by Martin Bolton
It was a squalid farm, but I loved it dearly. Those were simple times, and we were a simple family. Ma was a lumpy woman whose belly undulated soothingly as she waddled around her filthy kitchen.
“Can we eat some veg at Christmas?” she would ask Poppa.
“No fucking way!” he would bellow, “we’ll eat dirt like we always do!” Then he would fetch her a loud slap to the buttocks and she would giggle and drop my tiny little brother on his head, leaving a circle of muddy brown froth around her fist-sized nipple.
I can picture Poppa now, stomping around the farm yard, his mouldy boiler suit stretched around his seven foot wide frame, his gaping naval glaring at me between two halves of a press stud resigned to the fact they would never be one. Occasionally he would drop to all fours and cram fistfuls of soil into his mouth, groaning with ecstasy.
He was a brutal man, even when he didn’t mean to be. One loving hug from those callused, lumpen paws would leave you bruised and breathless. Each year he grew bigger, while I remained a withered, constipated, translucent carcass. I couldn’t stomach all the dirt, I hadn’t the same feverish cravings for mud to which Poppa was a slave.
Had I known the long term side effects of that diet I might have tried to talk to him, but what was a I to do? He was the head of the family, and he had decreed long ago that this family were to live off the land. Literally. So every dawn we were marched into the yard and given our breakfast of dirt. I suppose, for someone who enjoyed the taste of God’s brown earth, it was perfect, there was an endless supply. But I dreamed of one day eating an apple or some bread – things branded as obscene and decadent by Poppa and banned from the house on pain of a grubby thumb nail to the eyeball.
The physical changes in Poppa were increasingly apparent, though Ma pretended not to notice. His hair seemed to be taking on a green tinge, and I knew it was not just the advance of the moss that grew on his eyebrows. He became sluggish, and would stand completely still for ever longer periods. Eventually leaves began to sprout from his fingers. As time went on, an array of flora populated Poppa’s flesh, but still dear old Ma pretended nothing was happening.
It was one morning in spring that I was surprised to wake up well after dawn to silence. Why had Poppa not jabbed me with a stick and hollered in my ear to get outside and eat my fill of God’s dank firmament? Why could I not hear him outside noisily devouring clods of terra firma? Something was wrong.
I got up and went outside. The yard was empty, but I could see fresh footprints leading off into the meadow. They were wide and deep and punctuated by blobs of the foamy brown milk that my stunted five year old brother still supped from Ma’s voluminous breasts. I set off in her tracks at a spindly canter. I knew something was seriously wrong but nothing could have prepared me for what I was to witness at the far end of that vibrant meadow.
I found Ma staring dumb-founded at a vast tree. A tree which had not been there the day before. Poppa’s shredded boiler suit was stretched around the great trunk. Where the boiler suit parted at the waist a squirrel popped its head out of a whole and spat out a mouthful of blue fluff. The remains of Poppa’s boots were twisted around the roots. Right at the top of the tree, I could just make out his flat cap, swaying in the breeze. Ma put on a brave face, but she was never the same after that morning.
I set about planting a vegetable patch that very day, then went into the forest to collect berries and mushrooms. Now that we were free from Poppa’s tyranny, I was the man of the house. I was damned if we were consuming any more earth.
It was a few weeks later, spring was in full swing, the birds were singing, and my skin had taken on a milky opacity previously alien to me. I was in high spirits. I took a stroll across the meadow for my daily visit to the “Poppa Tree”. I found I loved Poppa more than ever now that he was a tree. There was a serenity about him, he had found a unique sort of peace that many people would never know.
As I stood there gazing at his impressive trunk, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. Along his branches he had sprouted several collections of dangling appendages. I moved closer and reached up to touch one. It was soft and wrinkly with coarse hairs growing from its earthy brown skin. Inside I could feel the fruit moving as my fingers manipulated its outer “bag”. I was tempted to pluck one, but I couldn’t be sure they were ripe.
I resolved to wait until one dropped and stood back to admire them with a tear of pride in my eye. I knew than that everything would be all right. Poppa’s hairy fruits were exquisite.