‘It’s a Baker’s cyst,’ Doctor Fink said, shining a little torch at the back of her right knee.
‘A what?’ Phylia asked.
‘A popliteal cyst.’
‘No-no. It’s caused by excess fluid from the knee joint.’
‘Can it be removed?’
‘I could lance it, but that’s rather painful and it’ll only grow back.’
‘Good heavens. You lost me at lance.’
‘We can surgically remove it, but success varies. Rest is the best cure. Wear your compression stockings and keep taking your osteo anti-inflammatories.’
He rolled his chair back to his desk across a clear plastic mat filled with bubbles.
‘You probably shouldn’t drive for a few weeks. How are you getting home?’
‘Theo’s driving me.’
‘How is Theo? I haven’t seen him in a while.’ He handed Phylia a prescription.
‘He smashed the car through the front fence. Great timing, I told him.’
‘Good Lord. Was he injured?’
‘Oh, he’s fine. It’s been one thing after the next. The bushfires, the Corona virus, part of our roof flew off in the storm, and Theo—he drives straight into the bloody fence.’
‘How are you finding the new medication?’
‘Well, sometimes, you know, I get headaches. But it takes the edge off. You know what the worst part is, Doctor?’
‘The worst part of—?’
‘The virus. Not being able to hug my grandchildren. When Anna brings them over, we have to wave through the kitchen windows.’
‘How are the sessions going with Julia?’
‘I stopped going when the pandemic came. I have too many things on my mind. It’s Alex’s mnimósino this Saturday. We have a memorial for him every year. Saturday of the Souls. We go to Saint George’s church and pray for our loved ones.’
She rubbed her handbag against her stomach, squeezing its empty insides.
‘I’ll tell you a secret, Doctor. A year after Alex was buried, someone dug up his grave. They stole his little bones. Mostly from his leg. Can you believe it?’
‘That’s ghastly, Phylia.’
‘Every year, Father Kastani assures me, you don’t need the bones for a memorial service. I tell him, I don’t care, I want his bones.’
The doctor moved his hands under his knees.
‘Who would do such a thing?’
‘Who knows? Teenagers, vandals. A nut in the dead of the night.’
‘Come see me again in a week or so,’ he said. ‘We’ll check your leg and talk about the medication.’
‘Thank you, Doctor Fink.’
Phylia lifted her surgical face mask up from around her neck to cover her mouth and walked into reception to pay the bill. There were four people sitting in the waiting room spaced out with two seats between them. Theo sat next to a tall plant under spade-shaped leaves, chin down, eyes half-closed. His surgical face mask had slipped below his nose.
‘Theo, wake up,’ she whispered, tapping his shoulder. ‘Why are you holding a leaf?’
‘Mmm? It’s Monstera Deliciosa,’ he said. ‘An exotic.’
‘Shoosh. Put it down. Let’s go.’
He rose to his feet, stuffing the leaf into his pocket. She held the handrail with both hands as she stepped down into the car park.
‘Why did you have to park all the way down there under a tree, Theo? My car will be covered in bird shit.’
‘It’s out of the sun.’
Turning, she saw Theo lagging behind with a limp on his right leg.
‘What’s wrong with you this time?’ she asked.
He unlocked the car. They felt their weight bounce back as they sat down. She placed her face into her hands.
‘What’s wrong?’ He asked, tugging his seat belt.
‘I have a Baker’s cyst.’
‘For the love of God, Theo,’ Phylia murmured, leaning against the kitchen sink. ‘You’ve twisted all the tea bags together.’
‘Siopí,’ he said, standing in front of the fridge, scratching a rash over his right forearm. ‘You sound like a mosquito.’
‘The only mosquitoes around here are the ones breeding in your stinky ponds,’ she said.
She threw a triplet of tangled tea bags into a blue ceramic mug.
‘What are you doing today, Theo?’
‘Weeding,’ he said, bending down to the vegetable tray.
‘It’s all about your bloody garden. When will you call the insurer about the roof? The tarpaulin’s been up there for a month.’
He closed the fridge door with a banana in one hand.
‘I’ll call them later today,’ he said.
‘There’s no better time than now, Theo.’
He limped out of the kitchen and disappeared down the corridor. She heard the laundry screen door swing open and shut.
She missed the grandchildren. Oscar was turning five in a few weeks. Little Claire had just turned two. She wiped the window with a tea cloth. Lining the windowsill was a series of family photographs. One was a silver framed photograph of Alex. Little Alex. Five years old. Yellow T-shirt. Brown shorts. Sitting in his toy red car on his birthday. June 6. Sometimes she could still hear the rattle of his little red car coming down the corridor. She could see the shape of him under the quilt of his bed. Last week, her nostrils were filled with the scent of him. Unmistakable. The smell of his skin, eczema cream, milk, and chlorine from the pool. It would have been his twenty-fifth birthday on Saturday. She felt the stinging pain of the cyst at the back of her knee.
Theo shuffled across the courtyard with a large fertiliser bottle strapped to his back, dragging the coil of an extended hose. He limped up the granite path to the terraced slope and sprayed the base of a macrozamia fern.
She slid the window open.
‘Don’t spend all day weeding,’ she called out. ‘No wonder you’re covered in a rash. Don’t forget to phone about the roof.’
He disappeared behind a granite boulder only to reappear the other side, shuffling down between the citrus trees. She slammed the window shut. Her face was covered in leaves. Rubbing the back of her knee, she hobbled into the living room, opened the sliding door, and stepped into the courtyard. She walked down the granite path, wiping cobwebs from her eyes and mouth, between trees of lemon, lime, grapefruit, orange, and kumquat. Plastic milk bottles filled with a brown liquid hung from their arms.
‘Theo?’ she called out, brushing her fingers through her hair to remove spiders.
Theo was standing on the lower slope under the tall blue gum tree, staring up at his prized staghorn fern attached to the trunk. It was like a gorgon with long-reaching fronds, another one of his wild experiments. Stepping onto a tree stump, he pulled a banana skin out of his pocket and threw it into the fern’s mouth.
‘There,’ Theo said. ‘That’ll keep you going. Are you still hungry?’
‘How’s Medusa today?’ She called out, staggering toward him. ‘Has she divorced you?’
‘It’s the largest epiphyte in the sub-tropics,’ he said.
‘She’s unnatural,’ she scowled.
‘Don’t forget to call the insurer.’
‘Take a closer look, Phylia. There’s another staghorn growing inside it.’
‘For goodness sake, Theo, why don’t you bloody marry her?’
A month ago, on Wednesday May 6, at five in the morning by the light of his green desk lamp, Theo had sat at his computer looking at the Queensland Herbarium website. He had found a page on how to collect botanical specimens and send them to the herbarium for scientific study and identification. Following the process, he downloaded the submission sheet, filled out his personal details including his name, email address, location, specimen collection date, and completed all the questions about the plant’s habitat, proximity to water, soil type (which he wrote as wet, deep, organic and granite), surrounding vegetation, and a general description of the plant including dimensions, landform aspect, and approximate age. He included a couple of photographs showing the fern’s magnitude and its position on the gumtree including the tiny staghorn growing inside it. The staghorn was twenty-five or more years old which in itself he thought was a record. It reached twelve feet in height. He had already cut a section of frond with spores, twenty centimetres in length, and following the instructions, he scraped the scales and hairs from the base of the crown, placed them in between sheets of newspaper, and put it all into a clean envelope, labelling it Platycerium Superbum (?). That afternoon, he posted the specimen along with the form in a large, padded envelope to the herbarium. A week later, he received an email reply from a botanist named Doctor Goyder. Theo’s head was spinning. Doctor Goyder wanted to see the plant in person. Theo replied immediately to confirm a date and time.
It was now Wednesday morning, June 3. The countdown to Saturday had begun. The morning was rising above the hills. He went into the garden. He had a collection of epiphytes. The specimens were tied to trees with rope; some failed while others flourished. In their crowns grew a nest of brown fronds that collected water, insects, foliage, and matter. He made his own fertiliser from mushrooms, seaweed, chicken manure, coffee grounds, tea leaves, and crushed banana leaves. Sometimes he ground up a little bone until it became a fine dust and mixed it with wood ash, and blood. This month his largest staghorn had produced pups. He used a sterilised knife to cut the pup from the parent, wrapped the end of the cutting in damp moss, and tied it loosely to a piece of bark with string. He would propagate it for the next season.
At twelve foot high it was his finest specimen. Its great antler-like hands stretching down from the tree. Theo rolled up his sleeve, scratched his right forearm. Between wires of black and grey hair, a bump had formed under his skin. Scratching it again, it started to bleed. A grain fell out. He placed it between his fingers and raised it to the light. A tiny leaf.
Yes, he said to himself.
He went up to the greenhouse, turned on the tap and washed the blood from his arm then patted his arm dry. As he walked across the water tank, a cold echo lingered inside. The tank sounded empty even though it was full.
‘Dinner’s early,’ Theo said. ‘It’s only six.’
‘Do you have a problem with the service?’ she asked. ‘Perhaps you should leave a complaint in the box.’
‘Don’t start,’ he said, pouring red wine into their glasses.
‘Stop scratching,’ she said. ‘You’ve been at it all day. Roll up your sleeves.’
‘Leave me,’ Theo snapped, pushing a napkin under his sleeve.
‘I bet you didn’t phone the insurance company.’
‘Let’s not discuss it now.’
‘This is the only time I get to see you, Theo. You’re always in the bloody garden.’
‘Why do have to make so much noise with your cutlery?’
‘Give me plastic cutlery if it bothers you.’
‘Shoosh. Father Kastani is coming tomorrow.’
‘Father Kastani. He’s coming over before the mnimósino to bless the house. Have you forgotten? It’s the memorial service this Saturday.’
He threw his cutlery onto the plate.
‘You think you’re the only one,’ he said.
‘The only one what?’
‘The only one who feels anything.’
‘I’m the one who has to arrange everything, Theo. There are rules at the church because of the virus. Did you know that? They won’t be serving koliva and there’s a four-square metre rule and a limit of fifty people spread out. Anna and John will meet us there at nine. Oscar and Claire won’t be coming. But you didn’t know that did you? A babysitter is looking after them. Theo, are you listening?’
She held the back of her knee.
‘Do you think I’m stupid?’
‘Don’t speak to me like that. Father Kastani is coming tomorrow and that’s the end of it.’
‘How many times has this house been blessed? We’ve seen nothing but cyclones, fires, floods—accidents.’
‘You know very well why.’
‘No amount of holy water can bring him back, Phylia.’
She toppled the plates together and took them to the kitchen sink. Leaning against the bench, she raised her right leg slightly and felt the cyst throb.
‘I won’t be around when he comes tomorrow,’ he said, looking at his plate.
‘Of course, you won’t.’
He pulled the napkin from his sleeve. It was stained with a circle of blood.
It was Thursday morning, just before ten. Father Kastani stood at one end of the dining table. The table was covered with a fresh white tablecloth. Laid out: an icon of Christ, a wooden crucifix, a candle, a serving bowl for the Holy Water, an incense burner, fresh charcoal, incense, three lit candles and a sprig of basil leaves.
‘Have you cleaned the house?’ Father Kastani asked.
‘Thoroughly, Father, and I’ve opened all the doors and cupboards.’
‘All are switched off, Father.’
‘In the garden. I’ll call him—’
‘No, we don’t have time. I’ll find him later.’
She handed Father Kastani a list of family members. Each name had its own row with date of birth and their status in brackets, living or deceased. Her eyes reached the end of the list. Alexandros. 6 June 1995 (deceased).
‘We’ll begin,’ he said.
In the place of her child, she held a faded photograph of Alex holding a yellow tugboat, and in her other hand, she held a wooden crucifix of Christ. She led Father Kastani through the house while he flung holy water with his krupilla, removing the Evil Eye from each room, including the bathroom and bathtub. He continued down the corridor sweeping his black robe around the corner into the kitchen where he sang the hymn of the Trisagion, Agios o Theos, Agios ischyros, Agios athanatos, have mercy, mercy, mercy.
‘Phylia, do you renounce Satan, and all his works, all his worship, all his angels, and all his pomp?’
‘I renounce him, Father.’
He repeated the question twice, and each time, she answered the same way. Behind her feet, she spat on Satan.
‘Do you join the side of Christ?’
‘I join his side.’
And they repeated this twice. He flung holy water in the air, praying, and singing. Finally, he flung water over the lump on the back of her knee, and prayed over it, moving his hands up, down, and back as though pulling something out.
‘Thank you, Father. Are we—clean?’
‘All-Holy Trinity have mercy upon us. Praise God. All is sanctified.’
‘Perhaps a glass of water, Father. Éna kafetháki? Or a cup of tea?’
‘Thank you, Phylia, but I must go,’ he said.
‘Can I speak to you for a moment, Father?’
She handed him a donation of thirty dollars for the church and kissed his right hand.
‘We have known each other for a long time, Father. The truth is, lately, I wouldn’t know how long a day is, or an hour.’
‘This year has been extremely difficult. Pes mou. What’s troubling you, paidí mou?’
‘It’s Theo. He’s changed. He’s distant and spiteful. He wouldn’t know if I’m here or not. He spends all day in the garden looking at ferns.’
‘Didn’t he have a car accident?’
‘That’s not the issue, Father. He no longer … sees me. He only sees the garden.’
‘The loss of a child holds a lifetime of grief. Time is of no consequence. A thousand years is a day. But there’s hope, Phylia. Christós anésti ek nekrón.’
‘Do you think you could speak to him before you go?’
‘I’ll find him. O Theós na evlogeí. We’ll have a chat.’
‘Thank you, Father. He’ll be near the greenhouse. Just follow the path. See you at church on Saturday.’
She opened the sliding door and watched him step into the courtyard. His black robe trailed between the rocks of the path. She waited, watching them find each other. Theo turned off the hose, untangled the coil and threw it behind him. He started pointing to different parts of the garden. Father Kastani followed him down the slope.
‘Where’s he taking him?’ she whispered to herself, following behind.
She could see them standing beneath the staghorn fern. Theo was pointing to its extremity of height. He held Father Kastani’s hand as he stepped onto the stump. Peering into the fern, his head seemed to vanish inside its mouth. He took his krupilla from his robe and waved it up, down, left, and right in the shape of a cross over the fern’s mouth.
He gasped, dropped the krupilla, and his arms paddled backwards in short circles.
‘Careful,’ Theo shouted.
He fell back into Theo’s arms.
‘I’m alright,’ he said. ‘I just lost my step.’
It was Friday morning. One day before the memorial.
The doorbell rang. Phylia looked through the peep hole. A man was waiting outside. He was wearing navy trousers, and a khaki shirt with green stitching on the pocket: BBG. Across his body he held a large leather satchel.
‘Can I help you?’
‘My name is Goyder.’
‘What did you say?’
‘I’m Joseph Goyder. I have an appointment with Theo.’
‘Just a moment please.’
She limped down the corridor toward the laundry.
‘For goodness sake,’ she mumbled. ‘Theo? Where are you?’
‘In the laundry.’
‘A man is at the front door. A Goitre someone. Hurry. Go out through the laundry and around the front. See who it is.’
Returning to the door, she looked through the peep hole again and waited for Theo.
‘Hello there,’ Theo said, coming up the front path. ‘How can I help?’
‘You must be Theo. I’m Joseph Goyder.’
‘Oh yes, yes, Doctor Goyder, of course.’
‘You were expecting me, I hope.’
Theo smoothed the front of his shirt and ran his little finger down the zip of his trousers.
‘Of course. It’s wonderful to meet you, Doctor.’
‘Call me Joseph.’
‘Please come this way, Doctor.’
They walked around the house to the back garden. Phylia shuffled to the lounge area and opened the sliding door, she watched them stop along the granite path to admire the garden: xanthorrhoea, macrozamia palms, copperleaf, or acalypha wilkesiana. They stopped at the poinciana tree and stood over its giant roots, pointing to the trouble spot.
Phylia grabbed the straw broom leaning against the door and started sweeping the courtyard, looking at them from the corner of her eye.
‘This way, Doctor,’ Theo said. ‘I’ll take you to the staghorn. Careful with your step.’
She followed them, sweeping, hiding behind a pink camelia hedge to hear them.
‘There,’ Theo pointed.
‘It’s huge. I didn’t believe it when you sent me the dimensions.’
Doctor Goyder climbed onto the stump and extended his measuring tape.
‘I estimate it’s one hundred and forty-four inches. Two metres across, actually, two and a half. What are you feeding it?’
‘Blood, seaweed, banana peels, manure, ground up bone, of course.’
‘They don’t usually get this big. I can’t say it’s the largest in the world, but it’s certainly the largest in Australia, as far as I know, according to these measurements.’
‘How long does a staghorn usually live? Sixty years? More?’
‘It’s hard to say, Theo. I’ve heard of one lasting to a hundred. But that’s most likely a myth.’
‘One hundred,’ Theo said smiling. ‘It’s starting to overtake the tree.’
‘Did you mount it on a board first? Did you use wire or rope? It’s best to use coach screws when attaching the board to the tree. Eventually, the epiphyte uses the frond to wrap around the rhizome and short roots, clasping the furrows. See?’ He pointed to a section of the tree. ‘If you’re not careful, the epiphyte will overload the host and kill it.’
‘But it’s not parasitic.’
‘No-no. The epiphyte makes its own food, so in that sense it doesn’t harm the host. The tree neither gains nor loses. But don’t get ahead of yourself, Theo.’
Doctor Goyder lifted a frond. The frond snapped back. He fell and landed on his backside.
‘Are you alright?’ Theo bent down and helped him to his feet.
‘Gosh. Did you see that? Remarkable.’
‘It’s getting a bit too big to handle, Doctor. What did you mean about not getting ahead of myself?’
‘Don’t weigh the tree down,’ he said, brushing his trousers. ‘Sometimes you need to lessen the load. A second tree might help. Let’s take some photos, Theo. Stand below it,’ he said, taking his phone out of his trouser pocket. ‘You should be proud.’
Theo leaned back into the arms of the fern.
‘A bit to the left. That’s it. I have some good news, Theo. We’d like to feature you and your magnificent epiphyte in our newsletter. And we’d be delighted to add your specimen to our database.’
‘This is the best news…the very best…I’ve had all year. Na to ekatostíseis, as we say in Greek. To one hundred years.’
‘To one thousand, Theo.’
‘To one thousand.’
Saturday of the Souls. They sat in the front pew: Anna, John, Theo, Phylia, Sylvia, with a spare seat between them. Behind them were others, scattered at a safe distance. Phylia stretched her right leg out onto the kneeler to keep it elevated. She watched Theo do the same thing with his leg. She rolled her eyes. They said prayers for the departed and sang eonia i mnimi for memory eternal, three times. Phylia silently remembered the psalm: For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night. Father Kastani read from John: I tell you truly that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains a single grain of wheat; but if it dies it brings a good harvest. When the service finished, they gathered outside the church before making their way back to the house.
They sat around the coffee table in the lounge room, calling to memory. Phylia called Alex’s first birthday to memory, and his little red car, the one he hopped into every morning. What a racket he made over the floorboards. She called to memory his face covered in blue icing sugar from his football shaped birthday cake. Theo called Alex’s first swimming lesson to memory and the time he threw Daddy’s car keys down the toilet. He called to memory the little brown surprise he left on the carpet in their walk-in wardrobe. Phylia called to memory his favourite green bunny-rug, his thumb in his mouth, fast asleep, curled up in Daddy’s lap.
They ate cake, drank coffee, and sipped a little Greek brandy from short crystal glasses.
‘We might have to head home soon Mum,’ Anna said. ‘The babysitter can only stay until three.’
‘Where’s your father?’ Phylia asked.
‘He was just here.’ Anna got up from the sofa and looked through the sliding door. ‘There he is, walking down the path. Holding a shovel. Is he alright, Mum?’
‘There’s nothing wrong with him. He just wants attention,’ she said.
‘But he was in a car accident, Mum. He went through the fence. He hurt his knee. I saw the bruises,’ Anna said. ‘Is he alright?’
‘He’s fine.’ Phylia joined Anna at the door. ‘I’m the one you should be worried about.’
‘Where’s he going now?’ Anna asked, sliding the door open.
‘Dad?’ Anna called out, stepping into the courtyard. ‘Where are you going?’
The others followed Anna into the courtyard down the path toward the lower slope.
‘What’s wrong with you, Theo?’ Phylia called out. ‘Come inside.’
He stood beneath the staghorn, digging a hole. He took off his shoes. His shirt. His trousers.
‘Mum, what on earth is he doing?’
‘Theo,’ Phylia called out. ‘Stop this nonsense.’
He wrapped the fronds of the staghorn around his head and neck. Standing in the hole, he covered his feet and legs with dirt. There was his family standing in a row along the higher slope. Calling him.
‘To a thousand years,’ he smiled.