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.’
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.
Min Chow is an emerging Malaysian-Australian writer and second runner up for the Deborah Cass Prize in 2022. She works, lives and writes on Wurundjeri land. Her work has also appeared in the Life in the Time of Corona anthology and Peril magazine. She is working on her first novel.
Papa announced that I would start riding to school with Preeti.
Her, with the sticky eyes.
We had both been in the same class since the start of the year but we had never spoken. I could only remember her going blink blink blink in the corner and her sudden burst of cackles among the group who needed extra help in Matematik.
The battered white Proton Saga pulled up when it was still dark outside. Uncle Balan waved, “Good morning!”
Preeti sat in the front with the window rolled down, munching plain cream crackers from a plastic container.
She sang out, “Haiiiii, Lim Bee Hoon!”
“It’s Samantha,” I replied flatly, watching the wet biscuit paste tumble inside her mouth from one cavity to another.
Preeti blinked. “Sam-what?
“Sa-MAN-tha. My name is Samantha.”
We picked up four other people, all piling in the back sleepily, squeezing and trying to shrink ourselves to fit. The smell of starched uniforms and morning breaths filled the car, along with Uncle Balan’s hair oil and Preeti’s cream crackers.
A girl from a year below was practically sitting on top of me. I felt my warm Milo breakfast swish and swirl dangerously in my stomach. I focused on staring at the younger girl’s left hand clutching her water bottle, a curious map of knots and untidy sewing stitches that started from the base of her thumb down to her forearm.
The journey would take nearly an hour, on dusty roads past tall towers exhaling one long, continuous sigh after another into the sky the colour of the muddy drain that ran behind our house. The Proton sped past endless patches of disemboweled red earth, raw and seething as heavy machines and their claws continued their assault, thud-thud-thud.
Papa liked to use the word ‘development’ when we got to this stretch, back when he drove me to school. He said the trees were making way for important, well-known companies from the USA to give local people jobs. Even to those from the plantation, like Uncle Balan. They were friends, helping us out and we needed a lot of help. Bright foreign names appeared on these big towers that were built in what seemed like weeks. I recognised only Mattel from the boxes of my old Lego sets and Barbie dolls.
My favourite part was when we drove past the airfield where the Australian fighter jets were parked, gleaming under the smoked, watery sun. The air force station had been there for many years. Long before I was born, long before Papa arrived. He said the Australians too were friends, like the USA. They came to help us fight off the bad guys as they had more power, more weapons, more everything.
I saw these Australians sometimes at Berkat, the first department store with air-con that opened just a few months ago. They’re just stopping by, Mama absently said to no one in particular. The airforce families lived over on the island, near the beach, where their children went to a special school. I imagined 10-year olds like me with names like Debbie, Luke, Glenn.
Once past the airfield, the Proton finally pulled up in front of the school foyer just as the bell went. We tumbled out of the car, dizzy from the heat and Uncle Balan’s sharp lane changes in shift change traffic. I wiped sweat off my upper lip with the sleeve of my white shirt and caught a whiff of hair oil.
“Mama,” I said as I set the plates on the table. My father ate at the factory canteen most nights of the week.
“Can I please not go in Uncle Balan’s car anymore?”
“I can take the school bus, like Suzy and Tina. It’s very safe.”
Mama didn’t say anything. A moment later, she came over and placed a hand on my cheek. It was warm and damp, and it said, be a good girl please.
Being a good girl was the easiest on Sunday, my favourite day. When Papa wasn’t too tired, he took us in his treasured second-hand Nissan on the ferry across to the island. The island was where we belonged, our future forever home. We were leaving the mainland behind and moving over in a year. Papa said the same thing last year but there had been a delay with his promotion to ‘corporate’. But it was going to happen. One hundred per cent. He would be the first local man in the factory to go this far.
There was always smiling and chatting on Sundays spent on the island. Nothing would upset Papa, Mama’s eyes danced and her shoulders dropped.
We ate in Western restaurants with air-con, their windows drawn tightly shut so it was dark even during the day. There was a tealight candle and a vase with a single plastic flower on every table. Papa ordered Fish and Chips, Minute Steak and Spaghetti Bolognese without fail. I preferred chicken rice, but I would pick at the chips and say things like “This is so delicious!” and “I could eat this every day!”.
After that, we visited the supermarket that stocked imported products, where many airforce families shopped for jars of Vegemite and chocolate shaped like frogs. Mama bought a packet of Tim Tams once as a treat for Chinese New Year and stored most of them in the fridge for over a year before they had to be thrown out. Mostly, we drove around the airforce neighbourhood near the beach looking at houses. I pointed out luxurious features, real or imagined, lying within the lacquered gates.
“That one has a balcony! Maybe even a pool!”
“Next year,” Papa said in his jolly Sunday voice, one resolute finger in the air, “we’ll have something grander.”
One morning, Preeti held a small black tube as I climbed into the car.
She caught me staring and said, “I’m keeping it for Amma. See? She says the colour is bright and lovely. Like me.”
Preeti’s Amma worked for an airforce family on the island and came home once a month. She cooked and cleaned for them and called the adults Sir and Mum. Mum had given her the lipstick for Christmas, even though Preeti’s Amma was Hindu.
Preeti uncapped the tube revealing the crayon with a flat top and sniffed greedily. She handed it to me, gesturing for me to smell it. I turned the lipstick tube over in my hands. Melonshine, it said on the little shiny sticker at the bottom.
The tube turned up everywhere with Preeti. She showed it to everyone in class, fiddled with it even when we were meant to stand still at Assembly. Uncle Balan had spoken to Cikgu asking special permission to allow it.
I started rolling my eyes and soon Suzy joined me. It wasn’t as if Preeti could do anything with it. Make-up was forbidden, except when we got to perform at the year-end concert. Girls like Preeti didn’t get picked for that.
Preeti trotted behind me as we were heading out to recess. Suzy and Tina raised their eyebrows at each other.
“Lim Bee Hoon! What are we playing today?”
“My name is Samantha,” I hissed.
“Cikgu doesn’t call you that. Your name is Lim Bee Hoon-lah.”
“My friends call me Samantha.”
“OK. But I’m not calling you your fake name.”
She parked herself on the grass near the edge of our circle without taking care to cross her legs. We could see her underwear and I made a show of screwing up my face and pinching my nose, making Suzy and Tina giggle.
“There are too many of us in the car. It stinks and I can’t breathe the whole way.”
“The windows aren’t even automatic!”
“She’s a bit dumb in class too. She doesn’t even know what’s eight times nine. Eight times nine!”
I went blink blink blink, by then an impression that I repeated almost every day. Unlike Suzy and Tina and my other classmates, Mama didn’t laugh and said enough.
I was still moody on Sunday when we left to see the new bridge. The Nissan joined the massive queue of mainland families eager to cross what they were calling one of the longest bridges in the world. A real global treasure, right here at our doorstep. Papa usually preferred silence in the car until we got to the island, but he popped in a Michael Jackson tape and drummed his fingers to the beat on the steering wheel. He could have waited in line the whole day.
Two hours later, we reached the gate and paid the toll. As the window rolled up and we passed into the transit area, I felt something shift in the car. Mama cleared her throat and glanced at Papa. He smiled at her and changed gears purposefully, climbing the freshly painted tar as Michael sang why why tell ‘em that it’s human nature for the third time. It was so new and modern, not one pothole in sight we could have been part of a blown-up Lego set Mattel from USA made right there on the mainland.
Soon, we were on the bridge, cruising above the water. My stomach fluttered like on the rides at the pesta, only this was much better. We were practically flying across the strait! The tiny stubborn strip on the map that had kept us apart from the island, now linked and forever changed. As the crest of the bridge appeared before us, the sea too had transformed, from the colour of mucus to a sparkling turquoise.
Papa’s mouth hung slightly open the entire time. Mama kept looking over at him and back at me, her pale hand on her throat while she swallowed several times. At the top, dwarfed between the towers that reached into the sky in the bluest shade of blue, the Nissan sputtered twice, as if in awe. The journey was over in less than ten minutes. It was the fastest crossing to the island we ever made but it felt like we had gone much, much further.
Suzy and I were trying a new game. We sat on the ground under the cool, deserted Blok D stairs, with our pinafore skirts pushed up. We were taking turns running our fingers down each other’s lap. The first to give in to the tickle and laugh would be the loser.
It was funny at first. Suzy’s fat fingers tiptoed up and down my lap, tripping over themselves and it was hard not to giggle. When her turn came to sit still, I pretended to play the piano on her lap, with extra sound effects. We had just gone twice when Preeti appeared and plopped down next to us without asking.
She studied us for a little while before putting her lipstick tube down and cracked her fingers until a few of them popped. With a tongue out in concentration, she raised her right fourth finger and hovered it above my lap. She looked at me briefly and when I didn’t say anything, she placed the finger on me. So gentle was the landing that I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t been looking. I froze as her finger started trailing upwards, light as an insect. It carefully carried on north to the middle of my lap before it gained speed and slid towards the edge of my underwear.
Suzy too had stopped moving, her eyes wide and glittering in the dimness. Preeti’s breathing was the only sound we could hear. The same softness now descended, silky tips of a make-up brush skimming downwards over tiny bumps that had sprung up on my skin. I felt hot and cold all over, a fever almost, like the kind I got sometimes with the shower head. The kind you didn’t want to stop.
Suzy jumped back suddenly with a yelp. A thin puddle had crept slowly to the edge of her shoe. I stood up, thigh still tingling and stared down in shock as a stain bloomed across my pinafore skirt and fluid pooled in my white ankle socks. I felt the wetness, just as the sharp, sweet tang of acid hit my nostrils.
Preeti’s finger was still suspended in mid-air when I turned to look at her. In the near-darkness, I just about made out her eyes. Blink blink blinking the terror away.
Papa heard from Uncle Balan at work and didn’t miss a beat when he got home. When he was done, he pushed me into the storeroom and latched it shut from the outside. I couldn’t reach the lights, even when I climbed on top of the stack of old newspapers. I sat sobbing, fighting off the hug from the darkness around me, the black creatures emerging.
“Inside or outside today?”
I smiled brightly, “Let’s play inside today.”
It was Preeti’s turn, and she went looking under the desks and behind the cupboard. Anyone else could see there was no one hiding in those places. I waited in the wings, alert and ready.
Uncle Balan arrived late that day to pick us up, after everyone else had gone. He seemed distracted and deep in thought, so I guessed he was no longer upset. The girl with the stitched hands was jerking about next to me, confused if she was meant to sit back or lean forward. I pushed her back and a fold in my skirt fell to one side, exposing the back of my leg. She gasped.
“You should cover those hands up with gloves,” I snapped at her.
Nobody said anything in the car for a long time. When the car came to stop at the lights, Uncle Balan pulled up the handbrake and twisted fully in his seat to stare at me. I could see he was mad, perhaps even madder than Papa had been the other night. I turned away, my heart beating so loudly I could hear it over the motor engines around us. A kapchai throbbed next to us, carrying a younger boy sandwiched between his father and mother, an Ultraman bag from Berkat over her shoulders.
Alone in my room, I retrieved from my bag the prize I claimed at recess. I uncapped Melonshine and dabbed the glossy red on the back of my palm. It turned brown on my skin like rotten fruit, and I kept pressing the flat top of the stick into it to make the colour shine red again. I decided I would keep it for a day or two, just long enough for Preeti to miss it. In case her Amma returned and asked for it.
Preeti didn’t turn up the next day, or the one after that. One week passed and Mama told me that they were putting me on the school bus because Uncle Balan couldn’t drive me anymore. I shrugged and carried on with my homework.
When no one was looking, I let myself into the storeroom and locked the door behind me. I twisted the tube open with my fingers and felt the blackness breathe unhappily on the back of my neck, down my bare arms and my thighs, like Preeti’s fourth finger. I brought the tube close to my nose. I smelled the sugary wax and pressed the stick to my mouth, imagining the places the colour had touched.
Bryant Apolonio is an award-winning writer and lawyer currently living on Larrakia Country. He won the Deborah Cass Prize in 2021. His fiction has appeared in places like Liminal, Kill Your Darlings and Overland. He is working on a collection of short stories.
Araw ng Kalayaan 1991, the banner read. It’s a holiday but who’d pick it? There’s no joy in the mob’s foot-drag shuffle. No marching band jouncing along to the national anthem. There’s only the heckle of a thousand waylaid travellers. Only glassy customer service smiles and apologies over the P.A system. Flights delayed, delayed, cancelled. Always skittish around crowds, Arturo told his wife he’d go outside and see if he could learn more about what was happening, to see if anyone could help them. ‘Take Jun with you,’ Gina said flatly – of course she didn’t buy it – but he took his son by the hand all the same. The boy was being a menace again, had inherited his father’s disquiet along with his name. Give him one unsupervised second and he’d launch himself right off into the scrum of legs and sandaled feet.
‘Don’t let go, ‘nak,’ Arturo said as they pried their way through the concourse. Queues shoved up against the service counters like a river delta reaching the coast. All around them, passengers awaited news. They lay on the benches or on the carpet, resting their heads on suitcases and bunched-up clothes. Arturo felt his son’s small hand pulling him towards the windows that faced the tarmac where the planes stood waiting. Jun liked watching them inch forward –chrome and combustion coming to life, carbonating the air with pre-ignition fuel – only to be stopped just as suddenly by some off-screen order, a bark from the radio or the flourish of an air marshal’s wand. The pair emerged on Aquino Avenue where they found street vendors setting up roadside shops. Children – some as young as Jun – weaved between stalls bearing boxes full of snacks. Unruly knockabouts with salesman flair, calling out Quail eggs! duck eggs! peanuts! while local cops watched on listlessly.
Arturo bought the boy a skewer of pollock fish-balls and then he walked over to where the policemen were standing. He waved an amicable hand. ‘Can you tell me what’s going on here? When will they let us fly?’
Both officers had the look of men perpetually affronted: by Turo’s question, by the heat and smog and chaos of the street, by the civilian throng around them, and above all by the administrator who’d exiled them here – here, instead of an air-conditioned card-hall or Pasay brothel – to wait out the end of the world.
‘Where are you headed, pare?’ the younger officer asked. His face shone in the heat.
‘Sydney,’ Arturo said. He had relatives there who’d schemed for years to get them over. They needed diligent workers, one cousin had told Turo and his wife. They needed men with brains. He prophesied food on the table each night and two kids in medical school. That was enough for Gina but Arturo had never been convinced despite each pre-filled pastel form, each interview, each cheque made out to the immigration lawyer with the tease of hair and ruddled neck.
He must’ve had a slackwit look on his face because the police officers’ exasperation suddenly gave way to pity. ‘No, pare,’ said the older cop, clapping a sympathetic paw on his shoulder. ‘Where do you live? Where’s home? No one’s leaving Manila today.’ They had automatic weapons slung over their shoulders. Old Yank M16s, possibly seized from the communists, the ordnance you’d expect from a former dictatorship.
On the other side of the street, a homeless man held a sign that read REV 8:8. He was shouting something. The cops watched him for a while, expecting a disturbance, but he wasn’t hassling anybody and the passersby ignored him. In fact, they seemed to barely register his presence. Doom-struck madmen would be a common enough sight in the city by the end of that summer. The older policeman turned back to Arturo. ‘This is just the first blast, sir. A throat clearing. Things will only get worse. You get your family home and keep them there.’
Arturo watched the cops trudge off. Then he looked down at Jun. ‘Now what?’
The crowd had grown much larger in the short time they’d been outside. People were leaving the airport and just sort of standing still, reaching the exit and staring up at the northern sky, uncertain about where they were meant to go from there. There were harried-looking businessmen. There were young people who should have been on holiday. Vivid heaps of luggage resting at their feet. There was a pilot pinching the front of his shirt. A Latin American priest flanked by two nuns in the black habit of the Benedictines. They sat on a wooden bench and prayed the rosary.
Turo crouched down on one knee so he was eye-level with his son. He pointed up at the clouds of ash that advanced like a tired army. ‘You see that, Jun?’
‘It’s a fire,’ said the boy.
Arturo nodded. ‘A fire. Right in the middle of the mountain. An enormous fire that started long ago…’ he went on as if he were beginning a story. But before he could tell it, Junior had already fashioned his own. A treasure hoard in a deep magma chamber. A lone intruder scrabbling to fill his pockets with precious gems. A scarlet beast behind him, rising from its long slumber, with ancient wings outstretched. It was Arturo’s quiet pleasure to watch Jun when he got like this – the drifty look he got, mouth agape, the mop of black hair over his eyes – and he envied the way the boy, like all children, could relocate himself so easily into a world all his own.
‘Let’s find your mother,’ Arturo said.
The priest and the nuns were reciting the Hail Mary. Arturo was not a religious man. He hadn’t been to church in years. He knew that truth lay in numbers and in an understanding of the world’s physical laws. A mountain was an accommodation of stress and pressure. A volcano would telegraph its eruption for weeks and weeks if you knew what to listen for. An earthquake in Tangshan could set another off on the far end of the Eurasian plate. He knew that the land they stood on was temporary, that its coastlines changed shape and its atolls sank into the Pacific and sometimes rose. But looking at the Zambales mountains today, even he found it hard to deny what his countrymen already knew.
A Plinian column, twenty kilometres high, obscured the red palm of sun. Disintegrated pumice and silicon covered the stratosphere like living tissue. It had a terrible life to it, he thought. There was will here and there was portent. How easy it was, today, to believe in a God that punished and judged. And how much it looked like two lobes perched on a spindly stem: a great brain looming over the Philippine islands, solemn and indifferent.
At Amoranto Sports Complex, the tennis courts have been converted to field kitchens. A documentary crew are trying to enter the makeshift morgue. Air Force personnel stand about like construction workers waiting for their foreman to show up. Even from the top of the stands, it’s hard to see how far the lines go. You will get to know this wide-eyed march of the survivors. It’s the story of the next century. The whole place blanketed in the drab olive of army tarp. Pope John Paul II’s condolences over the speakers. He prays for the missing. San Antonio, Patron Saint of Lost Things, please bring them home. Typhoon Yunya’s days from landfall, says a meteorologist, squinting through thick eyeglass lenses. Army geologists watch their monitors with hushed expectancy. A one hertz tremor, rail to rail. A fisherman, bird-boned, sun-pruned, tells the interviewer that he leapt from his canoe and dove underwater and hid there when he first heard the rumble. He swam to shore but his partner was gone. There’s a father who lost his son in a mudslide. A teenage girl who hid in a cave. Their words have a detached and offhand quality, as if they’re reporting things from movies they’d seen – movies that they didn’t particularly like or even found interesting – and could only faintly recollect.
Gina turned away from the television screen and saw that the girl in the Philippine Airlines uniform had slid a receipt across the counter.
‘Did you see that?’ she asked.
‘Ma’am, I’ve upgraded your seats. We’ll contact you as soon as we have a handle on the situation.’
‘They’re talking about a typhoon now. How long do you think it’ll be before the airport’s open again?’
‘I’m afraid I can’t say.’
‘Days? Weeks, do you think?’
‘I understand your concern, ma’am,’ the girl replied. ‘But even if I could help you, I won’t be able to process any of this while we’re on alert. It’s the system, ma’am. None of our planes have clearance.’
Gina studied the skin on the girl’s arms. She had an aggressive eczema there, a violent red that ran up and florentined the left side of her neck. ‘Miss,’ still vainly defiant, ‘We need to be in Sydney by the end of the week. My husband has an interview for a new job. If we had been up in the air three hours ago, we wouldn’t have had to worry about the ash reaching us.’
On TV, a man in a barong stood on a white podium to recite the country’s declaration of independence from the Spanish.
‘Can I talk to my husband?’ she asked. ‘There he is now. Turo!’ His head bobbing in the pedestrian roil, Jun dawdling behind. The girl shrugged, raised her hands as if waiting to catch something. ‘Over here,’ Gina called again as he shouldered towards her.
‘What did you find out?’ she asked him. Jun leaned on a suitcase and sent it reeling across the floor. She swept her foot in a peg-leg motion to wedge it still.
‘I talked to some cops.’
‘Cops,’ she repeated. The PAL lady was already talking to another customer.
‘Don’t be angry,’ he said. He spoke softly, diffidently. That’s how he got. She was inclined to pointed silence.
‘I’m not angry. What did they tell you?’ When he took her by the wrist, she already knew what he’d say.
‘They said the sooner we leave, the better. We’ll work this out at home, Gina.’
She let her hand go limp and he took up the slack. She tried. God knows she did. Just as she was on the cusp of leaving, the earth itself – a bland-faced arbitrator – set down its ruling in Arturo’s favour. She was young when she first saw the world outside the archipelago. It was 1981 and martial law had been lifted, at least on paper, and she was a twenty-one-year old girl who’d coaxed a doting husband into a honeymoon in the Alps. They scrimped and starved the whole way – four-man sleeper carriages, cup noodle dinners and nights in run-down hotels – but she loved it all the same. Odyssey sang in her blood. The girl who crossed the sea saw quilted fields and tall dark pines, peaks wreathed in cloud, roe deer in the wan light of late autumn. She promised herself she would never return to the Philippines and, in a way, she didn’t.
They took a cab down the highway. They passed cement trucks that looked like great insects with churning abdomens. Jeepneys painted with race-car flames, arrogant reds, stained-glass blues, the aerosol softies and Wildstyle of tenement brick. The air shimmered with fuel fumes. Jun pressed his face up to the window so his breath dappled the glass.
‘Listen to the word of God,’ came the voice from the radio. It was Imelda, coming in live from Oahu, where the Marcos family had been living in exile since Ferdinand was ousted in ‘86.
‘These events – earthquakes, volcanoes, typhoons – these are not natural events. These are punishments sent by God. He is telling us that my husband must be allowed to return home.’
Marcos had died two years earlier and his body had been kept in Hawaii, propped up on ice with enough rouge on to keep him looking hale. Imelda had been petitioning the government for months to let them come home so she could bury him beside his mother and father in Ilocos Norte.
‘You are punishing the dead,’ she crowed, that familiar whicker. ‘This is God’s punishment. Listen to the word of God.’
Gina’s sister was waiting for them when they returned. ‘You’re back,’ she said, picking her nephew up. She gave him a hard kiss on each cheek as he squirmed to free himself. ‘Jun, you won’t ever leave me again, will you?’ She smiled at Gina and Turo.
‘We’re still going, Ate. We’ve just been delayed.’
Her sister looked at her in a strange and tender way, the way you might look at a child who’s still too young to understand the deeper meaning behind things. ‘Maybe this is a blessing, Gina. Maybe you’re meant to stay.’
‘We’ll be on the next plane out once this is over.’
Gina was dying for a shower, to wash off the day’s sourness. In the bathroom, she filled a pail with boiling water and the steam made the room smell of camphor. A tentative knock and Turo sidled in. He came up to her and held her by the waist. He pressed his cheek on the skin just beneath her neck.
‘I need to know you’re with me, Turo.’
‘I am with you.’
‘You should call your cousin,’ she said. ‘Tell him we’ve been held up. Call the company and ask them if you can postpone your interview.’
‘It’ll be fine.’
‘That’s all you have to say?’ Now she shook herself free of him. ‘It’s not fine, Arturo. Everything’s going to go to hell. Call them. Let them know we’re still coming.’
He nodded but said nothing. Then he left. Gina heard the scritch of housekeys, the rattle of the fly-screen grate. She looked at herself in the mirror and pushed one hand up under her hair, which was going flaxy in parts, perhaps a little grey. She lifted the thick mane of it and inspected the skin around her neck and cheeks, the creases and compressions in the unflattering halogen. Steam had begun to fill the cramped room. It fogged up the mirror’s glass until the walls behind her were obscured, and she could no longer see her body, and then she could no longer see her face.
The old man at the sari-sari store sold flowers, cigarettes and playing cards. He wished his customers a happy Independence Day. Arturo bought a pack of Jackpots, lit one and let it hang out the corner of his mouth, limp, the way he did when he was younger. He had thought that it made him look like a French philosopher or the leading man in a Lino Brocka movie – contemplative, dashing, in spite of the shapeless nose and farmhand’s complexion – and also because his dormmates had told him that it drove a girl named Regina up a wall with ardour.
Arturo shut one eye for the smoke.
‘You hear about Clark, boss?’ the shopkeeper asked and paused like he was about to tell a joke.
‘The military base? They evacuated it.’
‘Ten thousand people. No one left behind.’
Jeep by jeep, down the dirt track the soldiers went with another Asian war story safely tucked into their tins of chew. Another one to zing out over a snifter of bourbon and a crackling fire. (But never retold as often as the others: how could a story about a volcano ever be as moving as the sacrifices their brothers made at Kumsong? as amusing as the one about the three whores in Phnom Penh? or as thrilling as the Huey ride out of fallen Saigon?) They wouldn’t be back.
Arturo wandered over to the edge of the road as the familiar headspin kicked in. He sat down in the gutter. The truth is, he now felt relieved. It was perverse, selfish, but it was like he’d been plucked out of deep water and stood on dry land. He butted the cigarette and rose, patting dust off the seat of his jeans. He stretched his arms up over his head and heard knots of muscle pop. Then he walked back to the store. The old man had his ear up to a transistor radio. ‘Manong,’ Arturo said. ‘Get me one of those international calling cards, too.’
On the way home, he caught Jun shuffling down the street. ‘There you are,’ he said, waiting at the front gate. An insurgent grin on the boy’s face. ‘Ano ba. You’re a mess.’ They climbed the stairs to the front of the house where Jun let his shoes flop by the doormat. Dried mud scattered all over the landing. Arturo could only click his tongue, too tired to rebuke.
‘Go on,’ he said. He touched the boy’s arm, guided him inside. ‘Clean yourself up before you mother sees you.’
Gina came out of the kitchen with a balled-up cloth in her hand that she held pot lids with. Her hair was damp and she’d wrapped it up high in a towel. She wore a robe and her house slippers. He went to her and kissed her on the cheek which smelled like lavender shampoo and the smell mixed with the tobacco stink in his clothes. He could see the soft light of the television in the living room, where his sister-in-law would be watching a televangelist or talent show. He put his hands around Gina’s shoulders and felt her soften. There was a part of him – a childish part he’d stashed away long ago – that made him want to shut his eyes, squeeze them tight, and will it all still. To hitch the passage of time to those memories; to this exact instant where he held her body as close as he could to his own. And another part of him that knew better.
Patrick Arulanandam is a writer and doctor of Sri Lankan Tamil heritage, who lives on Wangal country in Sydney. He spends much his time using the NATO phonetic alphabet to spell his surname for people. He was second runner up for the Deborah Cass Prize in 2021, and a finalist for the Eric Dark Creative Writing Prize in 2014.
Note: The setting of the story is a boarding house for academically talented children selected from poor families. The basic premise is hinted at but not yet revealed in the extract provided: the children are being slowly trained to become the ‘Seconds’ of various elite members of society. To be a Second is to be raised to emulate the same tastes, attitudes, knowledge and inclinations of your elite foster ‘parent’ – in fact, the idea is to eventually replace that person when they die, and thereby ensure a form of second life for them.
The Seconds of Holroyd House
The scene is well known. A sea of children. First day of seventh grade. Parents huddled close. Ignore the tears, instead see the trembling hands of mother and father. It is always father who disengages first, his fingers slowly unclasped from his child’s sunken shoulder. Mother stays behind – perhaps for another two minutes, or another twenty. Then her grip loosens too and she leaves, as she must, turning from the child. Mother and father drive away.
Ask any of us old Holroyd kids, and you hear some version of that story. Our last day with our first parents.
The day I found out what I was, and therefore who I would become, began just like any other. I woke to the smell of toast, the din of tea, and Julian Macintyre screaming from our matchbox kitchen that it was time to wake up.
Julian: early riser, my first roommate, my best mate in those early years at Holroyd House. I should clear up one matter. Whatever you might have reasonably assumed from his name, Julian Macintyre was almost as brown as me. Skinwise I mean. So it was pretty unusual that we were quartered together. As you may know, the boarding schools for Seconders now have strict rules to prevent kids with foreign-born parents being placed together.
The reason these rules exist depends on who you ask. Some say it was to ward off the mischief we would get up to if we lived with our own kind, so to speak. Others say the rules actually protected us from being bullied: the argument was that moving through the world as a pair of brown kids was more conspicuous than moving through it as an individual brown kid. I’m not sure how true that is, I’m just giving you the theory as I understand it.
How did Julian and I slip through the cracks and live in the same dorm for two whole years, when our parents came from not only the same country (Sri Lanka) but also the same town (Yalpanam)? I have a simple theory. I think Holroyd House just looked at Julian’s name on his parents’ application form and assumed he was another poor white kid, instead of a poor coloured kid. So they assigned him a roommate called Karuna.
Sure, my theory has some holes. For one, our parents had to send the school certified copies of our passports, with colour photographs, as part of the long application process. But I suspect that back then the schools were just much more relaxed than they are now, at least on the racial question. I know it’s fashionable these days to put forward conspiracies to explain such irregularities, but my considered view is that old fashioned human error explains how Julian and I were quartered together.
The school didn’t make any immediate moves to correct the error, either. Yes, it is true that the marshals and prefects gave us funny looks for a while, and we suffered far more random spot checks than other kids. Perhaps someone even filed a formal report – it’s hard to check on that sort of thing so many miles down the road. In the end I reckon they figured that my quiet and reserved nature meant that any major trouble was unlikely. If that was their calculation, the error was in underestimating the other side of the ledger.
When I think of him now, and I think of him often, I find myself remembering a passage from a history book I found in Mr Burgess’ library. It told of how the Roman Emperor Commodus, in a fit of rage, waved the decapitated head of an ostrich at a group of senators at the Colosseum. Most of the senators sat in silence, terrified, but one of them found the scene so ridiculous he had to stuff his mouth with a laurel wreath to stop himself laughing out loud.
You see, the thing about remembering Julian is this: depending on exactly what memory surfaces, he could be the laughter-muffling senator, or he could be the imperious and deranged Commodus. But in the end, right at the end, wasn’t he the ostrich?
Julian was a lesson learned, like the other “free spirits of Holroyd”, to use Mr Benton’s tired phrase. The ones who couldn’t finish their time, for one reason or another.
The day I find out is midwinter and the morning air is so chilled that my ears feel alight. Our textbooks are scattered over the dining table, a mess accumulated by a weekend of cramming. We quiz each other as we nibble at lightly buttered toast.
“Painful?” asks Julian.
“Schmerzlich,” I reply. “Too easy.”
“Das Fenster. I’m not worried about German. I’m worried about Maths.”
“Me too. But look, mate. Realistically, there is no way we are going to master so much trigonometry in forty five minutes,” he says as he checks his watch. “No sense in worrying about it. We are beyond that stage now. Just try to ace the German paper. Stimmt?”
I am worried, though – the kind of free floating worry that drifts towards us when we discover that effort is not always rewarded by outcome, that an absence of talent cannot always be held ransom by grit. This kind of worry bites worst in my first few months at the school, when the endless exams somehow seem both completely arbitrary, but also clearly designed for some higher purpose. When a carryover error on a maths paper seems like it will burrow its way worm-like into all my possible futures.
“Karuna,” Julian says, trying to breach my reverie. “Universe to K-dog. Do we have a signal? Hello Mistah K?”
There is a signal, but it is weak, for my mind is thinking not of the German language but the lanky kid in ninth grade who is known simply as The German, the kid who sneaks from his dorm after curfew and makes his way to the big red gumtree and examines its trunk, etched as it is by hundreds of axe marks.
A stale plan, hatched weeks before, returns to my mind, perhaps more as a fantasy than a real idea.
“The German,” I say.
“That’s right. If we ace German today, maybe it won’t matter if we totally bomb out in the Maths paper. Maybe – ”
“No, that’s not what I meant. I mean The German. That kid in ninth grade.”
“What about him?”
“Let’s sneak out tonight and meet him at the tree. Let’s ask him what the deal is – why we keep getting slammed with all these tests, day after day. He’s ninth grade – maybe he knows everything. He can tell us why our parents dumped us in this place. He can tell us what happens next. Don’t you want to know? Don’t you want to be at least a little prepared?”
For the briefest moment you can actually see the fear in Julian’s face, and the realisation he had been snookered. He is the daredevil of our duo, the prankster; he cannot turn down my proposal without losing face.
But I know he is spooked by the way Holroyd looks late at night, and that big old tree. We all are. And what’s more, like all of us, an important part of Julian does not want to know what awaits us in the years ahead. The part of us that understands that we are stuck here, that our parents are not coming to take us back home. That seventh and eighth grades are a respite before ninth grade, when things start to happen.
The unstated wisdom, passed on through locker room innuendo and schoolyard legend and toilet graffiti, is this: you are better off not knowing certain things until you have to know them.
“Sure,” Julian says. “Tonight. Let’s do it.””
The maths paper is worse than I feared, a nightmare of angles and asymptotes. It is a small mercy that it is over so early in the morning. Numb, I move on to the next lesson, philosophy.
We drift from class to class with rehearsed ease. We have no sense of the deep history of how each subject landed in our curriculum. The high level wrangling that has taken place over decades is all a mystery to us.
It is only much later that I learn that philosophy is not even taught at most Seconding schools. I suppose in retrospect that is obvious. There are very few philosophers around who have the financial means to adopt a Second. But back then we didn’t know that. We were just kids who turned up to the classes on our timetable.
Julian would have told you that the reason I liked philosophy class was because of Chantelle Lane, but that is not quite the whole story. It is at least as true to say this: I liked Chantelle Lane because of philosophy class.
On this particular day, Mr Benton is teaching the pre-Socratics. As is often the case in Benton’s classroom, the discussion meanders to the question of free will, and whether it exists.
“One of the great virtues of Holroyd,” Mr Benton says, “is the opportunity you have to learn from each other, not just from these textbooks.” He pushes away the book on his desk in a gesture of abdication. As though it were a second thought, and not a book he will ask us to learn back to front for an exam in two weeks.
“Take Karuna, for instance,” he says. I freeze, knowing already what was coming next. “Karuna, you are, as we know, a Sri Lankan of Tamil ancestry. The Sri Lankan Tamils are inheritors of a long and proud civilization, with all the cultural and philosophical insights that come with that. Perhaps you could share with the class what attitude the ancient Tamil scholars – the sangam, if I am using the term correctly – held towards the ideas of fate and free will? Perhaps a summary of what the Thirukurral has to say about the matter would be a fine entry point.”
To be fair to Benton, he is not deliberately crucifying me. Benton is a genuinely curious man and he probably thinks he is giving me an opportunity to share my knowledge with the class. The problem is that I do not have this knowledge to share.
“Sir, I don’t think that the Thirukurral actually has much to say on free will or fate. My understanding is that it is more a book of – homely wisdom.”
I have no such understanding, having never read it.
Benton looks puzzled, disarmed. I am worried that if left to his own thoughts for much longer, he will realise that I am a stranger not only to the Thirukurral, but to Tamil literacy in general.
And this is when I am rescued by Chantelle Lane for the first time (I have been rescued by her three times in total).
“Mr Benton, Karuna and I have looked into this before,” she says. “He has a point. From what I understand about Tamil culture, as an outsider of course, the Thirukurral is a highly revered philosophical work, renowned for its structural symmetry and poetry – but it is also a book of homely wisdom. You will find people from all walks of life in Tamil communities quoting it. It is quite different from a Greco-Roman work like, say, On the Nature of Things, which deals directly with the free will issue. Lucretius is certainly mesmerising to the ear in the original Latin, but he is hardly quoted by the average Jo Bloggs on the street now is he?”
This is classic Chantelle at work – a masterful deployment of limited but decisive knowledge (she knows less about Tamil literature than me), guesswork, an appeal to Benton’s innate elitism, and most critically, ending with a reference to a Roman philosopher. Pretty much a guaranteed way to divert Benton’s attention till class dismissed.
Irina Frolova is a Russian-Australian writer who lives with her three children and two fur babies on the Awabakal land in NSW. She has a degree in philology from Moscow City Pedagogical University and is currently studying psychology at Deakin University. Her poetry has appeared in Not Very Quiet, Australian Poetry Collaboration, Baby Teeth Journal, Rochford Street Review, The Blue Nib, The Australian Multilingual Writing Project, and Live Encounters, as well as various anthologies. Irina’s writing speaks to the experience of immigration and a search for belonging. Her first collection of poetry Far and Wild was released by Flying Island Books in January, 2021. You can find Irina on Facebook @irinafrolovapoet.
Vika opened the bedroom window. The street of her small coastal town was empty. All she could hear was the breeze ruffling the treetops and the warble of magpies. Perhaps her neighbours, mainly retirees, were having an afternoon nap. On a different day Vika would welcome this siesta in the suburban carnival of lawn-mowing, whipper-snipping and leaf-blowing. But today the quiet made her hands tremble and her breath stall in her throat.
She unscrewed the fly screen and carefully put it down next to the wall. Then she picked up the first bag from her bed, lifted it over the windowsill and put it on the front lawn. When the second bag was out, she grabbed the cat carrier with Vegemite sitting patiently inside.
‘Thank you for being such a good girl,’ Vika whispered to the cat.
A few minutes later the bags were in the boot, the cat carrier and the kids in the back seats. She had told everyone it was just a trip to the park.
Vika took one last look at the old weatherboard house with the white picket fence and the rose garden. Oh, if these walls could talk. Or write. What stories they would tell: of motherhood, of loneliness, of denial, of lies, of anguish. These walls, covered with small handprints of her three children, stood around her: on the nights she fought sleep with a crying baby in her arms, or fought off panic attacks, the sneaky cowards, just before dawn. These walls stood between them: her in one room, him – in another. Can they stand with her one more time, keep one more secret?
Her eyes paused on the middle window. Was there a shadow behind the lace curtain? Vika was not sure if she believed in ghosts. However, she had come to believe that, perhaps, the house had a ghost – the suburban dream. Her dream. Her happily-ever-after. Would it haunt her for the rest of her life? Maybe so, but for now she had bigger things to worry about.
She put the key in the ignition. Every nerve in her body was buzzing. She remembered the first time she was on a plane. Her skin tingled, as the plane sped up the runway, like a match flashing on the side of the matchbox. The moment the plane was airborne, a steady flame radiated through her. Now, that she was driving away from the family home, it was back.
While the kids played at the park, she made three phone calls. The first one was to the women’s services. She told them that she was out, and a motel room was arranged for the night. Then she called her friend, who offered to take in Vegemite for as long as needed. She paused before making the third call.
There was no answer, so she left a voice mail: ‘We are safe. We are not coming back.’
At the motel, Ash and Violet took one of the double beds, while Vika and Rose shared the other. She told the kids they were having a little holiday, an adventure. The puzzled looks quickly gave way to jumping on the beds and excited squealing. When everyone was finally in their pyjamas, they all squeezed into one bed for story time.
Vika had packed only one book – a compilation of Russian fairy-tales that her mother had sent from home.
‘Ok, which one will it be tonight?’ she looked at the children.
‘Vasilisa The Wise! Baba Yaga! Ivan Tsarevich!’ they yelled over each other in anticipation.
‘You have to agree on one.’
‘You chose last time.’
‘No, you did!’
‘I never get to choose…’
‘How about we let the fairy-tale choose us?’ said Vika mysteriously.
The kids’ mouths fell open: ‘How?’
‘We close our eyes and open the book. We see which fairy-tale it is, and read it’
Two brown heads and one blond head nodded rapidly.
Vika closed her eyes, took a dramatic deep breath and opened the story book. On the left side there was an illustration: a young man dressed in black grasping a feather of an exotic bird. The bird looked like a peacock, with a magnificent long tail and large wings, the colour of fire. In the background, against the night sky stood a tree with golden fruit.
‘Wow…’ the children whispered in unison.
Vika pointed to the title: ‘Oh look: it’s “Ivan Tsarevich and the Gray Wolf!” And… It also has Princess Vasilisa.’
‘AND the Firebird too!’ squealed Rose in delight.
Once the children were asleep, Vika looked at her phone: thirty new messages and five missed calls. An icy wave rolled over her. She switched off the phone. One by one, she kissed the three silky heads. Rose was still hugging the book of fairy-tales to her chest. Vika carefully pulled it out of her daughter’s hands and flicked through the pages.
Curled up on the edge of the bed, she closed her eyes. She could see her own mother’s face before her.
The soft voice read to her: ‘and then Vasilisa the Wise said: “Go to sleep. Don’t worry yourself. A morning is wiser than a night.”’
Dasha Maiorova is a Belarus-born writer who lives and works on Dharawal Country in Sydney’s southwest. In 2020 she was runner-up for the Deborah Cass Prize, and won the Heroines Women’s Writing Prize for fiction. Her writing has been published in The Big Issue, Voiceworks and Baby Teeth. She writes about books, reading and more at www.dashamaiorova.com
The train will derail.
The Pobedy departed Leningrad’s Moskovsky Station on a summer morning still yawning awake, on the fifteenth of June nineteen-ninety – but it would not arrive in Moscow. It was destined to collide with another train heading in the opposite direction, the inverse journey of its own.
The sun lingered behind swathes of cloud and a girl with her face pressed to the window did not finish her game of counting them. Ahead, at the gradual turn of the tracks, she saw the engine of the Pobedy as it travelled through the pine trees, and the cracked paintwork of the driver’s compartment.
Teaspoons rattling on the tea lady’s cart mimicked the onward chugging of the passenger train and the chatter of school children aboard, returning to country fields in the village pockets on the way to Moscow.
They would never come home.
The girl heard a bird-like shriek. A whistle. Then the brakes, screaming in agony. The Pobedy shuddered. School bags and satchels spilled from ceiling nets. Brakes seizing, the Pobedy continued its slide forward, seeming not to slow at all.
Through the pines, the girl watched as sparks shot from under the other train. The white eye lit up in warning; blinking at its twin once, twice, in disbelief. She whimpered. At the midpoint between the Pobedy and the oncoming train a figure stood unmoving: a man on the tracks, unfazed by the machines’ roaring approach. He glowed white under the glare of the locomotive headlight. His head bowed in mournful reproach. This small girl already knew what it meant to mourn.
Too late, the brakes gained purchase. An explosion bellowed through the carriages, an impact not only of force but sound. The train crumpled inwards. Vapour scorched through the full length of the thirteen passenger cars, obliterating glass from windows.
The carriages settled on their sides, twisted as wooden toys discarded by a child. The dead were silent and the dying held their breaths. Those children still able to scream, screamed. A bar pierced the girl’s thin chest. A new smile was torn beside a mouth that never had cause to smile before.
Spilled, charred limbs crowded Alyona’s thoughts as she waited in a holding area of Saint Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airport. The corridor bore the resigned shabbiness of an interrogation cell. Discarded customs declarations and incoming passenger cards formed a patchwork on the linoleum. Fluorescent bulbs spat yellow light over the pockmarked ceiling tiles.
Following the flight, it seemed time would remain suspended. Alyona spied a glance at the Soviet clock mounted on the wall across the hallway. An object of functional lines, a face without character.
Hunching on the bench with her suitcase wedged between her knees, Alyona began again to gnaw at her cuticles. Her spare hand strayed to her collar button, then to her hair. She brushed it behind one ear and then back in front again. To appear at-ease and inconspicuous she tried to maintain a slow, steady breath. It was a wasted effort. No matter what she did, Alyona could not hide her face.
A light flashed above the door opposite, indicating that she could finally enter the office. Inside, an immigration clerk peered over the frame of her glasses at Alyona. The officer had eyebrows thin as spiders’ legs and they rose in appraisal of the young woman. Alyona’s photo lay atop the open file on her desk.
She had supplied the passport-sized image months ago. In it, an indignant Alyona stared from under a fringe since grown out. Her hair loose around her cheeks, to cover her marked face. They warned Alyona in the consulate that any mistake in her application, even a photograph too much in shadow, would likely terminate her chances of entering Russia. She still refused to pull back her hair.
That image, that file, had since passed between many examining hands. The paleness of her skin surprised her. The blue-grey gash beside her mouth did not. She appeared older in the photo than she expected.
The clerk indicated the empty chair before the desk and began clacking at her keyboard. She hesitated, her gaze hovering over her monitor. Her glasses glowed with the reflection of the screen, obscuring her expression. She did not look at Alyona but rather through her. In return, Alyona averted her eyes, studying the brutal Cyrillic letters labelling a badge on the desk. She could not decipher and name and title scored there.
The speechless moment dragged on. Alyona’s heartbeat echoed through her body. She wondered if even the clerk could hear it: the drumming of her fear. She refocused her attention on a calendar pinned to the back wall of the clerk’s office. A mountain range. Snow-capped forest glowing against a red sky. Today’s date unmarked, of no significance to the woman who hung it there.
A printer on the desk groaned to life, making Alyona jump. Several pages of dense text spewed from its mouth. The clerk gathered them together and stamped them each with a flourishing emblem. From her position, Alyona distinguished an inverted crown and a pair of hooked anchors. The crest of Saint Petersburg.
“Sign here.” The immigration officer tapped a long fingernail against a blank line at the end of the document. Alyona’s breath quickened. The cryptic letters on the page blurred. She scrawled her signature and pushed the papers back toward the clerk, who stapled them without ceremony.
“Very good. The matter of entry is resolved. It is done.” The officer’s tone intended as a brush-off. She spoke English with a laboured, throaty accent. “A statement of validity will be issued to your designated place of residence. You are required to register with the nearest legal authority within three days, with your host acting as witness. Penalties apply if you do not do so.”
A fresh stack of papers appeared before Alyona. On the second line: her name, typed in that square, formidable language.
“My grandmother is unwell. She cannot leave her apartment,” Alyona stuttered in a tongue grown unfamiliar.
“Oh, you speak Russian.” A raised eyebrow. A fingernail trailed the text of Alyona’s documentation. “I see here, she is on a widow’s pension. Have her sign for you, then. I’ll give you a declaration form.”
Relief and uncertainty in equal measure collapsed like lead through Alyona’s chest. “I am surprised. I was expecting–”
“What did you expect?” The clerk narrowed her eyes. Alyona held that gaze for a second. Beneath the desk, she pressed her nails into her palms.
“Your application took into concern… special circumstances. In truth, I don’t understand it. Your case is the first of this category I’ve come across – and from Australia, of all places. You should be glad for the expedited process. Next year, upon reaching the age of twenty-five, you’d be stamped a ‘stateless person’, with no recourse to enter the country with such ease.”
No. It had not been easy.
The clerk’s authority reminded her of Lena, her guardian. The woman who had so nearly prevented Alyona from coming to Russia. From coming home. Another year, and Alyona could not have returned.
“Thank you,” she said instead.
“The arrivals hall is that way. You should be able to get a taxi to the city without any difficulty at this time of day. Unless someone is meeting you?”
Alyona shook her head, but the clerk had already dismissed her with a vague gesture in the direction of the door. “Welcome to Saint Petersburg.”
Alyona knew she overpaid for the journey. The cab was meterless. She gave the driver an address on a slip of paper, and he quoted a price. That was all he said.
The car wove through a city bearing no resemblance to the Saint Petersburg Alyona had imagined. She was unprepared for a route landmarked by soot-coloured bridges, factories enclosed in barbed-wire fences, and multi-storey complexes glittering with smashed windows. She alternated her attention between watching the dismal passing suburbs and the driver’s hands on the steering wheel. Faded tattoos marked the backs of his fingers. His eyes met hers in the rear-view mirror. Bloodshot and unperturbed by the marks on her face, as though scars by a woman’s mouth were a frequent sight in his world.
He left her at a road heaped with rotted leaves. Concrete slab khrushchyovka apartment blocks towered above her. Each more dismal than its neighbour. If the driver had not flicked a hand in the direction of a particular block, Alyona would never have guessed which of those sixties’ government-constructed buildings was her grandmother’s. The blocks cast bulky shadows over the road, mirroring the rows of yet more disposable Soviet-era khrushchyovkii. Each flat had its own small balcony. Some were cheery with ornate gardens of vines and potted flowers so lush they spilled into neighbours’ territories. Others were stacked with debris.
Alyona could not remember when she last felt so small. Even her lungs tightened, a sensation of her body wanting to close in on itself. She had arrived in Saint Petersburg. She was on the cusp of discovery, of unearthing all that remained of her history, yet she felt no sense of homecoming.
She tried to guess which window in the dirty grey expanse she would soon be looking out of. Her body acted before she made the decision to key the flat number into the intercom – 11. The device crackled to life. An entry buzzer sounded.
As Alyona pushed through the security door, she glimpsed a clutch of wilted sunflowers tethered to hooks on the side of the building. Though weak and bent by early autumnal chill, they were bright flares compared to the darkness within.
A bare bulb spit light in erratic bursts from the ceiling. The rustle of Alyona’s coat and the tread of her boots too loud against the blistered walls. Ahead, a timber block propped open the doors to a graffiti-emblazoned lift. A hand-lettered sign hung from the wood, declaring a hazardous proposition in exclamation marks. Alyona peered through the jagged spiral of stairs stretching six or seven landings above. She estimated flat eleven would be on the fourth floor.
Nowhere else to go except up.
Movement above. Light shimmered on a metal door, opened just for her. As Alyona climbed the final steps of the landing, she saw the figure silhouetted there.
“Irina Alexandrovna?” she asked.
The figure – a woman – shuffled forward. She was very small, and very old. She wore a long cotton dress beneath a pilled cardigan and slippers covered in stains.
“Alyonochka!” The old woman’s voice wavered in the stairway.
Alyona stood awkwardly at the last step. She turned her face down as she dropped the suitcase by her feet. The old woman addressed her again by the diminutive Alyonochka!, her voice made small by weeping. She seemed unable to contain herself.
The old woman placed her hands on either side of Alyona’s arms. She drew Alyona against her bird-like chest in a stilted embrace. Their height difference made it easier for Alyona to turn her face away. She hoped the old woman could not detect the mad beating of her heart. In Alyona’s ears, the thudding smothered all other sound.
“Finally, you’ve come back. You’re home!” Irina Alexandrovna sobbed. Her familiar, bittersweet smell struck Alyona as savagely as a blow. Coarse grey hair tied in a bun with an aroma… salt, sugar, cooked apples.
Sunshine baking dust in a carpeted room. Toys in a wicker basket. Alyona’s child-self reached for a worn doll. The memory was devastation. Alyona clutched back. She gripped the fabric of her grandmother’s cardigan as though to cling tighter to the memory-scent overwhelming her.
Wooden ornaments lined the windowsills of Irina Alexandrovna’s flat. Hand-hewn spoons, rearing bears, wolves arch-backed and howling. Browned tapestries hung on the walls, speckled with flakes of paper crackled from the ceiling. Irina Alexandrovna watched Alyona expectantly, as though wishing for some recognition on her granddaughter’s behalf.
A threadbare sofa designated the sitting room, its centre dominated by an unceremonious pile of books, stacked like chopped wood. Each title stripped of its spine.
Alyona finally spoke, though without directly addressing her grandmother: “You’re a reader…”
Irina Alexandrovna stared at the torn covers. Her expression carried surprise. “I gathered them when I was able to go up and down the stairs. Everyone throws books away nowadays. They throw everything away. No one knows what’s needed until the time comes, but everything can be useful in the end.”
She smiled a distant, unhappy smile. Alyona saw the glimmer of gold-capped molars at the back of her mouth.
“My girl, you must not be used to these things. Here, take off your boots. You must wear these when you’re inside.”
The old woman practically fell to the floor beside Alyona to help pull off her shoes. She presented Alyona with a pair of indoor slippers. They were paper light, with thin rubber soles designed for nothing more than to keep the immediate chill of the bare floor from her feet.
“These are your tapochki. I kept them especially for you. Look – they fit perfectly. I knew you would come.” Her voice turned hoarse. She sank back onto her knees, in a crouch virtually animal. “It hurts to know you will only see me like this.”
A chord snapped in Alyona. She kept it tight within her, that anger at Lena. She could have come earlier, would have – if only she’d known. But Lena kept everything from her, even the existence of this poor, frail woman.
“I came because I’m going to help you. You won’t be alone here anymore.”
Alyona thought she should place her hand on the shivering angle of Irina Alexandrovna’s shoulder. The moment she did so, a terrible jagged rasp came from her lungs. Irina Alexandrovna staggered to her feet. Her next steps took her to the adjoining kitchenette.
Alyona followed her. Words of panic slipped from her lips. “Please – babushka – what’s wrong? Let me – let me help.”
Irina Alexandrovna’s eyes were half-moon crescents of pain. She doubled over, degraded, feeble. Almost the feeblest creature Alyona had ever seen.
In the helpless eyes of the old woman, Alyona saw the eyes of another. She had seen such pain before in her false mother Lena. Lena, staring heavy-lidded at blood spilling from her body, unalarmed but aching. Alyona hadn’t helped her. The sight of pain made her afraid.
Irina Alexandrovna was fumbling with a glass jar containing a small quantity of pills. Alyona took it from her jolting hands.
Her grandmother held up two fingers and Alyona dispensed a pair of circular tablets into her palm. The old woman’s hand quivered so violently she nearly threw the pills clear. Her motions reminiscent of a baby bird, she managed to swallow them. The image made Alyona uneasy. She inspected the pill bottle with its faded label. The text, even to one able to read Russian, was an indecipherable scramble of typewritten characters. She replaced it on a shelf beside a collection of similarly indistinguishable medications.
Irina Alexandrovna slumped onto a stool by the kitchen window. “Is this really what you want? To see an old woman live out her last days? I never wanted to become like this. There is no one left. Except you, my dear Alyonochka. You are the last I have in the world.”
To her own amazement, Alyona reached out again to the old woman. Touch – initiated of her own volition – a rare and unimaginable thing in her former life. She clasped her grandmother’s hand, the fingers gnarled as knots in an ancient tree branch.
In English Alyona told her: “It’s my duty to look after you. You asked Lena for me. All these years, I did not come, because she never told me. I’m here now.”
There was no way Irina Alexandrovna could have understood, but she smiled again, faintly, knowingly. “You have a lovely voice, my kind girl. But I like it better in Russian.”
Alyona sat in the bedroom she would now call her own. She studied its sparse furnishings: the bare wooden desk, the chipboard drawer in cherry veneer, the upholstered chair curdling foam at its seams. She listened to Irina Alexandrovna pottering in the kitchen down the hallway. The clink of plates and cutlery pierced the walls.
Grateful for a moment of reprieve, no longer watched or waited on, she mapped out the apartment in her mind. None of it appeared through familiarity.
A steel door shut away both the stairway and the outside world. A storage alcove for coats and shoes made up the entryway immediately within the flat. Following the entry, the sitting room with its sunken sofa and mutilated books. The doors to two bedrooms, Irina Alexandrovna’s and Alyona’s, framed either side of the lounge. Then there was the kitchen, almost too small for both grandmother and granddaughter to stand within together, and a bathroom dominated by a freestanding tub veined with rust.
No room spoke to Alyona’s memory. She had been there before, according to Lena’s retelling, for a short time in her childhood after her injury. The thought of it made her place a fingertip to the fibrous tissue at her collarbone, as though the scar might make her remember.
The fingers of her other hand pinched the zipper tongue of her unopened suitcase.
Lena warned Alyona she would only find pain and loss in Russia. Alyona refused to trust her: the woman who kept the truth out of reach. In Sydney, as Alyona peeled away layers of fabrication, milling through forged birth certificates and paperwork bonded in red tape, the name of an elderly woman remained. Irina Alexandrovna Stepanova remained. Some of those documents identifying her grandmother’s address remained buried in her luggage, but Alyona could not reveal them. Fragments of a foreign life cluttered the rest – clothes, planning documents, the practical miscellanea of a former Alyona who did not belong here.
Sahib Nazari is a writer of Hazara descent from Afghanistan. He studied creative writing and literature at Griffith University. Other than his mother language Hazaragi, and adopted language English, Sahib is also literate in Dari/Fiarsi and Urdu.
He lived in Pakistan for a few years before moving to Australia in 2005. Sahib voices his words in the form of short-fiction and poetry. He was the runner-up for the Deborah Cass Prize for Writing in 2020. His other stories have been published in Meridian – The APWT Drunken Boat Anthology of New Writing, Bengaluru Review, TEXT Journal, and Talent Implied – New Writing from Griffith University in 2016, 2017, and 2019.
Tall Darren was twice my height and as hilarious. A true-blue Aussie and the most down to earth person I knew since beginning work on the slaughter-floor. He was so tall that calling him just Darren was enough, but the nickname told him apart from five other Darrens employed in the abattoir. When I first met him, I thought his first name was ‘Tall.’
‘Oi, fucking smoko, mate,’ Tall Darren yelled into my earplugs.. Everyone wore earplugs or earmuff radio headsets like the ones nested around Tall Darren’s neck. Alarmed and oblivious, I ran for the nearest exit, but in the packed washroom I realised he meant something different.
I entered the mess room.
‘Oi, smoko means break not fucking fire,’ Darren announced, and the other butchers joined him in laughter. That’s how Tall Darren and I became friends. He helped me learn Aussie slang like fair dinkum, what it means to chuck a sickie and say fuck for no reason at all.
‘Keep your fuckin’ knives sharp and your fuckin’ eyes open. That’s half of your fucking job done mate.’ His face glowed red, bending over and grinding his blade against a whetstone.
‘But why would I say fuck for no reason at all?’
He straightened his back and took a deep breath. ‘O for fuck sake mate.’
Sleeping mask still on, Mr. Bean drops the ringing alarm clock in a glass of water. Mom laughs which she scarcely did since coming to Australia. With no literacy in English or any other languages, she struggled inside and outside the house. But laughter does not transcend literacy. If it were not a universal language, Rowan Atkinson would need Hazaragi, my mother language, to make Mom laugh. I watch her enjoy the moment, wondering how many Mr. Beans are in the world bringing laughter without talking. I’d seen many who made people cry. Moments later Mr-funny-Bean changes clothes while steering a car with his feet. Mom laughs again and I’m ready to go to work with her smile in my mind.
When I met Kathy three months ago, she was brunette, blond and back again. Today, a pink fringe flirted with her shoulder length brunette hair like Nelly Furtado in Promiscuous. Half the Dubbo girls wanted to be Nelly, copying her dresses and dance moves. like her. We bought beers and walked up to smoke on the balcony of the Amaroo Hotel – the only spot I liked in the place. Kathy dressed promiscuous as always, but she never played me, never pushed an impression. To hide her heartbeats, she downed half her beer in one go. I could barely drink beer, so as always, I topped her schooner. Her glass was always half empty. When it came to drinking, Kathy could skull a barrel of beer in a night. But alcohol didn’t’ explain her loud, silly and aggressive attitude. She was a mess ever since some kids strangled her staffy when she was fourteen. The girl responsible spent a year in a Sydney hospital with multiple fractures to both legs. It took physicians and physios around twelve months to repair the damage. Kathy had repeatedly smashed her with a cricket bat.
‘Hey Matty,’ Kathy called out as Chamillionaire’s Ridin’ Dirty was ripping up the roof. But the music was too damn loud, and the guy didn’t hear anything as he disappeared in the crowd.
‘Matt’s an old mate, I took his virginity in high school.’ She took a puff and blew the smoke to blur up the scene.
‘I thought you didn’t make it to high school,’ I said, eyes fixed, as if talking to my cigarette.
‘Nor did he.’
‘I didn’t either.’
‘You fucking smart ass. Are you still a virgin?’ Dark brown skin wrinkled her forehead.
Tryin’ ta catch me riding dirty bounced off my brain. I blushed. ‘Despite the fact that most Afghan men think with their dicks, yes. I am.’
My first ever job was a real bloody killer. Routine, afternoon shifts, starting midday. Finishing before mid-night meant I missed more sunrises and sunsets in my five years in Dubbo than the eighteen years preceding. I could only cuddle sunlight over the weekends. It was all the same inside the slaughterhouse: meat, blood and shit. Eight-hour shifts with thousands of blood-dripping carcasses hanging upside down, running on a chain one after the other. Seeing animals getting slaughtered was less traumatic a transition compared to seeing people getting butchered in the streets because, as an Afghan, I’d seen enough humans spilling human blood that those blood-dripping, headless carcasses couldn’t disrupt my nightmares.
I bought The Alchemist with my first ever pay from the abattoir job. With no skills and next to nothing schooling qualifications, joining the slaughterhouse was the only choice in an outback town like Dubbo. We weren’t fair dinkum Aussies. Not entitled to government benefits so, like Dad and my two older siblings, I worked to support the family. But deep down I knew it wasn’t for me. This was not the dream.
Tall Darren, skinning knife in right hand, steel in left, pointed in the direction of a round and bouncy bloke who looked like Peter Griffin from Family Guy. ‘Here comes short Darren.’
Walking in holding a can of sugar water in one hand, knife kit in the other, Short Darren greeted us with a ‘fuck off.’ His uniform soaked in sweat. His breaths outpacing his body by the time he settled around the table.
‘His nickname is Human Balloon.’ Tall Darren stroked his knife on the smooth steel.
‘Oi fuck you, Lizard of Oz,’ Short Darren scowled. His rotund face turned pink behind rounded spectacles. ‘My nickname is fat boner. You want some?’
Tall Darren ignored him. ‘And that’s Victoria’s Secret,’ he said, pointing with his knife towards a handsome bloke with a Ned Kelly kind of bush beard who waved his hand from across the table. ‘He’s obsessed with girls named Victoria.’
‘Or beer,’ Short Darren shouted.
‘That’s one piss of a fucking beer mate.’ Tall Darren adjusted his hair net, preparing for the day.
The bush bearded bloke smiled and silently raised his middle finger.
Short Darren asked where Blunt Fuck was. Tall Darren said he was off for the day.
‘You mean off or chuck a sickie off?’ I tested myself.
‘Finally, someone from Afghanistan who’s not a sheep shagger,’ Darren cracked.
‘Is that his nickname?’ Short Darren fired, pointing at me with his sausage fingers.
Darren said, ‘Na, he’s our fucking Baba. Ay Baba?’ He was laughing his lungs out. Only the two of us knew the joke. Short Darren sipped his sugar water, while Victoria’s Secret bushranger ran his blade along one forearm to check if it was sharp enough to shear a sheep.
Tall Darren called me Baba because one day on the floor when the lairage was waiting refill. He asked if I knew any songs I could sing. I started baa baa black sheep except I rhymed, baa baa white sheep have you any wool. No sir, no sir, fuck off you fool. Darren instantly gathered other butchers around to listen. He pointed out that it’s actually baa baa black sheep, not white sheep. But I kept to my version because, I told Darren, we are the black sheep in this case. He started calling me Baba. I explained, in Afghan language and some others between south Asia and the Balkan region, baba means father. He chuckled like a child about to say something cheeky. ‘You mean father, or daddy?’
In a park’s playground, three kids hold a skinny brown girl by the arms. A skinny freckle-faced teenage girl and a fat boy in crew-cut hair are pulling a strap wrapped around an aging staffy’s neck. Bleeding, huffing, dry tongued, lying on its side, the dog tries to bark but there’s no hiss, or sound. Saliva form bubbles. Helpless, the staffy’s eyes pop in and out with each breath. Its legs start trembling, ears vibrate, then the tail stops wiggling. The heart stops pumping air. It finds peace. Breathless but peaceful. Tears run rivers from the brown girl’s eyes; and perhaps revenge too. Then a blackout.
I bet Mom would have been a bright storyteller, had she been educated. Would she have become a teacher, a writer or an alchemist, I often wondered. Once I asked how she felt about illiteracy. She replied, ‘You cannot lose something you never had. I’d feel sorry if I were the only woman in Afghanistan but it’s the whole country.’
Kathy’s uncle often poked his head into her room pretending to see if she was alright, offering her the first joint to smoke when she was just thirteen. Cigarettes followed; she helped herself, taking one out of the pack when her uncle was stoned. Soon enough beer became the beverage of choice. One led to two, two led to trouble, and before she knew, she was smoking like a vacuum and drinking beer like a baby drinks a bottle.
At first, it was her hair. Then all the places not covered by her shirt: arms, neck and shoulders. Then whatever was left out of shorts in the hot and sweaty Dubbo summer: feet, calves, thighs. When it all started, Kathy knew what her uncle was doing but she didn’t bother and cared too little to confront him because she depended on the dope. But she noticed his hands travelled a few inches further every new day. One still-air hot day his fingers unhooked the bra from under her light blue shirt. He spilled half a can of beer down her front until her small bosoms surfaced like the sail of a submarine from a blue sea, nipples erect like radio antennae. She started cursing and punching him, smashing his head with a wooden chair, making him bleed and freaking the fuck out of him. But they always settled things down before her grandma returned home from work in the afternoons.
By that evening Kathy had come up with a plan, to play, to negotiate a term; she’d keep quiet if her uncle drove her around until the day she found Freckles.
We had another Afghan family, that also called Dubbo home, over for dinner. Mom cooked lamb curry, prepared pulao, sorted out salad with the help of my sisters. But the guests seemed reluctant to touch the food for fear that the meat might not have come from a halal shop. This furthered Mom’s frustrations; she took painkillers for her backache, for the stiffness of hour-long food preparations. Afghans can stomach anything but change. They are concerned if the meat is halal but receiving Centrelink benefits while working cash-in-hand is fine. Because God has no problem how money is made as long as meat is blessed.
‘I gave him head.’ Kathy and I were spending another drunken Sunday near the bank of Macquarie River. We often drove up to that spot out of town to get stoned so the coppers and creeps in town didn’t bother us. I was stoned. She was drunk, and stoned.
‘What?’ I said, barely able to stand straight under the sun.
‘My uncle, I gave him head to get him to drive me around to find Freckles.’
‘You are a fucking caveman, aren’t ya? I sucked off his cock.’
I felt more ancient than a caveman for not knowing giving head. Fossilized.
We drove back to town late in the afternoon. Kathy was still spilling beer on her singlet.
‘Wanna go out tonight?’
‘Yeah, I’m dying to get pissed and see you pick a fight with the girlfriends of all the guys you wanna fuck.’
‘We’ll do something different tonight, I promise.’
‘I doubt that.’
She lit a cigarette. ‘You want to fuck me. Isn’t that what you want?’
I pulled the car up behind Amaroo Hotel. ‘Kaths, I just want to know where we stand and where we’re going. I mean when will we stop this get-stoned-get-drunk-as-fuck-catch-up game?’
She squashes the container spilling beer all over. ‘Just fucking drive, will ya?’ she snapped.
‘No. You’re drunk and you’ve no idea what the fuck you’re talking about. Let’s go home and talk about it some other day. I need time to think things over.’
A police car slowed down to check on us as it drove by. Kathy dropped her beer-can under her feet. She picked up her bag, and out she jumped, walking towards Amaroo. The coppers didn’t stop, nor did Kathy. I pressed on the gas thinking that sometimes it’s better to remain a caveman on purpose.
Mom’s backache, the symptoms of slaving away as an Afghan housewife all her life, was worsening every day. As if raising seven children wasn’t hard enough, now she was slaving away all over again in Australia. Afghan men don’t change. They only like the idea of change.
Cables rustled about the rusty poles of swings; seats were missing. Birds sang, trees hissed in the hot windy afternoon. In a distance, a girl with freckles and a fat boy with a crew-cut kept hammering something against the solid surface of a basketball court. They took turns smashing it on the ground. Then the fat boy stood up, swung his arm skywards, and it came down, hitting the concrete with a thud. They’d cracked the shell: It was a tortoise.
A moment later, a skinny brown girl is standing over their heads holding a cricket bat firmly in her both hands. She swings the bat without a warning hitting the freckled girl mildly in the forehead as she ducked right in time colliding with the fat boy in turn. The boy makes a run for it but the girl can’t. Slightly concussed, she covers her head and screams. The brown girl made another swing aimed at her legs. She keeps coming harder and faster, with all her vigor and vengeance until cries of the freckled girl overcome the singing birds. Trees hiss. Rusty cables wring about as the brown girl walked away in silence, and tears.
The butchers were sweating and swearing outside the mess-room. Inside, a grave silence creeped all over when I walked in. Blunt Fuck was dead. He’d lost it in a head-on collision with a truck on a November morning. He’d been doing double-shift to save up for the Christmas break. Tall Darren said he owed the bastard a meat pie. His tears wouldn’t stop. That was the only time I’d ever seen him cry.
Autumns were the most surreal spell in Dubbo, when trees said goodbye to leaves, one by one, coloring the streets in red, brown and yellow. Mom walked up and down Macquarie Street, taking photos of the fallen leaves, the naked trees, as she strolled in the cooling breeze. The clown without a mask, Mr. Bean, still cracked her up like cartoons crack up kids. She found peace in her solitude as the communication gap remained hugely unfulfilled. Only Rowan Atkinson filled that void. But she smiled more often since joining TAFE to learn the English language, attending three days a week. She made new friends too because, like laughter, food doesn’t need a language to bring people closer. Food fathoms solidarity just as laughter apprehends love. Like the autumnal trees, Mom too understood that she must let go the timeworn leaves to welcome the new ones.
In my loneliness, I found peace. In my peace, though, there was no loneliness; only a dream. Whenever knives were at work, I told myself that one day, the butchery will be behind me. Whenever silence ruled, I dreamed that one day my dream will realise me because fate didn’t bring me to Australia just to butcher, drink beer, eat kebabs and die. And that sooner or later I’ll hang up my slaughter-gloves, swap whetstone with
One weekend, under the spell of a red and orange outback sunset, I texted Kathy.
‘Virgin no more.’ I pressed send.
‘Let’s catch up,’ her text popped up.
Instead of a textual argument on the old Nokia headset, playing with buttons, I thought it’d be better to fight face to face. Half an hour later, as she got into my car, I tried to kiss her on the cheek.
‘No!’ She eye-balled me and backed away. ‘You slept with a chick.’ She was loud. ‘You’re a fucking cheat.’
‘What the fuck Kathy. Take it easy. We’re not together. We haven’t even kissed despite knowing each other for months.’
‘Fuck you.’ She threw a punch at me.
I caught her fist with both hands. ‘Are you fucking serious? Because from where I see things, it doesn’t look like we’d ever sleep together even if we were the last two people on earth.’
‘If I don’t sleep with you, doesn’t mean I don’t care for you.’ She plucked a cigarette from the pack.
‘If you don’t sleep with me but care for me then you should be happy that I got laid.’
She put out the flame on the lighter. ‘Who’s she? Do I know her?’
‘You’re not making much sense Kathy. You don’t want me, but you also don’t want to see me with another chick. I’m pretty sure there won’t be any virgins waiting for me in the afterlife if I drop dead today. So we must draw a line somewhere. I know that what happened to you, and to your dog, was wrong but you gotta give yourself another chance. You must move on.’
‘It’s not that easy.’ She blew smoke on my face.
I rolled down the window. ‘Maybe. But you can’t just take a friend hostage.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean I’m moving on.’
‘Fuck you.’ She took her purse, cigarette pack, and jumped out of my car. ‘Go fuck yourself.’ She slammed the door shut.
From then on, we travelled back in time to become the strangers we still are today.
Anith Mukherjee is an artist based in Sydney. He has a brief publication history.
He is currently studying film at AFTRS. Anith is the 2020 Deborah Cass Prize Winner.
I am full of love
Looking for a place to live. Looking for a job. You begin to doubt your judgment, you begin to doubt everything. You become imprecise. And that’s when you’re beginning to go under. You’ve been beaten, and it’s been deliberate. The whole society has decided to make you nothing.
– James Baldwin
You wanted to fight for a cause
Then go out and love someone
-Gang Of Youths
On the tram to film school I feel sick from my morning medication. The tram stops and I walk off, Nick Cave songs playing through my headphones. Inside a public toilet I vomit, cough and spit. Kneeling on the cracked tiles I wipe my face with toilet paper. Nick Cave sings in my head, ‘if you’re in Hell what can I say, you probably deserve it anyway.’ Everything is prophecy, signs and symbols. There is no mirror above the sink where I wash my face and I wonder whether my eyes are red. On campus I buy a coffee and sit down. Ryan tells me the morning’s lecture is on Italian Neorealism. Sitting in the lecture theatre, watching clips from La Notte, I fall asleep. Ryan wakes me when the lecture is finished and we walk outside. Indira and Jackie are smoking on the lawn. Jackie offers me a cigarette and I shake my head. I’m quitting, I say. Indira asks me what we should make as a documentary for this semester. Let’s do something on brown diaspora, she suggests. I shrug and say I don’t want to make something about being brown just because I’m brown. It’s all they expect of us, I continue, why can’t I make a film about love or trout fishing? Indira laughs. They eat that shit up, she says, besides what do you know about love or trout fishing.
In class Ava shows me her latest short story. I’m thinking of leaving my boyfriend, she says. Good, I reply, then you can date me. Ava rolls her eyes. You wish, she says. The tutor discusses the male gaze in cinema and an argument between Felix and Melissa ensues. Ava shows me another piece of writing. What do you think, she asks. It’s too sad, I reply. Ava scowls and says, fuck I don’t want to only make people sad. My doctor put me on Lexapro, she says idly, I think it’s making me confused. She looks at me and asks what meds I take. Atypical antipsychotics, I say. Sounds intense, she replies. After class Ava and I sit outside on the grass. She lies on her back and closes her eyes. The sun shimmers across her face and causes little specks of glitter under her eyes to sparkle. I lie next to her and look up at the sky. What do you see when you look at the clouds, I ask. Ava opens her eyes. Ice cream, she says.
In the evening I walk to the train station. The sunset sky is pink and blue and orange. The daily procession of fruit bats streak across the horizon. On the train ride home I idly consider whether I have wasted my life. Somewhere along the way it seems that I failed deeply, made some fatal error at a critical juncture. The result being my current life. What do I do now, I ask myself as the train arrives at my stop. At a local falafel joint I buy two slices of pizza and sit waiting for the bus, eating. Grease covers my fingers and above me nocturnal birds screech themselves awake. At home I lie in bed and scroll through pornography on my phone. Bored I decide to microwave my fingernails, to slice off my ear, to drown a kitten. Something has to happen, I think, before I ossify. At midnight I walk the local park track down to the river. The water is still and calm and black. Lying on the soil with my jumper folded beneath my head I fall asleep. In my dream I am a lizard king, I am a rat spider, I am a junkie priest. In the early morning I walk home to visions of a Holy War – chariots and lighting and swords on fire. At home I quickly swallow my meds and brew a coffee. In the yard outside I close my eyes under the sun. Gary walks out and lights a cigarette. He gestures to me and I shake my head. I’m quitting, I say.
Patti sits up in my bed and runs a hand through her neon green hair. I take lots of medication, I say. I have a lot of needs, she replies, I’m too horny for this shit. Do you love me, I ask. Don’t ask me that, she says, not now. I stare at my soft brown cock, all limp and lifeless. What kind of man am I, I think. Fuck it, I was never any kind of man at all. I could stop taking my meds, I suggest. Patti shakes her head. I don’t want you to do that, she says, don’t put me in that position. We sit in bed for a while, silent and tense. Patti exhales deeply. I’m going to take a bath, she says finally. The phrase ‘emotionally avoidant’ passes through my head. I search to remember where the phrase comes from. Something I must have read. I read too much, I think, all those useless books.
When I was younger all I wanted was sex. Then everything became about art. Now all I think about is money. I hope Patti doesn’t use up all the hot water, I think to myself. I hope she doesn’t notice that half the light sockets are empty. Some time later Patti walks back into the room, wrapped in a towel. She sits on the edge of the bed and smiles. Baths are so consciousness cleansing, she says. What do you want to do today, Patti asks. I shrug. How about checking out the Gauguin exhibition in the city, she suggests. Wasn’t he some kind of racist, I ask. Patti shrugs. Probably, she says, they all were back then.
We sit in the gallery cafe, each sipping black coffee. When did we stop having conversations, Patti says, when we first met we would have these long sprawling conversations. She watches the strangers in the cafe for a moment, then looks me in the eye. Her eyes are speckled and blue and for a brief moment I am filled with regret. We were getting to know each other, I reply, our brains were fuelled by novelty. Patti furrows her brow. I don’t accept that, she says. Talk to me about something, she says, what’s been on your mind? I shrug and look around. I’m worried I’ll never have any money, I say, I’m worried I’ll never learn how to survive. Patti smiles and twirls a strand of green hair around her index finger. You, me and the rest of us, she says half sarcastically. La génération condamnée, Patti says, Hemingway would be proud.
The gallery is mostly empty and Patti stops to study a self portrait of Gauguin. I look into his hollow oil eyes – deranged and syphilitic and anaesthetised. He went all the way, I think. We stand next to each other, staring at D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous. He was beautiful, Patti sighs. He was sick, I reply. He went all the way, I think again, to paint like this you have to relinquish your claim to reality. I feel fear and repulsion and admiration. What is it to be a person with no place, no future, no desire? How do I exit this game, I think, when do I get to wake up.
Inside Patti’s apartment spins a vinyl of Bitches Brew. Patti pours two glasses of red wine and sits next to me on the couch. It’s true, I think, our relationship used to be hyper intellectualised. She’s disappointed in me and I am bored of her. Inertia keeps us connected. This pattern repeats itself endlessly. Somewhere along the way I confused lust for love. Somewhere along the way I forgot to become a person. Patti stands up and begins to dance as Miles Runs The Voodoo Down plays from her vintage Hi-Fi. She sways side to side in the middle of the room, her moonlight skin scattered with rainbow tattoos. It occurs to me that I have no love for her. Love is the missing link between myself and life, I think, a link I have no idea how to repair.
Patti’s naked body presses against mine. I hold her in bed and she is warm underneath the soft cotton blanket. Gently she kisses me on the cheek. You don’t know how to love someone, she whispers into my ear, you don’t know what it means to love. In the morning I put on my clothes and leave the apartment while Patti sleeps. Outside the air is clean and cold. The streets are not yet busy and I walk around until I find a cafe. I try to buy a coffee but my card is rejected. To hell with everything, I think. My phone buzzes with a call from Patti but I don’t pick up. Instead I catch a bus back to my place.
My whole life is a fucking mess, Ava says without affect, I have zero idea how to function in the world. She plays with her hair and sighs. Why can’t you just do nothing with your life, she says, I don’t want to have to do things. Ava and I sit in the school’s foyer, skipping screenwriting class. Marry me, I reply, we’ll move to Paris and write dysfunctional novels. Ava rolls her eyes. You have no money to fly to Paris, she argues back, besides the French are annoying.
After class Ava and I walk to the bar. We both order the house red wine and sit outside, watching the construction of a circus in the field nearby. By evening we are tipsy and when Ava looks at me I feel compelled to hold her and kiss her. Her lips are soft and her spit tastes like cheap wine and cheap tobacco. She places a small hand on my arm and for a moment I feel overwhelmingly lonely. I pull away and Ava smiles slightly before closing her eyes and rubbing her nose. I’m still with Jack, she says, you know that. Jack sucks, I reply, you only stay together because you’re both too afraid to break up with the other. It’s the same between me and Patti, I continue, this way we both have an excuse.
In my room I lie in bed while Ava undresses. She lies next to me and reaches between my legs. With Ava there is no issue and we fuck until our bodies are tired and sore and sweaty. Afterwards Ava wraps her arms around mine and rests her head on my chest. Now we’re both free, she says.
In the morning Ava is gone and I wake up alone. On the pillow next to mine is a handwritten note: ‘Forget last night. I am happy with Jack.’ Above me I notice a dark, damp spot growing on the ceiling. I crumple the note and throw it across the room in the vague direction of my waste basket. It’s 8:30 AM and class starts in an hour. Fuck it, I think, I’d rather do anything else today. But what, I ask myself, what is worth doing? An entire world, a whole life, given to me for nothing -and I have zero interest in any of it. It all adds up to nothing. Samantha ran away to help the environment and faced the evil of fossil fuel capital until she collapsed exhausted, Jesse smoked weed for a hundred years and melted back into the Earth, Rachel lost interest in music and slit her wrists live on 4Chan, Jackson became a lawyer and jumped off his penthouse balcony, Mandy wrote poetry that no one read and cried silently into to the neutral eyes of her twelve rescue cats, Priya joined a hippie cult in the mountains and renounced money for sex, Ashwin stuck a silver needle in his veins and thought he was Coltrane, my father ripped out his own catheter dying from a brain tumour in hospice and blood spurted out his great brown cock enough to drown even his own screams. And here I lie, feeling nothing.
In the bathroom I unwrap an Astra Platinum razor blade. Gently and without malice I run it across the palm of my hand. The lack of pain surprises me. Thin streaks of blood flow down my arm as I hold it up to the light. Good, I think, I still bleed and I am still free. Suddenly I am overwhelmed with the power of my own freedom. Anything can happen now, there are no limits, no boundaries. I exist in a timeless, spaceless vacuum. Today is only another day.
All I want to do is eat shit food and watch pornography and sleep, I tell Sun, why is there no space in culture for my aimlessness? Sun scratches his scraggly black beard. He says nothing, opens his rainbow cloth backpack and reaches inside. He takes out a small brown paper bag and hands it to me. Tonight, he says, if you are ready to leave Hell. At night I pour the contents of the paper bag onto my desk. A handful of dried psilocybin mushrooms fall out. Intense waves of anxiety and anticipation pass through me. Fuck it, I tell myself as I scoop up the dried mushrooms and swallow them in one motion.
I lie naked on the grass in my small backyard and everything feels inevitable. I ruined my life, I think, I wasted it with banal malaise. So begin now, a soft voice replies. I’m a bad person, I think. No, the voice replies, you’re flawed like everyone. I use women, I think, I treat women like shit. So change, the voice replies. No one has ever loved me, I think. Then love first, the voice replies. I am so afraid, I think. That is OK, the voice replies. My naked body glimmers under moonlight and I feel sickly, broken, exhausted, alienated, bored, self-loathing, hateful, lustful, impotent, enraged, transient. My naked body glimmers under moonlight and I feel mirthful, funny, entertained, calm, hungry, warm, healing, motivated, interesting, peaceful, connected, eternal. In this moment I am very young. Violet petals stream through the parted clouds and morph into butterflies – fluttering and free and graceful. With little kisses they relinquish me of the poison in my blood. My lilac skin soft and blossoming. Seized by instinct I run to the bathroom and vomit in the toilet. Blue and purple bile leaks from my gut – little maggots writhing in the liquid. Help me, I cry, please forgive me. I was never supposed to come here, I was never supposed to fall this far. All I ever wanted was a real love, an undying love that would absolve me of this pain and guilt and waste and failure and regret. Great sunflowers bloom from my fingers, my eyes, my chest. Everything is golden and shimmering. Pink tears ooze down my glowing face and when I look into the mirror I am alive.
The morning sun rises as I sit outside, holding a blanket and a jug of fresh orange juice. My neighbour walks outside and unlocks her car. Good morning, she says with a smile, you’re up early. Three years I’ve lived here, I think, and I’ve never noticed my own neighbour, never knew she existed, never even said hello. Good morning, I reply.
Janette Chen is a Chinese-Australian writer from Lidcombe. She is a member of Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement and the 2019 winner of the Deborah Cass Prize.
Wall of Men
Every time mum starts the car, Teresa Teng starts singing. Mum’s 80s Chinese pop ballads blare from the stereo as we pull out of the driveway. Mum is driving me to Lidcombe train station so I can trek it to Veina’s house in Turrella. Outside it’s so hot the heat makes the fibro walls our house look wobbly. I put the windows all the way down because we never use the air con. Teresa Teng’s voice drifts down the street from our car. She sounds so sweet even when she’s accusing her lover of lying to her. As we drive, Mum asks me if Veina has a boyfriend yet. Mum’s face looks dry and red from the heat. She has so many red hairs now, which are white hairs dyed with henna she bought from the Arab shops in Auburn. She glances at me as we slow at a red light and turns off the music. Since I finished high school two months ago, Mum has asked me four times already if there will be any boys when I go out.
‘No, Ma,’ I sigh as we start moving again. It was technically true. As far as I knew, Veina is texting a guy called Andre and hanging out with some guy called Jason but she’s never called either of them her boyfriend.
‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ she asks in Cantonese.
‘Noooo, Ma,’ I groan. Mum flicks her black eyes at me and then back at the road.
‘I was the same age as you are now when I first got married,’ she says. ‘Your Ba is not my first husband.’
I hold my breath. This is the first time Mum has told me about her first marriage but I already know. I overheard her talking to Dad in the kitchen once about a fortune teller she saw back in Guangzhou when she was 17. ‘He told me I would be married twice and he was right about that,’ I had heard her say. In traffic, we inch past an empty lot of weeds and rubble that is fenced off with a glossy sign advertising new apartment blocks. ‘I was so in love with my first husband,’ Mum says. ‘But one day he started locking doors. He started swearing at me. When he slapped me, I thought it would only be one time.’
My muscles tense up when I imagine Mum being hit. We pass the Korean BBQ restaurants on the turn into the station and Mum parks crookedly in the drop-off zone. She keeps talking, her words spilling out like water. ‘He dragged me across our bedroom and strangled me until I realised that if this man loved me he would kill me with his love.’ I put my hand on Mum’s shoulder. I don’t know what else to do with this information. Mum brings her hand to mine and holds it tightly. ‘I know you’re a smart girl. But just be careful. The man you choose is the life you choose.’
Some dickhead in a white ute blasts his horn and cuts Mum off at the end of the sentence. I grab the plastic bag of cherries I’m bringing to Veina’s and tell Mum that I won’t be home for dinner.
On the train to Turrella, I sit in a three-seater behind a young Nepalese couple. The woman’s head is nestled in the space between the man’s shoulder and his brown ear. I think about how I used to see my parent’s wedding photo all the time as a kid. It was propped on the dresser in my parents’ bedroom. The man in the photo was my dad. The woman in the photo had skin as pale as the moon. Yi yi, I had called her, which means Auntie. I couldn’t believe it was my mum. This is because in real life, mum’s skin is the colour of wholemeal bread with lots of seeds in it. In real life, her lips are more brown than red. I knew so little about this other life she had before that photo was even taken.
I get off at Central and change platforms for the airport line. I had never heard of the suburb of Turrella until Veina moved there. Veina is my only high school friend who moved out of home immediately after graduating. Now she lives with four housemates and they all share one tiny bathroom. ‘Fun fact: The Streets ice cream factory used to be in Turrella,’ Veina said when she first told me she was moving. I believed the fun fact, I just couldn’t believe she was moving so far from Lidcombe, away from me. The afternoon heat wraps around me like a blanket when I step off the train. I am the only person standing on the platform. The plastic bag of cherries sweats in my hand.
Veina’s house is a long pink rectangle on a concrete block with a brown roof. When I arrive at the house, I’m sweating from my pits. I tap on the window of Veina’s room but when I get to the front door, it’s her housemate Peter who opens it.
‘Hello,’ he nods. Peter’s tiny head at odds with his massive shoulders. He steps back and holds the door for me. The thin white t-shirt he is wearing is stretched out around the collar and the skin around his neck is pale and pink. All I know about Peter is that he’s a backpacker from Slovakia. And he’s a prawn. He has a body good enough to eat and a head you can throw away. I realise Peter’s holding a big plastic rubbish bag and quickly step inside as he steps out.
The front door of the Turrella house opens straight into the living room with all its random old furniture, plus the sleek black chair Veina and I carried straight out of the new food court in Town Hall one time. I take off my sandals at the door. The pale blue tiles are cool beneath my feet but I know they’re dirty. I can see the dust and hair and dried boogers on the floor. The living room extends into the kitchen on the right, both overlooking the backyard where the laundry is still flapping on the lop-sided Hills Hoist.
Veina’s in the kitchen wearing a big faded black t-shirt with her hair is all over the place. She looks as if she only woke up a couple of hours ago and hasn’t gotten changed yet. Her kitchen is made up of custard coloured plastic laminate cupboards and drawers with golden brown trimmings. Veina gets me started on cutting up onions for our dinner: slut spaghetti. We started calling it that in Year 8 Food Tech because boiling pasta is easy. As I’m tossing onions into the hot pan, Veina tells me about the date Peter brought to the house the night before.
‘He was cooking chicken for this tiny Asian chick and was getting her a chair and everything. But it was like, all so he could fuck her,’ Veina says dryly. When she’s not wearing makeup, Veina looks like she’s fourteen but when she opens her mouth, her voice sounds like she’s smoked a pack a day for as long as she’s been alive. Today, Veina has a thick line of black gel eyeliner painted over her eyelids.
As I pour the contents of a jar of pasta sauce into a saucepan, Veina dumps a handful of oregano and the good bits of a green capsicum we found going soft in the fridge. ‘I always see him looking Asian chicks up and down and up and down,’ Veina says.
‘I would be looking him up and down and up and down if I lived here,’ I confess. But then, I imagine making out with him with his big nose sticking into the side of my face. His mouth would be dry and floury and his pale, slippery body would be squirming on top of mine, crushing me under a mattress of muscle. The thought of it makes my throat tighten.
Peter comes into the kitchen wearing only a pair of baggy track pants. The t-shirt he was wearing earlier is gone. I wonder if he just heard what I said and if all this skin is an invitation. I decline by only looking at him above the neck. His face is long and small in proportion to his wide shoulders and thick neck. His nose sticks out like an arrow. But then he goes to grab a Coke from the fridge and the long line of his back smooths and stretches.
‘Time to eat out this slut spaghetti,’ Veina says after putting the final touch: chilli flakes. In addition to being easy, slut spaghetti needs to be hot. Veina uses chopsticks to put the pasta into two bowls for us and we take them to eat outside.
I have one foot out the front door when it sounds like Peter is saying, ‘Hey, Jen, Jen, Jen, come back.’ His voice is deep and nasally. I turn around. Peter is standing right in front of me. His collarbones are at my eye level and they look like small, featherless wings that spread beneath his skin.
‘You forgot this,’ he says and hands me a fork.
‘Thanks,’ I say to the fork and hurry out the door after Veina.
The front yard is a concrete slab with an old single mattress on the floor. I brush off the dirt and dried leaves and sit down on the mattress next to Veina, leaning my back on the pink stucco exterior of the house. The air around us is starting to cool but the wall is warm against my back. Veina hands me a pair of chopsticks and starts slurping at her spaghetti, her head of black hair bobbing over her bowl. I put Peter’s fork on the floor beside the mattress.
A pair of lanky teenage boys walking a St Bernard are the only people out on the empty suburban streets. The long, pale arm holding the leash looks like a noodle stretching with every step the dog takes. Veina swallows her spaghetti and whistles at the boys. One of them turns around to look at us. He has dark eyes and hair and his skin looks warm and buttery. He might be Eurasian or it might just be the way he looks in the sunset.
‘You shouldn’t do that,’ I tell her.
‘They’re cute,’ Veina says, holding up her hand in greeting. She turns and grins at me. The liner around her eyes makes them look like black crescents with eyelashes.
‘Don’t worry, I know you’ve got it in you,’ Veina says. ‘You just need to be pushed out of the nest. Then you’ll fly like the skank bird you truly are.’
I roll my eyes and watch the boys walk away. In high school, Veina and I cut out all the pictures of cute boys from university brochures and stuck them on the wall in our Year Twelve common room. ‘So Many Opportunities at University’, the caption read. It was Veina’s idea. We called it the Wall of Men, and it was opposite the Wall of Ramen where we pinned up empty instant noodle packets. During our free periods, Veina smoked out the windows of the spare music rooms and I did maths practice papers next to the Wall of Men. The boys in those pictures all had smooth, white skin and were smiling straight at me.
Veina and I went to Sydney Girls High School, an uppity institution for Asian overachievers. Our school motto was ‘Labor Omnia Vincit’, which is Latin for ‘Homework Always Pays’. It was the motto of my mum and the mums of one thousand black-haired teenage girls pressing textbooks to their chests. The ATAR we got was the life we got. I stared back at the boys on the Wall of Men and wondered if they would still be smiling when I beat the living shit out of them at the HSC.
Now that we finished school, me and Veina are melting into lazy flesh bags in the summer. We move from the dirty mattress when the mosquitoes start to bite. Back in the house, the last light is coming through the kitchen window. I wash the cherries I had brought and inspect them under running water. They’re plump and brown and cold from the fridge. A lot of them are scarred or bruised or overripe. Dad had bought a big box of cherries for ten dollars at Flemington markets and my family has been eating cherries at home every night. I pick out a dodgy one, bite out its open sore and put the rest of the cherry in my mouth. It’s so sweet and so cold.
In the living room, Veina turns on the TV to watch If You Are the One on SBS. It’s starting to get dark now, but no one has bothered to turn on the lights. I join her on the lumpy brown couch. A new male contestant steps out of the single-man cylinder that lowers Chinese bachelors to the stage like a love delivery chute. He’s buff with tanned skin. Beijing Beefcake.
Veina and I give the male contestants a score from one to ten depending on how likely we would go on a date with them. We have different selection criteria to the female contestants date to get married. The women on the show want to know if the man has an apartment, a car and a high-paying job. The men want to know what the women look like without any makeup on. Veina and I heckle the television when the contestants talk that shit, which is every episode. We’re going to get our own apartments, cars and high-paying jobs. We don’t do maths practice papers because we like maths.
On screen, Beijing Beefcake smiles and waves at the audience as he walks out of the man capsule and on to the stage. The fabric of his white shirt strains against his pecs.
The back door opens with the broken flyscreen flapping around and Peter steps inside, hulking a basket of laundry against his bare chest. Veina offers him some cherries and Peter puts down his laundry and slides down the armrest of the couch. Now I’m sandwiched between him and Veina. I shift in my seat so we’re not sitting so close. My body thinks it wants one thing but my mind is in control. Don’t throw away the head for a prawn.
We all watch Beijing Beefcake’s pre-recorded video of his life as a personal trainer. I pick out a handful of super soft cherries with wide, open sores dried into dark scabs. I’m feeling stiff from sitting next to Peter. His abs look like skinless chicken nuggets set into two neat rows. They cuddle and curl against each other as Peter leans forward to spit a pip into the bowl. I look away when something starts buzzing beneath me. It’s Veina’s phone, half submerged in the crumby gap between the sections of the couch, vibrating deeper into the fold. I slip my fingers between the couch cushions and grab the phone.
‘Ugh, sorry,’ Veina says. ‘Mum calls every day to check on me.’ She answers the phone with a, ‘Wei’ as she walks off towards her room.
I move over to where Veina had just been sitting so there’s more space between me and Peter. He sneezes. His hands go from covering his nose to stretching across the back of the couch, bridging the distance I had just created between us. It’s cooling down. He needs to put a shirt on. On If You Are The One, Beijing Beefcake is sitting in his living room in a white singlet. I would give him a 6.8. Maybe 8 if he looked a little less inflated. He could be a 9 if he talked about something besides his muscles.
‘My big muscles give me big responsibilities,’ the yellow subtitles at the bottom of the screen translate as Beijing Beefcake nods at me through the television. ‘I swear to the whole nation I would never hit a woman. I can look after her and protect her,’ Beijing Beefcake says. He flexes one bare, bulging brown arm after the other. ‘She can kiss my biceps every day.’
Next to me, Peter shifts in his seat. I hope Veina will come out of her room soon so I don’t have to be alone with Peter. I stuff my mouth with three cherries and sink back into the sofa and stare at the TV. What would it feel like for his strong arms to hold me gently? As I imagine the tenderness of resting my head against his chest, a sharp pain shoots through my mouth. I hold my cheek with my head turned away like I had just been slapped. It feels like someone had cut the right side of my cheek with a pair of scissors. I lean forward and let the contents of my mouth drop into my other hand. The living room lights turn on.
‘Fuck your dad,’ I curse. ‘Oww.’
‘Are you okay?’ Peter says, putting his big, warm hand on my shoulder. It feels heavy there. I look up and see Veina walking across the room.
‘My dad says that when you bite yourself it’s because you’re not eating enough meat,’ she says. ‘Your mouth wants meat in it,’ Veina wiggles her eyebrows suggestively.
‘Ugh, well fuck your dad too,’ I say. I look down at the half-chewed cherries in my open palm. The wet, red flesh glistens like mashed and bloody brains.