Entwined by Megan Cheong
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.