January 5, 2023 / mascara / 0 Comments
This Devastating Fever
by Sophie Cunningham
Reviewed by MICHELLE CAHILL
I go on believing in the power of literature, and also in the politics of literature.
—- Adrienne Rich
Sophie Cunningham messaged me on Twitter when I was working on the edits of my novel, Daisy & Woolf, then titled, Woolf, to ask what my novel was about, as she was also writing a novel on the Woolfs, Leonard in particular, This Devastating Fever. As it turned out, in 2022, we both published metafictional novels whose peripatetic Australian narrators, Alice and Mina re-examine Bloomsbury. Cunningham’s This Devastating Fever is in dialogue with Leonard Woolf’s years in Sri Lanka, his marriage to Virginia and her mental health, while casting reflections on the pandemic, imperialism, the writing life and post-modernity’s urgent ecological concerns.
The past is a prologue in This Devastating Fever, which opens with a memorable and wry take on the Woolf marriage: Virginia, Leonard, Julian, dress-ups, parties, bookshelves; literary genres. This spirited tone is woven throughout Cunningham’s text. Both these novels are non-linear, diachronic, alternating from present to past and thematically resonant. Both are concerned with the writing life, its distractions, digressions and contemporary difficulties, its consuming drives. I did not realise further, when she warmly and graciously launched Daisy & Woolf in Melbourne that Sophie and I have also shared not one, but two publishers, a reflection, perhaps, on the narrow circle and echo chamber that is the Australian publishing industry. Imbued with a visceral sense of the frustrations and demands of any novelistic project in these fraught times for literature, and in the precarious worlds we inhabit, our respective narrators, Alice and Mina navigate across time, culture, geography as well as industry dynamics.
Alice Fox meets frequently with her literary agent, Sarah, in scenes which are witty and relatable. Cunningham provides a candid insight into how Alice’s artistic ambition and vulnerabilities brush against Sarah’s business interest to secure a profitable book deal. Their meetings, and lunches span 16 years from 2004 to 2021, beginning with a Zoom then flashing back to pre-pandemic times. Sarah’s initial reservations and hesitancy about the manuscript include concerns around the perceived resistance to an Australian angle on Bloomsbury, as well as the change in direction that Alice has charted from non-fiction. Sarah’s other speculations are whether there should be more or less of Ceylon; and whether Alice should remove Virginia Woolf altogether, making the novel just about Leonard (p10). Sarah suggests, and later insists that more sex in the novel will make it a better proposal to pitch to prospective publishers. This leads to a humorous list of possibilities, a three-page “Sex List or Who Fucked Who” (p86) and another concerning the subject of Alice: her bisexuality, her marriage to a woman, her childlessness, her work as a publisher, her relationships to ‘paternalistic father figures’ and her own experience of abuse. (p12) It becomes apparent that the novel is semi-autobiographical.
Indeed, like Cunningham, Alice is well connected to the literary establishment, has travelled to Sri Lanka, San Francisco, the Sussex Downes, and Bloomington Indiana; she loves cats, native animals and frets about extinctions. She advocates for trees and the non-human world; and at the time the novel begins, she is teaching in a literary academy. With its seamless textual weaving of memory and narrative, letter extracts, diary extracts, biographical footnotes, Cunningham deftly complicates the genres of memoir, biography and fiction with a touch of magical realism and a pleasingly wry style.
A deliberate choice is made not to use an autobiographical third person as in Shannon Burns’ memoir, Childhood for example. Cunningham does not swerve from presenting Alice’s consciousness through the auto-fictional third person past tense. Through the past tense she fictionalises and interprets the lives of Leonard, Virginia, Vita, Leonard’s sister Bella, Lytton Strachey, reifying colonialist attitudes, stereotypes and ideological conditioning. With disturbing casualness, the binary imperial logic of civilisation versus the jungle is sustained throughout the novel notably through its representation of colonial subjects (p278), and its language. Alice’s repeated metaphors of “beasts” (p109, p243) exemplifies the negative stereotypes, while the Ceylon-shaped teardrop shed by an older Leonard, grieving for Virginia (p295) exemplifies the exotic. The characterisation of Sri Lankans and Tamils is also limited, a narrative gap which warrants closer analysis, given the novel’s purported interest in race.
Descriptively speaking, This Devastating Fever is intensely invested in what Said refers to as Orientalism, a “mode of discourse” and “a style of thought” of images, disciplines, disciples, a ‘worlding’ while absenting brown people entirely from its intertextual richness, even from its humour. The brown people are serious, grateful, sad, with the exception of a waiter, Andrew, who serves Alice when she visits Hambantota where 4000 people died in the tsunami. He curtly puts Alice in her place:
“Everyone is very interested in what has happened to us here. Tourists come, tourists go. I would rather not talk about the deaths and the loss.” (60)
He is right to feel cautious of saviourism. A veritable tsunami of whiteness washes away the lives and stories of First peoples by appropriation and cultural tourism. Elsewhere, the historical Leonard, Imaginary Leonard and Alice do not actively resist the domination, nor the legal and moral superiority of West over East. Following a narrative arc of redemption, Leonard is excused because he had opened a Tamil Girls school (p287), yet we know that collaboratively education and religion were part of the machinery of colonial violence.
Racism, colonial exploitation and antisemitism are referenced directly through dialogue and indirect speech. As Cunningham has stated the racism of Bloomsbury should not be allowed to stand unchecked. In October 1917, Virginia Woolf is known to have written the following diary entry when a Ceylonese official awaited Leonard at Hogarth House:
We came back to find Perera, wearing his clip and diamond initial in his tie as usual; in fact, the poor little mahogany-coloured wretch has no variety of subjects. The character of the Governor, and the sins of the Colonial Office, these are his topics, always the same stories, the same point of view, the same likeness to a caged monkey, suave on the surface, inscrutable.
Yet, Cunningham has a way of casually amplifying this disparagement, and more worryingly the underlying politics of domination. In a conversation with Leonard in 1911, she has Virginia first mistaking the Ceylonese for Indians, then, when corrected by Leonard, dismissively replying, “But Blacks anyway” (p111). Virginia’s strong ancestral connections to India made this conversation seem unlikely. Virginia’s mother Julia Prinsep Stephen was born in Kolkata; and her aunt Julia Margaret Cameron nee Pattle was born in Kolkata and died in the western province of Sri Lanka, known then as British Ceylon. Her Franco-Indian descendants had lived in Pondicherry. “Blacks” is cruder than what we expect of Virginia, who describes “a very fine negress” in A Room of One’s Own.
The Woolfs were both semi-racist and anti-imperialists. Their conservative peers upheld a racist suspicion that Asians and ‘Negros’ were barbarians. Particularly reviling was Julian Bell’s attitude towards Indians, described as “revolting blacks” in a 1936 letter to Eddie Playfair. (See Patricia Laurence’s Lily Briscoe’s Chinese Eyes, “Performing Englishness”.) Lytton Strachey had also criticised The Village in the Jungle for being “about nothing but the blacks.”
But does accuracy matter, anyway for the purposes of fiction? I would say it does matter who is speaking what, and whom they are addressing. It matters because we cannot overlook that the history of colonial economic expansion, occupation, exploitation and its aftermath are grounded in discourse, in laws, in education, in novels, not to mention that the repetition of racist tropes is triggering and re-traumatising for many of us. There’s an insensitivity to the fact that readers and writers of colour find this altogether tone deaf, even offensive.
Whether it is Mohammed, Alice’s driver, or Shelton Fernando, Cunningham’s Sri Lankan characters are restricted in their representation, and in their fictional destiny. They are mostly neutral in their emotions, their speech predictably serving the needs of Alice and Leonard, both descendants of the ruling class West. For me this was most grievous when Cunningham describes Leonard describing his ayah, who remains nameless and then a few pages along he is also described visiting a Sinhalese woman whom it becomes apparent he uses for sexual gratification. Leonard visits this woman for longer than expected, leaving “with a curious mixture of shame and over excitement (as) the stallion tossed his mane in salutation…” As elsewhere, the imperialist axiomatic blurs the distinction between colonised human and beast while preserving the power of the coloniser. As Alice explains to her agent, Sarah when they are considering titles for her novel, This Devastating Fever is “a phrase Leonard used about himself to describe lust and the problems of repression. It strikes me as even better now” Alice says, “because of the whole Covid thing.” (p8) Such inversions of past into present offer insights into, and relief from the messy chaos of our post-pandemic lives. Covid-19 has undoubtedly altered our perception of time, by lockdowns, curfews, by new technology and mental health challenges making a story that moves across centuries resonant on so many levels. But the question is for whom?
For the brown women in This Devastating Fever, their psychology and sexuality are never given a voice or a body as subjects. Nor are we permitted as readers to even enter the domestic space of that molested and coercively abused mother and her mixed-ancestry child. They remain as shadows, described passively and fleetingly in the past tense as the “Sinhalese woman who had borne Engelbrecht’s child” (p69). Repeatedly, the conditions of animals are of greater concern to Alice and to Leonard than the Sinhalese. By ventriloquising what Gurmeet Kaur describes as the “colonial voice” Cunningham assigns colonial and feminist space as a wholly exclusive one where the mental and physical health of brown women and men and their communities and children, their abilities to participate in cross-cultural exchange is quarantined. Consider the following:
“Leonard barely saw a woman for months on end ̶ if by woman one meant a white woman, which is exactly what Leonard meant.” (p70)
“Nothing like his Ceylon “girlfriends” as Bella liked to call them. No, Virginia was a woman with whom he could share his soul.” (p111)
In a letter to Lytton Strachey, Leonard boasted of his visits to brothels: “I suppose you want to know everything — well, I am worn out or rather supine through a night of purely degraded debauch. The pleasure of it is of course exaggerated, certainly with a half-caste whore”. Cunningham does nothing to challenge the male power-fantasy of Leonard’s Orientalism, assigning Sinhalese women to a category that lies outside the “universal” woman, and beneath the individualist mission of soul-making. There is no private space to mock Leonard, no shadow existence or threshold in writing for these brown women. This emphasises the weakness of using fiction to represent Leonard’s opinions since there is no convincing argument or trajectory of reform, and no effort to remedy racist oppression in the space of cultural production.
In her fine appraisal of Cunningham’s novel in Sydney Review of Books, Gurmeet Kaur points out that there are jarring passages that are retraumatising for non-white readers, those from the “global majority”. She writes:
Whilst archival specificity breathes life into the Woolfs, in the Sri Lanka material, the insistence on historical accuracy feels oppressive and destabilising, in part because it conflicts with the playfulness of the non-linear narrative. Though there may be repetitions and loops in the expressions and effects of imperial power, there are also clearly linear chains of events and their consequences that are not considered in such a discontinuous narrative.
Much later in the novel when Alice gives a panel, ironically on cancel culture in Adelaide the epidemic of violence against women is discussed, with its mental health sequelae of bipolar and personality disorder. Personal memories of trauma flood Alice’s mind and she is visited by Imaginary Leonard with his cute marmoset and spaniel, and they converse about Virginia’s trauma and abuse. Yet all the while women such as the “Sinhalese woman who had borne Engelbrecht’s child” remain unnamed, invisible and their abuse and mental trauma for the purposes of this novel appear relevant only in so far as to provide a description of colonial power.
The narrative is focalised on the thoughts, actions and emotions of its white characters, their communities and families: Alice, Sarah, Hen, the elite circle of Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Leonard’s conversations with the village headman, Mr Nallaperuma are proselytising, with Mr Nallaperuma’s responses being overly compliant and dull. When Leonard is derisive about his views on horoscopes predicting the date of onset of a girl’s menstruation, he is described by a passive stereotype. “He was used to being patronised.” (p81) As Kaur argues, Alice and Leonard’s statements that past happenings were “not nice”(p53), racist or “cruel”(p288), does nothing to ameliorate or to recompense those who have suffered; those whose stories have for centuries been silenced.
While Leonard’s service as a colonial administrator politicised him to advocate for reforms of colonial oppression the reason was to improve Europe’s moral position. Privately, his attitudes appear to have remained conflicted and tinged with racist assumptions towards the Sinhalese, going by extracts from his diaries, such as the following:
“the three things which make up the education of most of the children in Hambantota are obscenity, ill manners and the torturing of animals.”
(Woolf, L. 1965)
Cunningham neutralises the private bigotry of Leonard and Virginia. Fleeting, internalised glimpses of racism contextualised by an early twentieth century world order, are transported and packaged into the public space of her novel. Complex intersections such as these between paratextuality and whiteness continue to mediate identity, feminist and colonial space, authorship and power.
Despite, or perhaps because of what Peter Rose has described as the “burgeoning Bloomsbury industry,” both Mina and Alice carry out intensive research. Alice focusses on Leonard’s Ceylon writings, the Glendinning biography about his life, and other Bloomsburians. Mina focusses on Virginia’s novels and the Chinese modernist Shu-Hua Ling, whom Hogarth Press published in 1953. They seek out libraries: for Mina, The British Library and the library at Wuhan University. While in 2004 Alice Fox spends much time in Sussex library, where a ‘hot librarian’ explains that Thoby’s death from cholera in 1909 accounts for the flatness of Virginia’s diaries in the year that follows. Fast forward to 2018, and Alice is in Indiana, Bloomington at the Lilley Library reading from that circulation of letters and diaries by the Cambridge apostles, or “navigating the rapids” (p115). She comes across Ottoline Morrell’s description of Virginia Woolf appearing as “a lovely phantom, a far away, far gazing lively ghost.’(p117)
Alice is endearingly cognisant of the ways she channels fictional ghosts. Yet there is a watershed between the fictional and the real. In Leonard’s autobiography, Beginning Again, he emphasised the many houses he lived in, innovating a spatial metonymy that turns a history of self into a geography of self. In contrast the characters of Virginia and Leonard manifest as temporal figures, even while we know, as readers, that Cunningham ventriloquises and improvises their lives. This extensive reimagining culminates after the death of Hen in 2021 when Alice is at Bundanon, on the Shoalhaven River, during heavy rains. She worries about ‘fish suffocating, a drowning of sorts’ (p213) and she suffers from a slowly healing leech wound, while reading Quentin Bell’s biography of Virginia, as well as Leonard’s autobiography, and whilst bookmarking and watching The Edge of Tomorrow on iTunes. From the messiness of grief, illness, technology and intertextuality springs the possibility of a new narrative arc, seemingly revelatory of fiction’s ability to shapeshift, even to interrogate historical injustice: “It occurred to Alice that she could use the power of fiction to write Virginia’s end differently. She could save her!” (p217).
Cunningham stretches and elaborates the written record, skilfully conjecturing psychological explanations for Leonard and Virginia’s bisexual and polyamorous relationships, their attitudes to Leonard’s Jewishness, and to the ambivalence of repression and trauma. She skims over the politics of Leonard’s social and economic reforms as founder of the League of Nations and in the Labour Party. Historical facts such as Virginia’s suicide are revisited providing explanatory and narrative emplotments that extemporise playfully from the official version.
A similar hermeneutic ambivalence animates Daisy & Woolf. Mina’s scaffolding of the fictional (and metafictional) lives of Daisy, Charlotte, Radhika and Rezia is positioned with fictional letters from Sylvia Pankhurst, a British missionary from Rodmell and Vanessa Bell who catches a glimpse of Daisy and Rezia, “two outsiders” in Padua (p272). Through her serial letters and diary entries, Daisy Simmon’s fate and the fate of her daughter Charlotte could be interpreted as legitimate historical events. Charlotte dies of cholera onboard the S.S. Ranchi, and is buried at sea, in keeping with horrific casualties suffered on such voyages. She first appears to Daisy as a ghost when the passengers are quarantined in the lazzaretto on L’Isolotto, Malta. Could Charlotte’s ghost be as material to the reader as the knowledge of other infant mortalities associated with migration across the centuries, and even in 2023? It is well established that migrant fatalities don’t necessarily align with the recorded statistics; that some children in remote or less monitored waters, die without trace.
Historiographic metafiction and meta biography allow new approaches to the past, purposely overlapping fiction, diary writing and history. It questions the function of history and biography as primary or impartial sources of knowledge. The reader may not clearly distinguish Virginia and Leonard Woolf from Cunningham’s iterations, nor from Ghost Virginia and Imaginary Leonard of the afterlife. What is private, what is real, what is history and what is speculative gets blurred, woven into discursive possibilities on biography, memoir, novel writing, genre, environmental activism, marriage, polyamorous love, grief, illness and trauma. This Devastating Fever is a novel of dazzling parodic meta-dimensions, self-deprecating humour, and a real tenderness for the non-human animals in our world, but one that is deeply Orientalist. It sustains a collective self that whilst speculative and supple, addresses only its white constituents and Western characters.
It is difficult to write this. I am reminded of an essay by Adrienne Rich in which she describes her father’s library and her belief that books would teach her how to live and what was possible. She writes about being taught whiteness, about how white women are forced to betray black women, how “they are cast as antagonists in the patriarchal drama…”; that there is a “silence out of which they have had to assert themselves.” I have really appreciated Sophie’s willingness as a white feminist to offer support and allyship to so many writers. She has done so for other women and trans writers during the years that I’ve known her. I know as readers we are more than passive witnesses to the lies, secrets and silences of systemic whiteness. We are an interconnected global community that as Kaur suggests bears “collective responsibility” for the less visible crimes of colonialism: those embedded in discourse, in paratextual frames that have marginalised minority stories, in archival erasures, in the unevenly prioritised disciplines of philology, literary criticism, and in the publishing world which remains today as inseparable from writing for Alice and Mina, as it was for Leonard and Virginia.
Brayshaw, Meg. “Sophie Cunningham’s pandemic novel admits literature can’t save us but treasures it for trying”
Kaur, Gurmeet. “Sophie Cunningham’s Orbits” https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/sophie-cunningham-devastating-fever/
Laurence, Patricia. Lily Briscoe’s Chinese Eyes: Bloomsbury, Modernism and China. University of South Carolina Press, 2003.
Ranasinha, Ruvani. “The shifting reception of The Village in the Jungle (1913) in Sri Lanka.” Journal of Commonwealth Literature 50.1 (2015): 33-43.
Rich, Adrienne. On lies, secrets, and silence: Selected prose 1966-1978. WW Norton & Company, 1995. p 201
Rose, Peter. On the Peculiar Charms of E.M. Forster, ABR Podcasts, December 22 2022
Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Penguin, 2000), 2, 5
Woolf, Leonard. Beginning Again: An Autobiography of the Years 1911 to 1918. New York: Harcourt.
Woolf L (1990) Letters of Leonard Woolf (Ed. Spotts F). London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson. p102
December 30, 2022 / mascara / 0 Comments
In partnership with Varuna, The Writer’s House, the Copyright Agency and the Adès Family Foundation, we are delighted to announce the inaugural Mascara Varuna Writers’ and Editors’ Residency. This is an exciting opportunity for four emerging or established writers who identify as First Nations or CaLD with a manuscript they are wanting to develop. Applications were open be for projects in poetry, fiction, non-fiction or in criticism. The winners receive an all-expenses paid one week residency at Varuna, a manuscript reading by a senior editor and mentored emerging editor. Travel costs will be paid for writers who are interstate (flights and/ or road travel). Varuna is a catered residency in the World Heritage listed Blue Mountains. The Residency week will be held from 30 January 2023 to 5 February 2023.
This is a chance for the writers to immerse in their work in the solitude and natural beauty of Varuna, a place of renewal, fellowship and intense creative practice.
We thank the Gundungurra people for their care of and connection to land, culture and community. We pay our respects to their elders: past, present and emerging, acknowledge that we live and work on stolen land that is unceded. Always was, always will be.
Judges: Multi-award winning Bundjalung writer Melissa Lucashenko and poet and critic Lucy Van.
Announcement of Longlist
Thank you to everyone who entered and thank you for your patience. The judges have longlisted the following writers for the 2023 Mascara Varuna Writer’s Residency.
Sharlene Allsopp Through a Glass, Darkly (Memoir)
Timmah Ball “Blueprint for Another World” (Experimental Non-fiction)
Alison J. Barton “Not Telling” (Poetry)
Vivienne Cleven “Beautiful Monsters” (Fiction)
Anneliz Marie Erese “International” (Fiction)
Coco Huang Slipstitch (Poetic Intermedia)
Barbara Ivusic “Hevelyn Farm” (Fiction)
Atul Joshi Turn Back Time (Fiction)
Suneeta Peres da Costa The Prodigal (Poetry, Prose Poetry)
Mesh Tennakoon Misplaced (Short Fiction)
Anne-Marie Te Whiu Mettle (Poetry)
Maria van Neerven “To Give them a Voice” (Poetry)
Misbah Wolf “A Book of Shadows” (Auto mythological and historical prose)
Announcement of the winners and judges comments
December 22, 2022 / mascara / 0 Comments
We are sharing our summer reading picks for 2022 in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, anthologies, translations, with quotes from reviews during the year in literary journals and and quotes. The books, and their genre categories are displayed in no particular order.
Harvest Lingo is the fourteenth collection of poems by Lionel Fogarty, a Murri man with traditional connections to the Yugambeh people from south of Brisbane and the Kudjela people of north Queensland. He is a leading Indigenous rights activist, and one of Australia’s foremost poets, and this collection displays all of the urgency, energy and linguistic audacity for which Fogarty is known.
Acanthus is gorgeous, rhizomic and orphic. There is joy, luminosity and performative risk in Claire Potter’s poems. She writes in a language of rare compassion and transfiguring intensities. — Michelle Cahill
Inland Sea by Brenda Saunders: With quiet determination and the keen eye of a birdwatcher, Saunders’ Inland Sea unfurls as a love story to Gidgi-Djaru Country, a wondrous world that evolves with the languid pace of millennia.
— Monique Grbec, Westerly
In Losing Face, “Haddad presents us with the impact of intergenerational trauma, woven through a sharp appraisal of modern masculinity and its underlying misogyny.” — Sarah Ayoub, The Guardian
Unlike Woolf, Cahill’s novel explores the interiority of racialised women, particularly those of mixed race. Both Mina and Daisy’s stories depict the precarity of women on the fringes of established categories and structures. Daisy and Woolf is radical, poetic and reflective.
— Lyn Dickens, Kill Your Darlings
Scary Monsters: ‘Michelle de Kretser returns to the haunting questions of travel that thread through previous work and explores tensions between direction and disorientation, mobility and displacement, as well as the act of claiming and disappearing.’
— Intan Paramaditha, Sydney Review of Books
The Dancer is a fascinating and absorbing biography that explores cultural expeditions and exchange between Australia and India; margins and centers. Philipa Cullen’s voice infuses Juer’s prose. Her time in India is rendered exquisitely, the nuances of outsider/insider, teacher/student, thinker/choreographer; all those journeys entwine in ways that affect, inspire and illuminate. — Michelle Cahill
‘Only the finest of writers can hope to convey the mercurial nature of the times we are living though: the sense of slippage; of terror and beauty. Falconer is such a writer. Signs and Wonders is an essential collection.’ — Sophie Cunningham
Tell Me Again ‘Thunig shuffles back and forth in time, juxtaposing the moments of trauma with examples of love and support, forcing the reader to comprehend that the potential for the latter has always existed even in the hardest moments of her life. It is a deeply moving way to structure time in a memoir, and one that Thunig explains is also embedded in Indigenous thinking: ‘I often wonder about timelines and the way a Eurocentric view positions time as linear but as Indigenous peoples we are raised to understand time as circular.’ — Jackie Tang, Readings
‘Resilience blends poetry, fiction and nonfiction — essays and poems sit shoulder-to-shoulder, short fiction converses with memoir. The collection’s formal hybridity, combined with the chorus of First Nations, diasporic, LGBTQIA+ and disabled voices that contribute to its hum, make Resilience a model of the kind of hospitality that pushes back against the structural oppression that concerns many of the anthology’s contributors.’ — Megan Cheong, Aniko Press
BlackLight ‘illuminates the contemporary experiences of mob life and struggles, food, love and loss in Western Sydney and beyond. From future radical warriors, to the glory of El Jannah garlic sauce, these stories cover the complex cultural boundaries and responsibilities that exist for First Nations people in the continued colonial occupation of the Country they live on and the Countries they are from. We hope these works speak to migrant and refugee communities as well, and trust that, together, we can grow in the dark.’ — Hannah Donnelly in conversation with Thuy On, ArtsHub
Jeanine Leane and Judith Beveridge, the editors of Best of Australian Poetry write that ‘Under the pen of the poet each work reflects a slice of national consciousness. We are conscious as we write this that despite significant pressures over many decades, Australia is the only settler colony that still has no treaty with nation’s First Peoples, and there is no voice to Parliament for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.’ (Introduction, Australian Poetry)
Happy Stories Mostly: ‘Translator Tiffany Tsao has said that one of the things she finds so invigorating about Pasaribu’s writing and stories is “the extent to which queerness is woven through every aspect”. Through her skilful translation, this essential queerness—which goes beyond subject matter—is made visible to an English-speaking audience.’
— Arbnora Selmani, Asymptote (Happy Stories Mostly longlisted in the 2022 International Booker Prize)
‘Myriam Tadessé’s memoir combines formal innovation with a candid look back on her life and the harrowing experiences she’s had with discrimination in her chosen field—and in French society as a whole. Blind Spot feels like a distillation of its author’s life, and a powerful testament to her day-to-day reality.’— Tobias Carroll, Words Without Borders
Hélène Gaudy’s ‘(Her) authorial perspective binds together past and present, human and natural worlds, solitary explorers and the civilisation they leave behind, all with knowing intelligence and plangent intensity of feeling.’
— Geordie Williamson, The Saturday Paper
December 20, 2022 / mascara / 0 Comments
Anneliz Marie Erese is a Filipino writer whose works have appeared or are forthcoming in The Saturday Paper, Meanjin, Island Online and Cordite Poetry Review, among others. She has previously received writing prizes such as the Nick Joaquin Asia Pacific Literary Awards (2019) and the Deakin Postgraduate Prize in Writing and Literature (2022). She was also the 2022 Deborah Cass Prize winner. Most recently, she was awarded a scholarship to Faber Writing Academy at Allen & Unwin. She lives on the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri people.
Photo Credit: David Patston
I found a place in a five-bedroom house share in Hawthorn with two students like myself and a paramedic. The landlord also lived with us – a mid-thirties contractor who disappeared to his beach house in Point Lonsdale for two weeks at a time. The place was enormous and charming and a bit rundown, but wherever I went there was light. Even in the bathroom. I would lay for a long time in the tub looking up through the skylight and see nothing but white. There were wooden floors throughout. An updated, working oven. There was a kitchen bench and bar stools and the dining table sat eight. I picked a different chair each time.
At the end of the hallway was my room. It was small and perfect and mine. I had a second-hand mattress and bed I purchased from the tenant I replaced, a double wardrobe with a full-length mirror drilled into one of the doors, a small wooden desk pushed against the wall, and a hand-me-down bedside table. My books were stacked neatly on the floor. At night, I would play some tunes on my ukulele and Veena, one of the girls, would knock and ask me if she could come in and listen. We would stay quiet for a while, the only sound was that of the strings, and then she would get back up and say thank you before leaving. It helped me fall asleep quickly.
Some mornings were disorienting. I would lie awake and try to remember what I must do for the day, but I wouldn’t be able to come up with any. It always seemed like my subconscious took care of things before my consciousness caught up. For example, I would find my linens were already drying on the clothesline when I couldn’t remember doing them the day before, the same way I would keep buying a bottle of tomato sauce then open the pantry to find three of them, mouth sealed. I knew there was nothing to arrange in my room nor in the house. Classes weren’t to resume until the end of summer. I felt undeserving of this brief idleness. Alone, there was no one I must talk to, no one to report my day to. No one to cook for. No one whose laundry I needed to do, whose pants I needed to press. There was no one taking account of what I spent or where I went. No one to whom I must justify myself. No one whose justifications I chased to hear, whose tales I craved, whose mouth I needed to kiss, whose body sought my body as escape. There was nothing waiting for me, and I breathed.
In between his orders to bring this drink to that table or to fetch that thing from the back storage, Connor often told me stories about the time in his life when he travelled overseas. He smacked his thin lips numerous times before he finished a sentence in a mix of Irish and Australian drawl. Last week it was about the pub where he served naked in Amsterdam. Tonight, it was about a supposed three-week trip in Saint Petersburg that was cut off by an involvement with a gang. He’d gotten drunk one night with the leader after they met at a tattoo parlour. ‘This snake here,’ he said, pulling up the sleeve of his shirt, ‘up around the back of my neck.’ He turned around, moving his long bun to the side, and sure enough, the reptile’s head popped out from underneath his collar.
He was invited to the gangster’s family home where he met the sister. ‘Fucken gorgeous,’ he said. Then he’d slept with her while everyone was unconscious off their faces from alcohol. Next thing he knew, he was being forced to marry the woman. He’d fled as quick as he could. He didn’t want to get married. ‘Especially not to a Russian,’ he said. Who did you want to marry? I asked. He told me he had a penchant for Asian girls. He was staring at me with a smile plastered on his face. Penchant, I said, is another word for fetish. ‘Nah,’ he growled. ‘I just like my girls soft and small. No harm done.’ His hands were up in surrender as he chuckled.
I was observing him the whole time – the disturbing chewing sounds his lips made between sentences, the way he seemed to be gliding when walking, the jokes that missed the mark. He must had felt uncomfortable with the way I was staring at him, expressionless and unmoving, because he raised his huge palm to cover his cheek and asked, ‘Is something wrong?’
To my mother’s appeal, I visited home for a week. I was exhausted before the plane even hit the tarmac. I couldn’t bear to see her face, although I didn’t really know what about her face was too difficult to see. Her concern, perhaps? Or worse, her ridicule. Her hair was cut short now, brushing her nape. I considered giving her a hug, now used to how people overseas greet each other. But as I approached her at the gates, the truth struck me: this was my mother; intimacy, even feigned, was alien between us. Her first words to me were about how sickly I looked. I braced for all the others to come. The moment we got in the car, she asked: what happened? Was it money? Did he get tired of you? What did you do? She asked me if there was ever a chance to fix it. I sat uncomfortably beside her, silently cursing the heavy traffic. She said, ‘Maybe you didn’t look after him the Filipino way.’ What is the Filipino way? I asked. ‘Alam mo na,’ she said, ‘cooking and cleaning. Men like those kinds of things.’ I didn’t answer. Then we stopped at a fast-food joint and she bought me lunch.
I almost forgot what my grandma’s house looked like after being away for more than a year. We had new neighbours whose concrete wall cast a shadow over the walkway. The gate was painted moss green to cover its old red colour. I was lent my old bed which had become my brother’s. The sheets smelled of strong soap. My bookshelf was covered with thick transparent plastic. There were Korean pop group posters tacked on the wall above my pillow. I walked around the house in a state of stupor. Listened to the blabber around me. The bathroom was the only private place, though tiny. There was still the small mirror with the scissors hanging on a hook on its frame. It reminded me of days when I used to stare myself down in it, daring myself to do something. My lola was wondering about the man I used to love. ‘Nasa’n na si––?’ she asked. In the past, I wanted to say. I listened to the little fights. Observed how this house had become smaller as things accumulated. More people, more things, less space. My little cousins’ biggest worry was who would take what gift from my luggage. People came – my aunts, uncles, more cousins. They said hello and I said hello. At night, we watched television the way we used to: sitting closely together in a small couch while the children played with their toys on the floor. The fan blasted hot air. In the middle of this, a pin dropped. Lola thought I left. ‘Nasa’n na si––?’ she asked, her eyes roaming around the small room. I was sitting right next to her, useless and invisible.
Often, I imagined whole conversations with my father as if he were still alive. Being his daughter had been an education in being a version of a good girl: learning how to pray, avoiding swear words, going to church, learning the piano, getting home before dark, selecting parent-approved friends, becoming invisible from boys, getting high marks in class, becoming someone. In my fictive scenarios, I was always defending myself. If he said I was late to get home, I said the traffic was bad. If he asked me why I had failed my Chemistry class, I asked him where I got my genes from. If he yelled at me for missing church, I said I already atoned for my sins. In one of these scenarios he asked, ‘Which is worse: staying or leaving?’ I said, I think it is the leaving. It is always the leaving. The only thing I still couldn’t find an answer for was when he asked me why I was like this. I came up with several things: I couldn’t have known; I didn’t ask for it; I’m sorry. Sometimes I wanted to tell him: I think I wasn’t loved enough. But I never dared to even say the words.
Back in Melbourne, I started having these moments when the world appeared to go dim and I would suddenly be alone in my head – although I could be waiting to cross at the lights or in line at the self-checkout – and my mind would go back to the dark apartment where I used to live. When it happened, I shook my head vigorously or pinched the skin on my palm over and over again. In those moments, there was nothing more important than getting from point A to point B. Through this, I discovered movement. I developed a routine of walking in early mornings and stopping by at the corner café. Then I’d continue to walk on with a cup in hand. These mornings were like finding a toehold on a cliff I didn’t know I was on. It saved me, to say it simply, in that it took me away from myself. The poet Arthur Rimbaud had loved walking, too. He’d had swollen knees because of all the walks he took that his leg had had to be amputated. What cause was so noble to implore oneself to a point of dismemberment? Rimbaud walked from city to city, across deserts, took weeks and weeks of journey on foot. He’d considered himself a passer-by: ‘I’m a pedestrian. Nothing more,’ he’d said. On his last days, he’d been excited about having a wooden leg, it was all he was talking about. His last words had been: ‘Quick, they’re expecting us.’ Who was expecting me? I wanted to arrive for nothing and no one. For an hour or two, I was all bones, one with the neighbourhood trees and Victorian bungalows and closed Chinese restaurants. I was the leash on the dogs and the dogs themselves and the owners of the dogs walking the dogs. I was the yoga place and the mat and the plants behind the glass windows and the baguettes and croissants from the bakery. I was the clouds and the blue hidden behind the clouds and I was the peach in the sky and the cars and the tram passing by. There was nothing that wasn’t me, and I was lost in this rhythmic dance with the world that I forgot I was simultaneously suffering.
Night-time would come, as always. I was still trying to create a habit of sleeping alone. I would place one pillow in the middle of my queen-sized bed with every intention of spreading myself. But in the morning, I would always find myself on the right side, close to the windows, in a position that didn’t look like I just happened to roll there. In my sleep, I was making space for him on the empty side, leaving room for an absent body. I was clinging desperately for anything to fill the space that I started filling it with books and bags and used tissue. Something, anything. But nothing seemed to work. Separation is like death except in death, we nurse the ache knowing fully well we cannot unbury the body. In separation, the body just leaves; there is nothing to bury. I considered getting a smaller bed, but in the end, I wanted to face the ghost that seemed intent to sleep beside me.
A woman moaning, gasping, followed by a man’s grunt. The particular orchestra of sex. Flesh on flesh on flesh on flesh. I could tell the exact moment he put his hand over her mouth, the muffled cry and her bite on his palm. A quick flip over and now he’s on top of her. Something happens to a woman pressed down by the heavy weight of someone she wants. She becomes weightless herself, initially floating on a lagoon then sinking down to the bottom of it. She welcomes the entering, soaking wet with anticipation. Then a fullness comes over, drowns her to the core; nothing is left dry or empty. If there is a kind of heaven where you’re gagging as your lungs fill with water, then this is it. Perhaps this is why humans are obsessed with sex, as much as they are obsessed with death – they are one and the same. The thud of the headboard, the wall moving. For a second, I feared I was back in the old apartment, back at the end of the days when it had begun. But as I sat up, I saw the full moon through the window, the books on the floor, the sparse bedroom, the bed that was mine. The sounds were coming from the paramedic’s room next door. I lay back down again, eyes open, staring at the ceiling. It was so quiet it was easy to tell what was happening. He was kissing her now, his tongue inside her mouth. The rustling of hair on the pillow. Their bodies adjusting to each other. I yearned for the clumsiness of it all, the learning that transpires between two people naked before each other. My hand slowly moved down under my blanket, underneath the cotton garment covering what was between my legs. I stared up at the ceiling. There was nothing. With my eyes open and with the sound of their lips together, my fingers found the spot that weakened me, moved there slowly, slightly, gliding and gliding until I was drowning too in heaven, and crying on earth.
Connor asked me out on a date, but I turned it down. He’s my friend, I told him. ‘I don’t need more friends. I already have friends,’ he quipped, which surprisingly hurt. We worked together in tense silence. He was cold to me, asking me to carry the heavy boxes of liquor to the storage area or deal with the difficult customers. When someone wanted an expensive drink that was at the top of the shelf, Connor called me and pointed at the stool. ‘Use that,’ he said. I obliged and they all watched awkwardly as I placed the stool in the middle of the bar and climbed up on it to reach the bottle. I poured the guy his drink and, in turn, he put a large tip in the tin can. At closing, when I passed by Connor at the hall, I pulled his arm to a room and asked if we could talk. There was nothing to talk about, he was saying. It’s just that he couldn’t understand why I flirted with strangers all night but rejected him straight off the bat. He was kind to me, he said, he was there for me when I needed help, he gave me more hours than legally allowed, he waited for me at the tram stop when we finished late at work. He looked like a kid pacing around the room. I understood this so well, the panic, the anxious way emotions surfaced the moment something felt like slipping away. He was making his case, and I suddenly felt the urge to put my arms around him. I asked him to stand still, then approached him slowly, afraid he would bolt. Let me try this, I whispered, then tiptoed to kiss him. He was so tall, so bulky, and I imagined for a second how it would feel like to be underneath all that weight. His lips were dry, tentative against mine. I felt his hand move to my back and all the wondering stopped. I broke the kiss and gently pushed him away, shaking my head. I can’t, I said, I just can’t. I apologised. ‘Why would you fuck it up like that?’ he whispered, his fingers brushing his lips, then left the room.
I wanted to write a good piece about my father but someone told me I can’t call myself a writer until I am published. I desperately wanted to call myself a writer, but I had to deserve it first. So, I called my mother and asked what she could remember about Dad. ‘What does it matter what I remember?’ she said. I told her she was the wife. She told me I was the daughter. We were quiet after that. In the end, she talked about her hands, how because of her arthritis, she found it hard to wash clothes. The machine was no good, she was saying. It was still better to touch things. Feel the fabric. She swore she could feel the dirt being washed away, carried by soap water. She tended to forget these things. What things, I asked. ‘How water feels,’ she said. ‘Or dirt.’
December 19, 2022 / mascara / 0 Comments
Gayatri Nair is an Indian-Australian writer, poet and DJ based on the land of the Wangal people of the Eora nation in Sydney’s inner west. She is a member of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement, has qualifications in Law and Arts, and is working in human rights policy, research and advocacy. She is passionate about pride in cultural identity and using art to affect change. Gayatri has been published in Sweatshop Women Volumes 1 and 2, Red Room Poetry, Mascara Literary Review, The Guardian and Swampland Magazine.
Last night you saved my life
There was a fire in the building
and I would have slept through it
But you woke me up and we survived
Earlier that day we had seen the impossible
Whales breaching out past the rocks
An island which I later looked up, called ‘Rangoon’
‘How racist’ I said, the old term for Yangon
A place I once had a visa to but had never been
And we wouldn’t have seen the whales
But for a lone woman on the beach
who told us to look
No phones no cameras,
nothing to capture it
So I’m writing it down now
You said this is where we would consummate our love
And I said ‘yuck isn’t that like about marriage,’
and ownership of a woman through making an heir
But this morning I googled consummate love
it said it was ‘the complete form of love, representing an ideal relationship which people strive towards… it is the ideal kind of relationship’
I can’t stop laughing at the way
you carried the car keys above your head
swimming with one hand raised through the estuary to the beach
Twice people stopped to ask if you were ok
And I wonder if we can ever go back there?
Like an ending in a Satyajit Ray film
But I don’t think I have a visa to that country anymore.
December 18, 2022 / mascara / 0 Comments
Christopher Cyrill is the author of the novels The Ganges and its Tributaries and Hymns for the Drowning. He has also published numerous stories, articles and written a number of broadcasted radio plays. For many years he was the fiction editor of HEAT and the fiction editor of Giramondo Publishing. Cyrill has taught at Sydney University and Macquarie University and currently runs his own writing academy mentoring writers.
Index of First Lines
Edited by I.V.A Sumac
|Achaean Minotaur, upon the shattered ledge; two men in frame
|Agamemnon insists, despite your chaplets, the graces of the gods
|All I have in the Promised Land is a plot for my bones.
|All life is shipwreck – I dis/agree
|Archipelagos. Cargoes of lighthouses.
|Aria is my brother, my sister overboard
|As for you, you meant evil against my house, my daughters
|As the astral fuse turns off the light, the gas, the water.
|Books stacked up like skylines
|Borges and I/ Achille and Achilles?
|Boys throwing shadestones in white houses
|Brass banded rum tubs – God Bless Her
|Bull leapers, labyrinths, now in the catalogue of Alexander
|But that is all migration of text-
|Capstan bar, man down, sing it in the forecastle
|Careless – careless
|Codex of fire, lost on the middle passage
|cold lies, half truths, rope bound confessions,
|Cornell shadowbox on the rock
|Daughters exiled from lonely jungles become pop stars
|Dreams she gave me; river labyrinths
|Enclosing lightning in her hands
|Eternal mother, strong to serve.
|Every passing cup negotiating Iphigenia
|Fire will still burn the black body
|Firewalkers, dawn healed, fire breathers douse the wreck.
|For twenty years I have touched with my eyes their vermilion
|Girls sweep the ashes for the boys to run to the patriarch
|God said I will take you there and I will lead you back.
|Hands held Abhaya
|Hands throwing three crowns, three anchors
|He says, Poetry should make the visible a little hard to see
|He was the third witness, the one I forgot, or never knew.
|Honey and apples
|I am combining the exhibits, sharing museums, opening space.
|I carried him out of the enflamed house
|I have come for the body of my son, I prayed
|If you want to understand that dream we need to return to Egypt.
|In an anthology of abandoned endings,
|In folksongs they sing of fi
|In the Catacombe di Priscilla the prophet is cast
|J provides the main source material, supplemented by E
|Joni Mitchell was levitating at the forum
|Lalla does not give ghee all the time
|Lear’s daughters wear wishbones in silk purses.
|Let us then offer the first conceit and process from there.
|Maria Constantinople is gathering the ruins of Mycenae
|Nelly poisoned my windflowers
|One entire phalanx fell into the crevasse
|Painters spill into the garden at dawn, to quarter the mad bear
|Pangaea and the first wreck, stones singing the ocean out
|Peisistratus, accused of revealing the mysteries
|Plunged into the literature of disaster.
|Quarks bound to the masts, electrons
|Quaternions of narrative
|Samedi at the crossroads, calling in ships of rum and dice.
|Save your liturgies for those who fall back onto the street
|Say, let’s, the carnival is the book –I-I
|She will spend her days on Argos
|-signifyin’, signifyin’ – when the
|so scuppers sailed to the 99th night
|Sophrosyne, the world never made
|Soucouyants, soca, swimp. Douens gathered on the Half Mile
|Splice the mainbrace against the dark, cruel chaos
|St. Kitts raised its palms, refused it harbour
|Stars strung on the frets of night
|Tack and sheet chanty, ‘aul away St. Joe.
|The argument of a complex number, first order logic
|The astronauts refuse re-entry; the sky is too delicious
|The Atreus façade reveals the crimes; cannibalism, adultery
|The carnival started on Knossos
|The deepest holy is her middle finger and thumb
|The doll nested on Plate 34
|The escape route takes you to St. Nicholas.
|The fields, the herds, the sugared cane
|The main doors opened, Orestes, sword in hand, stood above
|The potstills of Massacre, barrel to bottle.
|The saffron dress becomes windbound
|The schooners sail on in bottles toward Bellesbat
|The sea is tired of the burden of sailors
|Their gazes solid as light under water
|There’s a day for the hunter, a day for the prey
|Things will all then fall into the centre.
|Three rivers suicide at the waterfall
|To the Lady of Nineveh, torch of continents
|Traveller between looms
|Traversing Liedland, without ruin.
|Two fish won’t pull a cart
|Vinegar and salt
|Voiceless mother of exiles
|Watching the panther‘s panther
|We won’t then need to look there anymore.
|When I was a child a painting of a shipwreck hung above my bed
|When Jacob became Israel he offered me this vision
|When Zeus turned the ill wind to good
|When the Marys bring wine and myrrh, fresh linen; lacunae
|Wolves chase the tiring prey across Capricorn
|Yahweh is now active in the narrative.
He says, Poetry should make the visible a little hard to see – This is a paraphrase of Line 21 of “The Creations of Sound” by Wallace Stevens, page 310. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, Faber and Faber, London, 1954.
Tack and sheet chanty, ‘aul away St. Joe. – This is a partial quote from “Haul Away, St. Joe” a traditional sea shanty/chanty/forecastle song. Sourced from: https://www.whalingmuseum.org/
There’s a day for the hunter, a day for the prey – This is a quote from “A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey” by Leyla McCalla Track taken from “A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey” – Leyla McCalla : May 27th 2016 on JazzVillage Music video directed by Claire Bangser
December 17, 2022 / mascara / 0 Comments
Vyacheslav Konoval is a Ukrainian poet and resident of Kyiv. His poems have appeared in many magazines, including Anarchy Anthology Archive, International Poetry Anthology, Literary Waves Publishing, Sparks of Kaliopa, Reach of the Song 2022, Diogenes for Culture Journal, Scars of my heart from the war, Poetry for Ukraine, Norwich University research center, Impakter, The Lit, Allegro, Innisfree Poetry Journal, Fulcrum, Adirondack Center for Writing, Lothlorien Poetry Journal, Revista Literaria Taller Igitur, Tarot Poetry Journal, Tiny Seed Literature Journal, Best American Poetry Blog, Appalachian Journal Dark Horse. Vyacheslav’s poems were translated into Spanish, French, Scottish, and Polish languages.
Cold drops of rain
Descending from the roof
the melting handfuls of snow.
Moaning and humming
echoes outside the window
the wind plays with the lonely poplar,
bends thin branches.
In the darkness of the apartment
how is the Bakhmut city
my frontline friend?
Year of Darkness
A snowflake pinches the cheek,
the frost bites jokingly,
the fog is sliding on the ice.
As thunder tears apart a rocket supply,
the heart in pain, strangulation of the throat,
oh, that black fog covered the country.
There are thousands, tens of thousands of them.
Maybe hundreds of thousands
of worldly souls that flew to heaven,
from the sooty piles of smoke from the huts of towns and villages.
God, why such a punishment?
December 15, 2022 / mascara / 0 Comments
Lesh Karan is a Naarm/Melbourne-based writer and poet. Her work has been published in Best of Australian Poems 2022, Australian Poetry Journal, Cordite Poetry Review, Island, Mascara Literary Review and Rabbit, amongst others. Lesh is currently completing a Master of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne. She’s of Fiji Indian heritage.
She took off her earth-caked shoes
and put them on the floor. On the floor,
she stacked her old notebooks and red pens
drained of ink. She placed her sweat-drenched
leggings on the floor. On the floor, her heart
still racing, too. She piled the organic produce
from farmers’ markets on the floor, alongside
the key holes, acupuncture and Advil. A stone
statue of Lord Ganesha she placed on the floor.
On the floor, his wordlessness, too. The mango
tree from her childhood home, she gently lay
on the floor and saw an orange dove
flutter off. Friends she let go, the friend who
let her go, all on the floor. The ill-fitting careers
she stacked like witches hats in the furthest corner on the floor.
She took her mirror off the wall and set it
flat on the floor, looked at herself
from the ground up. The dream home
she dismantled and stacked on the floor,
next to all the how-to manuals she had bought.
The question she couldn’t answer, she tore
and scattered like seeds on the floor. When
the floor cracks, she putties it
with moonlight, Fleetwood Mac,
and continues stacking.
December 15, 2022 / mascara / 0 Comments
Morgaine Riley is a writer and English tutor from Peramangk Country (the Adelaide Hills). In 2021, she was awarded the Peter Davies Memorial Prize for Creative Writing. She has recently completed an Honours in Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide.
The drive to Hardwicke is filled with corn chips and ABBA’s complete discography, with sleeping bags and pillows overflowing into the backseat and making it impossible to see out the rear window. On the first day, the weather is horrible—drizzly and gusty, banging the flyscreen doors and dragging green plastic deck chairs across the veranda.
We sit on the carpet of the beach shack, poring over a photo album from Tony’s Year Eleven exchange to Japan. Jenny gave it to Selene after the twenty-year anniversary. Tony is younger in these photos, only sixteen or seventeen, and it shows in his face and hair. One photo stands out. In it, Tony is wearing light blue jeans and a white t-shirt, standing with his weight on his right leg. His hair is blonde and floppy, like Leonardo DiCaprio, and his smile tilts up to the left. He looks at ease, confident, and very familiar.
Maybe it’s an aura—the way they hold themselves. Self-assured, always in action, with matching cheeky smirks—a forced moment of pause for a camera that will be abandoned quickly.
Something Eddy said about that day at Bullies jolted my recognition. “He got completely washed up, but he came in with this massive grin on his face.” A genuine love of trying, not just succeeding. Something the boys admired about Tony, and I treasure in Selene. I love Selene the way these boys loved Tony, and we mourn for how they could have loved each other.
29th May 2022. Hardwicke Bay
On the anniversary of the day Tony disappeared, we walk along the esplanade to the beach. Nearly every second house has a tractor parked out front, old Ferguson types with big back wheels and rounded corners in pale blues and reds with rust bleeding through; or newer, John Deere green and yellow with encased cabs. To tow the boats out, Selene tells us. More heavy duty than your average four-wheel-drive. Fantastic off-roaders.
We follow the tractor treads in the sand right down to the water line. Lazy and a little hungover, we trail along the beach, jeans rolled up to wander through the low tide and out onto the reef. We squat over shallow rockpools, pulling up crabs for inspection before returning them to their rocky alcoves in a flurry of sand. Pipi casings lie open, pale purple, sometimes pinkish inside, the discards of bait left behind by beach fishermen or washed ashore from their boats.
We’ve been walking for two hours when we realise we’re hungry and halfway to Point Turton. Distracted, laughing about a boy Amber is “talking to”, we track back on wetter, harder sand, less dawdling this time. The tide has already taken most of our footprints.
Only when we are back at the house, and Kali tries to open the doors, do we realise what we don’t have. The keys.
“Are they inside?”
“No, I’m sure I took them,”
“The glove box, maybe?”
Selene pats the pouch pocket of her jumper in horror. “They were in here. They must have fallen out.”
“Tony’s rock?” We all realise at the same time. We’d been bending to place flowers there, that must’ve shaken them out.
Selene and I look at each other.
“We have to check.”
A plan is set out. Selene and I will go and check the carpark, where the keys will definitely be, the others will try and get in through a window and see if any locksmiths are working on a Saturday in the middle of nowhere. No need to panic.
The keys are not at Tony’s rock. It’s obvious almost immediately—there’s only gravel and sparse status flowers for them to hide in.
“Ok, ok, let’s think. Where else would you have been bending down?”
Selene grimaces as we look out over the beach. “Pretty much every rock pool,” she sighs.
“Alright.” I don’t let her see how panicked I am. “Let’s go and look there, then.” I grin, “How hard can it be?”
Mirroring the same stupid hope that I feel, Selene grins back. “Right? Not hard.”
Retracing our steps is tricky, because the tide has come right in, swallowing all of our footprints. Selene scans the deeper, looser sand and I give up on keeping my jeans dry, scouring the shallows for any glinting silver. We’ve been staring at our feet for forty minutes when I stumble across the edge of a rockpool.
“I think we should head back,” Selene yells over the wind. She laughs when she sees me picking my way out to the reef. We must both be mad.
I stop and turn around to yell back, “One sec!”
We stand there, a hundred metres apart, Selene with her hands on her head and me up to my thighs in sea water. Simultaneously, we keel over laughing. Then something catches my eye.
“SELENE OHMYFUCKINGGOD OHMYGODOHMYGOD!”
I fish them off the of the slimy rock and half-sprint half-jump back over the reef towards Selene. I shake my fist, keys clenched tight above my head as we shriek and jump and hug in disbelief.
“That’s gotta be him, right? What are the chances?”
December 3, 2022 / mascara / 0 Comments
Nilofar Zimmerman is a writer and lawyer living in Sydney. She is currently undertaking a Master of Creative Writing at the University of Sydney and was the runner-up in the 2022 Deborah Cass Prize for Writing.
Girl dangled her legs over the back of the truck and swung them playfully while she watched Papa and Brother. The first thwacks of the machetes were jarring. Thwack. The stem. Thwack. The leaves. Thwack. The cane trimmed for transportation. But their rhythms quickly became melodic, like an ode to the rains that had come down enough and the sun that had taken over in time.
Half-way through the first row, Papa left Brother and walked further into the field to inspect the crops, disappearing beneath a canopy of green. Girl slid down from the back of the truck, her bare feet landing gently on the dirt. As she moved towards the maze of sugarcane, Brother stopped and watched her.
The thwacks were muffled as she ran deeper into the field among the rows of brown stalks and green leaves, which brushed her body as she weaved through the narrow spaces between the rows. She was Mowgli now. She crouched down into a gap where the stems of two plants had bowed towards each other to form a small hollow. It was the perfect den for a wolf-child. Baloo came to visit in the den and the bear told her stories about the law of the jungle as she paced along the soil on her hands and knees, practising her hunting skills. Don’t fight with the lords of the jungle, he told her. Bears, tigers, panthers – they must all be respected, just like the pack. Do you remember the pack, Mowgli?
As she pulled aside a stalk of sugarcane searching for prey she nodded and repeated to herself, the strength of the wolf is the pack and the strength of the pack is the wolf. She pretended Rikki Tikki Tavi, the mongoose, was hiding behind the stalks and pounced over and over again, practising her surprise attack. A faint thwacking began pulsating towards her and she crouched on her legs with her back straight and her head up, still and listening like a wolf alone in the darkness. The thwacking slowly became louder as the field fell in line with the season. Run, Mowgli, Run, she thought. Shere Khan is coming.
When the light waned, Papa called for Brother to put his tools down and store them in the trailer of the truck. Girl sat in the cabin of the truck wedged between Papa and Brother. The air inside was thick with sweat and exhaustion and their wet bodies jolted against one another as they drove along the dirt road running down the middle of the sugarcane fields for the three-minute journey to the house. The dirt road led to a two-bedroom house made of light blue weatherboard with a corrugated silver tin roof, which was fenced in by the fields on each side and dusted with dirt blown up from the ground.
As she walked into the house, Girl was hit by the sweet smell of the tropics mixed in with the warm air that filled the living room. The fruit bowl on the counter of the adjacent kitchen was overflowing with pineapples, mangoes and a bag of apples from yesterday’s trip to the market. She picked up an empty pitcher from a dining table with a white tablecloth and a clear plastic covering on top and took the pitcher to the sink to fill it with water. She began carefully measuring out spoons of Tang and mixed the orange crystals into the water, tapping the rim of the spoon three times on the rim of the pitcher when the drink was ready, just like Mama used to.
Brother shouted for his drink as he lay sprawled on the green linoleum floor in front of the television with his back against the foot of the sofa. Papa sat in his armchair under the gentle whipping of the ceiling fan, sorting through mail. Girl climbed onto her step stool, slowly pouring the orange drink into two glasses and adding three ice cubes to each. ‘Here’s a cold drink, Papa,’ she said, using both hands to pass him the glass.
His face broke into a smile. ‘What would I do without you, sweet pea?’
Brother stared at her as she handed him the second glass. ‘I’m hungry,’ he said, his eyes red and impenetrable. Kaa, thought Girl, as she returned to the kitchen to put on a pot of beans. No. The snake is Mowgli’s friend.
She picked up an apple and began methodically dicing it for Brother, just like Mama had taught her. As she went to hand Brother the apple, she stopped to watch the laughter coming from the television screen and couldn’t help smiling along with the laugh track as the family on the screen gesticulated with frustration at one another. As soon as Girl placed the apple in front of Brother, he began scooping handfuls from the bowl, his eyes always on the screen. Brother began to cough and Papa let out a chuckle as he leant down to tap Brother’s back. ‘Go easy, boy,’ he said. ‘The market isn’t running out of apples.’ Brother smirked and continued staring ahead, putting another large handful in his mouth.
Papa beckoned Girl. ‘You have a package from Cousin Sister’. She clasped the brown envelope with both hands, brushing her fingers over the top right corner, which was filled with stamps bearing the Statue of Liberty. Cousin Sister was Mama’s favourite niece. She was a manager of Wendy’s now in San Francisco, Mama had told Papa proudly. She had 20 employees working under her, Girl remembered Mama saying with a smile so wide, Girl could almost see Mama’s back molars. Had left that man, Mama told Papa. He punched her and she punched back. Found a place in a shelter and never went back to him. America was really something, wasn’t it? Girl remembered the way Mama and Papa nodded their heads in agreement. America really was something.
Girl tore open the package and jumped with delight. ‘Another Babysitter’s Club book, my fourth one. It’s Mary-Anne Saves the Day,’ she said to no one in particular, waving the book in front of her. She opened the first page and sounded out the unfamiliar words, just like Mama had taught her. As she walked back towards the stove, she pictured herself walking through the tree-lined streets of Stoneybrook, Connecticut, through the front door of a weatherboard house and up the stairs to Claudia’s bedroom for the club meeting. Where have you been, Girl? They would say. Come and join us.
Girl looked out the kitchen window as she dried the last dish but outside everything had merged into darkness. She hung up the tea towel for the morning and went to get ready for bed, washing away the day under a cool shower before haphazardly drying herself and wrapping the towel around her body, eager to read her new book. She darted across the hallway into the bedroom and straight to the dresser sitting between her bed and Brother’s bed. She straightened Mama’s photograph of Princess Diana, which was hanging askew above the dresser and pulled out her clothes from the top drawer. As she slipped on her underwear, she remembered Mama’s old atlas on the bookshelf. She pulled it off the shelf and crouched over it. She flicked through the index looking for ‘S’ and ran her finger down the page but she couldn’t find Stoneybrook, Connecticut anywhere. She found Stamford, which was close enough. The babysitters sometimes went there. It was real. She found the map and was tracing the east coast of America with her finger when she felt movement near the door. She looked up to see Brother standing at the bedroom doorway, staring at her, his eyes darting with curiosity across her naked torso. She quickly picked up her nightie from the floor next to her, pulled it on and went to push past him. He put out a long arm and blocked the doorway. She returned his stare. He relented and she ran over to Papa, who was reading in his armchair.
‘What is it?’ Papa asked.
Girl looked over at Brother, who was walking over to the television. Remember the law, Mowgli. The wolf that follows it will prosper. Keep peace with the lords of the jungle.
‘Nothing,’ she said.
Throughout the market, dotted with plastic tables topped with crates of fruit and vegetables, stall holders sat on folding chairs playing cards or throwing around lethargic banter under the sun. Girl hopped and skipped over the dry dirt, breaking the market’s docile rhythm as she followed Papa to the truck for the hour-long drive from town back home. She held a large piece of taro like a rugby ball and pretended to toss it to Papa. He laughed as he loaded the truck and handed Girl a bag of apples to hold in her lap
‘We wouldn’t want these to get bruised,’ he said to Girl as he climbed into the driver’s seat. ‘Brother has been working very hard.’
Girl fiddled with the dial on the radio with one hand while carefully holding the bag in her other hand as they jostled down the dirt road, following the island’s curve along the coast. The radio crackled as she turned the dial and once she landed on the right song, she nestled back into her seat. Roam if you want to, the B-52s sang to her from across the ocean. Roam around the world. Roam if you want to. Without wings, without wheels. She gazed out the open window at the Pacific Ocean stretching endlessly to their left, her bare arms peeling away from the warm leather seat like sticky tape as she sat up to get a better look.
‘Papa,’ she said, ‘How long would it take to get to America?’.
‘It would take many hours, my darling.’
‘Would I need to take an aeroplane, Papa?’
‘Yes, you would. A large plane. It would cost a lot of money.’
‘Papa, I want to earn money to buy a plane ticket and live in America. I’ll work in a restaurant and have a big American house, just like the Babysitter’s Club.’
Papa chuckled. ‘What about your Papa, my darling? If you lived in America, who would look after me?’
Girl smiled at Papa, then looked out across the windscreen at the ocean to the left and field after field of sugarcane on the right. ‘Of course, Papa. Don’t worry, I’ll always look after you.’
They arrived at the house as the light was starting to fade and Brother was pulling up on his bicycle. Girl put the bag of apples on the seat and slid from the truck before carefully lifting the bag out with both hands. She walked over to the front door watching over her shoulder as Papa patted Brother on the back.
‘You’re doing a fine job, boy,’ Papa said. ‘I think we’ll get a good price for the harvest this year. In a few weeks, we’ll be ready to the take the first batch to the mill.’
Girl walked straight to the kitchen counter, taking an apple from the bag and washing it. As she slowly diced the apple for Brother, she remembered Mama’s gentle encouragement. A little smaller, a little smaller, Mama would say to Girl, showing her how to cut the apple.
Girl sat in her nightie on a bundle of cane under the moonlight, watching Papa tie down the stacks of cane piled high onto a large trailer attached to the truck.
‘Can I have a go, Papa?’
‘I’m sorry, my darling, I need to make these very tight. Otherwise, I’ll be dropping parcels of cane all the way along the coast.’
‘Why can’t I come with you, Papa?’ Girl said. The bundle of cane she was sitting on jiggled slightly as she fidgeted one leg.
‘Who will look after Brother while he carries on with the cutting? That is your important job for the harvest and I know you will do it well. Now it’s time for bed for all of us. I’ll be leaving at first light, but I should be back at night.’
Girl woke up several hours later and looked across the dark room. Slap. Slap. Slap. The sound was faint but certain. She could just see Brother’s eyes fixed on her from his bed, his hand moving up and down under the covers. Her heart was beating quickly and forcefully.
Kaa is watching.
Kaa is waiting.
She took a deep breath before getting out of bed and walking softly across the hallway to Papa’s room. She lay down in bed next to him and closed her eyes.
Remember, Mowgli, remember. If you fight with one of the pack, you must fight him alone and afar. Lest the pack be brought into the quarrel. Lest the pack be brought into war.
With Papa gone at sunrise, Girl spent the morning at the house doing her jobs. Papa will be so pleased, she thought, as she wiped the dirt from the outside of the doors and windows. She imagined she was Pippi Longstocking getting Villa Villekulla ready for her sea captain father who was coming home from an expedition. As she pulled towels down from the clothesline, she put her face to them and breathed deeply. They smelled like Mama to her. A mixture of detergent and the crisp cleanliness that only came from a day of baking in the hot sun.
At lunchtime, Girl packed a shopping bag with a thermos of Tang and a plastic container of fried cassava, rice and beans and walked down to the field nearest to the house, which hadn’t been cut yet, squinting into the distance to look for Brother among the sea of green. She took a deep breath and walked further down the dirt road along the edge of the field, holding the bag with one hand and brushing the leaves of the sugarcane with her other hand. As she wiggled her fingers in the empty space between one of the rows, a hand lunged forward and grabbed her wrist tightly, pushing her against the crops. ‘You’re late,’ Brother said, glaring at Girl, his face and chest centimetres from her own, the beads of sweat on his forehead hovering over Girl like they were daring her to move. She dropped the bag onto the soil and as Brother released his grip, she clutched her wrist and ran deeper into the field, weaving between the rows of sugarcane and looking for a path through the jungle.
Brother came in after the day of felling, slumping down at the dining table and turning on the television. His shirt was wet; the day’s heat had defeated him. On cue, Girl began cutting his apple. A little bigger, she thought, a little bigger. She put the bowl of apple in front of Brother and turned towards the sink to prepare the pitcher of Tang. Measure the powder carefully. Mix it into the water, just like Mama said to. Then a hard thumping interrupted her evening ritual.
She turned around to see Brother holding his throat with one hand and banging the other on the dining table. She dropped her spoon and stumbled backwards in surprise, catching herself against the counter. Kaa was gasping for air. His steely eyes demanded attention. Help me. Mowgli, you must help me.
Girl stood immobilised. She began to move forward but hesitated and turned back to the pitcher, closing her eyes.
Drink deeply but never too deep, Kaa. That is the way of the jungle. Mowgli watched as Kaa struggled for breath until finally, the snake fell to the jungle floor with a thud, its gaze fixed towards some distant place.
Girl opened her eyes and turned towards the dining table, swiping the tears off her face with both hands. Then she reached into a cupboard and picked up a packet of rice. Papa will be hungry.