A new series to celebrate the work of lit mags that are no longer with us, featuring previously published work by coalitionists.
Isabelle B.L. | The Judas Tree
I’m like a dangling marionette in a photo I found while emptying my mother’s house. A Judas tree in the background, its flowers dancing. My mother is holding my arms. My mother sporting a pageboy hairstyle, bell-bottoms and a peasant blouse. Uncommon creases on her face.
Don’t hang from the Judas Tree!
If someone asked me to attribute an object, a word, a sentence about my mother, that would be it—Don’t hang from the Judas tree. I must admit, sometimes it was: Don’t hang from that bloody/damn/dangerous tree.
A Judas tree stood at the public gardens among the chestnuts and eucalypti. A place to hop, skip and jump. I used to run away from my mother to climb and hang from the tree before she caught up with me. Judas hung himself from a tree like this. I enjoyed hanging upside down from the Judas tree. The difference between Judas and me was clear: one wanted to die; one wanted to live. It was a non sequitur, but my mother never saw it that way.
On one spring day, I got to hang longer because a fellow parishioner had stopped my mother to talk, probably about a fundraiser my mother had organized. She had an eye on the lady and an eye on me. I saw her head slightly turn in my direction. Her face flushed more than usual. She never needed make-up as long as she had me. I knew what she was thinking:
How many times have I told you, not to hang from that bloody Judas tree!
But this time I refused to stop hanging because I wanted to see if her face would explode—it was that red. I also wanted to cry. I was in between slate steeples and clay roofs. Church taught me to obey elders because they knew best, and I loved my mother, who fed and clothed me when no one else would. Call it the age of reason, but I figured I could tell her how ridiculous she was acting and still love her. Obeying, no. I wanted to keep hanging.
I explained to my mother without stopping for a breath like a paragraph without commas and full stops, that just because something hangs, doesn’t mean there’s a link with Judas. I gave examples. Handbags from shoulders, piñatas from ceilings surrounded by colourful balloons and for five years, my father’s long, winter coat which hung on the coat rack in our hallway. This last example cost me a week’s television viewing. It was the grand-final and my team was in it!
She pulled me off the branch and kept pulling all the way home, but I wanted to give her more examples. Crucifixes hung too. They dangled from our necks, sat between her breasts and when she bent, the golden crosses floated into nothingness, twirled and returned to its intended and stable position. Multicoloured glass rosary beads hung from frail, rheumatoid arthritis affected fingers. I especially liked the Amethyst beads. I never knew what my mother’s favourite colour was, and it wasn’t the time to ask.
My mother made connections and associations. If her daughter hung from a Judas tree, she would betray like Judas betrayed Jesus and end up in damnation. I thought disobedience was what my friends got punished for. Not doing their homework. Swearing at the table. Pushing and pinching a brother, pulling a sister’s hair. But hanging from a tree? And this wasn’t even the tree that Judas hung from. She linked disobedience with what I couldn’t see. What she couldn’t see. Abstraction. Obedience meant obeying a father. An appointed Father that ran the church. Her biological father. The one and only father of all.
She reminded me God was watching, but I was wondering if Judas was watching. I looked up at the blue sky, the ceiling, the corrugated roof, but I couldn’t connect the earthly elements with heaven. I tried Judas. Eyes fixed on the tall blades of grass, searching within the emerald stems, the soft wool fibres in my bedroom, the stepping stones leading to my front door—no sign of inferno. I could talk to Judas like I could talk to one of my friends. Maybe he wasn’t in the inferno, but just there in the same way others imagined Jesus to be there listening. The more I heard, don’t hang from that Judas tree, the more I swung and hung, the more I swung and hung, the closer I felt to Judas. I went to Judas when my mother called the school, demanding a meat-free day on Fridays. I went to Judas when she wrote a letter to the Sunday school teacher calling for examinations to make sure children understood Bible stories. I went to Judas when I couldn’t sleep because my mother had read a list of what God does to children who disobey. As to my sin, she was washing her hands of the matter. She then told me the story of God’s people washing their hands of a murder they didn’t commit and cited the chapter in the Bible: Deuteronomy 21.
This thought of life being a test caused my stomach to churn. Words were hard to swallow and foods indigestible. When I asked questions like why this beautiful Judas tree at the park can’t receive love, she said it’s called Judas. And Judas betrayed. It left me with many more questions, so I went to Sister Mary and Sister Magdalene, who only said that the Judas tree became the Judas tree only after Judas betrayed. It went from a sturdy tree to an invertebrate—shrublike. I disagreed, they stared, their faces motionless. I explained to them the Judas tree at the park had a limb just perfect for hanging. I hung back and forth, lifted myself, smelt the pink blossoms and jumped. I went to my science teacher who flew off on a tangent talking about trunk and branch health. When I spoke to Judas, he didn’t answer, and I figured it was because the matter was closed thousands of years ago and to just get on with it. At 13, I couldn’t rely on humans for answers. It was the invisible man that provided clarity. There was no need to prove a point to my mother anymore. There was no need to seek answers when I, deep down, knew what was right. I knew the truth.
My mother buried her head in The Glorious Book throughout childhood. While I was devouring Mr. Men, she was reading about Moses. When I was laughing out loud with Roald Dahl, she was reciting The Book of Job and when Elizabeth Bishop left me gasping for more, my mother was at Revelation. Patience of an Angel was and still is my favourite poem. I like rebels. I reflected under the Judas tree about the Judas’ of this world. People that ask why but know when to stop. Turn the other way. Make mistakes. There was a long spectrum. My mother and religion on the left. Me and spirituality on the right—a relationship doomed. We could never be friends, but I looked at her with an inexplicable urge to wrap my arms around her wrinkly neck—I refused to disconnect from my mother.
Years later, I revisited that same spectrum. Perhaps she had shifted closer to me on the right. Leaving religion behind, but both religion and my mother had no plans to budge. My mother and I had one adage, from Montaigne, that we lived by:
Everyday travels towards death; the last only arrives at it.
We both knew that was true, but she postponed colour, vibrations in nature, screeching Lorikeets, the tranquillizing song of the Willie Wagtail, the aromas from freshly baked choc-chip cookies, white noise. Earth was all about a stopover. I used my five senses and watched, listened, inhaled, tasted the sweetness in Jellybeans, the sourness of lemon slices dropping into a teacup, the burn of a hot pepper and the rugged bark of a tree against my smooth, hairless then pimply skin. Earth was my destination.
In her fixation on the past, she was disappearing from the present. Making illogical connections. She lost me way before I packed my bags for independence and moved far enough. Eight hundred kilometres away from my mother, to be exact. The day I left, I wanted my mother to cry much like the mother in the picture book, Love You Forever who stands on the porch watching her son leave. I never owned the book. I used to read it at my best friend’s; her mother used to read it to her, even as a teenager. I wanted the non-fictional mother to stand on the porch with a hankie and wave goodbye to me but she just looked up from the sacred words, smiled and said, “call me when you get there.” Her desk overflowing with notes on Deuteronomy, The Gospel According to Mark, and Psalms. She knocked hope off that spectrum. Marvellous thing about earthly life is you can measure it: area, length, mass, time, volume, love and priorities.
I’m surprised she kept the photo with me dangling like a marionette. Displaying it would have been a sign of disrespect to her God because it had a Judas tree in the background—she should have torn it.
I took the photo and slid it into a brass frame. It now sits on my bedside table. When the funeral director asked what my mother would have liked to be buried with, I thought of the photo, I wanted to punish her for all her:
Don’t hang from that Judas tree
but that would have been cruel.
I naturally chose The Bible. The coffin had a satin lining, but my mother wouldn’t have cared if it had been velvet, taffeta or a plain, old, yellowed bed sheet. I folded her dead hands on The Glorious Book, Amethyst rosary beads decorating her fingers. How perfect! Both objects illustrated her life.
That afternoon, after the funeral, before my 6.00 p.m. train back to my university room, I sat under the Judas tree. I didn’t feel like hanging, but for old times’ sake, I did and it felt right.