Tessa Lunney writes fiction, short fiction, poetry, and reviews. Her work has been published in Mascara, Cordite, Southerly, Best Australian Poems 2014, and Griffith Review, among others. In 2016 she won the Josephine Ulrick Prize for Literature. Her second novel, Autumn Leaves, 1922, was released in August 2021 by Pegasus Books USA. She has a Doctorate of Creative Arts from Western Sydney University. She lives on Bidjigal land in Sydney.
A butterfly battles across Parramatta Road. It’s big and black, with white eyes on its wingtips. Even so, the wind in this storm-season is strong and each car and truck that rumbles beneath it sends fresh blasts to blow it off course. It tries to reach the other side of the highway, but it keeps falling, struggling up and then falling on to the road and almost smashed. Then it rises again, against the wind, against the traffic’s displaced air. I wait in my car and the radio blasts, a doctor from the children’s hospital in Kyiv, the broadcaster prompts him, the boy was six, he had bullet wounds, yes, in his chest, his abdomen, his head. The trucks are constant, the cars, the noise incessant. It’s not gridlock and the heavy vehicles, dirty after all the rain, barrel down the hill. The radio continues, the doctor’s words are scattergun, the baby had wounds. Yes. Shot wounds. Yes, the baby was shot in the head. They shot the ambulance. The Russian soldiers, yes. The ambulance called me. On the way to the hospital. The baby died. The butterfly crosses at the lights, where I wait, trying to get home before the next onslaught of flooding storm. The butterfly pushes itself up and up, black wings in a grey sky, up and up. The radio drones on, another city, another basement, I’m in Mariupol, still, I can’t get out. I saw them, my neighbours. They are on the road now, a mother and her boy and her girl. Before they were on the road, they went up, higher than the roof of the church, it seemed impossible, they went up and up, they were flying. Up and up, black wings in a grey sky, up and over the truck, over the next truck, it dips and is almost smashed, then it rises, it reaches the other side of the highway and the trees that stand staunch against the heavy, threatening sky.
Belle is a non-binary writer from regional NSW, most of their work is based around LGBTQ+ topics and working towards a greener future. They also love a good oat milk iced latte.
The Last Choir
There will be little nothings that follow. Moments found between parchment and stone. A leaf, floating in the wind will be a great moment of joy for the world.
Because there will be no songs after the last bittersweet verses of a choir. The whales in the deep seas have melted. The moonlight has become lonely without them. There are no strangers to gaze up at the sky and wonder if a better life awaits them over the next hill.
The last of the symphonies played out long ago where only sand remains now. The bones are bleached, a poppy has sprouted through an eye socket. Congratulations to the skull of the loan shark, who managed to bring some beauty into the world. One hundred years after his death.
There is no music in the world, for now. But there are germs and seeds still. Enough that one day, there will be birdsong. Crickets in the evening. Cicadas during the summer.
But no more choirs to mimic them.
Zoë Meager is from Aotearoa New Zealand and has a Master of Creative Writing from the University of Auckland. Her work has been published abroad in Granta, Lost Balloon, and Overland, and at home in Hue and Cry, Landfall, Mayhem, North & South, Turbine | Kapohau, and anthologised in Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand and two volumes of Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction & Fantasy.
Come a gutsa
The crazy lady has climbed into the orange rafters of the rollercoaster. She clings not to the tracks, with their promise of tick-tick-tick teeter-tease then dive whoosh swoop zoom whee! but just beneath, where deep iron shadows criss-cross her body.
Down on the ground, slight park attendants with brightly-coloured t-shirts and pale voices address the waiting crowd. The crowd has already purchased its tickets, already queued in compliance with the park’s stated queuing code, already eaten the fairy-floss-hotdog-chips, and now it wants the simulated near-death experience it was promised.
The mother koala and the baby koala are curled into a ball and pressed like grey chewing gum into the junction of two orange beams. They are so close—the crazy lady could almost reach out and touch them. The mother koala listens to the crowd below with eyes half closed. She rearranges the baby koala against her, squeezes, rearranges, squeezes. She does not attend to all the railings to bounce off on the way down. She is thinking about the khaki-coloured leaf that is good to eat. She is thinking about drinking, the liquid taste of earth that is chattering cool.
The crowd below stares up with stones for eyes. Pie holes drawl open, half-chewed words spill out: We’ve been in line for bloody ages, we want a go on the ride! Those koalas jumped the queue, they shouldn’t get to zoom! Those bloody koalas should go back to where they came from.
All this quick year, the crazy lady has heard the country fires drawing closer. She has wandered through old banks of trees, heard the fruity thud of desiccated bats as they hit the ground, she has picked them up, said goodbye to their closing eyes. On dusty streets with shouts and sticks she has broken up squabbles between dingoes and domestic dogs. Seen a grassy parakeet snatch an icy pole from a baby’s sausage fingers. Koalas coming in, perching in the public gardens and starving in suburban backyards. Housewives towing their kids to garden centres and pet stores, asking for eucalypt leaves when they have only just put to bed the annual swan plant shortage.
In the orange rafters of the rollercoaster, the mother koala and the baby koala are a fuzzy football, tailless and divine. The crazy lady is trembling as she inches forward beneath them, a jute-strong bag wedged under her reusable shoulder. She is hoping that when the koalas come unstuck, she can catch them.
The crowd below is baking restless, letting off swearwords into the summer-blue sky. All its white faces boiling red, blonde hair in a halo of putrid smoke. The crowd points its arms all up, up, a hundred skewers, It’s her, she’s stopping us riding the coaster! She’s taking away our human rights!
The baby koala really wants to cling to its mother’s back. It’s at that age. Okay then, says the mother koala, drowsily, letting the baby koala tunnel under her arm and up and onto her back. The baby koala arrives safely on its mother’s back, scrunches its perfect black claws into her rabbity fur and gives out a small dry sigh, and it’s safe there clinging to the hill of her back. Except it doesn’t and it isn’t and it never could, except thirst has left it weak and plummeting, a teddy bear dropped from a pram, headfirst and gone. The crazy lady moves to catch it, the bag snags on the stud of her jeans and she struggles to work it free. The mother koala feels the baby koala’s weight drop away from her and opens her eyes, only to see the shadows of the rollercoaster rafters crossing, double-crossing, double, double. Her nose, a spoon of molasses, she buries into her own soft body. The crazy lady knows it is too late then, and she knows that there is still time.
Šime Knežević was born in 1985 and lives in Sydney. His debut poetry chapbook, The Hostage, was published by Subbed In. His poetry has appeared in Ambit (UK), Australian Poetry Journal, Cordite Poetry Review, Going Down Swinging, Magma (UK), SAND (Germany), Signal House Edition, The Stockholm Review of Literature, and elsewhere.
Šime was a recipient of the Subbed In Chapbook Prize, an Australia Council grant, and shortlisted for the Philip Parsons Playwright Award. He studied playwriting at the NIDA Playwrights Studio, completed a Master of Arts in creative writing at the University of Technology Sydney, and in 2019 attended the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry Summer School in Belfast.
I hear a helicopter. I hear the motor, the rotating hum, of a helicopter, a helicopter motoring across the sky. I am alone on a white rug and I hear a helicopter. I am alone on a white rug in the quiet room. The helicopter is outside, motoring across the sky. I am alone on a white rug, orienting myself toward a blue sky I say, inside orienting myself toward a blue sky, a blue sky I say. Outside a helicopter motors yet I hear it from inside the quiet room. I am alone on a white rug in the quiet room orienting myself toward the phrase blue sky. I try to orient myself toward the phrase blue sky. I say blue sky. I say blue sky to try to orient myself toward the phrase as I say it. I am orienting myself toward the phrase blue sky with the high-hope it being said out-loud will somehow provoke something soothing inside me. In the quite room on the white rug I hear a helicopter in the distance, flying away. I hear how feint the helicopter’s motor has grown. No, I hear how feint the helicopter’s motor has diminished. No, wait. I orient myself toward the phrase blue sky with the high hope it will provoke a soothing reaction, even provoke a memory of a sky the colour blue. I am alone. I am alone on a white rug in the quiet room. The door is closed. I face the white-wall of the quiet room. On the white rug. The helicopter has since flown. I no longer hear the helicopter. I say ‘helicopter’. I say ‘helicopter’. No, I no longer hear the helicopter. Of a sky the colour blue, I say the phrase ‘blue-sky’, I orient myself toward the phrase. I want to connect to this phrase. I am alone on a white rug in the quiet room. Say blue sky. I say blue sky on the white rug in the quiet room. The phrase calms me, it must. Say blue sky. I say it twice. I say it to make it a hymn. Blue sky. Blue sky. On the white rug, I am alone in the quiet room. The door is closed and I face the white-wall. There must be breathing. Why am I not breathing? I breathe. I breathe and orient myself toward the blue sky I say on a white rug to the white-wall. I make it a hymn. Lean toward the phrase. Say it. To my surprise, it’s impossible to visualise a blue skyin my mind. Even though I say those words clearly, as clear as a whole blue sky, I can’t seem to visualise a blue sky. Is there something wrong with me? What exactly did a blue sky look like on its own? In my mind, I could see clouds of different shapes. Suddenly a moon. Some unidentifiable flying birds. I hear piano music, as if played from a Casio keyboard. None of these drew me closer to visualise a blue sky in my mind. There it is. A background element. Is there something wrong with me? It seemed, to my mind, to visualise a blue sky without clouds or moon or birds or piano music, proved impossible. Yes, inaccessible. Just like the whole blue sky itself, it eluded me, I feel unclear. I can’t seem to visualise one thing without another thing. I can’t seem to visualise a blue sky without piano music. One thing must be paired to another thing. Birds must fly in the foreground and the blue sky must be somewhere in the background. On the white rug I face the white-wall, I inhale and exhale. To re-orient myself to the present moment. Yes, to re-orient myself. This is why I’m here. Why am I here in the quiet room? To orient myself, to re-orient myself. I am alone in the quiet room. Why am I here alone in the quiet room? I inhale and exhale, unable to visualise a simple blue sky, orienting, re-orienting myself on the white rug in the quiet room. I got myself to the quiet room to breathe, to understand breathing. To visualise a blue sky and I struggled to do so. I got myself, to gather myself. And its sudden burst into splinters, I gathered myself and I got myself to the quiet room. This is why I’m here.
JZ Ting is an Asian-Australian geek, lawyer, and writer. She has lived on four continents but stays for Sydney’s beaches where she pretends to be a mermaid. Her fiction has appeared in Pencilled In literary magazine and been performed at Subbed In events, and she tweets online @ting_jz.
Grandma dies in the best way possible: peacefully, in her garden chair, under sunny Sydney skies. She fell asleep, the nurses say, first to my father who arrives from work, then my mother, then me. She fell asleep and didn’t wake up. The best way to go.
They don’t tell us that she was alone, but we know anyway. She was alone each time we visited, a tiny, white-haired Malaysian-Chinese lady with broken English surrounded by white-haired, white Australians who drink English with their breakfast teas. The landscapes are English too, all roses and neatly trimmed hedges politely perplexed by the papaya my father planted, a poor substitute for the majestic rambutans Grandma left behind. The retirement village website trumpeted gardening as a resident perk. It didn’t mention multicultural staff.
She died in her sleep, my parents say, reaching across oceans to aunts and uncles, cousins and classmates, Grandma’s friends from church. They spin the message into Mandarin and Foochow like silver into gold I cannot touch, though my parents spill enough of it in fights. The coins I scavenged were never enough to spend with Grandma, so instead I bartered: smiles, school marks, my stomach for the fruits and soups she prepared just for me. A few hours every month to pay off my guilt. The funeral will be in Sydney. We hope you can make it, but understand if it’s too far.
Planes converge while Grandma waits in a local morgue. To me her loss is soft and nebulous, an abstraction I try to map out in Sydney streets. They send me home where arguments are silenced, bankrupted by my father’s grief, while my mother rations out affection in rice and steaming bak kuh teh. She tells me how when her grandfather died, the entire family ate fresh durians beside his open coffin which took pride of place in the living room for the village to pay respects. That night, I dream of Grandma’s ghost lost alone in the dark.
Thank you for coming, we say to people filing past. It’s sad but not unexpected, and she was cared for to the end.
Grandma lies beneath a bouquet of banksias and winter skies. The small congregation sings in English and Mandarin as photos flash, and only now do I begin to know her: family portraits, a bride to the grandfather I never met, a church group sweating in the tropic heat. There’s a photo of her posing with my father, startlingly young, in a tiny Malaysian airport, and another holding infant me. One black-and-white picture of a tall young woman in a floral qipao, her smile proud and bright, hands full of furry rambutans plucked from her trees.
Did she know? When she gave her son a one-way ticket and suitcase of books, did she realise what she was sacrificing? Would it have been kinder for my father to leave her in her village, alone but at home, with family reunions once a year? What is it like to migrate when you’re so old, and die in a foreign land?
I don’t know. I couldn’t afford to ask.
Grandma dies and we say farewell. I hold my father’s shaking hand telling myself that Sydney’s earth is as dark as Malaysia’s earth, that the one sun shines on both, and rain falls all the same. Yet the wind that blows between us is cold, scented with eucalypts fresh as a wound, and sour like regret.
Xiaoshuai Gou was born and raised in China. He has been working as a teacher of English and Mandarin as a second language and is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts at the University of South Australia.
The cup itself wouldn’t amount to much significance to any stranger: crude ceramic, plain design, with a kid happily pursuing dragonflies under the summer sun. It was randomly picked up at a reject shop by the pregnant mother. The joy flowing on the kid’s face perhaps had something to do with it.
A skinny boy was born at the end of March. It was the first time the pregnant mother became a real mother, and many things had to be learned from the start and properly handled. The difficulty caused by the absence of a father was aggravated by the fact that the new mother soon turned out to be milkless. All manner of baby formulas were then brought to her, from various countries, and via the hands of all kinds of people. The cup was useful for the first time, and the mother diligently washed it after each time the formula was fed to her baby.
Two months later, the content of the cup began to change. At first, formulas were still the staple of it, with occasional pills crushed into them to add extra nutrients for the proper growth of the newborn. Then things changed to almost the complete opposite. Pill powders of all brands and colors started to take hold of the cup, while non-stop coughs of the baby boy rendered the formula feeding increasingly pointless. With the same diligence, and with growing amounts of quiet tears, the mother continued to wash the cup. But a stubborn dark stain was still irreversibly engraved into its interior wall of once milky smoothness.
Then came the summer. The coughing finally subjected the infant boy to the 24/7 protection of the hospital ICU and the vigilance of its nurses. Pills stopped being crushed. Full tins of formula were stashed away without the prospect of ever being opened again in the future. Suddenly all things ceased to be of any meaning. The mother’s distress grew more and more visible every time she watched her baby son through the ICU windows, until eventually she was declared as suffering from severe postnatal depression, and was subsequently hospitalised in the same hospital as that of her infant son. The cup washing was abandoned.
The next summer differed from those preceding it with its excessive rainfall. This posed a serious problem for the old grandma who had a flower garden at her back yard. For the bulk of the summer, she had to juggle constantly between visiting the hospital where her depressed daughter was showing clear signs of recovery, and salvaging the small garden frequently in danger of being washed away by the heavy rain. Luckily her efforts paid off in the end. Both her daughter and the garden survived the rainfall spell at the end of summer. And as did her late grandson’s tiny grave at the north corner of the garden, with a solitary ceramic cup placed in front and mounted with dirt and rain water.
Wanling Liu (born 1989, China) completed her MA in Translation and Transcultural Communication at the University of Adelaide. She is a literary translator and teaches translating and interpreting in Adelaide. She has developed a passion for performance poetry and storytelling events and has won spoken word prizes with her poetry published in local anthologies.
It was nine o’clock at night. I was five and feeling bored at home, scribbling away with colourful pencils in my colouring book. There were never enough colours to choose from. I yelled out to Mum that I wanted to go to Mrs. Han’s to play with Huahua.
Mum glanced at the clock on the wall, “It’s already nine, and you still want to go out? And I don’t know the way to Mrs. Han’s.”
“I know the way! I know how to get there. I know how to get to Mrs. Han’s! You can come with me!” I persisted.
Mum sighed, “Fine, if you must go, let’s go.”
We took the No. 9 bus and after a few stops, I could see that we were almost on Zhongshan Road. “There, there, next stop is Triangle Garden!” I started yelling, “Triangle Garden is where Mrs. Han lives!”
Mum and I got off the bus and walked through the garden paths and a few dim-lit alleys until we reached Unit Block 3. “I remember she’s on Level 3, 303.” I said. Mum and I walked up the stairwell in darkness as the light was not working. When we reached level 3, I couldn’t wait to knock on the door.
The light from the gap between the door and the floor flickered. Someone was coming to get the door. The inner wooden door opened, glaring white light leaking out from inside. Mrs. Han appeared, with only her silhouette visible against the dazzling light. I dashed forward and banged on the door, “Mrs. Han, I am here to visit! Is Huahua home?”
Mrs. Han opened the door fully, and unlocked the screen door from inside. She smiled at me and didn’t seem very surprised. She called out, “Huahua, Dandan is here to visit you.” Mum nodded and smiled apologetically. Mrs. Han, still smiling, said “Hello.”
We walked into the living room. I sat right next to Huahua. On TV a group of kids were singing my favourite tune, “Not as sweet as flowers, not as tall as trees, I’m just a little blade of grass that no one ever sees….” We sat in front of the TV and watched attentively. Mum sat down, and Mrs. Han was busy making tea for us.
Half an hour had passed; I started to feel tired and bored. The songs started to grate on my ears. Mum and Mrs. Han were chatting away. My eyes started to wander: The fluorescent light was still dazzling, but everything in front of me seemed a bit dull.
Huahua offered to show me her picture collection, but realized there were a few pages missing. We started searching in drawers and chests. As we were looking for the missing ones, I noticed a yellow wooden door beside me with a silver door knob on it.
The doorknob lured me. The temptation was simply too great. I put my hand on the door knob and it turned effortlessly. Realizing I could open the door, I walked in. I could see a giant bed, with its edge high up and with a white sheet and a white quilt spread over it. Someone was lying under the quilt.
“Who is that?” I turned to Huahua, whispering, with my eyes still fixated on the person. Suddenly the black hair looked somewhat familiar. I hollered, “Daddy! What is Daddy doing here?” Huahua was silent. Mrs. Han did not utter a sound. My mum did not utter a sound.
After a few seconds, the head turned toward me, looking a bit purplish red, and with squinting eyes on it. The person mumbled, “I’ve drunk a little, I need rest.” Something felt wrong to me. I closed the door, went back to the living room, sat back on the lounge, and did not dare to speak.
Huahua, Mrs. Han, Mum and I just sat in the living room and watched TV for another half an hour. What was on TV did not make sense to me anymore. I felt like I had done something wrong, but I couldn’t figure out what.
Dad came out with his coat later and said, “Let’s go home.” I could not understand how the night got spoiled like this, and I was not ready to put up with this. I quietly whimpered, “I want to play with Huahua a bit longer”. Mum answered, “Then you stay and play with Huahua. I am going home. Your father can take you.”
Dad said, “It’s late, let’s go home.” On the way back, I felt sleepy and upset. No one spoke a word on the way back. Their faces showed no expression.
I thought Mum would be furious. I thought Mum would teach Dad a lesson. I waited in silence in my bedroom, with my ear to the wall.
After a long while, all that could be heard was the faintest, almost inaudible sound of weeping.
HC Hsu is author of the short story collection Love Is Sweeter (Lethe) and essay collection Middle of the Night (Deerbrook), which has been nominated for the Housatonic Award, CALA Award and Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature. Memoir competition winner and The Best American Essays nominee, he has written for Pif, Big Bridge, Iodine, nthposition, 100 Word Story, China Daily News, Epoch Times, Words Without Borders, and many others. He has served as interpreter for the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China, and his translation of 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo’s biography Steel Gate to Freedom was published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2015.
When she arrived, he was already sitting at the table.
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I got held up at work.’
‘That’s all right,’ he said, and smiled. It was their usual table, and on it her favorite wine had already been poured, the candle lit, and everything was so familiar and wonderful.
He handed her his napkin, smiling.
She noticed her hair dripping water onto the table, making small wet spots on the white tablecloth.
She took the napkin and patted her hair with it. The waitress already arrived with another napkin.
‘That’s all right.’
He looked gently and lovingly into her eyes. He was always so considerate and forgiving.
She excused herself to go to the restroom. The waitress cast her a glance.
She checked herself in front of the mirror.
Did he know? All of a sudden she became scared.
How could he not know? The constant lateness, the flimsy excuses, the hair still wet from a shower…everything was just as she had planned.
She thought about coming clean, but she had done that already before. He said he appreciated her even more for her honesty, and that he should work to try to rekindle the romance between them, and so they began having weekly dates. How could she leave someone so considerate and forgiving?
She walked back to the table. Her wine was still sitting there, the candle still soft-lit, and he, still smiling.
She took a sip of the wine; for some reason the astringency made her wince this time, as if she were enduring some kind of punishment.
‘I took the liberty of ordering for you this time,’ he said, his smile overflowing exuberantly from his eyes. ‘I hope you don’t mind.’
She began to suspect his motive.
Brianna Bullen is a Deakin University PhD student writing a creative thesis on memory in science fiction. She has had work published in journals including LiNQ, Aurealis, Verandah, Voiceworks, and Buzzcuts. She won the 2017 Apollo Bay short story competition and placed second in the 2017 Newcastle Short Story competition.
The Last Giant Panda
Every morning, the worker put on her panda suit to work with the cubs. They did not want human intervention, and yet they asked this of her. The cubs needed to be taught how to be pandas. Every night, she would clock off work at six and shed herself, before getting into a different suit. Her panda body would be a corpse on the floor, before it was strung up on a coat hanger and put away for the next day. Her large head would sit on the upper shelves, staring down at her with large felt eyes, which obscured how small the eye holes and field of vision actually were.
She had the job for two years when talks began for automation; a robot panda would not bare the scent of humans, and would not make them reliant on human contact. She argued a robot would deprive them of spontaneity, the ability to respond to their personalities and play, and would not give them the genuine love and experience that came with touching another living biological organism. There was connection there a machine could not emulate, as much as they would be able to model the appropriate moves and be . The zoo found her list ‘ridiculous, and frankly anthropomorphizing.’
The only problem they foresaw was cost: it was a large immediate investment for long-term gain. Her wages were much less in the short-term. They made a metal bear, and tried it out. It had patches of fur crudely glued on. The cubs ran away as the noise of moving gears was too loud for them. Her co-worker joked they some people ran from cars and construction machines when they were first introduced. It would take time.
The engineers worked to decrease the sound and artificial movements of the machine. They observed footage of pandas moving, coding their rolling lumber into circuitry. Advanced artificial intelligence was programmed in, enabling them to respond to the environment and actions of the cubs to an individual degree. They claimed by the end, none of them could tell the difference between beast and machine. Some even spoke of ending the breeding program all together; it was a waste of time and resources. Pandas could be replaced by machines, and the public would not know the difference.
She told them they were not watching the pandas closely enough.
They decommissioned the program shortly after the zoo’s management overheard these plans. The head engineer was later found hanging in her apartment. These events may or may not have been related.
She got her job back, and her suit.
She saw the bi-color babies through her limited lens. Inside this body, they were her own. She let them crawl on her chest, their heavy fat and muscle compressing down, but she did not complain. They chewed on her fake face. Bat with claws. She’d push them over when they got too rough, and sometimes just for fun, and watch them roll over like giant pom-poms. They were as serene as little Buddha, with tragic black eyes. In their simulated natural environment, bamboo shot up in stratified straight lines. Plush green glass took up all the color of her city, the panda’s black and white making her feel peppermint-flavored peace. She had raised six before the automaton, watched them grow up into sulkier teens, their eye markings taking on the brand of teenage Gothic rebellion. Then she’d get reassigned when they no longer needed her. Her latest two were already starting to grow, nearly matching her sixty kilograms. She was grateful for their remaining time. With any luck, they would not be the last pandas. Her supervisors, however, thought there was something changed about them. Something wrong. They were more curious and adventurous than they should have been. In the wild, this would have been a problem. Thankfully, they were safe inside their glass, little living biology specimens.
The last panda in the wild died on a Saturday. She continued with her work until the Thursday, but something integral and unnamable had been lost. She resigned the following Monday, citing irreconcilable differences with the world.
Three days later, her first cub was introduced to the breeding program. Given a diet of bamboo shoots and panda porn, the zoo was hopeful for success.
Michael Adams is a writer and academic living near Wollongong. His work has been published in Meanjin, The Guardian, and Australian Book Review, as well as numerous academic journals and book chapters. His essay on freediving, loss and mortality, ‘Salt Blood’ won the 2017 Calibre Essay Prize.
He has driven down in tears in the car from the conversations with the psychologist, and the way they run the retreat lays bare his emotions even more (a woman he doesn’t know next to him on the mats is also sobbing). By Sunday first thing he is a mess, and after the early morning meditation session feels shaky and vulnerable. He cannot bear to be with other people, so walks across fields to the river. It has been raining for days, everything is sodden, green, muddy.
But the river is a vision: huge, swollen, patterned, powerfully moving, the great sweep of current surging down. It has swelled over the banks, completely fills the low valley. The sky is unbroken white, rain is hammering down, a percussion of sound – water on leaves, on wood, on mud, on water. The river itself makes no sound, the enormous powerful surge of current totally silent. It is a great block of muted colour with a mobile, patterned, articulated surface.
A bird flies heavily away from low branches, dark in the clouded morning. There is no one here. He strips on the flooded ledge, piles his clothes in the wet fork of a tree, steps naked into the water. The air is warm and humid, the rain cold on his shoulders, his feet grip the sliding mud. He takes another step and dives, swims hard into the middle of the river, strokes strong and precise. The river is cold but he feels encased in his warm body, the cold just flowing over his skin, not reaching his core. When he pauses to orient, the far bank looks like the Amazon, a dense wall of wet green forest coming down to the water’s edge.
In the middle of the swollen current he feels good, his body reliable. The joy and wild beauty of the swim have recalibrated him. The current is pushing fast and he turns upstream to gain some distance. Eyes open, the light glows through brown silty water, eyes closed he is back inside his warm body. Swimming hard and gracefully, there is a sudden massive shock – a split second of realisation, the broken tree trunk swirls past, blood in his eyes, blood in the brown water. He feels his slackening body roll in the dark flood.