Seven Starts to The Man Who Loved Trees by Frankie McMillan
Jazz Novitz is my name. I’m the hitchhiker who was kidnapped, forced to live in a tree. People remember my name, what with all the z’s. My mother said when she came to New Zealand she kept on seeing z’s. Menz haircuts, Split Enz, Trendz furniture etc so when she got pregnant with me she used all the z’s she could. I can’t get a job using my real name. I’ve given up on that.
The worst thing is in a crowded supermarket or on the bus and I feel a light touch on the arm. I turn around to face a wide –eyed stranger, uh oh, here we go again. Women particularly, want to hear my story. They think maybe there’s a special way of talking to a kidnapper or a murderer, so that they manage to get away unharmed. They say I must have been cool headed to carry out what I did and sometimes I let them think all these things because then nothing more is expected of me. I don’t have to become anybody, don’t have to prove myself. I can just sit here, peacefully, gaze out onto the lawn.
The wind has blown more leaves down from the neighbour’s tree. Every day I rake them up, bag them in black plastic bags to compost and everyday new leaves fall. I have to tell myself there’s as many leaves as there are stories. And what people really want to hear is what happens between the gaps, the falling and if I can find the plain language for that then maybe I can begin. My name is Jazz Novitz. He carried a gun and knew everything there was to know about trees.
Monday, it’s raining hard and you’re stuck in a tree hut with a stranger. Below the river breaks its banks flooding the paddocks. You give the girl a towel to dry her hair but she leaves it on the stretcher. So then you light up the gas cooker and she complains the fumes are making her sick. You regret stopping to give her a lift, regret having a toke up there when you should have been keeping your eye on the rising ford. So now you know it’s true; trouble always comes in threes. First, the cabbage trees, dropping their leaves, turning black from some virus, then the new plantings getting washed away … no matter how fast you work you’re never going to keep pace with the bloody erosion and now a sick girl in your hut.
He was lonely, he must have seen me at the side of the road and thought that somehow I would save him.
For a while the tree hut was empty. Magpies nested on the roof, the branches pressed in on the two high windows. When the wind blew the ratchet on the pulley system creaked and dislodged feathers fluttered helplessly in the air. Above the roar of the river the sound of a vehicle came closer. It spluttered through the ford then came to a shuddering halt by the oak tree. A man and a girl got out. Though there was no other house in sight she asked for a bathroom. ‘Bathroom?’ said the man. The girl pointed to a shed in the distance, light catching on the corrugated roof. The man continued to pull out provisions from the van. It took him a while to realize what she was saying. ‘Go behind a tree,’ he said. He hauled out a shovel to give to her. The blade caught on the sacking and when he yanked on it an object wrapped in yellow cloth shot out onto the ground. They both stared at the metal barrel poking from the cloth. ‘Heck, it’s not what you think,’ said the man.
The police report records the dates, February 16th – February 23rd, summary of facts, previous conviction list, photographs of the tree hut, the property, the van, the distance in kilometres from the hut to the Main North road but nothing about the way the tree hut swayed in the wind, the sudden bird shit falling past the window, Lloyd’s grayish white tooth, his scraggly pony tail, the long nights and the low hiss of the tilley lamp, heavy slam of the trap door, the rising vomit in my throat, scream and scrape of magpie claws on the roof and in the distance an early morning tractor back firing, Lloyd running over the paddock, even as he was shot, running and being shot and brought down, blood from his head and a voice – it must have been mine – do you have to keep shooting him?
I told Lloyd I was sniffing leaves. I had my head out the little window and I said I could smell rain coming. Lloyd looked pleased. ‘It’s got a name.’ He took my arm and led me away from the window. ‘You remember the name I told you?’ I didn’t. But I’d gotten away with it, I’d pushed the window open and seen the rope ladder, the van and beyond the swollen river to the road.
I lay back on the camp stretcher looking up at the damp washing drying overhead. Lloyd sat on his chair bending a piece of wire with pliers. ‘Petrichor,’ he announced. His mouth opened wide. ‘Petrichor … smell of leaves after rain.’ Outside the wind picked up, knocking a branch against the plywood walls. Lloyd looked up. ‘So what did I say?’
I closed my eyes. I was thinking how clever a leaf could be. How it knew when rain was coming, how it knew when to burst from a bud, the right moment to fall from the tree.
Looking after trees is a lot easier than looking after people. You tend to their wounds, brace and cable, talk nicely to them and the next day those trees are just where you left them. Jazz. That was the one who almost got away.
Frankie McMillan is a NZ short story writer and poet. Her latest book, My Mother and the Hungarians and other small fictions (Canterbury University Press) was longlisted in the NZ Ockham awards 2017. This year she was the University of Auckland/Michael King Writer in Residence. Her work has been selected for Best Small Fictions, 2017 (Braddock Avenue Books).