The Tree House BY Angela Morrisey – WINNER WRITER’S COMPETITION
The little girl’s cry pierced through Michelina’s heart as she waited for the anaesthetist nurse to take down her details. She knew how the girl felt. She too was hungry and tired from an early dawn rise. Now it was time to play the waiting game. The difference was Michelina had to keep her emotions inside. She couldn’t let it all out and cry like the child was doing as much as she would like to. No, she had to internalise it.
The nurse eventually came and went and it wasn’t long before she was taken to the operating table. The nurse gave her a couple of warm blankets and Michelina tried to remain calm. It was difficult for the eighteen-year-old to do so for she knew that she would only be put under a local anaesthetic as opposed to a general which would put her right under.
Presently, the anaesthetist arrived and did his best to initiate and maintain a happy conversation as he prepared her for the anaesthetic. He knew she was from Bendigo and asked her which schools she went to. He too had grown up there and went to the local schools as well. The surgeon arrived as well and joined in the conversation. He joked with Michelina and teased his colleagues until she laughed.
The surgeon was Dr Staples and he had reassured her over the phone a week ago that her operation – a cornea graft – was something that he had great experience in doing since graduating with a PhD over twenty five years ago.
So, here she was finally about to have her right eye cut into and stitched up with a new cornea. She shuddered as she thought of having a stranger’s organ attached to the most sensitive part of her body. The young woman winced as the anaesthetist inserted the IV and everything turned to darkness.
When she came to half an hour later where she’d been moved to the recovery area she heard the same little girl crying again. She knew how she felt. She too had a fuzzy head, felt fatigued and her patched up eye felt scratchy. But like before she had to keep it all in. A grown woman could not express her emotions the same way a five year old girl could.
It just wasn’t the done thing.
After recovering with a sandwich and a cup of tea, Michelina was driven back to a hotel where they were staying overnight. The surgery had to be done in Melbourne where the doctor – who was the best at his profession – worked. The next day, she saw Dr Staples who admired his work like God did after he created the world and saw that it was “good.”
Afterwards, as her mother drove Michelina back home in Bendigo, the young woman confessed how uneasy she felt with the fact that she had a dead person’s cornea.
‘But this person has given you a precious gift,’ her mother said. ‘I am sure he or she would have been a nice person since they wanted to donate their organs.’
‘Yeah, but it still freaks me out.’
‘Well, let’s imagine what this person would be like. Let’s say it’s a nice, young man. What’s your favourite boy’s name?’
‘OK then. Let’s say that David was a good and kind man who was travelling on his way back to uni after staying back with his family for the weekend. It’s night time and there’s a lot of traffic and an out of control car on the highway is heading in his direction. There’s a collision and they both swerve and David’s car smashes into a tree. There are no survivors.’
‘That’s pretty gruesome and unfair,’ Michelina said as she looked out the window.
Her mother nodded. ‘Yes, it is. But from that you are able to see. So, as tragic as it is for him – something good comes out of it. You can now see!’
Michelina sat at the kitchen table and with a pen in her hand pondered over what to write. She had been sent a card from Lions Medical Eye Bank. In it she was to thank the donor family for the wonderful gift given to her. Writing the card was optional but Michelina decided that showing her gratitude was something she wanted to do. She wrote about her university course, her family and hobbies. She signed it with her first name only and sent it off along with a sheet of paper detailing her full name and date of the transplant. The latter of course would not be sent to the donor family. She had thought about them and what they’d be like and how they were grieving the loss of their loved one. She knew the words could not bring their beloved back but she hoped they would find some comfort in her words.
She posted it the next day without another thought.
Three months later found Michelina standing in the shadows of the nightclub. The DJ was spinning some funky cuts and bright lights danced across the crowd of ravers who moved to the music like they were having a seizure. The young woman fidgeted and ran a hand through her long, dark hair. She lowered her liquid brown eyes and stared at the floor.
Suddenly her reverie was broken as a young man approached her. At six feet tall he towered above her five foot three body. She lifted her gaze and was instantly struck by his deep set eyes that seemed to pierce through her. She took his interest in her very seriously because most guys simply ignored her. But here was someone who seemed interested. So, when he asked her to dance she happily accepted.
The music was fast and loud but the young man drew her to him and held her close. The duo began to move slowly. Michelina closed her eyes as she rested her head on his chest. He smelt of some sort of exotic aftershave.
Somehow despite the loud music they exchanged names. The young man’s name was Jem. He even went so far as to ask her back to his place. The inexperienced young woman accepted.
They stumbled out onto the street. Jem got out his keys and aimed for his car. It bleeped and they got in. They drove in silence back to his house, a large, two story house with a tiled roof and chimney. Michelina got out and headed for the front door. Jem stopped her.
‘No not in there,’ he said and leaned towards a large, oak tree. ‘Up there.’
Michelina peered through the darkness. She could just make out the shape of what looked like a tree house. It was a slightly inclining box made of various types of wood, some planks wearing paint of black, brown or blue, some bare and haemorrhaging bits of sap. They climbed the ladder together and Jem opened the trapdoor. A smattering of stars peered through the cracks in the walls and ceiling and a full moon shone through the glass window providing a weak light in the darkness of the shadowy crate like fort.
Inside was a rickety table, a stool and a sleeping bag. Jem pulled her down onto the sleeping bag and started to kiss her. His hands moved over her body seeking out her curves and caressing her tenderly. Michelina’s body moved with his as he rolled her onto her back.
The moonlight bathed the young lovers who expressed their physical attraction with their hands and lips. No words were needed. Michelina looked around the room as Jem kissed her neck. She was about to close her eyes when something caught her eye.
A card stood on the small table with a pattern on it that she recognized.
‘Jem,’ she murmured.
Jem continued on with his kissing and fumbling in the darkness but Michelina’s eyes were fixated on the card.
‘Jem,’ she said again. ‘Jem. Stop.’
Jem stopped and cocked his head to one side. He sighed. ‘What is it?’
‘That card. Where did you get it?’
Jem let out a long breath and raked a hand through his thick hair. ‘Some girl sent it to thank my family for her new eye. Now, can we get back to – `
Michelina pushed him off her and reached for the card. A feeling of dread filled the pit of her stomach. Her head ached.
It couldn’t be.
Please let it not be from her.
She didn’t want to look but curiosity got the better of her. She just had to know.
Michelina’s bottom lip trembled as she reached out for it and yanked it off the table. The young woman opened it and looked inside. Inside was a message.
Michelina closed her eyes and pressed the card to her breast.
Jem rubbed his forehead. ‘What’s the problem?’
‘The card. It – it’s from me.’
Jem glared at her. ‘What? What do you mean it’s from you?’
‘I’m the recipient of a cornea. Someone in your family donated it to me.’
‘You mean my brother?’ Jem coughed. ‘What is this? Some sick joke? Did you seek me out at the club? Are you some sort of stalker?’
‘You came onto me.’
‘If I can recall, you came over to me. You asked me to dance. You asked me back to your place. To your tree house.’
Jem closed his eyes. ‘That’s right. I did.’
‘How old was he?’
Jem let out a long, drawn out breath. ‘Twenty. He was studying at university. Arts. He was on the road back after staying with us for the weekend. He collided with another car. It was an accident. There were no survivors. He donated all of his organs. Yours is the first card we’ve received. My mother cried when she got it. My father didn’t read it. I decided to keep it here. In our hiding place. This is where we’d come if we wanted to play, get creative, and hide from our parent’s fights…’
‘And bring girls home.’
Jem chuckled. ‘Yeah. And that… I only really started using the tree house again after his death. It made me feel close to him somehow. Made me feel like a kid again. Then your card came. And now you’re here…’ He reached out and touched her face. ‘Which eye is it?’
‘My right eye.’
Jem tenderly caressed her clear skin.
‘What was he like?’ Michelina asked.
‘Tall and dark. Really handsome. A true ladies man. All the girls loved him. We would go clubbing and I would be his wingman. But he had not problem attracting them. And he was the kindest person I’d ever met. But despite his suaveness he was at heart a really shy person. A true intellect. He excelled at school and uni. Look, he was just good at anything he did. It was a terrible loss when he was killed…’
They lay in silence for a while. Both at a loss of what to say. Michelina wanted to ask more questions but wondered if Jem regretted saying so much to a stranger despite their romantic interlude. David sounded like a man of many contradictions. And the fact that he’d been killed just the way her mother had described only made the whole thing more interesting but Michelina didn’t want to creep Jem out by admitting she had already “known” of his death through some strange telepathic connection. Some things simply needed to be left unsaid.
And the rest of the night went unsaid. Instead, they made love and fell asleep in each other’s arms. They woke as the sun was rising. Michelina smiled at Jem as he stretched and yawned. He pulled her into the sleeping bag to escape the morning chill. Reaching out he caressed her ashen cheek with his index finger.
‘Good morning,’ he said.
‘What is the plan for today? What are we going to do?’
‘Whatever we like.’
Michelina caressed her new lover’s cheek. ‘It must be hard living without him.’
‘No. Not quite.’
Michelina raised an eyebrow. ‘No?’
Jem shook his head. ‘No. He’s not gone. Not as long as you’re here. He’ll live on through you crazy as it sounds. A part of him is inside of you. I hope you understand.’
Michelina nodded. Yes. She understood.
They sat up and watched the sunrise of pale amber and pink through the window. Jem reached out and pulled Michelina close. The sun gradually rose and streamed through the glass shining into their young faces. Despite their fatigue, the young lovers looked at each other and laughed before falling back onto the floor.