reprinted from Monterra’s Deliciosa & Other Tales & for the delectation of medlar-lovers everywhere Valley of the Sugars of Salt by Anna Tambour
- 1 -
THIS IS ONE of those places where you feel behind your back and roll knuckles against the soreness. Where the truck driver reaches for a sandwich or another pill to stay awake. Where the children sleep pillowed by beach towels and dreams of riding weightless on the waves, or fight with each other out of peevishness. It is a place like that flat line woven in the towel, running between banks of monotonous green loops of mile after mile of forest. It is a place like most places we see past, for they are not places at all. Today, a few hours south of Sydney, in this place distinguishable from the traveller’s point of view only as someplace where you are not there yet, the whirling social firmament in which Tim Thornbourne once shined so bright can only be heard whizzing past in dim comet-wisps, but mostly isn’t noticed since the highway, no matter how tourist-ridden or long-hauler-loaded it is, is never as busy as this little valley… Over the years, the more Thornbourne’s success grew in the world of selling the right concept at the right time, the more he liked the idea of communing with Nature. Growing feasibility studies was easy for him. Words blossomed under his tongue and fingertips. But as for Nature, he had never gotten down and dirty with her to the point of getting her earthy scent under his fingernails. Before the sale of IntelliCom and his divorce, on his trips to the property, he’d always loved Nature through the windows of “The Shack”. The magnate-sized mansion was the only way that Jocelynne had agreed to visit the place at all—although the first brush with a wolf spider ended her visits for good. So, until Tim’s “second outrageous success project” as he termed it to himself, Thornbourne’s actual contact time in the bush was low, but he did like the idea of it. He didn’t want to metamorphose into some hermit poking a long yellow fingernail into logs, fishing for a dinner of witchetty grubs. His plan was that with an initial burst of uncharacteristic physical exertion, and then lots of just communing, his project would thrive as well as the wild animals and bush on his farm. The annual two-week invasion of the wealthy would be an ego-enriching toll to pay for success. Tim did his research. No competition anywhere. The existing world population of his chosen trees were lone survivors, as noticed and celebrated as World War I veterans as they lurk crookedly by crumbling stone walls and drop wrinkled fruits on senile mountain roads. As he reckoned, in five years, the world’s only upmarket U-Pick-’Em would be an annual Easter holiday pilgrimage for all self-described foodies. And he, Tim Thornbourne, would be The Man Who Rediscovered the Medlar. He ordered his trees like mail-order brides, never having met any medlar trees in the flesh. A couple of devotedly fanatic apple aficionados, Stephen and Gwyneth Frawley of Timespast Nursery, grew 250 graftings of three different types just for him, from the few trees in their weird zoo of horticultural pets for people with a taste for the old, the different, the conversation piece. Rabbit-fencing, and then planting the orchard was easier than he had imagined. The medlars thrived with a studious lack of interference on his part. He never pruned and he never sprayed. Only when the trees were very young and needed their feet to grow and their toes to dig in without competition, did he hack away the tangle of grasses from around their trunks. The grass had, after all, occupied the paddock for many years, grazed by kangaroos, wombats, wallabies; slithered over by brown snake and red-bellied black hunting for mice; skittered over by fierce shrew-like antechinuses, terrors of beetledom. The trees grew in their species-distinctive, but also individually idiosyncratic forms—their long, shiny, deeply veined leaves, a myopic palmist’s delight should the same chiaroscuro of light and shadow appear in a human hand. Open-faced white or pink-tinged flowers that look like wild roses or large apple blossoms told the story of the medlar’s heritage. The Nottinghams showed a disposition to thin tallness, limbs reaching upwards; the Great Dutch more expansive, with a here-and-thereishness to their drooping limbs; the Royals were stolid characters, barrel-chested. Each tree fully took advantage of its right to be an individual, and made up its own mind as to its developing shape, how many flowers (self-fertile) it chose to make, and thus how many fruits it chose to produce. Even the shape and size of the offspring varied considerably, from the lychee-sized pears of the Nottinghams to the bramley-sized balls of the Royals, to the heavy, palm-filling half-globes of the Giants, whose fruits were most easy to see the reason for the botanical name, mespilus from meso, half, and pilos, ball. As the fruits grew and ruddied, and their calyxes opened luxuriantly, the reason for the colloquial names of the medlar became increasingly obvious—“open arse fruit” or the equally impolite French coup de chien—dog’s arse. The first flowers blossomed; the first fruits appeared hard as pubescent breasts, and then grew in the same impossibly quick manner. The calyxes with their long green-leaf eyelashes opened, wide, wider, till there was an inside-outish aspect to the full-cushioned arse-rose. When autumn came, the glossy green leaves turned brilliant red and began to fall. And when the fruits themselves took on the slightest droop from their stems, when a whim of wind dislodged them easily, Tim picked them all. Unless you are a donkey, medlars are only fit to eat when they are bletted, the proper name for rotten. The outside skin goes brown and wrinkly. The inside flesh ranges in colour from the dusky rose of embarrassment, to pâté de foie gras or baby poop, to the sobbing darkness of a forgotten pear. That first crop Tim bletted arse-down, in beds of sweet-smelling chaff, golden-green riffling against the russetted globes. He sent little boxes to the most revered gourmets in the land, and waited for their enthusiasm to boomerang back. There were dinner parties all over the city, conferences in the many-starred hotels. And the word came back. Aside from the Italians who as children sat in Nonna’s arthritic medlar tree in the old village, the tastemakers scorned the fruits. But perhaps “scorn” is too strong a word. “Disgusting looking” were two used. “Don’t like the pits” (of which each fruit hosts five). “Not really attracted” was the most common comment. The exclusive hotels said, “We could never serve these to guests. We can only offer people what they’re used to—the attractive foods—you know … kiwi fruit, apples with red skin …” Tim had saved himself a selection from each tree. To him—a complete surprise. Novelty combined with good packaging and a reputation was what he had counted on to waft these forgotten fruits up to the Mt. Olympus of gourmetdom. But the medlars were startlingly wake-up delicious—a mixture of date, black walnut, a good tanninish claret, medium sweet sherry, the tang of a fresh macintosh and the smooth comfort of baked pear, all combined in a different recipe for each fruit. The texture, too, ranged from babyfood smooth to that of Greek rice pudding, to an exciting feral stringiness resembling spaghettini al dente. Some he ate at night with a glass of something that flowed a touch of warmth down his throat, but he didn’t need it. The medlars didn’t need to accompany anything for Tim Thornbourne to enjoy them. He preferred to smell feel taste them as solo artists, accompanied only by more of themselves. In this way, the unique delight of each individual could be savoured all the more. The second year, he sent out beautifully packed samplers again, as the first harvest he decided to consider as more of a training crop for each tree. The variety of tastes and textures was even more exquisite. Tim discovered his favourite way to eat medlars: the vampire method. Nip a small bite into the thin skin, and squeeze gently. Watch the bruised flesh ooze out, or suck it out slowly. In the house, every table overflowed with bowls of fruit. As he contemplated them, they were all the littered bounty on so many memento mori paintings of the Dutch school, with the casual half-peeled lemons rolling hard by gonadal clusters of grapes, a skull never far away. He searched his books, and in not one painting could he find a medlar, though they should have been in every lush still-life. So what if medlars are brown? In the hard state, the texture of the skin like a goosebumpy windchapped Mongolian, felt good to his fingers and lips. And in the bletted state, all soft inside, Tim felt slightly protective towards the fruit—its delicacy without preciousness, its uncomplaining stoicism. The feedback from the second year’s send-out was almost non-existent. As for the responses he chased up … “Err …” Then there were variations on the theme of “sorry, but …”, or the voicemail message that is meant to be as believed as Santa Claus: “… and we’ll return your call.” The minds of the tastemakers whose opinions determine the tastes of gourmets he needed for his venture to be successful, were made up. He could still run his U-pick-’em for the few true gourmets who don’t give a damn about price if they like something. But true gourmets, he had found, are as thin on the ground as Tasmanian Tiger sightings. The ethnics who would buy the medlars for sentimentality balked at paying more than they thought they should—that is, more than everyday fruits. In fact, they expected to pay less for obscure food that most people dislike on sight. So Tim’s feasibility study to himself was unusually unflowery and honest: Unless you have a certain aesthetic, which isn’t limited to primary colours and fancy packaging, the medlar appeals in the same way as a truffle without a reputation. Something only a pig would like. Tim sat in the middle of the orchard, an occasional red or orange leaf blowing into his lap as the last scraps of their clothing were shed by the medlar trees in the light autumn breeze. A willy wagtail swung his tail back and forth as the little bird regarded Tim like some eccentric bug, from its perch on the bare elbow of a Dutch royal. Tim regarded his fact. It was a good idea at the time. Instead of a second outrageous success, he had achieved such an outrageous failure that it made him laugh. IntelliCom had possessed the intrinsic substance of all shiny bubbles, and the buyers happily knew it. The game was to pass the ever thinning, ever more expensive bubble. He looked at the stripped-naked trees, and nothing shimmered. The thought surprised him. Originally, like sweet syllabubs of future successes whipped from the ether of greed, the medlars were just tools to enable him to admire his own skill. Something unfamiliar in the pit of his stomach roiled. How could those tastemakers be so tasteless? The medlars made Tim feel much more—what was the word—romantic? than Jocelynne at her most enchanting. She with hair like the whole moonless sky; breasts like waterlily flowers at dawn; voice of an angry cockatoo… The wind sighed in the tall stringybark eucalypts by the edge of the creek; and on the highway at the top of the hill, a truck without a muffler burped noisily. Tim Thornbourne unbent his legs and stood up, looked around him and decided. “To hell with gourmets. We’re all staying.” There were four hours left before it became too late to see, but in that time he turned his beautiful road leading from the highway into an anonymous track so uninvitingly tyre-biting, so deviously ankle-twisting, so devilishly tortuous that not even the most hell-for-leather rough road enthusiast would contemplate venturing down, and as for meandering holiday sticky-beakers and fashionable four-wheel drivers, Tim knew they would now just be wooshes dimly heard at the top of the hill, like flies buzzing the dew-soaked grass on a summer morning. - 2 - Willy wagtails like their rituals, and today, the first anniversary of the day that Tim tore up the road to his farm, the same willy wagtail in his formal longtailed suit of black and white, is perched a foot higher up in the same tree, again examining Tim Thornbourne, who looks a lot hairier, and with the benefit of a calendar, is doing one of those human things: reflecting on his decision a year ago exactly to consign his tastemaker-thwarted ambitions for a second outrageous success to a place that doesn’t even have the usefulness of a compost pile. Today Tim has come down to the orchard to chew over his failure … and it tastes surprisingly sweet. As the willy wagtail soaks in the autumn warmth, Tim basks in his deliberated discovery that he is happier than he has ever been. As for the need for another monetary success, Tim admits to himself what he should have known all along: without the expenses of a new venture, or more expensively, Jocelynne, Tim’s share of money from the sale of IntelliCom would last, he estimates, until he is approximately 25,000 years old. He’s fallen into a pattern of life. Waking when the light streams through curtainless windows. A leisurely breakfast, a quick read of the world’s news fresh off the web. An absorption of books. A walk through the forests that envelope his farm. In the late afternoon, a visit with his medlar trees. He had decided, since he would not have invaders, to order more trees from the Frawleys, and soon a diverse band of apples with names like Fenouillet Gris, Cornish Gilliflower, Democrat, Esopus Spitzenburg, and Pitmaston Pineapple threw down their roots and threw up their limbs. Two Japanese persimmons kept them company, and one Smyrna and one Angers quince took up residence at each end of the long line of newcomers. The only itches and bothers that the trees seemed to have were the unwelcome attention of some borers that usually drill into wattles, but decided that they like the taste of these woods for variety. A clucking army of chickens patrols the roots, picking on any unwelcome guests they find, and Tim helps by poking out borers that have made their ways into any trees. Another army decided to move into the medlar trees. An army of little green spiders. They string their round, tatted webs between branches and, like circus performers, hang long lines from tree to tree. They lay little cottonwool pillows of eggs in the protecting calyxes of the fruit. And they eat any tiny bugs that have evil designs on the medlars. In his daily visits to the orchard, Tim drinks in the peace of the scenery, the clucks of the chickens, the ways that each tree responds to each season. These things mean more to him than his marriage ever did. His visits are still only a couple of hours of meditation a day. In common with most people, he needs the stimulation that humans provide, even if he doesn’t want the annoyance of other people in the flesh. So he feeds his mind with books and ponders to himself about life. When he isn’t with them, the trees live as trees do. They grow. They flower. They fruit. They talk to each other. - 3 - Unlike apples or peaches, most medlars have not, for hundreds of years, met another medlar, let alone a congregation of them. Medlar thought, therefore, has been somewhat undeveloped over the centuries, as well as insufficiently socialized. But with the good life they have in the orchard and the unprecedented companionship, the personalities of these medlars have blossomed, and the orchard buzzes with their conversations, characterized most of all by their unique sense of humour. How to describe it? Self-deprecating, of course, as you would expect. Dry with a touch of the medieval to it. They made it to Tudor times, but already were being smashed into pastes, pulled out of the ground in favour of their more beauteous cousins, the other pomes. So, for hundreds of years, they suffered derision as well as separation, loneliness and the real fear of death. Their numbers dropped alarmingly, so intellectual development through cross-fertilisation was stunted since before Johnny Appleseed dropped his apple seeds all over America, a world almost no medlar has met. So there was a lot of catching up to do, a lot of new interaction to learn, as medlars had only talked to themselves for centuries, like the human race not ever learning tennis or football, not ever having a reason for speech—just playing solitaire since 1500. With the same disadvantages, humans would not have got as far as vaudeville, let alone the enrichment of uranium. The orchard was so alive that the animals caught a drift of something going on. Kangaroos jumped over the wire fence strung to keep the trees safe from gnawing bunnies. Little paddymelon wallabies jumped through the wires without even catching a hair on a barb. White cockatoos and circus-bright rosella parrots dropped in from the sky. Magpies stopped their singing to begin listening. Those medlars are hilarious. Humour is a curious thing. Something that one species will think funny, another will listen to and shrug. Animals and vegetables generally have their own sense of what they think constitutes “funny”, or “tragic”, come to think of it. But maybe it was the humility that medlars have. Maybe it was their centuries of individual thoughts. Somehow, they touched a common nerve in animal and vegetable alike. The dim-eyed wombat with its body the shape of a tank was stuck outside the wires, but he came to listen, and surprisingly, understood the humour best of all the marsupials. The fruit bats folded their wings and trembled over the long, complex stories. The cockatoos, easily bored, had a mean streak to them that meant they particularly loved the medieval-tinged humour, where someone is invariably made a fool of. The rosellas are sweet birds and enjoyed a more gentle laugh. When the apples and persimmons and quinces were old enough, they joined in. The persimmons have the most culture, everyone agreed—but they are rather solemn, or at least hard to understand. Everyone listened politely though. The apples, though they could be a bit uppity, were greatly admired by the medlars, even if everyone secretly thinks that the Fenouillet Gris has a shockingly crude taste. The chickens listened, but they have no sense of humour at all. The spiders, however, shook helplessly with laughter. The black cockatoos snidely remarked that spiders don’t understand the true meaning, but laugh over the telling itself. It is true that some trees could coax a giggle even out of the brown snake who has a reputation as rather a cold customer, even on the warmest day. The medlars love Tim. They want to give something special to him, but every time he comes to see them, they fail. They know he likes to eat their fruits and they know his tastes and try their best to thrill him with their productions. But they want him to get something more. The apples agree, all being of types forgotten by most people for many years, and having only been personally brought into fruition by Tim’s mail-order to Timespast Nursery—the same nursery where the medlars Tim had ordered were born. The persimmons and quinces, more humanly popular fruits, also agree that Tim deserves something special, as they have much more entertaining lives than anyone could expect for a persimmon or a quince. The spiders are vociferous in their agreement, as they would have been sprayed out of existence by almost anyone else. Everyone agrees what the special present should be, and in anticipation, impatiently awaits the joy that Tim will have. The medlars have tried and tried, but Tim just doesn’t get it. While the chickens simply don’t have a sense of humour, the medlars wonder if maybe the problem with Tim is that he is stupid. The spiders insist otherwise. “No, no, no. Tim is a very smart man. You just have to try harder.” One day when nothing he has to read is thrilling him, when his thoughts about society are not going anywhere, Tim walks down to the orchard to spend the whole afternoon. That was what was needed. Time. The medlars gather their collective thoughts, and with the speed of a hailstorm, they joke. There is no letup. No pause before the next funny story, the next quick straight-question funny-answer line. From tree to tree, the hail never stops. The kangaroos who usually wait till evening to visit, jump over the fence. The wallabies waft through in their silent way. The fruit bats hear the ruckus from their caves, and stain the inky sky as they stream down to the orchard to hang from every outreaching medlar arm. The wombat climbs out of his hole and shoves his head hard by the mesh of the fence, eyes closed, curling his toes in ecstasy. The spiders laugh till they fall out of their webs and have to climb up the trunks again. The apples guffaw in a way only apples can. And finally, finally, Tim hears. It has taken years for the first inkling of what was going on in the orchard to filter into the dim brain of Tim Thornbourne, but that day, surrounded by animals he had hardly seen and a show that he had never before heard, he got it. That night under a sliver of moon, the spiders are insufferable in their glee. “We told you so, we told you so,” they sing in that smug sing-song that only a spider has. - 4 - Another two winters have passed. The orchard now has no fence. The rabbits promised Tim and the trees that they would be good. The wombat appreciates the fence being gone, as he is hard-of-hearing and the fence was a great strain. The original congregation has grown to 500, of mixed ethnicity as requested. Of medlars—three hundred more, the bulk of whom were donated as seedlings by the trees voted most popular, but newcomers were also invited: Bredas, Monstrous, and 10 Russian Giants who were grown on hawthorn rootstocks to hold their somewhat strong personalities in check (an idea contributed by the Nottinghams and approved by all). By general request, a Bulmer’s Norman, a Black Taunton, two Hyslop Crabs, and five modest Hubbardston Nonsuches increased the apple population. More are being considered if these behave themselves. A Biggareau Napoleon apple was considered but blackballed, due to an obscure but deeply resented incident involving the great-great-great granny of the Fenouillet Gris. A Black Genoa and a Brown Turkey fig with their dustily lusty, somewhat pedantic reputation, now keep the persimmons a close company. The Brown Turkey in particular has been a great success, even drawing the odd comment from the chickens. Citrus was requested— Seville oranges, kumquats, and clementines. This is now a settling-in period for all, but if they want, there is room for a more residents, but only a few, Tim has told everyone. The farm is only so big. Everyone acknowledges this, especially as Tim has made sure there is no overcrowding. The medlars made a special request that has turned out very successful—a family of asses, companions of the medlars from way back when. “Donkeys have always laughed at our jokes,” they told Tim—and when the donkeys arrived, he found it to be true. He can hear them laughing from his bed. The Frawleys have been pleased with developments. Tim Thornbourne has enabled them to live in a manner in which they fervently hope to become accustomed. One cold evening, Gwyneth Frawley licks from her lips the last winy remnants of the year’s Nottinghams. “What do you think he’s doing with all those medlars, Stephen?” she asks her husband, as she opens the tin of bag balm to massage into her work-gnarled hands. Stephen had been wondering himself. “ Well, he can’t be growing them to sell the fruit—” “Yeah,” breaks in their fifteen-year-old son Bram from the stove where he stirs his latest stinky tree wound compound creation. “We’re the only ones who like them. Remember that yum jam you made, Mum?” His father had also been wondering about Tim. “Maybe he’s setting up a jam factory.” He picks up the newest edition of the Royal Horticultural Society’s Encyclopedia from the table-height pile by his chair and arranges himself comfortably so he can settle the full weight of the tome on his knees. “But Gwyn,” he adds before preparing to bury himself in its pages, “better pray he still buys. I’ve just ordered a first edition of Cowper’s Treatise on the Quince.” “Naughty you,” Gwyneth giggles, as she squirms in the delicious frustration of looking but not touching yet, the brown paper packet that she picked up at the post office this afternoon. Tomorrow she will unwrap her new set of grafting knives, made in Tasmania by a fanatic in his own right. The tallow-wood handles will be a joy, and the blades … Bram will get them when she can’t bend her fingers any more. More winters have passed. The feeling of the valley nowadays is that of a city, social life is so complex. Of fruit, which could have been a problem seeing as there is only one Tim Thornbourne, the decision was made that each tree would only contribute so many. The donkeys, though great medlar fans, can only eat so much. The kangaroos would help to eat the medlars that dropped to the ground, the fruitbats would eat the soft ones that didn’t drop easily from the trees. The best would be picked by the kangaroos and wallabies and given to Tim. The kangaroos and fruit bats have been doing their bit even though they think the fruits are a bit disgusting. Still, they would never tell the medlars that. The cockatoos have turned up their beaks at helping out, as they are open in their scorn of the fruits in any state. Of all the other fruits, the animals have undertaken a similar sharing of responsibility. Although no one tells the medlars, everyone gets more pleasure from eating the other fruits. Most popular are the apples; next, the persimmons. The fruit bats especially like the figs. All the kumquats and half the clementines go to Tim; the Sevilles, to the cockatoos who relish their bitterness. Some natives have dropped in, literally. Wombat berries twine loosely around the tall trunks of the Nottinghams. A few rosella bushes have sprung up. A patch of native grape twines against an old fencepost in the southwest corner. They add their stories too—very old ones they are, but the kangaroos know them all and the birds have heard them so many times that they don’t listen very politely. The spiders have called upon their friends the lacewings, mantids, and ladybugs—to help out with the other fruits bothered by the odd pests that the spiders can’t control. With the promise of no spraying, their friends have enthusiastically taken up residence. The most popular tree of the orchard is a skinny Nottingham, second from the end in the last row, whose name Tim still can’t pronounce. This one tree looks as if he should wear a stiff white frill about his neck. He never manages to produce more than five little pear-shaped fruits a year. But can he tell a story! He only has a thin voice, so the story gets tossed by the trees to the far corners of the orchard. This has good and bad aspects. Like every story told this way, by the time it gets to the Smyrna quince, it is often an entirely new tale. Sometimes the embroidery makes an even better story. Sometimes the wombat is asked to get the original from the Nottingham himself and relay it straight. The wombat can be trusted to tell the story exactly, though he has no pizzazz of his own. But what of the eucalypts? They look down, miffed. “I always thought we had the best sense of humour, didn’t you?” asks the spotted gum of the woolybutt. “Of course we do. Just watch this,” answers the woolybutt, and cracks a 30,000-year-old classic, to the reflex action of the kookaburras sitting on its branches, who laugh in their raucous way exactly as they always have at everything the eucalypts say. “See?” says the woolybutt, secure in his superiority of their humour over that of the valley residents below. “The kookaburras haven’t deserted us. Not at all.” “It’s true that the kookaburras still laugh,” admits the spotted gum, “but I wonder … are they laughing with us, or at us?” Four Dutch in the middle of the orchard made a house for Tim one spring, weaving their branches so well that rain couldn’t soak, wind couldn’t chill. That gave Tim more time that he could live in the orchard itself. He learned that there is a pattern to the storytelling and socializing. When photosynthesis is at full activity and the trees are working their hardest, they can only converse so much. On those evenings, they have a wind-down period, but then need their sleep before the UV hits the next day. Once their work is over for the year and they shed their leaves, they take on a diurnal existence, taking short naps but generally carrying on at all hours of the day and night. All the animals say they enjoy winter more. The kangaroos come when they like, but both the owl and the magpie get an equal chance to hear long stories, and to tell stories back. The citrus have a different clock, as they, like the eucalypts and wattles, never shed their leaves. Also, some of the citrus, eucalypt and wattle birth fruit in the winter. By now, the community of valley trees has expanded so far that it is within whispering distance of the hill trees, and there is no longer a separation of society. The eucalypts and the wattles, too, have long serious talks with the medlars, while most everyone else listens. “The medlars are the wisest, but they’re also the funniest,” is the conclusion drawn by the listeners, although the medlars themselves have never said it. “Success does not bring deep thought or good humour,” was how the medlars summed up (only amongst themselves, mind you) the conclusions everyone came to, but no one expressed, as no one wanted to hurt the eucalypts’ feelings. It is the case, it seems, that the kookaburra laughs at the jokes of the eucalypts, but the reasons are that he is a creature of habit, and prefers the stories and jokes he knows. The 20,000th telling of it just makes him feel comfortable, not bored. For all but the kookaburras, the medlars are the masters of the tale that lightens your day. So the medlars suggested that the eucalypts specialize in telling what they are best at—glory—thrilling tales of success because, after all, they and the wattles are the ones who have won out. As for some others: the citruses can’t tell a tale at all, they are so flushed with success. The persimmon is so revered in places that superiority and obscurity often ruin what might have been a good story, so persimmons are respected—just not enjoyed or really listened to. And then, the best example of a tree that no one wants to invite to the valley or hill or anywhere near: the Granny Smith. “Avoid her like the fruit fly, the blight, the black sooty fungus, the man with the bulldozer,” everyone but everyone agrees. The medlars especially would have liked to meet some of the trees who lost out to the eucalypt, the wattle, the more unassuming but still victorious geebung—all the fire-lovers who were helped to prosper by man and who are now the “natives” with the other trees now forgotten and maybe … terrifyingly … extinct. It was in early winter, one day in May that Thornbourne woke to the sound of soft plops around him. The fruit bats were hanging from the branches eating the last of the soft fruits, but it wasn’t their guano or the seeds dropping. It was tears from their beautiful round brown eyes. A Royal was telling a story. It was not like any Tim had heard a medlar tell. It was a tragedy, and as he listened, he heard a great epic thousands of years old. And as sad as a story can be. When it was finished, the only sound to be heard was the refolding of the bats’ wings as they thought, and the honk of Tim’s nose as he blew it. “That was exquisite,” Tim said to the Royal, “but why have I never heard a story like this from any of you? With your history, you are full of tragedies.” “That’s precisely why you don’t hear stories like this, Tim,” a Dutch and a Nottingham replied in unison. The Dutch explained. “We have seen and experienced many horrors in our time. We have had centuries to mull over wrongs done to us, but we don’t want to celebrate them. We have known much pain, but we don’t want to wallow in it.” “Hear, hear. No wallowing,” came a chorus of medlar voices from all over the orchard. The tall, skinny Nottingham with the thin voice cleared his throat, and there was complete silence. “Verily, young Tim. We have a saying, we do. Be it a good time to speak it again.” But his voice was drowned as voices rang out, in every medlar dialect: “From salt, make sugar!” “Verily. From salt, make sugar,” the Nottingham said. Tim scratched his itchy scalp. “Sort of like ‘laugh and the world laughs with you; cry and you cry alone’. Is that it?” “We’ve heard that,” said the Nottingham. “But we think it’s just better art to turn pain into laughter. And infinitely more enjoyed.” Tim looked around, and it was true. Most of the other trees had not enjoyed the epic, and the kangaroos and wallabies were nowhere to be seen. Most telling of all, the wombat had wandered away, and he lived almost full-time now in the orchard. “Can we still have the occasional story like tonight’s?” pleaded the bats, who are inclined to be melodramatic. “For you … on occasion,” the medlars allowed. “Remember, Tim,” the skinny, funny-looking, funniest-of-all Nottingham quietly said. “Sadness into sadness grows nothing. Salt into salt feeds the soul like rocks do, your hunger. Make sadness into joy, salt into sweet. There doth you find—” “Something to eat!!” three of the youngest medlars burst out. With that in mind, Tim Thornbourne has now extended his collection of the great classics of the world (of man) from a different point of view. Tim Thornbourne, who once avoided people, now has people avoiding him as he makes his rare trips into town. He does look a bit withdrawn and sometimes he smells. His millions do whatever the electronic equivalent is of growing dusty. He and the medlars have discourses when everyone else is tired. He has now started to take notes for a volume of their lore. He is going through the classics with the orchard now, although his conversations with the medlars in particular make him wonder if he has much to contribute. But some books everyone has truly enjoyed. He began with The Man Who Planted Trees. It was a great success, and he has already re-read it in several Command Performances. Next he tried The Wind in the Willows, full of happy memories of his mother reading to him, and he, interrupting her to chortle out more and more of the story that he had memorized. Now, all through the first chapter of his reading, there had been complete stillness in his audience. He was up to the last paragraph when he, too, was interrupted by a small something. Tim looked around, smiling. With a final crunch, an antechinus almost under Tim’s foot swallowed the head of a scrumptious beetle, and then spat, unable any longer to restrain his disgust. “As sickly sweet as a—” “Rotting antechinus corpse,” the most tender-hearted fruitbat broke in, but too late. “Silly, but not really funny, you see,” a spider gently added—but there was still horrified silence all around … “Chhm,” the wombat finally said, and everyone was, if possible, even quieter, since the wombat never chattered. “Unbelievable,” he said. And with that pronouncement, the deep pool of Tim’s love for Rat, Mole, Badger, and Toad—and their waistcoats, spats, swords and pistols—suddenly dried up, leaving a mucky little slick of embarrassment. Then he tried a different tack altogether, with a biography—The Secret Life of Plants, so popular that the old Nottingham told Tim to get this fellow Attenborough to come to the valley for some tutoring. When he didn’t arrive, even the wise old Nottingham could not understood why, and regretted the loss. Such a promising student. Next, Tim tried some cross-cultural experiments. Aristophanes was enjoyed by some, so on to Gogol’s The Nose. The medlars appreciated it after the Russian Giants explained some aspects of human strangenesses, but it was above the heads of the other fruits. Midsummer Night’s Dream went down well with everyone, but it is a chestnut of an old crowd-pleaser. He next tried some contemporary, fast-paced American humour. No one liked it, including himself. It is now five years later. Time enough for changes, but, since these changes involved humans and their strange habits of leaving important matters till “tomorrow”, there was much abruptness and pain that is now collective memory. It began with a little pain that Tim woke with one day in the orchard. The Royals immediately saw it, but it took the Nottinghams to nag him till he went to town to have it “checked out”. He came home, and then took off immediately again in his ramshackle car, on a long trip. He arrived home, very tired, a week later, but with a calm look on his face. The day after he arrived, without Tim having to have called for it, a general meeting was convened. When everyone was assembled, Tim announced that the next door farm—the one with the cattle—was going to be part of the community. The cattle would be gone by the end of the week, the next door farm no longer next door, but theirs, within five weeks. This would make the whole valley theirs. Most importantly, the Frawleys would be coming. Tomorrow, Tim would give a lick-and-a-promise clean to “The Shack”. He could do no more, but at least the Frawleys would have a shelter to move into, and later they could fix up the unloved folly to suit themselves. “The Farm now belongs to the medlars,” Tim announced, “as they are the wisest. But the Frawleys will be the caretakers, and will do your bidding as long as you rule best for all: the kangaroos, the eucalypts; the Frawleys, too. This is to last for perpetuity—as long as long—and I have arranged matters as well as I can, considering it involves humans.” The medlars were uncharacteristically solemn on receiving this news. The teller of epics delegated herself to give their thanks. All the trees who had known the Frawleys thought that Tim could not have done better. “That boy, Bram?” they asked. “Is he still with them?” “Not only that, but his wife—her name is Rachel—and their baby girl are coming, too,” he answered, and thought, not the first time, that life would have been different if he had met a woman like Rachel. “We have high hopes for Bram,” said the thin Nottingham. “Then you’ll love his wife,” smiled Tim, as well as he can smile these days. “What was Rachel’s parents’ name,” asked a rather rude apple. “How would Tim know?” the Smyra quince snapped back. “We’ll find out when she comes.” It is now a week later, and the Frawleys have just arrived. They’ve brought all the tree family they had from Timespast Nursery, who Tim assured them would have a happy home at the Farm. He had said it with an odd grin, but the Frawleys thought he just meant that with the next door farm now going to be part of the whole, there would be more space to plant. The Frawleys have their doubts about what they are getting into with this wildman and his millions bequest and his designation of the Farm as a reserve in perpetuity with strict forbiddance on killing any of the inhabitants. Tim hasn’t told the Frawleys about language. He knew that if he had spoken of these things in the Frawleys’ shack in Victoria, they would have chosen their poverty over his insanity. Instead, Tim told them to move into the house and then to meet him in the orchard that evening. His own belongings left in the house do not cramp the Frawleys because they consist almost entirely of books, to the delight of Stephen. The sun throws long, late afternoon shadows from the bare trees. The human congregation has assembled at the orchard. Tim has told everyone to be very quiet, and now he begins to explain. He speaks from the entrance of his Royals home, the most curious growth the Frawleys have ever seen. At first, the Frawleys are afraid. This man is so sick that this must be hallucinations. But there is something about his eyes that says he is more well than any of them. The animals begin to appear. Suddenly, the baby begins to laugh, and she reaches out her arms, not to her mother Rachel, but to the nearest tree. - 5 - It is now three months since the Frawleys moved in, and last night, it was the little green spiders who first sensed when Tim drifted off to death. The spiders’ mourning was a terrible thing to watch. They rent their webs in grief. They hung from the limbs of the medlars just by their rappelling lines, vibrating, vibrating. No one had guessed the depths of the spiders’ emotions. But then, no one else had believed in Tim as deeply from the very first. The medlars were just behind the spiders in their knowing, and the donkeys stopped their grazing, and set up a thunderous bray. The persimmons took the news gravely and silently, the Fenouillet Gris uttered a piercing cry; and all the other trees, in their own way; and all the other creatures, in their own ways, felt their own loss. The humans were by this time awake; and walked as one, down to the orchard, knowing the news without needing to have it spelled out further. A heavy nightdew fell, and as the drops bent the browned winter tips of the grasses, the air reverberated with the sound of sadness. The plop, plop of tears falling from the eyes of the fruit bats—as loud as rain. The wake began at dawn. Such a wake the world has never witnessed. All the creatures—animal and vegetable, human and otherwise—cried until—until they laughed. All the medlars worked so hard turning salt into sugar that they will need an extra-long rest period this year, just to recover. For the humans, the learning has taken time. It was difficult for all, and oddly enough—for Gwyneth, the most difficult, as she had spent her whole life telling trees what to do and doing things to them—not listening to them at all. But eventually, all of Frawleys learned. Rachel is, indeed, the most fluent. She first met Bram because of her parents, who were the Frawleys’ first clients. Bram was never a reader but learnt technique from his mother and his own obsessive experimentation. He is superb as a doctor, possessing skills that the untutored Tim Thornbourne never had. The trees keep him busy dressing their windwounds with his soothing medicaments. And Bram has the best memory for the stories told. This is good, because his father who reads five languages and was the scholar of the family, can understand everything the trees say, but is so poor at communicating that he feels like a nincompoop, even compared to a sapling. The human babies, each one as they come, are favourites of all the trees, and grow up in a creche of rivalrous care between tree and animal, learning early what a kangaroo’s pouch feels like from the inside. The tree family now extends to the far side of the valley, new residents voted in by old. The pruners and grafting knives are now only used when requested by the residents. Of course, no residents are sold. Shortly after Tim died and as soon as the medlars felt they could without seeming disrespectful of his name, they brought up a subject that they had avoided during his life because he was not social enough with his fellow man to be able to cope with it. Fire. The medlars, as is their way, think much more deeply and further in advance than we, the smooth skinned two-trunks, are used to. They had known that as far as people are concerned, Tim had done his best, and the Frawleys would, too. But nature is a different story. And nature in the form of Fire worries them the most. “We need to make children in case of disaster. Other cities, other places,” they said when all the Frawleys had assembled. “What are your parents’ names, Rachel?” the rude apple asked again. “The Crittendens,” she said. The medlars looked at each other in the way trees always have, without people noticing. “They’ll understand better than you’ve been giving them credit for,” said the rather quiet Dutch. “Your father, especially. Summon him.” It took a remarkably short time, considering, for a list to be drawn up, of people whom the medlars thought had the capacity to listen and to hear. The niche was a subclass of the few true gourmets who had been the clients of the Frawleys back at Timespast. The Crittendens had driven from a ridiculous distance to sample the fruits of the Frawleys. They had bought medlars. They had bought apples of more types than populated the valley now. And they lavished the trees with love. “I’ll invite them next week,” Rachel promised. Then there was Stephano watsisname, the epic-telling Royal remembered. “The one who sat in his grandfather’s medlar tree?” “The very one.” “And …” It wasn’t a long list, but it was a good list. From it, the medlars were sure, new cities would spring up in different valleys, different continents. A fire could ravage the valley, but never raze what had grown. All of the Frawleys neglect the mansion on the hill shockingly these days. There is much laughter in the city in the valley. But also a schooling like nowhere else on earth. Much of Stephen’s time is spent working on the tome that Tim began—a book that will make the RHS Encyclopedia look like a skinny paperback. Its title will be The Wit and Wisdom of the Medlar. The book, by popular demand, will be dedicated to Tim Thornbourne, and the dedication is a long, funny story about Tim, written by the tall, skinny Nottingham with the name that no two-trunk can yet properly pronounce. Tonight, though, something else hovers in the valley. An all too-familiar smell floats in the air—the gusty hot air. The late day’s sun is red, announcing the blooming of fire, over the hills to the west. There is confidence and fear and bravery and cowardice here, just as in the rest of the world. A flurry of burnt leaves carried from afar falls upon the medlars’ open blossoms.
This story is dedicated to someone about whom all in the valley gossip, with fondness and admiration: Stefano "Steve" Manfredi