Landscape with Three Trees and a House
Madame digs in the earth, it is loose like small change as she fossicks amongst the soil looking for the buttons she buried there as a child. She buried them because her father told her that if she buried some buttons they would grow into three trees of gold with fruits of diamonds and she would be a rich child and he wouldn't have to work in the fields planting and harvesting any more.
So Madame, all of four years old, took all the buttons she could find from the house to bury, indeed she went through the wardrobes of her mother and father and with silver scissors cut off all of the buttons from shirts, suits, dresses and the odd hat. Madame, as she looks for the buttons, remembers the sounds of horror and anger even after all of these years.
The voice of her mother is still clear as if the old woman has not been dead five years and mouldering in her coffin in the church yard at the back of the house where Madame lives with her husband.
"Muriel Gachet come here this minute! It is you! I know you are the one who has done this!" her mother yelled from the upstairs bedroom.
But Muriel was more interested in getting to the open patch of bare soil at the front of the house to plant the buttons. She wasn't scared of the leather strap her mother would use on her, she was scared she wouldn't have a chance to plant the buttons, that her mother would take them from her the way she did with the money Muriel found on the road the week before.
Her mother demanded that Muriel show her what she had in her hand but her child did not see, at the age of four, why she should show her mother everything. It was only when her mother prized open her fingers, one by one, that she relinquished the coins, and then only after Muriel had yelled and screamed. Muriel squirmed in the clutches of her mother like one of the eels her father caught out of the river not far from the house.
Madame Muriel sits in the dirt looking for the buttons but she cannot find them. She wonders about the three trees that grow there, not trees she's ever seen before, strange wild things with leaves like the long hair of a redheaded princess banished into exile. In the morning light the leaves flux and many of the villagers will draw the shutters because the red light is like a fire.
It scares some of the men and the women, these trees that are not native to this region. Many of the men and women have tried, in the darkness of night, to cut down the three trees. But it is as though the trees are protected by rings of magic of some kind because none of the villagers have been able to reach any one of the three trunks to take an axe to the wood.
Men and women whisper about travelling from their cottage at night and walking for miles, it seemed to them, to get to the trees but not being able to arrive there. Yet, they all know that it is only a few paces from most of the cottages in the village to the trees in front of Madame Muriel's house.
Madame continues to look for the buttons but she cannot ignore the rising of the wind that breaks away from the river and bustles up the slope. This is the worst time when the wind gets up into the leaves of the three trees shadowing Madame as she looks for the buttons. It is a time when the red and golden leaves lose all configurations that define them as leaves, it is when the trees look as though they are really Roman candles of fire burning bright messages no one can understand.
A weird phosphorescence lights the whole town and some of the villagers forget it is the light from the trees and panic because they think it is the return of the Prussian soldiers burning, pillaging and looting their way across the French landscape. Many old men, with long memories and scars of torture, have been seen at these times to tip over wagons in the town square to form a barricade to fight the invaders.
The other villagers do not laugh at the old men, they approach them with consideration gently take hold of arthritic hands lead the old men away to the tavern where they are made to drink deeply of wine until their fear subsides.
It is like a fiery branding the light from the leaves of the three trees, it seems impossible to remove like a tattoo of coal dust in the flesh of a miner from the pits on the outskirts of the town. Madame Muriel stops looking for the buttons as the wind howls like a hound amongst the branches of the trees. It is too much for her this sound and the conflagration that burns just above her head. Despite her stubbornness, her will to do what she wants and nothing else, she stumbles from the trees to her house.
Taking refuge inside she still stands at the upstairs bedroom window to look at the trees. Long burning brands of branches twist and unravel until Madame thinks the eels from the river have slithered up the river bank and taken up a new home in the trees.
The way the branches whip and lash about in the wind reminds Muriel of the story her mother used to tell her when she was a child. The tale of the Medusa with snakes for hair, the woman who would turn you to stone if you looked into her eyes. Not really a story so much as a threat by her mother who could not control such a wilful daughter.
"If you do not behave yourself Muriel I will see to it that Madame Medusa will come to visit you tonight and make you look into her eyes. You will become a little stone statue and I will place you in the garden for the birds to sit upon and do poos on," her mother told her.
And it was the only thing that scared Muriel because nothing else worked. Muriel did as she wished and her mother's wishes were like the fish that swam past in the river, a flash then gone. But the story of the Medusa terrified Muriel for years. It was a tale her mother used often and the child knew when it was coming because her mother would fix her with an eye that was almost as terrible as the eye of the Medusa must have been.
Madame Muriel's father did not help matters between the child and her mother. He doted on the little girl often coming home at lunch time just to see his precious Muriel. Something that was unheard of and laughed at for a man to come home to see his child and not eat his lunch in the fields with the other farmers and agricultural workers. But Pierre Gachet did not care what some whispered behind his back about him being soft in the head, he lived to see his little Muriel and his wife was only too acutely aware of it.
As she watches the trees afire with light and wind, Madame remembers how her father would fight with her mother then leave the house and take his daughter away from the scene of battle to the river. Sitting on the riverbank, he taught her to thread and tie a hook onto a line, to push a worm, dug from the fallow piece of land at the front of the house, onto the steel. Then toss the lot into a cable of current clear in the river if you knew how to look for it.
Father and daughter caught mostly eels, which they took home to Madame Gachet, who cooked the creatures in salted water, jellied them in tin trays with parsley, dill and chives. Muriel's father took the eels to his wife as a peace offering because he knew she loved the soft jellied flesh with the salty taste. As for Muriel, she couldn't care if her father made amends with her mother or not, just so long as he was there to take her fishing or tell her tall tales about planting buttons to grow golden trees with diamonds.
Muriel knew her father was pulling her leg when he told her such stories but many times she wanted to believe they were true, especially the story of the buttons. Because she wanted her father to stay at home, she thought that if he was a rich man with gold and diamonds from the trees then he could be there with her all of the time, he wouldn't need to plant and harvest wheat and corn.
Madame Muriel watches, from the bedroom that was once the bedroom of her parents, the storm of wind and fire shuddering in the three trees, crows flying high in the air cry their mournful cries like black rags of anguish. The house passed to Madame and her husband when her mother died. Not that Muriel's mother would have left it to her one and only child. That was something her mother made clear to her for years.
"The only reason you're getting my house Muriel is because your father managed to tie it up for you with the crooked lawyer in the village. If I'd had my way you wouldn't have it," her mother told her.
The old woman lived downstairs in a room like a cave burrowed into rock. She was a troll living beneath the stairs and no one, especially Muriel, could move from the upstairs to the downstairs or in the other direction unless the old woman knew about it. She would jump out from her small room and cross-examine whoever was passing. There wasn't anything she didn't know about the house and its occupants.
Muriel would have turned her mother out for the sake of her family's sanity but there was no choice in the matter. Her father had made sure his wife would have shelter until the end of her days, although he probably would have delivered his daughter from his wife if he could have managed it. It was just that the lawyer advised him that if he was going to leave his house to his daughter and not his wife then he should provide something for the old woman otherwise the matter could end up being dragged interminably through the French court system.
Muriel's children ended up pale, timid creatures thanks to their grandmother who made a point of terrorising them whenever she could. The old woman turned the little boy and two girls into beings the opposite of their strong-willed mother. Something the old woman relished this revenge of sorts on a recalcitrant daughter who'd made her life a misery for years and had stolen the heart and soul of her husband from her.
It is the fury of the old woman Madame Muriel sees in the trees now. It is as though the old woman has burrowed her way from the grave in the churchyard and possessed the three trees. Trees of gold with diamonds they are not, they are masts, crosses of fire that burn in the wind and the light of the day. They are the mad eye of Muriel's mother when she looked with such hatred at her daughter. And that is why Muriel has begun to search for the buttons her father told her to plant.
She believes, out of desperation, that if she can find those buttons and sew them back on the clothes they came from then the old woman will leave her in peace. Muriel is at the end of her tether, she has rummaged through all the boxes in the cellar of the house and found all of the clothes that belonged to her parents. She is desperate because her children have flown their home and will have virtually nothing to do with their mother.
Muriel's son and two daughters are more than uneasy when they come back home to visit their mother, they are afraid, they do not stay more than a few minutes, just long enough for their mother to see her grandchildren. Then they're off like the catfish their grandfather used to catch from the river. Pierre Gachet put salt on their tales, the slimy spiked creatures madly slithering across the earth, disappearing into long grass where some unfortunate villager would find them when they stepped on the poisonous spikes.
Muriel looks away from the burning trees, it is too much for her. It is as though the fire is in her veins, in every cell of her body burning, causing her pain. She looks out across the fields, a hundred acres of good fertile land that stretches from the river up to the house and in every other direction as far as the eye can see. And the doubling of the size of Pierre Gachet's original farm is due to the efforts of Muriel's husband, Marcel.
No matter what the villagers may say about Marcel acquiring the farm and the house by seducing the owner's daughter, Muriel knows, in her heart of hearts, that Marcel has made the farm a going concern. She squints into the distance and thinks she can see him but she's not sure, indeed there are times when she's not sure what her husband looks like exactly. It is the time of planting and Marcel is up well before the dawn and when he returns late at night he is a blurred wan visage in the lamp light at the dinner table.
Marcel is unaware of his wife's grief at the isolation of her son and daughters from her. He doesn't seem to sense her loss because he is so bound up with the farm, making it pay every year, planning which fields will be planted and which ones will remain fellow. A man different from my father thinks Muriel with some bitterness because she misses being spoilt by her father, she misses being made a fuss over, she misses being the one female who matters the most to one man.
The wind dies and Muriel descends the stairs, pauses near the bottom of the stair case because she still expects her mother to spring from the room under the stairs and give her the alligator-skin edge of her tongue. Then she rushes forward like a scared child, out into the light that is dying as the wind subsides. Moving through the quickly gathering gloom Madame Muriel goes to the three trees.
Down on hands and knees she tears her nails clawing at the earth, she digs out under the trees, burrows beneath the roots convinced she will find the buttons. They are seeds in her mind burst open with the roots coming from them, tendrils of hairlike roots attached to the buttons. Or she might find her mother sitting there quietly underneath a mass of roots shaped like a crown, the old woman sardonically, spitefully grinning at her the way she did in life.
"See I will always be everywhere you go. You cannot escape me even if I am dead," Muriel's mother might say to her daughter.
But Muriel doesn't find her mother, she finds one button and it is enough to make her dig harder and deeper. Another button is recovered and the woman continues digging placing the buttons in the pocket of her smock. In the back of her mind she wonders how many buttons she buried all of those years ago. She cannot remember so she prays that if she can find some of them and sew them back onto the clothes it will be enough to placate the restless vengeful spirit of her mother. Her thoughts are as irrational as imagining eels coming from the river, slithering up the trunks of the trees to make the leaves. But Madame is beyond the grace of reason, she is engaged in a struggle of bits and pieces cobbled together to make something powerful enough to free her.
Scrambling back to the house before night falls, Muriel takes the buttons from her pocket and with trembling hands begins to sew them back on the clothes that lie in the bed that once belonged to her mother and father. The suits and dresses are laid out, they are musty and dusty with age, some fall apart in Madame's hands and she panics thinking there will not be enough left to sew on all the buttons not enough to lay her mother to rest.
The job is done and she carries the clothes outside, goes to the trees and places the garments in them. Coats are buttoned up around trunks, shirts are buttoned around branches, dresses are buttoned to crowns of leaves some hats adorn the twigs of the three trees. A mutilated scarecrow it looks like thinks Madame as she walks backwards away from the trees. The buttons blink at her like the eyes of the town's cats in alleyways at night. But she sees herself reflected in those small shiny mirrors and she averts her eyes sickened by what she has beheld.
In the morning Madame Muriel awakes, goes to the big bay window of the bedroom and looks out. The trees are gone and in their place stand a winged horse and a golden sword, the vision is there for a few seconds and then the horse and the sword are gone. All that is left is the fallow ground with nothing growing from it.
Greg Bogaerts is a writer who lives in Australia. He is married to Jill and has a cat called Whisper.