STEPHANIE DE MONTALK
from The Fountain at Bakhchisaray
Bakhchisaray, Crimea, September 1752.
There is no sound in her father’s forest, no memory of sound, no light. As she walks on the forest floor she moves slowly despite the well worn pathways and brush of familiar trees.
She touches the cosseted fan of the maidenhair, said to have grown from a tree that was once a sapling in a courtyard in China; the smooth bark of the walnut; the hazel’s soft catkins and, alongside the stream, the spring-yellow buds of the wing nut.
She wonders if lichen still clings to the dead birch, and the wolverine eludes the wooden trap set between the river rocks close to its cave.
She pushes aside a vine, flicks an errant bee with her hand; bends low to avoid the grafted branch of the elm.
She tests the air for the flutter of wings, but no, the chaffinches and sparrows are asleep: the dream is always the same.
Soon, she reaches the heart of the forest, where the growth is thinnest and darkest and the path is easy with the absence of underbrush. Where there are yews, firs and spruces that have never been cut and oaks so green they might almost be purple. Ancient trees. Trees planted by her ancestors who ordered their shipment from places like England and Spain and travelled to the Baltic Coast to supervise their transfer from holds in which they were roped closely to beams, their roots packed in damp earth and sacking; from which they waved hopefully above deck, despite the spray and sting of salt wind, and were transferred like lumber to ox carts for the long haul to the estate.
Trees which family members brought back from their travels as seedlings in wicker baskets lined with wet linen: a mountain ash from Russia, a sweet walnut from Germany, the aspen which was found in a lintel over a front gate in Sweden.
Sacred trees, which she saves for days when she needs the most courage: the cedar from Turkey, fifty varieties of pine.
Here the stream is pebbled and shallow and the track nearest the water is boggy forcing her to test its boundaries with a stick. A rotten log has begun to grow saplings. A recent storm has cleared a space in the canopy.
Towards daybreak, but still in darkness, she leaves the forest, her timing instinctive because there’s no call of thrushes or warblers.
She crosses its perimeter to the palace gates and enters the park where her father – like his father, and his father’s father – planted repose – places in which he would remain with the species he sought to preserve and the generations of children who
would play in them.
‘Tranquility for the next century,’ he would say as he scythed the grass and dug his spade in the earth, insistent that he alone turned the soil, pressed it tightly around the roots, molded it with his boots, layer by layer until the plants were secure.
‘Another niche for insects and birds. Additional shelter for small animals.’
Her father knew the reach of the sun and where the ground would remain damp. He considered the arrangement of foliage and flowers, the additional contrast of bark, and calculated the minimum space for each tree, including its root spread.
If he was planting in early spring, he lanced the ground with a sabre to test the soil for water logging, and placed fabric over plants at risk during unexpected spells of cold weather.
When he sensed a late frost, his lantern would be seen bobbing and swaying as he directed the gardener who carried and cut the roll of cloth like a tailor, according to the height and width of the plant.
His protection extended to the herb and vegetable gardens behind the stables where he left upturned pots as traps for snails and slugs.
‘They love hiding places,’ he would say, holding a pot to one side and scuffing the yellowed grass with his foot. ‘See how they crawl underneath, thinking they’ll be safe in the dark.’
She moves beyond the park, closer to the palace, to the gardens – to the lake, and the summer pavilion for guests, the sealed paths bordered by statues, the lawns where festivals and endless picnics were held – to the plane trees in which she sat as visitors boated and strolled.
Eyes tight, for shortly she will wake, she pictures squirrels and shiny-backed ducks; pea hens asleep in the rose beds wearing their small feathered caps like tiaras; water and brown leaves in the display urns; silver wooded ivy on arches and northern walls.
She remembers them urgently now, as she always does, as she remembered them the day she arrived, the morning she knew she was nearing her destination. The moment when, without warning, the cage tilted and her carriers left the steppe and red sky and began their descent into the valley, sliding and calling to each other as they found foot holes and recognised tracks through the vines. As the convoy approached the spires of the town, and the smell of spit-roasted meat was smoky in the sharp air.
She wakes, with the key in the lock on her side of the door, as the first call to prayer penetrates the shutters and drapes at the window, the brocade canopy above her bed; the heaviness which, like the night before and the day ahead, never leaves her.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephanie de Montalk has been the 2005 Victoria University Writer in Residence. Her most recent collection of poetry, Cover Stories, was published this year and her essay ‘Pain’ appeared in Sport 33. Her novel The Fountain of Bakhchisaray will be published next year.