She stood in her kitchen in the low light of a winter morning, waiting for the kettle to finish. Outside, the world was waiting to be formed. River mist filled the valleys. The sleeping hills were still. Dawn crept, silently, towards the horizon. In her bare feet, she felt the cold of it entering her house, her body, her bones. Those who died today would never feel warmth again. How strange, to have reached the point of such forgetting. She leaned against the kitchen counter, waiting to shiver. The kettle was wheezing with the effort of pushing against the cold and the quiet. As she cupped her hands around its hot little body, her eye caught on the poster above it, with the quote from the Mary Oliver poem: ‘What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ It was written in large cursive letters in aqua colored ink, framed in a light, bland wood, suitable for everyone to see. The other line, she kept to herself; ‘Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?’
When she had been given her diagnosis, a whole new vocabulary had come with it; one of war and conflict. She was supposed to be battling. She was supposed to reject the possibility of defeat. She was supposed to be strong and brave and on some kind of strong, brave, battling, tragic, journey. But she was not brave enough, didn’t fight enough, was too equivocal, too sick, too distracted, too quiet, too still. Or perhaps the treatment just didn’t work. With three to five weeks left, she was planning her last day on earth. When the counsellor had suggested it, she had imagined a kind of summing up, like at the end of a workshop. She should be engaging in reflection right now, reminiscing, making meaning, drawing out themes. Listing important contributors to thank.
She gazed out of the window at the red mist, drifting. It was so quiet. Birds were huddled somewhere in flocks, feathers fluffed up, eyes closed, hard beaks tucked under soft wings. The mist was rising. She could skill see the bright prick of stars above it, but not for long. Slowly, slowly, the hard dark blue of the sky was melting into white. We are born, and spend our lives walking toward God. Or so they say. She poured hot water into her cup and wondered what it would be like to do nothing; no planning, no thanking, no last day. She would stand and watch the dawn, and then the sunset, and then another dawn. The world was pulled on strings of light. It reached, and stretched, and imagined itself into the future. She could hear it now, stirring in the silence. The great sweep of forest, the button-grass plains and tarns of ice. Out on the water, there would be patches of glowing silver, and grey sheets of sky falling into the sea, soft grey water to soft grey water. Whales would be swimming in the green depths. From her window she would see the start of it; the droplets on the wind, the bend of the eucalypts. The air that touched the air that touched the clouds that touched the sea. Her body amongst all the bodies on earth; the crowding, rushing clamor of them; the feathers, the scales, the fur, the skin; the old, the aging, the freshly born. Her senses reaching out to the world reaching out to them. Here, we are here, we are here. We are here.
My grandmother once told me that she was homesick for the past. It was before I was married; I didn’t even know what homesickness was. The past is like a place, she told me. There are people there that you love. Your body feels familiar, there. The air smells like home. No-one is missing and nothing is broken. There’s no grief in the past, only ease. The food tastes better and the sun is brighter on the water. Your skin is a perfect fit. I listened patiently because patience was a virtue, not because she made any kind of sense to me. If the past was a different place, then the elderly were a different species that wittered nonsense all day long and reached out to grasp you for no reason with their withered hands.
I know now, though. If I could make a wish and go anywhere at all, I would go there.
My wedding gown took 8 months to sew, in tiny stitches, laced through with gold thread. After the feast, my new husband and I slept in the guest chambers like strangers, and I rode out with him the next morning, my family all weeping and waving behind me, to my new home. I remember that I was sore, and shifted in the saddle, while his men nudged and laughed and cast glances at me and my maid, who rode between us like a shield and did nothing but blush. I was excited and determined and proud to be making my own way in the world but for the first week after we arrived, the strangeness made me dizzy; the salty food; the stickiness of the sea air; the astringent scent of the linen. The foreign territory of the male body. Then I was sick with it, and wept, and remembered what my grandmother had said. I only went back a handful of times; for my brother’s crowning, and much, much later, for the christening of his one and only child. For my sisters’ weddings. When my grandmother died.
If I went back to the past, I would see her again. Her chamber would be full of roses and the creak of her loom. I would walk out onto the grassy slope under the battlements and lie down on soft ground and watch the spinning of the sky. The clean air would smell of hay and wildflowers. There would be the soft thud of horse’s hooves, the distant murmur of wind in the trees, maybe a faint snatch of song. My brother would be there, loud and rosy-cheeked. I would eat baked potatoes with butter from gentle cows. My waist would be supple, my skin would be a perfect fit. Early in the morning, mist would rise from the river and coat the fields in lace.
But you can never go back. Instead, you walk along the beach with sticky wind tangling your hair, picking up round rocks one by one and throwing them at the sea. Some are porous and dark, and some are grey-blue and shot through with stubborn veins of white. Others are simple jet, flat and shining like a moonless night. I throw them all, one by one. The black ones skip. One for the messenger who came with the news. One for the curse on my brother’s child. One for the spindle, one for the castle, one for the rose trees locking them in. One for my family lost forever, and one – one more – for me.
Because you can never go back. And you can never go forward. And the cruelest trap of all is the trap of time.
Detective Johns arrived late to the scene. Evening had come and gone sometime during his last interrogation; he’d entered the dusty grey meeting room in daylight but when he walked out again, the streets were dark, and the sky was the colour of a fresh bruise. Another day over. How many did he have left? How many days did anyone have? He was 52 years old, a smoker, not as fit as he should be. He was balding and pallid. But people relied on him. That counted for something. He turned up his collar now, against the chilly wind coming straight and cold from the dark mountain. You got philosophical in this job. He aimed his car keys behind him and pressed the button. Beep beep. Locked. A friendly flash of light. He wished he had a cigarette.
The crime scene was lit up like a Christmas tree. No bystanders though. It was a quiet suburban street in a commuter suburb. Most people would still be on their way home, picking up the kids from after school care, fetching a BBQ chicken for dinner if they were running late. Unaware of the tragedy unfolding just next door. He could see his partner had already arrived. Good. She would have made a start. An attractive woman in her mid-forties, she was dressed in no-nonsense pants and a closely fitted blouse, her hair cut short to accentuate her smooth white neck and the boyish grace with which she leaned against the fence, hands in her pockets, watching him walk towards her. The thought occurred, not for the first time, that he would like to unbutton that neat blouse, but he knew better than to entertain such fantasies.
What happened here?’
‘What do you reckon?’
They looked down at the body. Female, average size, decapitated. Her head, or what was left of it, appeared to have been dragged to where it lay on the doorstep. Her entrails spread out from a gash in her stomach. Blood had soaked into the ground around her.
‘Looks pretty much exactly like the last two.’
‘I can see tooth marks. And look here – scratches. She was gripped and held with claws.’
‘That would have to be a pretty big animal.’
‘I’m guessing a big cat.’
Detective Johns glanced up and down the street.
‘Did anyone see anything?’
‘Nobody was home.’
‘Still at work.’
‘Let’s get rid of the body before they get back.’
‘Really, Bob, that’s your solution?’
‘Well, do you want to tell them their third fucking pet rabbit’s dead on our doorstep?’
‘Not a hope in hell, I did it last time.’
‘Any chance it wasn’t our cat?’
They glanced at each other.
‘Of course it was our cat. Who else disembowels animals around here?’
‘Fine. You sort out the body, I’ll clean the step before the kids get home.’
Late that night, Detective Johns stepped outside to have a smoke. Life was good. He’d unbuttoned her blouse after all. He leaned over the veranda railing. Mr Tibbs yowled from inside, scratching at the door.
Once upon a time, there was a little girl called Yoko Kinoko – Yoko because her father liked the name and Kinoko because her nose was a cute as a little button mushroom. Yoko lived in an apartment on that street near the temple. You know the one – it has a big red gateway leading onto a courtyard where you can burn incense in brass cauldrons full of sand. She liked to pop in on her way home from school to waft the smoke over her hair and clap her hands in front of the large Buddha statue that gazed out from scented indoor shade with a sleepy and ever so slightly bored expression on his venerable face.
One day, Yoko Kinoko was passing through the temple grounds when she heard a tiny mewing sound. The path and garden were mostly rock and sand, with wooden steps and artistically displayed moss, but around the edges grew huge stands of bamboo, big soft bushes, and thickets of gentle green trees, and the sound was coming from somewhere in there. Yoko Kinoko walked slowly along with her ear brushing the leaves, following the mewing until it stopped. She stopped too, listening. After a moment, she knelt down and poked her head into the greenery. The mewing started up again, quite close. Taking her satchel off her back and placing it on the floor, Yoko pushed in between the bushes, poking back at branches and scratching back at twigs until finally her head popped out into a tiny clearing. The ground was soft with pine needles from the trees high above, and the light was gentle green from the trees lower down. It was beautiful. Yoko Kinoko stepped out from the bushes and looked around.
She had expected a kitten, but the creature that crept up and rubbed itself against her legs was instead a tiny and very soft baby fox. Yoko Kinoko crouched down carefully and stroked its orange head, rubbing its ears as it pushed its nose into her hand.
‘What a pretty baby. I wonder where your mama is.’
But the fox gave no reply. It seemed to be alone.
‘I wish I had some food for you’, said Yoko Kinoko as she scratched the fox’s little chin.
No sooner had she said it than she felt the weight of her satchel on her back – the satchel she had left on the other side of the bushes. Startled, she twisted round a couple of times, then took it off and held it out in front of her. Definitely her satchel. She rummaged in her lunch box for some left-over chicken and held it out to the fox, who nipped and nibbled at it with a contented expression.
Well, that was strange. Yoko Kinoko considered for a moment then said, loudly and clearly while scratching the fox’s chin:
‘I wish I had an ice-cream.’
Nothing. She put the remains of the chicken back into her lunch box and closed the lid firmly.
‘I wish I had an ice-cream.’
The fox gave a little frown.
Pop! An ice-cream appeared in her hand. She licked it once all the way round then opened her lunch box and put it on the ground.
Yoko Kinoko and the fox ate together for a while in silence. When he had finished, he climbed into her lap and curled up tightly with his nose under his tail.
‘Where is your mama?’
The fox was silent.
‘I shall call you Kitsu Chan. How would you like that?’
‘Would you like to come and live with me?’
The fox pricked his ears, and licked Yoko’s hand.
Yoko walked slowly back along the street and climbed the stairs to their apartment with great care, making sure that the satchel sat very straight on her back, but when they arrived home, she kicked off her shoes in a hurry, called out ‘I’m home’, and was in her bedroom before her mother had even opened the kitchen door. She quickly scooped Kitsu out of the satchel and deposited him under her kotatsu, arranging the quilt so that it hung all the way to the floor, then she peered underneath.
‘Are you comfortable there?’
The fox peered back at her.
‘Is there anything you want?’
Kitsu licked his lips again.
‘OK, here goes. I wish I had Kitsu Chan’s favourite food in my bedroom.’
Three mice ran out onto the rug.
Yoko Kinoko screamed.
She wasn’t afraid of mice, it was just the shock. And then the sight of Kitsu catching them in his teeth. And then the blood and crunching sounds. And then the pile of worms on the kotatsu. But what really tipped her into hysterics was the sudden swarm of fat cicadas emerging from her wardrobe.
Yoko Kinoko screamed so loudly that both her mother and her big brother came running. They arrived at her door to find dead mice on the floor, a plague of cicadas, and a young fox chasing a half-eaten mouse with bits of worm spraying from his mouth. Yoko’s brother screamed just like Yoko, and her mother demanded to know what was happening. All that the sobbing Yoko could tell her was ‘but he was so cuuuuuute!’
That evening, Yoko Kinoko had a calming bath while her mother shooed the cicadas out of the window and thoroughly cleaned the floor. She threatened to bring a fox catcher but somehow, in all the chaos, Kitsu had disappeared.
Yoko was inconsolable. After everyone else had gone to sleep that night, she lay under her quilt and cried hot tears. She had met a magic fox and lost him on the very same day. And although he was a greedy little thing, and had a gruesome way of getting his dinner, she felt terrible at the thought of him being frightened and alone. He was so tiny and his ears so soft.
‘I wish Kitsu Chan would come back.’
A soft thump on her pillow. A tiny tongue licking her tears. Yoko Kinoko sat up in surprise and delight. Kitsu climbed into her lap and stuck out his tummy for a scratch. It was as tight and tubby as a little kettle drum, and his tail was as soft as a calligraphy brush.
‘I’m sorry I screamed.’
He closed his eyes in contentment.
‘I wish I had a new iphone.’
Kitsu opened one eye and looked at her sarcastically.
Too soon. So instead, Yoko Kinoko and Kitsu Chan curled up together and went to sleep, dreaming about the adventures to come.
Quintana woke at 4:00pm to the sound of their father in the bathroom. Dad always left the door open. It had disgusted the rest of the family when they were kids, but now that Quintana was the only ‘child’ left at home, there was nobody to complain with. Mum had long since struck Dad’s bathroom habits off her list of things to talk about. Afternoon sunlight was doing its best to get through the 1980s blinds, then the net curtain, then the real curtains, then the blanket Quintana had hung over the top. They rolled over and pulled the pillow over their head, but to no avail. They were awake now. The sun may as well do what it wanted. Waiting until Dad’s footsteps had exited the bathroom, and the kitchen door had been opened and then slammed, Quintana dragged themselves out from under the covers and readjusted their twisted tracksuit without looking. They were repulsed by the body in the bed; its hairiness, the cold-fish feel of the flesh around the hips, the saggy belly and flat chest that looked for all the world like their real body had melted in the sun. The horror of the genitals, lurking unwelcome Down There, where they preferred not to look. In the bathroom they brushed their teeth, studiously ignoring the mirror. They were aware of their smell, but the thought of showering was too difficult to stomach. Maybe if they won their game today, or if Jason’s cute avatar showed them his favour, or if the quest was ultimately successful, maybe then they would have the courage to deal with the gross, repulsive, stinking carcass that housed their brain. Or maybe they could ignore it. It only existed in this universe. There were others.
Quintana’s immediate quest was to get back to their room without interaction. They opened the bathroom door a crack and looked carefully to left and right. Down the hall, Mum was talking on the phone to someone but Dad’s whereabouts were unclear. A prickling, heart racing, sweating rash of anxiety broke out across the body, but Quintana had learned to manage that. They took a deep breath and strode across the hallway to the bedroom door, closing it behind them not a moment too soon; Mum had wandered, still talking, into the hall. They sat back down on the bed, panicky and out of breath. Food would be the next quest but not yet; it was three hours until dark and then three more before their parents went to bed and they would be free to roam about the house unimpeded. That meant there were six hours to get through before access to the kitchen. Quintana picked up a packet of chips from the floor and found some flat, luke-warm coke to wash them down with. Bodily functions having been dealt with, they turned on their computer and entered the real world.
From the other side of the planet, Quintana’s soul mate strode into the tavern. She was, in her corporeal life, a middle-aged woman who mothered and wifed by day and gamed by night. In the real world, though, Aerwyn was a fire-souled flame-haired warrior who fearlessly led her company of rag tag souls into adventure. She scanned the rough tavern for friend or foe. Quinn! Aerwyn strode over to the fireplace where Quinn was seated with graceful ease, her many weapons hanging lightly from her belt and shoulders. Her heart picked up pace. Quinn was the one she had been hoping for.
‘Quinn my friend, how are you?’
Quinn stood up in one fluid movement and turned to face Aerwyn, a gesture of recognition and delight.
‘I am well, Aerwyn. I have evaded my enemies for another day. Tell me, how do you fare?’
She considered for a moment. Truth was, her husband was exhausted and resentful, the house had developed a weird smell, and her children were little shits. She’d been late home from work every day so far that week and her Fitbit, bought to encourage exercise, had started taking a sarcastic tone with her.
‘Also well. Since we last met, I have overcome some challenges but there are still more to be overcome.’
‘Please, sit here with me a while. We can share tales and perhaps drink some ale.’
‘I would like that.’
They settled together in the rough stone alcove to the right of the fireplace. From there, they had a good view of the flames, and of anyone arriving, but it was cosy and relatively quiet. Quinn felt herself relax, despite the jittery sensation of coke in the body back home. She and Aerwyn rarely talked like this, but lately she had found herself craving her company; not only for adventure, but simply for sitting together.
‘Aerwyn, I feel you may have some disquiet. What concerns you?’
‘Ah, Quinn, you are right. We live across more than one life. Sometimes I feel weary because of it. Do you understand?’
Quintana’s body interjected again. It was hungry but there was another feeling in the stomach now; a sharp pang, followed by excitement, and a quick flash of luminescence somewhere lower down.
‘Do you ever feel …’
‘Just say it. I will understand.’
‘Do you ever feel how simple it would be to be Quinn all the time, only Quinn?’
Quintana sucked in a surprised breath. This was heresy. Hinting about life outside the game was a strict taboo in their group. To acknowledge the fabric of the universe was to risk tearing it. They started to write ‘But I am always Quinn’, then stopped. That tingling again; that reaching out like ET towards home.
‘Yes. I do feel that. Quinn is my truest self but not my only self. If I could lose some of the others I would.’
‘I wish I knew all of your selves.’
Quintana’s body glowed with hot shame. For a moment, they were back in the carcass; in the dark room with the litter on the floor; in their parents’ house where they were still sometimes called Oliver, their deadname; where Quintana was still struggling and mostly failing to emerge from the weight of a whole mistaken life. Where the body was scarred and painful from the times they had literally tried to cut their way out.
‘You would hate them like I do.’
‘Then I wish you knew all of my selves because I know that none of them would hate you.’
‘I wish I knew your other selves, also.’
They sat in wistful silence, then, while the tavern filled up and grew busy around them.
‘I would make food for you.’
‘I would touch you, if you would let me.’
‘I would meet and talk to all the people you are and I would make friends with them one by one.’
‘Not the disgusting unlovable ones.’
‘I would meet your family – do you have family?’
(A thrill of danger)
‘Yes. And I would meet yours.’
Quintana, feeling the impossibility of this statement, stretched their imagination a little further to accommodate it. How would their parents react if they had a friend arrive at the door? Mum would faint in surprise.
‘I would like that.’
Quinn and Aerwyn were sitting close together now, their heads almost touching. They had forgotten about the rest of the tavern, both enemies and friends, but they were in for a rude awakening. Kradoc entered with a loud shout, swinging his favoured weapon, the mace, in tight circles as he strode towards them.
‘Quinn! Aerwyn! What plot you here? Let us join together and make haste towards the lowlands for there I smell victory!’
They jumped up. Quinn’s weapons swung. Aerwyn struck a pose.
‘Hail Kradoc, we are ready. Let us chase the fight!’
And with that, they strode out together, looking neither to right nor left, towards whatever adventure the future had in store. They would never speak of this again.
She avoided eye-contact because it was so bright. Not glowing bright like the joyful sheen of a shiny coin on the path, but sharp bright like the sun poking straight between your eyelids. When she locked gaze with someone, she felt pinned in place, dug into, pushed at. It panicked her. She liked the space between things; the movement of air between her and another person; the blank section of the page at the end of a chapter; Jeff Buckley exhaling before he sang. The world was too much. The noisy tastes of different food jostled for attention on her tongue. Thousands of nerve endings touched her clothes. Traffic roared like the sea. Whenever she moved, she dragged around the vast ecosystem that was her body, the insatiable itch of her skin. In the very best of her dreams, she stepped out of gravity and floated in space. It was dark and quiet. That was all.
She met him on a summer day that smelled of water. She had been walking slowly down a wide, long avenue under lime trees that released the comforting scent of leafy shade, feeling the humid air touch her naked skin and nudge at her clothes. From the distance came the sound of a violin, clear and lively through the thick of the indolent afternoon. As she approached, the sound grew fuller, cleaner, more urgent. She turned a corner onto the edge of a park and there he was; a young man in loose trousers and bare feet, arms as brown as a speckled egg, playing like it was brisk Autumn, not the energy-sapping heat of exhausted summer. Behind him, the grass sloped down to a slow brown river heavy with reeds. The violin case on the ground at his feet was freckled with coins. She paused to listen. Oh, but the sound was extraordinary. It spoke to her with no preamble, straight through her ears into her heart. She closed her eyes. Everything but the music hushed. Even her skin was quiet, listening. When he stopped, there was silence. Then he started again. She opened her eyes. Then there was silence. She sat on the grass.
She didn’t look into his face. She didn’t have to. He bent down to scoop up the coins, and she heard the rustling of the grass. In the quiet she imagined the tap of tiny feet. When he straightened up and lifted his bow to split the sunlight into shards, she became aware of the movement of small bodies, timid in the shadows, gathering on the edges of her vision. She gazed up at the violin and the clouds behind. The music tugged at her like a friend grasping her hand and pulling her onto a dance floor. She found herself standing again just as she caught sight of a furry body scurrying ahead of her. And another. And one more. There was a small line of them moving towards him, then another line, then a crowd. She stood transfixed as the rats ran towards the music, and continued running past the violinist’s feet, straight into the river. She was focussed. The world was neither large nor loud. Nothing distracted her from the music. She lifted her eyes and looked into his. They were dark and quiet. That was all.
She plays the violin now. She plays until her skin is calm, until the garish colours fade and blend into something beautiful. She plays the flavours of food, the touch of silk, the itch of wool. She plays the tug of a heart and the weight of gravity, she plays to usher in the silence between the sounds. She hears the slip and squeak of her fingers, the pauses and the sounds between. She plays animals from their dens, birds from the sky. She plays until she can look her teacher in the eye as he shapes her hand on the bow. Sometimes they busk barefoot together by the river.
Once upon a time there was a little boy and his name was Jack.
She paused, and looked appraisingly at the small child in the pyjamas. Was she ready to hear how her father had died? Her daughter looked back at her. She was so small, still chubby, with fluffy white-blonde hair like a newly hatched chick. Her little fingers were like sausages, her cheeks rosy from the bath. She should tell her a different story.
Once upon a time, when I was pregnant with you, your father’s reign of terror was so smothering that I used to fantasise about killing him myself. Not out of rage, just to escape. You wouldn’t understand, little chick, and I hope you never do.
Perhaps not that story, not quite in those words.
What about these? He was out and I was home. I was always home. It was a rule of his. I was barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen, a good wife. He was out somewhere doing whatever he bloody well wanted, a real man. It was a sunny day, laden with good things. The kitchen door was open and as I cooked, a fresh breeze wandered in from the herb garden. I felt you stir, my love. It was just you and me, only us in the whole wide world until a thin foreign boy came knocking at the door, and the peace vanished. Your father did not allow visitors. He despised foreigners. He kept a close eye on resources. An unknown footprint in the kitchen; one apple less; an increase in expenditure; my apron out of place; anything could set him off and I had you to protect. But the boy was so hungry, with skinny cheeks and big eyes, and I was a mother now. I made some quick calculations. My husband was out. The boy was small. I pulled him in.
I sat him at the kitchen table and fetched him some food, explaining about my husband all the while. If my husband came back, the boy should hide. Quick, quick, into that cupboard there (I pointed) or, if he had time, he should run back out of the door and scurry home. If he had a home. Either way, he couldn’t stay here. The boy nodded, his eyes on the food. I don’t think he had eaten that day and maybe not the day before, either. When I put the plate in front of him, it was all he saw. He tried not to gobble, but he ate steadily and with a desperate intensity. I saw him tuck some bread into his pocket for later. I thought about you, my love. I hoped you would never be hungry like that. Even if it meant staying with your father. I could handle him. Once you were born, I would have more time and energy to please him, and I would distract him and protect you. That was my plan, anyway. Maybe it would have worked. Meanwhile, the boy ate and ate. After the first plateful he became talkative and looked around the room. After the second, he began to look unwell. I wrapped a chicken leg for him in paper. He could take it when he left.
I started to get anxious, then. I had a sixth sense that told me when he was coming, or maybe it was just a sense of time. I was eager to get the waif out of the house and clean up all traces of his visit but the boy was sluggish now, and curious to see everything about him. He started to tell me a story about how he’d got here – some nonsense about magic beans. I started to worry that he was planning to rob us. I’m not racist, but there’s a reason we don’t trust foreigners. Maybe I’d been gullible to take him in. I told the boy to leave, just as I heard my husband come through the front door. It would not have been too late if he’d hurried, but the stupid child just stood there listening with a strange look on his face. My husband was a big man, tall and broad. When he walked, he stomped and when he stomped the house shook. I was used to it but I suppose the child was not. My husband called out to me as he stomped through the house, checking that I was in my place. When I was late to reply, he stormed into the kitchen. The boy hid, then, but it was not enough. My husband could smell him. He had that foreign, English, smell of woodsmoke and cheese. Your father stormed and raged and I thought he would hit me and you, my darling, so I took a desperate measure and put a drop of Golden Harp in his drink. That knocked him out for a minute and the boy, finally, ran.
If I’d known then what I knew later, I’d never have invited him in. But then we’d be living with your father still and maybe, honestly, maybe we wouldn’t have survived. So maybe I was right to have taken him in and let fate fall the way it did. I don’t know. I still don’t know.
When your father came to, he was apoplectic with rage. He turned his furious face towards me, and a chill drenched me from my scalp down to the pricking soles of my feet. I knew what he was capable of. Quickly husband, I said, chase him. The foreign child. He stole some chicken. He went that way down the road. The tide of his anger turned away from us then and onto that poor, skinny, innocent boy. But what choice did I have? I had you to protect. I closed all the doors behind him and I closed the windows too, and went and hid upstairs in a dark cupboard with my eyes closed, rocking with you as I sang a lullaby and tried not to think of that poor hungry child being beaten to death by your father on the road. He would not get far. His legs were so small.
But that is not what happened. I heard distant shouts, it is true, but they were only his shouts and not the boy’s. I heard a big thump that rocked the ground. Then all was still.
It was a long time before I crept out of the cupboard, my chick, and even longer before I mustered up the courage to peek out of the front door. The neighbours came by with terrible news that I couldn’t believe. They took me to the edge of the cliff, with sidelong glances and whispers, and I saw his big broken body lying small on the ground below, so far away there were clouds between us. A huge vine had fallen around him, its trunk as wide as he was. I cried loud and long, then, to spite them. He was a monster but once I loved him, and not one of them had ever helped me. So I let them see my grief, and I made sure they understood that he was the father of my child.
What they never saw, sweet girl, were the scissors I used to cut up his clothes, or the feast I ate with my hands, or the levity with which I danced around the house that night with all the lights on, or the orphans I fed from our garden every day until you were born. But none of that is strange to you.
And I can tell you none of it.
The child with the big eyes was still looking at her patiently, sleepily, waiting for a story. What could she tell her? Be safe. Be careful. There are monsters that look like princes, and traps that look like golden rings. But not today. She picked up her daughter’s favourite book.
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.
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.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.’
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.