Tag Archives: mortality

The Forest, Amy Way

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It’s just after 10am when I’m standing at the head of the road. Behind me and to the left are golden paddocks with fat cows and dams sparkling with reflected sunlight. In front and to the right is the forest. The pine trees stand like soldiers in their state assigned grids. Tall, regimented, plain. Yet in their shadows is something sinister that’s hard to distinguish. Is it the tangy smell of sawdust that burns the nostrils? The way the wind makes a muffled roar through the pine needles? Or the light that flickers in the corner of my eyes?

Back on the road, I shift my feet on the finely ground gravel. The sun is warm on my back but I feel cold as I watch the road ahead disappear into the shadows of the forest. Beside me is the sign, parading its welcome and warning: ‘Welcome To Belanglo State Forest. Please Be Careful.’

2013-08-17 10.03.00The sign is almost scarier than the forest itself. From a distance it’s impressive and dominant, but up close you can see etched into the enamel the myriad of messages that make up its power. Names followed by dates, and ‘Tim loves Jess’, ‘Lackey was here.’ Then there’s the more ominous: ‘ANT (DENGY) NOW RULES THESE WOODS! BEWARE!’ and ‘IVAN WAS HERE.’ Beside this last message, some cunning visitor has written, ‘No shit.’

I can’t remember exactly when I first heard the stories of Ivan Milat and the ‘Backpacker Murders’, but like most Australians, the killer’s name and the place of his crimes has long lurked my consciousness. It was a story so unbelievable that it existed for me only in the realm of fiction. That was, until November 2010, when 17-year-old Matthew Milat brutally murdered his friend in the same forest as his notorious great-uncle. Lured with the promise of alcohol and marijuana to celebrate his 17th birthday, the victim, David Auchterlonie, was taken to the forest by Milat and two others. I couldn’t understand it. Why would someone go to Belanglo State Forest with Ivan Milat’s nephew? What did they think would happen?

It’s not exactly superstition, nor is it the workings of a cautionary tale. So what is this feeling of a dreadful knowledge inside me? Surely David Auchterlonie would have felt it too, knowing what had happened there. The forest is imbued with symbolism to the point of being tainted by it, and the more I think about it, the more places I can list whose connotations have been altered by some conflict or event.

Sometimes it’s a physical alteration, a mark on the landscape whose effect your eyes can comprehend in the instant it takes your heartbeat to quicken. In Pripyat, the ‘ghost city’ of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, time is suspended and the ground is littered with remnants of a former life. Its population of nearly 50,000, all nuclear plant workers and young families, were evacuated in 1986 after the explosion in Reactor 4. Resting within the 2,600 square kilometre Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the entire city is abandoned.

Six-storey apartment buildings stand silent in their decay, hidden among overgrown trees. Their interiors, along with those of the hotels, the fire station, schools and kindergartens, are full of dust and rubble. Most haunting, are the kindergartens. Once the playground of several hundred children they now resemble tombs. Dolls lay scattered among the debris, their eyes clicked shut, their hair and faces rotten. Others sit stoically on small, toddler-sized chairs, staring with a weary determination through the cobwebs that cloud their faces. Desks are overturned, the wallpaper peeling, and in the nursery rusty bunk beds and broken wooden cots lie awkwardly on a floor of shredded feather pillows and tiny shoes. On the wall hangs a list of names: children of Pripyat, and the allocated beds they once called their own.

Such places may never be anything more than large-scale memorials and museums. Suspended by past horrors, their function now is to educate and to mourn. Over time, they may lose some of their stigma. But for the foreseeable future at least, their scars are too visible. Sometimes, the effect is more subtle. You may see slight changes in the landscape or perhaps no noticeable marks at all. Everything about it will look unimpressive and benign. It’s only for people privy to the stories and the whispers that something else emerges.

When I was ten years old, my grandmother tripped on an uneven bit of a footpath in Castle Cove. The offending piece of concrete, protruding almost invisibly on the corner of Kendall Road and Holly Street, had been part of her daily walk to the shops for over fifteen years. Nothing much had changed, but that day she just went down. Split her head open and needed four stitches. For months, years afterwards, her blood stained the concrete with spectacular ferocity. For a while it was a source of pride and amusement. Walking hand in hand every weekend, we’d pass the spot and I’d laugh and marvel: ‘Look Gran! Your blood’s still there!’ And sometimes with friends or visitors: ‘See that? That’s where my Gran fell that time. She’s a trooper.’
She died less than a year ago. Quite unexpectedly. Now, whenever I pass that spot, I can’t bring myself to look at the faded black stain. As I avert my eyes it whispers to me of past happiness and future evils. Like a glob of slick paint it withstood the storms and the sun and has marked that place forever.

As my car crawls along the gravel road I look from window to window at the lines of trees, scanning the needled undergrowth for something out of the ordinary. But life seems to continue as normal in the forest. As I pass a crossroads, loggers in high-vis vests and hardhats lumber between the green shadows of the trees and a dusty Ute. In another hundred metres I see a women walking two dogs.

‘What the…’

I follow her with my gaze. She’s sporting sunnies and a nonchalant expression as she clambers over branches on the side of the road.

I shake my head and continue following the main road into the trees. It skirts along the southern side of the forest and before long I come out the western edge into more paddocks of private property. I do a U-turn in the first driveway I see. From the porch of a small house, a dark haired woman and an aging Labrador regard me with squinted eyes.

Back beneath the gaze of the trees I spend ten minutes driving around the gridded roads before pulling off onto a patch of grass. This area of the forest looks the same as all the others: sparse, dull. I can look down the lines of the skinny trees and the gaps between, but I can’t see through to the other side and the road I know is there.

‘Well,’ I say to no one. ‘Nothing left for it.’

I have no plan, I have no map, I have no phone reception. For a moment I am still. In my head is a soft memory, a warning echoed by a girl in a red hood.

Don’t wander from the forest path.

2013-08-17 11.10.19But like I’ve told myself before, this is not the working of a cautionary tale. Trying not to look too wistfully back at my car, I walk slowly off the road and into the trees. I’ve gone about five or six metres when I allow myself to look back. I let out a gasp when I can’t see the road at all. The deceptively skinny trees have closed in at an alarming speed.

‘Right. Well…’
If I just stick to the grassy rivet between the tree-rows, I’m sure to come out the other side. I glance up at the sun snaking down through the branches of the pines. There are a few clouds in the sky but overall it’s a beautiful day. I bring myself back to earth and start to examine the trees and forest floor as I move gently across it. Pinecones dapple the ground just as regularly as shadows. Everything is a mixture of dull shades of green, brown, grey and white. Nothing shines, nothing glimmers, but still, there is lightness.

It’s very quiet. Almost peaceful, until I realise why: there are absolutely no animals. Only several minute spiders, strung undisturbed between grass blades. Once or twice I see the flitting of grey birds. They don’t chirp or sing, and their wings are swift and silent. At that moment a cloud swallows the sun. I pull my jumper tighter around my shoulders and head deeper into the trees.
Somewhere near the centre of my chosen grid I come across a clearing. There are different types of plants here. Shrubs that look almost tropical with their straight shining leaves and sharper shades of green. Every metre or so sits a severed stump, old and flaking. I smile at the unexpected change but it disappears when I recall old news stories. The remains of many of Milat’s victims were found in small clearings. So too were nearby campsites, evidence that the killer spent considerable time with his victims both before and after their deaths.

I don’t cross the clearing. Instead, I turn sideways and shuffle around its border, heading back into the trees more quickly than before. As I’m hurrying away from the clearing I start to hear noises. Thuds, thumps, something clunking nearby. My whole body shudders with the sound and I can think of nothing but getting out of the trees. As abruptly as I left it I find myself stumbling out onto the road again. It isn’t the road I started from, but the section that stretches away to my left ends in a T-intersection. On the corner I can just make out the nose of my car.

The thuds return, this time accompanied by the murmur of voices. I spin to my right, breathing fast. At the end of the road I can see the beginning of another clearing, this one much larger. Slowly, I walk towards it. The closer I get the more familiar the thudding becomes. As the trees start to thin, I can see it but I don’t believe it.

It’s a camping area. And it’s full.

The campground is surprisingly big, almost the size of a football oval. On the right, 4WDs, station wagons and trailers with motorbikes are slotted tightly into a grassy car park. Closest to the car park is a huddle of eight tents. They circle a makeshift communal area with a fire, several dogs, and parents who watch their kids play from the comfort of foldout chairs. To the left of the tents stretches a expanse of mowed grass. On the far left of it, nestled in some trees, are a few swags and a dome tent. A man methodically pegs his swag to the ground. The background to the camping area is a small brown lake. The campers laugh together and pat their dogs, but I don’t cross this clearing either. I stick to the road and make my way to the next intersection. A few of the campers look my way, and for an instant I wonder if they’re startled to see a lone stranger stalking through the trees. But I wager if they’re brave enough to camp here then they wouldn’t be fazed by me.

I’ve reached the intersection and I’m about to turn right, away from the campsite, when something catches my eye. Down at the very back of the campground, there’s a tiny green toilet block and a State Forest noticeboard. Moving closer, I can see it’s covered with pamphlets and posters. I’m expecting some information on the Backpacker Murders: dates, names, a memorial perhaps. But instead the noticeboard is bursting with State approved advice on how best to explore the forest, particularly its two main activities, motorbike riding and mushroom picking.

In the mushroom foraging community, Belanglo Forest exists as a place filled to the brim with desirable fungi. You don’t need a permit, and as long as you don’t pilfer any timber, mushrooming is a popular hobby in all of NSW’s State forests. In late 2011, a group of foragers went to Belanglo to harvest mushrooms. I’ve tracked them down through an organic forager’s online forum, and despite enjoying the day, group leader Elizabeth Perez-Meza explains to me that the trip was structured and business-like.
‘We knew that we would have to get there by about 11am and leave by 4pm, way before sunset. Definitely go in a group of 4-5 people, bring walkie-talkies, make sure everyone is wearing boots or gumboots, plus gloves. And leave way before sunset.’ Just like me the sign at the entrance to the forest made a lasting impression for her, but what is most evident when Liz speaks of her time in the forest are its silence and baleful conformity.

‘I wasn’t scared but you just know that something bad has happened there,’ she says. ‘I understand why the Milats went there to kill: it’s dead quiet and everywhere looks the same. It’s so easy to get lost and if you were to scream out for help, your calls may go unanswered.’

The sun vanishes as I’m examining the noticeboard. When I look up, the entire blue sky is doused with grey. The wind is picking up and the muffled roar of it through the pines is starting to irk me. I pull my jumper tighter around me but it yields no extra warmth. Head down, I walk back past the campsite in the direction of my car. The man has finished pegging his swag, and the voices of the campers are lost in the wind.Belanglo Forest 3

Climbing into the warm air of my car, I expect instant relief. Instead I find myself desperately trying to look anywhere but at the trees. An impossible feat: I am surrounded. Some relief comes when my car starts on the first try. I buckle up and drive, weaving my way through the dirt roads towards the entrance. I’m almost on the main road when around a corner there emerges a log cabin. Thin white curtains veil every window of the squat brown building. I slow down slightly until I see a maroon commodore parked on the other side of the house. It’s just a park ranger, I tell myself as I speed up again. But this doesn’t stop my fantasy of owning a hidden log cabin from being quashed somewhat.

Finally, I’m back on the main road. Ahead of me are the entrance and the silver back of the sign. As I pass it I can’t help but look back. The paddocks of the surrounding farmland are still golden despite the clouds. Perhaps they will shine forever, always in contrast to their silent neighbour.

Later, I’ll find out that there was a visible reminder to the past. Hidden at the other end of the forest is a rock memorial to Ivan Milat’s victims. The boulder would blend into the background of shrubbery if it weren’t for the dark plaque. In brassy letters, it commemorates the memory of the seven backpackers and the efforts of the state services’ members who aided the investigation into their deaths. A bible quote reminds the reader: ‘Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’
Looking at photos, safe in the comfort of my lounge room, it strikes me just how ordinary the forest is. Unlike Pripyat, there is nothing to suggest that this was, or ever will be, anything more than a lonely pine forest. Only being there, once you’ve heard the stories and you can stand listening to the sound of nothing, only then do you feel it.

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SCARS, Jacob Harrison

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There is a documentary series called History Cold Case; a team of forensic anthropologists adapt techniques used for identifying murder victims to examine the bones of the long dead – Celtic bog sacrifices, Elizabethan pikemen, that sort of thing. They determine the cause of death and offer a glimpse into how these ordinary people lived but the most interesting and affecting part of the program comes when they reveal a lifelike mould of the person’s face. I can’t help thinking about what my bones might look like to a TV archaeologist, digging me up in a thousand years time. I definitely wouldn’t be a textbook specimen of a 21st Century human; I’ve had many more cracks and dents than most individuals of our era. A dent above the right eye and an untreated broken jaw makes for an atypical skull; these injuries, combined with several cracked ribs and a fractured wrist, might suggest the skeleton of a warrior, or perhaps a stuntman.

Whatever the conclusion of this future cold case, they are unlikely to pick up on the soft tissue injuries that have shaped the landscape of my body. Like the geographical landscape, these fleshly ridges, ranges and valleys are constantly changing as a result of both exterior trauma and the internal movement of forces only partially understood and eroded by time. There is no need for carbon dating; my parade of various bandages, flints, slings and stitches in my photo record would prove to be a more accurate way to measure the passing of time.

Being an Elizabethan pikemen was clearly an unsafe working environment, Celtic bog sacrifice even more so, but being a media student comes with its own unique set of occupational challenges, especially for someone with a few body issues. Take this scene from an average day:

1 INT. STUDIO. DAY.

Light floods JACOB’s eyes as shadowy figures lurk behind tripods. The figures discuss where Jacob should place his left hand in relation to his right, which is holding a small box of toothpicks at chest height. A bead of sweat runs down the bridge of Jacob’s nose, hesitates, then DRIP.

DIRECTOR

Sound! Left… lef- sorry right, your right…chin up… open your mouth. Ok that’s good. Just wipe your for- yeah that’s better.

CAMERA OPERATOR

Rolling!

DIRECTOR

Why is there so much light on his neck? No, Jack lower that red and bring it around so we can highlight his hands.

Jacob wipes more sweat off his forehead, making sure that the scars on his inner fore-arms remain angled away from the camera. The intense beams of the studio lights are not kind to those with things to hide.

It’s tiring, but this scene plays out most days – maybe not a textbook example like this one, but I’m generally conscious of the scars on my right hand and forearms and waste too much energy on trying to hide them. Truth be told, clumsiness and drunkenness have taken a higher toll than any self-inflicted scar. Still they look scary, and now and then I notice an eye briefly trace the jagged landscape of my arms before we both quickly look away. I understand the interest; in the sanitised and safety conscious first world, scars are an exotic, archaic curiosity. Scars – nasty, visible, gnarly scars – are an obsolete malady, like smallpox or polio. Other forms of body modification like tattoos and piercings are increasingly more visible and acceptable but scars remain taboo.

It’s easy to make up stories about my scars that people want to believe, that I want to believe. My biggest issue is that no matter which narrative I choose, these damn scars will be a part of it. Future partners will hound me about them; if or when I have children they will no doubt ask about the marks on Daddy’s arms, and they won’t believe he got them fighting jungle cats forever. I’m of the opinion that identity is fluid and multifaceted. I like being aloof, impermanent and conflicting, a living embodiment of cognitive dissonance. But I’m no flake, I’m no emo, and I’m not the person that made those marks anymore. This is why I like the idea of body modification. I could take charge of my body’s narrative and do something about it. Somehow, could all my scars be put together to tell a cohesive story?

If I held up my right forearm for you, you would see the first part of the story in big ugly type – my largest scar. About twenty centimetres long and almost a centimetre wide in places, its colour fluctuates from white to pink to purple. How brave are you? If you take your finger and trace along the knobbly fire-bolt, you would feel how smooth it is to the touch, how it changes from a wide valley in places to a narrow ridge in others. Because the nerve damage runs deep in some places and shallow in others, I can’t feel parts of the surface tissue but I can feel the muscle contract and release around the bone – it feels like there’s a metal implant in my arm. Scars are rich with abstract sensory information but lack the detail to communicate their origin story.

It was after my flatmate’s birthday and we were pretty drunk. A few weeks beforehand, my flatmate slipped over in the bathroom, falling onto the soap dish and leaving a jagged piece of porcelain jutting from the wall. I was in the bathroom, the floor was slippery – I fell into the bathtub cutting my arm open on the way down and knocking myself out. The next thing I remember I was in hospital, attached to an oxygen mask and various tubes. I had lost a lot of blood and I needed a transfusion. The police told my flatmate they hadn’t seen so much blood outside of a murder scene – he had been questioned after the event, to rule out foul play. The scars on my wrists were much less life threatening or painful; however faded, they cause me the most concern. On both my forearms, there are probably a dozen or so tiny horizontal lines. These little slices were not done on one occasion but represent a long and drawn out war of attrition; my large scar acts as a neon sign directing visiting eyes towards the battlefield.

I spoke to Psychologist Flora Vashinsky, who works in Community Mental Health, helping people with a variety of conditions and histories to find useful strategies to navigate life – myself included. Flora explained to me that people self-harm for lots of reasons. Some harm in attempted suicide. Others harm as a coping behaviour, as a release of the painful emotions they experience. Some harm to feel emotion; unable to feel in the here and now, they can only feel emotion by cutting or hurting themselves. For some it’s a one-time extreme behaviour; for others it could be a routine, a learnt way of coping with stress and emotions they can’t deal with.

‘There’s an emotion behind the behaviour, then there’s the thinking about how you do it, and for some it’ll be extremely, extremely subconscious. The thing is with the cut, that’s kind of the final result. Behind the cut we have emotions, we have thinking, and we have other events that have led up to the actual cut.’

For me, it was probably a combination of factors. Being unable to deal with unpleasant emotions and being unable to demonstrate those emotions was a big part of it – to save others worry and because I’m a big manly-man. Why I kept on coming back to cutting as a release valve was because it took so long to ask for help. I did talk to a professional to find out where those emotions are coming from and I’m learning better ways to deal with those emotions rather than harming myself. Which brings me back to why I want to do something about them.

‘So what do you think about body modification? Tattoos, or deliberate scarification for example?’

‘It depends on where it starts and stops. Is it just an addiction in the end, to the process of having the pain and endorphins and the rest of it fly? Is it something significant and there’s reason behind it? Is it cultural? I’m sure if you asked someone in their late 80’s who’s a holocaust survivor about what their tattoo means to them, it’s going to be different to somebody who has a butterfly on their ass.’

Humans have been using various techniques to mark their own skin and others’ skin for as long as we have been humans. In ancient times people used branding to mark criminals; in more recent times criminals tattooed serial numbers to mark people. In some cultures marks are used to show the caste identity or set of skills possessed; for some it is to mark an initiation into adulthood. In the last half century, counter-cultural movements in the west have adopted many forms of body modification from traditional societies, including scarification. With the advent of the Internet, disperse ‘bod-mod’ communities can now interact with each other, learning new techniques and methods, garnering inspiration from images posted by others. In the miscellaneous alternative scene of today, scarification is a mode of artistic self-expression, a collaboration between the scarification artist and body canvas. Likewise, the ritual of scarification might be deeply personal, the physical pain representing a personal threshold broken, or proof that they can endure.

The Internet can only teach so much about something so physical. To learn more I visited Polymorph Body Piercing Studio in Enmore. I spoke to co-owner Rob Valenti, himself a proud owner of many a tattoo, piercing and scar, Rob’s been a scarification artist for twelve years. I found that scarification is meaningful to both the body modification artist and the person having their body modified.

Over the past five years scarification has become more popular, through mainstream media and communities on the Internet. ‘Five years ago I would say I had one or two, maybe three customers a year; this year I’ve already done about fifteen people.’

‘Some people think it’s quite barbaric, when it’s not really as full-on as it seems. I think scarification is quite similar to tattooing in regard to sensation – it’s not overly painful. When people hear the words ‘scalpel’, ‘cutting’ and ‘scaring’, their head instantly goes to this place of ‘Holy fuck, that’s really got to hurt.’

The interior of Polymorph is quite attractive, with nice hard wood floor and high ceilings. The walls are covered with contemporary art – Polymorph is also a gallery – and behind Rob’s shoulder was the studio itself, where the magic happens, so to speak. ‘What’s it like performing scarification?’ I asked.

‘How do you verbalise it? Because you’re doing something for someone that they really want to do, there’s always that satisfaction when you’re finished the work. People come in here shit scared ninety per cent of the time; by the time that they leave they’re laughing, they’re smiling and they’re happy, and it makes me feel good because they’re taking a piece of me away with them.’

I showed Rob my own scar, told him the story of how I got it. ‘Do you reckon much could be done about that?’

Rob leaned in and had a good look at my forearm, with the analytical eye of a sculptor viewing a newly cut stone. ‘I’m sure we could work something out. It would take a bit of drawing but yeah definitely. I’ve done it for people with facial scars from being in a fights or being glassed, I’ve added little bits and pieces to make it look a little more like a design than just a kind of messy scar. I’m sure if you wanted to, I could take a photo and draw something up?’ Rob took a photo and I’m looking forward to seeing what he comes up with and what new stories my scars may yet tell.

I wondered what others lived experience of scarification was like. You’re probably curious too. Then type, if you will, ‘scarification’ into Google and one of the first links that appears is to a video on YouTube by Gina and Keveen Gabet, documenting Keveen’s scarification. It’s quite a poignant video, perhaps not for the squeamish. Keveen and Gina live their philosophy of ‘Korakor’, a tribal/rural life in the hills of Oaxaca, Mexico, so I was very lucky to catch him via email.

Keveen replied, ‘Using my own flesh as a canvas is a beautiful act in itself. I do not believe I’m harming it or denaturing it. Quite the opposite; I’m writing my autobiography on it. I seem to collect scars the same way some collect clothes or cars. I love to remember scars, they each have a story… It has always been a great ice breaker and that is also how I fell in love with Gina. We compared scars when we met in India.’

I asked if he had any regret, Keveen answered, ‘When people ask me if I regret it, I can happily answer that it’s part of who I was back then…and fully respect and honour that! I don’t think I will do more extreme scarification though… Now, being an isolated farmer in the hills of Mexico, I collect new scars daily. From hammers, nails, bites…

Scaringly yours,
Keveen.

Maybe I am too concerned with how people see me and the stories they build from what they can see. Although, with the increased convergence of identities thanks to Facebook and other technologies, identity formation or ‘personal brand management’ is increasingly important and is played out in the public square. In this neoliberal context, being an active agent in the creation of one’s identity through the choices an individual makes is the greatest good; the inability to construct one’s own identity due to self-inflicted limitations is the ultimate failure, aside from death. Why should I not take charge of the story my body portrays? I may have unwittingly become the ultimate Randian hero.

But I doubt it, thankfully. We really have a limited capacity to shape how we are perceived by others; people make sense of the world based on their past experiences and pop culture mostly. It’s more important what stories my scars tell me. On bad days, they tell stories of fear – fear of hospitals, of being locked up, my version of reality being discounted, being discriminated against, of being thought of as a flake, a risk, undateable, a broken thing. Other days I wear my scars as medals of honour, symbols of battles won. But it all happened so long ago. I look at them now and think, ‘Well, I could have handled that better’. So, am I going to go through with the Scarification? Truthfully, I am leaning towards yes. If I do, it won’t be to tell a story to other people. It will be just for me.

 

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To Fall At Your Feet, John Elder

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 …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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