Untangling complex mind tricks and games,
A loving hand to hold when you feel untamed,
You think about the divide;
An innocent evil,
The petrichor on a Monday afternoon.
A true labyrinth,
A deep concentrate of love,
How can the relationship between friends be so sinister,
Yet be underpinned by such lyrical jubilation?
The sound of our laughter – euphonious.
Our power to harm – surreptitious.
Relief arrives after hours of reflection and longing,
A bond between women that is bound by thick, strengthening ropes.
Jealousy accompanies visions of her with another.
But, every relationship is lasting;
Metaphorical sister, metaphorical mother.
Through the caves we navigate,
To a place so familiar and chilling.
It makes us light and dizzy.
And just like lasting threads and the witchcraft of girlhood,
It keeps us together.
Nobody talks about this, this rare lapse in time. I guess everyone is too busy worrying about some emergency, they don’t realise the eeriness of the hour.
Blinding lights. Fading white walls. The doors slamming wide open every few minutes, letting in a brutal draught that exists only past this time of night. A draught that triggers goosebumps beneath the hair on your arms and creeps down your spine. A spine already in shock from the freezing metal of a chair. A chair that creaks more than the bones of that elderly lady making her way across the hall.
Hushed voices. A middle-aged man’s gasping breaths two rows behind me. He doesn’t sound okay. More voices. Are they talking about me? The background stomping of the night-time staff. Their boots walking in time with their over-caffeinated heartbeats. Wrinkling my nose, the hairs burning. The smell of antiseptic leaves this ugly, tingly feeling in the back of my throat.
Why am I even here? Muscles cramped from sitting too long. But no position is comfortable in this awkward, slippery chair, too slim for anybody. Ugh. Magazines rotting in the corner. Exhaled on with bacteria-infused coffee breath, touched with too many unclean hands. What is the point of investing in all these hand-sanitiser stands, parked every half a metre around this room?
And then some old pamphlets. Or some new ones. I’m not sure. They’re too scandalous to be picked up. Made to convince you that you’re unwell. As if everyone didn’t already know. For God’s sake, it’s the 21st century, who isn’t unwell? Oh, the middle-aged man’s name has been called. Jared. Finally. Poor guy, he’s been waiting longer than I have and I feel like I’ve been here for half a lifetime.
A wailing siren gets louder and louder. I rub my tongue against the plaque that has now developed on my teeth. It’s got a sour taste. What did I eat last? Yuck. The doors blast open again. I forgot how cold the draught was. Makes my skin crawl. No. It wasn’t the draught. It was what it brought with it. A person on a stretcher. Or was it? I don’t know. It was dripping. Red. The white sheets had turned a red so deep you could have wringed the blood out and saved a whole life.
The body was whimpering. No. It was howling. Laying on its back, arched so wrong and its legs – no- leg twisted up awkwardly. Blood spurting from where the other leg was supposed to be. Bandages already soaked through the head and neck. God.
The paramedics shouting words that didn’t exist in my vocabulary. The boots of the night-shift staff thumping towards the stretcher. Unlocking the wheels and pushing the body into some ward. There was no one else around anymore. Oh wait, the reception nurse. She looked at me apologetically. She must be used to making that face, being able to conjure it so easily, so lifelessly. She looked so tired. I turned away from her, groaning, and sunk lower into the chair. Crossed my arms. Huh. There was a window here this whole time. Hm. It wasn’t pitch black anymore. There was a crinkle of light, a crinkle of dawn. I rolled my eyes, hard. My name hadn’t even been called yet.
The sky was bespeckled with tiny, glistening dots. The glowing moon illuminated the shadowy darkness of the night. All was quiet but for the rustling of the trees that shrouded the town and the distant crashing of waves against the cliffs. The town was sleeping, as it had been when each child disappeared. It had become customary to wake to a blood-curdling scream as a mother discovered her child gone, their bed empty. Elyse was glad to be awake. She feared the night. Who would disappear into it next, leaving her behind forever?
Elyse stuck a cigarette in her mouth. Shivering in the chilly air, she cupped her bruised hand protectively around the lighter’s flame as she fumbled to ignite it. She took a long drag and exhaled, drawing out the smoke. It floated in the air before her, a grey cloud. Then it flitted away, dispersing into the wind. Elyse sighed as the nicotine rushed through her bloodstream. Her light-headedness became a pleasant, comforting sensation. Holding the cigarette between two fingers, she folded her arms over her coat and surveyed the deserted street. Stonewashed and crumbling, the houses at the edge of town were abandoned. Now, only she remained beside the forest of trees that led to the cliffs.
She took another drag of her cigarette as eleven chimes reverberated from the town clock. The residents, who were accustomed to the noise, slept on. But moments later, the pattering of small footsteps neared. The Jones’ boy, Billy, appeared in the street and scurried past her towards the trees. She stared at the direction in which he had vanished. What was he doing? Did he not understand how dangerous it was to be out at night? She would have to go after him. She could not bear another disappearance. Taking one last drag of her cigarette, she flung it to the ground with slight annoyance before extinguishing it with the toe of her boot. Then, she hurried after Billy.
As she strode towards the trees, the cemented ground beneath her feet gave way to rock and dust. Staring precariously around, she wondered if the young boy had ventured elsewhere. Suddenly, she heard the distinct cracking of twigs and the crunching of dried leaves from within the trees.
Elyse stepped into the forest. Black spruce trees encircled her, rigid trunks of thin scaly bark towering up to the sky. The light breeze slipped through the virescent needle-like leaves, swirling past her and towards the sea. The trees swayed lazily, creating monsters in the shadows of the night. Through the darkness, Elyse spotted Billy. She ran after him, thrashing through the shrubbery, her coat catching on the fallen branches sprawled across the forest floor. She hurriedly yanked the coat free before sprinting after Billy, the branches grazing her flesh with tiny red scratches. Grass sprouting from cracks in the rocky ground slid against her legs, soothing the sting of the cuts with their touch. As she neared the forest’s edge, the grass withered, the shrubbery shrivelled, and the tree trunks grew blacker, their leaves drooping.
Elyse stopped. They were beyond the trees now. Rugged vertical cliffs stood precipitously over the sea, scrutinising the water. Chalky white, they glinted with the reflection of the silvery moon. Below, foamy wave crests crashed over the beach of barnacled rock against the jagged cliffs. Gazing out in wonderment at the magnificent azure water, Elyse sighed as the waves rolled and reeled over one another. She inhaled the salty sea air and smiled as the wind caressed her face.
Billy’s footsteps pulled her attention away from the tranquillity of the landscape. Peering at him closely, she only now realised that he too bore injury from the journey. His pyjamas were torn, his face raw with cuts, and his bare feet red with blood. Elyse gaped at him, perplexed. As he strode past her towards the cliff’s edge, his attention remained fixated on the horizon. Elyse staggered towards him, tripping over her own feet in her haste. She grabbed him with her outstretched hands, clinging to his nightshirt, just as he made to step over the edge.
“What are you doing?” she demanded, pulling him towards her, away from the cliff’s edge. Billy turned to face her for the first time, his eyes, as black as night, stared at her blankly. A chill skirted along her spine as she stared back at him. “Billy,” she said again, cautiously, “What are you doing here?”
This time, the boy opened his mouth to reply. “He is mine!” he shrieked like a banshee.
“What?” stammered Elyse, shrinking away from him slightly. “Billy, come back home with me.” He ignored her. She turned towards the trees, dragging Billy away from the cliff. She tightened her grip on his arm as he struggled to escape her grasp. Then, she stopped. She sensed it. A change in the atmosphere. The swallows sensed it as well, suddenly erupting from within the trees and bursting into the sky, flying higher and higher. The trees stilled their rustling, and the sea calmed. The air rippled with anticipation.
It happened all at once. Heavy grey storm clouds materialised above the cliffs, racing across the sky to obscure the moon. The air became thick with forest debris, and the waves slammed forcefully against the cliff sides as the wind roared ferociously. Elyse fell to the ground, knocked off her feet by the strong gusts. She clutched desperately at Billy, holding him tightly against her chest, as he continued his attempts to escape. Around them, the trees flailed about violently in the wind, lashing against each other, threatening to erupt from their roots. Sheets of icy rain crashed upon the ground as purple light illuminated the sky. Through the treacherous wind and rain, Elyse peered over the cliff’s edge to see a girl emerging from the ocean, her thin figure clinging to the rocky surface as she scaled the cliff wall.
“Come on, Billy!” screamed Elyse through the howling wind. She tried desperately to push him away from the cliff, but the wind and rain pulled them back, shoving them to the ground.
Elyse watched in terror as the girl hoisted her body over the edge and onto the ground, inches away from them. Water dripped off her, though her skin remained matted with dirt and grime. Her long dark hair brushed against the ground as it hung in curtains over her face, concealing it from view. The girl rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet, moving like a jack-in-the-box. Her hair moved slightly in the wind to unveil her mouth, which upturned into a chilling smile. Then to Elyse’s horror, the girl opened her mouth, and a terrifying laugh escaped. It echoed through the clearing, rebounding off the cliff walls. Elyse instantly released her hold on Billy and clasped her hands over her ears to drown out the harrowing noise. The boy did not move. He merely gazed at the girl, awestruck.
Someone must have woken, thought Elyse. Someone must have heard. Someone will come.
The girl lunged at her. Scrambling on top of Elyse, she grabbed her head and pushed it up to face her. Elyse trembled as the girl wrapped a hand around her throat. Squeezing tightly, the girl’s long, black nails pierced through Elyse’s skin, creating punctures in her neck. Elyse screamed silently as pain engulfed her. She desperately clawed at the girl’s hand to pull it away. The girl did not falter. Instead, she tilted her head slightly so her hair no longer hid her face.
A choked sob emanated from Elyse as she stared at the girl’s haunting appearance. Thick black veins snaked across her translucent grey skin. An abyss of darkness, her protruding eyes bled inky black tears that streamed down her gaunt face and onto her dirty nightdress. Horror-stricken, Elyse tried to kick the girl away. The girl chuckled. Bending her head low towards Elyse’s ear, she snarled in a screeching voice, harsh, like the crashing of the waves, “He is mine!”
Elyse shook uncontrollably, tears rolling down her face. Her lungs burned. Her heart slowed. Her vision grew dark. She felt herself slip away. Then, a boy’s voice pierced through the wind, drawing the attention of both Elyse and the girl.
“Where am I?” cried Billy, shivering at the cliff’s edge, his brown eyes scanning his surroundings.
The girl released her hold on Elyse and bounded towards Billy. Grabbing his arm, she pulled him towards her as she leapt off the cliff, the pair plummeting into the water with a loud crash.
The wind slowed. The rain stopped. The clouds dispersed.
All was still.
Comments Off on I HOPE YOUR MOTHER CRIED HERSELF TO SLEEP WHEN SHE FOUND OUT WHAT YOU DID
Do you put your fingers in her?
Climb inside her and tear her apart
When she leaves you will she still feel you
in her stomach and her chest?
Taste your blood on her lips?
Metallic like the ring you want her to have
too small for her finger — it’s turning purple. And eventually
she’ll cut it off
More courage than I ever had.
Heard your voicemail more than my ringtone
Anger hits months later
You’re off playing happy families
I’m screaming to the mirror
I’m sleeping in my bed alone
I’m scraping what’s left of you out of me
You were a good partner and a bad man
or so I’m told
If I say it enough maybe it’ll stick
Two years of keeping you warm caked soot in my lungs
I hope it was worth it.
I hope your mother cried herself to sleep when she
found out what you did.
I hope she looks at you and sees your father
Realises she failed to make you a man.
you couldn’t bring yourself to say you were unfaithful
That the words stuck thorns in your lungs
Her hands burnt on your skin
I hope the first time you fucked her
The ocean was an untamable beast. The waves swelled up and up, climbing higher and higher, like mountain peaks. The foamy cerulean water lashed against the side of the boat, spraying cold water onto the deck. I gritted my teeth and clutched desperately at the helm. As I attempted to steer the boat on course, my knuckles shone white.
The boat sliced through the incoming waves, rocking violently to the side. I fell to the ground, sliding across the deck and thunking my head on a wooden beam. As I hurried to my feet, I slipped on the pools of water collected on the deck. I stumbled back to the helm, where I hesitantly felt the back of my head. Warm, sticky blood coated my fingers. I shuddered. It’s ok, I told myself. This is the last time.
Finally, the ocean settled, allowing me to leave the helm. The tracking device that I had been using to follow Victory showed me that the whales were swimming further and further away towards their summer feeding grounds. I had left the coast of South America just after Victory’s pod, but my rented one-person boat was no match for the whales’ prowess in the ocean.
That’s strange, I thought, as I scrutinised the device. I was closer to the pod than anticipated, and they seemed to be moving slower than yesterday. I glanced up and caught sight of snowy mountain peaks in the distance, black rock shining like obsidian. The Antarctic Peninsula was close, and if the tracker was any sign, so was the end of my last expedition.
As the boat traversed the ocean, I thought of Tilly. That last day in the hospital, when she looked unrecognisable. Her soft blonde curls were gone, while tubes fed into her arms like weeds infesting a garden.
“I want to see Victory,” she murmured.
“You will, honey,” I promised, my eyes welling with tears as I clutched her tiny hand.
Suddenly, the tracking device beeped furiously. I grabbed my binoculars. My eyes skimmed over the water, searching for the pod. But I couldn’t see it. Instead, there was only a singular blue whale. It was half submerged in water, but as it came up for air, I caught sight of its fluke; a v-shaped tail, dark blue, with mottled smatterings of black and white. It was her; it was Victory. But why had she been separated from her pod? And then I saw it. Her body was entangled in a trawling net; the water around her was stained with red.
Panic coursed through me. Victory, who I read about in books as a child. Victory, who had been the constant throughout my career. Victory, who I introduced to Tilly on her very first trip with me. Victory, who Tilly wanted to see one last time.
“Shit, shit, shit!” I said as I hurried below deck. I pulled my burgundy gloves from my hands in a frantic and desperate frenzy. Then, I stripped off my jacket and my clothes and unwrapped my scarf from around my neck. The cold air felt like daggers against my bare skin, but my hands were slippery with sweat as I pulled on my diving suit. The neoprene fabric, elastic and stretchy, slid quickly onto my skin. Clawing my way back onto the deck, I fitted the snorkel on the left side of my head and pulled the flippers onto my feet.
I leapt into the ocean. The water was ice against my face, but I ignored the sensation. A hundred metres separated Victory from the boat, the closest I could get to her without risking injuring her further. The distance was meagre, and within a few strokes, I was close enough to be at the marge of the blood spillage. My heart was racing, and my head was pounding as I anticipated the inevitable.
When I reached Victory, she emitted a sorrowful whine which reverberated through the ocean. I shuddered, the noise reminding me of Tilly’s pained moans and my gulping sobs during the apex of her treatment. I swam below the water. For a moment, I floated in the water, my arms and legs outstretched, watching mesmerised as colourful fish swam past me. Then, the blood clouded my vision and panic enveloped me once more.
The net was wrapped tightly around Victory’s lower torso, restricting her movement and cutting into her flesh. Her dorsal fin was sticking out of the crisscrossed black material at a peculiar angle. My heart sank. I felt tears pricking my eyes, but I had to do something. I grabbed the knife strapped to my leg. Unsheathing it, I began cutting through the net carefully. The knife nearly slipped and cut her skin as she began writhing underneath the net. Please, I implored silently, please do not move.
After a few moments, I had cut away most of the net. Now, the only section that was left was her tail. It thrashed violently as I touched her lightly. Red water droplets sprayed over me. I patted her with one hand, soothing her, until, finally, she had calmed down and I could cut away the last of the netting.
She was free.
Apprehensively, I assessed Victory’s injuries. The lacerations were deep, too deep. Jagged cuts peppered her smooth skin. My hand which I had used to grasp the net as I cut through it, had faint white bumps in a braided pattern. Blood gushed violently from the wounds spreading through the water.
I have to get out of here, I thought suddenly. The blood would attract sea creatures. I was all alone, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest coast. What could I do?
I rushed back to the boat, the wretched net grasped in one hand. Flinging myself back onto the deck, I retreated to the cabin, where I cried for the first time since Tilly died. I stared at the wooden floorboards and counted as the waves pushed against the boat, rocking it. The familiarity of the water’s repetitive movements was comforting and soothed my tears. One, two, I counted. One, two, one, two…
I was on a boat like this one, but much larger. We were near the Gulf of Mexico, observing the North Atlantic blue whales. Tilly was on the phone, my mother listening to my every word over her shoulder. Tilly asked me how much longer I would be gone. “Not long,” I lied, walking towards the navigation room and the research team who knew me better than my daughter. Suddenly, Tilly appeared before me. Blood streamed down her nose, her face flushed, her eyes hateful and angry.
“You left me!” she screamed.
I jerk up with a start. The ocean had lulled me to sleep. My body was sweating profusely. I lay on the bunk panting for a few minutes. Silent tears streamed down my face. The two greatest loves of my life were whales and Tilly. I knew that. But now, I feared that I loved one too much and the other, not enough. Tilly was always waiting for me to come home from my expeditions. And, when she became sick she could finally stop waiting. My poor baby, I thought, I’m sorry.
Once I calmed down, I returned to the top deck and stared over the railing out at the ocean. The boat glided across the tranquil water. It was closer now to Victory so I could see her clearly. Her movements were still graceful as she sank into the ocean and rose back up for air. But she swam slowly, and I noticed she came up for air less and less frequently.
Hours passed. Victory and I were alone with the ocean. And Tilly, Tilly was always with me. The sky erupted into red and orange. The sea mirrored the blinding light exuded from the setting sun. I glanced at my watch, nervous about the time since Victory last surfaced. I feared she was gone, but then, she somersaulted into the air. The movement was slow, and my boat had nearly outraced her. I knew it was for the last time. I stared at Victory, and she stared back.
“Victory,” I whispered. My cheeks were wet. I wiped my hands against them as Victory sank into the ocean, slowly descending to the sea’s bed.
I retrieved the urn from the black duffel bag that had followed me from Auckland to Ushuaia and across the Drake passage. As I cradled it in my arms, tears streamed down my cheeks. The evening air brushed against my face. The sky morphed into hues of purple and pink and I could see the sliver of the silver moon in the distance. My hand trembled as I unscrewed the lid. Steadying my ragged breathing, I tipped the urn over the railing. I watched the ashes float like fairy dust dancing across the aqua sea. The water glittered, and I smiled.
The ocean was an untamable beast. The waves swelled up and up, climbing higher and higher, like mountain peaks. The foamy cerulean water lashed against the side of the boat, spraying cold water onto the deck. I gritted my teeth and clutched desperately at the helm.
Nothing ever quite signalled home as much as its smell did. Big, viscous inhale in the backyard taking in that thick fermentation of soil and rot and with its layers of time and memory. So much depth and flavour in those tangent wafts coalescing around her, so much so that she could envision plunging down, forcing her hands into the soft dirt below and feeling the life move within. Tiny mites and insects crawling, digging, unearthing. No room for minimalism here when every movement was a desperate act for another moment of life. Everywhere, everyone was falling on top of one another, bodies on bodies and moisture and fluids and mucus combining and sticking so that she could feel it against her skin and tongue. She’d almost call it sweet, but really it’s just childhood creeping up again as it always does.
But there was a man with her today. Golden man, she thought as she watched him wash his hands under the hose hung to the fence. How to try and explain to him that the backyard in front of them, the old chicken coop and the sagging scribbly bark in the corner, was so dense with life? Layers on layers of life. Under the hose there, a hand’s width from where he stood, there once was a rabbit hutch. The rabbit inside it had low ears and brown fur that got mangy as he got older.
She wanted to tell the man about the rabbit. Not even for the rabbit’s sake. (Was it for hers?) To make him understand that there used to be more here.
Her Dad had taken him into the shed earlier. She’d told her Dad the man did engineering at uni; that’s how they met. Dad had nodded with that look of his. It wasn’t hard to know what that meant, even if the meaning was just ambiguous. He might have been impressed or dismissive; she still didn’t know.
He didn’t tell her anything Dad had said to him in the shed, though she wanted to know. Wouldn’t put it beyond Dad to give a “talk”, though likely they’d just tooled around. Dad might have shown him his drawings to add a toilet and shower out the back of the house.
How to tell him that Dad never used to be like that, or at least that’s not the man she grew up knowing? He was the one holding the hose at the top of the slip-and-slide. He was the one who got down on his knees with a broom to scare out the snake from under the chicken coop. He’d never been serious or considerate in that way, at least.
“There used to be a mulberry tree on the neighbour’s side of the fence there,” she said to the man. Sunlight caught in his hair, and it reminded her of hay. He finished hooking the hose back onto the fence and looked up even though there was nothing there. “That was when there weren’t any apartments on the other side of the road, either.”
“Where’d it go?” He asked.
“I think it got some kind of rot,” she said. “People always used to complain because when it fully fruited, all the berries would stain the path and turn into this weird slushy mix with the leaves. I think someone slipped off their bike there because of it.”
“Did you ever use the berries?”
“We tried to make a tart out of them once, but neither Mum nor Dad are bakers, really. Mum made a jam out of them one year, I think. But usually, we just used to collect a few when we’d get the eggs and eat them on the way back up to the house.”
“That sounds nice,” he said.
“At the farmers market in the park one time a farmer gave me a bag of oranges because I knew what a mulberry was. I don’t think it was even a competition or anything.”
But she had to say it to the farmer then before he could even speak more about the free samples of his produce. Because just from the rich black colour of it, the size of it in his thick, leathery hands, she’d known exactly what it was. It had tasted the same as always. The seeds had gotten stuck in her teeth, as always.
“Hm.” Golden man said, looking back up to the house, to the scribbly gum.
She didn’t know why there was so much more to tell him. Why she had remembered it all now. Standing barefoot in the shade, everything was as it always was, and here he was, something new.
Here was where she had grown. Here was where she had learnt what it was to be alive. What it was to grieve, to rage. There, she’d pretended not to listen to her Mum’s conversations on the phone as they’d hung out the washing. There, the neighbour’s brother had taught her how to know when corn was just ready to come off from how rigid the husk was. Peeling back those fibres, peeling back leaves of the banana plants at the back of the house, and there was the clutch of eggs laid by the rogue chicken which had rotted months ago. The stink had been unbearable when she and her cousins had thrown them at the back fence just to see what would happen.
Because she wanted him to know her. Because she wanted to be known, not just for that exterior that he had come to see in the brick walls of their residential building.
She wanted to be seen, and she wanted to be understood in this place.
Nothing ever quite signalled home as much as its smell did. Big, viscous inhale in the backyard taking in that thick fermentation of soil and rot and with its layers of time and memory.
I want to see a tree.
They say that trees used to grow everywhere, and they would sprout from the ground with green leaves and they would die each year and come back to life and they would crack and worm their way through concrete. That trees owned the land where cities now stand and where skyscrapers and malls now stretch endlessly. I do not believe them.
But, all the same, I want to see a tree.
There was a woman once. Someone important to me, but I do not know who. When I was young, the sky seemed far away and the lights did not hurt my eyes. She would talk about trees. Always in the plural, but they grew one at a time, I’m told. With her hungry face and soft eyes, she would tell me about their hard skin, wrinkled and cracked but whole, and I would ask if they looked like her wrinkles which had dust in them, and she answered yes. Because all living things are connected and trees are old and although she was not old, she was near the end and her body knew it. I did not believe her then and I don’t now. The wolf does not resemble the sheep, after all. I cannot remember who she was.
Stepping into an oily puddle that splashes and stains my sodden pants, I think about this idea of connection. I do not really believe in it, because the chains between things are made and built, forged by humans, and I do not understand this idea of a tree that grows without a fight. The concrete underfoot only grows if us humans make it. The sickly-sweet smell of petrol and smoke comes from the cars we build. The building that looms over me does not look like me — although maybe we are both grey, with scars and holes — but it too only grows when a hand works it. And for us to grow, it is always a fight, a struggle; I cannot believe this tree rises up without pulling something else down. I do not think about this for long. I am tired and hungry and tired again. So very tired.
This morning, the water of the shower dribbled over my face and although I stood there and could feel my heartbeat through my ribcage, which rattled like train tracks, I could not open my eyes again and I could not tell up from down. Stumbling back, my mind was alert and thinking, but my body simply could not. In the end, I had to turn the water to an icy cold and pull my eyelids up. It might have been yesterday.
However, I cannot be tired now because I walk the street and neon lights shine down on me and even when I blink the world is still bright. I can tell that my body is failing – I am wrinkled and grey like the woman and the skin of trees, and I am young too. My body’s usual smell of dust has been replaced with the odour of rotting fruit, my armpits are sickly sweet, and I fear that I attract flies. I need food. That is something I can understand; it is a simple thought of input and output. Maybe it is chartable. Maybe if I were smarter, I could think of a formula to describe it.
I have tucked a lump of knobbly bread under my coat, and it is raining. The bread I stole at work. It is half-eaten because whoever works in the booth next to me did not think I would hear them nibbling at it like a mouse. It has sat on the only table in my apartment and I have whittled away at it each day. Its brown crust nearly shone in the dull, greyed plastic of my apartment and under the single overhead light I have quietly scraped off any mould that grew. Today, I am too hungry and I have caved, I cannot make it through the day without something.
Trees ate rain from the ground like dogs eat trash, but they sucked it up like a straw. Looking at the puddles of water on the pavement, with their rainbow sheens and wavery imitations of the buildings above and my face, small in the corner, I cannot imagine drinking that.
As I descend into the subway and feel its stale breath wash over me, I wonder how much a tree now costs. Everything can be bought, and everything is sold somewhere, so a market for trees must exist. Whatever it costs, I know I could not afford it. I know I should be working hard, but I am tired now on the train to work and I will be tired at work and exhausted on the train home from work. My desire to see a tree is not my desire to purchase one, it is something more. I do not know what.
Load-shedding means the train starts in darkness. We bump and jostle as we file on and I guard my bread jealously. Its crust is hard and stale and my shirt thin, so I feel it grate against my skin as I am pushed and squeezed and shoved and at one point pulled, until I end up pressed against the window. The wheels scream and wail and I think maybe the train will not start, but it does, and we slide forward.
The darkness and warmth are comforting; maybe this is how a seed felt in the soil. If that woman was right, maybe it would have been like this, acutely aware of other things around it, but yet unseeing. I am not unseeing though, because in the darkness cigarettes glow faintly here and there, flickering an orange light onto the stubbled and dirty chins of their owners. Their dry smoke washes over me, and I inhale them. Maybe there is a cigarette forgotten in my pocket. I do not know, and I cannot check because I am clutching my bread without trying to look like I am, and if I move my hands, my bread will fall, and everyone will know, and I already cannot move, let alone fight for my bread. Instead, I lean forward and breathe deeply whenever the nearest smoker exhales. Too many of us do this, and so no one gets any and we just bump heads.
I am not sure why I want to see a tree. I like the idea of roots in the ground, drinking water and pushing forth. I wonder if trees ever fought each other, if their roots ever brushed up against each other and if, like dogs, did they bite and tear at each other? They say trees are harmonious creatures, peaceful beings, but I do not know about that. Everything struggles to survive, so everything must fight to survive.
When our train launches out of the tunnel, I am blinded by the sunlight. It is bright and orange and its rays are perfectly parallel, and for a moment I panic, not sure if it is morning or afternoon. It blazes like fire, wobbling in the smog, but its heat cannot pierce the clouds and the glass and so it is just a cleansing light, with no warmth. I stare forward because just as soon as we are out in the day we are back in the safety of the tunnel, hurtling along in darkness.
The station is a forest of people, and I am struck by how alike they all are this morning. With skin and ashy hair and mute clothes. And that same stench of rats and mould in the corners of our clothes. Everyone here lives in a similar-sized apartment, and I wonder what actual difference there is in the work we do.
Someone pushes me and I trip forward. My shoes are wet and slick with oil and my face stings when it smashes rudely into the concrete. But I do not care because the concrete is cold and almost soft compared to my bone, and I am watching the bread roll along, curving across the perfectly flat ground.
I reach out for it and someone steps onto my hand, cracking it but not breaking it. Soon, I can feel several bodies on top of me, pushing me further and further into the ground. I am cocooned and warm beneath my colleagues but each of my bones is being crushed. The bread is brown and the world is grey but we can all spot food from a mile away.
Everyone scrambles now and the platform shakes, from the ruckus or a train I do not know. I try to explain to people that it is my bread, that I bought it this morning because I am so tired and I must eat, but they cannot hear me. They shove and jostle and swear and tear at each other and the concrete is so cold and smooth. The weight above me lifts off and then I am one of the many, in the fray, shoving and jostling and swearing and tearing just like everyone else. I forget that it is my bread, because it is bread and that is what matters.
A hand grabs my collar and pulls me back. Maybe they did not mean it, but I am so light and slippery that I slide backwards, backwards onto the tracks which are only a foot beneath the platform. Backwards onto the gravel. Backwards with my hands empty, my skull hits the rusted metal railing that does not ding, but thuds gently and then becomes quite wet. It is warm and reminds me of the shower. I can smell the wet metal and not even my hunger keeps me awake now.
I will never see a tree, and I am too tired to dream of one now. More than tired, simply fading away, crumb by crumb, like dirt on skin, washed away and purified into nothing. But I still do not understand why the rain would fall onto the trees, I do not understand why it would give like that. It does not matter; the trains scream for me, and I am falling asleep.
They say that trees used to grow everywhere, and they would sprout from the ground with green leaves and they would die each year and come back to life and they would crack and worm their way through concrete. I do not believe them.
I can’t remember exactly when the air shifted in springtime. Along with the pollen and the warmth, came a new force to be reckoned with.
As the days crept by, it had become more of a distressing terror, rather than a simple nuisance. I had seen it from afar, watching it terrorise innocent passers-by with such an innate predator-like might. It hissed out its first warning, and after it swore and abused you, it was a free-for- all. You were lucky to heed the warning fast enough and get away or outrun the menacing tyrant.
Do not be fooled by its size — I’ve seen many big strong footy boys run away with absolute fear in their eyes. Fear wasn’t the only thing it imposed onto us, there was also sheer embarrassment. The humiliation of fleeing from a creature which you once saw as harmless. One can only take comfort in knowing countless others had fallen victim to these relentless attacks.
When did these power dynamics change? How did the human hunter turn into the hunted? Is it because we never took it seriously and then, all of a sudden, it attacked when we least expected? Why did one of us not fight back?
It’s almost comical how much power this one being holds over us, all because we were scared. Our species has become pathetically fearful, and this creature has used fear as its tool — the more we submitted, the more power it gained. At times I wondered if it could smell fear like a bloodhound, striking us when we were at our most vulnerable. At its core, its power was in its control. If we saw it in our pathway, we moved to the other side. It was a fierce protector of its territory and family, and that’s where the tragedy lies — it had threatened, tormented and tyrannised us, all to protect what originally belonged to them.
Those empty beady black eyes, that seemed to stare into the very soul of those who dared to look upon it, must hold some regret. But alas none! Its wings bent and twisted, with razor-sharp edges that glinted menacingly in the light, ready to pounce. Its gnarly webbed feet and the nightmarish fusion of beak and skull could make you recoil in horror, transfixed by the undeniably primal power of the one and only ANU duck.
I stand here in solidarity, writing to all those who have fallen at the hands of the ANU duck. We will not stand for their vicious cycle of oppression this year around. Please call 1800-anuduck-support to learn more about these feathered fiends.
Kneel with me, smell here: dirt turned red from white.
Look up at the open canopy, shadows
You made for us. It’s the hellfire of night
Where the ouroboros ends and rage grows.
I inherited this anger chest-to-chest with my mother,
As we watched the hillside, the eagles, burn–
Listening to the cries of ancestors
Holding hot leaden breath, waiting our turn.
Call me an animal? I’ll grow canines.
Didn’t your forefathers tell you, warn you:
Don’t bring a dog leash to a genocide.
I want to hollow out your chest, fill you
With the scorching ash of my matriarchs–
Them ones you insist you left in the past.
I often hear Western scholars preach about the ouroboros, without knowing how it feels to lose a beginning. Black Summer is the story of the displacement of my family. At 16, I wanted nothing more than to see somebody else suffer for what happened to us. I wished that the boiling force inside me — that one everybody kept calling ‘teenage angst’ — could cheat time and blow apart the hull of the first ship to touch these shores. These days, my matriarchs tell me how proud they are, that I choose to unleash my rage one day at a time.
Woroni operates on the stolen land of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri lands. This land always was, and always will be, Aboriginal land. We are striving to do better for future reconciliation.