Evergreen by Victoria Heath
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Evergreen by Victoria Heath

Evergreen by Victoria Heath

It was the first Winter with you. We bought a Christmas tree, a real one, the type that my mother would never let me have as a child. Once we had lugged it from the store and positioned it in the corner of the dining room, we spent the rest of the evening drinking wine and adorning its branches with baubles. As you stood precariously to put the star on the top (not an angel, because you always had stars as a child and I was happy to continue this tradition), I watched as the needles fell away from the tree, cascading onto the carpet like green flecks of snow. I didn’t want to hoover them up, even if that meant we were picking green from out of our socks and in our hair for the next few weeks. On Christmas Day, we had to stifle our laughter as my mother pulled a pine needle out of her glass of prosecco. The image stayed with me for several weeks, and I’d bring it up to you in fits of giggles as I recalled her horrified face. You would be confused as to why I found it so funny, and I would  try to think of ways of explaining how it made me happy to see her become the butt of a joke for once. But instead I told you that some things are just funny like that, and all of the potential disastrous conversations about families that weren’t as perfect as we thought remained shut.

It was the first Spring without you, and it rolled around in its despairingly slow way. My mother texted me once during Spring, one long message to tell me exactly which flowers I should start planting; that avocados were the new superfood, and that smearing Amazonian mud clay on your face was the latest form of self-care that she had read about in some magazine. In the weeks following her message, the flowers in our garden began to crop up amongst mounds of melting snow. Next to the budding flowers stood our Christmas tree that we had dragged through the house, heaved into the soil and tended to together. You wanted to have the same one each year. A tradition, you had laughed as we dug through the icy soil in January. Now, at the sight of its green needles, I plucked a nearby budding flower from the soaked ground and rolled it in my palms until the petals bled their pinkness onto my skin. Watching its pigment burst all over my hands, bloodied and soft all at once. The way its seeds spluttered out onto my palm, death into life. I threw the seeds into the ice. Everything meant nothing.

It was the first Autumn without you. I watched from the kitchen window and looked into the gardenas the leaves turned into red and yellow mush in the rain, and the Christmas tree was the only green thing left in our garden. I found the number for a local gardener in the newspaper, calling him over for a quote on how much it would be to get rid of the tree. The figure was obscene, far higher than I ever thought it would be to take some wood and leaves. So instead, I paid $20 for some second-hand blinds, and fitted them over the little window that was directly behind the kitchen sink.  This way, I would never have to wash the dishes and think of you again. I would not have to scrub suds into blackened pans and be watched over by the Christmas tree anymore, the same tree that stared solemnly through the window as I blended soups that you would vomit onto your bib in the last days of your life, the bibs I would scrub with dish soap so that my fingers were pruned for days afterwards.

It was the first Winter without you. I held on to my own hand that year, buried inside the kangaroo pocket of my hoodie. The curve of my fingernails pressed against my palm. The cold bit across my face for weeks, and my boss commented on my unusually rosy cheeks, a phrase that came across as some sort of declaration of a symptom, so that I spent the rest of that day googling what it meant to be red-cheeked and depressed. The Christmas lights of stores heaved their red-and-green fluorescence at me; the whine of Christmas music inescapable in every crevice of the town that I tried to hide in. So, I found myself spending most of that winter in the house, watching snow fall on everything like pepper.

On the day before Christmas Eve, when I was deep into a box-set, my mother showed up to the house unannounced with a huge rectangular cardboard box in her arms.

“Look what I’ve got for you! To spruce things up here!” She gestured past me, toward the cavern of white, empty space in our living room where I had spent the last several weeks taking down some old paintings and photos of us. She was letting so much of the cold outside air into the house, so I ushered her in and watched silently as she carried the box into the living room. She sat down and hurriedly unpacked an enormous, fake Christmas tree. No pine leaves came loose. No green flecks of snow.

“What do you want me to do?” I asked, staring down at the carpet.

The way the vacuum had left grooves in the fibres from when I cleaned the house earlier, grooves which Mother had now cut through with the box that had been dragged across the carpet. Without saying a word, she walked back to her car, making more slashes through the perfect indents in the carpet. I considered the impact of locking her out, her coat and car keys and daughter all inside the house away from her. Then I heard her rustling back inside, dropping her coat onto the hanger by the front door and carrying another box that jingled with each step. Over the course of what seemed like days, but was in fact no more than two hours, she decorated the tree alone, as I flicked between staring at the carpet and into the same glass of wine that I had half-finished before she arrived.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” she asked, a demand of reassurance, rather than a rhetorical question. These types of conversations had become normal throughout our lives. I knew exactly what half-nod half-smile combination to respond with, and gave it to her with no resistance. After a one-sided conversation of ‘I’ll-always-be-here-for-you’s’, she was at the front door,  at the precipice of leaving.

“We’ve forgotten something!” she suddenly said, rummaging through the box of decorations. She fumbled for a few moments and produced a golden tree topper.

“The star! Won’t you be an angel and put it on?  You used to love doing it when you were younger,” she implored.

There was nothing more in the world that I wanted other than her to leave. So I grabbed the star from her manicured hand, and she let out a little yelp of surprise or excitement. I scraped a dining chair across the hardwood floor, to the foot of the Christmas tree in the dining room. She watched, a figure in the corner of the living room, her hands clasped together, as I stood on the dining chair and shoved the star into the top of the tree so harshly that the artificial pines dug  into my fingers.

“It looks wonderful,” she said. I was so high up that it felt like my mother’s voice couldn’t reach me, as though her words floated into nothingness. So I decided to perch on the chair for a few moments longer, looking down at the now smallness of her frame, the way her shoulders hunched from this vantage point.

Through the glass door behind the tree, I watched as a flurry of snow fell outside. Small flakes came down from the sky hurriedly, like the smattering of icing sugar over a cake. The whole world was bathed in whiteness; white houses, white-topped fences, white clouds bursting at the seams. And yet amongst the whiteness, the blinding colour of it all, I made out the silhouette of our Christmas tree in the darkness, stood at the foot of the garden. Unattended to for almost a year, our Christmas tree with its green body covered in snow. Away from the house that was once ours and now was just mine, lonesome as it was in the bitter night frost, our unchanging, undying Christmas tree.