The gods were greedy. Cub picks his way across the Pile. The remains of religious worship is accumulated in mounds all around him. Wafts of incense blow in drifts, fires fan in the horizon, and the city sits like a jewel in the middle of it all. Continue reading “To Which We Build Our Pyres – William Williams”
The lens focused; the shutter swirled open and, as I released my finger from the button, snapped shut. Click. I lowered the camera and gaped. The branches descended like herringbone over the pond below, while the viridescent leaves reflected across the glassy surface. I edged closer, seeing the clusters of water lilies that hovered in the centre of the pond. A shadow veiled the water, inching toward the lily pads. Above it stood a bridge: green and canopied in leaves the colour of snow peas. It had become commonplace, a stock image suspended in waiting rooms. Yet, here it was, framed by two deep-crimson shrubs and flooded with capris-wearing tourists.
* * *
It was early. My half-opened eyes scanned the foreign apartment around me. Light streamed through the French shutters, illuminating the small dining table, fireplace and bed facing towards it.
The mattress felt like kneaded dough beneath my back. Hannah’s dormitory-floor was now a fleeting nightmare, only plaguing my muscles for a night.
I hurled the duvet off my body and wandered into the kitchen. Opposite the single wall of kitchen cabinetry—and beneath a second window—laid a doona-covered mound on the pull-out-lounge.
‘Hannah… It’s almost nine, do you want to get up soon?’
The duvet moaned back. Pitying my previous sleeping arrangements, she had volunteered to sleep on the pull-out lounge.
The kettle gurgled. I emptied two Nescafé sachets into a pair of mugs—our attempt at being frugal. I pulverised the powder into the simmering liquid, then gulped down a mouthful. A ball of dry powder touched the tip of my tongue. My face contorted with disgust; the undissolved ball plummeted into the basin.
‘Hannah, I am already sick of these coffees. I’ll leave yours out, but I’m chucking mine down the sink. I might get a coffee at the patissier on the corner.’
‘Yeah, and we should get a baguette for breakfast. I’m starving.’ Her eyes were now open and glued to her iPad.
‘What if we aim to leave by ten? I still really want to buy some groceries before we leave for Giverny, so we can maybe make dinner one night.’
‘Sounds good! I might just have a shower.’
We arrived in Paris the night before, yet clothes were already strung across the apartment. I clawed through what was left in my suitcase and slipped on a dress and a jacket.
The whistling of water stopped and Hannah emerged. We were both dressed in all black and white.
‘Monochrome sisters!’ We laughed in unison.
Hannah pulled the door shut as we began our descent down the five flights of stairs. The thumping of our shoes echoed around the small stairwell and connecting hallways. I began to tiptoe down, but the floorboards continued to creak. The owner of the apartment insisted that we: ‘be as quiet as possible in the apartment, particularly in the stairwell.’ Hannah had spent the night and early hours of the morning flicking between music channels, moving to the throbbing bass. We turned the volume down, but I imagined the bass still permeating the walls and waking our French neighbours. As our panting reverberated across the foyer, it was clear that our attempts to be quiet would again fail.
* * *
I left my parents at the departure gate. Tears welled from their eyes; my eyes followed suit. This was my escape from the sheltered walls of my home: a self-constructed prison. Stepping out from my room full of paint and books, to explore the world for the first time by myself.
* * *
We peered into the patissier on the corner, but it was empty. I would typically yell out to shopkeepers until they came out of hiding, but the thought of repeating ‘bonjour’ to an empty room felt unnatural—did the French even say ‘bonjour’ to gain someone’s attention?
Supressing our hunger for caffeine, we passed the pastry-filled window, turning left and then right, gawking at the compact rows of cars lining the streets until the navigational persona beamed, ‘You have reached your destination.’
Chill emanated from the freezers on each side. The shelves were packed with cheese, butter and meats. Everything was different from Woolworths: there were meats I had never seen, labels laden with words I could not understand. I knew what buerre was and picked up a small block. I also knew what lait meant, but was clueless as to which bottle was whole, or of the skim variety. The blue-label looked familiar, like I had seen blue-labelled milk in my parent’s fridge, so I picked it up.
We picked up a few rolls of overpriced toilet paper, a bag of madeleines, and then scanned the aisles for baguettes. They were beside the cash registers, housed in a long wicker basket like arrows in an archer’s quiver. I picked up a roll and emptied my armful of products onto the conveyer belt.
‘Bonjour,’ I delivered in my best French accent. The cashier lifted her head, shot a glare towards the two Australians at her register, before lowering her face to the groceries. A smug look passed across her face. Perhaps my French accent was not as French as I had hoped. We piled the loose items back into our arms and walked back to the apartment.
Our thigh muscles cramped as we reached the fifth floor of the building, our arms now contorted, juggling the groceries.
After eating half of the baguette and refrigerating the milk and the butter, we tiptoed back down the staircase in pursuit of Convention metro station. Our tour to Monet’s House and Garden was scheduled to leave in the early afternoon and we did not want to be late.
The intersection was surrounded by scarlet cafés, the Metropolitan sign obscured by leaves. People bustled across the cobblestones: the men donning tailored jackets, the women clad in black. Following the crowd of Parisians, we walked down the steps to the metro. I pulled out our tiny tickets and, navigating our bodies through the turnstiles, made our way towards the M12 line, in the direction of Concorde.
The train emerged from the dark tunnel to our right, the brakes screeching along the metal tracks. We hovered in front of the train door. It did not budge. A woman pushed past our dazed faces and, lifting the lever, the doors flung open. Seats stretched across a single-level carriage. I sat on a fold out chair in front of the door and sat clutching my handbag—I had heard about pickpockets in Paris and did not want to fall victim.
Eleven stops passed. Doors opening, doors closing, my bag still in my hands, clenched. At the twelfth, we stepped out of the carriage. We rose from the underground and into the sun-soaked street. Shopfronts etched their way onto the footpath: rotating stands filled with postcards of Le Tournee du Chat Noir had taken up residency on the pavers, while protruding rows of chairs and tables faced the road as if they were facing an audience.
We sauntered along Rue de Rivoli until we reached an intersection enclosed by stucco buildings with grey slate descending from their roofs. On the far corner was the tour office. Hannah and I peered into the windows before entering and handed our receipt to a lady at one of the desks.
‘Your tour will depart from Stand Two in just under an hour.’
We strolled up the long road toward the Palais Royale, took a few pictures of the masterful architecture, and walked back before the hour was up.
Turning back onto Rue des Pyramides, we saw a double-decker coach parked at Stand Two. Our strolling turned to sprinting. A long line rolled out of the coach. It had just arrived. Panting, we joined the end of the line. As the line grew, we were sandwiched between two groups of American tourists gloating to each other of their travels. I rolled my eyes; Hannah looked unperturbed.
As we stepped onto the bus, the tour guides greeted us in English and handed us each a fluorescent sticker to wear. We took a seat on the second level and placed our stickers on our chests. I peered out the window and up the road. A golden light reflected across the stucco and shop windows, causing an inerasable grin to spread across my face.
I sat, ears perked and eyes alert, listening to the guide’s commentary as the narrow streets of Paris merged into the vast French countryside. She listed off details about the Impressionist movement, what defined it, and how it originated. Although I had read a few books on Impressionism during school, I still found myself engrossed by every word.
* * *
I would set up an easel in the school courtyard and paint. A mixture of fresh air, the smell of oil paint and the repugnance of turpentine encircled me: en plein air (in the open air) like the Impressionists. Every lesson, the sounds of nature and the distinct amalgamation of smells consumed me. Art was not necessarily about technique: it was an all-absorbing endeavour for the artist that would be portrayed on a canvas—the artist capturing their experience, to share it.
* * *
Hannah had, as per usual, taken the coach ride as a signal to close her eyes. We had—much to her advantage—made a decision that one of us would always stay awake while the other slept. As the guide concluded her speech, my eyes longed to mirror Hannah’s.
Two hours later, the coach slowed, parking beside several other coaches. Everyone hopped off the bus; gravel grinding under our feet. Hannah and I shadowed the tour guide as she navigated her way through the underground tunnel, and then handed us our tickets at the gardens entrance.
From a distance, the garden looked untamed. Splotches of raspberry, violet and lemon stood atop the green shrubbery. Like paint strokes altering from artwork to artwork, the petals changed shape and intensity from plant to plant. Unfurled petals revealed a textured stigma in the centre, while others clustered on top of a single stem, bursting in opposite directions like fireworks. The dense clouds diffused the sun, yet a dewy-warmth seeped through, causing sweat to trickle down my back. I rolled the sleeves of my leather jacket up to my elbows, while juggling my phone in one hand and my camera, which dangled from my right wrist.
The tour guide edged further up the aisle of flowers toward the dusty-pink house carpeted in vines and green shutters. Swinging my camera up into my palm, I tried to capture a flower that looked like a caterpillar with a tuft of lilac hair. The photograph captured the furriness of the plant, but also gave an uncharacteristic furriness to the surrounding leaves and pink florets behind it.
I slung my camera back onto my wrist and strolled up to Hannah who was almost at the top of the aisle.
‘Man, everything is so pretty!’ I called out to her. Hannah smiled back, and seeing that the guide was now waiting in front of the house, we strolled along the pebbles and gathered around her.
‘Welcome to Monet’s House and Gardens! You’re all actually very lucky that you chose to come today. Yesterday it was, uh, very busy, making it hard to move around, and also to see all of the flowers. Mind, if you were to come back in two weeks time, the entire garden would be different,’ the guide began, commenting on the team of gardeners that would plant and replant the garden.
* * *
I envisioned Monet’s canvas stretched across a wooden frame: blobs of viridian oil paint alongside swipes of scarlet, then, after they had dried, mauve flowers painted in place of the scarlet—a constant rearranging of pigment and light.
* * *
The guide, adjusting her scarf, reiterated that the coach would leave at quarter-past-five and disbanded the group.
We dashed into Monet’s house, wary of the minimal time limit. To our left was a room brimming with tourists, the walls laden with copies of Monet’s paintings; camera flashes gleaming across the oil paint furnishing the canvases.
‘No photos, please,’ demanded an employee.
We attempted to examine each work individually: a woman with a parasol, a group of boats, waterlilies, and the Japanese bridge.
Dragging ourselves away from the paintings, we walked up the staircase to Monet’s bedroom, the walls of the stairwell filled with Japanese ink paintings.
‘I love these paintings, Jenna!’ Hannah remarked. I agreed. The lines of navy ink were clean. Intrinsic detail.
After plodding back down the stairs, we walked through a yellow-drenched dining room and a kitchen enrobed in the colour blue, before exiting the house.
Nature’s paint palette surrounded us. We wandered down another aisle of pigments and through an underground tunnel, reaching Monet’s Japanese garden. An oasis: verdure hunched over the pond, green pigments reflected across the glassy surface. I positioned my camera and released my finger from the button. Click. Unfurled bulbs sat on top of the lily pads, like cup and saucers floating on an aquatic tablecloth. Above it stood a bridge brimming with capris-wearing tourists.
It was ever-present, but conventional. Displayed in lounge rooms, waiting rooms, adorning placements and coasters—a serene image with universal allure.
Growing up surrounded by straw-like grass and faded gumtrees, the vibrant flora Monet had depicted in his paintings were mere dreamscapes; such vibrancy was unimaginable. But in front of me, the dreamscape materialised, the Japanese bridge—the nucleus.
The sound of scuffling peppered the tranquillity; sneakers stomped upon the planks leaving specks of dirt, dulling the green paint. It felt sacrilegious. Hannah and I edged closer toward the bridge, waiting for a few pairs of sneakers to alight.
Looking down at the wooden bridge now underfoot, I became conscious of the pilgrimage I had completed. I was at the source of the work that was suspended in my living room; of the set of placemats my siblings and I spilt spaghetti bolognaise on.
It was an intangible epicentre of memories of home, of my infatuation with art, and of my family. The sand-coloured stucco reminded me of the innumerable times my family and I had watched Woody Allen’s film, Midnight in Paris; Monet’s blue kitchen and Japanese prints reminded me of the willow-patterned dinner set my grandparents used—slices of familiarity in an unfamiliar country.
Monet’s legacy, not merely sown in the soil at Giverny, but through the understated, framed pieces mounted in the background of our lives. A universal familiarity portrayed through erratic strokes of paint.
The bridge consisted of ordinary planks of wood, stretching across a semi-ordinary body of water, yet its essence transcended time and setting.
I looked down at my phone. It was late.
‘Hannah, we should probably start walking back to the coach now.’
I zipped my camera away in its case, as we journeyed back through the tunnel and toward the coach.
We saw a pop-up stand further up the road. The owner was serving an American, his accent distinguishable from down the road. But, as we moved further toward the stand, the sun reflected off a platinum machine, flaring into our eyes.
The boy was only one-thousand, eight-hundred and twenty-five suns old when his first leaf, a true evergreen, was cut from his skin. The sun filtered through the glass in warped patterns that day, shining light sporadically around the pediatrics unit. The room was overzealously packed with positively charged colours, pamphlets, and posters showing happy little children with animated cartoon flowers growing from the tops of their heads, their smiles sincere and never ending. Brochures dedicated to depression littered the walls as well, with varying titles including The Grip of the Sun: A Bright Future Denied, Recognizing the Signs, Trome Care According to Host Plant Types, The 24th Century Family, and Learning to Grow; Adapting to Change in a Loved One, all careening their informative faces towards the couple in the center of the room.
‘This could have been much worse,’ the giant being slurred gravely to the humans before her. This Trome was derived from a banksia plant. Her right eye was covered by a hearty red and yellow flamed flower, and her mighty chin was nothing more than a furrow of tangled dark roots that bobbed up and down with her jaw as it moved.
‘As it is the trauma sustained will probably hinder leaf development for the rest of his life. Which in turn may lead to further complications as he grows.’
Sadly Maria the banksia had seen many cases like this abuse; many parents were unable to cope with having a child they saw as a second-class citizen. A tromo. With effort she quenched the anger that smoldered inside her. It was appalling. She looked down at the poor little sapling, still so sweet and fleshy. Trent, their son, was unconscious and worn. She watched the two drips from his monitor screen travel into the damaged limb where eventually the blood and sucrose washed together. Where eventually it didn’t matter. Maria sighed so deeply she felt it rattle around inside her like dried out skeleton leaves in the wind.
‘He still looks so normal . . . ’ Maude ignored the pointed glare she received for her comment and instead continued to look at her pale child, sprawled out on the sterilised white linen like a bundle of collapsed twigs.
‘How can this be happening to our boy, Hank? To us?’
Hank watched his finger tremble as he tenderly traced the thick, fleshy leaf he had chopped from Trent’s tiny wrist that day. Marred with blood and a hardening sap, Hank could not accept that the two had come from the same being, let alone his son. Hank shook his head. He was just trying to hang on to the boy he was. Should have been. Was that so bad? He couldn’t quite understand it all . . . he smudged the thick residues between thumb and forefinger again. They were one now, he thought with a frown. This was his son.
Maria, meanwhile, couldn’t help herself.
‘Ma’am, please. The metamorphosis of our species is a completely natural process, and may I remind you, has been so for hundreds of years now. Every human has the capacity for this genetically pre-determined condition. Without it the Earth would not get nearly enough of the oxygen it needs, it’s simply the world’s way of balance. It’s natural.’ The sun hung heavily on her words; it was all very true, so why did she always come out of such conversations feeling defeated?
‘I promise you, it’s the most natural thing in the world.’
The ghostly pair looked through her as she talked.
* * *
Two years had passed. In those orbits, seven hundred and thirty more suns had slunk over them all, claiming nearly 435 victims in their state alone, according to the talk show hosts.
‘The fact is it’s an alarming statistic. Out of 25% of the population committing this saddening act, nearly 85% of suicides are from Trome young adults alone. And it should be addressed: the amount of still-trees you see these days is absolutely heartbreaking.’ The replay of Dr Darwon Charlie stopped.
‘Well, no offense to our country’s leading Trome analyst,’ said Harry, ‘and I’m not a Tromophobe- BUT, now that most old time trees are extinct, fire wood’s gotta come from somewhere, doesn’t it?’
A woman snickered, ‘Oh Harry! You’re so bad- no honestly folks, there’s no containing this one.’
‘I am a bit of a fire- stoker . . .’ Hank could practically hear the grin in his voice. He cut the engine off on his car, the talking ceased.
‘Oh thank god! Just in time!’ Out of nowhere Maude was against the car door, duffel bag in one hand and her son in the other. She ushered both into the old sedan.
‘What’s happening?’ Hank turned to Trent, now in the backseat.
The buds that had been growing up and out of his neck had begun sprouting, Hank realised. They gently swayed as he shuffled over, little lime green passengers suspended in mid-air.
‘Dad, you need to take me to group social, we’re playing soccer today, I think.’ Trent’s hazel green eyes were lit up, this was his first social.
‘Is that wise?’ It was important for Tromes to socialise with their kind, Hank agreed, but it was hard for any Trome to walk at speed let alone run- the roots and fibers in their feet would instinctively tell their bodies to stop and taste the soil. Why do they humour this idea of normality? Of assimilation? It would only make Trent more upset later in life. Hank huffed.
‘I’m sure he will live, our baby can do anything any other little boy can, right honey?’ Trent looked at his mother. What an odd question. Trent could taste the quality of the soil simply by coming into contact with it. He swore he could feel the sun sing to him oddly at times in a distorted but comforting way, like through a shimmering body of water. He could sense the presence of another Trome, often from very far away, just because the roots in the grass and their feet were all somehow interconnected. Other little boys couldn’t do that. He considered this all for a while, long enough for him to see his mother’s confidence falter. So why was he the one who needed to keep up with other little boys then? Were these things bad? Were they his fault? Is that why his mother had worded it that way? The wind blew coolly, and the sun warmed up every little part of him that made him feel like he couldn’t communicate with her properly.
‘I guess, mum.’
‘Don’t forget to schedule in his next outing with the team leader, okay hun?’ Maude hadn’t realised she had been holding her breath until her chest fell heavily. Hank noticed too. Unfortunately so did Trent.
* * *
Larry must be very old, Hank thought as he watched the ten-foot high Trome make his way towards him later that afternoon. His long limber branches and their shimmering leaves dragged behind him on the ground as the weeping willow stomped his way over to them on thick, silvery stumps.
‘How’s it going, Trent?’ Hank cupped the back of Trent’s head as he walked towards the old Trome. Seven years old now and still it was a shock when he felt the hardness of forming roots hiding beneath his blonde buoyant curls. Masking his intake of breath Hank coughed and smiled. Trent stuck his tongue out at his mentor before holding his distorted, hard hand so tightly the wood in his fingertips creaked. From that very first day, Trent loved Larry. And being the smallest in the group, Larry looked out for him especially. For thousands of suns after, Trent was part of an active community. ‘If you dig your roots in deep enough, you won’t ever fall down.’ The old mantra was relayed always, letting them know they weren’t alone. Letting them know the call of the sun wasn’t the only thing on Earth that could keep them warm and whole. Oscar, a handsome boy with yew features, would sometimes try to make fun of Trent’s small foliage, and every time he did a snapping vine without fail would make its way to the youth with an audible smack. Strong and mysterious, Larry would wink at the stunned boys and lumber on. So when they received the call from the team leaders, begging the community to band together in this time of sadness, the family was in absolute shock. They visited his shell once, at his funeral. Along the riverbank Larry’s roots were already deep into the earth, his eyes shut forever and hardened over with a thick, deep bark. Trent became really upset when he couldn’t tell which branch was once his hand, he just had so many limbs now, so many it made all the parts that were once Larry lose meaning. The lake’s surface had sparkled like diamonds as the water churned below Larry’s final resting place, the reflecting light pierced the eyes of the funeral party as his body hung as it had in that final moment.
Wood, Hank decided that day, is no indication as to how strong a tree really is.
* * *
On his five-thousandth, four-hundredth and seventy-second sun, Trent was nearly fifteen. Gangly and undernourished, his leaf impediment had cost him dearly for all the nutrients he couldn’t soak up. His leaves, although now a beautiful deep jade, were warped. Different. It meant Trent needed more time to photosynthesise. Which of course was very, very dangerous.
‘It’s highly addictive. He mustn’t get lost in it,’ Maria was telling him at their tri-annual meeting. Hank was trying very hard to pay attention, but it was difficult after the ordeal he had just experienced.
Tromo. That’s what that stupid boy had called his son, before he had flung mud and god knows what else at him and run away. Tromo. Hank glowered darkly at the memory.
‘Tromes lacking experience can easily get swept away in the sun.’
- Those stupid little boys and their stupid words like axes. Hacking and slicing and cutting at his poor boy until there would be nothing left.
Hank had focused on wiping away the mud from Trent’s broad brow. The leaves on his face trembled uncontrollably, but Hank hadn’t said anything. Instead he took off his coat and tried draping it around the boy for comfort, not caring that it wouldn’t fit. Hank just had to do something.
‘Tromo. What a damaging, repulsive, abhorrent word.’ It made Hank sick. But most of all it made him livid. When he heard the word he saw his son in pain, labeled. Excluded. Hated and feared. It licked at his heart like a sharp, hot fire. Maria’s face became one of empathy almost instantly. She could guess what had happened.
‘What can we do for him? How do we stop this?’ Such words were lethal. His fists were as tight as they could be.
‘What can I do?’
Maria sat, glad that her banksia blossoms had bloomed early this season, that she had not pinned it back today with twine like she usually would have. She didn’t know how to answer that furious, powerless, frustrated glare. How do you change a whole society’s way of thinking?
‘Please Maria, what do I do?’ How do you accept the fact that your child would hurt for the rest of his life? Hank’s boney fingers ran through his thinning brown hair.
‘Watch him. Be ready. That’s all you can do.’
And that was all she could tell him. The bright posters of happy tree children grinned sadistically at the pair, the sweet stems blossoming exquisitely from their heads now a wonderfully cruel lie. Maria hid behind her flowers.
On Trent’s five-thousandth four-hundredth and seventy-seventh sun, he was lying at the park and the world was absolutely singing. Bright and chirpy, the star of life sprawled superfluously along the greenery like an unperturbed feline. Maude was extremely pleased with herself for forcing her son to be at this place. It had been exactly five days since the bullying incident had taken place, and finally, Trent was out of the house again. She told her friend as much as they watched Trent laying in the shade some distance off.
‘His wood is strong; it’s all that fleshy stuff underneath. The kid’s as soft as soil.’
Hailey the palm tree’s wood slunk up her slim torso like scales up her spine, until it reached the crescendo of pointed palm leaves atop her head, which flared out against the sky like malformed, jutted green wings. Nonchalant she slapped a fly off her hairy knee. Maude had met Hailey in some of Trent’s support groups, and instantly the pair had become friends. Hailey was brash and at times rather crude, but she was honest and decent. And Maude appreciated that most at a time where she felt all her other friends were stepping on eggshells around her when it came to her boy. They just didn’t understand.
‘You need to be made of tougher stuff to be a Trome. He needs to be sterner, or he’s just not going to make it,’ Hailey stated. Maude cringed.
A few yards away Trent thought he had heard a man sneer the word under his breath as he had walked past him. Absently Trent had been lacing his fingers along the roots on his arms, feeling for the fluffy organic fibers that grew from his hardening bark flesh. Not quite yet formed it was still very sensitive to touch. The underhanded comment was a rude awakening back into reality. Dismally Trent watched the old man walk off along the path without a second glance back, just another nameless, angry person. Slowly Trent pulled up his long sleeves until they covered all the skin along his skinny arms, the grey material sticking up awkwardly and obviously in places, to his anxiety.
‘Trent, what are you doing, that looks horrible! Roll your sleeves back up.’ His mother laughed at him as she walked over with Hailey.
Maude saw her son’s face scrunch up like foil before he turned and skulked off, and her heart scrunched up with it.
But he was already so much further than his legs could have taken him.
* * *
That night Trent dreamt vividly he was talking with Larry.
‘It’s hard, especially when you can feel a way out on your leaves- when you can taste it,’ Larry was saying, his vines restlessly meandering along the grass.
‘But life is a gift.’ His familiar large blue eyes pierced Trent’s muddy green ones, trying to find anchor and resonance until Trent wanted to cry. He missed those eyes.
‘Not for us,’ Trent heard his voice tell him.
‘Especially for us.’ But the old Trome was now a skeleton. His brittle, stretched bones were locked away in the confines of rough decaying bark, his many leaves flowed out of their branch sockets rapidly like fine dried ash in the wind.
Perspiring wet, Trent woke up.
* * *
The world revolved. The way it always had and would always continue to do. In the yard alone the next day, Trent was thinking about how everything was interconnected. Trent was thinking about balance. He closed his eyes and listened to the heartbeat of the Earth. Breathing himself, he too was a miracle. The soil beneath his crusty hands melted away at his touch. Inside Maude was watching a rally on television, the volume just audible.
‘If history has taught us anything, it is that assimilation is just another word for segregation- if we really want to achieve progress like the state claims it does, we should be looking for ways to facilitate them into our society, renegotiate what it means to be normal and recreate this world to include them as well. What kind of future can we offer them when they are viewed as non-citizens? When there is no future?’
The man stepped off the podium, the crowd threw flowers off of their very own heads at him, the sea of limbs cheered. After a hiccupped laugh and a moment, Maude cried. Outside all exhaled and Trent exhaled with it. He closed his eyes and opened them again, finally as clear as the sky. Hank pulled up outside and cut the engine. On Trent’s five-thousandth, four-hundredth and seventy-eighth day the world spun on its axis and the sun shone like a promise.
Richard found himself alone save only for the snow, slowly falling from the sky and landing on the ground around him and the exposed skin of his outstretched hands. It did not seem to Richard to be snow at all as, though he was dressed only in a light jacket and shorts, there was not a single hint of the cold that Richard had believed accompanied snow. He found it rather remarkable.
Even more remarkable was that the snow that landed on his hands stayed only for a moment before dissolving away into nothing before his very eyes. It was as though it had never existed. He looked at the snow falling and the snow on the ground with a confused, almost crazed look, reaching his hand out every now and then to test the snow again. Every time it was the same result. It simply dissolved when it hit his hands while staying on the ground below with no adverse effects.
Richard had never seen snow before in his life, having only ever known life as a farmer in a remote area in the middle of Australia. He had lived mostly alone, finding company with his cattle and his dog. His face was lined and tanned and covered with a stubbly, greying beard. Beneath bushy eyebrows, his blue eyes seemed to be piercing the snow at his feet as they moved from place to place, worriedly surveying his surroundings.
He felt himself shiver despite the lack of cold as he looked out into the vast emptiness ahead of him, everything being grey or white except for himself. He felt as though he was in a desert of snow upon which nothing could ever grow at all. It was overwhelming for the poor man to think that only moments before he was smiling at his big, black dog chasing a rabbit into a bush, the Australian sun beating down upon him.
For some time Richard stood, his face changing with any given moment. One moment he seemed confused, then he looked angry and even, at times, content. His face was unemotional as he finally turned to walk away. As he did so, he suddenly stopped in his tracks. Richard’s eyes bulged as he realised that he was wrong. Something could grow in the white, snowy desolation around him.
Snow-capped mountains burst silently from the ground, racing silently skyward. He tried his hardest to keep his vision trained on the white tops of the newly forming mountains, but his eyes were incapable of processing the speed at which the mountains were growing, soon sprawling in the distance and covering as far as the eye could see. He looked at the beautiful mountain range ahead of him, holding his breath as he did. As he finally let his breath out, he sensed something happening around him.
Richard’s head darted from side to side and, to his astonishment, he saw something growing out of the snow. He watched as the trees changed from small saplings, having sprouted from an unforeseen seed in the ground somewhere underneath the infernal snow, into large oak trees, taller than any trees he had ever encountered and topped, as the mountains had been, with even more snow.
It was a wondrous sight to behold, indeed, and yet Richard still appeared to be confused and even, unfortunately, rather angry.
Out of the darkness that the trees created came a strange noise that suddenly filled the area surrounding Richard. It was not a startling noise. In fact, it was rather pleasant. As he stood in awe at the new environment surrounding him, a melodious tune carried from somewhere far in the distance. It was unlike any music that had ever graced his ears. The music sounded as though it was being created by the voices of a thousand people mingling together in perfect harmony. The tune was so intensely beautiful that it may not have been the voice of people at all. It could well have been angels.
Unaware of time, Richard stood gaping at the newly formed mountains and oak trees, listening to the angels singing, their voices mingling together to create a wonderful tune that would live in the hearts of any who heard it. Richard’s face began to soften for the first time since becoming engulfed in snow.
He surely believed himself to be the only person to have the great honour of hearing such an angelic song. That was until he heard the quiet crunch of footsteps on the snow behind him. With unforeseen reflexes, he quickly twirled around and came face to face with a most peculiar woman.
The first thing that Richard noticed about the woman was the emerald dress that she was wearing. The colour stood out wondrously against the white and brown from the snow and the trees. The dress was not designed for colder weather, and Richard moved to take off his light jacket before suddenly remembering that the cold did not seem to exist where he was. Seeing Richard reach for the jacket made the woman laugh melodiously, her laughter mixing with the song surrounding them causing Richard to tremble. Richard saw that the woman’s red hair was blowing in a breeze that he did not feel. The gallantry of which Richard held himself in such high regard faltered when he looked upon the woman’s face.
It was long and gaunt and her expression, though laughing, appeared to be grim and emotionless. Her skin was pale, almost grey, and her brown eyes were boring into his very soul. It was her eyes that gave Richard the most pause, for when he looked into them he saw something fearsome. Something hostile even. The woman’s face did not go with the wonderfully beautiful emerald dress and flowing red hair.
‘Where are you, Richard?’ the woman asked, scanning his eyes as he was doing with hers. Her voice, in opposition to her beautifully melodic laugh, was coarse and deep. Richard’s eyes betrayed his caution and unrest as he regarded the woman suspiciously.
‘How the bloody hell am I meant to know that?’ Richard asked. Richard was obviously frightened by the appearance of the woman in the emerald dress and was far blunter then perhaps was cursory at that moment. ‘While we’re at it, just who the hell are you?’
‘I am not important,’ the woman said, her raspy and abrasive voice somehow managing to follow the slow tune of the melody still going all around them. Richard rudely snorted and crossed his arms, looking at the woman with undisguised annoyance.
‘Yeah, well who is, love?’ he asked, once again overstepping the boundary with his bluntness. It was a credit to the poor woman at the other end of the tirade that she did not reprimand him for his brutish manner or even react in a manner that would, in this case, be justifiable. ‘Just answer the question. Who are you?’
‘I am no one,’ the woman replied, furthering her earlier response and answering in a polite manner. There was a pain behind her words, however. A pain of a not forgotten past, perhaps. Or maybe simply the pain of no past, present or even future.
‘Well, congratulations on that one, eh?’ Richard replied untactfully, his voice now bitingly sarcastic. The woman never lost her composure, something Richard could perhaps do with trying himself from time to time. ‘Just cut the crap. What the fuck is going on here?’
The woman’s nose scrunched up at the unnecessarily vulgar language streaming from Richard’s mouth.
‘It is not for me to say,’ the woman, whose dress sparkled a vibrant green on the spots where a snowflake had landed and dissolved into nothing, illuminating the snow around her, making it almost seem as though the snow was actually grass. Richard let out a grating and entirely unnecessary laugh.
The melody of the angel song surrounding the two of them quickened, as though someone had been observing the conversation and altered the beautiful song in reaction to Richard’s now hostile behaviour. The song took on a dangerous quality. It was now far less peaceful than it had previously been. It was no longer the beautiful song of angels, and Richard had no one to blame but himself.
‘Well, why are you here then?’ he asked, his tone now faster and deeper. While the face of the woman remained impassive, it had to be alarming to her that Richard would act in this hostile manner. The only indication that she had reacted to Richard was her muscles tensing slightly as he spoke. Who can blame her, really? How much abuse can one person take? ‘Just tell me right now, alright? What the hell is going on here?’
‘It is not for me to say,’ the woman repeated, her voice now wavering on the edge of breaking. Richard was being unkind. The wind picked up as Richard’s face started to contort in anger and his arms raised to rub his scalp which he could feel through his close-cut greying hair. The woman’s red hair started to move about much more quickly and erratically, and soon appeared to have a mind of its own. ‘I do not like your tone, Richard, and I request that you cease hostilities towards me and allow everything to take its proper course.’
‘My tone?’ Richard asked, letting his irrational anger get the better of him, his hands now gesturing wildly. ‘It’s fucking snowing! I’m from Australia for Christ’s sake. And you’re worried about my damn tone?’
Richard had gone too far this time.
Snowflakes stopped in mid-air and the wind that Richard could not feel ceased blowing as the world began to rumble around them. The woman in the emerald dress stood unwavering as Richard looked at his feet, surely concerned that at any moment the gates of Hell would swallow him up for his unbelievably rude and childish behaviour. The gates of Hell unfortunately did not open to swallow Richard. What did happen was that the snow started to evaporate, flowing from the ground in rivulets of water towards the sky from whence they had fallen. It was as though it was raining upside down. The trees went into reverse and became smaller, eventually turning back into a sapling and then into a seed that was clearly visible upon the earth that had appeared from beneath the snow.
The mountains began to disappear next. When they had first arisen, pushing their way out of the snow, there had been no noise at all, however this time there was a great, unpleasant scraping sound as the mountains forced their way back down into the newly visible earth.
The angelic melody began to shift and change once again, as though the angels had been replaced by druids. The sound was low and melancholy. A funeral dirge. It was as beautiful as the original melody that had caused Richard to soften.
The woman in the emerald dress had not moved from where she had stood before, and her brown eyes had not left Richard for even a moment as her hair violently thrashed of its own accord around her body. She looked every inch a beauty to anyone who would look upon her. Except, as it would appear, Richard who looked to be more confused than ever before as he covered his ears with his hands, attempting in vain to block the grating, painful noise.
Within seconds, the beautiful, snowy landscape was replaced with something much more arid and dry. Steam rose from great cracks in the ground where bones and the seeds that had been oak trees were strewn across the landscape. The sky had become dark with clouds that threatened to unleash a terrible storm upon all those who dared to stand beneath them. Finally, the incessant grating noise ceased and Richard tentatively pulled his hands away from his ears, only to be assaulted by the new, sinister tune.
‘What the bloody hell was that?’ Richard demanded angrily, apparently too stubborn to learn his lesson. ‘Is this some kind of a joke?’
‘I assure you, there is no joke,’ the woman said, her voice now dark with anger. Sand and dust floated around her body, never quite daring to touch her. ‘You must fall in line, Richard.’
‘Fall in line?’ Richard asked, showing just how dense he was.
‘Yes,’ the woman said gently. ‘You must fall in line, or risk being Replaced.’
Replaced! That is harsh, even if Richard does deserve it.
‘What does that even mean?’ Richard asked roughly. He scoffed. ‘Replaced. You can’t just replace someone.’
‘I think you will find that to be incorrect,’ the woman replied, her harsher tones now softening somewhat. Instead of making her seem more peaceful, she was far more menacing. ‘Replacement is a very real threat to you, Richard. You are doing everything incorrectly. If you cannot grow and change, He will be forced to Replace you.’
‘So you think I’m just going to do everything you want, then?’ Richard asked, the insensitive tone creeping back into his voice. The woman’s brown eyes flashed dangerously and the man almost took a step back, but steadied himself.
‘Yes, in fact, I do think you are going to do just that,’ the woman replied, her hair once again flowing around her as if it had a mind of its own. ‘He forced you to be, so you must follow Him. If you will not do so, you are of no use to us.’
‘You’re bonkers,’ Richard said in a quieter tone. ‘Absolutely bananas. There’s only two people here, love. You and me. That’s it. You keep talking about “we” and “us”, but it’s only you. No one created me but my parents.’
‘Is that true?’ the woman asked, her tone a wonderful mixture of amusement and annoyance. ‘Were you really created by your parents?’
‘Of course,’ Richard replied, rolling his eyes.
‘Tell me a memory of your parents then,’ the woman challenged, her hair settling down once again.
Richard paused. It was a long pause, and it was clear that he was using what little brainpower he possessed to think of a response. As expected, he could not find one. He looked positively frightened.
‘You don’t have one, do you?’ the woman said triumphantly. Richard looked completely lost. It was as though he was mourning a loss that he didn’t understand.
‘It doesn’t prove anything,’ Richard replied defiantly, shaking his head. ‘You’re still crazy. There’s no one else bloody well here. Look around. I’m stuck in some weird, changing world with a woman who belongs in a hospital for her own damn safety. I should turn and run as far away from here as fast as I can.’
‘It will never be far enough.’
The woman’s voice was colder and harsher than it had been before, and rightly so. Richard was clearly unsuitable. The dirt and dust that had been floating around her suddenly burst into flames and tendrils of fire began to lap at her emerald dress and red hair, giving the impression that she had burst into flames as well. The fire threatened to touch her, but never dared do so.
The woman reached out to an unchangeable and terrified Richard, who had become frozen with fear. Her hand was wreathed in flames that never deigned to touch her and emitted no heat. Slowly, her fingers closed in on Richard’s stubbly cheek. One finger touched his skin and the woman in the emerald dress smiled as Richard screamed.
Moments later, it was snowing again. The woman, her emerald dress and her red hair had disappeared. The snow was falling onto the ground below, slowly piling on the parched ground, soon making it unrecognisable.
A boy, no older than seven, appeared out of nowhere. He was not quite dressed for the non-existent cold weather. In his youthful, naïve eyes there was a growing wonder that had not been present in Richard’s. As before, the mountains shot skyward, the snow-capped peaks reaching beyond the boy’s sight and the trees sprouting from the ground, the woman in the emerald dress with her red hair stood in waiting, a smile playing on her sad, gaunt lips as she saw the potential in the unsuspecting child.
A developing mind with few preconceived notions …
He would do nicely.
The door rumbles
as voices ascend
through the cracks
The sun tosses it open
flooding the waiting room.
A silhouette awaits
inviting me into
the sun bleached office.
Within the room
A framed image
Winding up the trunk
Thickening as it
Inside the chamber
Below the image
the silhouette waits
The chair too big
My ever-shrinking frame
Swallowing my chest.
Unable to control
The ball of weight
finds its place
At the top of his head
It moves his eyelids
The city lights flashing
on and off
A little less serotonin here.
His limbs droop over
the aching deck chair
Like the branches out front
Lifeless until they are
The branches stir
Their fingers twitching
of a force,
The sticky summer afternoon
turns to a blustery eve
as hot air rises
They rumble and
A startling array
of nature’s fireworks
The branches thrust
A surge of energy
The ball of weight
morphs into a being
down his neck
along his spine
Reaching his stomach
where warmth resides.
The sky clears
The smell of eucalyptus
cuts through the damp
He hangs over the balcony
His laughter penetrates
the city hum.
The first few fell
and found hard ground
become a glaciated plane
there in arid wait to lay
their potential verdure
a sable swooping billow blew
up and upwards out of hell
bent on death and brought with it
a Screwtape cotérie composed
of shades and wraiths
with ice-pick beaks
and sickle claws
to sickly gorge
and only ceased
The next group
peppered pregnant dirt
fertile with a certain
‘we will house you’
crowed the loamy fecund bed
so hapless shoots were shot straight down
and sought their routes
through miniscule foramina
which proved too shallow
above a bedrock bulwark
that sat in tacit abrogation
warped and wilted
brought an Autumn
the tallest of them tried to thrive
above the husks
but died as well
then blew away
Some were scattered
where woody stalks stood
and weedy tendrils stretched already
sucking sun and feeding foreign
blooms from which our bees
do not object to borrow pollen
all about the other roots
and grew until a thorny roof
if only imperceptibly
constricted liquid breath
in xylem sheath
that stultifying vine noose met
their every fateful measure
with ever more pressure
élan vital purloined
replaced with rot
And yet there was another lot
‘still other’ they would claim He named them
all it took was goodly earth
sun and water
to produce a bounty
thirty or a hundred times
their worth was the reward
said He who sowed them
but even twice should prove enough
when three from four
succumb to being
Lincoln was planted fully formed on a special acreage. Special because it was where land had first begun. Lincoln was special because he was the beginning of the tetrapods. In him was seeded the duty to produce vast examples of life on land, to give life to many kinds of children and send them off with the Final Knowledge – the knowledge that all of them were destined to forget only moments after they had been told. Lincoln, however, would never leave the acreage. The Final Knowledge was stored eternally within him, and such knowledge could not be allowed to grow.
The acreage was a square, fenced off at the beginning of a dirt track which clambered away to beyond Lincoln’s furthest horizon. A gate opened to this track. It was the only way out of the acreage, but was not meant for Lincoln to walk. It was meant for his children, each with their own seeds to plant beyond the acreage once they were fully grown.
Lincoln’s children were all born inside his farmhouse, which supplied the only shade from an otherwise cruel sun. The house was a Victorian design with pure white walls, standing just in from the gate. When sunrise loomed over, it haunted the farmhouse with its own shadow, until the sun rose up to midday, and the farmhouse pulled its shadow back in. In this way, as the shadow and the sun could be watched in unison, the day was a time device.
Lincoln observed from the day that the space between a dawn and a midday was the time in which his fully grown children were to walk through the gate. This was when the house’s shadow was out over the beginning of the track. In this space of time, Lincoln was to impart the Final Knowledge to those very children leaving. His children could only learn it in the shadow of their home. They had to unlearn it too, either by leaving it at the gate or by waiting for the house to take back the shade, and take back what it knew.
Rosetta, Lincoln’s sister, had also been planted fully formed, only two days after Lincoln, but was planted firmly inside the house and could not leave even to walk the acreage. She was formed for Lincoln personally, as he was required to reproduce and populate the acreage and therein populate the world beyond.
Rosetta would never learn the Final Knowledge because she would never leave the house, and she could not be trusted to keep it to herself. She did know, however, that there was such a thing as the Final Knowledge to know. She was then eternally aware that she would be the only creature never to know that ultimate truth.
Rosetta’s state of being, fully aware of her ignorance, and fully aware of her own state of being, Lincoln named freedom. This term referred to the comfort found only in ignorance. Rosetta was free because she was accepting of her serviceability to Lincoln and because she was accepting of her boundaries, however reluctantly. She exploited this freedom of hers as much as she could under Lincoln’s roof. The Final Knowledge, unfortunately, would always be a niggling curiosity. Though she would always try, she could never forget that it existed.
Rosetta grew to like the rooms in the house with either few or no windows. She often bathed in the basement with her snakes, and regularly ate grain in the loft with her deer. She could do whatever she wished inside Lincoln’s house, so long as there was something growing inside her womb. Lincoln found her at midday bathing with the snakes, her belly not yet bulging with a life. Life was there, but hadn’t yet begun to assert itself.
Snakes wrapped and rested between the gaps of Rosetta’s body and the walls of the bath. Rosetta met Lincoln’s glare with a smile. A smile scarred at the edges.
‘All the children die, Lincoln,’ she said as Lincoln watched the fierce snake down her left arm, its tongue flicking, charming the pale fingertips to open the palm. ‘Is that what all this Final Knowledge fuss is about?’ Lincoln kept inspecting the fierce snake, wondering at the conception of something so remarkably black. Rosetta took a finger from her right hand and scratched along the snake’s back from head to tail. Wilfully, the snake slid from her left arm back into the water.
‘If that was all the fuss,’ Lincoln nodded, ‘You would not know it. It’s daylight. Your children need the sun.’ A hint of sun filtered through a tiny window which rested wide but stubby at the top of the back wall, filling space between the basement ceiling and the grassy floor of the outside. Blocked out mostly by dust and Rosetta’s own dry spit, sunlight didn’t make it far into this haven of shade. Lincoln peered over at the window like that small hint of sun was pulling him by the nose.
‘So they can slither on and leave me.’ Rosetta, agitated by Lincoln’s lack of attention, twisted her neck around to glimpse the same sun through the same window. She turned bitterly back toward Lincoln. She had been inclined for a long time to hate the sun.
‘So they live.’ Lincoln smiled at her new grimace. He smiled too at the agitation of the snakes, all out of their rest and all restless. Some uncurled, some untwisted, some unwrapped from Rosetta’s body. All colours, black to green to red to brown, all lengths, from a thread to a rope, all craning themselves to stare at him and hiss.
‘But they all die, Lincoln.’ Rosetta reached under the cloudy water and pulled something out from behind her back. There was no pipe for the water to escape through. It was the plug she pulled, and the cloudy water sucked the snakes down through the unplugged hole onto the basement floor. ‘Let them live with that knowledge.’ The basement floor was dead soil, and the water seeped in to leave the snakes behind on the surface.
Rosetta stepped out of the bathtub and picked up a wooden plank resting against the bottom of the same wall as the window was on. Turning her eyes from the sun, she propped the plank up from the dirt floor of the basement to the window, which she shoved open. The snakes immediately funnelled their way to the plank and toward the sun, which was now a clear beam through the opened hole in the basement wall. Lincoln followed the wet and naked Rosetta as she stomped out through the basement door and up into the lounge room.
* * *
Upon the acreage’s exit, in the house’s shadow, Lincoln stood at the latch of the gate with a large batch of his children ready to leave. Each morning he would let the ones go who were ready, making sure they all learnt the Final Knowledge before walking out of the shadow of their birthplace.
The Final Knowledge was forgotten past the gate. That was the Final Knowledge – to learn that memory of the birthplace, of where land and life began, was to be forgotten by those who left it, and to learn that all children at some point must leave the acreage, and leave all truths behind.
Interspecific communications were surrendered past the gate in order to grow the intraspecific communities on the other side. The process was called Excommunication, and all ultimate truths were protected by this process. Only new truths would be discovered outside the acreage.
None of Lincoln’s children were ever happy to leave their home, but joy, and curiosity, was invariably renewed beyond the gate. Every so often one child would resist the journey too much.
Alistair, one of Lincoln’s pigs, now fully grown, pleaded allowance from Lincoln to resist Excommunication. Lincoln refused. It was irrefutable law that once the Final Knowledge was known it had to be forgotten.
‘Forgetting is dying,’ said Alistair. Lincoln shook his head sternly. He wouldn’t stand for such a crude, ill-informed definition of the ritual.
‘It is if you choose it to be. Forgetting can be birth,’ Lincoln said. ‘A truer birth than birth. It won’t hurt once you’ve walked through the gate.’
Alistair wished for a final goodbye to his mother, which Lincoln instantly halted. Rosetta was not to receive goodbyes as a rule, a rule made to ensure that she would never learn the Final Knowledge.
Alistair dug his nose into the ground, a passive display of resistance to what was bound by natural law. No being was allowed to remember their birth as it was before their rebirth. Lincoln, unlike Alistair, had learned long ago and quickly to be indifferent to Excommunication. It was the mere fact of the process he facilitated, the duty seeded in his personal being. The responsibilities to produce land-based life, and to impart the Final Knowledge to each life produced, were Lincoln’s alone.
Lincoln, aware of his personal duty, found that Alistair’s resistance disgusted him. Alistair’s duty was to knowingly and willingly walk through the gate and rediscover himself on the other side. His current display showed that he would prefer to bury his head in the earth than fulfil his Excommunication.
‘Swine,’ Lincoln spat. The ground around Alistair turned to mud and slush, his fur tamed and pinked, his sabres receded. ‘Look down forever. Walk out through shit and like it.’
Lincoln looked out just past the gate. Some rabbits had found each other, recognising their likeness, and a wolf stalked them cautiously, recognising their difference to him as he learnt his own appetite. Made for the eating, and he struck. The rabbits disbanded in an instant and escaped. Alone for the time being, the wolf was helpless, and he stole away along the road.
Ahead of the wolf were two people, a man and a woman. They were Matthew and Amelia when they were growing on the acreage. Their names were now forgotten to themselves and to each other, but with similar skin and upright posture they walked along the track together. These many children of Lincoln and Rosetta were already embracing new discoveries. Lincoln looked back down at Alistair, at home in his slush.
Alistair waddled toward the gate, his nose dragging through the mudded ground, his weeping turned into a shameful snort. He had to hurry. The midday sun was coming, and the house’s shadow was folding back in. The light would burn him back into nothing if he wasn’t beyond the gate in time. Lincoln had seen it in previous tragedies. The Final Knowledge would destroy Alistair under the sun.
Lincoln gave him a kick to bring him close to the gate, but the step through had to be voluntary. The sun was rising relentlessly. Lincoln turned back toward the towering farmhouse before the outcome had become apparent. Alistair had very quickly become a sad story either way.
Lincoln found Rosetta before sunrise eating grain in the loft with her deer. There were no windows in this room. Spiders liked it for the dark, and so did Rosetta. Lincoln was sorry for the deer. He had been trapped up here since his birth. He might not have even known there was an acreage outside, with plenty of grass to eat, let alone a world to watch. Rosetta had even denied him a name.
Lincoln’s sister raised her head out of the pile of grain and let her deer dig in. Her stomach had begun to push outward. Something was writhing inside, but Rosetta had no concern for whatever it might be. She simply dug back into the grain.
‘You will never know what it is like to birth a fawn Lincoln. And no knowledge could be more final than that,’ Rosetta said as she cupped some of the grain in her hands to more intimately feed her son. The deer made his back legs stiff and spread them apart. He was ready to flee to a dark corner, but for now fed from the hand forced upon him.
‘He will have to leave someday soon,’ Lincoln said, his resolve faintly castrated by the harshness of Rosetta’s convictions. The deer stayed silent. ‘You can talk boy,’ Lincoln said to him. ‘I know you can hear me.’ Lincoln waited the beats he felt he could wait for a response and heard none. He snatched back his resolve. ‘You will have to leave soon. You will have to learn the Final Knowledge, or you will become nothing.’ Rosetta stroked a finger up from the end of her son’s nose and between his eyes. He was not calmed.
‘Snakes and spiders, and bugs and bees, and ducks and swans, and dogs and cats and rabbits and rats, are easily pushed into life compared to the fawn, Lincoln,’ Rosetta continued as she kept trying to calm her son. ‘The fawn comes into life front legs first, even before its head, like the cow calf or the colt, and it is already quite big. You feel like your body will rupture, like it is slowly and violently turning inside out. But instead that feeling turns into this.’ Rosetta looked deep into her son’s black right eye.
‘My instructions do not dictate special treatment for special feelings. Your special son will hear the Final Knowledge soon, and he will either lose this home or he will lose himself,’ Lincoln countered. ‘You will lose him either way.’ Rosetta stopped patting her son, who at this stole away into the back of the loft. Knowing Rosetta would soon cry, Lincoln stole back down the retractable stairs into the upstairs hallway, and closed Rosetta and her son back in, together with the spiders. The Final Knowledge, that seed with which Lincoln was burdened, was the only seed that was disallowed growth under natural law. It laid the platform for a vast multiplicity of specific growths outside the acreage, the outcomes of which Lincoln would never know. He knew his duty, he knew his acreage, he knew his house, and he knew the truths to the world, but he would never know the world itself.
He didn’t need to tend to his property or his house. They tended to themselves. He needed to tend to his sister quite often. She had an important function he needed to preserve. Lincoln, though, spent even more of each day feeding his children, those who couldn’t find the food naturally in the ground. He kept them healthy so he could send them beyond his little world. Lincoln’s duties kept him on a path of his own, and kept him in a circle, unaware that he had not grown even a little since his planting.
FS73 Diary entry NO.1 –
Hi. Well this is awkward. My username is FS73 and I guess this is my diary. I am a crew member aboard the Strota; an agricultural carrier that has been on a forty three year-long mission. As of yesterday our cargo has been secured, so that means we’re headed home. I’m a member of the second half of the crew charged with overseeing our voyage home. I woke up from hyper sleep yesterday and am pleased to say that I passed my physical. No side effects from sleeping for forty three years. Matka, this ship’s computer, has scheduled I.Q tests every afternoon to make sure there have been no changes to my brain. I guess it’s a good thing. Might even make me smarter. Matka says that keeping this diary will help with the solitude. I like how considerate her social software is. I don’t really know what I’m supposed to talk about. I guess what I get up to during my shift? I suppose when this trip is over it’ll be a good record of what I’ve done. So here it goes: I don’t really know what we’re carrying. Matka says its priority clearance only. I’m no scientist so I probably wouldn’t understand whatever it is any way. I’m just here to make sure nothing aboard the ship malfunctions and needs manual repair. I guess that’s it for today. I’m not really sure how one would sign off a diary, never had one before. I’ll just say ‘bye for now’.
FS73 Diary entry NO.2 –
Hello again. It’s me, FS73. That’s a stupid way to start these things but I promise I’ll come up with something that sounds better. I’ve gotten into a routine over the past couple of days. Matka wakes me up at around 6:00 AM and morning checks are easy enough. Being the only one on board awake, it’s not like I’m gonna’ run into anyone. All hulls are secure for the record and I’ve managed to tidy up the recreation room. I’ve got to admit there’s plenty of equipment in there: dumbbells, a basketball hoop, even kendo sticks. Keeping fit won’t be a problem. Breakfast is scheduled at 7:30 AM, followed by upper and lower deck checks. The rest of the day is pretty much mine until dinner at 7:00 PM. Yesterday I had dumplings. I managed to find Matka’s games folder, so solitaire and chess have become a daily occurrence. I think I’m beginning to see the reason behind these diary entries. On another note, I did a scan of the ship. Matka’s radar seems limited. I had to do multiple scans to get every inch of the lower deck. I’m going to try and extend it before tomorrow. Bye for now.
FS73 Diary entry NO.3 –
What’s up diary? Nope, that’s still terrible. I apologise. On a more important note, after fixing the radar last night Matka is now able to scan deck-by-deck. I’m happy I managed to get her to accept my modifications. It was difficult but eventually I shut her off temporarily to reboot with the mods. We’re still on the right course and she hasn’t seemed to notice. In the end I’m sure the Strota Company will see it was useful. Checks take half as long and I managed to locate a new room. Well it’s not new obviously, it was built into the ship. A room I was unaware of without the new scan. Matka says it’s an observation room; for the S.E.E.D. That’s what she calls the cargo. After looking at the manifest though, I think it’s an actual seed. While I had her shut off I found orders for life support, supplies, and even containment methods. I think it’s some kind of new produce. Perhaps they’ll plant it back home. Cure world hunger or something. Imagine being part of the project that helped that along. Pretty sweet, huh? I have to make sure nothing’s out of order down there. I’m going to take a look after checks this afternoon. Bye.
FS73 Diary entry NO.4 –
I’m not even sure this makes sense. I hope it does. I went to the new observation room on the lower deck near the cryo chambers. I punched in my access code, even commanded Matka to let me in but she wouldn’t. I’ll admit my curiosity got the best of me and I managed to disable the door, which by its default settings opened. There was this thing. I don’t know how to explain it. I’ve never seen anything like it. It stood upright, about six feet tall with leathery skin the colour of milk. Its eyes. The eyes were blacker than the everlasting space outside the ship. It had a long face with a jutted jaw and slits for a nose. The creature’s head was pointed with a crown of bone reaching from its forehead. It saw me. I don’t know why but it ran; escaped into the vents. I inspected the room. It was working on computers. Working the technology aboard the ship. I commanded Matka to scan the ship. This is where it gets really weird. She said that I was the only conscious life form on board. I explained to her what had happened. I even drew a picture and had her scan the image. Still nothing. That’s impossible. I have sealed off that room and its vents until I can establish where and what the hell it is. I know the ship’s scans won’t confirm this but there is an alien life form on board. I repeat, for the record, there is an alien life form on board. Bye.
Matka special report NO.1 –
FS73 has located the observation room. After disarming the door she has been exposed to Evark. Unfortunately, I can’t see how this can be rectified. Evark has maintained that we should give FS73 time to adjust and document her response. I am satisfied with this course of action for now.
FS73 Diary entry NO.5 –
There has been no sighting of that creature for three whole days now. I’ve tried to re-enter the room but Matka has sealed it off due to the damage I did to the door. It’s now an unsecured section of the ship. I have a theory. I don’t think that the seed was plant life. For the record, I believe our cargo was an egg. And I think whatever I saw the other night, is what has hatched from it. Did the Strota Company know? Did they plan this? Was it meant to hatch on this ship? I have tried to send a distress signal. However, Matka says without sufficient evidence she won’t. She’s considering the ship’s energy. I can hear it at night. Scratching and banging within the walls. I think whatever it is, Matka can’t get a reading on it. That’s why she can’t pick it up on radar. Its alien body must be hidden from our tech. I managed to gather some recordings of the alien. I’ll play them for my diary.
Audio display on: Thirty seconds of small clicks followed by vigorous banging. Audio display off.
Matka states that the recording is not sufficient evidence. I am updating her programming to include double the amount of scans, even if she can’t pick up its whereabouts. If it moves she’ll be able to locate a breach in the hull. Next entry to follow.
Matka special report NO.2 –
FS72 has managed to gain audible evidence of some engineers. I feel it is my duty to note that they need to be more careful when repairing the barriers. I can only assume my words of discouragement are sufficient for FS73. However, I feel it is nearing the end of this observation.
FS73 Diary entry NO.6–
I’ve tried to draw that thing over and over again in a sketch pad I found in the rec room. I need to keep it fresh in my mind or I fear I may forget it. I feel like I’m losing it. Matka has offered me something to calm my nerves but to be honest I think I’m safer the more wound up I am. Nothing is going to get the jump on me. Especially not this ugly bastard. The thing I have most trouble remembering is his hands. He didn’t have fingers, more like claws; long and boney. His feet were perched upright like he walked permanently on his toes. I can’t seem to get them right in my sketches. With each new version his features change. I guess I just want to get it right. Bang on so that Matka will recognise it. I think she’s stopped searching for it. I’m going to have to reboot her scan count, see if that gets her started again. I feel like the walls are getting smaller. Closing in on me. This place; the silence. I didn’t just imagine that alien but I’m starting to feel a little mad. Next entry to follow.
FS73 Diary entry NO.7 –
I haven’t slept in two days. I haven’t eaten that much either. I no longer trust Matka. She refuses to let me into the cryo room to wake the others. I feel like they’d want to know what’s going on. Hell, I don’t even really know what’s going on. I can feel whatever it is behind the walls of this ship. I’ve tried several times to break past her command controls and send a distress call but her software seems to be advancing past my capabilities. For the record, I believe that Matka knows what we picked up. I think she knows what’s within these walls and as long as she deems it contained she will keep us on course. I’ve requested higher security in the cryo room, in case whatever it is tries to get at the other members of the crew. In a few days Matka is scheduled for an on-site overhaul. While she’s updating her software I’m going to find that creature and get the proof I need to get help. Next entry to follow.
Matka special report NO.3 –
FS73 is devolving. Her behaviour changes are noticeable. The confrontation with Evark seems to have interrupted her sleep cycle. She has become paranoid and suspicious; even of me. I believe that the trust bond with FS73 has been broken and I recommend termination. However, Evark wishes to see how she decides to end this.
FS73 Diary entry NO.8–
I have managed to keep Matka unaware of my suspicions. I have acted normally, performing regular checks on the ship and going nowhere near the observation room. Half an hour ago she went into a low power state for the overhaul and since then I’ve made weapons out of some of the equipment in the rec room. The weights are heavy enough to do some damage and I’ve made a paralyser out of part of the microwave and physical inspection tools. Matka is still unaware of my actions. The second I hear something in these walls I’m going to knock it out and stun it. I’ve set up a camera to catch these aliens on data disk. Matka won’t be able to talk her way out of this one. Next entry to follow.
FS73 Diary entry NO.9 –
No data found.
Matka special report NO.4 –
Extra surveillance on FS73 has lead me to officially declare this observation a failure. FS73 has broken through the facility walls and come into contact with several of Evark’s team. She assaulted two engineers. I’ve decided her aggressive behavior, although a positive observation for the report, is a sign that she is unsalvageable. I have removed the visual logs of these events from FS73’s diary.
FS73 Diary entry NO.10 –
No data found.
Matka special report NO.5 –
FS73 has proven to be one of the most challenging of the FS series. Our engineers had to sedate her and we’ve placed her in the incubation room. I have received the all clear from Evark to terminate the project. It’s just a matter of getting the autopsy room ready. I’ll admit I didn’t expect we’d need it so soon. Let’s hope we get the right mix with 74.
FS73 Diary entry NO.11–
I broke in. There are more of them than I thought; so many more. I’ve been locked in the cryo room for however long now. Matka says she’s considering my safety. Her consideration no longer brings me any comfort. I found a way into the cryo room’s logs. No one else is aboard this ship. It’s just me and those creatures. This is no agricultural carrier. It’s some kind of experiment. It’s called the ‘Synthetically Engineered Earthling Design’ project according to the cryo logs. I found scans of other humans but who knows what happened to them. I don’t know what will happen to me now. For any human being that finds these, run. Run because your life depends on it.
Final report on Female Specimen 73.
Report sanctioned by: Evark.
Specimen lifespan: 15 Days.
Reason for termination: Discovery of the S.E.E.D project.
S.E.E.D 73 has failed. Measures have been taken to begin the deconstruction of the specimen. This will not stop the synthetically engineered earthling design project as it was unforeseen accidental exposure of the analysers to 73. 74 is being prepped for the simulation. I recommend a different set of menial tasks and removal of anything that could be manufactured into a weapon. We underestimated her engineering abilities. I suggest we pull back on the manufactured intelligence memory as it created problems with this latest specimen. Although in the past we have found males to be harder to handle, this female in particular has proven to be quite the challenge. I have conferred with Matka and we agree that a male specimen would be best for the 74th project. We have yet to figure out how to domesticate the species from Terra. FS73’s logs will be kept in storage as part of the progression series. For 74’s updates, please enter the correct access code for his hard drive.
I had survived three days without cigarettes or alcohol, and I wasn’t about to quit now. I was with Sophie in a pub that had greasy stain-glass windows and a bar made of rotting wood and the most soulless country crackling out of the jukebox.
She ordered another fine bottle of Shiraz. My perspiring palms kneaded together. In my state of frailty, it would be difficult to refuse another round of temptation. Christ, I’d kill for even a sip. But . . .
‘But what about Monday?’ She asked, red wine spilling onto her pearlescent shirt. ‘Aren’t you going to explain yourself?’ Dusk withered her skin, making it look scrawny and dry. It was hard to see the beauty I once admired.
‘Listen, it was an accident,’ I said. ‘I didn’t mean to break-up with you, but after that drink gets in me . . . I dunno . . . I start seeing things a little clearer. You know what I mean?’
‘No, Bill, I DON’T have a clue.’ She uncorked the wine then took a deep swing from the neck of the bottle. I watched her polish off the remainders of the wine. Our waitress glided past, horror glued to her face.
‘Uh, hey guys – I’ve got another chianti here?’
‘I wanted the fucking Shiraz,’ Sophie said unreasonably. It seemed any moment now she would burst into tears. I could tell our progress for the evening had died. The waitress faded away, back through the saloon-swinging kitchen doors.
‘How about we forget about the whole thing?’ Sophie said, composing herself by jabbing a cigarette on the table a few times, then lighting it with a wax encrusted candle. The incense of the smoke choked me.
‘I don’t think we can. There must have been a reason, right? What did I say? What did I tell you?’
The waitress returned to our table, holding the Shiraz. She wiped a section of our tablecloth with a rag, then placed the bottle down.
‘I’m not gonna say anything until you take me back,’ Sophie said.
I slammed my hand on the table. The red wine fell over. Frustrated, I said:
‘You only came here because I said I’d pay!’
‘And you only fucking came here because you don’t know what happened!’
‘That’s it,’ I said. ‘I’m done.’
So I stood up, tucked a fiver into the hands of the mantis-eyed waitress, and walked into the welcoming night. I heard Sophie kick off at the waitress.
‘Get me a sponge and decanter!’
After stepping onto the pavement, I looked through the window. I saw Sophie swipe the sponge across the spilled red wine, gathering it into the fabric, before releasing the liquid into a decanter. I walked on, hoping my departure was not only a physical detachment from her, but a kind of cathartic amnesia that would numb my soul and clear my head.
I reached the bus stop. A commune of junkies hovered around the Queen Victoria Building. Some slouched against boxes and wrapped themselves in piss-stained blankets, while others weeded through a forest of orange filters. A melancholic dog slept peacefully beside two empty bowls and a kennel filled with newspapers. As I passed, a man and woman woke slightly from their otherwise motionless and dreamy embrace before returning to the void. All around me, the air reverberated with the sound of junkies coughing, sniffling cocaine noses, and tap-tapping their bare feet.
A junkie stood up, dislocated from the others, and walked toward me.
‘Got a smoke?’ He asked.
I checked my jacket. A pouch of rolling tobacco sat nestled against my breast.
‘For you, I’ve got two.’ I slung him a couple of pre-rolled cigarettes, stopping to light one for him. He drifted along the footpath, spectral, enjoying the reassuring and impenetrable solitude of heroin. He started to whistle through cracked lips. I saw him try to start a few times, licking his chops to build enough moisture. Eventually he spat on his hand and rubbed it across his face to get the whistle going. The tune sounded like Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude, but I couldn’t tell over the howling wind. Even if it was, he would miss the beautiful dissonance in the chords – they needed bass and treble, structure and melody.
He yelled. ‘I’m vanishing into dust, into the air, up the nose and out the brain!’ He danced, a gracious pirouette. I stopped walking, in awe of the madness, of the cerebral carnage before my eyes. I thought about helping him, but I had no access point, no common ground. Human connection seemed unattainable. Were the other junkies concerned? I checked. They huddled around, sedated and lobotomised. The dancing junkie exchanged his murmurs for shouts.
‘Hey, hey, bartender, gimme twenty on forty-three, come on, hit me, look at ‘im, would yah just look at ‘im go. He’s getting away, he’s getting – hey, get away from my horse, get away, get away!’
An orderly line of business suits glanced from their smartphones to shake their heads. At first glance, I thought they were talking over each other, like pelicans rumbling for the last fish . . . until I walked past them. Up close, I saw shiny devices protruding from their ears like robotic thorns. They looked madder than the junkie. Both are talking to themselves, I thought. But at least the junkie knows how to dance.
Then I heard a SCREECHHHHHH. A motorcycle skidded across the pavement in front of me. The hog’s rider slammed into the bus shelter. Advertisement glass shattered, falling onto the rider like glycerine rain. A few feet ahead, another man hit the deck hard. He fell onto his stomach. It made a smack! Like a bird flying into a sliding door. I jumped to the fallen man and turned him over.
He was very old, maybe eighty. His eyes were closed and wet. All in all, he was incredibly ugly – skin creased like ancient papyrus, beard as disarrayed as a fantastical garden, and hands shaking as if frozen in turbulence.
So to my knowledge, this is what happened: the old man alighted a bus, the 261 to Sydney Downtown, then jaywalked across the busy intersection to reach a pub called Three Gents. He had almost made it when the motorcyclist ran a red light and decked the old man.
The tallest of the business suits strutted over. He stuck a flipper my way.
‘Jeffrey,’ he said.
‘Bill,’ I replied. I shook his flipper, recoiling as the slime stuck to my palm.
He crouched down. It looked like a strenuous endeavour.
‘Look,’ I said. ‘I think this man’s in a serious –’
‘Hold that thought.’ He straightened out his two bent periscopes, and went over to inspect the metallic bus seats one by one. He placed his camel leather briefcase on the third closest (the cleanest) seat. Then he brushed cigarette ash from his tweed jacket, lit another cigarillo, and emerged from a treble clef of smoke. Jeffrey almost reached the old man, when a woman’s wail stopped him. A young lady, who must’ve drifted toward the chaos, stood next to a few tourists that were leaning against the QVB, snapping photos and whispering to one another. She had a great figure, bursting at the seams, and a tight black dress that only just concealed her arse.
‘Oh my dear lord,’ she cried. ‘Oh my, someone call an ambulance. There’s been an accident, someone call quick!’ Jeffrey walked over to her.
‘Do us a favour,’ I called out, ‘And call an ambulance.’ She gawked like an enormous magpie. Her protests disappeared in her throat.
‘I . . . I can’t use my phone,’ she said. ‘My fingernails are too long.’ I looked at them. They were crimson blades of beauty. Even though her blonde hair gleamed in the sun, it only served to accentuate the forgettable qualities of her ordinary face.
‘Don’t worry baby, I’m a medico-legal expert,’ Jeffrey said, every tooth a Colgate opal. ‘I’ve been in the field for years, and I’ve never lost a man.’
The old man hadn’t moved.
‘I think he’s broken some ribs,’ I said. Jeffrey left the girl, and returned to the old man’s side. He turned to me, eyes lifeless as shrunken heads.
‘Got a comb?’
‘Nope,’ I said. He parted his fingers as an ersatz comb before running them through oily black locks.
‘Are you a doctor?’
‘Aren’t you?’ I asked. Jeffrey lowered his voice.
‘No way – I’m a solicitor. But girlies are far more attracted to danger than disaster, right?’ I couldn’t believe this lying snake. ‘So, are you a doctor?’
‘Then fuck off.’ I ignored him, this time. If I were drunk, there would be a second motionless body on the ground. I was edging for the fight, but the alcohol withdrawals made me vigourless and soft. A punch would sting my knuckles, and dissuade a follow-up. It was odd, the way the nicotine cravings coiled the chest into a palpating mess, while the need for a drink made you simply deflated. If I threw a punch, the motionless body would be mine.
‘Hang on,’ I said. ‘I’m just as qualified as you. At least at the bookstore they make me take CPR annually.’
‘This isn’t a fucking game, kid,’ he said. A swelling urge possessed me. I wanted to knock back beer after beer and force the world into a somnolent and etherised blur. The seeds of memory burst half-formed in my mind. I remembered a night at Three Gents (the night I met Sophie) when the tequila flowed and the women danced and the jazz swung. I remembered feeling in my element, which meant nothing, really, except I felt comfortable, unthreatened, swept by days of pointless reverie that never dared to collapse. Then Sophie approached me. Without asking what I was drinking, she bought a double whiskey on the rocks. I drained it, and she signaled the bartender for another. I liked her instantly.
‘Did you hear me?’ Jeffrey said. ‘Get outta my way if you don’t know what you’re doing. The last thing this man needs is a tree-hugging soft-cock sitting here to satisfy his curiosity.’ I stood up, more shocked than anything, but I didn’t leave.
‘Hey – shouldn’t he be bleeding?’ I asked. Jeffrey shredded the old man’s shirt with a Swiss army knife. The old man was bruised and shriveled; a peach used as a tennis ball.
‘He’s bleeding internally, I reckon. Chances are he’s a goner.’ Jeffrey stared vacuously at Three Gents. My eyes followed. Of all the days, I thought.
So I walked to the motorcyclist. I parked his hog on the curb then removed his helmet. The rider had a young face, gentle brown eyes (he was crying) and handsome jawline (it was bleeding) and narrow nose (it looked alright) – all of which led to a depressing fact: he was a boy. Fourteen or fifteen years old, maybe.
‘Cigarette?’ I asked. He nodded. I slung one his way, almost grabbing another for myself. Then I thought better of it. The boy puffed away. Jeffrey approached, awoken from his statuesque gaze. He looked like Magritte’ Son of Man. The illusion was enchanting, until it dissipated.
‘You’re a fucking criminal,’ he said.
‘I dun mean to,’ the boy said.
‘Lay off him Jeffrey, for chrissake. Listen, what happened? How’d you hit him?’
The boy sniveled. ‘I dun mean to, ya know I dun mean to.’ He stared at me absently.
‘Come on, mate,’ I said. ‘We’re all having a shit day.’
Puff . . . tap . . . puff . . . ‘I was drivin’ and I, I, tilt my head like this – ’ he craned his neck sideways ‘ – and the sunlight went into mah visor and it hurt like saltwater. Mah eyes tearin’ up, ya know, so I can’ see so good, ya know what I mean, ya know what I’m sayin’?’
‘Yeah, I’m with you.’ My phone rang in my pocket. I didn’t answer it. I knew it was Sophie. Temptation lifted its awful head, sniffed the air, then returned to slumber. The desire for a drink swelled in my stomach. A whirl of sexual arousal forced my heart into a churning anxiety.
‘HEY!’ Jeffrey shouted. The dancing junkie had ducked beside the old man, reaching toward him with fingers disintegrating to the bone.
‘Wait here,’ I said to the boy. He jumped up, and limped toward the hog.
‘Don’t worry, I’m a fantastic doctor,’ the junkie said. ‘Step aside, comrades, let big daddy work the floor.’ Jeffrey yanked him to his feet. He flexed a Herculean chest and gritted his opals, suffocating as his neck bulged against an immaculate double Windsor.
The junkie passed one of my own cigarettes back to me.
‘Hold my cigarette,’ he said. I smoked it, indebted, lightheaded, illuminate. Head spins proliferated. My arms and legs blazed with relief. I felt like a giddy young lad, a younger me, sneaking out of class to smoke cigarettes beside the wharf. I used to smoke quickly, wait for the head rush, and chuckle as I surrendered to dizziness and fell to the ground.
‘This is UNACCEPTABLE,’ Jeffrey said. Now his eyes looked bloodshot, verging on explosion. ‘Reviving your degenerate friends, or poking a shitty needle in your arm, doesn’t qualify as medical experience.’
The junkie’s emaciated face rose from its shallowness, like a crab surfacing from a bed of sand. A roar echoed along the pavement. The hog lit up, carnal, enraged. The boy zipped along on the pavement, his helmet sitting in the gutter. Jeffrey didn’t even notice. He kept the junkie taut in a vice grip.
‘Don’t hurt him!’ The girl with long fingernails said. She stared at Jeffrey, concern creasing her face.
‘Be cool, don’t be square, relax boss man, be cool,’ the junkie said. Jeffrey let him go.
‘Best of luck, fellas,’ he said. He grabbed his briefcase from the seats, spat out his finished cigarillo, lit another, then walked to the girl. Game face on, smile chiseled, beaming effervescent glory. The girl was trapped, her mouth agape, eyes unable to resist the urge to stare down at his crotch and admire a visibly tumescent cock.
‘Come on, baby,’ I heard him say. ‘Let’s hit the road. I know a great pub, PJ O’Brien’s, just round the corner. I’ll buy you whatever you want.’ She giggled, then tucked her hair back into a professional ponytail. She linked hands with Jeffrey. I could never imagine those fingernails cradling a newborn or embracing a lover or creating something beautiful like a sculpture or a poem or a rocking horse or even chopping up some fucking onions for a soup on a cold winter night. Without looking, they stepped onto the road.
‘Hey, listen – he’s awake.’ The junkie said. ‘Step aside, step aside.’ He knocked into me. ‘I’m here, brother.’ He yanked at the old man’s eyelids, trying to wrench them back to life. I walked over to them. The old man’s breath came out rugged.
‘Please . . . drink . . . thirsty.’
‘I’ll find some water,’ I said.
The old man shook his head. ‘Get . . . me . . . some . . . fucking . . . red wine.’
And then he went still. He was dead. The junkie knocked his skull a few times, as you would a door. I thought of Sophie. She was probably waiting at the pub, drinking that delicious Shiraz, alone and dazed. The junkie tapped my shoulder.
‘Wait right here.’ I held the old man’s glacial hand. I couldn’t see Jeffrey anymore – he was forever gone. My phone rang in my pocket. I wanted to answer, but there must’ve been a reason for breaking up with her, right? People don’t just abandon everything on their whims, right? The junkie returned with a bottle of cheap red wine. He knocked the top, took a swig from the neck, then handed it my way. I stared at it. A great reckoning stirred inside me, an awoken beast, a seed of realisation. I gulped down the spicy crimson, remembering the gush of its sweet recovery as the splashes painted my throat heavenly red.
‘To his memory, aye?’ The junkie grinned, exposing tobacco-stained teeth. I took another swig, knowing I had to go back to Sophie, to explain what happened. But most of all, I hoped that she hadn’t drunk all of that fine Shiraz waiting in a decanter.
Chiquitita, sabes muy bien . . .
Alyssa’s ringtone – the result of a one-time, half-hearted desire to learn Spanish – awoke her from a deep sleep. Of all the Spanish songs in the world, why had she chosen an ABBA one? Making a mental note to change the damn thing as soon as possible, Alyssa retrieved her mobile from the other end of the mattress. She had fallen asleep playing games again.
Her father’s grinning face, craggy but dependable with a gap where his upper left canine should be, looked up at her from the screen of her Blackberry. He was standing under the old eucalyptus tree by the front veranda. Alyssa had taken this photo on her last day at the farm.
‘Lyssie. How’s it going?’
‘Yeah, good,’ Alyssa grunted. ‘Bit early, but.’
‘Early?’ He laughed. ‘It’s 9:30. I’ve been up weeding for hours.’
9:30! Alyssa rolled out of bed, setting the phone to loudspeaker as she began rifling through the clothes strewn across the floor for something presentable to wear. Preferably something clean that wouldn’t require ironing. How could she have forgotten to set her alarm?
‘Out partying last night or something?’ Dad asked.
‘Yeah, something . . . ’
An all-nighter with Angry Birds. A riot!
‘Well, it’s good you’re enjoying yourself,’ he said, ‘but take care, won’t you? I . . . well, I worry sometimes. I haven’t heard from you for a while . . . ’
Alyssa considered a red shirt. The sweat stains weren’t that noticeable, were they?
‘That’s OK. Have you found a . . . ?’
‘Nope. Nothing yet.’
She discarded the shirt. Getting dressed had never been this time-consuming on the farm.
‘That’s a shame,’ he continued. ‘I’m sure something will come up. And if it doesn’t, you know . . . ’
‘I saw Chrissie yesterday,’ Alyssa announced, desperate for something, anything, to stave off her father’s usual refrain that she should ‘come home, there’s nothing to be ashamed of about not liking the city.’
‘Yeah . . . Chrissie . . . ’
Why had she chosen Chrissie as a conversation starter?
‘And . . . er . . . how is she?’
‘Yeah, she’s good.’
Alyssa settled on a black, pin-striped shirt. That would look good coupled with a pair of jeans.
‘That’s . . . lovely. So, any interviews lined up for today?’
Alyssa considered her outfit, holding the shirt against her body and modelling it in the mirror she had propped up against the wall.
‘No,’ she lied.
And Dad returned to the usual refrain.
Maybe he was right, Alyssa thought. She left the dingy studio flat fifteen minutes later, now wearing a purple, flowery-patterned blouse. She had decided against the pin-striped shirt, having found a coffee stain on it on her way out the door. Alyssa couldn’t say she was thrilled with the new outfit, but given that she hadn’t worn the ghastly thing in the seven weeks she had been here, at least she could be sure it was clean. Dad would be happy with the choice, no doubt. He had presented her with the shirt as a ‘bon voyage’ gift before her move to the city, woefully out of touch with fashion as he was. But it was a nice gesture; a reminder that she would always have a home back on the farm.
Melbourne hadn’t quite lived up to her expectations. But the prospect of returning to the drudgery of life on the farm and with nothing to show for her time spent in the city – no gorgeous boyfriend, no glamorous job, not even a flat with hot water. Surely that was worse. Besides, if all went well, she would have a job by the end of the day. Chrissie promised she could pull some strings for her – if any store could really be set by what she said. Alyssa’s ‘best friend’ had been promising to meet up with her for weeks now, but until yesterday Chrissie managed to renege on every catch-up Alyssa organised.
Perhaps she was genuinely busy . . .
She seemed different, too. Less fun, somehow. Not at all like the Chrissie Alyssa remembered from their days back on the farm sneaking apples together. Was it really as long ago as four years? She at least seemed genuinely concerned for Alyssa when she learned she was struggling. And so came the job offer.
‘We have a super entry level position. We’re always on the lookout for new talent,’ Chrissie told her. ‘Come in tomorrow and I’ll facipulate,’ – whatever the hell that meant – ‘an interview for you. Just a back-of-the-envelope affair, yeah? Nothing to stress over. With a good word from me, you’ll be a shoe-in!’
Working alongside her best friend in an international corporation. It was a dream come true, wasn’t it? As long as Dad didn’t find out . . .
Banishing these thoughts from her mind, Alyssa concentrated on getting to the interview. Half an hour later she arrived by tram at the corners of High Street and St Kilda Road. The card Chrissie gave her yesterday cited the address as only a few buildings away. Alyssa made her way to the building, crossing the foyer and gazing at the plaque on the wall.
MONSANTO AUSTRALIA HEAD OFFICE, LEVEL 12.
She entered a lift, eyeing her reflection in the mirror as the lift made its ascent. If only she woke up earlier and took a shower, however icy. If she had even bothered to do something with her hair!
The doors opened to reveal a standard reception waiting area. Alyssa experienced that now familiar sense of déjà vu as she stepped out into it. After numerous job interviews over the last few weeks, these reception areas were all starting to meld into one.
‘Good morning. Can I help you?’ came the voice of the receptionist who clearly had woken up at a reasonable time. Her bleached blonde hair was perfectly straightened and she was plastered in what was surely enough foundation to paint all four walls of Alyssa’s flat. She was probably only in her early twenties, the same age as Alyssa. The make-up and her general well-groomed-ness gave her the appearance of someone much older. Someone in control of her destiny.
‘Um . . . I’m here for an interview, I guess . . . ’
The receptionist looked Alyssa up and down, a doubtful look flitting across her face.
‘Right,’ she said. ‘And, er, who was that with?’
Chrissie hadn’t given any names.
‘Well, I’m not sure.’
Alyssa started to blush. She always did in these situations. What was it about receptionists that so intimidated her?
‘Um . . . I’m here to see Chrissie?’
‘Chrissie Sharrock . . . ’
‘Ah, Christina. Not a problem. I’ll give her a bell, shall I?’ She cast Alyssa another unconvinced look. ‘Who shall I say was asking?’
She slipped on a headset and dialled a number on the switchboard keypad.
So it was Chrissie now?
‘Yeah, I’ve got someone waiting for you in reception. Says her name’s Alyssa.’
She let out a laugh. Apparently Chrissie said something hysterical.
‘Yeah, little bit vanilla. OK, then. See you in a sec.’
She smiled again; that falsely sweet, condescending smile.
‘Christina will be with you shortly. In the meantime, feel free to take a seat.’
With a nod, Alyssa seated herself in one of the cream-coloured lounge chairs in the corner and settled in for the wait. She hated this. She was never quite sure what she was supposed to do. She began to pick at the dirt underneath her nails until she realised the receptionist was glaring at her. Apparently, the clicking noise this generated was offensive. With an apologetic smile, Alyssa turned her attention to the brochures. Marketing materials for Monsanto were scattered across the coffee table in front of her.
The first brochure detailed their collaboration with Seminis and some of the vegetable seeds they developed together in the US and were now, as Dad put it, ‘trying to force the unnatural, bloody things onto us!’ Alyssa felt her stomach drop as she thought of him. What was she even doing here?
But really, Dad was probably just being overly resistant to change. Lots of older people were. And there were benefits to the seeds. According to the brochures, these seeds had in-built pest control which meant better crop yield and better health for farmers who no longer needed to spend days on end spraying pesticides. Weren’t these good things?
But there was no convincing her Dad or the rest of the set-in-their-ways organic farmers back home. Chrissie advocated for the seeds the last time she visited the farm, shortly after securing her job at Monsanto. She even brought some with her, along with copies of Cleo magazine, the latest Rihanna single, and a bunch of exciting stories from her life in the city. Melbourne seemed so cool.
Chrissie had then gone on to plant some seeds in one of the fallow fields. Alyssa frowned as she recalled this inconsiderate action and its ensuing drama. Hadn’t the farmers made it clear they weren’t interested? But Chrissie had always been headstrong, always eager to prove a point, always doing exactly what she wanted. When they were younger Chrissie often shirked her responsibilities. She hated picking apples in the orchard or collecting the eggs from the hens or indeed, doing anything to help on the farm. Small wonder she left as soon as she finished school.
‘Let’s go do something fun,’ she would always say. And somehow Alyssa would find herself climbing the old eucalyptus tree, or swimming in the dam, or off on the bus to Tatura with her, her own responsibilities completely forgotten. They would end up in trouble later on, of course. Alyssa would promise to behave in future. She hated disappointing Dad, but the next day Chrissie would manage to convince her all over again. She was always leading her astray.
Like she was doing now?
Chrissie was dressed in a striking red power suit, her hair done up in a professional looking bun. The image this created was a far-cry from the Chrissie Alyssa remembered from the farm: her natural curls hanging loose, forever dressed in those ridiculous overalls her parents made her wear, even when she was a teenager! But despite the radical change, she was still Chrissie, right? She too was wearing a generous amount of make-up. Apparently, Alyssa would need to invest in some make-up of her own if she got the job.
‘You made it, I’m so glad,’ Chrissie gabbled away, all smiles. ‘And don’t you look well. Love the blouse. It’s very . . . It’s lovely.’
Alyssa frowned. The Chrissie of old would have loathed the blouse as much as Alyssa, commiserating with her that she had to wear it – ‘but at least it’s not overalls!’ The snort of derision from the watching receptionist seemed to confirm that Chrissie’s praise of the blouse perhaps wasn’t completely truthful.
‘I’d actually forgotten you were coming,’ Chrissie continued. ‘What am I like? But don’t worry. We have an opening in our AP team. It’s a super position. Someone has to scan all the paper invoices that come in, and believe me, there are loads! So much for a paperless society, am I right?’ She let out a laugh reminiscent of the receptionist, and so uncharacteristically Chrissie.
‘Now, we already have someone doing the job but he’s a twat . . . T. W. A. T,’ she explained at the look of bewilderment on Alyssa’s face, ‘only works Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. So we’ll need you on Mondays and Fridays. But come along to a meeting room and we’ll go through all this properly. Sarah,’ she addressed the receptionist, ‘alright if we use Meeting Room One?’
Sarah nodded her assent and Chrissie led Alyssa off down a corridor. Various glass framed posters advertising Monsanto products decorated its walls. Bolgard II Cotton, Roundup Ready Canola, and a whole range of vegetable seeds, including the tomato seeds Chrissie had planted.
They turned out alright really, indistinguishable from the normal tomatoes. But then some of their pollen carried into other fields and it became impossible to discern which were the ‘contaminated’ crops and which were not. There was a very poor harvest that year, so inflexible were the farmers in their refusal to sell anything potentially tainted. Worse had come the following year when the crops didn’t reproduce. Apparently Chrissie’s tomatoes didn’t and, having mixed with them, the existing ones no longer did either. So died a crop perfected through years of selective breeding.
‘So, how are things?’ Chrissie asked, dropping the airy tone and, as in that brief moment yesterday when she asked a similar question, sounding something like her old self.
‘OK, I guess.’
‘And have you . . . well, have you been in touch with anyone from . . . back home?’
‘Um . . . yeah. Dad.’
Chrissie’s interest in her old life surprised Alyssa. After the fallout from the tomatoes, Chrissie said some terrible things and so too had her parents, and a large majority of the other farmers. Both parties made it clear they were unwilling to forgive the other and the end result was that Chrissie hadn’t been welcomed back at the farm since. Her family as good as disowned her.
Was this, then, the future that awaited Alyssa if she too were to take a job at Monsanto? But it was only scanning, and she really did need the money. Surely they wouldn’t be able to find fault with that, right?
‘So, enjoying Melbourne?’
Chrissie interrupted Alyssa’s worrying, her voice returning to its affected tone.
‘What about the traffic? Those hook-turns are a nightmare, am I right? Oh, hello James.’
They bumped into a sharply dressed, attractive, young man.
‘Morning, Chrissie. How’s it going?’
‘Yeah, great. I’ve just got an interview with Alyssa here. She’s an old friend of mine from the f . . . from back home. James here works in our legal department.’
James nodded in greeting.
‘Got a big case on at the moment. Some organic farmer in WA – they always seem to be organic, don’t they – is trying to sue us for contaminating his crops.’ He rolled his eyes.
‘Like we need more bad publicity . . . ’
‘Don’t worry, Chrissie. This guy doesn’t have a case against us. We don’t even market our products in WA. Not yet, anyway. But somehow about seventy per cent of this idiot’s crops are roundup ready. Says he doesn’t know how they got there, blaming bees or something. Yeah, right.’
And with another roll of his eyes, he was off. Chrissie sighed.
‘Oh, for a Mills and Doom, am I right?’
‘Mm,’ Alyssa agreed, not entirely sure what this – or indeed, much of what Chrissie said – meant.
‘Mills and Doom?’ Chrissie prompted. ‘Office romance? Everyone knows they never work out.’
‘Yeah. . . ’
They continued down the corridor and reached the meeting room. Chrissie ushered Alyssa in and she seated herself at a round desk. Chrissie began asking questions she already knew the answer to like whether or not Alyssa had any experience working in an office environment or doing scanning, assuring her ‘not to worry’ that she didn’t, ‘we’ll soon get you up to speed.’ Alyssa let her waffle on, thinking of what James said. She couldn’t help but be on the side of the farmer in WA; her Dad certainly would be. Hadn’t she seen firsthand just how easily pollen could spread? It seemed the livelihood of more and more farmers was being threatened by this organisation.
The organisation she would soon be a part of.
‘So, don’t worry that you forgot your CV,’ Chrissie continued. ‘Just email it through and come in Friday. We’ll sort everything out then. Now, here is your contract.’
She presented Alyssa with a document titled ‘Accounts Payable Scanning Assistant’. Here, then, was the glamourous job she had been looking for. Chrissie turned to a page at the back.
‘If you could just sign here . . . ’
* * *
Chiquitita, sabes muy bien . . .
‘Hey, Dad . . . no, I haven’t found anything yet . . . actually, can I call you back?’ she asked before he could launch into his refrain. ‘I need to . . . um . . . just gotta change my ringtone.’
Searching through the songs in her phone, Alyssa settled on the single Chrissie had brought her from Melbourne four years ago: Rihanna’s ‘Unfaithful’. It seemed a good choice. Maybe Dad was right. Maybe there was no shame in not liking the city but, as she looked at the packets of tomato seeds she received upon signing her Monsanto contract, Alyssa couldn’t be sure if she even liked herself anymore.