Dani Netherclift has been published in Meanjin, Cordite and Verandah. Her work was nominated for the 2018 Judith Rodriguez Prize and highly commended in the Cliff Green Short Story Competition.
At once vivid and spare in its delineation of a physical, material world, ‘Haunted Autumn’ attends to both the tangible and elusive (/allusive) particulars of place in ways that confirm the collective nature of a setting or site as invariably experiential; a temporal space shaped by sensory experience; by encounters; by context. In accord with Michel de Certeau’s oft-cited line in The Practice of Everyday Life that ‘space is a practiced place’ (1984, p. 117), place becomes space here in the sense that it is never singular or fixed, but invariably collective: multiple and subjective, comprising various vantage-points, and complicated by contexts of the past/present.
Via lines of striking observation and through deft negotiation of the (digital) page itself as space/site, Netherclift’s delicate yet incisive prose poem also calls attention to the often-invisible labour—rendered evident, in the past months, by questions around what work, whose labour, is ‘essential’ during ‘unprecedented’ times, and at what costs (physical and emotional; personal and collective). Notably, the ‘indelicate revelations’ this prose poem calls to our attention also remain, in broader representations, largely obfuscated or overlooked: most figures citing university-sector job losses (to date or to come) have not included the loss of work anticipated by vast numbers of casual employees, upon whose insecure labour these institutions have relied. Concurrently, international students, upon whose fees universities have also depended, have been mostly excluded from government support. Through these precise lines and luminous images, Netherclift shows with both clarity and nuance the university space as one of many sites in which the effects of the pandemic are felt unevenly, even as student bodies remain/return/endure, ‘haunting’ liminal junctures and uncertain futures.
This is timely, compassionate writing that we are excited and grateful to publish.
—Jo Langdon for Mascara Literary Review
X marks distance. We never used to know this. X was golden, treasure. X was illicit. X marked the spot. X was kiss, was marked wrong answers. One might rush then, towards X, before, or take it as a lesson. With X, we erase time before.
Autumn leaves from the rows of ubiquitous plane trees drift and settle across university entry roads, piling deep in concrete gutters and banking in the unopened doorways of the gym. These leaves are as big as a large man’s palm, outstretched. They have their own susurrations, whispered ephemeral languages possessing no word translatable as absence.
One Sunday a half-grown black cat basks in sun on a bench on the Barista Bar deck. Seeing me, it dashes into the unknown black space beneath the slatted wood.
On Tuesday music is piped through the entry building—then, too loud, into the library.
Spiderwebs have gathered, dew-settled across the unopened hinges of the red mailbox outside the main entrance.
It grows colder.
Purple swamp hens arabesque across cement outside, beneath the coloured glass panes of the library study space.
On the lake ducks glide and duck, flaunting evergreen of underwing, motifs of things we cannot see or predict. Hope without context.
All day, rows of buses arrive & leave, leave & arrive empty. Denuded of passengers, the bus stops are periods, punctuations. One morning a driver asks me when I disembark if I am okay going into the university. I assure him that it is still an inhabited place, despite outward appearances.
Another time, leaving, I walk from the library to the main building on a perfectly blue-skied day and a fine mist of water falls from the edges of the building, cloaked in motes of sunlight and the deep vibration of mysterious unseen machines.
The revolving doors are stilled, marked unusable with narrow ribbons of red-and-white pandemic tape delineating the scene of an unimaginable occurrence. Abandonment—
as though they have given up the ghost.
Security guards perform requisite rounds, enacting circles; each hour they walk once around the study room; I grow used to their attentions. They walk the perimeters of the university-emptiness, echoing inwards with hours and steps and an ironic loneliness. They are here because some of us remain.
They talk too loudly in the library.
Students sit apart without X’s denoting distance, our unmasked breath covenants of trust.
We keep our distance. We acknowledge each other with looks
signalling a collective new body of knowledge.
Meteors fly close to the earth. I remember those fragments of dinosaurs preserved in lava and Tektites in Mexico and America. The KT Boundary intersects time before time after.
The number 42 bus home tastes of antiseptic—red-and-white taped, its air hangs hospital-like, disinfected. Each day it is empty, carrying the driver and me and crowds of absence.
The books in the library are cordoned-off by locked roller doors, barriers like X’s that you never even knew were there, before.
The university indelicately reveals its inner workings; an army of tradespeople, maintenance workers who maintain the neat green grass, the sanitisation of tables, the cleaning of closed off spaces, puppeteers of vibrations/instrumentalists, rainmakers in miraculous spaces.
Cabbage butterflies limn the autumn trees.
The branches bare more skin with each day.
Tiny yellow-breasted wrens almost indistinguishable from butterflies flutter up from green like feathered golden raindrops reverse-flowing into coming winter.
More students return, spaced by unseen X’s; the trimester nears its end.
We are here.