The Phoenix the Dragon and the Salamander

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His hut was built in a cleft of the mountain between the trees and the lava flow, where the hot springs steam and hiss, and mud forms a thin dry crust over the boiling, melted earth. His neighbours were the phoenix, the dragon and the salamander. His name was Fire, pronounced, in his tongue, like the flickering roar of a wall of flames. There is no sound like that in our speech anymore. Only the ancients would remember, and he was the last. He was human, though; an ancestor, in fact, of mine. 

When he was young and his blood was hot, Fire left his village with the plan of doing what no-one else had done. He intended to live alone on the slopes of a volcano and to live up to his name by learning the secrets of the inferno. He spent the Summer building a hut out of stone, chosen so that he would not damage the walls once he learned to self-combust. The roof, unfortunately, had to be wood, but he reasoned that he could remove it when the time came. 

First he needed to build his heat tolerance, and he planned to do this by swimming in hot pools. It was easy to float in the mineral rich water; the difficult part was convincing his skin not to burn. Weeks of scalding left him stiff and in pain, but he persisted, helped by the snow that piled in drifts where the ground had cooled; when he couldn’t stand the heat anymore, he would stumble and slide and roll in the soothing white while it burst into steam beneath him.  

On the day he met his neighbours, Fire had started with the cooler water, the yellow pool and then the purple. Now, he was inching himself carefully down into the hottest orange pool, the one with the rounded boulders at its edge. As he stared into space, trying to ignore the signals from his body that told him he was burning, a large shadow under the water caught his eye. He paused half in and half out and watched until eventually a head broke the surface. The creature’s eyes were hooded and intelligent, its face-scales fine as sequins, its lashes tiny beads. When it spoke to him in the ancient language he was not surprised.  

‘Your body is not built for the heat, young human. If you cook yourself, I will eat you.’ 

‘I am getting used to it, old salamander. I can do anything if I try hard enough.’ 

‘Getting used to it, or frying your flesh?’ 

‘If I persist, perhaps I will grow scales’ 

The salamander laughed at this, with a wheezing sound that echoed back from the rocks around them.  

‘Little human, you are killing yourself. I cannot live in snow. You cannot live in boiling water. Go home.’ 

I would like to say that Fire respected the wisdom of the salamander and took his advice, but he did not. After this very short conversation, he simply fainted and fell into the water, and that was how he met the dragon. 

The dragon and the salamander were not natural allies, but they moved in the same circles. That is to say, they both lived far from humans and close to fire. So it was that the dragon happened to be curled up on a slope above the pools, eves-dropping on the conversation with one lazy ear and one lazy eye while the rest of its senses were reserved for admiring its own smoke rings. It had crafted a magnificent cloud in the shape of a sailing ship when it heard the splash and turned its gaze to the pool just in time to see the salamander slide underneath the bright red human and lift him up to the surface. The dragon uncurled itself and loped down the slope, its long scaly tail making a sound like clinking coins as it moved over the rocks. It sniffed curiously at the man then scooped him out of the water and dumped him at the edge. 

‘Good morning old salamander. I see you have found a human.’ 

‘A stupid one. I probably should have let him boil.’ 

‘Nonetheless, they are interesting creatures, don’t you think? So stupid and yet so busy. Like ants.’ 

‘You can have him.’ 

‘I think I might.’ 

The dragon nosed at Fire until he got him into the right position, then picked him up gently with his mouth and loped down to the snowline, where he dumped him in the nearest drift. When the human woke, the dragon stepped back politely and crouched down to watch, but Fire simply cried out with pain and passed out again. That was how the phoenix got involved. 

The phoenix and the dragon were vague acquaintances. On the occasions when the dragon could be bothered to fly, they shared the sky together. They also knew, with a deep and ritual knowledge that did not need to be spoken, that when the phoenix died, the dragon would be there to light the fire through which she would be reborn. The phoenix had been flying over the pools when the salamander brought Fire to the surface and had wheeled back to watch the dragon collect him and bring him to the snow. She swooped down now and alighted on a snow-dusted shrub.  

‘Good morning, bright dragon. I see you have a human.’ 

‘Meh. I think it’s dead.’ 

‘With respect, I know a little something about death and burning. I think it is alive but hurt. Should I intervene?’ 

‘As you wish, fine phoenix, but this one is very stupid.’ 

‘Aren’t they all? But they achieve such magnificent things. It has a hut, did you know? Built all of trees and stones’ 

‘I did not know.’ 

‘Humans are so stupid and yet so busy. Like ants.’ 

‘That’s just what I said.’ 

‘It is a well-known fact.’ 

Throughout this conversation, my ancestor had been lying unconscious and naked in the snow. He could have died while they ruminated but luckily the dragon became bored. 

‘So, fine phoenix, should I carry him to this hut of his?’ 

The phoenix, with a graceful dip of her head, agreed. 

The first thing that Fire became aware of when he woke was the cold. It had never bothered him before, but now he was lying on the stone floor of his hut and his body was shocked and shivering. The next thing he felt was the presence of a beautiful bird, sitting on a rafter just under the ceiling. Her feathers glowed a gentle orange, like the first burst of sunlight at dawn, and her long tail swooped nearly to the floor, soft, gorgeous layers of red and gold. He was unable to speak so he gazed at her blurrily through the pain and the shivering and the chattering of his teeth, until his body calmed and he lay there still, at one with the freezing ground. Unlike the salamander, the phoenix could not pronounce the ancient language but only spoke with winged creatures, so she simply gazed back.  

I have heard it said that the tears of the phoenix can heal and that may well be true, but this phoenix did not cry. Instead, she glided around the room on her fragrant wings making a soothing breeze. She gathered plump green spears of aloe vera and squeezed the juice onto Fire’s burning skin. She brought fruit and berries from who knows where in her beak, and when the cold became too intense, she flew up to see the dragon and convinced it to come, grumbling, back down to the hut to light a fire. As the human became stronger and his skin less red, she harried and pecked at him until he stretched his tight scars, and called him outside to gather water so that he would move his limbs. And when, one day, all her work was done, she flew soundlessly out of his hut and to her perch in the forest where she slept for five whole days before coming back to check on him once again. 

The salamander, meanwhile, lurked under the water in delicious warm peace.  

The dragon caught and ate a goat. 

Fire had some time to think. He was no philosopher, my ancestor, although he became one of the ancients, and thoughts did not come easily to him. He had nobody to talk to, either, since the loquacious salamander would not leave his pool. But eventually, with nothing else to do, he began to ponder, and his thoughts circled round and round between the salamander and the phoenix, finally landing on three surprising conclusions just as, incidentally, the dragon swooped down on its second goat.  

He was not suited to the heat of mineral springs, lava, magma, or boiling mud.  

His name was just a name. 

And no amount of trying would change his skin.  

It took him a while to come to these conclusions and a while more to heal, but when he had, he packed up his meagre belongings, barricaded the door of his hut with a large boulder, and strode back down the mountain without so much as a thank you or a backward glance. He would learn to live as other humans lived, and he would do it the best. The phoenix watched him leave and then followed him from high above the clouds, curious to see the results of her work. 

And so Fire became a farmer, and later a father and then eventually an ancestor, one of the ancients. He worked hard but was not especially brilliant. His children and his grandchildren and his great grandchildren grew and changed and learned and forgot. Some of them did what no-one else had done and some of them did ordinary things in their own unique ways. Time passed.  

The phoenix died and was reborn many times.  

The dragon blew smoke rings through the centuries until it became weary, then settled down to become stone again.  

The salamander, immortal, lives in his warm pool still. It was he who told me this story. 

Camo Man

Camo Man

He lurked. He slouched. He was self-conscious walking alone. The full camo gear that, on another man, would indicate soldier, on him suggested shiftiness. He had run-ins of the ‘What you lookin’ at?’ variety and although his arms were skinny, his fists were like sharp little walnuts, so he mostly held his own. Only his mother called him Curtis. 

The local police, who knew him as That Little Fucker, had their eyes on him. Nothing big. Petty thieving, disorder, driving unlicensed vehicles, some dodgy known associates. Being a bit of a dickhead. He hung out with the crowd at the back of the Mall, near the skips where the TAFE students came out to smoke under the fire escape. He wasn’t one of the regulars with the nicked shopping trolleys, but he was there often enough on the edges. Pretty quiet unless someone picked on him then he’d go ballistic. He had a girl hanging off him once who looked underage, but it seemed like she’d got over him without any extra help. They were only seen together a couple of times before she pissed off and went back to the gang of teenagers flocking and screeching round the bus mall like cockatoos, performing a drama in multiple acts for the waiting passengers.  

He worked here and there, and he never claimed benefits because Centrelink gave him the shits. When he had cash, he spent it and when he was broke, he was broke, simple as that. He wasn’t above blagging a ciggie when he needed to because he spent a whole pay on smokes once and handed them out like fucking royalty. He had no future plans. He liked to think he had a few kids scattered about but nobody ever approached him for child support, and he wasn’t sure he was the dad type anyway. He never had a house and he had no clue how to go about getting one. He stayed with friends or his mum or, worse came to worse, slept on the back seat of his beat-up Ford Laser. He liked the idea of a dog. 

When he bought the lottery ticket he’d just got paid and he was in a good mood. The newsagents was on the way to the bottle-o near Woollies and he thought fuck it why not. For a laugh. So he did. He allowed himself a moment of ‘Wouldn’t it be nice’ on the way out. If he was a millionaire on the weekend, he thought, he’d go to Queensland and lie next to a pool as per the poster and he’d buy a shitload of booze and a fucking massive car. The chicks in bikinis seemed to come as part of the prize so he’d have a few of them as well. Later that night, sentimental drunk with his mates after a big spend at the bottle shop, he decided he’d take them all to live with him near the pool with the bikini chicks cause that’s what mates DO and he loved them all. Loved the fucking lot of them. 

It wasn’t until a week later when he updated the credit on his phone that he saw the missed calls from an unknown number. Maybe work? When the National Lottery answered and told him he’d won $20 million he told them to fuck off.  But then he rang back in case. Turned out it was true. The money flooded his bank account. He agreed to be interviewed. He was a fucking celebrity. Shit. 

He was suddenly popular. Seemed every single person he had ever met was knocking at his mum’s door, and most of them had 5-year-old cousins with leukemia. He bought stuff for everyone. Not just the drinks tab. People asked for cars. Debts to be paid off.  Everybody loved him. He bought his mum a houseful of furniture from Harvey Norman and a TV that took up half the wall. The bank manager called and offered her congratulations and some free sessions with a financial advisor, but it sounded too much like Centrelink, so he never rocked up. He was knackered. Also pissed off. Nobody was normal anymore. His mates talked about him behind his back. People resented him. Even the police were ignoring him on the street. He felt fucking used.  

So, he put on his camo gear one day and disappeared. Just fucked right off on a bus to Devonport with his swag and nobody’s seen him since. There was a rumour about foul play and one about suicide (pressure got too much) but nothing came of them.  

There’s a bloke on the Gold Coast, though, who slouches about in camo gear and thongs. The police know him as That Little Fucker because he has that look about him. Nothing major. Drunk and disorderly. A bit of a dickhead. Lives in a massive apartment with a pool that he obviously can’t afford. A magnet for women with skimpy bikinis and low self-esteem. They have their eyes on him. There’s bound to be a story there somewhere. 

Weightless

‘I want to show you how it feels to be weightless. Not light, weightless. Can you imagine it? Nothing dragging, nothing pulling, nothing carried. Your bones rearranging themselves into their natural shapes. Your feet free to wriggle and stretch without being crushed between your body and the earth. Your arms floating at rest, like wings. Imagine. You have to move differently, like you do on water, or snow. And breathe? Effortless. The air just wanders in and out of your body. Let me show you.’ 

How could I not be enthralled by her? She was astonishing and I was not. She was bright and vivid and she moved like poetry and when she entered a room, all the people in it became more alert, more interesting, more intense. Where others merely spoke, she held court, blonde hair shining like a golden crown. I watched from a distance. She was diamond and I was dolorite. She was a water sign and I was all, all, earth. I was steady, though, and even through my blind adoration, I could see that she needed steady. Not just needed. Longed for. We longed for each other. It was the sharpest of miracles that we met. Let me show you how it feels – the thing we said most, not always with words.  

The day we talked about weightlessness we had been walking together under Autumn trees. It was crisp and sunny, with blue sky and red and yellow leaves. Nothing was dead yet, only changing. We were dazzled by abundance. Blackberries. Acorns. Ideas. We moved from thought to thought like a murmuration of starlings changing shape, but, unusually for her, she kept wheeling back to this one.  

We had never taken drugs together. I came from a long line of addicts (went too far) on one side and Seventh Day Adventists (too scared to try) on the other. Caught between two currents, but the take home message was the same. Say no. And yet. Somehow her face presented a compelling argument for yes. Show me. Show me how it feels. The trees rustled, upper branches swaying with delight. A flurry of leaves drifted down, red and gold. I caught one and she put it in my hair, with the lightest of touches. Show me.  

That afternoon we sat on her futon near the window, in a generous square of honeyed light. The familiar view of her clothes on the floor, her pictures on the wall, the drift of leaves she had brought inside to denote the season. I was nervous. Crowds of ancestors were making a din somewhere around the region of my stomach. ‘Don’t do it! You’ll see horrors! You’ll see wonders! You’ll be traumatised! Transfixed!’ The mixed messages were worse than the noise. I ignored them and looked at her instead. She seemed bemused. 

‘You OK?’ 

‘Absolutely. Fine.’ 

‘We don’t have to do this’ 

‘No, I want to. When are the others coming?’ 

‘It’s just us.’ 

‘But who’s going to …?’ 

I had assumed there would be someone looking after us. I don’t know why. In case there was a fire? In case someone came to snatch our bodies while we were astral travelling? I was an idiot. I shut up.   

‘You sure you’re OK?’ 

I was sure. They were pills, cutely shaped like rockets. I got it. We were space travelling. Boom boom. Three – two – one – on the tongue. She grabbed my hand.  

We were weightless. Not light, weightless. Imagine. Thoughts drifted in and out of my head like air. My arms floated wide. She was weightless beside me as we spun and wheeled in space. When at last gravity reeled us in, my body had been rearranged. The moon noticed it from behind the trees. The streetlamp winked. We lay next to each other on her futon like matching starfish sinking into sand.  

‘So?’  

‘I liked it.’ 

I stayed with her that night, and my new body made new shapes around hers. The next day, newly vertical, I felt my joints loosen as I stood. She sat up in bed and stretched to touch her toes. I leaned down casually and touched mine. That was new too. She turned on some music. My body sucked it up like a milkshake and started to dance. I strutted, I popped, I pirouetted and jived. She sat and hugged her knees, laughing with amazement. I was elastic, I was rubber, I was rhythm itself. My bones had rearranged themselves as promised. My feet remembered what it was like to be released from the earth.  

‘If this is what happens, we should do it again.’ 

‘No need.’ 

We went dancing. I had thought she moved like poetry but together we were more. We were song cycles, we were sagas, we were baroque and punk and soul. People moved out of the way to stare at us and then they moved with us, and then the whole dance floor was our music and when the beat dropped we were ground zero, the epicentre of the gyrating vibrating exhilarating world. And afterwards we went home and did it all again, just the two of us turning and turning in a widening gyre but never losing sight because we were both tether and wings. We were cloud-mist, muscle, feathers, air. 

She wanted to try more pills, but I was cautious. The grumbling of my ancestors had coalesced into a new, specific warning. What if I lost my new body and found my old?  So we continued as we were, dancing together through the cold days and the dark. It became a routine. Our ‘thing’ and then, gradually, my thing. She enjoyed it, she said, but not every night. She needed space for other experiences. Life was short. The world was vast. All of that.  

All of that. 

I made new friends, dancing. I grew popular. When I walked into a room, people became more alert, more interesting, more intense. My body spoke in a way my mouth never had. It held court. I was astonishing. I sparkled. I saw her less. We were both busy. She was trying new things. When we met up, less and less frequently, she told me about them, while my feet twitched in their dancing shoes.  

Let me tell you how it feels to lose yourself. It feels weightless, un-tethered and free. And then it feels weightless, disconnected, adrift. And then it feels like looking back at earth from space, with no idea how to close the vastness of distance between where you are and where you want to be. I woke up one morning alone and I wanted to tell her how it felt. She was somewhere else.  

It was the sharpest of miracles that we had met. We had longed for each other. I called her and our voices sounded strange. Strained. Estranged. I needed her to be steady because I was not. Let me tell you, I said in a small voice, how it feels to lose the other half of yourself. But she said she already knew. 

That day we took a walk together under Springtime trees. Newborn leaves unfurled tenderly above us, in fresh naked green. Pollen drifted down like dust. We were dazzled by newness, moving carefully from thought to thought like stepping on stones across a clear cold stream. We were heavy, we were surefooted, we were diamonds and pollen and sunshine.  

One day, if you’re lucky, you’ll know how it feels. 

The walk

The rain was relentless. They walked in it all day, from the soft green fern glades dripping with leeches to the chilly wind of the button grass plain, to the small stand of gum trees where they huddled to eat their lunch. The trunks were shining wet, striped like humbugs in rich browns and dull silver. A creek had sprung up over the path. Tunnel-visioned under the hoods of their jackets, they peered out at the trembling leaves, the runnels and rills at their feet. A warm drink would have been nice, but the stove was right at the bottom of the dry inside of a pack, so instead they chewed on their muesli bars in damp silence. They were wary of stopping for too long.  

Tomas and Lina, famous for their stoically good cheer, read the mood of the group and kept quiet, but Julie complained bitterly. She had been keeping up a steady mutter of discontent all day, mainly to her husband Craig. Australia was supposed to be hot. There was no Boots the Chemist. The walk was too far. She had sacrificed a whole two years’ worth of holidays for this trip and nobody appreciated or cared. Craig had pushed on, a pained look on his face, Julie’s words adding to the torrents. Now that the group had stopped, her complaints poured forth in a whining, continuous stream. Ingrid wished she had never invited the two of them. It was a duty invitation, made for a friend of her mother’s. She sat down on a wet rock, leaning her back against another. The cold of it seeped through her raincoat. Her legs stretched out in front of her in their soaked thermals. Paul came and sat beside her. They would be sharing a tent tonight. She had had to muster up a certain amount of courage to agree to this. The logic of a lighter pack was irrefutable but the intimacy of it challenged her. Even if he was a friend. Even if camping had different rules. Even if. Lina hoisted her pack onto her back again: ‘So, let’s go?’ They stirred themselves, legs stiffened even in that short time, and began the long ascent.  

Several wet hours later, Tomas started to haul himself up the rock face ahead of her. It was a false peak; Ingrid knew that when they reached the top there would be another, taller peak behind, and after that a long, exposed walk across the saddle. She looked back and down. Julie and Craig had fallen behind in the distance, trudging as if already exhausted. Paul had stayed back to encourage them. She felt a tight knot of anxiety. Although the rain had lightened to a drizzle, the clouds were lower and darker than before, presaging nightfall. She looked from the sky to her watch and back to the sky. It was OK, she told herself, they still had two hours before sunset, and longer before complete dark. It was OK. She turned and started up again, wedging her boots stiffly into cracks as she dragged herself up the slippery rocks. When she reached the top, Tomas was waiting for her, pointing.  

For a glorious moment, the clouds were swept away and the golden light of summer broke through, arranging the landscape before them into a paradise of green and grey, vistas opening to vistas, plains folding into hills, silver tarns shining all the way to the far blue horizon, and, through an opening in a mountain range, the distant glint of the sea. But he wasn’t pointing at that. Just off the path, at the top of a steep drop, was a pack.    

In another spot, say at the beginning of a side trip, or another time, say at noon on a sunny day, who would even notice? But it was neither a side trip nor a sunny day. They stared at it for a moment then made their way over to investigate. It was pale blue with a pretty knotted tie on one of the zips. It was wet, but no wetter than theirs. Carefully, fearing the worst, they each lay down and peered over at the drop below, scanning for a human shape. Nothing. They called out. No sound came back to them but the breeze and then, worried, one of their own party. They sat there then, not sure what to do, except to wait for the others to catch up. The day grew older, the shadows longer, the knot in Ingrid’s stomach tighter. If someone was out there in this weather without a pack, injured, or lost, they may not survive the night. But then again, if they started looking (and where would they even start), they would never get to their own camp before dark. No room for a tent here amongst the scoparia and the scree. With a rush of wind, as if to weigh in on the argument, the rain returned. Finally, the six of them gathered and then set off again, leaving the pack behind them. For the rest of the walk, Ingrid fancied that she heard someone calling out for help, but every time it was a bird, or Paul whistling, or the squeak of branches rubbing in the wind. 

The next day dawned sunny and clear. They lingered in the camp, rubbing their feet, drying out the tents. There was some talk of going back to search for the lost walker but somehow it didn’t happen. Each person, privately, made their own excuses. They brewed tea. Four of them took daypacks to climb another peak. Three of them swam in a tarn. Two, staying in the camp to relax, felt they needed to guard the gear. That night they avoided talking. 

It was not until the following day, heading home in hot sunshine, that they acknowledged the pack again. Ingrid hoped that it would have gone but it was there exactly where they had left it. This time they spread out and looked as best they could for its owner, calling vigorously as if they had only just noticed, as if the walker had only just then stepped away. When, relieved, they found nothing, they decided to take a photograph and call it in to the police as soon as they were back within range. Ingrid fussed over her compass and Paul marked the precise location of the find solemnly on the map. The rest of the group bore witness as Lina opened the zips and looked for ID. There wasn’t any. Even Julie was quiet on the way home. 

*** 

That afternoon, in an office in Launceston, a young woman called Chloe received a bollocking from her boss. At least, that was how she described it, later, to her friends. She was sitting behind the desk at reception when he came up and leaned on the counter, causing her to drop her phone guiltily into an in-tray.  

‘Hey Chloe’ (he was so, like disrespectful),  

‘Do you remember that walker that got helicoptered out a couple of weeks ago?’  

Chloe kept her expression neutral. She was supposed to have done something about that.  

‘I think so?’ 

‘What happened with her pack?’  

Ah. There it was.  

‘I’m not sure, Larry.’  

‘I asked you to arrange for a ranger to go out and fetch it’ 

She hated talking to the rangers. They all looked the same and you could never get hold of one. 

‘And I asked you to put the word out to bushwalkers via social media’ 

‘I did! It’s on Facebook.’ 

‘And our website, and the Tas Police page?’ 

‘I think so’ 

‘And the rangers?’ 

‘I’ll get onto them. They probably forgot.’ 

‘Do it now, please. If I have one more call from a traumatised bushwalker, I’ll send you out there to get it yourself.’ 

He wouldn’t, would he? She looked out of the window. It was pissing down. She picked up the phone. 

Kin

Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com

I was born in a sandy clearing in the middle of a kelp forest, where the light shone green from the wavy roof of the world all the way down to the floor below. The kelp was in constant motion, shifting and soothing, stroking and dancing. It is the first thing I saw. After the birth, my mother rested against a trunk, one arm hooked around it to hold her steady and the other arm cradling me. Her hair waved and swirled like the forest. The light shone through it. I remember.  

We would come back to the clearing, she and I, to gather seaweed and small fish, and to hide from seals. It was there that she taught me language, shaping my small hands with her own. Sometimes, when the light was deep blue and the weight of the world pressed down comfortingly upon us, we would sleep curled up together, resting in the sand that eddied and settled under our tails. We were always together, just the two of us. When I was older, I asked her if there were other people in the world, but she didn’t answer, just gave me that look she had, her hands clasped together in silence. Later I understood that it was grief, and I let it be. I imagined, though. I imagined a whole school of people. There would be small ones who would play games with me and never get tired; hide and seek amongst the rocks, catch-the-crab. There would be other adults, as well. My mother could talk to them and leave me to my own devices. I would be free to tease the octopus as much as I liked, and to work my tail faster and faster as I barrelled through the slow arcades of green light, stirring everything up with my energy and speed. But they were only fantasies. It was just the two of us, and we were always together. Always, until the day we weren’t. 

The day I woke alone, I waited for her to appear from behind a rock or to return with a fish for me, but she did not come. We had settled into a nook, close to a ledge where the seals lay around and barked at each other night and day. They were annoying but we chose the spot anyway because it led to a cave, where I liked to practise breathing outside the world. After some time waiting, I swam out tentatively and peered around. The seals seemed larger, the waves fiercer than they had before. I retreated like a hermit crab into my nook but presently I became curious again, and hungry. I dared myself to strike out alone. Perhaps I would catch a jellyfish. I had just mustered up my courage to launch out of the rocks when, with a flick of the tail, she appeared. She was flustered and flushed, and her hair had a life of its own. When she saw my desperate face, she flinched. She was sorry, she didn’t mean to stay so late. Stay where? She wouldn’t say. 

I took to sleuthing her. She would settle down with me and then, when she heard my relaxed breathing and saw me floating gently on the current, she would leave. I learned to feign sleep just long enough to feel her go, and to listen carefully with my eyes still closed to the disturbance in the water that told me which direction she was travelling, and how fast. Then, slow and sleek, I would slide after her, slipping seamlessly into the space she left behind. I never caught her.  I would return and close my eyes, and then she would return and close hers. We slept late on those days and woke when the light was yellow and high. 

Once, though, I found something amazing. We were in a shallow place in the world, where the roof was always close, and the ground was white and soft. There was nowhere to hide but we were as reckless as rays in those days, and we spun and twirled in the sparkling blue, flicking silver motes with our fins. In the shallowest, narrowest, part you can imagine, waves frothed and bubbled, obscuring the sand. Only the tiniest of fish lived there and they were so fast you could get beached just reaching for them. She warned me never to look above the roof, and never to chase the fish. There was danger everywhere. And yet there we stayed. After a few days, my curiosity mounted. I waited until she left and then, deliberately, I stuck my head up and through the roof of the world and I understood why she had warned me. The scent was intoxicating. Sun and salt and spray and some new, dry, soft, pink, smell I had never known before. I breathed and rolled and breathed and jumped and breathed and breathed. Then I saw the creatures. 

They were startlingly like people. Heads like us, arms like us, waists – but then no tail, just two more arms. I was entranced. She needn’t have worried about them seeing me; the creatures were absorbed in their own play. Some were riding the waves like dolphins, clinging to flat pieces of driftwood. Others were bouncing on their lower arms, noisy as seagulls. There were small ones and large ones. The smallest were carried by their parents. I was so moved to see them that I hung in place and stared, until one of them looked in my direction and I ducked my head and sped away. I understood, then, where my mother had been going. She was watching them like I was, foolish with longing, pretending they were our kin. I pretended too. 

For a season we watched and were never caught. We matched our sleep with theirs, missing out on moonlight hunting times to be alert in the yellow light. If we grew thinner, what did it matter? If we risked capture, we evaded it too. We never touched them and they never saw us, or so we told ourselves. Besides, our heads above the water looked no different from theirs.  

The child was our undoing. I found her on a rock, sitting alone on the deep side of an island where the kelp swished and danced all the way up to the surface and the rockpools held an abundance of crabs. She was staring into a pool, talking silently to herself with her hands. I had never seen a creature use language before. I approached amongst the kelp, holding on to keep myself steady. Her language was different from ours but I thought I could understand it. She was saying something to the crabs. ‘Come here. Don’t hide’. I had said the same to them when I was small. I ducked under and came up closer, propping myself on the edge of the rock so that I could be in the air like she was. When she saw me, she was not afraid; I had hidden my tail. I gestured to her and her face lit up. Maybe she was the only creature with language! How lonely she must be. My hands flew. There was so much to say. She laughed, moving her hands with speed like mine. We understood nothing from each other except that we understood everything. We slowed, pointing and gesturing and using our faces with deliberate care. She was here with her family. She had a mother – so did I! Another adult too. A little sibling. An animal with whiskers. I loved her sharply, with a tremor that rocked my whole body like a tide. We were kin.  

I had not seen the boat, until she drew attention to it. We were so absorbed in the discovery of each other. She made a boat with her hands and pointed. There it was. A small fishing vessel, so close it could catch me. I was such a fool. Any creature swimming could have seen my tail. She looked at my face, stricken by what she saw there. I looked into her eyes. Then, deliberately, I showed her who I was. I slid into the water, lifted my fin to the sunlight and sped as fast as I could, away into the deepest of the depths. I would never see her again. 

My mother found me in the clearing in the kelp forest. We had lost each other for days and yet I had not looked for her. I knew she would come to me. It was just the two of us, as it had always been. We clung together in the deep, where the weight of the world pressed down upon us, and the light shone green from the wavy roof of the world all the way down to the floor below.  

Eight Minutes to Passover 2020

Careless birds flock and call under the great clean sweep of sky 

Ignoring the Angel of Death as she glides silently, dark wings outstretched 

Not my Death. Not my Angel. There’s that apple tree I was talking about. 

Faaark off faaark off faaaark off  

Down below, our houses bear invisible marks  

There are dolphins in the Venice canals  

The wind in the trees is louder than traffic 

A pile of fallen leaves swirls and lifts and falls again as the Angel passes 

Remember when we rubbed up against each other 

Remember when we owned the sky 

Remember when 

The Angel hovers 

Apple

Apple

I met him on a bright day of hot sun and shivering shadows. We had been exploring, Adam and I, in the valley orchards where Lord had expressly forbidden us to go. It was my idea. As long as we were back in time for his evening visit, I reasoned that Lord would never find out. After all, who would tell? He only allowed one breeding pair per species in the Garden, we were the only species who could talk.  We set out, as was our habit, as soon as we woke, and reached the new orchard before the sun was even past the hills. It was surrounded by a wall made of mud, so we climbed the wall with much stubbing of fingers and scraping of naked skin. When we finally reached the top, we were disappointed to find trees just like all the others, laden with familiar fruit. But then we saw him – the gardener. He was tall and upright and tangled in some kind of covering. We had never seen clothes before. So strange! So new! We froze still, staring until he unwrapped himself in the heat of the day, like a snake shedding its skin, and then we stayed there, staring, until he put his skin back on, winding the cloth deftly around his body and fastening it at the waist. When at last he looked directly at us, we leapt down from the wall and ran all the way back. I think I heard laughter. 

The Snake was one of many gardeners but the only one who spoke to me.  

I was a child, and also not a child. It was a strange, in-between time; restless like spring, like wind on the water, like the itch of ants crawling on your skin. I was finicky and jumpy one minute and full of despair the next. Nothing familiar could satisfy me. Adam, my age and until recently my height, was suddenly despicable; a dull and irritating child following me around like a baby bird too fat for its stunted wings. I was desperate for something new. The Snake was new. Also forbidden. In other words, irresistible. 

The first day I went to the orchard alone I felt strange. We didn’t feel fear, Adam and I, because there was nothing to be afraid of in the Garden, but if I had felt it, I’d have said it was like fear. A fluttering, sickly feeling, cured only by running. I ran towards, not away. The Snake looked at me running and then he looked at me standing and then, still looking, he slowly and deliberately put out his hand and touched me with a rough, warm, finger.  

The second time I ran again, not because of fear but because my skin was already flushed for no reason. The Snake was hidden for a moment amongst the trees he was tending. I had never felt loss before, even for a second. It made me draw in my breath. He, coming out of the trees, heard my breath and saw my flushed skin and smiled. 

The third time, he offered me an apple. ‘Take it’, he said; ‘I dare you’. He was looking straight into my eyes and I was looking straight into his. They were brown and shining like a deep waterhole in the cool shade of a forest. 

That evening, when Lord pulled his coracle up on the beach, only Adam went to meet him. I was dreaming in my favourite tree, plucking leaves to fashion myself a second skin like his. The Snake had filled my mind so completely that his name spilled out every time I opened my mouth, and as Adam was the only person to talk to, I spilled it all out to him. I had brought him an apple as a gift, so I could talk about it some more. I am not proud, but that is how it was. 

Lord found me, of course. One look at my dreamy face and my languid limbs and he knew. I was no longer any use to him – not I and therefore not Adam either. I won’t repeat the things he said because he will never speak to us again. And we will never go back to the Garden. But I still have my love. He is growing me an apple tree. 

Smart

She identified as neurotypical, female (pronouns she, her) and very clearly white. On the topic of sexuality, she was less certain. On the whole she thought she may be asexual but there was that troubling feeling she sometimes got when the marker squeaked on her skin that made her wonder if, perhaps…? Very little else touched her. The eraser of course, soft but firm, and once or twice a semester an alcohol-soaked cloth that left her wet all over and slightly dizzy. Apart from that it was just the markers and occasionally the fleeting bump of an elbow or palm on its way to something else, leaving behind a smudge of warmth that glowed in her afterwards for hours.

Neither the eraser nor the cloth, luckily, left her completely clean. She was a palimpsest, a sponge, a Rosetta Stone. After all, had she not absorbed the intellectual residue of so many, many, many classes over the years, she would never have become conscious at all. In the long quiet evenings, she liked to ponder on her favourite topics, feeling the summaries engraved invisibly on her skin. Factorisation was a particular delight. Those neat lines of numbers; the delightful tickling curve of brackets; the joy of making the complicated simple, of finding patterns. She liked to move from the long to the short of it. Also, there was something about the way the maths teacher used her that was … satiating. He would cover her entirely, almost to the point of writing in her margins, so that by the end of the lesson she was dazed, exhausted and replete.

She knew she was conscious (I think therefore I am; Philosophy 101, Tuesday and Thursday afternoons at 2:00) and more than that, she knew she was smart. Little wonder then that when people started talking about the Smart Board, she assumed her secret was out and that she was about to be recognised and even used to her full potential.

It was not to be.

The Smart Board was installed on a Monday afternoon and the skip was emptied on Tuesday morning. Her last night on this earth, she felt the spin of the planet, heard the cold high music of the Milky Way. When the sun came up, pulled by birdsong, she was overwhelmed. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive – as Wordsworth once said on some dull overcast Wednesday morning in Spring – but to be here had been very heaven.

Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Pexels.com

Rose

On the morning of his wedding day, he woke to dawn light glowing pink and gold through narrow arched windows, diffracted by tiny panes of glass into rainbow patterns on the rugs, the furs, the stone floor. He rose, pulled on his boots and paced out to greet the day, holding up a silent finger to his lips as he passed the soldiers outside. Past the battlements, the turrets, and the great hall he strode, as the castle stirred into life around him. Before the sun had cleared the horizon, he had crossed the courtyard and reached the drawbridge, permanently open across a dry moat. He must see about getting the moat filled again and pulling the drawbridge up at night, now that the impenetrable forest of thorns had been penetrated. By him. 

Oh how the men joked about that. They were still euphoric, high as hawks on an updraft. They had done the thing that couldn’t be done. They had walked straight into a legend and taken it for their own. The naysayers had claimed that there was no kingdom past the forest, that it was all a story. Then, when the towers became visible, that it would be a ruin. Then, even then, on the day they stood at the threshold and gazed out a perfectly preserved landscape, glossy cows sleeping in meadows and neatly pruned trees frothy with apple blossom, they had said that the princess was sure to have died a hundred years ago and would be a mummified corpse high in the highest tower, skin shrunk tight against her delicate skull, vermin nesting in her hair. It was only when they stepped onto the dewy grass that they were silent. The spell that had stopped time shuddered through their bodies, lifting the hair on their arms like a cold breeze. They paid attention to their breath, and let the words fall away, walking silently through the sleeping fields, flanking him all the way to the base of the tower, where they gladly stopped so he could make the final ascent alone. 

Here he was alone again now, on a day ripe with promise. Midsummer. His wedding day. White mist was rising from damp hollows and steaming fields, forming a haze in the distance. Birdsong surrounded him on all sides, blasting out exuberantly from meadow, forest and sky. In the distance, acres of roses released their dying scent. They would have to be burned at some point, when the wood was dry enough. But what then? The kingdom was so innocent, so quaintly steeped in the past. Its subjects were not ready to meet the outside world. They had struggled even to accept him and his men until the queen, his soon-to-be mother in law, took him aside one day.  

‘Think of it from their point of view’, she advised him carefully.  

‘They didn’t know they were asleep. One minute they were going about their business and the next, an army appeared from 100 years in the future and surrounded them without ever coming through the gates.’  

He had noticed the courtesy of the word ‘their’, not ‘our’ and it had inclined him towards gentleness. She was right, also. He must woo them if they were to be his loyal subjects, not overwhelm them. The success of his future reign depended on it. He modified his language, becoming courtly, using the old words they used without smirking, showing due deference to the current king. He kept a close eye on his men and made sure they were doing the same. Nothing could stop them from making ribald jokes in their barracks at night, however. The acres-deep forest of rose trees had been christened the Chastity Belt. The tallest tower was now the Prince’s Massive Tower. There were multiple songs based on the rhyme of rose and hose.  

He squinted into the distance. His family would be arriving today. What would they make of all this? His father would be proud, he knew. A third son had done the impossible and gained a kingdom. His brothers would be both jealous and impressed. He could hear Theo now, casting doubts on the fertility of the bride (‘A hundred year old womb? I’m just saying, it’s a risk I wouldn’t take’). Arthur, nothing to prove, would be all manly pats on the back and galloping horses around the boundary. Sweet Johnathon would gravitate towards the women, talking herbs in the kitchen garden. Sweet Johnathon, for all his brothers’ scoffing, had more luck with the girls than any of them. Rumour had it that he already had three bastards by the time he was married and it didn’t stop there. Of course, they would bring their wives as well, and the little ones all dressed in their finery. He was childishly excited to see them, to make them proud. Look at what I have done! And soon, he hoped, he would have children too. Plenty. Assuming of course that the princess could conceive. 

The princess. She of the enchanted sleep. He felt a tremor of unease. He had told nobody the real story of that day in the tower. How he had entered with cautious reverence into the warm golden light of the room; how even the dust motes had glowed with magic. She had been sprawled on the bed like a child, her right arm flung out with unself-conscious abandon, her skirts rumpled, her skin plump and flushed with sleep. Her neck was as white and slender as a swan’s, her elegant clavicles outlined in soft shadow. As he approached, he had become aware of the swell of her breasts and felt an instant stab of desire. He imagined grasping her supple body, spending himself in the warm cleft between her thighs. It was not until he was above her that he realised her eyes were open, unseeing.  It unnerved him so that his kiss, after all the anticipation, was perfunctory and he turned abruptly away. Anyone watching would have said he was frightened.  

Perhaps he was still frightened. Today she would be his bride and yet there was a coldness between them, like a bank of river mist. It was merely maidenly reticence, everyone assured him; girlish modesty in the presence of her future lord. His concerns had not been eased, however. A hundred years in a tower at the centre of a powerful enchantment – who knows what effect that may have? Madness. A poisoned bloodline. A hostile womb. He shuddered, then set his face resolutely in the direction of the sunrise. He would not be swayed by doubt, like some common page. He would overcome all obstacles. He would cut through every forest of thorns. It was midsummer, the morning of his wedding day. His glorious future had begun. 

Requiem

Requiem

Four weeks after my father’s funeral, I return to the church to sing in a concert. I was introduced to Mozart’s requiem as a teenager and since then I have sung it on stage, to cassette tapes, to CDs, to Spotify, under my breath in a cathedral in Prague; on five different continents; in two different centuries; in fury, in frustration, in homesickness, in love, on road trips, at the gym, while vacuuming – never once for its intended purpose. Until now.

A requiem mass is the very last thing you can do for someone you love. It sounds dignified to pray for the repose of a soul but oh it is not, not if you mean it. In the midst of death, it’s a prayer for eternal life; the last of last chances just as the words ‘too late’ begin to insinuate themselves into the fabric of your heart. My faithlessness is irrelevant. Dad has lost his voice and the job of supplicant, for better or worse, has fallen to me. The matter of fact show-must-go-on musicians around me understand the circumstances and are both tactful and practical with their advice: ‘Don’t think about the words, just pretend you can’t speak Latin.’ (I can’t speak Latin). In truth, though, the words don’t matter. Music, not Latin, is the language we speak to God.

The orchestra plays a stately and dignified introduction and for a few bars it sounds as though this will be a civilised transaction, but then the upbeat catches like a sob in the throat and we begin. Over the course of an hour we plead, we beg, we flatter, we hammer with our closed fists on the gates of Heaven. Let him in. Let him in. Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy. This cannot be the end. Dad in a flimsy hospital gown, worrying about whether his life had come to anything. Salve me. Save him. Let him in. The music breaks through us like ocean swell, like gale force winds. Solvet saeclum in favilla. The world is dissolving into ashes. Let him in. Dad, teary and confused, understanding that he was going to die. It is falling apart under our feet. Let him in. Dad, praying when he forgot who he was. Supplicante parce, Deus. Listen. Listen. He has nothing. He is one tiny soul. Let him in. Rex tremendae majestasis. Let him in, you silent, uncaring, King of terrible majesty. You said you loved him and he believed you. He believed you for his whole life. Where are you now? Ne me perdas ilia die. Do not forsake him. Voca me cum benedictis. Look at him. Look at him. Call him with the blessed. Let him in.

All we have is time, and by the end of it our breath is used up, our arguments are exhausted, and I am stripped bare, sobbing like a child ‘but you promised’. You promised. Pie Jesu. Precious Jesus, please. Let him in. The final amen feels like resignation. I could not have tried any harder. The conductor is standing where his coffin was. God and I are no longer on speaking terms.

The applause sounds tinny and loud, the light garish through tall windows. Everything is transient. The configuration of people, the bowing, the dust motes, the settling of petals on the flowers in the soloists’ arms. I creep back to the present like a refugee. All we have is time. Time is all anyone has. Grant him eternity.