Saturday, 27 July 2013

The Willow by M J Foster

willow tree

Camille bit through her lip the day we discovered the body. Not when we found it but later when I was talking to the policeman. She kept interrupting until finally the policeman told her to wait her turn. She chewed on her lip and gave him a dead-eyed look. It was the same stare of the dead woman under the willow. The policeman from the Prefecture smiled kindly at me. I saw his eyes take in the contrast; the rich white family and the Japanese girl.
Our garden was the only one in our district without the cottony soft cherry blossom trees, the grassy tundra only broken by the willow tree. Father had named me Moriko, the willow, and under its branches I found a haven, an escape from the suffocating presence of my adoptive sister. She would not bother me there, too afraid of the spiders and bugs that would slide peacefully down the spine of my book. In the daytime, Camille commanded her troops from the veranda, her high, clipped voice making the local dogs bark and run.
It was at night-time when her nature changed. She would creep across the hallway and come to me. At first, I thought it was because she was afraid of the dark. She would climb into my bed and curl up beside me. She would not speak but when I pretended to be asleep, I felt her breath hot on my cheek and her fingers stroke through the fine strands of my hair. In the morning she would be gone before I awoke.
I had upset Camille that morning. After church, Father swung me up onto his shoulders. Even at nine, I was small for my age and Father was a large, well-muscled man. Camille’s eyes narrowed, jealousy flashing across her face. She was too tall for that particular pleasure. I knew I would pay for it. As soon as Father had retired to his study and Mother was occupied with her ladies, Camille grabbed my wrist and twisted my arm behind my back.
‘Pig-dog!’ she hissed at me, her mouth snarling, twisted. Her spittle flecked my face. She pinched me on the tender spot in the crease of my arm.
To our mutual shock, my hand snaked out, whip-quick, slapping hard across her cheek. The sound of the blow echoed as we both stood, stunned, silent.
As she reached for me, I ran. Down the wide stairs, out into the grounds of the Embassy, straight for the willow. At first, I did not see the woman. Camille burst through the green curtain and, with a war-cry, lunged for me. We rolled about on the grass until my leg brushed against something soft, something other than my sister’s squirmy body. Ignoring her blows, I sat up and saw her. I skittered away from the horror. My sister followed my gaze.
The woman was young, younger than Mother. Her skin was a light brown, her hair long and dark and soft. The summer dress she wore had tiny roses on a pale yellow cotton. In her thigh, a shard of glass, thrust deep into her skin, releasing the blood that had once pulsed beneath it
Camille bent over the women with a strange look on her face, fascination…pleasure. ‘She looks like you,’ she said, her tone excited. I was silent, still. Camille dragged me over to the woman, shoving my arm against the corpse’s cold one. She was right. The dead woman and I shared the same colours. In a daze, I touched the glass shard, lifting my fingers to stare at the blood on them.
Camille giggled and ran back toward the house. The policeman came. After he had talked to me, and then to an impatient, sulky Camille, our parents sent us to bed. My sister soon lost interest but I sat behind the rails at the top of the stairs and tried to listen to the muffled conversation of the adults. They talked long into the evening and my head began to ache. I leaned my hot forehead against the cool plaster of the wall and heard a movement behind me.
Camille stood behind me, sweet in her pyjamas with little pink balloons. She looked at me scornfully.
‘You’ll always be on your own, Pig-dog. Always.’
I turned away from her, too tired to argue. A moment later, I felt her sit beside me, her warm body snug against mine. Her sharp little fingers pulled through my hair. It felt nice.

The year we left for America, they cut down my willow tree. Father said the tree was dying. I could not watch. I sat amidst the packing boxes and imagined the tree screaming as the workman sawed and swore their way through its limbs.
I did not want to go to America. Father promised me a new tree in our new home. I clung to him and he stroked my hair as Mother dealt with the last of the workmen. When she joined us, she took me from his arms.
‘You coddle her,’ but she held me close. Father smiled back at her, letting his fingertips drift down her cheek. Mother put me down and led Father to the couch. ‘Come sit with me.’ She curled her body into his and I was forgotten.
Three days before we were scheduled to leave, Mother’s feet were taken from under her on the slick marble floor of the foyer. Her head cracked, split. Father was inconsolable. At the funeral home, he drew us closer to him. We would have the funeral when we got home, he said. I was home. But I saw the tears in his eyes and stayed quiet.
Father’s fear of flying meant our ocean passage took weeks. The boat was big enough that I could hide away from my sister most of the time but when we were summoned together for family dinners, she would clutch at her thigh, groaning as if to stop a gush of blood or clutch her head, a grotesque mockery of our mother’s accident One of the maids who came to leave us warm soft towels grew fond of me. After I had told her the story of the woman under the tree and how Mother had died, she caught Camille in the middle of her play-acting and fetched her a neat clip about the ear. My sister screamed and the maid and I shared a smile. Father noticed the care she took of me and rewarded her with thanks and smiles. We watched him touch her hand briefly and the maid flush with pleasure.
Four days before we reached New York, there was a cry. ‘Man Over Board!’. Everybody rushed to the side of the boat. Father lifted me up to see. My maid floating face down in the water. Camille had a new act then.

Much later, in my American circumstance, I walked through the quads and halls of the Ivy League, knowing Father’s money could buy passage into any of these institutions regardless of his daughters’ academic prowess.
At the fourth school, we sat in the Dean’s office listening to the now familiar sales pitch. I stood, wandering to the window. The Dean’s eyes followed me.
‘And so, what do you think of our humble college?’
I paid him no attention. The Dean’s window looked out over a small garden, separate from the main grounds of the ancient university. Dead centre was the tree. My willow, magically, impossibly, transported from my homeland.
‘Moriko?’ Father prompted me.
There was a buzzing in my ears. A curious wave of pleasure rose inside me as I turned to the Dean. Father saw my face and I knew the happiness in his eyes was a reflection of my own.
‘Oh I think it very fine, sir. Very fine.’

Two winters later, Camille came to stay with me in my college rooms. She sat in my uncomfortable chair, legs crossed, her mouth pulling at the end of a cigarette holder. She had dropped out of college after only a few months. To the exasperation and expense of my father she had taken an apartment in the city and an internship in a bell-jar-brittle office of a fashion magazine.
Sitting cramped in my room, her face flushed, she looked an age older than when I had last seen her.
‘Still alone then?’ Her small eyes darted around the shelves of books, the tiny cot-bed in the corner of the room.
‘I don’t mind being alone,’ She ignored me, lighting one cigarette from the other and watching me. The violence between us crackled in the silence. She pulled on her cigarette holder, her lips making a ‘popping’ sound as she released her mouth. She blew a perfect smoke ring to the ceiling and smiled to herself. She got up, moved to the window. My rooms overlooked the same courtyard that the Dean’s did. Camille gave a short bark of laughter.
‘That damn tree,’ she said to herself.
A knock. Two knocks, the door creaked open and a young woman appeared.
‘Morry? Oh, I’m sorry.’ I stood up and pulled Belinda into the room.
‘No it’s okay. Really. Bell, my sister Camille, Camille, Bell…Belinda.’ Bell grinned and stuck her hand out. I watched my sister look her up and down.
‘Hi, Bell’s fine. Nice to meet you. Can I call you Cam?’
Camille stared at the outstretched hand in disgust before taking it, the lightest touch she could manage.
‘The same, I’m sure. I prefer Camille if you don’t mind.”
I felt myself flush at her rudeness but Bell shrugged it off. She perched herself on the end of my bed.
‘So nice to have family around. I like your bag. Oh, cigarettes, may I bum one?’
Despite herself, Camille smiled and proffered her pack. Bell took one, lit it, clumsy, choking on her first mouthful of smoke.
‘That was elegant,’ she laughed, coughing. She waved a cloud of smoke from in front of her face and, grabbing my hand, pulled me down onto the cot beside her.
‘Has Morry told you about me? We met the first day, barely been apart since. We tried to get rooms next to each other but they were already assigned. Holy Moly,’ she started coughing again, ‘what are these?’
‘Unfiltered. ‘Oh yes, Morry,’ Camille looked from Bell to me and back again, ‘has told me all about her special friend.’
Bell grinned. She flicked the remainder of her cigarette into the fire and stood.
‘Anyhoo, just wanted to say hello. Morry, see you later at supper?’ and she disappeared as quickly as she had arrived.
I could feel it coming, the storm. Camille took a last drag on her own cigarette, mimicked Bell by shooting the stub into the hearth. It glanced off the stone sending a shower of sparks onto the rug. One of the threads caught, glowed, started to smoke. Camille ground her toe into it, smearing ash.
Then her hands were around my throat, her body pushing mine into the wall. I could smell the tar on her breath, see the brittleness of her bleached blonde hair.
‘Pig-dog has a special friend,’ she chanted, ‘a special, special friend. A big lump who likes her Kiki Kitty from Kyoto.’
She ground her pelvis into mine, a crude gesture of ownership. I pushed her away and went to sit on the bed. She stood over me, giving an exasperated little laugh.
‘Does anything get to you, Pig-dog? What would it take, I wonder, to see you crack?’

They found Bell’s body in the basement under the kitchens. The Dean brought the policemen and they took Camille from my room in the middle of the night. When my Father came, we went to the precinct. Tears. Shouting and threats and the calm voice of the police chief explaining that Camille’s willow cigarette holder had been driven with inexplicable and merciless force into Bell’s heart. I saw my Father crumble.
Camille was sent to an asylum. She did not stop screaming. My father and I exiled ourselves to our townhouse. One afternoon, after receiving some of my father’s colleagues, I went to find him. His study was empty.
Father was in his bedroom, the room Mother never got to see but that still resonated with her presence. He had diminished: his eyes bottomless with pain. He tried to smile at me.
‘More visitors, my Moriko?’
I nodded. He sighed and stood. Taking my arm, we walked down the hallway. He stumbled and I caught him, held him, steadied him. He looked surprised.
‘You’re strong, my Moriko.’
‘Yes, my father.’
Yes, my father. I am your Moriko, your willow, and I am strong. Strong enough to survive Camille.
Outside the parlour, my father patted my hand and I released him to his guests.
Yes, I am strong.
Strong enough to drive my sister’s cigarette holder into the heart of my best friend. Strong enough to trick an unsuspecting maid into leaning too far over the side of a ship. Strong enough to trip Mother just so to make her fall onto the cold, deadly marble.
At the door, Father turned and smiled at me. I smiled back at him.
And under my willow tree, strong enough to end the life of the woman who had come to claim me as her own. 

About the Author: M.J. Foster is a writer, poet and the founding editor of Inclement Poetry Magazine (est. 2000). Her work has been published in Still, Iota, Exile, First Impressions, Poetic Licence, Breathe, Candelabrum and Amber Silhouettes. Her short story, 'The Willow' was shortlisted for the Mslexia Women's Short Fiction Prize 2012 and she is currently working on her first novel. She graduated with a first class BA (Hons) in Writing from Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. She is often mistaken for Beyoncé by absolutely no-one and has a long-running battle with a squirrel with a grudge.

Image: (c) Kristin Andrus