The Suicide Tree by Beverley Byrne

Years ago, in the Sri Lankan ashram, the black toothed soothsayer pressed her bony fingers on my thumb pad and said, ‘You were a witch in a past life.’ Bingo. It explained everything. You only have to look at my garden to see how I weave my magic. Aromatic scents waft from herb beds shaded by elegant trees. Fat glossy green leaves shroud the conservatory. Blousy blooms and exotic shrubs blend with Impressionist pastels. Imagine how I felt when Dave asked me to dig it up. 

I pride myself in practicing my guru’s teachings. I spread love by shopping for the elderly and infirm. When there is illness or a new baby, I deliver nutritious vegetarian casseroles to each deserving family. I bake cakes for street parties. The kids steer clear preferring acid coloured 

shop bought fare but their mothers praise my contribution to our community. It’s only what I learned on retreat in Sri Lanka, I say, lowering my lids in humility. 

Then Dave moved in next door. Just watching him walk down the road had me reaching for my prayer beads. The swaggering gait. The hipster beard. The skull tattoos. Ashtanga chanting helped. A clear mind is a kind mind, I heard my yogi intone, as I sat in the lotus position banging my fists on my prayer mat. 

Only when he’s out, tranquillity is restored. No flashy cars preventing me parking outside my own home. No rap or grunge or garage or whatever sub cultural ear carnage he’s playing with his drug crazed mates till all hours. Just bird song, wind chimes and the soporific buzz of bees. I knew he’d had problems. The rat man, a ghost faced Pole, was always knocking on his door. Being the sort of neighbour who prefers sowing the seeds of harmony, I allowed them into my garden to ‘check the rat paths.’ Dave told me how ‘ethical’ and ‘respectful’ the company was while ‘state of the art’ equipment was thrust down drains and black boots flattened my Hibiscus and snapped my tender Oleander stems. 

‘Please be careful,’ I entreated, pressing my palms together. ‘I brought those seeds back from Sri Lanka. Took years to establish.’ Dave shrugged and strode across my lawn to where the rat man was emerging from the leafy border like Dr Livingstone from the jungle. ‘That where rat get in,’ he boomed, pointing towards Dave’s ugly kitchen extension marking my garden boundary. ‘Need dig up flower bed. Put in deep defensive mesh. Rat no like.’ ‘That ok with you?’ Dave said in a manner which implied it was a done deal. I was explaining how the garden was my long established sanctuary, when Dave butted in ‘Look, I got rats scuttling in the walls, under the floorboards, in the attic. Squeakings' doing my head in man. It’s not like them plants won’t grow again’. 

Silently, I repeated my calming mantra but it didn’t help. My third eye snapped open. The roaring in my brain engulfed me like fire. I let out a banshee wail I hadn’t heard since mother looked like she might survive my magic. ‘Dig up half my precious garden for you. No way, you flabby moron.’ 

Dave grinned, his wet red lips resembling an open sore. ‘I wondered if the drippy hippy act was the real thing,’ he said triumphant. ‘Turns out, you’re just like everyone else.’ My guru always said there would be a time when our true self would be revealed. It felt like Dave had ripped off my kaftan and seen me naked. I stepped back from him, clutching the beads at my neck. I counted breaths in. Nine Ten. And out. Nine Ten. ‘Ok, Dave,’ returning my voice to petal soft tones, ‘To avoid unpleasantness, I’ll think about it.’

Gardening and cookery go hand in hand. Sweet aromatic scents pervading the kitchen take me back to Sri Lanka. In the dirt floor kitchen, I learned to dry seeds, leaves and spices. Some were nutritious. Some used for alchemy. Others, like the yellow oleander, were downright dangerous. I noted their uses in my notebook. 

At the time, suicides plagued the island. Legions of parent-hating young people like me were literally dying to get their own back. One girl, livid because her mother forbad television during Ramadan, popped a toxic yellow oleander seed in her mouth in front of her and died in her arms. Throughout the island, the yellow oleander became known as ‘the suicide shrub.’ Practicing my asanas beneath the Banyan tree in the cool of the Sri Lankan evening, I marvelled at the yin and yang of my life. Having come all this way to escape my toxic mother, I’d discovered a similar plant could make the separation permanent. 

When I inherited the home my opiated mother neglected so badly, I set about recreating the Ashram gardens. Now Dave wanted me to destroy it. Tracing my finger across the shelves lined with carefully labelled herbs and spice jars, I found what I wanted. 

I stood on Dave’s doorstep for a long while. Obviously, he couldn’t hear the bell over the looping bass thud. He finally opened the door looking bleary and surprised to see me. I proffered my casserole dish. I saw his nose twitch as he breathed in the spicy aroma. I knew he loved curry. The Pride of India delivery guy had been there often enough. ‘Peace offering,’ I said, my voice sweet as sugar cane. ‘I’ve made far too much for myself and hoped you could help me out.’ 

‘And Dave,’ I continued, ‘It’s ok to let the rat man into my garden. But if you can hold off for a few days, my oleander is just coming into flower and I want to collect more seeds.’ ‘Sure thing,’ he said, taking the casserole dish from me. ‘I’ll give you a bell.’ That black night, I stood in the middle of my garden and listened. The mournful cry of the tawny owl. A rat squeak but from next door, magical silence. 

Published in Issue #11

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