Category Archives: Issue #2

Six poems, Christine Ireland

 …The man we knew was hooded and smoothed,/walked as a panther through hospital wards,/ secret, sleek & springing off the balls of his feet./Now his eyes pace, pale-irised and clever…

This set of six poems observes various types of relationship: intimate, collegial, family, cultural, and relationship to self.

 

1. Burn Thickness

 The man we knew was hooded and smoothed,
walked as a panther through hospital wards,
secret, sleek & springing off the balls of his feet.
Now his eyes pace, pale-irised and clever
- the only part of him unburnt
in a face ever bald-surprised and marbled.
And instead of hands, blurred knobs of flesh,
pinker than my rhododendrons.
His meal arrives, a shell-fish pasta tangle
I cringe & look away – what will he do?
But he talks of vineyards vats and politicians
and we listen on as time slides loose,
the problem of the knife & fork unnoticed
as he grows jungle-lithe and olive-skinned again.

2. Farmer Wants a Wife

That shamble bear cheeky grinned
Kings schooled shearer man
of the thousand acres (more).
What a hunk, hunkered down
alone & out of town
with work as all.
Welcome to my parlour (really) my old homestead
what a party – all that landed gentry stuff
‘cept he was red eyed, drinking rum.
Farmer wants a wife!
He joked. A woman warm, with wit,
with sparkling eyes and independent means!
Three years on, my spirit cold in dying light
it’s hold your tongue you cow you’re all the same
& I’m dizzy-dulled and shackled, numb and not-me.
And now I know farmer wants a wife
breathing barely, buried in the ground in a box beneath his feet
for always.

 

3. Usual Small Things

 I had an Uncle John,
the only uncle I have known.
He was old when I was young

& I thought of him as strange
because he was so plain and mild and kind.
Invariably behind the scenes
he’d hum around the house
as he pottered determinedly,
I never knew at what really
except he’d water plants by hand;
with hose he’d stand at garden shrubs
for what seemed like an age.

He had a patience and a peace
quite alien to me.
Most nights he’d sit alone
with his transistor radio
listening to Beethoven or Brahms.

Aunty would talk and smoke and watch TV
she rarely ventured out
while Uncle John would fetch or do
what needed to be done.

Theirs seemed to be a happy home
voices never raised
it was simple and so restful
and I felt no undertows.

How I wished I could be theirs for good
not just at holidays.

Years later I was in Wales
when I learned that Uncle John had passed away.
He’d been on his daily bushland walk:
his heart had burst at the last
just doing one of his usual small things.

 

4. Crystal

I may still chip
but softly
or crack
not deeply
perhaps a surface scratch, band-aided.
I have filled.
Stabilised.
Blunted.
Gone are the days as a girl
when, with a twirl & a polished smile
I’d slice a man to the bone.
Countless shards I’ve left lodged in careless hearts
if I was pressured, poorly packed or tagged
too loosely held.
A flick-ping crystal edge
innocently open, transparently
waiting, watching for that clumsy move,
your scars mere proof
I had to self-protect.

 

5. My Cosy Sunday

 A flutter fuss, a sparrow’s cry & I look up  – page gone -
through panes of lead framed glass
a tussle in my tulip tree, now whip wet black & bare.
This September snow lets spring buds know
it’s not quite safe – but soon.
That’s when I see a sudden sun
strolling bright past my front yard
a woman, black-skinned, dressed in flames
which leap and flare with every roll
of graceful hip & long-legged glide
her queenly head dressed high, all hail,
her beauty warms our frigid town.

 

I want to tell her welcome & I’m sorry it’s so cold,
that so many here are fearful but it’s really very safe,
the only danger, strangely,
a people’s disconnect from soul.

 

6. Reflect-less

She was
clear eyed shining twenty:twenty
her own level
believed and bevelled
perfectly bedroomed.
So when exactly did she fall
from the cutting edge
fell hook line and
stupidly cut and bled.
Her view opaqued and slowed
She blurred with grey spot and blotch
belied, blank-eyed,
unseen
while evolving
some third eye
to an inner vision (another poem).
Now just for appearances she hangs
above fire between bookshelves
in 3D glass blocks angled
fly-eyed
mosaic-ed madly.

 

Download a PDF of “Six Poems”

Flying, Janet Holst

James stands at the bus stop with his schoolbag, waiting for the 722. It’s Wednesday, and he mustn’t be late home – it’s Mum’s choir night. But where is the bus? So much of his life is spent waiting, when he really wants to be moving.  Ah, here it is at last, the bus, inching down the road like an old lady, and his heart goes out to it, wills it along, but it’s blocked at the lights; and he wants to stretch out a giant hand and pick it up, save it. If he were Action Man, he wouldn’t be standing here on Wednesday after sports practice, after Mr Grainger pulled him up for not having trainers, Last Warning, he said. No, he’d be – but there’s something sudden up there: a man in the sky. Flying. With his arms stretched out, and his white coat open like a wing; and he’s really flying – it’s like that painting – up high against the blue, the one that Mrs Richards showed them, the boy with wax wings, and the sea and cows and farmers and things all below, not noticing. But James had noticed. With my little eye. The boy’s foot, the little splash. What must it be like? Up high in the silent blue, looking down at the tiny buses and cars rolling underneath, for the traffic is moving again, and the 722 is edging closer…

And the man’s up there. The Flyer. Like God. And the high viaduct is behind him, packed with traffic…but No! Not flying, after all, but falling – flat and fast from the viaduct down to the cars and roaring buses and tankers piled up at the lights. So fast. And James doesn’t, can’t see him land, because the ice-cream truck is just there, and people are shouting and running and pushing, just as the bus grinds in, the doors hissing open, and the driver saying, ‘Are-ya-gedding-on-or-aren’t-cha?’ James pulls himself up onto the step.

Through the back window of the bus the traffic is stopped, and people are crowding in the middle of the road – gawking. Rubber necking. But the bus is moving away, past the post office, past the McDonalds and the hot dog stand on the corner, past a woman with a fat stomach pushing a pram and two kids shoving each other off the footpath. And they don’t know. None of them knows. It’s as if nothing’s happened. Like Mrs Richard’s picture, and the poem she read to go with the picture, but that was all peaceful: if you fell in water, you’d just slip in, cool, the water closing above you, and down below to the fishes. But to land smack on the pavement – or what if you were driving, and someone fell smack on your windshield, like birds sometimes when they get blinded. But what about him, why jump on the traffic? Was he blinded too? An ambulance comes wailing, pushing away the traffic, and a police car whoops along the shoulder flashing red lights.

But the bus goes on.

‘I saw a man flying,’ he says when he gets home. ‘But he fell, and an ambulance came.’

‘Oh?’ says Mum, cooking. ‘Put your bag away and change, there’s a good lad, before your dad gets back.’

He showers with eyes closed, the water pelting hard on his face, and sees again the figure floating across the afternoon sky, but now it’s James himself, high in the silent blue on his own flight path: not falling, not landing – but flying.

Endlessly.

 

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Time to Talk, Ramona Hester

…When they were young they would refer to him amongst themselves as dadimiz, our father, yours and mine. Now there was nobody who shared this man as father. Nobody who shared her mother. Nobody to call her sister. They had lost a measure of themselves when Mehmet had passed away. This was one more slice cut from still raw skin…

This is part of a longer fictional work set in Central Asia exploring the experiences of an extended family as they respond to the devastating consequences of childhood sexual abuse.

Ibrahim stubbed out the cigarette and finished his bowl of tea. He had been reading yesterday’s newspaper and he now folded the thin edition in quarters and laid it down on top of a pile of its predecessors beside the telephone. Then he padded into the bedroom and began rooting around in the top drawer of the cabinet for a better pair of socks. In doing this he was obeying his wife. If she were not already out on an errand she would be reminding him to change them. Even if it was just a visit to the bazaar she would be telling him, ‘And what if you meet someone and they invite you into their house? Are you going to sit on their sofa drinking tea and making small talk with holes in your socks? Those holes will be talking louder and faster than your mouth ever could.’

He peeled a sock off, sat up and pulled it over his hand. Positioning his fingertips at the mouth of each hole, he moved them about slowly, feeling the rim of each hole catch on the hoary domes of his fingertips. Three extra mouths like this would be useful. His own mouth had always been inadequate in the most important of situations. He had never been good at saying what he really wanted to say. He knew other men for whom this was not a problem. Not that they were able to speak more wisdom than he. Those men could speak camel shit and leave it at that. What control they held over their consciences! No regrets for things said or left unsaid. No room allowed for uncertainties which may give cause for pause. Men who lived their own truths and insisted that wife and family fall into step. Ibrahim had never been able to do it. In the years that it took his young wife to grow from girl to womanhood his marital situation had become clear. He was bound to a woman greater than himself. Fourteen years her senior, his headstart had at first masked this truth. He had spent the first few years trading on his life experience. But innate ability does not take much time to catch up, and he could only watch as she absorbed his hard-learned wisdom, mixed it in with her own unique insight and applied the result to a variety of opportunities that he would otherwise have shied away from. Yet his admiration for his wife had been embellished with silence. Ibrahim unfolded a fresh pair of grey socks that would cover the yellowing toenails and tough old heels of his feet to his wife’s satisfaction. Time to talk. He picked up his wallet from the bedside table, put on his shoes, coat and hat and shuffled his way down the stairs, out to the courtyard, and then down the busy street to the bus stop.

The white minibus stopped in front of him with a screech. The ticket seller pulled back on a rope and the accordion-like door folded into itself with a hollow clap. She was yelling the route number out the window like an automatic weapon, ‘Thirty-eight, thirty-eight, thirty-eight. Route thirty-eight,’ and Ibrahim responded obediently. Securing his hat on his head with one hand, he reached into the doorway, grabbed the thin metal pole to pull himself up to the vehicle from the pavement, then ducked under the narrow minibus entranceway and found himself a seat in the back row. There he readied his money. The ticket seller would do a round of the vehicle, collecting the paper fares in a large black clip and dispensing her fragile tickets from a smaller version of the same.

Miriam’s stairwell door had been jacked open with a brick and he could hear the conversation of electrical repairmen echoing down from a floor above. Ibrahim walked in without buzzing and began climbing the stairs to his daughter’s apartment door. She might not be home. He hadn’t called in advance to tell her to expect him. Truth was that he hadn’t wanted to tie himself into the arrangement. The only way that he had managed to drag himself this far towards the encounter was the possibility that it may not happen. If he had been unable to face the conversation today, if he had chosen mid-trip to shout ‘I want to get off’ from the back seat, abandoned his journey, crossed whatever road he was on and taken the next bus back home to his familiar silence, who would have known? He had not wanted to secure his daughter’s anticipation and once again be the father that failed to turn up.

At the door, Ibrahim hacked a wet, nicotine cough. By the time he had worked up the courage to curl his hand into a fist and knock against the hollow metal security door his daughter had opened it out towards him and he had to quickly shift backwards away from the out-swinging metal fortress.

‘Dadam!’ His daughter was in the middle of cooking something, decked in apron and a tight fitting headscarf to keep her hair out of the mix. ‘I knew that was you coughing in the stairwell.’

He lingered in the doorway holding his hat brim flat against his chest. Even though it was he who was coming to see her unannounced, she still had the advantage over him. She had her head cocked to the side, one hand on the door handle and the other on the door jamb. He should say something.

‘I’ve come.’ He lifted his hat from his chest in a small salaam.

‘Have you come?’ she was giggling at him. Then she swept the inner wood door wide open with one arm, lifted her other hand off the doorjamb and waved him into the apartment,

‘Come in, dadam. Come in.’

Miriam held his elbow while he slipped off his shoes, then she took his coat and hat and hung them by the door. The apartment smelled rich and sweet like wet flour.

‘Are you making noodles?’

‘Are you hungry? I’ll make you something,’ she said.

‘No child.’ He could feel her steering him towards the sofa, but he did not want to be the guest, ‘I want to sit with you inside. In the kitchen. I’ll watch, and we can talk while you work.’

He sat at the kitchen table while she washed her hands and then began kneading the dough. She worked with her back to him. He could see the muscles flex in her shoulders and back as she worked the mixture. She had grown up strong and capable like her mother. And she had married a good man, educated and kind. And she had borne Adiljan into the family. Ibrahim put a shaking hand to his lips. This beautiful woman was his only remaining child. He watched her alternately punch and fold the dough. Two children had gone, like buds snapped off the branch. Neither of them with the chance to marry and have children. Little Adiljan left living with the weight of the entire family resting on his fragile frame. Ibrahim pulled out his handkerchief to wipe his eyes. It had been his own little family that had been fragile. He had seen his wife’s fortitude and presumed that any babies she produced would somehow share the same level of resilience. As if a fainthearted disposition was something that only he could be afflicted with. It turned out that his son’s Mehmet’s courage was all external; formed from cigarettes, cars and alcohol. And Rahima’s was the false bravery that took her to places that, God help us, she should have rightly feared. So that in the end she feared nothing, not even God.

Miriam finished the kneading and placed the dough back into the bowl to rest. So far her father had been his usual quiet self. Perhaps he just wanted company and an opportunity to stop thinking about difficult circumstances. She moved over to the sink and washed the dough off her hands, taking time to clean the wet flour from around her fingernails. She would put the kettle on and cut him some fruit.

When she turned, her father’s face was dripping with tears.

Apla!’ She walked towards the first man in her life, pulled out a kitchen chair and embraced him as his shoulders shuddered in raspy sobs.

Kizim, kizim,’ Ibrahim called out to his daughter.

Miriam pulled him closer. She wanted to say, ‘I’m here with you,’ but which daughter he was calling for? Instead she leant into his torso with her full weight and offered him soft repetitions of ‘Dadam, my father.’ When they were young they would refer to him amongst themselves as dadimiz, our father, yours and mine. Now there was nobody who shared this man as father. Nobody who shared her mother. Nobody to call her sister. They had lost a measure of themselves when Mehmet had passed away. This was one more slice cut from still raw skin.

Miriam did not offer him the usual supplications to stop crying, or encouragements to stop thinking about it. He had come this way to her house and chosen to do here what he could just as easily have engaged in on his own. He had wanted someone to mourn with, and he had chosen his daughter. She rubbed his back and kissed his head as his sobbing eased off. Eventually he lifted his head from its bent position and sniffed the tears back up his nose in one noisy, wet inhalation. He rubbed his handkerchief across the bottom of his nose and wiped the back of each hand across his eyes. Just like Adiljan. How vulnerable her father was in this world. A vulnerability that Adiljan would never be able to outgrow.

Kizim.’ Her father raised his hand and stroked her hair. The cooking scarf had fallen back off her head. ‘What pitiful circumstances you have seen in your life.’

She lent forward until her forehead was touching his.

‘I wish it hadn’t been like this for you, kizim. I wish I could have given you a life without suffering. I wish it had all been different.’

Ay, dadam.’ She put her arms around him again. ‘These things come from God. They all come from God.’

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Seeking Sky from Rooftops, Angie Rega

Lilly waited to hear Walid snoring through the thin walls before sneaking down the corridor to the back door. The tiles underfoot always felt cool no matter how high temperatures reached. She crossed the asphalt road, mounted the steep stairs that divided Noura’s front lawn like a metallic zipper and climbed the ladder leaning against the brick wall of her best friend’s house and waited.

The roof gently sloped to a wide channel off the eaves. It was full of debris and leaves. Lilly liked the way the dry mess rustled when she rested her feet in the guttering. She wiggled her toes, listening to the leaves crackle and waited.

Noura’s fingers with their badly painted and chipped nails always appeared first against the shingles. Then, the top of her head covered with a black scarf. When she was high enough she hitched up her legs and, sitting next to an expectant Lilly, pressed her hollow cheek next to Lilly’s round one.

There was a moment of silence as they gazed out at the scape of obsolete factories, second-hand car yards, and the stretch of highway that led to the city.  Freedom was the school holidays, on the rooftop of Noura’s home, where Lilly sat unnoticed by her mother’s string of boyfriends and Noura was free from her chore-abiding and obsolete law-abiding parents.

Noura crossed her legs. ‘Shall I? Again?’

Lilly snuggled in. Noura had started telling the story of the Owl Prince about a month ago.  A celestial Hercules saving girls from misery in the suburbs of a forgotten Sydney. Their Sydney was one without a harbour view, where run-down fibro houses lined the streets.

‘Tell me,’ Lilly begged.

And Noura began:

The Owl Prince

The Owl Prince is an aristocrat of the night who visits girls sitting on rooftops and dreaming of gentle love. He knows not of slapping and lewdness, nor of calloused large hands. He is a gentleman. He expends his energy swooping and circling the skies and asking rooftop girls: Would you like to learn to fly above everything and everyone?

‘Can you really do that?’ they ask him and, perched on the edge of the gutters, they spread their arms wide and imagine what it is like to feel the weight of air underneath them.’

‘Imagine if the Owl Prince did come and teach us how to fly!’ Lilly said but Noura shook her head and then broke into a smile.

Lilly hugged her bare, scraped knees up under her chin and rocked. Noura was born to tell stories and she was born to listen. This had always been the way of their friendship. Now Lilly wanted to tell a story: to have Noura need her, too. More than anything. She fumbled for the piece of paper she had scrawled the words on in her pocket and began:

‘Once upon a time before servitude was born,

And Angel Owls and Creatures of the Night freely roamed and the land was wild, all girls were trained in lessons in flight –’ she stopped mid-sentence.

Go on,’ Noura urged, poking her gently on the shoulder.

‘That’s all I have. I can’t think of anything else.’

‘Yes, you can, it’s easy. Just make it up. Like me.’

‘Noura, wouldn’t you love to learn to fly and flee from here?’

‘One day we will.’

A veiled Noura lifted her hands and in place of dirty nails with chipped polish, Lilly saw powerful limbs that gestured the flight of the Owl Prince. She giggled.

‘Do you think he’d protect us?’

‘Of course,’ Noura answered.

If only the Owl Prince would come and take me away from Walid’s sneaking hands. Or even take Walid away and leave me and my mother alone, Lilly thought. But then, she knew that another Walid would simply take his place, called Bruce or Barry or Mahmood.

They sat in silence; Noura’s arms were still stretched out like wings, her sleeves billowing in the night breeze. Lily tilted her chin up, letting the wind blow against her face, a short respite from the summer heat.

It was a fairy story, a make-believe myth they had invented just like the ones they told of giants fighting when it thunder stormed and the tale of frustrated artist Monsieur Verdante who threw his paint out the window in a fit of anger and made the artificial grass, artificial green.

But the next night Noura appeared, with henna markings on her hands and arms instead of the usual pen ink. She told Lilly her parents had bought her a ticket to a place that didn’t exist on a map anymore, to be married to a man twenty five years her senior whom she had never met. Lilly knew, then, that her friend was wishing for the Owl Prince to be real, too.

‘The Owl Prince’s castle lies behind the storm clouds. A sky heavy with winds and rains means he has bought his kingdom to your town. You must ride those clouds, fly into the thick of the storm, or you will get left behind.’

Noura laid her hands in her lap and they both looked at the patterns in silence. The henna had lost its vibrancy and now started to blur into the tiny crevices of Noura’s skin.

‘You’re fourteen! They can’t send you to marry some guy you don’t know!’

‘They can, Lilly.’ Mascara streaked Noura’s cheeks.

Lilly put an arm around her best friend. She looked up at the night sky, searching for very special storm clouds but the heat had made the sky crisp and starched.

It seldom rained in summer. The season was long and stifling. Young boys tried to fry an egg on the asphalt at the hottest time of the day.

‘Lilly! Lilly! Get your miserable arse back home now!’ The anger in Walid’s voice bounced up to their rooftop.

‘I’ve got to go.’

She kissed Noura’s wet cheek and scrambled down the ladder.

 

Lilly put salt instead of sugar in Walid’s coffee; her mother got angry.

‘What the hell did you do that for?’ her mother yelled. She threw the cup into the sink, sending a chipped piece of porcelain into the air.

‘I don’t like the way he touches me.’

‘Don’t be stupid.’

‘He told me to show him my tits.’

‘Stop telling lies, Lilly.’

‘You’re lying to yourself.’

‘Go to your room before I slap you!’ her mother screamed, but she grabbed for her menthol cigarettes instead.

Lilly stormed to her room and slammed the door. In the Banks’ household where the rules changed according to the latest boyfriend, words meant nothing. Actions spoke louder. She rested her forehead against the cold wall, and stared at the floor. What had once been her home, where she felt safe, was decaying around her. She noticed the dust that coated the edges of the skirting boards and the blinds was now visible to her naked eye even in the afternoon light.

She threw herself onto her bed and drifted into a state of half sleep, hearing them argue. Snippets of Walid’s defense – it’s just a game, she’s a lying little bitch, you know what teenage girls can be like and I saved you so much money by sanding the lounge room floor! Empty, weightless words that levitated and travelled with a gust of wind.

When the rhythms of her breathing slowed and sleep stood at the edges of her consciousness, she saw the Owl Prince perched at her windowsill. Was she dreaming? She could have sworn she was awake. He wore an owl mask over an angular, chiseled face and lifted his goliath arms, revealing the tawny feathers that sprouted underneath. Then, he took the north wind up, past the tops of the highest roofs and trees and ascended into the night air. A flittering and fluttering noise reverberated around the bedroom.

Lilly rubbed her eyes and stared at the posters of dragons and winged horses above her bed. Her grandmother had bought them for her twelfth birthday. She hadn’t seen Nan since Walid had moved in. Now they peeled from their corners, revealing the dirty white walls underneath. If she didn’t blink they looked as if they were moving, flying, too. She drifted back into slumber. Perhaps she should sleep forever.

When she woke, a few hours later, her mother and Walid were both asleep, the television in their room emanating white noise. She sat up and stretched, running her hands through her hair and felt a foreign fluffy texture.

A single tawny feather was entangled in her knotty hair. She gently removed it, brushing its softness against her cheek and trembled with excitement.

Yes.

The Owl Prince was real.

He had come for her.

Come for them.

She put the feather into her jean’s pocket and went to Noura. She knew her best friend would be waiting.

 

It was dawn and rows of lights iced the city with a white glow, making dreams seem tangible, real even. The city felt washed clean and hope dressed Lilly in its finest. The Owl Prince. Real. His feather in her pocket. She smiled at Noura.

‘I was wondering when you would come,’ her friend said and pressed her cheek against Lilly’s. Noura untied her headscarf, letting her long ebony hair unravel. Lilly thought the tresses hung in wings of raven black, exuding sorceress magic.

‘You look like a witch – a good one.’

Noura smiled and lifted her face towards the few remaining night stars and closed her eyes as if in a trance.

‘He did not touch me tonight.’ Lilly said. It was unemotional, reportative, factual. ‘I put salt in his coffee.’

‘At least when mine touches me he will call me wife.’

‘Does that make it any better?’

Lilly snuck her hand in her pocket and stroked the tawny plume. She decided not to tell Noura just yet about the feather, relishing its secret for a little longer. She wanted to surprise her, tell her at just the right moment.

‘One day, the Owl Prince will come,’ she said.

Noura shuffled closer, put a tight arm around Lilly’s waist and pointed to a large storm cloud approaching from the East. ‘Look, his floating castle is behind those storm clouds. You see, it never rains in summer, yet, he comes for us.’

‘When do you fly out to marry the old fart?’

‘In two weeks.’

‘Right before school starts.’

Noura stretched her hands in front of her; the henna now pale ochre, almost the same colour as her skin. With her story-telling hands she brushed the hair away from Lilly’s ear and whispered, ‘You must believe.’

Lilly tingled at the gentle touch of lips on the curve of her ears. How could her friend stay so calm when she was about to be sold to a man who could mistreat her; someone she didn’t know? She listened:

The Owl Prince watches Noura and Lilly and thinks they would make great flying companions…

Lilly dozed on Noura’s shoulder, dreaming of riding the back of her Prince of feathers, zooming past a bird’s eye view of her rooftop, bouncing from one cloud to another, riding into the vast shah blue of the night skies. Away from Walid and her mother.

‘Walid and I are getting married,’ her mother said as she folded the laundry. She didn’t look at Lilly but kept her eyes focused on the worn socks and underpants with frayed elastics.

Lilly waited, to see if her mother would look at her, acknowledge that she deserved conversation, dialogue, not just commands and statements. Half a minute passed.

Lilly marched to her room and slammed the door. She was not going to listen anymore.

‘You’ll have to get used to it!’ her mother yelled out to her. ‘You’re a big girl now.’ She turned the television up loud, competing with Lilly’s music.

Things were closing in. Noura would be gone in less than a week and she would be left here alone. She crawled under bed and lay there in the darkness and dust bunnies. She wondered how long she would have to stay there until her mother came in and saw her in silent protest. She never came. Soon, her muscles cramped and her neck hurt. Still her mother didn’t come. Lilly stayed in her room until they went to bed. When she went to the kitchen, she found a dinner plate with two lamb chops and mash inside the microwave.

That night Lilly was alone on the rooftop. Noura had been sent to her Aunt’s place for the evening. She stroked the single feather in her pocket and marveled at how she had woken with it in her hair. She spread her arms out wide and pretended they were wings. Her shoulders felt strong. The wind accelerated and blew her hair back off her shoulders and it flew. But when she looked down, her head started to spin as she rocked dangerously too close to the edge.

Should she jump? She thought about her mother. Her wiry mother who shook too much, smoked too many cigarettes and watched too much television. She would marry Walid. Walid, who chained his motorbike to the post in the car space and always tied the dog up, no matter how many times Lilly let him run free in the yard. Her mother would vow to love and obey him and he would tie her up, too. The rope of manipulation is a strong, coarse one, already Lilly feels its noose around her neck, tightening, each time he stood near her.

She would never obey any man.

Would you like to learn to fly above everything and everyone? She heard Noura’s voice in her mind. How would she cope when her best friend had gone?

‘I do believe,’ she whispered to the night sky.

 

Walid slapped Lilly.

It was the evening before Noura was to fly to her new home. Lilly and Walid were sitting at opposite ends of the sofa in the lounge room, her mother ironing in front of the television. He was watching the wrestling and Lilly changed the channel without asking. It was without warning, a cold, dry slap across the face. Lilly pushed him back. He undid his belt, brandishing it like a sword to threaten her. Lilly recoiled, back towards the corridor but the feather had made her cocky.

‘Mum and I always watch Family Feud.’

‘Walid!’ her mother pleaded. ‘Leave her. She’s just a kid.’

Lilly froze. An eerie silence fell between them as white and tawny feathers floated past the lounge room window. Walid slumped back on the lounge and Lilly’s mother continued ironing.

‘You can leave home when you turn fifteen,’ he said.

Lilly didn’t answer, mesmerized by the cottony tufts that fluttered past.

‘Did you hear what I said?’

The Owl Prince had come.

Lilly bolted. She dashed down the corridor and onto the footpath. Vapor rose from the asphalt and she could smell the humidity mixed with the promise of rain. A storm was coming! She ran across the road, the hot ground burning her bare feet and didn’t stop until she was up the zipper staircase and climbing the wobbly ladder to the rooftop. White and tawny feathers pirouetted in the air. She hoisted herself up.

On the other side of the roof, Noura stood dangerously close to the edge where the last row of shingles met the guttering.

She held a hessian sack, full of white and tawny feathers and was releasing them to the angry wind. They plummeted, swooped and circled like fragile birds taking their first flight.

Lilly’s mouth watered involuntarily and nausea churned at her stomach, wringing it tight.

‘Noura, where’s the Owl Prince?’

Noura’s were vacant; she stared toward the emptiness of the horizon and laughed. It was a tinkling kind of laugh, and echoed against the excitable winds.

I am the Owl Prince. Stories are all we have left. Can you see his turret in the storm clouds?’

The bile rose in Lilly’s mouth, coating her tongue. She saw nothing but clouds and weightless feathers. She shook her head.

Desperation swallowed Noura’s already hollow cheeks. She reached out her hand, her fingers outstretched towards Lilly.

‘Jump with me! Jump! You must believe!’

Before Lilly could decide, Noura leapt out into the empty air, grabbing Lilly’s hand as she passed. Lilly felt her toenails scratch against the roof tiles and was suspended into the night air of debris and dust particles that stung her face.

‘I do believe. I do believe. I do believe,’ Lilly prayed and the words curled up and whisked away.

A pressure beat inside Lilly’s skull. Her ears blocked. They were being taken up, further towards the fast moving charcoal clouds, towards the opening of the storm.

Thunder birthed a chasm in the sky and separated them. Lilly’s hand scrabbled for Noura’s.

‘Noura!’ she screamed but her friend was out of her reach. She watched Noura’s drop turn to a bounce as if scooped up in a net. Caught in this invisible web she bounced from left to right, up and down as feathers sprouted from her shoulder blades. Then it let Noura go.

Lilly gasped as her friend fell free, faltered, fluttered ….and then flew.

Lilly itched as if she had hives. She was caught in an unseen thread of silk wind and cold rain; Lilly spun inwards, her skin crawled as feathers poked through and her eyes watered as her eyelids furred. She jerked and flapped, and then flew towards Noura, their wings entwined to share their first joyous flight.

‘Tell me a story,’ Noura demanded. Her voice was calm as if she was born to do this.

And Lilly began,

‘Once upon a time before servitude was born,

When Angel Owls and Creatures of the Night roamed freely

and the land was wild,

 All girls were trained in lessons in flight

So when they ran up the rooftops to jump their lives away

They did believe in fairies

And did grow wings of fey.

Lilly flew upward. Noura followed. It was an impulse, a quick decision. An exhilarative rush surged through Lilly as she brushed Noura’s wings. Weightless, they picked up a wind current that blew west.

 

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Time Lost, Jamie Derkenne

‘Same old same old,’ said Julie, packing her day neatly into four words and using her sleeve to delicately pat the Madeleine cake crumbs from her mouth.

Stefan nodded to say he knew the stuck-in-a-hole feeling. Berlin had been like that. Balmain was becoming like that. He wanted to go back to North Arm, but he wanted company as well. Watching the crumbs part from her lips, he thought the company could be Julie.

Stefan had spent the last six months helping Helmut renovate a terrace. The job was done. Stefan had stopped paying him. Sydney was expensive. He had to get back. Perhaps she would.

‘Move up with me,’ he said, reaching for her hand. Julie said nothing, just stared at the crumbs, her hand limp in his.

‘Money is not a problem. I make good dough. And the valley is beautiful. The nature is quiet and green. People are so free there, not imprisoned by all this city Scheisse.’

Until recently, Julie worked for a Broadway chew n spew. To get the job she didn’t even mention the philosophy major. Derrida was slick, but so was constant grease. It was a job, that’s all you could say. She didn’t mind, apart from the money, when she got laid off. Stefan met her a few times when he bought munchies for him and Helmut. Stefan and Julie would talk so much that by the time Stefan got back the take-out would be cold, or eaten. After a few times, Helmut, his voice hungry and stomach sore, suggested he should get the take-out and Stefan get the date. Julie went out with him a few times. He adored her. When he said she could share his bedroom at Helmut’s house, she did.

Stefan was focussed, sensitive and a good listener. Nothing like Helmut. Helmut was a bit off the air, spending hours straightening bent nails and collecting old planks from construction sites. His terrace, a two bedder on the point road, was beautiful or would have been if not for the piles of stuff stacked everywhere.

Julie had never been up north. But the way Stefan spoke made it seem like a magical place, a place where you could unwind and breathe again. She wanted to go to Melbourne first, put a few things in order, then fly up. Stefan would meet her in Coffs in a few weeks time. Julie thought that Stefan was one of the few men she had ever met who understood what she was saying. The way he tilted and nodded his head when she spoke was proof enough, she thought, of the import he gave her every word.

Stefan lived in a small shed made from ripple iron stitched together with six gauge next to the river on Christina’s land. When he got back he realised there were going to be a few problems with Julie moving in. The shed was not an ideal home, though he knew of couples who lived in far worse. Anna and Ivan lived in an upturned water tank on the adjoining property and seemed OK. And then there were the Silk People and their teepees. Still, he could do better than a shed. He had saved up some money. Perhaps he could afford a shipping container.

‘I can deliver a 40 footer to you cheapo mate. In pretty good condition. There’s only one hitch.’

Stefan had gone into town to make some phone calls. This one sounded promising, Maybe he could afford it.

‘So what is this hitch?’

‘Full of ruined books. You find a way of dumping them, and the container’s yours with ten per cent off.’

Stefan had the 40 footer delivered from Coffs, and positioned exactly where he wanted it, on a rocky outcrop overlooking a small field bounded on one side by the Nambucca and another by a grove of camphor laurel trees. On its side in big white letters was written the words ‘Hamburg Süd’ which made him smile. It took him a while to work the door bolts loose. When he finally coaxed the doors open he found the container packed with boxes of water-damaged second-hand books. Thousands of them. He managed to stack about 20 boxes of books in the paddock before giving up for the day. He literally had a truck load of books to shift.

The next morning Christina knocked on his shed door. Stefan’s shed and container were parked on Christina’s land. She lived in the old homestead on the other side of a small hill. In return for living on her land, Stefan kept an eye on the fences, many of which had disappeared into the river now that it had changed course.

‘Stefan! You need to help me. One of the Charolais is sick.’ Christina was a thin bony woman with eyes like a Jersey. Her reason for living was to enter Charolais cattle into the Bowraville and District Annual Agricultural Show. Among the webs in her mahogany lined living room were festooned the red and blue ribbons of previous victories. She spent most of her days hoeing thistles and talking back to talk-back radio, which lived in one of her ears via a miniature transistor. Her talking back was always in the fields. People said she talked to her cows.

Stefan knew nothing about cattle, but Christina thought he did. Stefan’s father had been a doctor, and some of the common sense had rubbed off. He followed her towards the dam where a creamy white cow sat. Charolais were normally skittish, but this one let both go right up to her.

Stefan scratched behind her neck, the way cows like. The heifer looked dolefully up at him, and then vomited copiously, not bothering to move its body. The vomit was sludgy grey. Some of it seemed to have straight edges. Stefan sat on his haunches and peered at it. There was type amongst the goo. He thought he could make out a word. Recherche?

‘Seems to me she’s eaten something she shouldn’t have.” he said. “Probably she will get over it in a day or two. You should just make sure she has some water with a bit of molasses.’

Christina nodded.

‘I see your new container has turned up. Should be an improvement for you. By the way, you haven’t seen my radio? I’ve dropped it somewhere.’

Stefan made a corral out of star stakes and pig wire so the cattle couldn’t get in, and moved the boxes there. He spent the rest of the day stacking more boxes from inside the container. It was hard work. Spring was still some way off. The nights were cold and the mornings frosty, but there was bite to the daytime heat. By noon the air was damp and hot. Every now and then he’d break open a box to see what sort of books were inside. They were mostly novels, and a lot of self-help books. Sometimes he would come across a philosophy book, and if it wasn’t too damaged he’d take it inside, thinking it might be something for Julie to read. He also kept a few German authors, even though they were in translation.

He stacked about 100 boxes into the corral. Christina would probably evict him if she knew he had been poisoning her cattle with literature. Maybe he should just chuck the lot in the river. He shook his head at the thought. If the Bowraville Argus was to be believed, the river was already polluted enough downstream. He thought about burning them. Burning them made a lot more sense, as he was in constant need of firewood for his Aga.

He had shifted the Aga from the shed just the day before. The Aga was small and positioned right next to the door of the container. Any further in and the whole container would become an oven. Stefan used it to bake German sourdough, which he sold at the Community Markets. The Aga needed fuel that burned slowly, and evenly. Not too hot. He’d give the books a try.

As he worked he noticed the sick cow had come over to see what he was doing. She seemed better already, but wasn’t grazing, just looking at him and chewing her cud as he piled the books alongside the container. It was unnerving having the cow watch intently. It was like she knew what he was doing. Stefan put down another box of books, and using it as a stool, sat down and stared at the cow, catching his breath.

The cow made a noise like someone clearing their throat.
‘She’ll be no good for you,’ said the cow as it chewed its cud. Stefan stared back.

‘Was that you? Did you speak?’

The cow said nothing, but went on quietly chewing, its jaw moving silently sideways as if it was working up to say something.

‘I must be going mad. I would have sworn the cow said something,’ Stefan muttered to himself. The world was spinning.

‘My point is that you yourself don’t see what is obvious. I am talking to you. That is obvious. She will leave you. That is obvious. But on both counts you refuse to believe the truth of your own senses.’

Stefan stared slack jawed. Not only did the cow speak to him, but the voice was ethereal and beautifully modulated. A wonderful speaking voice, but one that sounded tiny and far away. It was like a man’s voice. It had a slight lisp perhaps, but one that was hard to detect, and probably a result of chewing while at the same time speaking.

‘You can speak!’

The cow languidly slid a thick blue tongue into one of its nostrils, flicked it around, and then continued chewing silently.

‘I heard you. You can speak!’ Stefan repeated.

‘But did you understand anything of what I was saying?’ the cow said.

This time it was Stefan’s turn to be silent.

‘You say she’s leaving, but how would you know? You know nothing of my relationship with Julie, nothing at all. You know nothing about me. And you have never even met her! How do you say you know these things?’

‘I know how these things work. I’ve digested quite a bit of human thought. And besides, why shouldn’t you trust me? I am a cow. Why would I lie?’

Stefan tried to ask more questions, but the cow remained silent. Eventually she sat down in the shade of the container quite close to where he was working. He watched her intently, but after a while she stopped looking at him, and closed her eyes for minutes at a time. Some time later, with some heaving and snorting, the cow got up, and walked slowly over to where the rest of the herd was grazing.

Naturally, Stefan said nothing about the talking cow to Christina. And he decided that it was against his best interests to say anything when he picked Julie up from Coffs Airport.

‘Are you sure you want to be here?’

Julie laughed. She wasn’t the least bit sure, but she wasn’t going to tell Stefan that. Stefan had worked hard to make a little home out of his new shipping container. He’d even managed to build a small deck overlooking a gully and the Nambucca where they could sit at night once the weather warmed up.

‘Such a beautiful place.’ She kissed him. It wasn’t the answer he was looking for.

For the next few weeks, things seemed to go smoothly. Stefan burned books in the Aga, using it to bake bread. He had come across a case of Thomas Mann, in English translation, which burned particularly well. It was strange how different books burned in different ways. Burning Nietzsche was next to impossible, even though all the books were completely dry. An entire case of DH Lawrence remained damp no matter what he did. Stefan had even taken to placing the books on the steel roof of the container during the daytime to help dry them, but after weeks Sons and Lovers not only remained damp but mold had begun to grow across the pages. He would have to dig a pit and compost them. For the most part the Aga was well fuelled and Stefan’s bread baking business boomed. He left the container doors propped open because of the heat. They lay in bed listening to the sounds of frogs and night birds, feeling the night breeze on their faces.

Life settled into a quiet routine. Julie seemed happy, forever saying how different the Nambucca was to either Sydney or Melbourne, but Stefan couldn’t get the cow’s words out of his head.

One morning he got up early, and put his gumboots and Drizabone on. The air was cold enough for breath clouds, and there was a thick frost on the grass. He walked over to the camphor laurel grove and looked around. It was still too dark to see properly, but he soon spotted the herd, their thick white coats giving them the appearance of ghosts in the gloaming. The entire herd, about twenty breeders, a few calves and heifers were sitting under a thicket of trees where it was a few degrees warmer than the open paddock. He trod carefully, his boots not even crunching the frost. They still sensed him. They all turned their heads his way to watch him come.

Even though they were Charolais, not one of them stirred or showed the least sign of agitation. Stefan got up so close he could almost reach out and touch them. He smelt their sugary breath. He realised he had no idea which of the cows was the one who spoke to him.

‘Which one are you?’

The cows said nothing. A few were chewing cud, but several more weren’t even doing that.

‘One of you spoke to me. I heard you!’

Some of the cows didn’t even seem to be looking at him any more, but through him, like he was invisible. It was an unnerving feeling.

‘You need to explain yourself. Why will she leave? What have I done? Why won’t you speak to me? It won’t happen, you know. I will leave her first.’

‘Stefan?’ There was a catch of concern in the voice. Stefan looked from cow to cow, trying to work out which one had uttered his name, realising too late that the voice had come from behind him. He turned around.

Silhouetted by a dawning sun pinking her ears, Julie stood at the edge of the grove, holding out a hand as you would if helping someone over a stream.

‘Julie?’

‘Stefan, what are you doing? Who are you talking to? Is Christina there? Are you talking about me?’

Stefan was silent for a few seconds trying to work out what to say.
‘No no. No-one is here. I was just checking on the cows. I was clearing my throat.’

Julie came closer, looking around. It was clear she didn’t believe him. Stefan knew he had to act. Far better for him to leave her then she to leave him.

That night, while they were sitting around the Aga burning some Günter Grass, Stefan told Julie she should leave. She burst into tears.

‘Look, we aren’t meant for each other. This is clear to me. It’s better we split now and remain friends than later on become enemies.’ The words sounded hollow.

Julie sniffed and patted her eyes with her sleeve.

‘It’s Christina isn’t it? I heard you talking to her this morning.’
Stefan opened his mouth to say he had been talking to a cow, but thought better of it. He nodded sagely. ‘Yes, you are correct. It was Christina.’

Julie’s face contorted in agony and she started sobbing once more. That night Stefan slept on the roof. The next morning he took her into Macksville so she could catch the Sydney Express. He offered to wait on the platform with her, but she said no. Her grief had turned to anger.

Later that night, alone in his container, Stefan started to feel bad about the whole situation. He would drive into town and try ringing her in the morning, but it all seemed so hopeless. Why had he done it?

After a few hours the moon rose. The container doors were open as usual, as he was baking for the Saturday markets. Unable to sleep, Stefan put on his gumboots and walked towards the camphor laurel grove. The moon was full and heavy. The light cast strong shadows across the fields. A flicker of shadow made him look up. A cloud, but perhaps not. Something that for all the world looked like Anna, skirts, boots and all, flying across its face as if on the zenith of a giant leap.

Stefan felt sick. Something was happening to his brain he was sure. Was he hallucinating? He wondered what he would look like from such a height.

This time he recognised the Charolais who had spoken to him. It was the way she was chewing her cud. She’d move her jaws from side to side for a few seconds then stop, then start again.

‘Why did you tell me to leave her?’

The cow looked up at him exactly the same way Julie did when she was asking him to explain why she should leave.

‘I know it was you. You told me when I was taking books out of the container. I know it was real. You told me.’

The cow swallowed and lifted its head as if to say something. Stefan waited. The Charolais, its head held high, bellowed so loudly that the sound echoed through the night. It was a cry of sorts, the sound a cow makes when it has lost its calf, or is calling for a bull. An elemental sound so loud and forlorn that for a second or two Stefan wasn’t sure if it was him or the cow making all the noise.

 

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The Riders, Helen Meany

Sister Veronica had a well-known knack for knowing if a student was looking at the clock, but Joyce Hocking stole a glance at the hateful face above the blackboard regardless. Still 1:47. Its hands had barely moved.  The nun continued to stroll around the classroom, hands clasped behind her back, hovering over the shoulder of each kid and their cursive practice. Joyce had only copied one line from the blackboard, and had also smudged ink down the side of her book. But instead of starting a new page, she pressed her pen nib down hard on the blotting paper and watched the blue ink blossom.

Under the desk, her left hand picked at the edges of the large scab on her knee, carefully selecting sections that felt sufficiently healed to yield without starting a new bleed. She let the loosened crumbs fall to the floor and then ran a satisfied fingertip over the soft new skin beneath, imagining it shiny and pink, and as smooth as the satin trim on a woollen blanket. She’d try riding her brother’s bike again when she got home. She wanted to show her parents she could do the deliveries for the shop like Arthur had before he’d left for boarding school in Rockhampton. Her mum had told her it was no job for a girl and besides; the bike was too big for a nine year old. And Joyce had clenched her teeth until she gave herself a headache.

Joyce hated Friday afternoons at the best of times, and this one had dragged on like nobody’s business. It was rare for anything to happen in Barcaldine, but today the 2pm train from Longreach was delivering The Rossi Bros Circus. This lot had never been to town before, not many had. Joyce had cried for a week after Sterlington’s Circus had a derailment and never turned up. But that was two years ago, and she had been thoroughly satisfied to learn they’d gone bust not long after. This time the principle, Sister Paul, had promised the school they could walk down to Oak Street and watch the procession from the station to the showground. It’s not every day you get to see elephants on the main street, she’d said.

A man with a pompadour, sweat stained singlet, and a cigarette balanced on his bottom lip, led the first one down the strip of dust that called itself a road. The brown elephant was adorned with tarnished chains that looped around its ankles and neck and it hauled a green windowless carriage with yellow lettering. Three more carriage-pulling elephants followed, their lethargic tread stirring up orange clouds. Standing in a ragged line by the road’s edge, the kindys jumped on the spot and yelped. Sister Paul clutched her bamboo cane in her fat red hands behind her back and leaned forward on her toes.

Joyce slumped against an awning post outside Morrison’s Hardware. Seeing the animals up close didn’t elicit the feeling she’d anticipated. They could have been goats and billy carts for the surprising disinterest she had in the procession so far. She decided the elephants didn’t look right. Their ears were tiny and their heads bumpy. Also, it wasn’t even a procession.  It was obvious they were just unloading all their stuff from the train and taking it down to the showground. She became irritated by the unwarranted interest the rest of the school, and the other locals who’d wandered out of the shops or pub, were showing in it. Some of her classmates had even joined the babies down the front and were speculating excitedly about whether the green carriages carried lions or tigers.

‘They don’t even look like proper elephants,’ she said to the post.

Brendan Byrne, standing a yard or two in front of her, turned just his head and curled his lip.

‘Nothing ever looks right to you, Hocking.’ His eyes flickered from her face. ‘Yuck. Your leg’s bleeding.’

She followed his gaze; a dark red trail had been painted down her shin from her disturbed scab and was now threatening her left sock. Joyce fought a wave of embarrassment before it set into familiar fury. Boys never cared if other boys had bleeding scabs or even spongy warts. She squatted, pulled out a blue checked handkerchief from the pocket of her tunic, spat on it and rubbed her leg clean.

She stood again in time to see two young women with thick eyebrows and bobbed hair each lead a grey pony past the group of school children. The pony girls chatted to each other, cotton dresses billowing around their knees, only acknowledging the onlookers with a constant wave of their free hands that Joyce soon realised was just shooing flies. A flatbed truck tightly packed with wooden poles and covered with oilcloth taupe, overtook the girls. The driver tooted twice as he passed the school children and the infants jumped up and down on the spot again. Another pony, led by a dark haired boy, passed. The boy’s eyes were trained on the dirt, but his shoulders were squared. His shoes were scuffed and the light brown limbs poking out from under his creased shorts reminded Joyce of grown-up footy player’s legs; lumpy and angular. They seemed at odds with the rest of him, which was like any other kid in her class. She decided he seemed about as thrilled to be participating in this activity, as she was to be watching it. Joyce couldn’t say why exactly, but it lifted her mood.

Joyce’s mum wasn’t fussed about missing out on the matinee performance, and didn’t want to close the shop even on a Saturday. Someone might need something. She needn’t have worried because most of the town were there anyway, along with Joyce and her dad in his Sunday best, already dust coloured and sweat streaked. Joyce had woken that morning, sure that the dull unease and general apathy she now felt about the circus would be replaced by something more agreeable once inside the tent, with a toffee apple in her hand. But there were no toffee apples. Instead, Joyce’s dad bought a bag of peanuts from a child in a yellow satin shirt carrying a shallow box down the aisle. His face was covered in streaky white greasepaint, red cheeks and oversized painted mouth, but Joyce could tell it was the pony boy. She smiled at him as he passed her dad the bag, but he was already looking past them for the next sale.

The air was thick with smell of peanut shells, sawdust, stale sweat and ripe dung. Joyce took to sipping breaths between her fingers clamped over her mouth. Clowns as tramps meandered and tumbled around the ring while a leathery faced man with white hair, seated on a box beside the ring, wrestled lurching, discordant accompaniment out of a large black accordion. Joyce’s dad chuckled at the clowns and clapped for the elephants, as the cigarette man, now in a sequined jacket, cajoled them to walk in formation, balance on a large crate, and in turn crawl under each other’s bellies.  When they left the ring the same man returned to introduce Lady Lana and The Beast. Then a woman in boots, jodhpurs and unflinching grin, led out a tiger on a rope.  The accordion fell silent, and the audience followed suit; finally, something thrilling and dangerous. The woman led the slow moving animal around the ring twice, then cracked a bullwhip to make the tiger lie down, roll over and stand on its hind legs. She threw it something to eat, took a deep bow and led the animal away. Joyce and her father exchanged glances as they clapped lightly.

‘I’d bet two bob that Lady Lana’s more dangerous than the tiger. What do you reckon Joycie Woyce?’

Joyce shrugged, disappointment settling in her belly like a lump of bread dough. ‘Are all circuses like this?’

‘Like what love?’

She slumped against her father and exhaled loudly.

The cigarette man strode to the centre of the ring. He introduced the next act, Little Jimmy Rossi, The Bareback Rider!

A white-faced figure in a yellow satin shirt rode out on a pony, left arm raised in greeting. Joyce sat up. The boy seemed suddenly larger, taller. One of the bobbed hair girls in a full, ruffled skirt, held one end of a long lead attached to the pony’s bridle. She stood in the centre of the ring, pivoting with the rope as the pony trotted the circumference. The boy climbed to his knees, balancing on a thick flat platform of blankets on the animal’s rump. Then he leapt to his feet, standing erect, arms outstretched. Joyce inhaled sharply and applauded in unison with the crowd. The lump of dough had disappeared, driven out by a pounding beneath her ribs. Everyone around them sat up, leant in, whispered astonishment and shushed replies.  With face paint blanketing his expression, the boy raised his hands, and in one swift movement planted them on the pony’s back and flung his feet into the air. They hung there less than a second before he bounced back to a standing position. The crowd sucked in oxygen as if collectively winded, and cheered. The applause continued as the boy performed the handstand three more times. On the final attempt, he wobbled on landing. Joyce stopped breathing, exhaling only when the boy dismounted with a graceful jump to the sawdust. The pony continued on course and the boy took a running leap from the centre of the ring and pulled himself up onto the moving animal. He stood again, completing another two laps of the ring in that position. Then, as if satisfied that all eyes were upon him, or that his nerves were sufficiently steadied, he slowly moved to a half crouch, then promptly swung his arms up and forward over his head. His feet left the trotting pony’s back, and with knees tucked into his chest he turned a tight backflip. The boy’s feet reconnected unsteadily with the platform a full second before anyone in the audience had the audacity to clap, to make sure their brains had caught up with their eyes and confirmed they’d seen right. Or, in case he still fell. The boy regained his balance and dismounted from the moving pony, joining the girl in the centre of the ring for an extended, deep bow. The girl smiled, but the boy remained expressionless. Some townspeople stood up and shouted for more.

As he left the ring, Joyce thought how oddly small he looked once again.

 

Joyce felt restless. She didn’t want to work in the shop that afternoon. She wanted to take Arthur’s bike out and practice in the schoolyard, but her mum had made her wipe the shelves and sweep. Then she had to fill the fridge.

She’d left the circus with a curious unease that scratched at her insides. She didn’t even feel like lunch. Her mum had asked her how the show was, and she had no words.  Dad had answered for her.

‘…A bit disappointed I think darl.’

It wasn’t entirely accurate, but Joyce let it pass. She felt a strong desire to see the show again before they left, so she was keen to keep in her mum’s good book for the rest of the day. She knew that night’s show was out of the question, but if she aimed for Sunday’s matinee she might wrangle it.

Joyce had just finished sweeping the floor of the shop, forming the dirt and dust into a small pile to be swept up with a pan, when the jangle of the bell and thwack of the screen door made her look up.  The accordion man hobbled in using a cane, closely followed by the boy. Jimmy Rossi, The Bareback Rider. The man’s torso twisted awkwardly and stiffly at each step. The boy followed with the same straight-backed grace that Joyce had first seen on Oak Street. He glanced around the shop quickly and then lowered his gaze. Close up now the boy seemed older, perhaps even in high school. Without thinking, Joyce stepped behind the shelf of biscuit tins so she was out of sight.

Her mother appeared from the back room, slapping on a well-rehearsed smile for the stranger at the counter.  ‘Afternoon, how can I help you dear?’

‘Do you have the Vincent’s?’ The man had a stern, deep singsong accent and it seemed to catch Joyce’s mother by surprise.  The corners of her mouth dropped slightly, and with her forehead creased up, tilted her head slightly.

‘Ah…the headache powders?’

‘Yes.’  His reply was abrupt. Joyce watched with interest, knowing her mother didn’t take kindly to pugnacious customers.

‘Righto, then.’ She turned to a shelf behind her where the small blue and yellow boxes were arranged in a small stack.

She placed the box on the counter, ‘That’ll be six and six.’

The man paid and slipped the box into his front shirt pocket. He nodded once in acknowledgement and shuffled awkwardly out of the shop, the boy holding the door open for him. Joyce’s mother pushed the register closed with more force than was needed.

Joyce ran to the door and watched the pair as they headed down the street. The boy held the man’s elbow and helped to steady him as he walked. She lost sight of them so pushed the door and poked her head out. The boy was now alone on the bench outside Shakespeare’s Hotel. Without checking to see if her mother was watching, Joyce stepped out and several seconds later was outside the pub, the boy only looking up when she spoke.

‘Hello.’

‘Hi.’

‘I liked your tricks. My dad said you probably rode before you could walk. Did you really?’

The corners of the boy’s mouth pushed his cheeks up a little; he shrugged, and averted his gaze.

‘I just always done it. Me dad taught me.

‘Is that your dad, in there?’ She gestured to the pub doors and sat down next to him.

The boy nodded.

‘Why can’t he walk properly?’

‘He had an accident, when he was still in Italy.’

‘Is that where you’re from?’

The boy shook his head.

‘I’m in grade five. What about you?’ Joyce asked.

‘Grade?’

‘In school.’

‘Don’t go.’

‘Don’t go? The nuns at my school say that you have to go to school every day.’

‘Or what?’

‘Or Sister Paul will go over to your house and tell your mum and dad, and then when she finds you, you get the cane.’

‘Do you cry?’

‘A bit… not really. We also get it if we muck up too much.’

‘If you make mistakes?’

‘Yeah. I suppose.’

The boy picked at his nails, ‘What if you try really hard, but you still keep making mistakes?’

‘If you’re too dumb for school they just send you home for good. Do you live in a caravan?’

He nodded. ‘Do you live in that shop?’

Joyce shook her head, ‘In the house behind. How did you know it’s our shop?’

‘I saw you out the front sweeping.’

The door of the pub jerked as the boy’s father struggled to push the door open, using his walking stick while holding a bottle in a paper bag under his arm. Without a word, the boy hurried to his side, taking the bottle in one hand, the man’s elbow again in the other and helped him across the veranda.

Joyce stood, ‘See you later!’

The boy continued on as if he hadn’t heard, but his father shot her a look like a sharp stick. Joyce scowled back on reflex, but he’d already turned.

She watched the pair continue their laborious crossing of Oak Street, and it occurred to her that the old man had just been squinting into the afternoon sun.

 

Download a pdf version of The Riders

 

The Poet, an abecediarian poem, E.C. Alberts

…another day/ another hour/another step towards closing my family’s bookstore forever/antsy with a feeling like sadness/antsy with feelings I don’t understand/ attempting to numb myself with work/ biting my lower lip until I taste blood/ blinking back tears as I pull apart the shelves…

This poem is an excerpt from my young adult verse-novel, The Notebook of Teagan Trace, which I am writing in a multitude of poetic forms. An abecedarian poem is an acrostic form that begins each line with successive letters of the alphabet. 

 

The Poet: an Abecedarian Poem

another day

another hour

another step towards closing my family’s bookstore forever

 

antsy with a feeling like sadness

antsy with feelings I don’t understand

 

attempting to numb myself with work

 

biting my lower lip until I taste blood

 

blinking back tears as I pull apart the shelves

books of biographies

books of play scripts

books of poetry

books that I’ve looked at everyday, familiar as family

 

boxing away years of memory

 

caffeinated on too many cappuccinos, Mom bounces round the shop

clearing the rusty filing cabinet

clearing the non-fiction shelves

clearing the textbooks

 

cloaking the SALE! EVERYTHING 25-75% OFF sign with a new one that says

closing

closing

closing

 

Dad hiding out in the back office

dazed expression on his face as he stares into his screensaver

Depressed, Mom whispers as she zips past me

 

dictionary definition: dejected, despairing, despondent, dismal, distressed

 

door bell jingles, but no one goes to see but me

dressed in sleek black pants and a red v-neck top, a woman a little younger

    than Mom enters the shop

each arm adorned with wooden bangles

ebony hair pulled back into a bun

 

eyes meeting mine, she smiles

 

Finally found you, she says. I’ve heard you’re one of the few bookshops that

    still stocks poetry. But I’m sorry to see you’re closing

 

fingers fumbling at my sides, I tell her in a

flat-toned voice how all books are 75%, for her to let me know if she needs

    any help

 

folding her hands, she says she’s

foraging for one book in particular

 

Forgetting: A History, a book of poems by Zara Valentine

 

Frivolous of me, really, she says. I gave too many away when it first came out,

    and now I only have a few left

Funny how you never think of your first book going out of print

 

goggle-eyed, I stare at her – she’s the author?

goose pimples creeping up my arms because I’ve never met a published

    poet before

 

gradually I get a grip

guide her to the poetry section

 

hastily, I thumb through what’s left on the shelf – H, I, J, K

head not working, I skip through V straight to Z

heat on my cheeks as I hunt through the stack

 

Here, I say, handing her the shiny black book, edges bent

hibiscus flowers decorating the front cover

 

holding the book to her chest, she breathes out. Thank you

How wonderful

 

I am not able to stand it anymore, and I blurt out, So you’re the poet who

    wrote this?

 

I am, she says, I’m Zara

 

I am fumbling now, a million questions spluttering out

I ask her how she first got published

I ask her how she started writing

I ask her if she always wanted to be a poet

I ask her if she keeps a notebook

I ask her where her books sell, since big chains don’t stock much poetry,

    and independents like ours are closing down

I ask her why, when, how she got published when poetry’s considered dead,

    dead, dead

 

I even start telling her about my own notebook, how I’m always scribbling

    poems and poem-like words and things like cinquains and acrostics

I say I’m sure my poems aren’t as good as hers

 

in the background, Mom flits around the shop, giving me eyes to come help,

    but I ignore her

 

Inexpressible reasons why I started to write, Zara says, telling me about the

influence of English teachers, her insatiable appetite for books, her mother dying

    when she was eight, giving her the constant itch to create

initially working as a secretary, writing poems in the hours after work

innate feeling that poetry is what she should do, money or no money, sent her

    first manuscript to fifty-one publishers before she got a yes from a

    small publishing house, Metaphor

inner strengthening when Metaphor filed for bankruptcy just months after they

  published Forgetting

inspired by her dad to keep writing, who told her not to listen to people who

    said writing poetry was useless

involved in writing a sixth book now

 

It’s great to hear you write, Zara says, Do you have any poetry here I could

    read? And tell me, what was your name?

 

jack-in-the-box in my chest, I tell her Teagan, Teagan Trace

jittery legs

jumpy

 

knowing my notebook’s on the floor beside me

 

lapse of time before I reach down and pick it up

leaking sweat as I hand it to her

 

letting Zara leaf through my notebook

letting Zara – someone I just met – read poems I haven’t even shown my best friend

    or my parents

 

looking at her face as she reads

looking hard at every blink and lip twitch, wondering what it means

 

lunacy

 

millions of moments march by before Zara looks up

mouth moving slow motion, she says, Your poems are strong, Teagan.

     They’ve got great energy.

Must say, I think your cinquain sequence is my favourite

 

nervously, I start to say that my poems aren’t that good, they’re just silly things

    I write to pass the time

neurons neurotically flittering, I realize I sound just like my grandma

 

now she locks her gaze on me

now Zara asks, Have you ever thought of making poetry your career?

 

o yes I’ve thought of it

of getting books published

of spending every day writing at a desk

 

only I have always thought I had to be something else – a lawyer, a stockbroker,

    a dentist

only I think of Grandma saying poetry’s dead

only I’m packing away books in my family’s shop that’s closing down

 

ooh but my heart sings yes, yes, yes

outlandish to think of doing anything else

 

palimpsest of my heart

palpable

pervasive

 

poetry

 

quaky-legged, I ask Zara, But how do you make money?

 

Quite a few people still read poetry, you know, she says with a wink

 

really honestly, though, Zara admits that she

receives little recompense for her work

rectified her finances for awhile by waitressing part-time

reduced her spending

resolved her situation by starting a small online business, so now

    she can write all day and fiddle with her business at night

Risky? she says. Perhaps. But I know I wouldn’t be happy if I couldn’t write

 

she tells me I can do this, too

she tells me I should follow my gut

she tells me not to listen to people who say poetry’s dead

 

somewhere behind us, Mom shouts my name

 

Think you better go, Zara says

 

throat closing up, I nod

together Zara and I wander towards the door

 

tongue-tied

topple-toed

tripping over my words, I tell her not to worry about paying for her book

 

unexpectedly, she says, I’d actually like you to have it. And here…

unfastening her purse, she digs out her card

urging it into my hands with the book

 

verbal functions no longer working

verging (stupidly) on the point of tears

Very nice of you, I splutter, thank you

 

Where are you, Teagan? Mom calls

 

whirling around to go, Zara says, Keep writing!

 

writing

writing

writing

writing already in my head

 

writing poems

writing poems

 

writing Zara an email: I can’t say how much I loved meeting you

xoxo

 

yelling to Mom that I’m coming

 

Zara’s words

zigzagging

zipping

zooming as I go

 

Download a pdf of The Poet

 

To Fall At Your Feet, John Elder

 …It was a beautiful sparkling morning and Marmie said she was going to the river to make a fire on the rocks and bathe herself in the shallows and pick some flowers and put them in her hair like she’d seen in the picture book and could we all just leave her alone for half the day. I started to follow her down the slope because I was six years old and lovesick with my mother…

To ‘Fall At Your Feet’ is a re-telling of the Persephone myth as a meditation on mortality, narrated by the Hades-like character who doesn’t rule the Underworld, but rather is a man who stops visibly ageing at the age of 50 at the end of the First World War and becomes increasingly fixated on the day-to-day dying of others. Here he is in his early childhood…

It was a beautiful sparkling morning and Marmie said she was going to the river to make a fire on the rocks and bathe herself in the shallows and pick some flowers and put them in her hair like she’d seen in the picture book and could we all just leave her alone for half the day. I started to follow her down the slope because I was six years old and lovesick with my mother. Sometimes if I playfully made a sad face she’d pick me up and talk to me and let me put my hand inside her dress and hold her breast which I still wanted so much but she said to stay with daddy. It was her birthday and she wanted to be a girl. I had a little whinge and turned away and tried to make the world a terrible place but it wasn’t. She said daddy wanted me and could I go to him straightaway please and she touched me on the face and I was more lovesick than ever. But I nodded and let her go.

Daddy had asked me to bring in a few small logs and watch for spiders but I remembered instead a sweet red hen I’d made friends with and wondered what she was up to. She loved me in the same way I loved Marmie. All I needed to do was say hello and she’d follow me around. I found her in the orchard where the trees were old. She was nesting the morning in a hollow where somebody was buried from before I was born. As soon as the chicken saw me, up she came and said hello and there was an egg all nice and brown and warm and not too dirty. I put the egg in my pocket and she made no complaint. I started off, walking in big funny steps, and we made a parade in and out of the trees. When daddy called from an open window to get those logs, my little friend followed me to the woodpile and when I was squatting down looking for spiders, she stood by my side and gurgled concern. She followed me back and forth into the house until daddy said to take her out again because he wanted the floors all clean. He was making a fuss and normally didn’t. I picked her up, the hen, and was holding her like my baby and daddy forgot about her. He showed me the socks he’d knitted for my mother and I said they were fine. Marmie was turning twenty today and she was feeling strange that no other people had ever come asking if she belonged to them. Daddy said they were being strange with each other. They were a bit mixed up because sometimes Marmie was daughterly more than his wife but not to worry about it he said. This wasn’t the way daddy talked any other day because he wasn’t a talker at all and because I didn’t know what to do I drifted into the small-child vagueness that sings unto itself and is lost to history. You only remember what you paid attention to in the first place and I was off in that fuzzy nothing place with my friend the red hen until daddy ran his finger and thumb along my arm and said there were Chinamen coming up the track and it was true. They were singing softly like a wheel sings he said. He had an ear for softness.

We went out to the gate and looked down the track and over the bridge came fifty or so Chinese men and women in rusty red suits and slippers. We’d had a few Chinamen working for us but these coming up the track were very proud of themselves. They were jogging along in two straight lines. A dozen of the men were built like tombstones and carried great clanking sacks. There was a bitter vegetable smell and what I didn’t know to be fish and some kind of sausage and other smells that made me drunk. The sweet red hen was restless and I let her down but she stayed close to my feet. Daddy and I didn’t talk. We watched the Chinese come up the hill and when they passed by every one of them turned their heads to say good morning and daddy nodded and I waved. And then they carried on singing like wheels. They were heading up the rise and we were walking back to the house when one of the women ran back and called out and smiled and sort of bowed and handed daddy an envelope. He put it in his pocket and told me to get out my town clothes and brush them off for the ceremony we were having that afternoon for Marmie. The sweet red hen followed me inside and daddy didn’t say anything about it.

At about four o’clock that afternoon the Chinese came back again. Daddy took me out to the gate and Marmie too. She was wearing the old straw hat in which daddy had found her on the day she was born. Half of the Chinese were carrying a cast-iron bed and they were singing a different song and travelling very slowly. Their song made me think of swallows playing over the water; mad as butterflies and impossibly happy was their tune. Propped on the bed was a very old woman. She was about a hundred yards away and one of the taller Chinamen held a brolly with an enormous canopy to keep her shaded. He had a paper fan in his other hand and was very busy waving the flies away. He was walking along sideways. Marmie had read in the newspaper about gay parties and she wondered if this was one of them. She was walking with her arms folded and then she dropped her arms and swung them like a child and sang in sympathy with the Chinese, and then she danced ahead of us, whirling away and then dancing very slowly, edging her way toward the bed. The old woman was arranged there on many pillows to be almost sitting up but well secured and she was looking around with a smile on her face from very long ago. Her face was heavily powdered to keep the sun from burning and the flaky whiteness made her look like a statue in a graveyard. Daddy knew this old woman from a homestead five miles away and he said let’s walk up to meet her. Her name was Mrs Alice Farnham. She might have been the oldest woman in the world daddy said and the Chinese were carrying her very carefully. If she’d been travelling by wagon, the track would have broken all her bones and up close I could see this was true. Marmie sometimes made me lovely animals she’d seen in picture books by arranging and balancing twigs together and Mrs Farnham was no better put together than those crazy twig unicorns and seahorses. Daddy got beside the bed and walked along as if there were no Chinese in attendance. He wasn’t being rude, he just didn’t know them. He was asking Mrs Farnham if she’d like to come to the house for a cup of tea or stay for dinner but it took a number of moments for Mrs Farnham to dig herself out of the long-ago world to say:

`They’re taking me to the train,’ and she thought it was very funny, in a confiding way, as if it was somebody else, some silly fool she’d once been friends with being carried along. I’d seen people visiting our homestead talk this way. I didn’t know what to do with it.

`Do you remember me?’ said daddy. He’d visited Mrs Farnham’s place a number of times some twenty years ago, while chasing down some men.

`Did you?’

 One of the Chinamen was telling Marmie that Mrs Farnham, famously old, had been invited to the grand opening of the Asphodel hotel in Melbourne. The Chinese had been sent to fetch her. They were carrying her to the town of Woodend, another twelve miles away, where they’d all take the train the following afternoon.

`I knew some good reverends but you wasn’t one of them, were you?’ said Mrs Farnham and daddy said no, he wasn’t a reverend and when Mrs Farnham looked like she might fly apart in confusion daddy said he used to do God’s work.

`You’re not the one who married me and Arthur,’ she said.

`Mainly in the funeral line,’ he said, and that tickled her.

`There’s nobody left but me,’ she said.

I’d never seen someone so pleased with themselves and bitter at the same time. She caught me staring and she was gone from daddy and everything that was going on. She was off somewhere playing with a doll and having her hair brushed and pinching hard the cheek of a little brother and making big eyes as to what could be the trouble. I’d seen other children engaged in such sweet warfare when we’d taken apples and eggs into Woodend and there was one little girl who I longed to see again who had spoken to me and teased me and chased me through the holding store and Mrs Farnham gave me the same sorts of feelings for here she was looking down at me, excited and stunned both of us, one child meeting another. We talked to one another with our eyes. Mrs Farnham wanted to take me somewhere to play and I wanted to go there and Marmie took my hand and pulled on it fearfully but I pulled my hand away and tried to climb on to the bed. Daddy said no and the Chinaman talking to Marmie suddenly crouched down and walked along with his backside stuck out, his face in front of mine, very serious like he had a stomach ache and sort of looking up at Marmie at the same time and saying how the Asphodel hotel had been carved from an immense hill of red rock and wasn’t that amazing. Every room was a great cave he said filled with ancient treasures. He’d been one of the carvers of the rock from the first day, him and a whole army of Chinamen. Marmie said people passing through had talked about it. It was already world famous said the Chinamen who then bid for daddy’s attention and asked if he might graciously accept the invitation to the grand opening on account of daddy, the great Pialuto, being a person of historical note and everybody would be so pleased to see him there.

`What invitation?’

We were all very startled, even Mrs Farnham, because Marmie, even when upset or angry, was painfully soft spoken, but here she was as strident as a hammer on an anvil. Daddy pulled the envelope from his pocket and handed it to the Chinaman and said he’d got another one in the post two months ago and he apologised for not writing thank you, no. The Chinaman was looking at the envelope in his hand like he didn’t know what to do with it and Marmie snatched it away, saying “well I’ll go then’’ and shocking to me was daddy shrinking away like all the water had gone out of him. He looked for a moment older than Mrs Farnham. The world wasn’t working properly. We were all travelling along very slowly, almost at the gate now, and there was the house and the orchards and goats and chickens, everything that was our life together didn’t seem to belong to us in that moment of nobody talking and all the earth turning in Marmie’s eyes like I’d never seen them. I wondered where we were travelling to if we didn’t go home. Daddy saw me worried and took charge in the strangest voice, as if he’d been drinking and crying in his sleep:

`You people can’t stay on the road tonight. You better camp here.’

An eel buttered the darkness and we spoke to one another as underwater creatures do. I was but a mollusc and it made no sense to say I was upside down. He bade me, the eel, to swim out to meet him. I had an idea of his whiskers and I can’t say why that is. He knew nothing of mothers and I knew nothing of whiskers. We were simpletons. When he grazed her belly, I felt him sliding by and there was a great shuddering and her hands were holding me and later she’d say, my mother, there he was eeling by and lo he was gone from both of us and there her fingertips on my knee. It made a little tent she said. She was sitting on the muddy floor of the river, the water bobbing her breasts and the light through the trees making sparks upon them. There was a great shuddering again, but the eel was gone to the darkness, it was all about me. A great creaking sound I would later hear on boats. So many sucking sounds if you really want to know. The apples fermenting in her bowels. My heart twice as fast and not so whomping. I may as well have been inside her heart. The tired river and the empty red trees sucked on one another and there was the pleading of the earth itself from long before my father and mother got me started. The ever-be drought had sucked the colour from the sky she said. And the river sighed. What does a river remember? I have begun to wonder, as perhaps Mrs Farnham wondered: if I travel on as I’ve been traveling, getting older inside and everything working beautifully, will my memories go back to before I was born?

 

Download a PDF of “To Fall At Your Feet, an extract”

 

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The Citadel, Melissa Farrell

…The behemoth towers/ A fractured edge of the city/ Forged in its rows of sightless eyes/ And as darkness smears the day/ An elevator grinds and rumbles/Fills its belly with humanity/Radios and televisions fuse/In a babbled soundtrack/
From a selection of poems titled The Citadel
 
‘Whilst the night deepens/ The mortals within/ Fortify against the incubus of the dark’
 

THE TOWER

The behemoth towers

A fractured edge of the city

Forged in its rows of sightless eyes

And as darkness smears the day

An elevator grinds and rumbles

Fills its belly with humanity

 

Radios and televisions fuse

In a babbled soundtrack

With the crackle and spit of pans

That dance and leap in ritual

Above the fetor and clabber

Of yellowing stoves

 

Somewhere a baby cries

Dogs bark

A plane whines overhead

 

Whilst the night deepens

The mortals within

Fortify against the incubus of the dark

And when heavy muses surface

The dreamless and the empty

Fill in a chimera of icons.

 

UNIT 3

There is one within who sits

A reluctant companion to the night

Circled by cobras of smoke and regret

She rolls another cigarette

Dwells on her creaseless face

Her adamant and tight body

Plundered by the years

The hands of time dragging

Straining and stretching her

 

Into another shape

She no longer reads time

In the faces of people or of clocks

For time is no longer on her side

 

She waits for him

He who is plunging his memory

Into a bracing splash of the past

Whetting dry frustration

With the potent promises of youth.

 

UNIT 8

He lies

Bible pyjama’d close

Dreaming of knock-knocking

Peddling his brand of religion

On glossy pamphlets printed in China

Converting his way to paradise

While Armageddon looms

 

She summons him now

Through the screened door

And the deep bee-drone

 

Of a distant lawnmower

Provides background harmony

As her weeping hair

Sullies his body

With wanting and pain

 

His sin sputters and spills

Into the yielding mattress

That holds him tenderly

Under a heavy crucifix

Rigid against the peeling wall

While in the kitchen

The obscene dishes nag to be washed.

 

UNIT 4

She drifts

Creamy and bubbled

In his party-hatted

Hip hip hooray love

 

He suspends her

Dulls her senses in fairy-floss solace

Pads the enormity of hundreds and thousands

In soft white bread

 

Still she yearns for the cut and slice of life

The ache that scratches pen to paper

As words come serrated and sharp

Stained with reality

 

In the slumber before dawn

She dreams him away

Before sweet-toothed and longing

She calls for him

To float once again

A lounging marshmallow

On the hot chocolate of his love.

 

UNIT 13

A shrine of burnished trophies

And effigies suspended in frames and time

Conjure a haunting apparition of her daughter

One year in the ground

 

Her dreaming moves with a moaning wind

Through the graveyard until she watches herself

Dusting the plastic flowers that hold their shape

Against the hard glint of black marble

 

The polished surface interns her

In a back to front present

Where time twists and contorts

Uncanny and out of order

 

Crumpled and invalid her will lies

In the bottom drawer of her being

While her empty womb

Frets for the forsaken babies

 

This grave calls and claims her

Yet she must linger until her name

Lies in the hollows of a headstone

To be uttered in silence by a passing stranger

 

Enshrouding her is a vision

Of the ground taking her under

As her daughter holds wilting flowers above

In the melting colours of a sinking sun

 

She grieves for the earthbound birds

Whose feathers send the dust skyward

Summoning mirages of ghosts

In the clear morning light.

 

UNIT 12

Through the back door of his mind

He seeks to read the shifting signs

Of her artistry that lies in covert stains

Or inscribed in the soft sands that surround him

 

She is the black ink of his secret imagery

Indelible marks smudged in his unknown

Surging now as dancing signifiers

In the bewitching hour of his dreaming

 

When the day slides through shallow curtains

His thinking slowly rises

While wheelie bins

Sprawled open-mouthed

Like fat ancient Greeks

Purged of night-time ritual

Lie dew splashed and winking

In the sane morning sun.

 

Download a pdf of ‘The Citadel’

The Time Machine, Elizabeth Robson

It was a very long time ago for some but not for all. She only married him for his horses, so she said. She was a girl from the city and he was a boy from the bush. She attended Art School and soon found her calling as a teacher and he bred horses and cleared the land.  They met by chance; a mutual friend, so he wooed her with his brash looks and country drawl. They were both young and impetuous and it wasn’t long before they were married. He sold his horses and took up cattle and wheat farming along the foothills of the Moonbi Ranges. She had dreamed of living a life on the land and she threw herself into that role. She reared children and fought fires and cried when the floods came and I never once heard her complain.

I push open the first door, step through and let it close, slow and heavy. I cannot open it now from the inside without a key. Once inside the vestibule I notice as I always do the marble-topped, side-table against one wall. It stands alone and looks rather conspicuous in this small space. On the wall above the table, is a small oil painting, or rather a reproduction, of Drysdale’s ‘The Drover’s Wife’. I like the painting because the woman in the foreground appears strong and determined as if she has made her decision and she will suffer the consequences without yielding. I have heard others speak of this woman as ‘sturdy and resolute’ against a world that shrivels and dies. In essence, the idea of survival through inner strength permeates the underlying significance of the image. As I study it, I realise what an interesting choice of painting someone has made. It says far more than words could ever do.

On the table are a visitor’s book and a china vase sprouting plastic flowers. I have never signed the book and for a fleeting moment I think about what I could possibly write within those pages. Maybe not the usual: ‘Had a lovely time, a most relaxing stay. Food was great and the company fabulous.’ I look at the painting and smile. Not today. Ahead is a second door, similar to the first. It too is solid and weighty. I step forward and turn the handle, lean into it and move through into a sun filled room. A warm rush of air with the scent of urine and antiseptic blanket me as I stand clutching flowers and a plastic grocery bag.

To the right are small clusters of dining tables. At one, two women sit facing each other, one holding a ragged, brown bear with a bright blue ribbon knotted around its neck. She looks as if she has been crying. A nurse places a small plastic cup in front of her and a glass half filled with water. The woman sits still then suddenly lashes forward with her hand and knocks the water and the pills onto the floor. The nurse mumbles something about the RN being called and bends to clean up the mess. The other woman seems oblivious to the scene unfolding in front of her and appears to sweep invisible crumbs from the vinyl tablecloth with her fingers. Neither speaks. A light glows softly from a large tank near where the two women are seated, and a big laminated sign is blu-tacked above it, reminding the residents not to feed the fish.

 To my left is an open area with windows running along one side, over-looking a grass and paved courtyard. Red and brown leaves fall from a Tallow tree in the centre of the lawn. A man is standing near a small clothes line. He bends and picks up a piece of clothing from a basket and clumsily pegs it to the line. He bends and repeats the action. After he has pegged several pieces up he begins unpegging them and places them back in the basket at his feet. He stops what he is doing and wanders off towards the high fence surrounding the courtyard and stands looking out. A gentle wind stirs his hair and leaves circle his feet. I wonder what he is thinking.

Inside, a horseshoe of upholstered chairs are occupied by other men and women, some dozing in the air-conditioned warmth, others peering as if seeing their surroundings for the first time. No one speaks. Words are lost here.

Mindful not to make eye contact, but smiling pleasantly, I search the room to see if she is seated in one of the padded chairs facing the huge, flat-screen TV, against the far wall. Images flicker vividly between ads as muffled dialogue and music penetrate the space. It is a Sunday and it has been a month since my last visit.

Towards the side of the room I see her. She is about my height but hunched and twisted slightly in the chair. Her hair is ruffled as if by some draught and her hands lie folded loosely in her lap. She is dressed in dark slacks and a light-blue, zip-through jacket, crimson slippers on her stockinged feet. She stares, not at the screen with its flashing images and droning sounds but out of the window near where she is seated. She has the look of an expectant child but something else has settled there – some sense of foreboding, loss maybe.

‘Hello. How are you?’ Pause. ‘It’s Liz.’ Pause. ‘You’re daughter, remember?’ Pause. Take a breath. ‘You’re looking well,’ I say, as I notice she has lost weight and looks quite drawn and pale. ‘Here, I brought you some flowers.’ She looks up startled for a moment, then wipes her mouth with a tissue. ‘It’s ok. You look like you could use some company.’

‘Where did you come from? Are the others here too?’ She sounds surprised and peers around me.

 ‘Nope, just me. Do you like the flowers?’ I dangle them in front of her face hoping she can make out some familiar-looking shapes amongst the oranges and yellows. She doesn’t look impressed but stares hard through the smudged lenses of her glasses. She points a shaky finger towards me.

‘Where did you come from?’ ‘How long did it take you to get here?’

I pull up a chair next to hers. I sit. ‘Not long. I came from Newcastle. It takes about an hour. I just came over to see how you were.’

‘You shouldn’t have come. It’s too far. Will you be staying long? You can stay the night if you like. You’ll have to find Bill. Do you know where he is?’ Questions are fine. It’s the answers I hate.

‘I’m sure he’s about somewhere.’  I contemplate briefly whether or not I should remind her that her husband, my father, died three years ago. ‘So, what have you been up to?’ A vacant, silly question really. I didn’t need to ask it to get the answer. What has my mother been up too? Let me guess, shall I? Sleeping? That’s a given and eating soggy, steamed fish and plastic mashed potato while sipping a thick, milky drink through a straw. Oh and how about the lashing out at staff and the few vulgar insults she tosses around when things aren’t going quite her way, especially at sun-down. She looks at me, curiously and asks:

‘How old are you, Elizabeth?’ Not unexpected. This is a question she tosses around every few minutes. In fact it’s a question she’s been tossing around for many months now.

 ‘How old would you like me to be?’ I smile at her but she frowns and sighs. This is the dilemma: if I tell her how old I really am she becomes upset because she has no comprehension of real time anymore. At the last visit she seemed quite content to think of me, her daughter as thirty-something. That could possibly make sense. It would mean that she was possibly in her early sixties; again, quite reasonable. However, time moves swiftly in this incongruent world and the lines have shifted once again. I must tip-toe very carefully. This is how the conversation will swing today:

‘I’m forty-seven.’

‘Oh, rubbish! You are not! How old are you really?’ She rubs her frail brow with frail fingers. I notice the chipped, pale pink polish on short, filed nails, obviously a favour from one of the staff. I smile to myself, thinking how horrified she would be if it were brought to her attention. She lived for her horses and cattle – no room for girly delights.

‘Okay, I’m twenty-five,’ I lie.

‘Twenty-five? Really? Oh.’ She looks at me and nods. ‘That’s nice.’

 

When I was twenty-five, my parents retired. My father had sold the farm and instead took up fishing with as much gusto as droving cattle.  Mum was content to end her teaching career and threw herself into her pottery and drawing. She was also an avid reader and enjoyed discussing the latest novel or Art Australia magazine that had recently arrived in the post.

 It wasn’t noticeable, not at first, but over time books seemed to take longer to finish and there was always some excuse about not finding the right glaze for a particular pot. Her studio became messy and she spent more and more time lying in her chair on the veranda, paper half read. I visited them both whenever I could but then came the phone call.

My father was scared and shaken, to say the least. He had never witnessed such hostility and confusion before. There were no obvious tell-tale signs. The piece of timber she wielded was her rifle and she meant to destroy whoever stood in her way. The valuable china and glassware on the side-board didn’t stand a chance.

When I finally arrived, the bruises down my father’s left side and the look of incredible grief in his eyes said enough. It wasn’t long before a diagnosis was made and for the benefit of both, they were moved.

 

I remember the shopping bag. ‘I brought you some more underpants and some singlets. You didn’t seem to have many, last time I was here. I will have to get someone to put some name-tags on them before they go astray in the laundry.’

‘You didn’t have to do that. You keep them. I have plenty.’ She dismisses the underwear with a curt flick of her hand and reaches for her walker.

‘Where are you headed, mum?’ I bundle the flowers and shopping bag under one arm and push myself up and out of the chair with the other.

 ‘I need to go to the toilet’. She hauls herself up on tremulous legs and looks vacantly about. Her spatial awareness is diminished now that she only has sight in one eye, and she frequently forgets that she can’t see particularly well out of the other.

‘Okay,’ I say, ‘let’s go to your room, then.’ I take hold of the front bar of the walker and begin to guide her through the maze of chairs and slippered feet and walkers and sticks. She pushes forward with great gusto and grumbles under her breath when she becomes snagged on furniture or unfortunate limbs that are left unattended by their owners. ‘Whoops! Sorry! Just hang on a sec, mum. Okay, this way – no, no, this way. That’s it. Turn. Turn! Sorry!’

Finally beyond the corral of chairs, we head down the corridor towards her room. The décor is soft and comfortable. We could be in any four-star hotel if it weren’t for the polished, timber hand-rails and brightly decorated name plates on the doors. We stop in front of an open doorway half-way down the hall.

‘Is this my room? But I don’t stay here do I?’ She looks worried and shuffles to a halt. ‘Where are we, Elizabeth?’ If there is one question I hate more than any other, it’s this one.

I try evasive action. ‘I see it’s nearly lunchtime. Bet you’ll get something good today. A Sunday roast, maybe.’

Head tilted, she looks at me and asks, ‘So how old are you?’

 ‘Twenty-one.’

 ‘And how old am I?’

‘Eighty-three.’

 ‘I am not! Tell me the truth.’

 ‘Okay, thirty-five’

‘Am I really?’

‘Yes. No. Look – let’s go in.’

The afternoon moves slowly, creeping its way into dusk as I sit in a padded chair next to the woman who is my mother. The light plays games with her hair; thin and white, it glows softly against the pallor of her skin. Soft, jowly flesh crinkles along her jaw and thin, dry lips softly part. Her eyes are closed as she slips in and out of fretful sleep. Soon she will wake and I will be gone. The demons that she fights in the witching hour of the early evening are not for a daughter’s eyes. These are monsters she must slay single-handedly.

I prepare to leave. I wave down a nurse with keys jangling on rounded hips and ask to be released. She smiles and says, ‘Thanks for coming. See you next time,’ as I slip past her and into the real world. When my mother wakes she will not remember that I have been there. She will not remember the flowers or remember my age and one day, in the not-too-distant-future, she will not remember me. I should feel comforted in the knowledge that for my mother, time does not travel forward. Life for her is a time machine that only travels into the past – her past, and she will grow more youthful as her body fails.

 

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