Monday, September 26, 2011

A Short September Story

Cutting Down the Wattle

The wattles grew back first—thick walls of them. They came up out of the ash so quickly that Leo didn’t know where to start chopping, so he didn’t for a while. It wasn’t until the trees reached chin-height that he began to really worry. Helen had noticed her husband spending more time at the kitchen sink—peering out the window and over the block, towards the valley below. “I should get on top of it Hel,” he’d sometimes say, not checking if she was about to hear first. Helen was just happy to see regrowth— in the beginning anyway. She’d take her foldout chair onto the patio and watch for birds. Most, however, had disappeared along with the neighbors.

The days were particularly long that first summer back; it didn’t get dark until eight, sometimes half past. The house the couple had rebuilt—two years now after the fire —looked like it had almost nestled itself into the newly bushy hillside. Recently retired, Helen spent a lot of time in the new sunroom, playing Mahjong; or in the kitchen with shiny cookbooks, experimenting with all the new appliances. Despite missing their old home, Helen liked the smells of the new one: fresh wood and decking oil. Once a lover of the bush, Helen had even found comfort in the chainsaw dust towards the end. She sometimes smelt in the air—which was most days, once the first trees got taller than Leo.

Like Helen, Leo knew that it wouldn’t make a difference if a fire were to roll over the hill again—that all the piling and burning-off wouldn’t stop much. The clearing, however, would allow the pair to tell friends—when they dropped by for all the usual occasions—that something was being done about it all; they didn’t want details anyway. Also, as Leo had recently stepped down to part-time hours, he’d had to fill his days back up with something; he had never been able to sit still for long, like Helen had.

Not long after they moved back Leo began following the weather too—once a day in the beginning, more regularly later, once he stopped being able to see the ground through grass and burr . Sometimes Helen would sit with him, in the shell of the old shed, and listen as well—the radio humming out across the ridge. Helen noticed her husband’s spine take on a new curve from the long days of clearing—all the stooping and crouching amongst the thicker, second, even third layer of regrowth. As a result Helen—concerned about most things most of the time—began dropping two chalky calcium tablets into his newly calloused palms each morning, before he went back out into the sprouting bush, the tiny burrs stuck all over the tops of his woollen socks.

By the following January neither the Chuffs nor the Cicada bugs had returned—the neighbours hadn’t either. The days had slowed even further for Helen and she struggled to fill them, especially with Leo out in the yard and Mahjong long exhausted. She resorted to crafts—crocheting flowers at first and then terrariums, which were surprisingly low maintenance. Her habit of wine at night provided her with the glass; and cuttings weren’t hard to come by. Upon noticing the wattle-filled bottles lined up along the sink Leo didn’t say a thing.

Helen was sitting on the deck on a Monday, maybe a Tuesday, when she noticed it all first; it was the bits of sediment in her cup of tap water that marked the beginning. Leo was a dot to her, halfway down the hill below—in his navy blue work overalls, his small orange chainsaw quiet at his hip. The taste of the dirty water made Helen look, really look, for the first time out over the block. Despite the endless hours of work Leo had put in, the creepers had started making their way up the trunks of the tallest, blackest trees—stubborn and still standing. The wattle too, was still coming up out of the ground—thick. However when Leo came up for a sandwich as usual, covered in dirt, Helen decided not to worry him.

That spring the wattles flowered more than ever, all around the small sections Leo had cleared. Helen had been reminded the fire more often. When Leo came to the door after a days work, she saw silver ash in his eyelashes instead of the yellow wattle powder that it was. At the end of each day, his shoulders and his white hair were covered with the stuff. It started getting in with the washing and covering their sheets. Showering at night, Helen noticed roots—as thin as daddy long legs limbs— growing down through the showerheads but, again, she kept it to herself. Leo began talking about the possibility of another bad season, and of roundup, before starting to working even later into the evenings.

In the meantime, Helen had stopped wondering when others would come back to the ridge. The For Sale signs had faded and dried up, along with most interest in the area. Initially Leo had promised Helen a grand housewarming, or house cooling, as he once joked—with chicken skewers and punch—out amongst the tallest, blackest trees. However, as Leo’s days spent clearing got longer—sometimes eight, even nine hours—Helen began to realise the party would never go ahead. She had recently found some fungi in the guest bedroom anyway, growing out from behind the cabinets.

One day, well one morning really, Helen woke up sweating. Flipping her legs over the side of the bed she noticed the puffy veins of her shins, milky blue in the dawn. She left the bedroom with plans to get a drink from the new water filter, maybe get a wet face washer for her chest. Walking down the hall she heard the dog whimpering in its sleep. She then stubbed her toe on the sideboard, which woke her up enough to realise that Leo wasn’t in the house, hadn’t been beside her in bed all night. The dog, awakened by Helen’s shuffling, followed her—first as she struggled with the sliding doors, and then out into the night.

And it was as Helen went out onto the patio for the cooler air that she felt it first; the wooden boards wet, soft with moss and rot beneath her feet. Before she had made it to the tree line, the looked back to the lit kitchen to see the terrariums, well vases really, shiny in the night. Helen, if she stood still enough, could just hear the faint whine of the chainsaw—floating up from the valley below.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Sleeping in the Water


They had always planned to celebrate Margot’s sixtieth birthday at the block and now they were here: their small Mazda backed up against the new wall of wattle and the gin and tonic mixed perfectly into two speckled glasses. Margot had made a cake for the occasion too. She had tried adding raspberries to the recipe but the cheaper frozen fruit had bled all through the mixture in the oven, making the cake too pink: the colour of wet fairy floss, maybe Margot’s first lipstick.
‘It doesn’t matter Marg,’ Henry had said as he walked by the kitchen the day before. Margot had spent the last years of her fifties realising this phrase exactly. Ever since the fires she had stopped searching for the perfect texture of mousse, stopped trying to achieve right consistency of crème brûlée: crackable with the tap of a teaspoon, maybe a finger. Margot knew everything was fleeting now, haphazard even; there was no point to stressing over every little thing.
‘You can’t even taste the pink’ Henry called out on the day they drove out to the block. He didn’t wait for his wife’s response before taking another bite of the soft cake. Being a little older than Margot, Henry had needed to rest more than he used to. He found it comfortable to be propped up against the car, with his right arm hooked over the open door. Henry watched Margot slowly walk towards the place where their old home used to stand—holding the picnic rug under her freckled elbow. He hadn’t wanted to feel the concrete base below his feet like she had; he had felt it that Sunday after the fires—the carpet of ash above it still hot enough to melt and curl the soles of his shoes and the smell of burning building chemicals still thick in the air.
And although Margot wasn’t small at all, Henry noticed how tiny his wife looked amongst the post-fire bush that day. He watched her as she stood out on the concrete pad in her favourite floral dress and her runners, standing beneath the blackened gums—looking up. She was always looking upwards, searching for birds to spot and name: maybe a Jackie Winter, a Kurrawong, a Chuff; Henry never learnt how to tell them apart. It didn’t matter now anyway as most of the birds had disappeared.
Anyway, Henry liked it that the undergrowth had taken off and that, from afar, you couldn’t quite tell where their bedroom used to lay. He also liked it that the blackened tin of the dog kennel was almost hidden by the same new wattle they’d backed their car up into. Henry’s breath didn’t quicken when he thought about the old house now, about the years they spent there; the thirty of them had seemed to have stopped mattering anymore—along with the neatly labelled photo albums, the ones they had accumulated over the years, each disappearing in a matter of seconds.

It all happened quickly, really—not the fire back then, well that too, but the decision to come home. Henry knew there wouldn’t even be a conversation as he watched Margot flatten out the picnic rug before going for a walk over the rise. He hadn’t seen her so relaxed in a long time, as she wandered about just in view, her speckled glass of gin still in hand and her left arm loose at her side—before disappearing out of sight for a time. Henry, not used to being alone much anymore, could suddenly feel the grittiness of his wife’s cake between his teeth—maybe a bit of baked fruit, a raspberry, the shop kind: once frozen and a little too bitter. He felt the chalkiness of his joints as he readjusted his weight and curled his toes in his boots, waiting for Margot to come back into his vision.
Margot reappeared, minutes, or maybe it was hours, later that day with a length of bailing twine trailing behind her. Her cheeks were flushed red and almost matched the curly, freshly hennaed, hair of her head. Henry noticed that Margot’s glass of gin was gone and that furry burrs, the shape and size of tiny Christmas baubles, dotted her laces and the tops of her socks. Curious as he was, Henry didn’t ask Margot where she’d found the orange twine. Nor did he help her as she strung up a clothesline between two blackened and skinny tree trunks. “For our togs,” she said, looking over to her husband whilst cupping the sun from her eyes. It was quiet up there in the hills now and Henry felt a little hope for the future, standing there with the peaks of his cheekbones also reddening in the midday sun. Margot looked up at the sky again, before continuing in the little hum she had, “I mean it Hen.”

Though it wasn’t a house, the dam was Henry and Margot’s start. After most of the wattle was flattened—and they had decided the place, of course—it was easy; it only took Martin, Henry’s friend, a couple of afternoons to make the hole big enough for it. Henry had once worked with Martin at the vineyard and watched, happily, as his old colleague showed the same natural ease with the Bobcat as he had with all the bottling machinery. Following each afternoon of digging—and after Martin had left, of course— Henry and Margot sifted through the uplifted earth. After resting for a little, over a cider and maybe some rice cakes too, they each put on a pair of gardening gloves and plastic bags hooked over their wrists. It was a delayed response: Henry and Margot hadn’t combed through the ash of their home as many of their surviving neighbours had done straight after the fires. Henry had known it would have been a pointless exercise and used the excuse that it would have all been too hard on Margot. But, really, Henry had had known that the trauma of it all—so soon after the fires anyway—would have far outweighed the tiny possibility of finding anything of value amongst that expanse of soft grey ash and felled, burning telephone poles.
They found a few things on those two warm evenings though: a twisted fork from Margot’s fancy set of silverware; a set of blackened bed springs and some shards of crockery, mostly from the cheap bowl sets Margot owned. There were no remains of the moonstone necklace Henry had given Margot instead of an engagement ring, no bones of their tall greyhound Mintie, which Henry thought was probably for the best anyway. He didn’t know that Margot was still counting on the fact that Mintie had somehow escaped from his pen on that day of the fire. Henry didn’t know that Margot would have found some peace in discovering her dog’s teeth, or even just a bit of ordinary bone near the site—something that she could bury out by the blackened kennel and cover in powdery yellow wattle flowers, at the right time of year anyway.
And, instead of filling the hole that Martin dug in the ground with sand—like the couple once did on a much smaller scale, years and years ago now, for their daughter Ruby—Henry ordered a load of water to be carted up the hill. It was Margot who heard the truck coming long before Henry did; she saw it too. With the majority of the trees still bare, Margot could easily watch as the red of the truck wound its way up the hill to their home. The woman driving the truck, Nadine, wore large gumboots and a constant look of concern upon her round face. She told Henry and Margot all about landscaping as they waited for the dam to fill with the clear water— pulled straight from the aqueduct that ran through the town below. Nadine suggested planting natives into the embankments, her voice always seeming to give Henry a start with its strange sense of urgency, “They’ll stop erosion. Put them all along the driveway too,” she had said, “it’ll look nice.”
And Margot, searching for all the hope she could muster, took an instant liking to Nadine and her plans for the block; so that’s what they did. They bought some flaky barked Water Gums from her, with the guarantee that in spring they would flower, that the colours might even attract the honeyeaters and the bees back again.

For the first few days the big new dam was muddied by dust and old ash, the kind of ash that had settled under a layer of post-fire earth—now uplifted by the water. Margot thought of her old cookbooks as she watched tiny specks of white matter rise slowly to the surface; she missed the old familiarity of her kitchen. She remembered the shelves of the old house, gone now, but once heavy with recipes for sugary, syrupy things: Pineapple Meringue Cake, Oat Dreams and Banoffi pie. There were her mother’s hand-written recipes too; her simple instructions for different cordials: ginger, rhubarb and lime. It had been other people who Margot had been a cook for and now that Ruby had grown up she missed cooking for the various birthday parties and school working bees. Kids, Margot thought, were much easier to please than her peers. Most had left the area now anyway, for warm summers and mild winters up north. They didn’t have to buy all the basics again and start from scratch; cutlery and sheets, shoes and toiletries all ended up being surprisingly expensive when you had no possessions to build upon. Henry and Margot had no choice like their friends, who had the luxury of options—endless holidays in caravans with lace curtains being one.
Henry thought of Ruby as he first put his pale foot in the muddy dam. He remembered taking her to the weir when she was little enough to carry—carry easily anyway. He remembered how she squirmed when as he put her into a pair of red and white striped togs, the type with the little frills coming off the tops of the leg-holes. Margot was often sewing or reading, quietly, when Henry took his daughter away on these small adventures. On the way home the two of them would stop at the bakery: a donut, iced white, for Ruby and a coffee, milky, for Henry. Henry remembered the quiet happiness of these afternoons, as the two of them sat within the blue walls of the shop, just waiting until enough time had passed til they could go home. There was no weir to escape to anymore, but it was ok, because the need for Henry and Margot to spend time apart had gone.
And unlike her husband, Margot was not struck by a wave of nostalgia as she first lowered herself into the cool muddy water; all she thought about was how nice the dam floor felt between her toes. Margot assumed that families of yabbies had already made a home in the water, so she stepped softly wherever she walked. It had been so long since she had been in a dam that she had forgotten the earthy taste that filled her mouth. Margot had also forgotten that how the finer bits of sediment clung to the hair of her forearms as she rose from the dam, how bits of twig and leaf would sometimes gather in the crotch of her bathers. She didn’t mind though, anything was a relief from their sterile city apartment. The rent it demanded was just covered by their tiny insurance payout and the fluorescent lighting of the place made her head spin. Margot liked going just under the surface of the water and opening her eyes at the sunniest parts of the day. She felt calm amongst the murky gold of it all, the softness; it was her kind of lighting.

It all happened slowly in the beginning; Henry and Margot only went for afternoon swims. Henry kept his waterproof watch on and Margot still wore an old t-shirt over her bathers. They discussed the different building options as they sat, waist deep, in the shallows—laughing at the idea that their friends were probably up on Broadbeach, sitting the same way in spas and expensive tiled pools. Margot reminded Henry about her own mother Agnes at sixty, how she could bake the perfect Pavlova for any occasion and how she ironed everything, even socks and ties. Margot thought it was sad that Agnes was an old woman, even at this age, and that her full time job was as carer for anyone who walked through the door. Margot smiled at the thought of her mother sitting in the dam beside her. Agnes would have hated the mud, the wet, and everything else about that dam. Margot realised that her mother wouldn’t have understood anyway; no one could really, without having gone through it all beside them.
It wasn’t long before a routine developed: most nights, just before dark, Henry would get out of the dam and drive the Mazda down the street. Sometimes he would come back up the mountain with egg sandwiches and beer, sometimes it would be pizza. It was always take-away from one shop or another anyway. Some stores even had the odd charity poster still stuck to the community notice board, maybe a description of a cat or a horse, lost in the fires, plastered over by newer advertisements for fridges, cars and rooms for rent. After Henry returned, the two would sit on the bank and eat with their feet soggy and white in the water in front of them. Later on Margot would often look up in hope of catching a glimpse of an owl, or even a small bat, while Henry gently dried her with one of the new soft towels that were a little brown now from dam water. The few weeks of daily swimming had also faded the red of Margot’s hair; with more white showing through now it almost glowed orange in the evening light. Henry would pat it in consolation before opening the car door, passenger side—a gesture signalling the end of the day at what was becoming home again.

On the first night of March—after months now, of daily swimming and quiet evenings at the block—Margot watched Henry walk over to the dam with a parcel of fish and chips in hand. A light breeze blew, sending the smell of battered flake her way. Margot had not wanted to leave the dam at all that day; as usual, she had been enjoying the feel of the soft, sometimes twiggy, clay beneath her feet. She’d only left the murky water for lunch: two dinner rolls and an avocado they’d packed in the tiny esky that morning. Henry had known he was picking tea up from town a bit earlier that night, so they were happy just to snack— anticipating the short soggy chips, the flake and the thickly battered potato cakes they would later eat. Henry had still enjoyed driving down the hill at this stage, liked going past the fire line that had marked the boundaries of ash so clearly, years even, after the fire. He felt like he was crossing over to another world when he noticed, still easily, the place where the trees all seemed to suddenly get their leaves back, along with their birds and the colours of their trunks.
Although Henry liked the little trips into town, for food and drink and other basics, he couldn’t ignore the subtle shift that had taken place. It had slowly become more uncomfortable for Margot and Henry to go far from their block and the new dam it housed. People looked at the pair differently now. It wasn’t just because they knew the sadness of their story, the lost house and all—a lot of people had lost even more than they had in the fires. At first Henry had thought he had something on his face: maybe some crumbs, maybe a shaving cut. But catching his reflection in the real-estate window was all Henry needed to understand. He became, all of a sudden, aware of the small twigs in his hair; the mud that had caked about his ankles, that had dried into the backs of his knees. His skin, he noticed, was pale too—even pale for Henry.
But going back to that night: Henry could smell the battered Flake too, even though the breeze was coming up behind him and blowing his hair, what was left of it anyway, about his face. He could feel the steam flow from the opening he had torn through the paper layers of the package. He could almost taste the salt on his tongue as he kicked his sandals off his feet. The smell of lemon mixed with the thick smell of the Flake as he ripped the paper open further; the gentle wind taking everything, even a little of the heat down to a paddling Margot. The night was particularly noisy too: the trees creaked and tapped against each other in the dark; things rustled in the thickening wattle that was almost as tall as Henry now.
‘Smells good Hen’ Margot said, still floating about in the shallows, her head and the tops of her shoulders the only part of her visible to Henry. She smiled and Henry noticed—even with the sun going down—the sediment that had gathered in Margot’s hairline, the slight sheen to her skin. He recognised a little bit of what he saw in the real estate windows earlier; but could not name. Margot stood up then, beckoning Henry in. ‘Join me’ she said, standing up in the shallows, her t-shirt tied up around her middle and her bathers a slightly stained baby blue. ‘Coming,’ Was all Henry said his clearest voice, happily noting that it hadn’t changed.
Henry took off his shirt first. He brushed his hand over the bare curve of his belly and watched a fine dust fall to the ground, leaving behind an even whiter patch of flesh. Henry, not used to studying himself with any great detail, also looked at the network of veins on the insides of his wrists with curiosity. He heard Margot happily splashing about again as he followed the blue ropes with his forefinger, the nail of it dirtied with earth and a little oil from the troubled engine of the little Mazda. Henry knew better, however, than to alert the changes to Margot. He didn’t want to scare her—although she had known of the shift long before Henry anyway.
So it goes that Henry knew that his wife wouldn’t get out of the water that night. He didn’t even question the strange acceptance he had surrounding that fact—putting the parcel of fish and chips, now slightly greasy, down on the ground beside him. He then took off the rest of his clothes, placing his watch, which had filled with muddy water anyway, by the pile of towels that had also grown in height—his dirty cream shirt strewn at its top.
Margot lay back in the water again and tilted her head upwards to look at the sky, at the burnt branches of a gum that she recognised before the fires. It was home now to a single Boobook owl whose eerie mopoke mopoke sung out through the rest of the skeleton trees. Margot, her arms and legs held out like the peak of a star jump around her, hummed along.

That first night sleeping in the water was the hardest. It took Margot and Henry a while to realise that linking elbows and relaxing their bodies was the only way to go. Though Margot didn’t mind it so much, Henry could not ignore the constant tapping of the backswimmers and other insects against his newly softened skin. He also had trouble keeping his chin above the surface, his body always wanting to bend in the middle to form a v-shape beneath the muddy water. It was not until an hour or so after midnight that Henry fell into light sleep—punctuated by moments of half-woken panic, feeling the weightlessness, the cold, and not remembering where he had lay down.
By the time the sun appeared again—Margot and Henry being suddenly woken up by the sound of noisy vineyard equipment floating up from the valley—they realised they had slowly drifted apart in the night. Henry had made his way to the edge of the water where the shallows had provided him with reeds to hold onto: tall and so green they were almost black. He had also hooked his right arm around a tree, a young one that had fallen into the water after being uprooted by the softening earth. The tree had only fallen recently too as a few tiny ants still ran, frantically, up and down the exposed branches. Henry let his legs float gently out in front of him as he watched Margot— who was energised by her heavy night of sleep—glide about in wide circles in the middle of the dam. It might have been noon before she stopped circling—the sun at its strongest and a good metre of warmer water covering the surface of the clay-coloured water.
‘Watch this Hen’ she called out—smiling a small smile Henry’s way. At first Henry thought he was sleeping, or at least daydreaming as Margot went under, leaving her old tie dye swimming shirt bobbing gently on the surface. Henry thought he felt something slippery rush past him before realising it was just a pocket of cooler water, or maybe a one of the larger cod swimming by. Maybe Henry’s lack of sleep was the reason why he didn’t react after a minute or so, why he didn’t leave his spot in the reeds to search for his wife, deep now, below the earthy water—down where everything turned cold and the oxygen was low.
If asked to recount the event, which he never was, Henry would have detailed the tightening of his rib cage, the cramping, again, of his toes at the end of his feet as they hung lifelessly in the water below him. And although Henry hadn’t thought too much about the fires for many weeks now, he felt a familiar cold fear rush through him. It was not dissimilar to the feeling that filled him for less than a second—years ago now—as he heard the roar of the bushfire roll over the hills behind their house. Henry saw the fleeing birds, just ahead of the smoke that day, some dropping straight out of the sky, before fleeing in the little Mazda himself—Margot in her kimono dressing gown beside him. There had been a few minutes before that mad drive, however, of Henry screaming for Margot to no response, not even a flicker of movement inside the house. Margot, unaware of her surroundings, had put the old record player on and was halfway through running a cool bath. Henry, still nestled amongst the fallen tree’s braches, remembered this and tried to yell again. The thought of Margot being snagged deep below, however, had made his voice faint and as muddied as the water he lay in.

By the time Margot finally splashed up to the surface, Henry had left his place in the shallows and was treading water frantically out in the centre of the dam. He saw the bubbles first, and then her head break through the surface of the water. A fine layer of silt still covered Margot’s skin, gathering in her eyebrows and in the creases of her neck, but even so Henry could still see the freckles that Margot was known for. As she smiled the biggest smile she could, Henry barely noticed the things she held below the water. ‘What would you have back, Hen?’ she said, their treading legs accidently knocking each other in the muddy water.
A single Rosella, young and still flecked with green feathers flew over the dam. Henry, confused, but still overwhelmed with a warm relief couldn’t think of a simple answer to Margot’s question. Distracted by his inability to provide Margot with a clear answer, it took him a while to notice his wife begin to fill the floating t-shirt with recognisable things. When he did notice however, he was overwhelmed with happiness. Margot used her swollen hands to pull up things he thought had gone in the fires: a pair of Ruby’s baby shoes, still bright red and slightly scuffed at the toes; the cardboard-coloured photo album filled with all his favourite pictures of Margot, his father’s watch, and his older sister’s golden horse brooch.
And with every thing Margot held up Henry thought ‘of course’ and tried to quickly guess the next thing, running through the list of lost items in head. It was an extensive list, one that he had been quietly working on when the sun was down, and which was all he seemed to do back in the city apartment. Henry, not materialistic in the slightest, had just needed these things to remember; days he thought he’d long forgotten came back to him, and instead of feeling like time had rushed by him, he felt the tied down to all the years; he felt solid again.

It didn’t start to rain down, that day, until Henry had joined Margot in duck diving for the belongings they thought they’d lost long ago. Big drops of water caused little circular ripples across the dam’s surface—dispersing the thick blooms of algae that had seemed to appear overnight. Henry’s bones had loosened both with the weightlessness of so much swimming, but also with the joy of recovering the debris of their lives. He was surprised that he could see under the water and that, even deep down in the murk, he could see Margot’s hair floating out behind her head as she pulled things out of the mud. Sometimes she got a handful of broken Yabby shell, or just a clump of clay, but mostly when she grabbed onto something it was something they’d missed: the pot plant they used to keep at the front door, in the little pot Ruby had made in high school ceramics; Margot’s moonstone necklace—shinier, now, than ever, along with Henry’s favourite leather boots; and his best suit jacket, only slightly damaged by the water and the prior fire: a tiny hole burnt through the left sleeve, the lining only just tinged the colour of clay.
By the evening you could barely see any dam through the layer of objects floating on the surface. Margot and Henry sat on their old velvet two-seater and bobbed amongst the things that had, with the further loosening of the dam floor, kept rising up from the depths. Some things were a little charred, a little soggy but were, for the most part, in surprisingly good condition. Henry reached over the armrest for some old records and placed them on a floating footstool to dry. Margot had made herself comfy over in the furthest corner of the couch, and lay sleeping, her feet still in the water and the wet t-shirt over her lap to keep her cool. She held what had been one of Agnes’s favourite mixing bowls to her tummy and it gently rose and fell with her breathing. A smile, though small and barely noticeable, came to her face as the littlest tadpoles darted about her feet and between her toes.
The overwhelming excitement had left Henry too, though he still clutched to his favourite picture, taken on the day Ruby was born. In it, he and Margot sit by a sunny window with white hospital curtains and a view of the gardens. Henry has his hand on Ruby’s little head. Both parents look down at their daughter and Ruby up at them. The photo made Henry remember the nurse coming in to the room and telling them they were fine to go home. He remembered Agnes taking the picture with her small camera, how she nodded— telling Henry that she’d drive out to the hills later on with some soup and fresh eggs. Henry remembered her doing that but, instead of bringing soup or eggs, Agnes had bought a whole car full presents she’d gotten together, gathered from friends and long forgotten relatives: flowers wrapped in rainbow cellophane; knitted socks, booties and tiny patchwork blankets; pair of little red shoes.
What Henry liked the most about that photo, though, was not that it induced a nostalgia, sweet and all consuming; it was that it documented the day he woke up. Henry remembered sitting in the chair of amongst the white walls of that hospital room and feeling, for the first time, that everything finally made sense. Later that night, laying in bed with the sounds of possums in the trees and the Boobook owls singing out, Henry had curled his arm around Margot. Smelling like vanilla shampoo, maybe a little like sweat, she had turned back around to face Henry to speak. ‘I love you Hen’ she said and smiled through the dark—Ruby sleeping quietly beside them. And with this Henry wondered what Ruby was doing now, whether she was enjoying her life in the city. In his mind he made plans to go in and meet her for dinner, maybe a movie. But, deep down, he knew that Margot and himself had become part of the dam now, that even Ruby, with all her sadness and concern for her parents wouldn’t have believed it, none of it really, at all.

By the time Margot woke up later that night the dam had cooled a little about her legs. She drew her feet up, tucking them under the wet bulk of Henry who had been lying back on the couch with his head on the velvet, maybe moss, of the armrest. After a little while Margot sat right up, pulling Henry up by his right elbow. There was a quiet as they saw each other clearly then, for just a second—before sliding off the two-seater together and into the water. And as they floated there together, arms and legs spread amongst the shoes and the saucepans, the records and the curtain rods, Margot reached out for Henry’s hand. Henry clung onto it before hearing the familiar hum of Margot’s voice, ‘we are so lucky Hen’. The lone Boobook flew overhead, sending a single mopoke ringing out through the trees and off into the valley and town below.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Monday, March 21, 2011

Autumn Reading

'Here We Aren't, So Quickly'
Jonathan Safran Foer, published in The New Yorker
June 14, 2010, p.72:

"We went to the Atacamama. We went to Sarajevo. We went to Tobey Pond every year until we didn’t. We braved thirteen inches of snow to attend a lecture in a planetarium. We tried having dinner parties. We tried owning nothing. We left handprints in a moss garden in Kyoto, and got each other off under a towel in Jaffa. We braved my parents’ for Thanksgiving and yours for the rest, and how did it happen that we were suddenly at my father’s side while he drowned in his own body? I lay beside him on the bed, observed my hand reaching for his brow, said, “Despite everything -” “What everything?” he asked, so I said, “Nothing,” or nothing.

You were terrible in emergencies. You were wonderful in “The Cherry Orchard.” I was always never complaining, because confrontation was death to me, and because everything was pretty much always pretty much O.K. with me. You were not able to approach the ocean at night. I didn’t know where my voice was between my phone and yours. You were never standing by the window at parties, but you were always by the window. I was so paranoid about kind words. I was just not watching the news in the basement. You were just making a heroic effort to make things look easy. I was terrible about acknowledging anyone else’s efforts. You were not green-thumbed, but you were not content to be not content. I was always in need of just one good dress shirt, or just one something that I never had. You were too injured by things that happened in the distant past for anything to be effortless in the present. I was always struggling to be natural with my hands. You were never immune to unexpected gifts. I was mostly just joking.

I was not neurotic, just apocalyptic. You were always copying keys and looking up words. I was not afraid of quiet; I just hated it. So my hand was always in my pocket, around a phone I never answered. You were not cheap or handy with tools, just hurt by my distance. I was never indifferent to the children of strangers, just frustrated by my own unrelenting optimism. You were not unsurprised when, that last night in Norfolk, I drove you to Tobey Pond, led you by the hand down the slope of the brambles and across the rotting planks to the constellations in the water. Sharing our happiness diminished your happiness. I was not going to dance at our wedding, and you were not going to speak. No part of me was nervous that morning.

When you screamed at no one, I sang to you. When you finally fell asleep, the nurse took him to bathe him, and, still sleeping, you reached out your arms.

He was not a terrible sleeper. I acknowledged to no one my inability to be still with him or anyone. You were not overwhelmed but overtired. I was never afraid of rolling over onto him in my sleep, but I awoke many nights sure that he was underwater on the floor. I loved collapsing things. You loved tiny socks. You were not depressed, but you were unhappy. Your unhappiness didn’t make me defensive; I just hated it. He was never happy unless held. I love hammering things into walls. You hated having no inner life. I secretly wondered if he was deaf. I hated the gnawing longing that accompanied having everything. We were learning to see each other’s blindnesses. I Googled questions that I couldn’t ask our doctors or you.

They encouraged us to buy insurance. We had sex to have orgasms. You loved reupholstering. I went to the gym to go somewhere, and looked in the mirror when there was something I was hoping not to see. You hated our bed. He could stand himself up, but not get himself down. They fined us for our neighbor’s garbage. We couldn’t wait for the beginnings and ends of vacations. I was not able to look at a blueprint and see a renovated kitchen, so I stayed out of it. They came to our door during meals, but I talked to them and gave. I counted the seconds backward until he fell asleep, and then started counting the seconds backward until he woke up. We took the same walks again and again, and again and again ate at the same easy restaurants. They said he looked like them. I was always watching movie trailers on my computer. You were always wiping surfaces. I was always hearing my father’s laugh and never remembering his face. You broke everyone’s heart until you suddenly couldn’t. He suddenly drew, suddenly spoke, suddenly wrote, suddenly reasoned. One night I couldn’t help him with his math. He got married.

We went to London to see a play. We tried putting aside time to do nothing but read, but we did nothing but sleep. We were always never mentioning it, because we didn’t know what it was. I did nothing but look for you for twenty-seven years. I didn’t even know how electricity worked. We tried spending more time not together. I was not defensive about your boredom, but my happiness had nothing to do with happiness. I loved it when people who worked for me genuinely liked me. We were always moving furniture and never making eye contact. I hated my inability to visit a foreign city without fantasizing about real estate. And then your father was dead. I often wasn’t reading the book that I was holding. You were never not in someone’s garden. Our mothers were dying to talk about nothing.

At a certain point you became convinced that you were always reading yesterday’s newspaper. At a certain point I stopped agonizing over being understood, and became over-reliant on my car’s G.P.S. You couldn’t tolerate trace amounts of jelly in the peanut-butter jar. I couldn’t tolerate gratuitously boisterous laughter. At a certain point I could stare without pretext or apology. Isn’t it funny that if God were to reveal and explain Himself, the majority of the world would necessarily be disappointed? At a certain point you stopped wearing sunscreen.

We were all doing well. I was still in love with the Olympics. The smaller the matter, the more I allowed your approval to mean to me. They kept producing new things that we didn’t need that we needed. I needed your approval more than I needed anything. My sister died at a restaurant. My mother promised anyone who would listen that she was fine. They changed our filters. I wanted to learn a dead language. You were in the garden, not planting, but standing there. You dropped two handfuls of soil.

And here we aren’t, so quickly: I’m not twenty-six and you’re not sixty. I’m not forty-five or eighty-three, not being hoisted onto the shoulders of anybody wading into any sea. I’m not learning chess, and you’re not losing your virginity. You’re not stacking pebbles on gravestones; I’m not being stolen from my resting mother’s arms. Why didn’t you lose your virginity to me? Why didn’t we enter the intersection one thousandth of a second sooner, and die instead of die laughing? Everything else happened - why not the things that could have?

I am not unrealistic anymore. You are not unemotional. I am not interested in the news anymore, but I was never interested in the news. What’s more, I am probably ambidextrous. I was probably meant to be effortless. You look like yourself right now. I was so slow to change, but I changed. I was probably a natural tennis player, just like my father used to say over and over and over.

I changed and changed, and with more time I will change more. I’m not disappointed, just quiet. Not unthinking, just reckless. Not willfully unclear, just trying to say it as it wasn’t. The more I remember, the more distant I feel. We reached the middle so quickly. After everything it’s like nothing. I have always never been here. What a shame it wasn’t easy. What a waste of what? What a joke. But come. No explaining or mending. Be beside me somewhere: on the split stools of this bar, by the edge of this cliff, in the seats of this borrowed car, at the prow of this ship, on the all-forgiving cushions of this thread-bare sofa in the one-story copper-crying fixer-upper whose windows we once squinted through for hours before coming to our sense: “What would we even do with such a house?”"

Wednesday, March 16, 2011