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.

Vesāk by Dinasha Edirisinghe

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.

Independencia by Bryant Apolonio

Bryant Apolonio is an award-winning writer and lawyer currently living on Larrakia Country. He won the Deborah Cass Prize in 2021. His fiction has appeared in places like Liminal, Kill Your Darlings and Overland. He is working on a collection of short stories.





Araw ng Kalayaan 1991, the banner read. It’s a holiday but who’d pick it? There’s no joy in the mob’s foot-drag shuffle. No marching band jouncing along to the national anthem. There’s only the heckle of a thousand waylaid travellers. Only glassy customer service smiles and apologies over the P.A system. Flights delayed, delayed, cancelled. Always skittish around crowds, Arturo told his wife he’d go outside and see if he could learn more about what was happening, to see if anyone could help them. ‘Take Jun with you,’ Gina said flatly – of course she didn’t buy it – but he took his son by the hand all the same. The boy was being a menace again, had inherited his father’s disquiet along with his name. Give him one unsupervised second and he’d launch himself right off into the scrum of legs and sandaled feet.

‘Don’t let go, ‘nak,’ Arturo said as they pried their way through the concourse. Queues shoved up against the service counters like a river delta reaching the coast. All around them, passengers awaited news. They lay on the benches or on the carpet, resting their heads on suitcases and bunched-up clothes. Arturo felt his son’s small hand pulling him towards the windows that faced the tarmac where the planes stood waiting. Jun liked watching them inch forward –chrome and combustion coming to life, carbonating the air with pre-ignition fuel – only to be stopped just as suddenly by some off-screen order, a bark from the radio or the flourish of an air marshal’s wand. The pair emerged on Aquino Avenue where they found street vendors setting up roadside shops. Children – some as young as Jun – weaved between stalls bearing boxes full of snacks. Unruly knockabouts with salesman flair, calling out Quail eggs! duck eggs! peanuts! while local cops watched on listlessly.

Arturo bought the boy a skewer of pollock fish-balls and then he walked over to where the policemen were standing. He waved an amicable hand. ‘Can you tell me what’s going on here? When will they let us fly?’

Both officers had the look of men perpetually affronted: by Turo’s question, by the heat and smog and chaos of the street, by the civilian throng around them, and above all by the administrator who’d exiled them here – here, instead of an air-conditioned card-hall or Pasay brothel – to wait out the end of the world.

‘Where are you headed, pare?’ the younger officer asked. His face shone in the heat.

‘Sydney,’ Arturo said. He had relatives there who’d schemed for years to get them over. They needed diligent workers, one cousin had told Turo and his wife. They needed men with brains. He prophesied food on the table each night and two kids in medical school. That was enough for Gina but Arturo had never been convinced despite each pre-filled pastel form, each interview, each cheque made out to the immigration lawyer with the tease of hair and ruddled neck.

He must’ve had a slackwit look on his face because the police officers’ exasperation suddenly gave way to pity. ‘No, pare,’ said the older cop, clapping a sympathetic paw on his shoulder. ‘Where do you live? Where’s home? No one’s leaving Manila today.’ They had automatic weapons slung over their shoulders. Old Yank M16s, possibly seized from the communists, the ordnance you’d expect from a former dictatorship.

On the other side of the street, a homeless man held a sign that read REV 8:8. He was shouting something. The cops watched him for a while, expecting a disturbance, but he wasn’t hassling anybody and the passersby ignored him. In fact, they seemed to barely register his presence. Doom-struck madmen would be a common enough sight in the city by the end of that summer. The older policeman turned back to Arturo. ‘This is just the first blast, sir. A throat clearing.  Things will only get worse. You get your family home and keep them there.’

Arturo watched the cops trudge off.  Then he looked down at Jun. ‘Now what?’

The crowd had grown much larger in the short time they’d been outside. People were leaving the airport and just sort of standing still, reaching the exit and staring up at the northern sky, uncertain about where they were meant to go from there. There were harried-looking businessmen. There were young people who should have been on holiday. Vivid heaps of luggage resting at their feet. There was a pilot pinching the front of his shirt. A Latin American priest flanked by two nuns in the black habit of the Benedictines. They sat on a wooden bench and prayed the rosary.

Turo crouched down on one knee so he was eye-level with his son. He pointed up at the clouds of ash that advanced like a tired army. ‘You see that, Jun?’

‘It’s a fire,’ said the boy.

Arturo nodded. ‘A fire. Right in the middle of the mountain. An enormous fire that started long ago…’ he went on as if he were beginning a story. But before he could tell it, Junior had already fashioned his own. A treasure hoard in a deep magma chamber. A lone intruder scrabbling to fill his pockets with precious gems. A scarlet beast behind him, rising from its long slumber, with ancient wings outstretched. It was Arturo’s quiet pleasure to watch Jun when he got like this – the drifty look he got, mouth agape, the mop of black hair over his eyes – and he envied the way the boy, like all children, could relocate himself so easily into a world all his own.

‘Let’s find your mother,’ Arturo said.

The priest and the nuns were reciting the Hail Mary. Arturo was not a religious man. He hadn’t been to church in years. He knew that truth lay in numbers and in an understanding of the world’s physical laws. A mountain was an accommodation of stress and pressure. A volcano would telegraph its eruption for weeks and weeks if you knew what to listen for. An earthquake in Tangshan could set another off on the far end of the Eurasian plate. He knew that the land they stood on was temporary, that its coastlines changed shape and its atolls sank into the Pacific and sometimes rose. But looking at the Zambales mountains today, even he found it hard to deny what his countrymen already knew.

A Plinian column, twenty kilometres high, obscured the red palm of sun. Disintegrated pumice and silicon covered the stratosphere like living tissue. It had a terrible life to it, he thought. There was will here and there was portent. How easy it was, today, to believe in a God that punished and judged. And how much it looked like two lobes perched on a spindly stem: a great brain looming over the Philippine islands, solemn and indifferent.



At Amoranto Sports Complex, the tennis courts have been converted to field kitchens. A documentary crew are trying to enter the makeshift morgue. Air Force personnel stand about like construction workers waiting for their foreman to show up. Even from the top of the stands, it’s hard to see how far the lines go. You will get to know this wide-eyed march of the survivors. It’s the story of the next century. The whole place blanketed in the drab olive of army tarp. Pope John Paul II’s condolences over the speakers. He prays for the missing. San Antonio, Patron Saint of Lost Things, please bring them home. Typhoon Yunya’s days from landfall, says a meteorologist, squinting through thick eyeglass lenses. Army geologists watch their monitors with hushed expectancy. A one hertz tremor, rail to rail. A fisherman, bird-boned, sun-pruned, tells the interviewer that he leapt from his canoe and dove underwater and hid there when he first heard the rumble. He swam to shore but his partner was gone. There’s a father who lost his son in a mudslide. A teenage girl who hid in a cave. Their words have a detached and offhand quality, as if they’re reporting things from movies they’d seen – movies that they didn’t particularly like or even found interesting – and could only faintly recollect.



Gina turned away from the television screen and saw that the girl in the Philippine Airlines uniform had slid a receipt across the counter.

‘Did you see that?’ she asked.

‘Ma’am, I’ve upgraded your seats. We’ll contact you as soon as we have a handle on the situation.’

‘They’re talking about a typhoon now. How long do you think it’ll be before the airport’s open again?’

‘I’m afraid I can’t say.’

‘Days? Weeks, do you think?’

‘I understand your concern, ma’am,’ the girl replied. ‘But even if I could help you, I won’t be able to process any of this while we’re on alert. It’s the system, ma’am. None of our planes have clearance.’

Gina studied the skin on the girl’s arms. She had an aggressive eczema there, a violent red that ran up and florentined the left side of her neck. ‘Miss,’ still vainly defiant, ‘We need to be in Sydney by the end of the week. My husband has an interview for a new job. If we had been up in the air three hours ago, we wouldn’t have had to worry about the ash reaching us.’

On TV, a man in a barong stood on a white podium to recite the country’s declaration of independence from the Spanish.

‘Can I talk to my husband?’ she asked. ‘There he is now. Turo!’ His head bobbing in the pedestrian roil, Jun dawdling behind. The girl shrugged, raised her hands as if waiting to catch something. ‘Over here,’ Gina called again as he shouldered towards her.

‘Gina, listen.

‘What did you find out?’ she asked him. Jun leaned on a suitcase and sent it reeling across the floor. She swept her foot in a peg-leg motion to wedge it still.

‘I talked to some cops.’

‘Cops,’ she repeated. The PAL lady was already talking to another customer.

‘Don’t be angry,’ he said. He spoke softly, diffidently. That’s how he got. She was inclined to pointed silence.

‘I’m not angry. What did they tell you?’ When he took her by the wrist, she already knew what he’d say.

‘They said the sooner we leave, the better. We’ll work this out at home, Gina.’

She let her hand go limp and he took up the slack. She tried. God knows she did. Just as she was on the cusp of leaving, the earth itself – a bland-faced arbitrator – set down its ruling in Arturo’s favour.  She was young when she first saw the world outside the archipelago. It was 1981 and martial law had been lifted, at least on paper, and she was a twenty-one-year old girl who’d coaxed a doting husband into a honeymoon in the Alps. They scrimped and starved the whole way – four-man sleeper carriages, cup noodle dinners and nights in run-down hotels – but she loved it all the same. Odyssey sang in her blood. The girl who crossed the sea saw quilted fields and tall dark pines, peaks wreathed in cloud, roe deer in the wan light of late autumn. She promised herself she would never return to the Philippines and, in a way, she didn’t.


They took a cab down the highway. They passed cement trucks that looked like great insects with churning abdomens. Jeepneys painted with race-car flames, arrogant reds, stained-glass blues, the aerosol softies and Wildstyle of tenement brick. The air shimmered with fuel fumes. Jun pressed his face up to the window so his breath dappled the glass.

‘Listen to the word of God,’ came the voice from the radio. It was Imelda, coming in live from Oahu, where the Marcos family had been living in exile since Ferdinand was ousted in ‘86.

‘These events – earthquakes, volcanoes, typhoons – these are not natural events. These are punishments sent by God. He is telling us that my husband must be allowed to return home.’

Marcos had died two years earlier and his body had been kept in Hawaii, propped up on ice with enough rouge on to keep him looking hale. Imelda had been petitioning the government for months to let them come home so she could bury him beside his mother and father in Ilocos Norte.

‘You are punishing the dead,’ she crowed, that familiar whicker. ‘This is God’s punishment. Listen to the word of God.’

Gina’s sister was waiting for them when they returned. ‘You’re back,’ she said, picking her nephew up. She gave him a hard kiss on each cheek as he squirmed to free himself. ‘Jun, you won’t ever leave me again, will you?’ She smiled at Gina and Turo.

‘We’re still going, Ate. We’ve just been delayed.’

Her sister looked at her in a strange and tender way, the way you might look at a child who’s still too young to understand the deeper meaning behind things. ‘Maybe this is a blessing, Gina. Maybe you’re meant to stay.’

‘We’ll be on the next plane out once this is over.’

Gina was dying for a shower, to wash off the day’s sourness. In the bathroom, she filled a pail with boiling water and the steam made the room smell of camphor. A tentative knock and Turo sidled in. He came up to her and held her by the waist. He pressed his cheek on the skin just beneath her neck.

‘I need to know you’re with me, Turo.’

‘I am with you.’

‘You should call your cousin,’ she said. ‘Tell him we’ve been held up. Call the company and ask them if you can postpone your interview.’

‘It’ll be fine.’

‘That’s all you have to say?’ Now she shook herself free of him. ‘It’s not fine, Arturo. Everything’s going to go to hell. Call them. Let them know we’re still coming.’

He nodded but said nothing. Then he left. Gina heard the scritch of housekeys, the rattle of the fly-screen grate. She looked at herself in the mirror and pushed one hand up under her hair, which was going flaxy in parts, perhaps a little grey. She lifted the thick mane of it and inspected the skin around her neck and cheeks, the creases and compressions in the unflattering halogen. Steam had begun to fill the cramped room. It fogged up the mirror’s glass until the walls behind her were obscured, and she could no longer see her body, and then she could no longer see her face.


The old man at the sari-sari store sold flowers, cigarettes and playing cards. He wished his customers a happy Independence Day. Arturo bought a pack of Jackpots, lit one and let it hang out the corner of his mouth, limp, the way he did when he was younger. He had thought that it made him look like a French philosopher or the leading man in a Lino Brocka movie – contemplative, dashing, in spite of the shapeless nose and farmhand’s complexion – and also because his dormmates had told him that it drove a girl named Regina up a wall with ardour.

Arturo shut one eye for the smoke.

‘You hear about Clark, boss?’ the shopkeeper asked and paused like he was about to tell a joke.

‘The military base? They evacuated it.’

‘Ten thousand people. No one left behind.’

‘Good riddance.’

Jeep by jeep, down the dirt track the soldiers went with another Asian war story safely tucked into their tins of chew. Another one to zing out over a snifter of bourbon and a crackling fire. (But never retold as often as the others: how could a story about a volcano ever be as moving as the sacrifices their brothers made at Kumsong? as amusing as the one about the three whores in Phnom Penh? or as thrilling as the Huey ride out of fallen Saigon?) They wouldn’t be back.

Arturo wandered over to the edge of the road as the familiar headspin kicked in. He sat down in the gutter. The truth is, he now felt relieved. It was perverse, selfish, but it was like he’d been plucked out of deep water and stood on dry land. He butted the cigarette and rose, patting dust off the seat of his jeans. He stretched his arms up over his head and heard knots of muscle pop. Then he walked back to the store. The old man had his ear up to a transistor radio. ‘Manong,’ Arturo said. ‘Get me one of those international calling cards, too.’

On the way home, he caught Jun shuffling down the street. ‘There you are,’ he said, waiting at the front gate. An insurgent grin on the boy’s face. ‘Ano ba. You’re a mess.’ They climbed the stairs to the front of the house where Jun let his shoes flop by the doormat. Dried mud scattered all over the landing. Arturo could only click his tongue, too tired to rebuke.

‘Go on,’ he said. He touched the boy’s arm, guided him inside. ‘Clean yourself up before you mother sees you.’

Gina came out of the kitchen with a balled-up cloth in her hand that she held pot lids with. Her hair was damp and she’d wrapped it up high in a towel. She wore a robe and her house slippers. He went to her and kissed her on the cheek which smelled like lavender shampoo and the smell mixed with the tobacco stink in his clothes. He could see the soft light of the television in the living room, where his sister-in-law would be watching a televangelist or talent show. He put his hands around Gina’s shoulders and felt her soften. There was a part of him – a childish part he’d stashed away long ago – that made him want to shut his eyes, squeeze them tight, and will it all still. To hitch the passage of time to those memories; to this exact instant where he held her body as close as he could to his own. And another part of him that knew better.

The Seconds of Holroyd House by Patrick Arulanandam

Patrick Arulanandam is a writer and doctor of Sri Lankan Tamil heritage, who lives on Wangal country in Sydney. He spends much his time using the NATO phonetic alphabet to spell his surname for people. He was second runner up for the Deborah Cass Prize in 2021, and a finalist for the Eric Dark Creative Writing Prize in 2014.





Note: The setting of the story is a boarding house for academically talented children selected from poor families. The basic premise is hinted at but not yet revealed in the extract provided: the children are being slowly trained to become the ‘Seconds’ of various elite members of society. To be a Second is to be raised to emulate the same tastes, attitudes, knowledge and inclinations of your elite foster ‘parent’ – in fact, the idea is to eventually replace that person when they die, and thereby ensure a form of second life for them.

The Seconds of Holroyd House

The scene is well known. A sea of children. First day of seventh grade. Parents huddled close. Ignore the tears, instead see the trembling hands of mother and father. It is always father who disengages first, his fingers slowly unclasped from his child’s sunken shoulder. Mother stays behind – perhaps for another two minutes, or another twenty. Then her grip loosens too and she leaves, as she must, turning from the child. Mother and father drive away.

Ask any of us old Holroyd kids, and you hear some version of that story. Our last day with our first parents.

The day I found out what I was, and therefore who I would become, began just like any other. I woke to the smell of toast, the din of tea, and Julian Macintyre screaming from our matchbox kitchen that it was time to wake up.

Julian: early riser, my first roommate, my best mate in those early years at Holroyd House. I should clear up one matter. Whatever you might have reasonably assumed from his name, Julian Macintyre was almost as brown as me. Skinwise I mean. So it was pretty unusual that we were quartered together. As you may know, the boarding schools for Seconders now have strict rules to prevent kids with foreign-born parents being placed together.

The reason these rules exist depends on who you ask. Some say it was to ward off the mischief we would get up to if we lived with our own kind, so to speak. Others say the rules actually protected us from being bullied: the argument was that moving through the world as a pair of brown kids was more conspicuous than moving through it as an individual brown kid. I’m not sure how true that is, I’m just giving you the theory as I understand it.

How did Julian and I slip through the cracks and live in the same dorm for two whole years, when our parents came from not only the same country (Sri Lanka) but also the same town (Yalpanam)? I have a simple theory. I think Holroyd House just looked at Julian’s name on his parents’ application form and assumed he was another poor white kid, instead of a poor coloured kid. So they assigned him a roommate called Karuna.

That’s me.

Sure, my theory has some holes. For one, our parents had to send the school certified copies of our passports, with colour photographs, as part of the long application process. But I suspect that back then the schools were just much more relaxed than they are now, at least on the racial question. I know it’s fashionable these days to put forward conspiracies to explain such irregularities, but my considered view is that old fashioned human error explains how Julian and I were quartered together.

The school didn’t make any immediate moves to correct the error, either. Yes, it is true that the marshals and prefects gave us funny looks for a while, and we suffered far more random spot checks than other kids. Perhaps someone even filed a formal report – it’s hard to check on that sort of thing so many miles down the road. In the end I reckon they figured that my quiet and reserved nature meant that any major trouble was unlikely. If that was their calculation, the error was in underestimating the other side of the ledger.

Julian Macintyre.

When I think of him now, and I think of him often, I find myself remembering a passage from a history book I found in Mr Burgess’ library. It told of how the Roman Emperor Commodus, in a fit of rage, waved the decapitated head of an ostrich at a group of senators at the Colosseum. Most of the senators sat in silence, terrified, but one of them found the scene so ridiculous he had to stuff his mouth with a laurel wreath to stop himself laughing out loud.

You see, the thing about remembering Julian is this: depending on exactly what memory surfaces, he could be the laughter-muffling senator, or he could be the imperious and deranged Commodus. But in the end, right at the end, wasn’t he the ostrich?

Julian was a lesson learned, like the other “free spirits of Holroyd”, to use Mr Benton’s tired phrase. The ones who couldn’t finish their time, for one reason or another.

The day I find out is midwinter and the morning air is so chilled that my ears feel alight. Our textbooks are scattered over the dining table, a mess accumulated by a weekend of cramming. We quiz each other as we nibble at lightly buttered toast.

“Painful?” asks Julian.

“Schmerzlich,” I reply. “Too easy.”


“Das Fenster. I’m not worried about German. I’m worried about Maths.”

“Me too. But look, mate. Realistically, there is no way we are going to master so much trigonometry in forty five minutes,” he says as he checks his watch. “No sense in worrying about it. We are beyond that stage now. Just try to ace the German paper. Stimmt?”

I am worried, though – the kind of free floating worry that drifts towards us when we discover that effort is not always rewarded by outcome, that an absence of talent cannot always be held ransom by grit. This kind of worry bites worst in my first few months at the school, when the endless exams somehow seem both completely arbitrary, but also clearly designed for some higher purpose. When a carryover error on a maths paper seems like it will burrow its way worm-like into all my possible futures.

“Karuna,” Julian says, trying to breach my reverie. “Universe to K-dog. Do we have a signal? Hello Mistah K?”

There is a signal, but it is weak, for my mind is thinking not of the German language but the lanky kid in ninth grade who is known simply as The German, the kid who sneaks from his dorm after curfew and makes his way to the big red gumtree and examines its trunk, etched as it is by hundreds of axe marks.

A stale plan, hatched weeks before, returns to my mind, perhaps more as a fantasy than a real idea.

“The German,” I say.

“That’s right. If we ace German today, maybe it won’t matter if we totally bomb out in the Maths paper. Maybe – ”

“No, that’s not what I meant. I mean The German. That kid in ninth grade.”

“What about him?”

“Let’s sneak out tonight and meet him at the tree. Let’s ask him what the deal is – why we keep getting slammed with all these tests, day after day. He’s ninth grade – maybe he knows everything. He can tell us why our parents dumped us in this place. He can tell us what happens next. Don’t you want to know? Don’t you want to be at least a little prepared?”

For the briefest moment you can actually see the fear in Julian’s face, and the realisation he had been snookered. He is the daredevil of our duo, the prankster; he cannot turn down my proposal without losing face.

But I know he is spooked by the way Holroyd looks late at night, and that big old tree. We all are. And what’s more, like all of us, an important part of Julian does not want to know what awaits us in the years ahead. The part of us that understands that we are stuck here, that our parents are not coming to take us back home. That seventh and eighth grades are a respite before ninth grade, when things start to happen.

The unstated wisdom, passed on through locker room innuendo and schoolyard legend and toilet graffiti, is this: you are better off not knowing certain things until you have to know them.

“Sure,” Julian says. “Tonight. Let’s do it.””

The maths paper is worse than I feared, a nightmare of angles and asymptotes. It is a small mercy that it is over so early in the morning. Numb, I move on to the next lesson, philosophy.

We drift from class to class with rehearsed ease. We have no sense of the deep history of how each subject landed in our curriculum. The high level wrangling that has taken place over decades is all a mystery to us.

It is only much later that I learn that philosophy is not even taught at most Seconding schools. I suppose in retrospect that is obvious. There are very few philosophers around who have the financial means to adopt a Second. But back then we didn’t know that. We were just kids who turned up to the classes on our timetable.

Julian would have told you that the reason I liked philosophy class was because of Chantelle Lane, but that is not quite the whole story. It is at least as true to say this: I liked Chantelle Lane because of philosophy class.

On this particular day, Mr Benton is teaching the pre-Socratics. As is often the case in Benton’s classroom, the discussion meanders to the question of free will, and whether it exists.

“One of the great virtues of Holroyd,” Mr Benton says, “is the opportunity you have to learn from each other, not just from these textbooks.” He pushes away the book on his desk in a gesture of abdication. As though it were a second thought, and not a book he will ask us to learn back to front for an exam in two weeks.

“Take Karuna, for instance,” he says. I freeze, knowing already what was coming next. “Karuna, you are, as we know, a Sri Lankan of Tamil ancestry. The Sri Lankan Tamils are inheritors of a long and proud civilization, with all the cultural and philosophical insights that come with that. Perhaps you could share with the class what attitude the ancient Tamil scholars – the sangam, if I am using the term correctly – held towards the ideas of fate and free will? Perhaps a summary of what the Thirukurral has to say about the matter would be a fine entry point.”

To be fair to Benton, he is not deliberately crucifying me. Benton is a genuinely curious man and he probably thinks he is giving me an opportunity to share my knowledge with the class. The problem is that I do not have this knowledge to share.

“Sir, I don’t think that the Thirukurral actually has much to say on free will or fate. My understanding is that it is more a book of – homely wisdom.”

I have no such understanding, having never read it.

Benton looks puzzled, disarmed. I am worried that if left to his own thoughts for much longer, he will realise that I am a stranger not only to the Thirukurral, but to Tamil literacy in general.

And this is when I am rescued by Chantelle Lane for the first time (I have been rescued by her three times in total).

“Mr Benton, Karuna and I have looked into this before,” she says. “He has a point. From what I understand about Tamil culture, as an outsider of course, the Thirukurral is a highly revered philosophical work, renowned for its structural symmetry and poetry – but it is also a book of homely wisdom. You will find people from all walks of life in Tamil communities quoting it. It is quite different from a Greco-Roman work like, say, On the Nature of Things, which deals directly with the free will issue. Lucretius is certainly mesmerising to the ear in the original Latin, but he is hardly quoted by the average Jo Bloggs on the street now is he?”

This is classic Chantelle at work – a masterful deployment of limited but decisive knowledge (she knows less about Tamil literature than me), guesswork, an appeal to Benton’s innate elitism, and most critically, ending with a reference to a Roman philosopher. Pretty much a guaranteed way to divert Benton’s attention till class dismissed.

On the Tale of the Firebird by Irina Frolova

Irina Frolova is a Russian-Australian writer who lives with her three children and two fur babies on the Awabakal land in NSW. She has a degree in philology from Moscow City Pedagogical University and is currently studying psychology at Deakin University. Her poetry has appeared in Not Very Quiet, Australian Poetry Collaboration, Baby Teeth Journal, Rochford Street Review, The Blue Nib, The Australian Multilingual Writing Project, and Live Encounters, as well as various anthologies. Irina’s writing speaks to the experience of immigration and a search for belonging. Her first collection of poetry Far and Wild was released by Flying Island Books in January, 2021. You can find Irina on Facebook @irinafrolovapoet.

Australia, 2005

Vika opened the bedroom window. The street of her small coastal town was empty. All she could hear was the breeze ruffling the treetops and the warble of magpies. Perhaps her neighbours, mainly retirees, were having an afternoon nap. On a different day Vika would welcome this siesta in the suburban carnival of lawn-mowing, whipper-snipping and leaf-blowing. But today the quiet made her hands tremble and her breath stall in her throat.

She unscrewed the fly screen and carefully put it down next to the wall. Then she picked up the first bag from her bed, lifted it over the windowsill and put it on the front lawn. When the second bag was out, she grabbed the cat carrier with Vegemite sitting patiently inside.

‘Thank you for being such a good girl,’ Vika whispered to the cat.

A few minutes later the bags were in the boot, the cat carrier and the kids in the back seats. She had told everyone it was just a trip to the park.

Vika took one last look at the old weatherboard house with the white picket fence and the rose garden. Oh, if these walls could talk. Or write. What stories they would tell: of motherhood, of loneliness, of denial, of lies, of anguish. These walls, covered with small handprints of her three children, stood around her: on the nights she fought sleep with a crying baby in her arms, or fought off panic attacks, the sneaky cowards, just before dawn. These walls stood between them: her in one room, him – in another. Can they stand with her one more time, keep one more secret?

Her eyes paused on the middle window. Was there a shadow behind the lace curtain? Vika was not sure if she believed in ghosts. However, she had come to believe that, perhaps, the house had a ghost – the suburban dream. Her dream. Her happily-ever-after. Would it haunt her for the rest of her life? Maybe so, but for now she had bigger things to worry about.

She put the key in the ignition. Every nerve in her body was buzzing. She remembered the first time she was on a plane. Her skin tingled, as the plane sped up the runway, like a match flashing on the side of the matchbox. The moment the plane was airborne, a steady flame radiated through her. Now, that she was driving away from the family home, it was back.

While the kids played at the park, she made three phone calls. The first one was to the women’s services. She told them that she was out, and a motel room was arranged for the night. Then she called her friend, who offered to take in Vegemite for as long as needed. She paused before making the third call.

There was no answer, so she left a voice mail: ‘We are safe. We are not coming back.’

At the motel, Ash and Violet took one of the double beds, while Vika and Rose shared the other. She told the kids they were having a little holiday, an adventure. The puzzled looks quickly gave way to jumping on the beds and excited squealing. When everyone was finally in their pyjamas, they all squeezed into one bed for story time.

Vika had packed only one book – a compilation of Russian fairy-tales that her mother had sent from home.

‘Ok, which one will it be tonight?’ she looked at the children.

‘Vasilisa The Wise! Baba Yaga! Ivan Tsarevich!’ they yelled over each other in anticipation.

‘You have to agree on one.’

‘You chose last time.’

‘No, you did!’

‘I never get to choose…’

‘How about we let the fairy-tale choose us?’ said Vika mysteriously.

The kids’ mouths fell open: ‘How?’

‘We close our eyes and open the book. We see which fairy-tale it is, and read it’

Two brown heads and one blond head nodded rapidly.

Vika closed her eyes, took a dramatic deep breath and opened the story book. On the left side there was an illustration: a young man dressed in black grasping a feather of an exotic bird. The bird looked like a peacock, with a magnificent long tail and large wings, the colour of fire. In the background, against the night sky stood a tree with golden fruit.

‘Wow…’ the children whispered in unison.

Vika pointed to the title: ‘Oh look: it’s “Ivan Tsarevich and the Gray Wolf!” And… It also has Princess Vasilisa.’

‘AND the Firebird too!’ squealed Rose in delight.

Once the children were asleep, Vika looked at her phone: thirty new messages and five missed calls. An icy wave rolled over her. She switched off the phone. One by one, she kissed the three silky heads. Rose was still hugging the book of fairy-tales to her chest. Vika carefully pulled it out of her daughter’s hands and flicked through the pages.

Curled up on the edge of the bed, she closed her eyes. She could see her own mother’s face before her.

The soft voice read to her: ‘and then Vasilisa the Wise said: “Go to sleep. Don’t worry yourself. A morning is wiser than a night.”’


Caravan by Jenni Mazaraki

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.

The Last Choir by Isabelle Quilty

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.

Momentous, even.

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.

Come a gutsa by Zoë Meager 

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 GrantaLost Balloon, and Overland, and at home in Hue and CryLandfallMayhemNorth & 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 closethe 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.


Craig Santos Perez

Craig Santos Perez is an indigenous Pacific Islander poet from Guåhan (Guam). He is the author of five books of poetry and the co-editor of five anthologies. He teaches at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa.




Rings of Fire Sonnet During the Pandemic
(September 2020) 

We celebrate our daughter’s third birthday
during the hottest September in history.
My parents Facetime from California,
where fire is harvesting four million acres
of ash. “I visited grandma today,”
my mom says. “The orange sky scared her.”
Flames flood brazil’s wetlands
as europe’s largest refugee camp smolders,
granting the charred asylum.
“We might have to evacuate tomorrow,”
my mom says, but tonight we open gifts, sing
& blow out the candles together.
Smoke trembles, as if we all exhaled
the same combustible wish.


Echolocation Sonnet During the Pandemic
(September 2020)

                        for the orca, J35, and her child, J57

Today, you birthed another calf. I imagine
you both swimming a thousand nautical miles
until every wave becomes an ode, until the sea
is a wet nursery. How do you translate
“congratulations” in your dialect of whistles?
What is joy but our shared echolocation?
My second daughter was born three years ago,
premature, but now chubby & strong.
I cook salmon for our dinner and pray
that your pod has enough to eat.
We haven’t been to the beach in months
due to quarantine, but you remind us:
hope is our most buoyant
oceanic muscle.

Chris Armstrong

Chris Armstrong’s poetry has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, most recently The Suburban Review, K’in and Backstory as well as Griffith Review and regularly in Cordite. Armstrong was runner up in the Judith Wright Overland Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Writers in 2015 and received an ASA Emerging Writers Mentorship for her poetry manuscript The Watershed, which was published as a chapbook in 2017. Armstrong is currently involved as poet for The White Bluff Project (https://www.thewhitebluffproject.co/) a collaborative art, science and community project exploring ‘place’ with particular reference to the effects of climate and urbanisation on a coastal ecosystem. Armstrong was raised on the invaded lands of the Gumbaynggir people on the east coast of Australia but currently resides in lutriwita (Tasmania).


maana ngawaa muniimbugany muniim nyamigundi maarlala
ngawaa muniimbugany words live beyond our needy tongues to
affirm what is you call me to come see the classic smooth and
creamy shapes of stone wash’d in dreamy waves beneath the
white bluff where language too is a sedimentary thing lithified
into the first song within and where after and before daalgiya
ngaanyaw nguuralami giduurr wiigurr nyan muniim nyamigundi
maarlala ngawaabugany muniim maana muniimbugany ngawa
weigh it feel it roll it on that needy tongue feed it to your
children waagay fire yamaarr fish gaagal ocean language that
made me unmade you first manggaarla remaking what was you
juna junaa gayi wear lexis like necklaces of sophora tomentosa
ngayinggi yarrang listen niirum maanyung carrying the sound of
two whales breathing as they rise arc dive into the dark sea
ngayinggi yarrang beneath hooped pines beside cuttlefish
flotsam streaked with copper based blood jarlarrla gagalngay
how is the wind not called a living thing and a breath not thought
a word

Manggaarla is ‘first’ in Gumbaynggir language. Thank you to Gumbaynggir artist Tori Ann Donnelly, with assistance from Kal Morris, for the translations to Gumbaynggir in the poem Manggarla. The poem is part of a collaborative artwork with artists Tori Donnelly and Sarah Mufford for The White Bluff Project at Coffs Harbour Regional Art Gallery from 31 October 2021 to 15 January 2022. See https://www.thewhitebluffproject.co/. It is also available as an image of the final artwork. The poem also acknowledges influences from Gwen Harwood’s poem ‘The Littoral’.