We are fortunate to have a sizeable backyard that has been divided into three distinct sections. First comes the pool area, which is surrounded by rocks and shrubs. Then, there is middle earth. A leafy haven where lavender, roses and native trees surround a full-sized petanque court. Just the place for cool drinks and heated arguments. However, the unlikely setting for the concerns I will now express, is the third section. We call it the top paddock.
The first occupants of this property were keen gardeners and what we call the top paddock was their orchard. Sadly, when we arrived, this part of the yard had been fenced off by the interim owners and was occupied by four dogs. As is invariably their want, the canine four were given to digging. The once fertile orchard was laid waste and presented as a dust bowl. The only things missing were the tumbleweeds.
But there was one faint reminder of what had been. It was and is an apple tree. Gnarly with age and stunted by neglect, yet it held the promise of something better.
At some stage we decided to have an orchard of our own. A bustan (Persian for fruit orchard). Visitors would be greeted by a gulistan (Persian for rose garden). Our romantic notions were induced by a visit to the State Library where there was an exhibition of ancient Persian books. Well? We reckon that you take your inspiration where you find it. Another tenuous motivation, if anything more was needed,was the presence of three pomegranate trees. Like the apple tree, they were left neglected, shrouded by blackberry vines and weeds.
So we laboured long and hard. Bringing life back to the soil and planting rose bushes, olive trees, lemon trees, a tangelo tree and a lime tree and two pear trees. The ancient apple took fresh heart and sprouted new growth. This Spring it was frosted in pink and white blossoms. The pomegranates have blood-red flowers. Raised vegetable beds have been added. They now provide tomatoes, zucchini, lettuce, cauliflower, eggplants, beans, sunflowers and rhubarb. There is also a shed and companion shrubs to bring more bees. Unfortunately, some newer stock, including carrots are not protected, as yet.
This then is the back story and idyllic backdrop to my tale. Hardly Baskerville Hall is it?
Melbourne weather of late has been its usual contrary self. Four seasons in one day. One day it is furnace hot, the next one chilly or wet or both. As is my habit, I wandered up to the top paddock one cool evening to check on the plants and watch the sun go down. It had been raining but I took a cold beer with me. After surveying my domain with considerable satisfaction I sat down on the green painted bench beneath the apple tree. It is a perfect place to see the sun set. Carlos Castenada wrote that the sunset was the gap between the worlds. It’s a concept that I like to conjure with. Despite the gloominess of the day in question, the sun put on a glorious show as it departed for the other side of the planet.
The beer was going down a treat and I felt the peace of the bustan and gulistan settling around my shoulders like a cashmere throw rug. But, all of a sudden there was a blast of freezing cold wind that whipped across my face like a cat-o-nine-tails. Scarcely had I started to zip up my jacket then my exposed ribs also got a taste of the lash. I slumped back onto the seat. Peace was now replaced by terror as my unseen assailant took to my cowering form with relish. This was no capricious change in the weather. I was under attack. As I tried to defend myself dark shadows seemed to be darting wildly about the orchard. The wind rose and started to howl like a banshee. The trees all bent in one direction after another like Chinese acrobats. I was scared. I kid you not. It seemed that the agents of Mordor had come to paradise. Believe me, any gardener would much prefer weeds, snails, slugs or wasps.
Then, after about five minutes of sheer terror, the arctic gale stopped. I looked about me for some clue. The black shadows were still evident but indistinct. What were they? I arose and seized a large stake out of the pile we keep near the orchard gate. It was a mistake. A huge splinter penetrated my index finger. The atmosphere of paradise was fouled a second time by the devil’s language. Sorry, my bad.
The horizon was a gaping red crooked smile against the gathering night. My eyes struggled to adjust and then the shadows became familiar. Rabbits. Bloody rabbits were gorging on our juvenile veggies under cover of darkness. I wielded the stake like Excalibur. I slashed here and there. I ignored the pain of the giant splinter. I had a crop to protect. The bunnies fled. I like to think that they were more scared than I had been. Exhausted I slumped down once more on the seat beneath the apple tree.
It was several minutes before I was able to find my way to the path that links the top paddock with the rest of Chez Nous. In the blackness, I halted once or twice because I fancied that I could hear laughter. Horrid, mocking laughter such as only a sadistic fiend might make.
So is our orchard haunted? Will we need to call in an exorcist? Or perhaps, those guys from Ghost Hunters? I don’t know. But I can say that this ordeal is not over. The vegetables are suffering. The rabbits are being assisted by somebody or some thing.