Empty Empire7 June 2017
“Look,” his father said, and that was what William did. He looked down at the vast valley below him, at the tops of the trees that were smudged grey and purple in the fading light.
“Can you see it?” His father asked, sweeping his hand across the horizon. “Can you see our empire?”
William looked at the scrubby land, at the dark shadows of birds and owls and bats that flitted from tree to tree. He squinted. He could not see the empire, but nodded anyway, desperate to please his father. His father smiled, his teeth appearing beneath his stiff moustache. He clasped William’s shoulder, his hand lingering on his collarbone. “Son, together we’ll build the largest pine plantation anyone’s ever seen.”
And they did. Young William worked beside his father and his father’s workers, ring-barking the tall, ancient gum trees. The sun burnt the back of his neck, and his hands blistered day after day until the skin was callused and thick. Each day when they stopped for lunch, unable to understand the conversation of the men, William would sit slightly away, his back against a damaged tree. As he ate his sandwich he would watch the galahs nod their heads at each other, oblivious to the fact that the trees they sat in would soon be withered and lifeless. His father would call out to him each day, his face flushed from exertion, “Look at our empire, son! Look at what we are doing. We are revolutionising this forest; we are bringing it into the future!” And each time William would muster his strongest voice and reply, “Yes Father.”
Once while ring-barking a tree, William found a small possum curled inside a hollow branch. It watched him with wide, yellow eyes and William reached in to pet it. The possum lashed out with its tiny paw, carving a deep trench in William’s arm that quickly filled with blood. His father bound it tightly with cloth and told him to be more careful with his axe. William did not tell him about the possum. He did not tell anyone about the possum.
The sun had smothered William’s nose with freckles by the time they had ringed all of the trees and his skin was brown when they began to clear the land. He watched in awe as the huge dry trees came crashing to the ground. His eyes followed the last galahs as they rose from their roosts and flew towards the sun. His father stood, hands on hips, and surveyed the bare land. “Yes,” he murmured. “This is our empire.”
William was sent to school to receive the very best of educations. He would return each holiday to help plant rows and rows of tiny pine trees. Dirt caked his fingernails as he pressed the saplings into the ground, and to pass time he would imagine his empire, forever green and teeming with life. He would arrive back at school smelling of the country and would regale the other boys with tales of his faraway empire.
He completed his education and returned to the plantation to join his father. The pines were taller than him now, straight and green, but he did not take much notice. He was young, and the trees didn’t hold the same excitement the city did. His father saw his restlessness and told him, “Go. Our empire will wait for you.”
And so William went and enjoyed the constant movement of the city. He grew into a man who wore fine clothes and had fine, articulate manners. Amidst the grey buildings and carriages and people, the vividness of his forest empire faded into a dim memory he rarely reflected on. His empire would wait for him, the vast expanse of pine trees would continue to grow in his absence. He wrote regularly to his father, but rarely visited, because the journey was long and the city too enticing.
He returned after a number of years in the city, beckoned by his ailing father. William sat by his father’s bed side, watching as he seemed to shrink away from life. His wrinkled skin was still a dark brown from the many years toiling in the sun, and his hands, despite his age, were tough and strong. William looked at his own pale hands. The calluses, tokens of his childhood spent in the forest, had long since faded away due to his years of idleness. William looked out of the window, absorbing the enormity of his father’s forest empire. He saw the uniform green liveliness of the trees, but failed to notice the lack of birdsong.
William stayed for his father’s funeral, and then fled to the city, leaving a man in charge of the plantation. William spent his days sailing and swimming, drinking and talking, and it was there in the city that he met Eva. It was there, surrounded by grey, that he fell in love with the girl with eyes the colour of new pine needles. And it was there, in a grand church that he married her, looking deep into those forest eyes. And he felt the pang to return home, to take his bride and show her their empire. They didn’t return to the city after their honeymoon, making the plantation their home.
“Look,” William said, and that was what Eva did. She looked down at the vast valley below them, at the blanket of dark green. “Can you see our empire?”
Eva nodded, smiling. She could see the empire, stretching to the horizon and further. A continuous sea of green. The sky was clear, and the sun shone brilliantly down on them. She looked up at William, and was shocked to see him frowning. He watched the pine forest with wide, staring eyes. And then he started walking, walking down from the hill and into the forest. Eva followed him, their footsteps disturbing the dense layer of brown pine needles on the ground. William walked until they were surrounded by tall, impossibly straight trees so high they almost blocked the sun. The air was still and thick and heavy with the scent of pines. William stopped, his shirt sticking to his shoulders with sweat.
William looked above him. He turned slowly around, watching. He kicked at the blanket of pine leaves with his foot, sending up a cloud of rotting needles. He clapped his hands, once, twice, three times. The sound echoed clearly. Nothing moved. Nothing stirred. Nothing lived except for the trees. The scar on his arm, faded by the years, itched. He remembered the possum, hidden in the hollow of the gum tree, hissing and swiping. He remembered the galahs, chattering and flying, flashes of pinks and greys. But now there were no possums, nor any birds. Nothing lived in this forest. He turned to face Eva, stricken.
His empire was empty.