The Morton Bay Fig tree sat among a large grove in Albert Park, roots rising out of the ground like prehistoric creatures. The juvenile roots hung from above like clutching seaweed looking for somewhere to anchor.
Angelica believed that shadows danced in this grove among the huge rising roots and inside the hollowed trunks. Not real fairies, she was always quick to say, but the hollowed out trees looked as though they could be home to the special beings who touch people’s souls.
The university was across the road and students’ laughter drifted across from the quad.
Angelica ran her hand through her long brown hair that curled away from her wide forehead and she leaned back against a rising corrugated root and closed her eyes.
The sound of the bunched leaves brushing against each other washed over her.
She had just graduated with an anthropology degree, had no job and, as if the world conspired to bring everything to a head at once, her partner of five years had walked out on her. She was without a future in every sense.
Every storm settles.
The voice sounded as if the speaker sat beside her. Mystified, she looked around.
An aged man with an unkempt long beard and weathered skin sat on the dusty ground inside the Morton Bay Fig tree surrounded by its woody, tawny trunk. She stared at him. His wild grey hair sprouted out of his head and his blue eyes were unforgettably clear. She had never seen eyes like them. It was impossible not to stare. His smile revealed discoloured teeth and if it was not for those eyes she would have recoiled from him. Instead, she felt as if he was reeling her in to him, closing an invisible cocoon around them both.
He sat on his folded legs and if he held his knobbly hands in a prayer he could have been mistaken for a mystic. Instead, he enclosed one fist with his other hand and held his head slightly at a deferential angle, making her feel calm. With a fluid movement, which belied his apparent age, he unfolded his tanned, thin legs and stood, barefoot, with khaki baggy knee-length trousers.
Now his head was almost level with hers and she could see that if he stepped out of his wooden cave he would be a similar height to her.
“I’ve seen you here every day and it seems to me you are very troubled.”
She thoughtfully examined him, wondering if she should trust him. She decided she should. She had nothing to lose.
“My world is falling apart,” she simply admitted.
He stepped out of what appeared to be his home and sat beside her. She expected the smell of unwashed clothes and body to assault her. Instead, he smelt of sweet pine.
A hesitant smile touched her lips.
Sometimes it takes a storm to guide us to our destination.
“Come,” he said beckoning her, “Come with me.”
She was surprised by how willingly she stood and took the first step, through the dusty ground with its tiny, defiant patches of grass. He held out a gnarled hand and she put hers into it. It felt unexpectedly warm and smooth. A smile played on his dried lips as he led her into the Morton Bay Fig Tree. Once she was inside sudden fear clutched at her. He looked harmless but was he? As if reading her mind he gave a chortle that reminded her of a dancing stream, tiny waves catching the sun and rippling over brightly coloured stones. Inside the tree, she could see that it was more spacious than it had first appeared from the outside. He had made this place his home, with a sleeping mat rolled up in one corner and small camping cooker in the other. Albert Park facilities met his other needs, with the fountain nearby and the toilet on the other side of Albert Park.
He laughed and her faced flushed an embarrassed bright pink. Not one thought that crossed her mind escaped him, she thought irritably. She began to turn away. She had to escape the stark nakedness he uncovered.
He touched her arm and she turned back as if caught on a rubber band.
“All this doubt you have will be turned to certainty.” Again his voice surprised her. Nothing in the rolling words bore evidence of what must surely be a tough life.
She looked into his brown eyes and it seemed that she entered another world where a tumbling waterfall fell down a cliff into a deep swirling pool. Then she saw herself swimming there, laughing and free.
Tears spilled over the lids of her eyes and tracked down her cheeks. She dropped her head so that the old man could not see them. He gave an almost imperceptible nod and light seemed to flow through him to his face where it landed with a smile.
“It is time for me to go now,” he said, “and time for you to begin your journey.”
She stepped out of the wooden cave. Ahead were students laughing in groups, their voices lifting into the air and she realised that she had just completed one journey and was about to start another.
When she turned, she sensed rather than saw, that the old man had gone.
Even his rolled up bedding and small fold away camping cooker was no longer there. But without any anxiety she accepted this as if it was normal.
A familiar voice lifted above the students and she turned, her spirits soaring and heart pumping.
Stephen stepped out of the shadow of another Morton Bay Fig Tree into the stippled light, cast by the morning sun and walked along the path to the University. He was like an apparition as was the girl beside him who held his hand. Her long brown hair waved down her back with each jaunty step and her laughter played in the air.
If she needed any evidence that this was the end of her life as she had once known it, it was this moment.