarandas within the bounds of Rollands Plain were razed; he even sent some of his men to walk three days beyond the boundaries and destroy any offending tree they found there.
He let her out only when he was certain there were all gone.
Her scream, when she found the dead stump of the tree, was the sound of every violated, outraged thing.
Mrs Flynn ushered the child into the world that evening. Emily did not stop screaming the entire birth, but Mrs Flynn could not help but feel that the screams were more for rage, than for any pain the tearing child caused, for there was very little blood. Strangely little blood. The milk that dripped from Emily’s nipples smelled strongly of sap. The child made a face at her first taste, then settled to empty the breast, her face constantly twisted in an expression of dissatisfaction.
Willoughby came to visit his wife and daughter, his contrite face having no effect on Emily. She opened her mouth and a noise came like that of a tree blasted by storm winds. Having not heard his wife utter a sound before, he was stunned; having not heard anything like this, ever, he was appalled. He backed out of the room, and retreated to his study and the bottle of brandy with which he’d become very familiar since his marriage.
Late one evening, a few weeks after the birth, Mrs Flynn saw Emily, standing slender and silver in the moonlight, motionless beside the stump of her tree. She held the baby at her breast; the child was quiet.
Martha was minded, though she knew not why, of Selkie wives, women stripped of their seal skin by husbands afraid to lose them, by men who feared them more than they could love them. She called quietly to Emily and gestured for her to follow.
She led her to a stand of eucalypts not far from the house.
Within the circle of gum trees stood a lone jacaranda, the one she knew Willoughby had missed, the one she kept to herself. The silver woman needed to be able to go back to her place or she’d haunt them forever.
Martha shivered. She was terrified of this ghostly creature, but she hoped she loved Emily more than she feared her, loved her enough to show her the way back. She watched Emily’s face as she recognised the jacaranda, smiled, leaned against the trunk and a sound like a leaves laughing blew around the clearing. Martha backed away. She watched the woman’s hands slide into the trunk, saw her move forward, then stop.
The child would not go into the tree. Her diluted flesh and blood tied her to her father and his kind. Martha watched as the pale woman kissed the child’s forehead and laid her gently on the ground. Emily pushed her way into the tree, disappearing until the brown bark was visible again, undisturbed for all intents and purposes. The tree shook itself and let fall an unseasonal shower of purple flowers, to cover Martha and the baby she scooped up and held tightly.
Willoughby drinks; Mrs Flynn often pours for him. She is strangely disappointed in him each time he swallows back the brandy decanted by her own hand. Most of her time she spends with his daughter, who has her father’s dark curls and her mother’s violet eyes.
She is a quiet child, but on the occasions when her cries have a certain tone, a certain pitch, Martha catches her up and takes her for a walk, to the stand of eucalypts. Rollands Plain’s sole remaining jacaranda will release a purple blanket no matter what the weather, and the child stares up at the tree as if she finds it very lovely indeed.
Originally published in Dreaming Again and soon available in A Feast of Stories: Stories.