Patrick Flanery is the author of four novels, including Absolution (2012), which was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary award, and a memoir, The Ginger Child. He is Chair of Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide.
Photograph by: Andrew van der Vlies
Logic aside, I blame my daughter. She was not here when it happened and has not been here for some time. And because she went ahead with the move only a week after the accident, I cannot stop blaming her. I know she knows I blame her and although this makes me fret from time to time it does not keep me awake, even in the afternoon when sleep overcomes me. Sometimes it concerns me so little I almost don’t recognize himself. My despair is to blame.
Ilse insisted she would go for a walk on her own. I was in the kitchen drinking an espresso and told her to be careful but did not drive up the hill to place myself at Ilse’s terrace door and prevent her going out when anyone would say a 95-year-old blind in one eye and deaf as granite should not be walking alone in the mist on a cold July morning. Natalie asked what I was doing at the time, but I can’t remember. It may have been the morning a brushtail fell down the chimney and sat dazed in the ash blinking until I put on the fireplace gloves and wrestled it screaming into a box while France whined from the bedroom.
What I do remember is that when I went to pick up Ilse for lunch that day, she was greyer than usual. At the organic market, she would not eat her sweet potato soup or slice of sourdough. After dropping her at home and insisting she turn on the heat, I phoned Natalie in Taipei and reported what Ilse had told me: that she took a fall on her walk and might have bruised her ribs. She said she was nauseated and having trouble breathing.
‘A fall to folly,’ I said.
‘What? You have to take her to hospital,’ Natalie said in her dogmatic way, ‘she might have broken something. And you’d better call her sons. We can’t do this again.’
‘I don’t want to go behind Ilse’s back. You know that’s part of our bargain.’
Later that afternoon, at Natalie’s urging, I went to check on Ilse. She wanted to go buy a crate of wine, which made no sense when she had a cellar full of it. I told her Natalie thought she should go to hospital and let her sons know what had happened. That was the first time I was seriously worried because I could see she did not understand what I was saying. I had to repeat myself three times and when she did finally understand she snapped.
‘I just want to go to the fucking bottle-o,’ she whispered, ‘so stop wasting my time.’
We were sitting in my car, which she had laboured into, wincing with every move. It was the second to last time we sat together in my car. For twenty years we had sat together in cars, going to Shakespeare in the Vines, Chardonnay May luncheons, La Bohème on the beach. It’s not Europe, but then nothing else is, Ilse always complained, even when she’d enjoyed herself. It’s not the Royal Shakespeare Company, but then nothing else is. It’s not Meursault, but then nothing else is. It’s not La Scala, but then nothing else is.
‘I don’t need to go to a hospital or phone my bastard sons,’ she gasped. ‘They will simply do what Natalie has done, which is to say respond as if this is the disaster,’ she wheezed, ‘that it clearly is not. Now take me to the bottle-o.’
I knew she meant the disaster for which her sons had been waiting to have an excuse to put her into a home. Six months earlier, the eldest, Laurent, sold the car out from under her after she changed lanes on the Prince’s Highway coming home from the theatre and sideswiped a Ute whose driver threatened to sue. Even though I disapproved of Laurent’s highhandedness, it was a relief not to have her driving anymore. A month later Laurent took away Ilse’s black pug, Fool, and rehomed it with one of his clients in Kenthurst because he said a dog as pudgy and aggressive as Fool would pull her off her feet and make her break a hip. She was never the same after.
The morning after her fall in Cleland, when I phoned Ilse at our usual check-in time, she did not answer. I drove to her house and found her unwashed and lying on the white Italian leather sofa in muddy jeans and sweatshirt. On the coffee table were two empty bottles of the single-vineyard pinot she’d bought the previous night. She blinked but did not reply when I spoke. I approached to see if she was alive and her breath was wind through sheoaks in my ear. At that point I told her we must seek medical attention.
‘No fucking ambulance,’ she whispered before struggling one last time into my car.
The young doctor who clearly fancied himself did an x-ray while we waited and after an hour returned and reported: ‘Two broken ribs and a collapsed lung. You’re going to hospital, Ilse, whether you like it or not.’ Dogmatic, like Natalie. He did not make eye contact with either of us but kept checking his own reflection in the mirror above the sink.
Laurent arrived after lunch on a flight from Sydney and the youngest, Florian, rolled in the next morning from Melbourne, by which time Ilse was no longer speaking and neither the doctor nor nurses could say why she was not speaking or whether her lung would reinflate. They did a scan to check for signs of stroke, but there were no such indications.
‘Sometimes,’ the doctor told Laurent in my hearing, ‘this happens with very old people. One significant trauma and they go headlong over the edge. It’s just nature culling, to put it bluntly.’
A short while later Ilse no longer recognized me and did not recognize her sons and by the time her middle child, Maurice, arrived from Singapore, she was thrashing around and had to be sedated. By the end of the week, she was dead. I was not in the room when it happened and did not for a while believe it had and then spent an hour alone with Ilse’s body and understood it had definitely happened. Her skin grew cold. I thought of my mother and father, how icy their hands were in death, how unresponsive.
That evening I phoned Natalie in Taipei as she was packing to move to Los Angeles with her husband. She made sympathetic noises and looked as though she might cry. Her new job was starting and they had been waiting on the American visas for more than a year. ‘I cannot fuck this up given the direction of travel vis-à-vis the whole China situation,’ she said, ‘and I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that it’s past time we got out.’
‘Does that mean you won’t come?’
‘It means I can’t come, Dad. I’m sorry. I wish I could be there for you. But I can’t let passion get in the way of reason.’
‘Passion? Is that what you’d call it?’
‘Don’t make this more difficult for me than it is. I was fond of Ilse, you know that.’
So, I blame her. I have tried to reason myself into a more forgiving frame of mind but cannot manage it. If Ilse had been her mother, or even, I believe, if Ilse and I had been married, Natalie would not have delayed. But because of the nature of the relationship, neither my daughter nor any of Ilse’s sons think we were anything other than flirtatious friends. So, I blame them. I blame all of them.
Laurent, Florian, and Maurice make all the arrangements without consulting me, going ahead with the cremation and not even doing me the courtesy of asking if I might want to attend. On top of it they have chosen a ghastly funeral home called Practical Services, which gets only two stars online. Ilse would have been furious. I also fail to understand why I was not named as a witness on the death certificate.
‘Yeah, but, you weren’t even in the room when Ilse died and therefore you cannot technically have been a witness. Do you understand that?’ Natalie says when I mention it. ‘Just because you think you see everything does not mean you are witness to the whole world.’
I want to tell my daughter I have repeatedly imagined the thrashing and rattle and frantic gaze followed by an exhalation and silence. I have seen it as if I had been there, so some part of me believes that I did witness Ilse’s passing.
Also, what does it matter whether I was there or not? Who does it serve, except Laurent, who was alone in the room and wants everyone to know it.
Ilse would not have quibbled over facts.
Florian phones the following afternoon.
‘Hi, hiya, Peter, I just wanted to see if maybe there’s anything from Mum’s house you want?’
‘No,’ I assure him, not a scrap, although there are several of my items in the house. Baking trays and muffin tins left behind over the course of years. A red enamel casserole dish of some value. Sheet music from when I still had the upright piano, the score to Puccini’s Tosca. LPs and CDs and cassette tapes. A complete recording of the Shostakovich quartets. Several rare books on music, a selection of modern novels. But I fear the sons would suspect me of inventing ownership to do them out of their inheritance, the fiends.
A few days later, Florian drops by with some blue napkins Ilse bought when Natalie and her husband took us to Kyoto a decade ago. Florian is thinner than I remember, balder too. I think of him as perpetually thirty but he is over fifty now and still dressing like a boy.
‘I thought you might like these little tokens as a remembrance of my mother. I know you were, you know, special friends.’
‘We were more than friends, Florian.’
‘Yes, of course, you know what I meant,’ Florian coughs, blushing.
‘Would you like to come in for a coffee?’
He peeks behind me as if assessing the state of the house. ‘No, I won’t trouble you. I’ve still got lots of clearing out to do before I head back to Melbourne. Thanks anyway. Okay, bye, Peter, bye. See you soon.’
The boys sell or donate most of the smaller articles and take away only a few pieces of furniture while their wives divvy up Ilse’s jewellery. Without the boys knowing I am the bidder, I purchase some of the discarded furniture at auction. That way I get Ilse’s cane porter chair in which I used to sit on summer afternoons during a break from working in her rose beds. I also buy back my casserole dish, a gift from my ex-wife more than forty years ago, and a box of my books that neither the boys nor the auctioneers noticed are all modern firsts. These, I note with horror, are sold by meterage of shelf space. For twenty dollars plus the buyer’s premium I get three metres of my own books and all of Ilse’s cookbooks. Someone outbids me on the Shostakovich LPs, most of which Natalie scratched beyond repair as a child.
As the weeks pass, I suspect my daughter is back-channelling with the bastard sons because Natalie keeps asking if I have keys to Ilse’s place, telling me if I do have a set I must absolutely not under any circumstances at all go in the house.
‘They’ve had an alarm system installed and if you do have keys and aren’t telling me—no, let me speak, Dad, stop interrupting—or you find a set that you’ve forgotten you have, you should courier them to Laurent.’
‘I have no keys, I assure you. That was one thing Ilse would not part with,’ I lie.
It is true I thought of entering the house after it was cleared but when I got to the front door I noticed the alarm panel just inside and did not want to face a security company or the police.
A month after Ilse’s death, the realtors dress the house professionally, filling it with ersatz French Country furniture and giant framed photos of kookaburras and banksias, lavender fields, and Highland cattle. They are unbecoming in the space, but that is what people want these days. While there is not a pool, the brochure acknowledges, the old croquet lawn could be dug up. There is staff accommodation that might be turned into a holiday rental. And the Bunya pine in the garden is described as ‘a tree of note’. The façade and roofline are both on the historic register, the terracing at the front all edged with box. At the open house the first Saturday after its listing there is a forty-minute queue to get inside. A koala has clambered into the gum near the front door.
The estate agent, a man who looks too young to be selling a house of this quality, nods at the koala: ‘That little bugger should add a hundred thousand to the price.’
Because it is ‘a large heritage property’ and significant expense has been put towards creating the illusion it is a naff boutique hotel, crowds have come to gawp, even those who clearly have neither the intention nor means to buy.
Ilse would have been horrified.
The house sells in less than a week. After the sale, I stop walking past it when I go on my daily to Cleland, although it’s on the most direct route. One night, however, I drive over and stop the car just short of the wrought-iron gate. As I watch, the new family goes about their evening routine, curtains open and lights on. It’s either too late or too early to phone Natalie and there is no one else to call but I can’t for some time pull myself together to drive the two minutes back home past the line of skeleton gums. When I do make it back, I feed France before pouring a large glass of finger-lime gin and slumping down to watch the food channel. In the morning I wake to find my laptop purring on the floor but cannot remember leaving it there.
Ilse’s sons conclude no one would come to a funeral held in winter, at least not the relatives from elsewhere, those who have emigrated or, now the borders are open, locals who might be spending the winter in scorching southern Europe or boiling North America. So the interment of the ashes has been delayed until summer, and I foolishly imagined Natalie and her scowling husband would attend. But getting settled in America is taking time and they have only just moved into a house in Echo Park where she claims to be too busy for such a long trip so soon after the move.
‘If I’m going to come,’ Natalie says, turning her face from the camera, ‘it needs to be a trip of, you know, real consequence.’ These days she rarely speaks without looking away from me. Eye contact appears to cause her almost physical pain.
I wake one morning having dreamt I was looking for a job as a music teacher in Santa Monica. A few days later, I begin receiving job alerts for such positions and disconcertingly personal communications from recruiters who thank me for having already taken the time to speak to them and asking for a follow-up meeting or evidence of my credentials, C.V., etc. These messages come in such quantities I begin to wonder if I am really alone in my own house, dealing with my grief, alone, and there is not some secret companion, Ilse even, haunting like a dark angel or foul fiend, making mischief for me.
So you find me now, abandoned by my daughter and left alone to negotiate with Laurent, Maurice, and Florian, plus their four-score cavalcade of relatives flying in from Auckland and the south of France, from Switzerland and Bali. I have thought of saying to Natalie, if Ilse’s all-and-sundry can pitch up, then why can’t you?
Since I began receiving those recruiting messages, Natalie has started managing my email. She relays only what she judges important, so I no longer hear from the local Labor Party. I no longer hear from the World Wildlife Fund or the State Theatre or the vineyard outside Hahndorf where I’m certain I’m still a member of the wine club but from which I have not received my usual half case. I communicate with my book group and other friends via message or phone. I suspect Natalie has been betraying me but have no proof. She insists on scheduling my doctors’ appointments for early morning so she can join by phone from Los Angeles.
There is to be a graveside service and a luncheon at Mount Lofty House where, I am aghast to discover, ‘people are invited to tell stories about Ilse, whether or not they are true’. All of Laurent’s communications about his mother have an edge of glibness, as if the man is relieved she is gone and wants to needle her in the grave. In the evening there will be a dinner at a wine estate near Uraidla whose whites Ilse judged pale imitations of their European antecedents. The beggarly sons have spared no expense on the events where their own enjoyment is paramount. Ilse is paying for it all, even in death.
The morning of the service I get up at six and take a terracotta pot full of pink pelargoniums, drag it on a tarp to the car, drive to the Stirling Cemetery, and manoeuvre it to the plot. With my phone I snap a photo of the crypt and my terracotta pot next to it and send this to Natalie, who responds asking whether it would not have been a good idea to take a newer looking pot and not one covered in moss. She fails to understand that Ilse would have thought such a pot perfectly right, because used and useful. Ilse, in fact, might have been the one who bought the pot in the first place, but Natalie does not know that.
I drive home. The grouting in the bathroom should be redone but is unlikely to reach a crisis before my death. Although Ilse did not want a stuffy funeral, I put on a suit and collar shirt and tie. Ilse would say someone dressed in such attire risks being mistaken for hired help. Ilse is not here to say it.
The sons have brought their spouses and children and their children have brought their spouses and children, and those children, in two cases, have brought their own spouses and children. Ilse could never remember the names of her great-grandchildren because there were already twelve grands and she struggled with them as well. In recent months she could not retrieve her son Maurice’s name and often blurted out ‘Mollusc’ or ‘Mortice’ and after three or four false starts might land on ‘Morris’ which is not, in Ilse’s family, homophonous. I can remember the names of the grandchildren (bar two whose faces I find offensively smug) but none of the great-grandchildren.
The sons greet me. Their spouses greet me. Some of the grandchildren nod in my direction but do not speak. In the parlance of Ilse’s family, I am the late matriarch’s ‘boyfriend’. They look at me as if I were some geriatric gigolo, fifteen years younger than Ilse and with designs on her fortune. Only the point about age is true. Would they be surprised to know Ilse and I never did anything more intimate in two decades than hold hands, share a bed on travels, and kiss chastely, which is to say only on the lips, always with eyes closed. It was what she wished. As with all things, she had been frank about that when her husband died and I, passing the house on my daily walk to Cleland, began stopping to chat once we discovered common tastes. Blues and pinks in a garden, no hot colours. Pinot Noir and Grüner Veltliner, no Merlot or Sauvignon Blanc. Wagner and Shostakovich, no Haydn or Prokofiev. How easy. A case of happy casualty, as someone might have put it.
Because Ilse did not want a traditional funeral there is no clergy. Laurent officiates. It is hot with no shade. A flock of fairy wrens flits chattering around the monuments. Laurent tells a story about his mother that describes a person I do not recognize. Maurice reads a rhyming poem by a poet no actual poet would credit. Florian is the only one who tries to speak from the heart, as it were, the only one who appears moved. Leave it to the youngest, the one picked upon by his older brothers, to mention his mother’s garden and love of birds, walks, and even the joy she found after their father’s death. It is as close as anyone comes to acknowledging their mother’s relationship to me. Florian invited me to speak but I could not find words I trusted myself to pronounce without losing the capacity to finish. She is dead, I would say, gone forever, dead in the earth. I see my reflection in the polished stone her breath no longer stains.
A few of my friends from the university retirees club and book club have come to support me but the only person I wish were here is in Los Angeles waiting for the opportunity to make a trip of consequence. I suppose she has in mind the consequence of a retirement village in Hahndorf. She can get stuffed if that is the idea.
The family tomb, Ilse’s rather than her late husband’s, is in the corner of the cemetery, at the juncture of the pine forest and valley of gums to the southeast. It was the late husband who chose the dour black granite and neoclassical design with engraved thistles because his family was once Scottish. It is a two-person tomb. If I wished to be buried near Ilse it would be at some distance, not even in the same alley of graves. Natalie will not approve of me being interred so far from wherever she chooses to live—if she ever makes a definitive choice. More likely she will have the ashes compressed into a diamond she can set in platinum or port me about in an urn as the political winds shift. There is a strong chance she will be moving on from Los Angeles in less time than it took her to flee Taipei.
At least Stirling’s is a well-kept cemetery. Not like British cemeteries so often neglected, overrun with ivy. This is more like a French or Austrian, even a Swedish burial ground, although it has not quite achieved the refinement of those countries that raise tending the dead to a national art. A cemetery in Uppsala once made me weep, after the divorce, because I could not imagine anyone tending my own grave so assiduously. The only signs of neglect here are several of the older graves whose plots were topped with concrete and the surface has collapsed in grisly, body-shaped oblongs. Stone is more durable. The monuments to those killed at Gallipoli look as new as the day they were erected. In another century, Ilse’s grave, notwithstanding earthquake or fire, will appear just as it does today.
At the last minute I decide not to attend the luncheon or dinner, offering an excuse about the new variants and being around so many unmasked people, but I can tell that none of the sons, not even sympathetic Florian, really believes me. Instead, I go home to prune the Japanese maples and send Natalie a message asking her to arrange for garden services to do a full clean-up before it gets any hotter or drier. The flowers are wilting in the heat because I’ve not turned on the irrigation system. The bore needs a new pump. I take France for a walk past Ilse’s old house and don’t even clean up when it squats in her driveway. At home I pour a double measure of finger-lime gin and then a second and turn on the high-brow movie channel where a Japanese film featuring an old man in a medieval setting is reaching its violent conclusion. Superimposed on the beard and long white hair of the actor I again notice my own reflection in the rain and wind and thunder. France sticks his snout in the glass trying to get the last of my gin.
Tomorrow the boys will be returning to their homes. Flights out on Sunday morning. Late that afternoon, I drive back to the cemetery where the arrangements of flowers have been heaped on Ilse’s side of the tomb. In the heat they are already drooping. Since there is no one else about, I gather the arrangements, half a dozen bouquets, and carry them to the car.
At home, I pick out what can be salvaged and put the rearranged flowers in five vases along the sideboard as France watches, panting. When I tell Natalie about it on Monday morning she acts as if I have committed a crime, as if she does not see that I am, although never married to Ilse, her widower.
‘But the point is to leave the flowers, Dad. That’s why people take arrangements to graves,’ Natalie says. She does not say what I imagine she is thinking: the only people entitled to take the arrangements are the bastard sons, who are, legally speaking, Ilse’s only next of kin. I know I am a legal nonentity. ‘There might have been surveillance cameras.’ No, I assure her, there are no such devices. ‘What if the police had come?’ she asks.
‘The police have graver concerns.’
‘Is that meant to be a joke?’
‘Take it as you like, Natalie. Don’t let it disquiet you.’
‘I don’t think it’s funny.’
‘As far as I can tell, you think very little is funny.’
On her side of the planet she is sitting in the evening glow of a wildfire sky. When the day comes that my doctor tells me I have no choice, I am going to hospital, when the words stop arranging themselves in my mind, when the faces of strangers look like friends and friends like strangers, I wonder if Natalie will have time in her schedule to make the trip from Los Angeles, or wherever else she may be living. In her face there is stark concern, not for wildfires in the San Gabriel Mountains, but for a father who does what she thinks he should not. Imagine her asking friends for a gut check to see whether others think it strange that I should transgress an unwritten social contract with the dead. He would not do well in Asia, I imagine Natalie saying to her husband. No, perhaps not. Some new facet of myself, new to the self who is present on this call with Natalie, sees that the self who took the arrangements from Ilse’s grave was not acting out of love or common sense but was instead fired by malice. New selves are best handled as mercy cases. Put them down before they suffer.
But how dare Ilse’s sons? How dare she herself? Did Ilse not think, even in her final months, that I might wish to accompany her, as was long the case, wherever she might travel?
The next day I drive to the half-acre burial ground next to a vineyard where my parents are interred. With kitchen shears I cut the grass around their monument, collect dead leaves, wipe dust from the stone. Using an old toothbrush, I scrub away what has accumulated in the engraved letters. My mother’s determination to be buried next to my father still troubles me; I cannot understand why she should wish to spend eternity lying next to a man who had been so cruel to her, so cruel to me. I scrub my father’s side of the grave, harder than my mother’s. My grandparents are here, and great-grandparents, and their parents who came from England as Primitive Methodists. Though not a Primitive Methodist I have a plot here, adjacent to my parents’; I do not wish to be buried with my forebears. There is little reason to believe such a feeling will translate into action. This is where I will lie, in sight of the vineyard, down the road from the house where my people first settled. They came and they stayed and I have stayed, as if that great leap from North to South was so taxing that every generation hence could not imagine moving on, until Natalie.
Natalie will not be tending my grave. Perhaps if she puts up a monument, she will visit when she returns to the city where she grew up. With no family left in these parts, however, my death may mark her final trip home. My resting place will be left to the mercy of the council or whatever volunteers take it upon themselves to tend the forgotten.
On the drive home, I recall my mother’s funeral. There had been solemnity and kindness for her. Ilse’s family seemed to feel little more than relief that this chapter of their lives had reached its conclusion and they would no longer have to tolerate her sharp tongue. The promise of inheritance perverts relations between the generations. I have written Natalie out of my will, though she does not know it.
When I turn the key in the lock, I wonder why France is not at the door to greet me, why I suddenly catch Ilse’s scent. A woman stands a few paces from me. Her face collapses as she cries out. A man has appeared, shouting, and children are sobbing in the corridor behind the adults, a little girl wailing as if she has, at last, seen the ghost of her nightmares in the flesh.
‘Oh,’ I hear myself say, ‘oh.’ Ilse’s scent flows from the kitchen cupboards, from the parquet and sisal rugs. I raise the key in my hand, dangling its chain. ‘This must be yours.’
Natalie phones me the next morning. It is late afternoon in Los Angeles. Laurent has been in touch with her. Police were involved, although the new owners have been persuaded not to press charges.
‘I had to explain that you were deranged by grief,’ Natalie says, dogmatic.
‘Mad as the sea?’
‘Huh? Stop it, Dad.’ Her features are fixed. She scarcely moves her lips. It is obvious she is in some kind of state. A consequential state, perhaps. ‘I’ve booked a flight for tomorrow,’ she says, staring off to one side. ‘It is time we made arrangements.’
Christopher Cyrill is the author of the novels The Ganges and its Tributaries and Hymns for the Drowning. He has also published numerous stories, articles and written a number of broadcasted radio plays. For many years he was the fiction editor of HEAT and the fiction editor of Giramondo Publishing. Cyrill has taught at Sydney University and Macquarie University and currently runs his own writing academy mentoring writers.
Index of First Lines
Edited by I.V.A Sumac
He says, Poetry should make the visible a little hard to see – This is a paraphrase of Line 21 of “The Creations of Sound” by Wallace Stevens, page 310. The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, Faber and Faber, London, 1954.
Tack and sheet chanty, ‘aul away St. Joe. – This is a partial quote from “Haul Away, St. Joe” a traditional sea shanty/chanty/forecastle song. Sourced from: https://www.whalingmuseum.org/
There’s a day for the hunter, a day for the prey – This is a quote from “A Day for the Hunter, a Day for the Prey” by Leyla McCalla Track taken from “A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey” – Leyla McCalla : May 27th 2016 on JazzVillage Music video directed by Claire Bangser
Morgaine Riley is a writer and English tutor from Peramangk Country (the Adelaide Hills). In 2021, she was awarded the Peter Davies Memorial Prize for Creative Writing. She has recently completed an Honours in Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide.
The drive to Hardwicke is filled with corn chips and ABBA’s complete discography, with sleeping bags and pillows overflowing into the backseat and making it impossible to see out the rear window. On the first day, the weather is horrible—drizzly and gusty, banging the flyscreen doors and dragging green plastic deck chairs across the veranda.
We sit on the carpet of the beach shack, poring over a photo album from Tony’s Year Eleven exchange to Japan. Jenny gave it to Selene after the twenty-year anniversary. Tony is younger in these photos, only sixteen or seventeen, and it shows in his face and hair. One photo stands out. In it, Tony is wearing light blue jeans and a white t-shirt, standing with his weight on his right leg. His hair is blonde and floppy, like Leonardo DiCaprio, and his smile tilts up to the left. He looks at ease, confident, and very familiar.
Maybe it’s an aura—the way they hold themselves. Self-assured, always in action, with matching cheeky smirks—a forced moment of pause for a camera that will be abandoned quickly.
Something Eddy said about that day at Bullies jolted my recognition. “He got completely washed up, but he came in with this massive grin on his face.” A genuine love of trying, not just succeeding. Something the boys admired about Tony, and I treasure in Selene. I love Selene the way these boys loved Tony, and we mourn for how they could have loved each other.
29th May 2022. Hardwicke Bay
On the anniversary of the day Tony disappeared, we walk along the esplanade to the beach. Nearly every second house has a tractor parked out front, old Ferguson types with big back wheels and rounded corners in pale blues and reds with rust bleeding through; or newer, John Deere green and yellow with encased cabs. To tow the boats out, Selene tells us. More heavy duty than your average four-wheel-drive. Fantastic off-roaders.
We follow the tractor treads in the sand right down to the water line. Lazy and a little hungover, we trail along the beach, jeans rolled up to wander through the low tide and out onto the reef. We squat over shallow rockpools, pulling up crabs for inspection before returning them to their rocky alcoves in a flurry of sand. Pipi casings lie open, pale purple, sometimes pinkish inside, the discards of bait left behind by beach fishermen or washed ashore from their boats.
We’ve been walking for two hours when we realise we’re hungry and halfway to Point Turton. Distracted, laughing about a boy Amber is “talking to”, we track back on wetter, harder sand, less dawdling this time. The tide has already taken most of our footprints.
Only when we are back at the house, and Kali tries to open the doors, do we realise what we don’t have. The keys.
“Are they inside?”
“No, I’m sure I took them,”
“The glove box, maybe?”
Selene pats the pouch pocket of her jumper in horror. “They were in here. They must have fallen out.”
“Tony’s rock?” We all realise at the same time. We’d been bending to place flowers there, that must’ve shaken them out.
Selene and I look at each other.
“We have to check.”
A plan is set out. Selene and I will go and check the carpark, where the keys will definitely be, the others will try and get in through a window and see if any locksmiths are working on a Saturday in the middle of nowhere. No need to panic.
The keys are not at Tony’s rock. It’s obvious almost immediately—there’s only gravel and sparse status flowers for them to hide in.
“Ok, ok, let’s think. Where else would you have been bending down?”
Selene grimaces as we look out over the beach. “Pretty much every rock pool,” she sighs.
“Alright.” I don’t let her see how panicked I am. “Let’s go and look there, then.” I grin, “How hard can it be?”
Mirroring the same stupid hope that I feel, Selene grins back. “Right? Not hard.”
Retracing our steps is tricky, because the tide has come right in, swallowing all of our footprints. Selene scans the deeper, looser sand and I give up on keeping my jeans dry, scouring the shallows for any glinting silver. We’ve been staring at our feet for forty minutes when I stumble across the edge of a rockpool.
“I think we should head back,” Selene yells over the wind. She laughs when she sees me picking my way out to the reef. We must both be mad.
I stop and turn around to yell back, “One sec!”
We stand there, a hundred metres apart, Selene with her hands on her head and me up to my thighs in sea water. Simultaneously, we keel over laughing. Then something catches my eye.
“SELENE OHMYFUCKINGGOD OHMYGODOHMYGOD!”
I fish them off the of the slimy rock and half-sprint half-jump back over the reef towards Selene. I shake my fist, keys clenched tight above my head as we shriek and jump and hug in disbelief.
“That’s gotta be him, right? What are the chances?”
AJ DeMoyer is an emerging writer of eco-dystopian short fiction, currently studying an MA Writing and Literature at Deakin University. April lives with her husband, two tiny dogs and an oversize cat on Dharawal Country (regional NSW). When she’s not studying, reading or writing, she’s either propagating succulents in her garden, obsessively sorting the recycling, baking a sugary treat, or streaming dystopian programming.
‘Good evening, Jo,’ AIoFE™ says. ‘You have three new messages.’
Jo picks up her phone and slides her thumb over the screen, which unlocks after authenticating her irises.
Extended Warning: X5 Class Solar Flare. Prepare for power grid disruptions.
Warning: UV Level 9 tomorrow. Please stay indoors between 6am – 7pm.
Be SolarSafe! Is your Geomagnetic Disruption Critical Response Plan ready? Contact your local—
Jo places her device on the table. Along the edge of the crepuscular sky, an apricot glow hugs the horizon.
A few days later, Jo sits on her small balcony in a wooden chair, book in hand, a glass of peppermint H2Oh!™ sweating on a low table beside her.
Duke is just about to rip the satin bodice from Victoria’s quivering body when an electronic rendition of ‘Greensleeves’ pierces Jo’s eardrums, shocking her from the quiet mid-afternoon reverie. She places the book, its pages swollen and warped from touch and temperature, on the table next to her glass. Jo sighs. Why do I even bother? Most of her books and other belongings had been destroyed in the Terrible Flood; these tacky romance novels—that anachronistic ice-cream van—are like cockroaches in a nuclear holocaust. She has learned to be content with whatever she can get.
Jo surveys the street with its single-family heritage houses repurposed for multiple occupancy. She feels lucky to have been assigned to this block, to a property with a garden. The rusty van trundles up the street; children, drawn to its song like sailors to Sirens, abandon their makeshift bicycles and rush toward it. Uniformed mothers, between shifts at The Factory, watch closely.
The tune cuts out; the van has stopped. In the quiet, Jo recalls the hot summers of her own youth, some 17,000 kilometres and seventy years from where she finds herself now. She remembers hours spent running through reticulated sprinklers under a clear blue sky, toes squelching over lush green lawns, the excitement of the ice-cream truck cruising her neighbourhood, even then summoning children with a warbled, tinny rendition of ‘Greensleeves’. Flaky chocolate sticks in soft, aerated ice-creams; ice lollies that turned lips and tongues blue and red. What could they possibly get from that van now? Jo shudders.
Shrill and mechanical, the tune starts up again. Jo returns to her chair, stretches her spider-veined legs, rests her calloused feet on a threadbare cushion. She reaches for the book and begins to read, with some longing, details of Victoria and Duke delighting in each other’s company.
‘Good morning,’ AIoFE™ says, handing Jo her daily packet of vitamins and a glass of verbena H2Oh!™. ‘You are advised to stay indoors today. We are currently experiencing an X3 class geomagnetic storm, which is expected to increase to X5 in the next 48 hours.’
Wiping down her breakfast plate, Jo studies her desiccated Survival Garden™ planted with GMO crops designed to thrive in the ‘new normal’ climate. She longs for the verdant gardens of her childhood and the permaculture gardens of her adulthood, carefully landscaped with a mixture of flowers and produce—fragrant roses, juicy strawberries, passionfruit dangling from vines. And yet, just five weeks ago, between spells of torrential rain, Jo had spotted Filipendula ulmania—meadowsweet—in a far corner of her plot. She marvels at Nature’s tenacity, her resilience.
Jo spends the day tidying her living space, making mental lists. Her AIoFE™ could do this, but Jo wants to keep her ageing mind agile and sharp. She fears becoming like her neighbours Logan and Barb, whose AIoFE™ does everything for them; who, instead of enjoying what remains of nature or humankind, binge-watch reality TV (Barb, grid permitting) and re-enact VR wars (Logan, sobriety permitting).
That night, Jo dreams she’s atop a tall mountain in springtime bloom. The peak’s outdoor restaurant is busy. As she walks toward it, the sky flashes white. In the distance, a slow-moving silver arc appears, raining fire as it advances, consuming everything in its path. No-one else notices. People gorge themselves on piles of food, their mouths and fingers greasy with the fat of animals; they ignore her cries, her pleas. It is too late. The arc is upon them; its flames engulf them.
AIoFE™ enters the bedroom, eyes burning bright LED white before softening to an ethereal blue. ‘Wake up, sleepy head,’ it says. ‘The Assembly begins in 90 minutes.’
Jo eases herself out of bed, stretches her arms over her head then side to side. The climate curfew has been lifted; she is meeting friends ahead of The Assembly.
‘Honestly, Jo, it’s not that bad with Wheatmylk™ and a lump of Shugar™.’ Maren sips her tepid drink and grimaces, her lips peeled back and bloodless over her tombstone teeth in mock pleasure.
Jo fingers the chip in the ancient mug. She does not like Koffee™ and has only ordered one to be sociable.
Harriet squeezes her friend’s hand. ‘I miss the real thing, too. Remember the smell of freshly ground beans? What I wouldn’t do for—even for a Nescafe!’
The women finish their drinks in silence. They leave the cafeteria, cross a covered courtyard secured by the Civil Guard and peppered with protesters holding hand-drawn placards.
Jo and her friends join the throng of people moving along a corridor into a cavernous building—a former dairy acquired through compulsory purchase. Jo had heard that the farmer had been paid a token sum, his cattle slaughtered and quietly distributed to government officials. The women sit near the stage: a floor-to-ceiling digital screen for the global simulcast. At precisely 10.30am, the lights dim and the crowd hushes.
An AIoFE™ moves to the dais. ‘Children, I greet you in the name of His Excellency, Our Great Father.’ The AIoFE™ continues, ‘I remind you that full-duplex device jamming is activated and the room is sealed until The Assembly has concluded.’
The robot moves aside. The screen comes to life with an avatar of His Excellency, Our Great Father: a small, average-looking, fair-skinned, grey-haired man in his fifties dressed in a deep purple tunic adorned with a gold sash, standing in front of a red velvet drape. Jo can’t help but think of Oscar Diggs; she stifles a dangerous laugh with a cough.
‘Children!’ The avatar raises his hands in blessing. ‘My peace be with you.’
The room rises to its feet, responds in unison, ‘And also with you, Our Great Father’.
‘Today, Children, I bring you wonderful news. Behold! I have made all things new. The first earth is passing away and will not be remembered. My chosen ones shall inherit a new Earth. No longer shall you toil. Relieved of your labours, you will be free to pursue enlightened interests here in New Eden.’
The avatar disappears, replaced with drone footage of enormous domed sanctuaries: a breathtaking feat of bio-engineering, conservation and artificial intelligence. The audience watches advanced AIoFE™ models labouring while humans enjoy manmade forests, lakes, and meadows interspersed with natural landscapes and habitats filled with a Noah’s Ark of animals, fishes, birds, reptiles, insects—a curated selection of extinct species re-animated through the wonders of science, rewilded into synthetic habitats.
Over pseudo-chorale background music the AIoFE™ narrates: ‘His Excellency, Our Great Father has created a new world where humans and animals and technology will live together in peace and prosperity, in God’s own country.’
Jo’s stomach knots. An entire continent seized, repurposed as New Eden—the zenith of man’s paradisiacal neo-creation. She had known, of course, about the depopulation of the former continent-nation of Australia, which officials had declared uninhabitable after a series of severe climate disasters. Its people had been forcibly redistributed to overcrowded, resource-depleted northern hemisphere countries, where protests against these unwanted Antipodean refugees had resulted in vicious attacks on the newcomers. Jo knows some of these families from The Centre for Cultural Assimilation, where she serves two days a week. She knows what it’s like to be in a strange, new place—when she was 14, Jo’s parents moved their family to the northern hemisphere after the earthquake that levelled Canberra. They are no different to us, she thinks, just traumatised in different ways.
From the screen, the Ministers for New Eden and Global Reassignment outline the timetable, migration process and the lottery system—only one billion people will reside in His Excellency’s utopia. Jo scans the hall, searching to find her incredulity mirrored in the faces of others; instead, she finds only faces shining with desperate optimism.
That afternoon, fragments of a poem Jo’s mother used to recite tickle her memory.
‘AIoFE™,’ she asks, ‘what is that poem about … cybernetic meadows?’
The robot’s chest panel lights up, emits a soft whir. ‘The poem is “All watched over by machines of loving grace”, written by Richard Brautigan in 1967 when he was the poet-in-residence at Cal—’
‘Thank you, AIoFE™. Will you read it, please?’
Later that evening, Jo sits in her wooden chair on the balcony with a glass of peppermint H2Oh!™. She reflects on The Assembly’s announcement that morning. She closes her eyes, recites the poem’s last stanza into the night air:
‘I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.’
Jo sighs. What choice do any of us have?
Over the rooftops of her neighbours’ dimly lit homes, the apricot glow looms.
Juanita is an emerging writer who lives in a small town in rural Victoria, on the unceded land of the Dja Dja Wurrung people. She has only recently tapped into a deep desire to write. Having successfully navigated away from a long career as a professional photographer, Juanita is now completing her arts degree in anthropology and creative writing at Deakin University in Geelong.
After Andri Snær Magnason
There is a man sitting outside a café in Reykjavik harbour, drinking his second double espresso and writing a eulogy for a glacier.
The man takes a crumpled packet of cigarettes from his breast pocket, digs out the last one, and stares vacantly across the harbour at the Harpa Concert Hall. It is perched on the edge of the water like a giant metallic beast from the future; scales glinting in the sun. He lights the cigarette, and while the match burns down until it singes his finger, he wonders what kind of world the glacier was born into. He quickly waves out the match, places it carefully in the ashtray with the others, and squints out at the bay through an exhalation of smoke.
What did it feel like, to be alive ten thousand years ago?
Katja Edelmann is driving a rented Audi north from the Munich airport towards a nursing-home in Aalen, where she will help celebrate her grandmother’s one-hundredth birthday. She has flown in from Reykjavik, straight from an interview with a climate scientist, who gave her a view of the world so immense, it has dislodged something solid, deep inside her. And while she was busy navigating her way out of the airport terminal, her story on the disappearing glaciers of Iceland was rewriting itself in her brain, without her even noticing.
As she drives further from the airport, the terrain beyond the Autobahn slowly transforms. As if in a time-lapse. The distant hills become dotted with clusters of fretworked farm-houses, and patches of thick forest appear. Familiar landmarks pass by and scenes from childhood visits with her grandmother layer themselves upon the landscape. For an unsettling moment, time no longer has a linear flow.
Katja looks at the clock on the dashboard and decides she needs one more coffee before re-uniting with her German relatives. She hates that it will make her late, but she’s been up since four a.m. and is starting to feel the ache in her throat that comes from holding in too many emotions. Or from smoking too many cigarettes, she’s not sure which.
She takes the next exit into a Raststätte the size of a small town and drives to the furthest end of the parking area. She pulls up in front of an enormous tree at the edge of the bitumen, turns off the ignition and sits in the car for a moment. The tree before her is a splendid, twisted old thing. An oak maybe. There’s a crow sitting on an outstretched branch, its head cocked and alert, examining her carefully. She leans forward over the steering wheel, and watches its inky feathers shimmer blue-green in the sun.
‘We are living in biblical times,’ the scientist had said to her, just a few hours earlier. He had paused, offered her a cigarette and explained, ‘when geologically-scaled events like ocean acidification and species extinction happen on a human time-scale, reality takes on a mythical quality.’ He had looked at her with an intensity that reminded her of an ex-lover who had become unhinged, some years ago, obsessed with dark internet conspiracies.
As Katja gets out of the car, the crow makes a sound like a baby wailing. It hops, open-winged along the branch a few times before flying off. She watches it disappear into a row of birch trees and it occurs to her that she has been writing the wrong story.
She buys a coffee and a packet of throat lozenges and takes them back to the car. The crow reappears abruptly in a blur of black. It hops along the same gnarled branch and stares at her. She sips her coffee and stares back, admiring the magnificent oak in which it is perched. Yes, definitely oak.
She remembers a story her father once told her about the wooden beams in the roof of a dining hall in Oxford. The building itself was over seven-hundred-years-old, but about a century ago—her father had explained—an infestation of beetles was found in the huge lengths of oak that were supporting the roof. Unsure where to find such massive pieces of wood to replace the beams, the college council called on the college forester for advice. Unsurprised by the situation, the forester said something like, ‘I’ve been wondering when you lot would turn up!’
The forester explained that back when the college was built, six centuries earlier, a grove of oak trees was planted to replace those very beams. The inevitability of a beetle infestation at some point in the future was calculated into the construction. And this knowledge was passed on from forester to forester, down through the generations: the oaks in that grove were for the dining hall in Oxford.
Why do we no longer hold our vision so far into the future? She suddenly realises that the story she needs to write isn’t about climate change. It is about time.
‘We have to change the way we think about time,’ the man in Reykjavik had said. Cathedral thinking, he had called it. Cathedrals in Europe would take generations to build. Hundreds of years. Fathers would lay the foundations, knowing they would never see it finished. And their grandsons would teach their sons how to chisel rocks and place stones, one upon the other, knowing they would be long dead before the first congregation gathered under its vaulted ceiling.
Katja checks the time on the dashboard again. She unwraps the lozenges, pops one in her mouth and starts the car. She regrets smoking so many of the scientist’s cigarettes.
‘Katja, Schatz! Wie geht’s? You’re here!’
Her uncle engulfs her in a joyful hug as she enters the foyer of the nursing-home. She laughs and hugs him back, apologising for being late. ‘Ach, don’t worry about it. Oma is in the dining room with everyone, go in, I’m just organising the cake.’
Katja is taken in by her relatives: into the room and back into their lives. Her grandmother is helped out of her chair and gives her a long, surprisingly firm hug. ‘How long are you staying this time Kati?’ she says, her voice slower and deeper than Katja remembers.
‘Just a few days, Oma, but I will make the most of every moment.’ She smiles and gives her grandmother’s hand a squeeze. As Katja helps the old woman back into her chair, her cousin appears with her newborn son asleep in her arms. ‘Hallo Katja! Meet Ulli…’ She reorganises her body to reveal a tiny pink face in the bundle folded into her arms.
‘Hello Ulli,’ says Katja, touching his soft fuzzy head. She tries to imagine what the world will be like in the year 2118, when this brand-new human turns one-hundred.
The line between past and present blurs again as Katja is immersed in an afternoon of conversation and reminiscence. Jan finally arrives with a birthday cake big enough for Ulli to take a nap on, and someone leads them in song.
A middle-aged woman with wild hair and thick-rimmed glasses approaches Katja with a plate of birthday cake in each hand. ‘The last time I talked to you, you were writing a story about some Aboriginal people—trying to save those trees in Australia.’ She hands her niece the slab of darkly layered torte, the thick white frosting threatening to topple to the floor.
‘Oh, my! Thank you, Tante Lina,’ Katja says taking the plate. ‘Yes, you’re right. That was couple of years ago now.’ Her mind cast back to the sparse, dry landscape of central Victoria, and the scorching summer that she wrote about those trees. Eight-hundred-year-old birthing trees. Sacred to the local Djab Wurrung people, they were to be cut down to widen a section of highway. She had spent a week at the protest site, camping alongside those magnificent trees and their custodians. She felt the distress of the Traditional Owners as they talked about the importance of the tress, and the sacred land that they were on. How that land connected the Djab Wurrung people to their ancestors, to the beginning of time.
Fifty generations of women had birthed their children under the protection of those trees, and countless generations of women and trees were in relationship before that. For the Djab Wurrung, the past, like the present, was always all around them. For them, the horror of colonisation was ongoing.
‘What ever happened to those trees? Did you save them?’
‘No.’ She swallows a mouthful of cake but forgets to taste it.
When she visits again the next day, Katja finds her grandmother alone, dozing in a large hospital-grade recliner in her room. Katja sits down opposite her and quietly watches her breathe. A nurse marches in announcing teatime and clunks a cup of tea down on the small table in front of her grandmother, startling her awake. This small violence makes Katja want to follow the nurse down the corridor and yell at her. Instead, she bundles her grandmother into a wheelchair and drives her to Bucher-Stausee, the place her grandmother took her swimming as child.
‘I haven’t been here for a long time,’ says the old woman as Katja slowly wheels her to the edge of the lake.
The two women watch the ducks bobbing up and down on the water, and Katja listens to her grandmother talk about her husband. A good, kind man, who always gave her the best of everything he had. The old woman tells of long-ago adventures with her favourite uncle, who had secretly taught her to hunt rabbits in the spruce forest behind his house. She tells of a dear friend, her closest, oldest friend, who helped her care for her husband when he was dying.
All of them, already claimed by God, she says.
She tells Katja of her mother, Hildegard, a fierce woman born in 1891 in a small town near Berlin, in what was then Prussia. The daughter of a carriage builder, she would frequently test drive her father’s handiwork, to his continual horror.
Hildegard’s great-grand-daughter looks out over the water, and counts back in her head how many great-grandmothers it would take to get to the time when the birthing trees were just saplings; to when a stonemason in Paris was laying the foundation for Notre-Dame. Twenty? Fifty? For the now dead glacier, fifty human generations was surely just a blip in its life. Eight-hundred-years ago might have felt like its last hours on earth. Did it feel the oncoming warming, the shifting of ideologies and warring of men? Did it sense then, the stirring of a population about to explode?
‘Do you think God has forgotten me?’
‘Technology has given us the power of gods,’ the scientist had said, looking down at his hands like he was confessing something. He paused, looked up, and gave Katja a beatific smile. ‘Of course, the problem is, we lack the wisdom of gods.’
A crow hops along the branch of a tree, where a parking lot will one day be built. A young man in Paris gently lowers the foundation stone at a construction site on the edge of the Seine. A forester in Oxford presses a row of acorns into the soil. And a eucalypt seedling, fifteen-thousand kilometres away, has just broken through the earth.
In Iceland, a glacier heaves and groans.
And the man in the Reykjavik café still can’t figure out how say good-bye to a ten-thousand-year-old god.
Megan Cheong is a teacher, writer and critic living and working on Wurundjeri land. Her writing has been published in Kill Your Darlings, Going Down Swinging and Overland.
Some difficult change is underway and he begins again to wake in the night, Mummy coming softly through a crack in his dreams.
I can barely see through the deep dark, but my feet know the way and my hands find the warmth of him. I slide into his narrow bed and curl myself around the shape of him.
First I hear them squeaking and squawking just outside the window. In the brief silences between their calls, I hear the rustle of their steps in the grass. I get out of bed to raise the blinds. There are around twenty magpies assembled on the lawn, some picking in the grass with the black tip of their otherwise white beaks, but most simply standing wide-legged, staring into the house.
Above them, the pale sky begins to blush pink, then the sunrise proceeds with incredible momentum, the sky and the clouds flushing orange, gold and blue in quick succession. In the dazzling horizontal sunlight, they begin to sing: short phrases of two or four loud shivering notes building to melodious carols that rush into each other in a blaring chorus.
I watch him through the window above the sink while my hands wash the dishes. He is lying on his stomach in the grass inspecting the small purple flowers of the lily turf bordering the flowerbed when the fat black splotch of a bee or wasp drops from the blue sky, hovering indecisively in the air above his head before landing on the turf a metre or so away from him.
I pull my hands out of the dishwater, leaving a trail of droplets on the kitchen tiles on my way out to him. Positioning myself between him and the bee, I raise a hand to wave it away when my attention snags on a strange, rhythmic whistling. The sudden jerk of my body startles the bee into flight. Oliver lies with his head turned away from me, fingers splayed, round shoulders quickly rising and falling with each shallow breath.
Because he was not feeding at the time and because they can’t find any bites on his skin, the doctors at the hospital tell me to keep him off the grass and away from the lily turf, though they seem unconvinced that either of these things brought on the reaction. They tell me they do not know what caused the episode, but they give me an auto-injector with a bright green label and show me how to press its orange tip into his thigh. It fits comfortably in my curled fingers and I keep it in my pocket, periodically reaching in to wrap my fingers around it all day until I take it out and place it on his bedside table that night.
I lie down beside him and sing ‘Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush’ into the silky hair on the back of his head, but he has been drowsy all evening and is asleep before I reach the verse to which we normally mime ‘putting on our clothes’. I lie very still, listening attentively to each deep even breath.
The grass is a rough tickle on my hands, an itch on the backs of my calves. I try to grab a handful of it, but it’s stuck in the ground, so I pitch myself forward, blue-green rush of the sky and trees, then it’s nice and close and I can see the grass is yellow, not green. Or some of it is the pale yellow of uncooked corn. Each blade of grass is separate from the other, each blade of grass long and skinny before ending in a point in the sky. But some are not long, and some are not skinny; each blade of grass is different.
When I dig my fingers into the ground, they become tangled in a kind of net connecting each blade of grass to all the others. And when I lift my head up, I see that the grass, this net, goes on forever.
Oliver is very interested in the wooden box of vials on the allergist’s desk. He twists in my lap when I turn him so that his back is facing her, not out of fear but because he wants to get another look at the neat grid of vials with their bright red caps.
He stops squirming when she begins to draw on his back with black texta, his body rigid as she draws three rows of circles, then numbers each from one to fifteen. He stays perfectly still, eyes wide and blank while she pricks each circle, and only seems to return to himself in the waiting room when I put him on the grey carpet next to a wooden ice cream truck. He peers inside the open top of the truck and pushes it back and forth on the carpet.
After half an hour, the allergist calls us back into her office and lifts the back of his jumper. All the circles are empty, enclosing nothing but the smooth brown skin that was there before.
The next time it happens, he is sitting at my feet in the kitchen sorting through a collection of bowls and measuring cups. He coughs once, twice, then draws a single rasping breath before I hear the muted thud of his body dropping onto the tiles. I drop to my knees and grab for the Epipen in my pocket with one hand, pulling him onto my lap with the other. His head flops back against my chest, but his eyes are half-open as if he had just woken from a nap, or as if he were just about to fall asleep. I tuck his arms into the tight circle of my embrace and pull the blue cap off the end of the injector with my free hand. I squeeze his thigh and push the orange tip, hard, into his leg. The epipen emits a loud click and his whole body tenses, his mouth opening wide in a silent scream. My own body stiffens in response, holding him straight and still with the needle embedded deep in his thigh muscle.
After four seconds, his scream escapes, a high-pitched wail that grows and grows until the kitchen is full of the sound of him. He shakes and judders from the effort of it, but I continue to hold him in place until ten seconds has passed and I can remove the needle from his leg. His cries stop suddenly, cut off by a gurgle and the wet slop of liquid on the tiles as his gut empties itself onto the floor. I let him hang over my forearm, searching with one trembling hand on the kitchen bench for my phone.
As we wait for the ambulance, his crying tapers off into a low moaning punctuated by sporadic sobs that jolt his entire body. I stay on the kitchen floor, my arms wrapped around his narrow torso, my own tears flowing silently into the damp cotton of his t-shirt.
While they monitor him, I sleep with my head resting on the edge of his small bed.
I wander down a hospital corridor lined with closed doors. Some rooms have windows looking out onto the corridor, but aluminium blinds hide the contents of each room.
I stop at one door and push the handle down. The door swings inwards to reveal a laboratory, its benches covered with rows and rows of blood samples. The blood is almost black in the incandescent hospital lighting. I retreat, gently pulling the door closed behind me.
In the next room, a squat yellow robotic arm moves purposefully over a carefully organised bench. The red and yellow wires connecting each segment of the arm to the next give it a naked look.
I walk to the door at the end of the corridor and hold my breath as I push it open. In the middle of the room stands a machine the size and colour of a photocopier. Nothing moves, but occasionally a soft whirring, followed by a muted click comes from deep inside the machine. I place my hand on its smooth plastic casing and am flooded with relief.
The door opens behind me, and a quiet male voice interrupts me, ‘Excuse me, but you shouldn’t be in here.’
We are walking along a thin creek, making slow progress because Oliver stops every few metres to select a piece of gravel from the footpath or press the soles of his shoes into the damp mud by the creek.
On the crest of a gently sloping hill, he pauses to run his hands along the peeling trunk of a paperbark tree. When he pinches the curling edge of a strip of bark as if to peel it back from the trunk, I slip my hand between his and the tree, disengaging his fingers from the bark. He looks up at me with a question in his face, then suddenly drops his head so that his face is pressed up against the bark. My breath catches and my blood surges, but then the familiar rise and fall of his voice emerges from the narrow space between him and the tree. I sit back on my heels and lean my cheek against the top of his head, though he is speaking too softly for me to hear what he’s saying.
I am climbing a tree, or I am just lifting myself onto the lowest branch of a tree, when I feel a firm tug on my ankle. I look back over my shoulder and see my own face, creased with worry, so I drop down off the branch and sit on the ground beside myself.
We sit in the sound of the air moving through the leaves of the tree and I feel the kind of calm I only ever feel when I am by myself, but without the unease that accompanies being alone out in the open. The other me smiles at me and raises her hand to point up at something in the shifting foliage.
When I turn to look, I am struck by the generosity of the tree: its narrow silver-brown trunk spreading rapidly to fill the sky with a multitude of leaves lit bright green by the sunlight. I sink my hands into the rich mix of soil and old leaves beneath me. I tip my head back so that my face is parallel with the sky to watch the leaves turn and wink in the breeze.
Dinasha Edirisinghe was born in Sri Lanka and raised in Australia. She has completed a Bachelor of Arts and a Masters of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at The University of Melbourne and is currently completing her PhD at Deakin University. Her dissertation explores the creative work of the French feminist theorist Hélène Cixous and the Australian writer Patrick White. It also includes a novella called This Night which is inspired by her research. Her story, Vesāk, is an extract from this novella. Dinasha enjoys all things literary and loves living in Melbourne where she exposes herself to as much art, cinema and theatre as humanly possible.
The cold night deepens. It grows bold and the Moreton Bay Fig shivers, releasing a cascade of pebble-like fruit. Green buds like little moons descend, each one containing a universe within.
The Fig worries that he’s falling ill again. A chill runs through his leaves, the tips of his branches and his roots. Around him, the temple gardens are bathed in lights, each brilliant point a star in the dark sky. The moon, in full bloom, is its centrepiece: pearl white against a deep indigo sky.
The air echoes with an orchestra of voices chanting the five precepts: Kāmesumicchācāra veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi. The voices, some too eager and others too slow, linger over the final word, carving its syllables into the earth.
Worshippers carrying food and offerings — flowers and parcels of milk rice and sweets wrapped in banana leaves — disperse along stone paths intersecting the gardens. A group of monks rugged up in orange and maroon admires a Crimson Bottlebrush, pointing at its red blooms, while a troupe of painted dancers rushes past, gesturing nervously to the stage up ahead, their thick coats rustling against their traditional garments. The line of Crepe Myrtles behind the stage flutters, excited. Their rusting foliage is set ablaze by the fairy lights adorning them.
The bell-shaped stupa to the left attracts the most interest. The burnt clay-brick structure, with its thick plaster casing, is a pure meringue-white. Visitors circumambulate, sit or prostrate themselves around it, deep in contemplation.
The Fig also makes a slight bow to the stupa. Bark, sap and heartwood creaking, he offers up the lanterns threaded throughout his branches. Their supple skins, lit from within, bounce and scratch against him.
A constellation of Buddhas watches as he moves.
Peppered throughout the gardens in a Centaurus-like pattern, they sit in various positions or mudras. Some are in the Dhyana Mudra, cross-legged with upturned palms placed one on top of the other, several sit in the Bhumisparsha Mudra, their right hands hanging over their knees and pointing towards the earth, their left hands sitting in their laps with the palm upturned. The reclining Buddhas lie on their sides and rest their hands against their cheeks, as if they are asleep, and the towering Buddhas, with giant stone lotuses blossoming at their feet, stand in the Abhaya Mudra: their right arms bent at the elbow and their palms facing outwards.
The Fig has seen each one of these monoliths raised over the years. Close to his height, they speak sometimes. Last year, they were the first to notice the rust forming on the undersides of his leaves. As the tiny yellow spots turned reddish brown, the monks grew alarmed, but the Buddhas did not panic. Instead, they insisted on staying up with him as he tossed and turned – feverish – telling stories to take his mind off his illness.
They told tales of stone quarries and a slow coming into consciousness. They reminisced about temperate climates and elaborate full moon festivities where whole countries were set alight for the occasion. The Fig is grateful to them. From time to time, he still dreams of elephant-led processions winding their way through streets glistening with spectators.
In the distance, the Fig spots a man and woman, wearing the traditional white, emerge from a line of worshippers waiting to pay their respects. They walk forward but disappear when a crowd of children hurtles past, engulfing them.
The man, jostled about, reaches out to the woman. His hand finds hers. Together they re-emerge from among the throng of youths heading in the opposite direction.
The Fig, prone to presentiment, knows that they are moving towards him.
He watches them veer off the stone path into his mass of protruding roots. Their hands loosen, then break apart as they step precariously from root to intertwined root, bodies pivoting, as if on an axis, each time they slip or stumble.
When they can go no further, they stop and stare upwards at the canopy of transpiring lanterns and leaves.
The lanterns reach out to Hema. They are refined and elegant and emit a gentle light that turns everything in the vicinity golden. They remind her of home, of walking hand in hand with her amma eating bombai mutai, which they buy from a vendor walking through the streets ringing a little bell. More straw-like than the fairy floss you can get here, Hema sorely misses its powdery texture.
Anthony feels the lanterns are goading him. He knows they are beautiful only because they are delicate and could be destroyed at any moment. To him, they are a reminder of the sensation of cool earth pressed against naked skin, the sound of a voice mimicking the call of the Magpie Robin and the last lines of a poem by Lakdasa Wikkramasinha: The poet is a bomb in the city, Unable to bear the circle of the Seconds in his heart, Waiting to burst.
Hema senses the shift in her husband. She is well versed in the signs. Despite this, she reaches out to touch him. He doesn’t notice. So, she withdraws the offending hand and covers it with the less-brazen one beside it.
A young man walking by throws a careless glance to his side and sees the two figures standing side by side: their faces frozen in attitudes of rapt attention. His mind transforms them into two masked players performing a tragedy to an amphitheatre of lanterns and leaves.
When the woman reaches out to the man standing beside her, the young man feels his own body tilt right in response – in anticipation. When she is rebuffed, the sting of indignity spreads throughout his own chest, pooling behind his eyes and at the pit of his stomach.
He perceives in her quick resignation something – once floriferous – withering. He has seen it before. Many times, in fact. She is like a flower – large and grotesque – decaying on its stem. Yet there is still something of life and of living in her predicament. Better to be like her than like himself: a bud wound tightly shut. Infructuous.
She is older than him, most likely part of that generation of migrants – some refugees but mostly skilled labourers – invited to come and settle here in Australia by the government. Unlike the first wave of Burghers that preceded them, they were not as adept at English or as knowledgeable about Western customs. But, through sheer determination, they made homes here, raised families, and put together what little they had to buy and bequeath this land to the monks. Now students, like him, hope to achieve the same, envying the fruits of their labours without really understanding the hardships that went into them.
The plot here, at the very outer limits of the burgeoning northern suburbs, is generous but the ground is sparsely populated with vegetation. There’s no humidity in this place, only a temperamental dryness. Even when it is cold, like it is today. The landscape is almost stripped down to the bone. The foliage an extension of its exoskeleton.
Back home, the young man studied history. Here this interest has been relegated to a past time while he studies for a Diploma in Information Technology. But in his free time, he does much reading on the country. To him, Australia seems a place pulled in different directions, echoing with forgotten voices. In this respect, it is like him. The outcast in an otherwise prosperous family, earning a kind of distinction by the act of leaving.
Now he spends his days studying, then scrubbing plates and pushing trolleys in a nursing home kitchen before coming home to a house he shares with three other male students.
He comforts himself with the knowledge that he did not come here out of some misguided fear of missing out. So many people did this, selling their shares in ancestral lands to pay for it. No, his was a self-imposed exile with a higher purpose. The way he left things, going back was not an option.
No doubt, in years to come, they will all wonder if they lost something instead of gaining it. He thinks the woman already wonders; he is sure of it.
Glancing at her, yet again, he cannot help but construct a life for them. It will begin on a quiet afternoon in spring. He will see her on the days she comes to help at the temple. One day she will drop her book and he will pick it up, running after her to return it. They will talk of their favourite novels, their shared interest in the works of Martin Wickramasinghe. She will find his penchant for rereading the historical texts of Walpola Rahula Thero deeply illustrative of his dedication to his true calling, a sign of his steadfast and disciplined nature. The ensuing months will be bliss, disrupted every now and then with the realities of conducting a secret affair. Eventually, she will leave her husband and come to him. There will be talk, of course, but it will not matter to them.
The young man sighs. It seems so easy for some, but not for him. He is reminded of his last foray into love, and it chastens him. Taking one last look at the woman, he continues on his way.
Hema, unaware of the interest she has provoked, is lost in thoughts of her duwa, Anu. In a little while Anu’s play will be performed on stage, a work of art she wrote all by herself. Each time the girl reads a book that moves her, she mopes around for days looking longingly out into a future that only she can see. It worries Hema, who knows that with each obsession Anu moves inwards, further away from how life really is.
Just like her thaththa.
Still, she has created something out of nothing, Hema admires this. Sometimes, the joy she feels when looking at her daughter is overtaken by sorrow, a deep, painful ache in her bones. Every now and then, for the briefest moment, there is envy. It crawls all over her skin, gnawing at it. Then there’s the fear and the uncertainty. It is the worst of all because it blinds her.
Hema shakes her head in an effort to forget.
When the world comes back into focus, a man steps into her line of vision. He is tall and his gait, his manner of movement, reminds her of an afternoon long ago. She’s sure she’s seen that silhouette before. She knows it. Though, it is dark, and maybe she is mistaken. She cannot be certain.
‘I think I know that man,’ Hema says out loud. She steps forward unconsciously and then feels suddenly afraid.
Anthony either doesn’t hear her or doesn’t care.
Up ahead, the man, as if responding, turns in her direction. He is not who she thought he was.
No matter, she thinks. Yet her heart beats hard and her body aches with the intensity of it.
It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, she recites again, and again. There is a pain like electricity in her chest, spluttering and spitting, burning her up.
A little girl runs by the fig tree, catching Hema’s eye as she goes. She hops over the roots in leaps and bounds, fearless. Another girl runs close behind the first, a swirl of laughter and fabric. Dressed in crisp, white clothes: a simple dress, coat and stockings, the little girl squeals, stumbles, races ahead, falls and springs up in an instant, ready to go again.
A crimson ribbon comes undone in her hair. No longer bow-shaped, it dances in the air, contorting and twisting behind her.
Hema smiles. She thinks to herself that the ribbon flies wildly through the air the way little girls fly through their lives – free and unrestrained.
The girl glances back at the woman standing under the big tree with the pretty lanterns hanging off it. She seems to be staring at her. Leaving a streak of dirt on her cheek as she scratches at it, the girl notices the man beside the woman and her thoughts grow serious.
She wonders who she will marry one day. It seems so impossibly far away but wonderful all the same. The little girl’s seriousness dissipates as quickly as it comes. She hears her sister approaching and takes off again, in a hurry.
Hema watches her go.
Turning back to the fig, Hema finds it transformed. It now seems to sit in the ground like a fat spider with outstretched limbs. Its aerial roots dangling, web-like. The lanterns, too, are different. Superfluous, with their elaborate outer shells in the wrong for dulling the source of each lantern’s beauty: the naked light within.
The fig tree stares back at the woman. He stares hard, like she does, undaunted. In her he senses a kindred spirit.
She, like him, was moved here and made to grow in this soil. He bears deep scars from a great fire, but her blaze is still burning, her scars still forming. She, like him, only lets her flowers blossom deep within, life has taught her to do this. And, in the darkness, underneath her fruit-like armour of skin and bone, she is like him — full of wasps that sting but fill her with life as well. She is nothing without them.
She has come on this full moon day in the lunar month of Vesāka, to contemplate the life of the Gautama Buddha. Born a prince in Lumbini, he renounced everything and achieved enlightenment under the Bodhi tree before experiencing parinirvana and teaching us the lesson of impermanence. She, like him, takes solace in this knowledge, in this stepping away from desire, from the constant wanting. It makes the years lived and the hardships experienced seem small in comparison.
The fig has grown on this land for many years, and he has seen many things. As a sapling, he began life as an epiphyte; a newborn among ancients, who told tales of a native people – tens of thousands of years old – and great ships journeying across the ocean, spreading violence and disease.
As he grew into his surroundings, he saw land being cleared, friends being felled, and countless animals set to graze and die through intense periods of drought and fire. The worst blaze took place in 1851. It raised whole townships to the ground. And he, scattered in the wind, landed here alongside a Eucalypt, now a part of him, fully engulfed by his limbs. He, like her, is of this land and not of it at the same time. They are a million pieces, shifting, changing, converging endlessly.
Recently, he has begun to feel his age. The incessant creaking and swelling of his joints never cease and the endless pain in his limbs, worse since his illness, leaves his body bloated and stiff. But the sight of this woman, taking root in this old soil and growing, striving and struggling, makes him feel infinite, even if it is just for a moment.
Jenni Mazaraki is a writer living on Wurundjeri land (Melbourne). Her short story collection I’ll Hold You was highly commended in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for an Unpublished Manuscript 2020. Her work has been published in the Australian Poetry Journal, The Suburban Review and Empty House Press. She is currently undertaking a PhD in Creative Writing.
I wash my hands at least thirty-five times a day now. Debbie says not to but she wears mascara with clumps on each lash so I don’t take much notice of her.
Down by the river there are cans in small piles. Caught in the branches where the flood made a mess. They look at me from where they lie in the sun. One almost blinds me and I turn away. I can hardly bear their menace.
Ron took me to his caravan once. I only had to open the door for the whiff to smack me. He didn’t care about changing his sheets, felt no need, liked how soft they became over months of wear.
Two days after the crash they let me leave. I’d had enough of the beeping of machines and the rustling of hospital gowns. In all honesty, the invisibleness of it all was too much—nurses smiling without looking, doctors looking without seeing. The TV crews came through, bursting about the room like it was a stage, setting up lights and wires and directing the reporters with their fluffy mics and faces full of makeup. Their smiles dropped to the floor when the cameras switched off, only to be picked back up when the cameraman pressed on.
I gave an obedient account, thanked the rescue team and the hospital staff. I don’t know what they saw. There had been no time to brush my hair. With my hospital bracelets and colour coding of my chart, alerting them all to my condition. In there, I was my condition, a 6 pm news story for families eating dinner in front of the TV. Stitched up and dulled with a thing. Neat little capsules distributed at regular intervals without prompt. I felt no pain until Debbie picked me up from the hospital. She took one look at me dressed in the spare clothes that she bought from the Salvos and said, They’re fine, I told you so. No protest from me. I put my grateful face on.
It’s not only the water that’s the danger, but the stuff that’s in it, floating around like it couldn’t be bothered knowing its place. Some of them took photos and filmed themselves in their precariousness. Before it rose up and reached my place, I started my engine and tried to get the hell out. I imagined my lungs filling up with the mess, imagined myself falling in mad defiance below the muddy surface, clawing at nothing that would hold my body up.
The caravan floated down the street. Ron’s sheets finally touched water, mixing in a putrid tumble with everybody else’s lives. I thought of him as they pulled me out of the car, half-drunk from my terror. A nylon rescue rope wrapped around me in bright shades of orange and yellow. All the shouting confused me but eventually I understood and grabbed hold, pulling the line taught, grasping over and over again as the water tried to send me sideways down the road. Didn’t notice I was bleeding. My head foggy, thought I had freed myself.
Everything rushed away with the water. A procession left town without fanfare. Following each other with arms filled with children or cats. An odd troop of travellers with nowhere to go but away. Everything was gone or broken or ugly with thick ooze from the river. They warned us about the sewage, but Debbie reckoned it was all fine. She saved some stuff—her big bag bulging under her arm. The only thing I saved was Mum’s ashes, the small urn was watertight and fit neatly in my pocket. Everything was mixed up like me and Ron twisted in his sheets. Two caterpillars making a cocoon.
When the rain came, I knew what it was trying to tell me.
Bits and pieces stick to me now. I see all the invisible things. I see the sigh that Debbie makes before she’s even thought to breathe it. I see the molecules in my cup of tea, with its murky mix hiding the bottom until it’s all in me. Water rushes over me but I never feel clean. I imagine a parade of everything on my skin. In the shower I watch invisible bits of me run down the drain. That night with Ron was the night the rain started and kept going. Ron handing me another can of beer before he kissed me soft in his caravan. The pelting of water on metal above us.
Sometimes I think of Mum at the sink with her hands all sudsy, singing her church songs, winking at me as she hits the high notes.
Two towns over we stayed in the community sports centre, side by side, warm bodies in sleeping bags on painted lines meant for basketball games. Debbie insisted we huddle for warmth, me on one side of her, Ron on the other. I inhaled his scent from over the top of Debbie’s night-time chatter. I have all I need really, at least that’s what I told myself. I can live without my crystals, the ones that catch the light each morning. I can live without my bed. They told me I’m lucky, that the old guy next door didn’t make it. Couldn’t swim.
In my sleeping bag I shifted around, slipping on the thin foam mattress, I drifted into a light sleep. Debbie snored gently, adding to the buzz of other snorers in the room. Ron’s hand reached over Debbie, searching for my face.
You’re the only girl for me, ya know that don’t ya?
Yeah, I know Ron, I muttered as I slapped his hand away.
At school they taught us about the river and the banks and what happens when it floods. They told us to seek higher ground, to leave early, to abandon our stuff. I raised my hand rarely in class, but this time, I wanted to know. What happens to the fish when the river breaks? The teacher reeled off facts. Floods are good for fish, they always find refuge, and there are more bugs and creepy crawlies washed into the river for food.
Sometimes after school in summer, me and Debbie went down to the river and jumped in. My legs strong, kicking the water away from me, never seeing the bottom, wary of rusted car parts and rotting tree branches beneath me.
Debbie didn’t care about the fish, thought I was weird for asking. Her and Ron got together after our last year of school. She helped Ron set up his own place in the same park as me and Mum. Refused to move in with him until he proposed. They both helped with Mum’s funeral, said nice things like, at least she’s not in pain anymore, she’s looking over us from heaven. Ron had a soft spot for Mum, always saved her a cutting or two from one job or another. She was convinced he was a magician when he showed her how to put rusted nails in the pot to make her hydrangeas turn blue. Thirsty plant that one, I can hear Mum saying it now, tipping the cooled kettle out over the soil. I wish I’d saved some of Mum’s things—the crystal cat and the snowdome that sat on the windowsill next to her bed in the caravan. Mum would have said it’s my fault they got washed away. She would have said that I shouldn’t have done the thing I did. That the flood was my re-tri-bu-tion—she would have said it exactly like that, with her lips pushed out like a fish gasping for air.
Mum didn’t like help from anyone. She told me not to expect a thing from anyone else. Kept herself away from other people’s mess and danger. Closed our curtains each night as soon as the air cooled, made sure not to smile at certain types. Don’t want to encourage them, she explained on our way back from the laundry block, our baskets heavy with clothes straight from the machine. She didn’t like to leave the clothes on their own. Who knew what kind of hands might touch them, her whole body tense, God only knows.
She’d dance, spinning me in the small space of our van, my lungs emptying out the day with each turn. Whitney Houston, Cyndi Lauper and Stevie Nicks filled every precious corner, direct from the portable radio. Mum showed me how to take care of myself—use a needle and thread, repair a hinge, drive a car. She never missed church. Sat in the same spot each week. Said she didn’t mind the young reverend, even if it looked like he still couldn’t grow a beard. Told me she’d be happy for him to do her funeral. Mum went straight home after each Sunday service, never stayed for the biscuits or conversation. Mid-week she’d return to the grey bricked building and vacuum the floors. Sometimes she’d take me with her and I’d help do the flowers.
Mum told me and Debbie to walk in the middle of the road on our way home from parties. Preferring the wide expanse of bitumen to the dark paths with shrubs and trees that hands could reach from. With our bodies warm with booze, we didn’t feel the cold, or the danger.
Mum always said Debbie could have been her daughter—both of them with the same wild hair that broke hairbands. Mum said that I looked like my dad, but I wouldn’t know anything about that. Whenever Debbie came over, Mum gave her the Royal Doulton cup, the one I gave her all those Christmases ago. That I had saved for with my money from pulling weeds and raking gardens after school. Sat there in the op shop window with the price tag dangling, torturing me for weeks before I could go in and claim it with a handful of notes and so many coins jangling against each other like dull chimes from my pocket.
You’ve got a good one in that Debbie, Mum would say each time after she left. Shaking her head softly as though she had just been visited by an apparition. Cleared the cup away as though Whitney Houston herself drank from its edge. I didn’t like thinking about the way that Debbie could make Mum forget her pain for a bit.
Mum stopped breathing during a heatwave. I let her hand go only when it started to cool. The reverend gave a nice sermon. Said that Mum’s presence each week bolstered him on rough days, like a sailor seeking the horizon for guidance. I hadn’t thought about that, how Mum affected anyone other than me.
The street is dry now but I can’t go back home. Ron moved in with Debbie and her mum down by the beach. I would have thought they’d be sick of the sight of water. They’re saving for their own place. Debbie’s still waiting for a ring.
Judy helped me set up the new caravan. She teaches down at the primary school. A lot of work still needed to get the school right again. Most people help each weekend, but it’s not ready for the kids yet. Some people still talk about the flood, but not me and Judy. I’ll go over to hers later tonight and have a drink. After that I’ll go back to the start again. New sheets, new everything.
Up on the hill, my new place has views and my new neighbours seem OK. The laminex is green, a slightly lighter shade than the benchtop where Mum used to keep the biscuit tin and the ceramic pig salt and pepper shakers, bumping up against each other. I have a cuppa each morning, spooning in exactly half a teaspoon of sugar, just like Mum taught me. I run my hand across the bare window ledge as I sip, brushing away droplets of condensation as they drip down the glass and wipe my fingers dry on my jeans. Ron gave me some hydrangeas before he left. I’ll scatter Mum’s ashes under the blooms, water them in and wait to see what colour she’ll turn them.
Zoe Karpin lives in Sydney’s inner west with her partner and dog and also works as a Learning and support teacher at a south west multicultural Sydney High School. She has had short stories published in journals such as Going Down Swinging, Gathering Force, Hecate & Femzine recently and online journals such as Dotlit and Sūdō journal recently.
After the Bushfire
Jack’s house burnt down in the year with the terrible bushfires and the driest spell since records began in this part of southern NSW. He would often travel from there to see Sophie in Sydney, expelling carbon and burning rubber on the way. When the bushfires began he was stuck in Sydney. He built the house with his brother and father. He had lived there with some other woman. The woman had left a long time ago. She told him she couldn’t cope with her loneliness, the use of glyphosate in all the gardens and the plastic waste; water bottles, bags and bottle tops, which not only rattled along the gutters of the town’s centre, but along the bush trails edged with wattles and eucalypts out where they lived. She had miscarried twice, one had to be birthed in hospital and it was born dead with a tail. Thank goodness it didn’t live then.
It was not too soon in their relationship for Sophie to tell him. ‘But we will have lots of happy children.’
He looked at her with a half-smile.
Doesn’t he believe her?
When he can, he drives back to his home that is now a block to be cleared. This time he will do it alone. There is not very much left of the house anyway, a skip full.
He will tell her, ‘last time I breathed in the scent of hope but now the smell is of nothing but shovelfuls of charred, crippled tree skeletons dangling torn roots, bricks and glass.’
On his return to the city she sees there are deep cuts in the webbing of his right thumb and index finger. He has bound them together with band aids.
‘You should have stitches,’ she gently takes the plasters off and reapplies fresh ones so he can still move these vital digits. He doesn’t even wince.
In her third storey brick flat in bed at night, with the cool air conditioner turned on so it will run through their torrid dreams, she strolls her hands down the long caterpillar shaped spinal column of his body – although the spinal column is hard not soft. The vertebras one after the other are like joined together shells. His ligaments hold these shells together; stabilising his spine, and protecting the internal discs. There are three ligaments but she can’t see them only feel their rope length and breadth as she massages his back in the after light. He hasn’t asked for this massage but she gives it to him anyway.
His ligaments have not been torn nor worn away with the weight of what he has carried for all these years; black handled axes, red bricks, tawny wood, glass, wooden furniture, ghosts of children, other people’s children, chickens, dogs, herbs and vegetables and even her today. He is like many men. His yellow ligaments are rubber, bouncing the weights he has carried as easily as a leather ball. Then there are his discs, shock absorbers, hard on the outside and soft in the core as she has learnt. The discs have never bulged or slipped. However, his spine can get too stiff and he aches before sleeping.
Her palms have five flesh coloured sailing boat extensions each and they travel his body.
But will it become her task every night now to tack the shells apart with her transporting hands?
‘You must talk about the pain,’ she tells him.
‘What pain?’ he says.
However, it’s only after the massage he can make noiseless love to her.
In the morning, he takes her to his no-longer house. They are engulfed in a special smell, a stench, rolling along the freeways, running through the bush. It is the odour of endangered dead native animals. She has never felt like crying because of a fetidness before. However, this time is not like other times and she catches sight through the smudged car’s window pane of one brown, grey kangaroo by itself in the bush; a thin, straggly kangaroo. She hasn’t seen a kangaroo alone in the bush before. Its back is curved like a singular fluted pearl shell on a wide expanse of beach-like peat. Finally, at his no-longer house there is the garage he never mentioned, somehow left clinging to its purpose. The Roll-A-Door was up during the fire and it is curiously undamaged. However, all his fine tools he carefully kept on a crumbling bench of withered steel are now reduced to ornamental shadows of their former, solid metal utility. She sees how he clasps these old broken implements in large strong fists, holds them for a while and says, ‘I’ve done a lot with these.’
Her black eyes blur and the tools he clutches merge into his hands. She says, ‘No doubt.’
She can’t see any self-pity in his gaze nor does he look at her in a way that suggests he wants it.
They move on to the rest of the burnt emptiness. Yet, there are still the concrete steps out the back that don’t go into the no-longer house.
She knows what he means about this particular smell. It is of smoke and burning; the charcoal soil is steeped in the brew. She is young enough though not to be daunted by any of this.
However, in the once tree filled backyard, a little bird, a young sooty myna bird flies down to land and block their pathway. The myna with its small specially flight built back and head with the yellow patch behind its eye, shakes itself at them – as if to say, ‘what have you done to my world?’
Then Jack weeps.
Peter Gilkes is a writer, artist and previously an operations and business manager based in Kuala Lumpur. He recently returned to Australia after working in SE Asia for nine years. He has had articles published with the Sydney Morning Herald and is now compiling a book of images and memories of travel from the last 30 years.
The Man with Shaking Hands
June 1980. Baluchistan. Pakistan.
My bus to the Iranian border slowed down and the driver steered off the highway and parked beneath the canopies of some welcome trees.
It was 11am, a roadside shop cum restaurant for drink and food and ablutions in the Kharan desert of Baluchistan. The scenery was arid. Flat sand plains in 35+ Celsius heat. The hills on the distant horizon were blocks of gold, ethereal in the hazy light, almost imagined.
The coach I travelled on was a landscape itself, a brilliant glistening beetle. Pakistani buses are crazy, colourful creations so distinct from the drab brick cities. The metal frame was adorned with lights and painted colour. There were blooming flowers and strutting peacocks bannered across the front cabin. Between and around the windows were swirling tendrils in rose and green. Lower down the bus fuselage were patterns of gold circles bordered by bright silver squares. Even the tyres were rimmed in fluorescent blues and orange. For the show of night, strings of coloured globes criss- crossed the roof and sides. Inside the cabin, above and around the driver’s windscreen were strips of multi-coloured mirror embroidery and little threads of swaying beads and sepia pictures of the Kaaba. The vehicle was an amulet on wheels, a talisman.
We stepped down from the bus to be met by the silence of the desert. The passengers soon filled the quiet as they entered the restaurant with their chatter in Urdu and Farsi and the seating fuss of the scrapping of wooden benches and chairs across cement, the kitchen clatter of pots and dishes, the wails of tired infants and the sudden scratchy sound of background radio music, now that customers were here.
This was an old route for travel. Thousands of travellers had come before, even Alexander the Great had travelled through Baluchistan. Alexander had entered India via the Khyber Pass but after many campaigns he led his tired armies on an epic journey back towards their Macedonian home via southern Baluchistan around 324 BCE – hear the smack of leather against flesh, the whinnying of horses, the grunting of camels, the shout of foreign tongues.
There were a few armed soldiers on the hill above the roadside halt, guarding the desolate desert highway. There had been a special carriage on my immediate train travel before the bus, an open roofless carriage set in the middle of the train with high armoured sides with firing slits and soldiers on watch for attack.
Though its population is small, Baluchistan is the largest province of Pakistan. Relations with the government in the capital Islamabad have always been bad. The Baluch are a proud tribal people with many grievances against the Pakistan government. Sudden violent flare ups of resentment have always been likely in this region.
I entered the roadside world, thinking of some tea or drink and wondering what food I could eat and let’s be careful not to get sick. As I looked around, and as I was looked at in turn, I saw a man who looked different from the rest, sitting just outside the main dining space.
He was perhaps 30 years old, gaunt and tall. I couldn’t place his culture, perhaps Mediterranean, seemingly not a Pakistani and probably not Iranian.
He wore a black business suit that was creased and stained. His skin was taunt across his cheekbones and his lined forehead glinted sweat yet he had a handsome well-rounded face except for some acne scars across the cheeks. He had a long narrow nose and milky green brown eyes that glowed and he was clean shaven with a thin black moustache carefully shaped to the edges of his dry pale lips. His black hair was a thick lustrous clump that he kept tussling and fidgeting with. He could have been a musician, a classical violinist I thought, or some thin gangster type but there was a dignity to him that spoke of responsibility and something earnest.
His white shirt needed a good wash but it was still a business shirt and his laced black shoes still had some patches of shine. I spotted him first because he stood out amongst the other people who were wearing local clothes in pale tones of brown and green and crème. Shalwar Kameez – long loose cotton shirts down to the knees and baggy trousers of the same colour – coupled with shawls and sandals. There were some other travellers in jeans and t shirts but most of the forty or so men and women and children at the roadside halt wore the practical, traditional dress.
His suit caught my eye, as he sat on a bench on the other side of the tea shop, keeping away from the bustle of my fellow bus passengers, resting in the half shadow beneath a tarpaulin stretched from the corrugated iron tea shop roof.
I took the wooden bench seat near him and watched him light his cigarette.
His two hands tried to move toward each other to light the cigarette. The matchbox in his right-hand palm gripped tight by his long thin forefinger and his thumb. The match held in his left hand like a needle or a wand.
His pale lips held the cigarette in place, pucking, as it slipped and slid in the waiting, a thin black line of moustache twitching up and down.
The hand holding the matchbox tried so hard to hold the cardboard box still, and his eyes watched the process so intently, but the box and the match would not meet.
The match and the box were held in hands that shook so much that after two minutes of trying to strike the match against the flint side of the box there was no success. He could not control his wildly shaking hands.
He seemed as surprised and perplexed as I was. His hands would simply not do his bidding, they shook desperately like the panicking wings of some trapped bird, refusing his will. He turned his eyes up at me and I leaned down taking the box and the match from his fingers and with one strike I lit the match and cupped the flame and he leant down and sucked in the fire and inhaled the magic smoke of the crackling tobacco.
I asked, “Why are you like this?”.
He stared at me, regarding me for a long time, a piercing regard, and then he began to explain in carefully pronounced English.
“We were in a car accident in Paris, near the Champs Elysees. One month ago. A big truck was out of control. It came across the traffic and hit our car. I was driving. My baby daughter was in the backseat, she was crushed and killed. My wife was decapitated. I was hardly injured”. He spoke so softly. He was so completely and utterly exhausted. He could have been talking to the whole planet.
I bought him a cooled bottle of Coca Cola, fished up from a dank well by a young boy, a clanging bucket of clinking bottles dripping wet brown water, and after the flipped rusty bottle top, the stain of rusty grime around the rim. I wiped the rim and he drank.
The cool sweet fizz and the blue tobacco smoke were a breakfast for travellers.
He sat beside a large battered silver metal trunk and he told me all he owned was inside, but each country’s customs inspectors took a little of what they fancied and it had become lighter and easier to lift, but it weighed heavier on his mind – I later thought to myself that perhaps soon all he would have left after the thieving would be an empty trunk and people would think he only carried it to put things in, not comprehending his loss.
He had a Portuguese passport. He’d worked in the Paris embassy. He had travelled across Europe and had come through Greece and Turkey and Iran to Pakistan. He was now heading to India. “I am going to Goa. I was born in Goa.I want to open a restaurant”. I lit another cigarette for him and smoked one too. He seemed a bit calmer and we talked some more.
But I was travelling in the other direction. My bus going west to the Iranian border blasted its air horn and I said goodbye and left him and went across the highway with the other passengers and we climbed back aboard and I took my place on the roof. I waved back to him and he waved and we were both gone – but he stayed restless in my memory – that awful image of his shaking hands.