Salad days

She watched her sister’s children playing in the shallow surf. There were so many of them, it was hard to keep track. They were running up the long streak of wet sand as each wave licked the shore. They became braver each time, letting the foam wash their toes, their feet, their ankles. Soon they would be knee deep.

“It’s not too late, you know,” Amelia said, watching Anna watch the children. “You’re young enough.”

Anna sighed and turned to her sister. It was a conversation they had had over and over, Amelia nudging and Anna pressing back on the invisible wall she didn’t remember building.

“I know,” she said. “But Richard…” She stopped talking. What was the point, they had gone over this a thousand times before. “Besides,” she said, “I’m still not sure I want to.”

“You want to,” her sister said, wiping the last smear of sunblock from the baby’s nose. “Here,” she passed the baby to Anna.

Anna held him close. He smelled of sunblock grease, salt, milk. It was the truth, she wasn’t sure. These were her salad days and the children seemed like so much work. But, as she breathed him in, the baby smelled like a home she had never had.

One of the children, it may have been Emmeline, the eldest, yelled at her from the waves to come swim with them.

“Of course,” she yelled back, “I’m coming.”

She stood up, clutching the baby tight. She passed Amelia her hat and sunglasses. She saw the knowing smile that Amelia tried to hide. She shook her head and turned to the children.

“All together,” said Anna, and she ran laughing to meet them, and swung round the throng of swarming children shrieking with delight.

Pohutukawa

If Elina is uncomfortable with the silence, she doesn’t show it. Her hands remain flatly folded in her lap and her eyes look forward, unblinking.

Paul stands up and walks over to her. He sits next to her. She still does not move or speak. He reaches out his hand and places his palm on hers. He watches as she closes her eyes, then opens them. It is slower than a blink, more like a breath. It is as if she is gathering strength from the momentary darkness.

Finally, she turns to him. She lifts his hand off her own and places it back in his lap.

“I have to go now,” she says. That’s it, five words. She stands.

“No, don’t go,” He says. He is becoming desperate. “Stay, I want to talk to you about this. Please.”

She shakes her head and walks to the door, but she pauses a moment.

Telling her was a bad idea, he knew that. What was it Roger had said—deny till you die? He wished that was what he had done. He wished that was something he could do. But he wasn’t that kind of man. He was missing the steel that ran through their bones. He was soft inside, crumbling cheese. One look from her could unravel him. It had always been that way.

Elina had been waiting at home. He had pictured her—watching TV, taking a bath, padding around the house in that kimono robe she had bought in Japan. Eating cereal on the sofa. Cups of tea outside on warm mornings. Every day he had pictured her wrapped in a domestic scene, a postcard from their life together.

It had taken longer than he had expected, the drive. Sydney to Perth—scooping along the bottom edge of the Great Victorian Desert. The fine red dust had embedded itself in every crack and line in his skin. The car was air-conditioned of course, but every time they opened a door the heat would burst in on them, air blown straight up from hell. God, he hated that country.

Finally, in a little town outside of Perth—though town was a generous word, a gas station, a pub, some houses snaking a single road—he found her.

He had knocked on the door half-hoping she wouldn’t answer. But the door had swung open and there she was, lurking in the darkness. She was younger than had he expected, though she looked ancient-boned. Her skin was thick and loose like she had shrunk in the dry heat. She didn’t smile the whole time he was there. Not that he had stayed long. It couldn’t have been more than fifteen minutes.

That he had looked up his birth mother wasn’t what bothered Elina. She had always expected that he would, someday. It was the secrecy of it that branched through her heart and pulsed poison thick through her veins. He had gone with those deranged friends of his. ‘Boys trip,’ he had said. Flying to Sydney then driving across the desert. Why drive? She didn’t know. But now here he is, wanting her sympathy, wanting her to make it all better like she had when he was small and had a scraped knee.

When he had told her what had happened, only moments ago, she had felt her chest tighten, all the air pressed out. Her breath became thick as if she had swallowed glue.

She stands now in the doorway. She is willing herself to leave. She is being unfair, she knows this. Still, she wants to walk out. Though she doesn’t want to leave, never to leave. Somehow though this is what he thinks, her only son, that she would discard him like a soiled shirt. He is her child—does he not know she would tear off her own skin for him?

She turns and looks him straight in the eye. Her voice is calm and even, though inside is a caldera that she cannot still. It takes every ounce of her strength to say—

“Just for a moment Paul, just for now. I only need a moment.”

She closes her eyes again in that slow not-blink. When she opens them, she has stepped through the doorway and she is outside.

The sun is warm on her skin and the air is light. She will return to that room soon, they have so much more to say. But right now she can smell jasmine blossoms. There is the long scratch-scratch of a cicada strumming. There is salt in the air. The pohutukawa are blooming. Their flowers look like hearts cracked open and strung up.

It is summer. Everything drops away. She can breathe.

Lost Dreams

I often have strange dreams. Last night I journeyed into the underworld and searched for a lost jewel. Of course, there is nothing more boring than hearing about someone else’s dreams, their frayed logic and tremulous reaching. So let me instead tell you about something real, something that happened to me:

A few weeks ago I was at the beach. The sea boiled angrily, rushing at my toes like a truculent child. The sun was relentlessly hot but the beach was laced with Pohutakawa trees, their branches blinking like lazy eyes. I sat beneath one, peering through its lashes at the unbroken blue of the sky. The sound of waves was the lullaby of my childhood, the dragging in and out of the earth’s breath, the breath of God. The air was heavy with salt, I could taste it on my lips, collecting in all the fine lines on my face. The world smelled like it had been gently warmed for the table; salt and earth and grease.

I lay back on the sand and closed my eyes. I could feel the sun on my skin where it dappled through the branches. It was warm, then hot, and I had to roll closer to the trunk, deeper into the shade. Behind my closed lids, the waves danced. I listened to the spill and gather of them. My eyelids were the colour of dark flesh. There is no darkness in high summer, not even at night.

I must have lain there a long time. Time gathers in little folds and creases on days like that, minutes, hours compressed into a tiny ball, small enough to hold in your hand. I must have fallen asleep, but it was a light, dreamless state existing only in the quiet moment between waves.

When I finally opened my eyes again, my palm was closed on the lost jewel from my dream. My skin bore the grasping red imprint of it: a shatter of paua, purple as a bruise.

Some Trees

The snow is collecting in little eddies around the cars. It is calf-deep, a whitish blanket laid over the street. Jen keeps walking. She doesn’t know how long it has been, but she doesn’t want to expose her wrist to the cold, even for the brief moment it would take to check her watch. She concentrates on putting one foot in front of the other.

She glances up and sees a car driving slowly towards her, its headlights glowing like eyes. Soon she will have to step aside, to the gutter where the snow is heaped and hides any number of dark things beneath its gleam.

Jen considers the trees. They rise like buildings, tall, ageless. The snow collects in little drifts on their top branches. She thinks of an Ashberry poem, Some Trees,

Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning 

From the world as agreeing 

with it, 

She cannot remember the rest. She looks up at the trees and thinks they are important somehow. The car is closer now. She kicks her way through a drift up onto the pavement. She stands beneath the trees and looks up at their silent spines. The branches are like its bones she thinks. She wonders if trees get cold.

The wind worries a high branch and a clump of snow falls, falls, falls. It lands at her feet with a wet shudder. A few inches further back and it would have caught between her jacket and her body. She feels it as if it had landed there, a chill beginning to melt and trickle down her spine.

A silence already filled with noises, she thinks suddenly, remembering more of the poem. ‘I must be nearly there,’ she thinks to herself. She steps back onto the road and keeps walking.

 

This story was inspired by a photo prompt by @iamvickiroberts

his life’s work

His life’s work was vanishing. Or that’s what it felt like at least. Because what had he worked for all these years—it was dissolving before his eyes. Like vapour, like smoke.

The first day of his retirement he felt excited. Well, maybe that’s stretching things, but there was an anticipation to be sure. Of what would come next. Bill, who had retired a few years earlier had told him about The University of the Third Age. He had no intention of going back to University, of course, but he wanted to claim that name for himself. The third age. It felt like a new life blossoming before him. Possibilities like travel opened out and everything seemed new again. He was young still, there was a lot yet to happen to him.

Ah, there was a lot to come, he thought as he placed her hand back on the bed. He stroked the top of it, cool to the touch. Her skin was thin and papery like onion casing. It would probably slip off as easily too.

He stood up and walked over to the window. It was raining again, though she wouldn’t notice. She slept heavily, in the afternoons. It was nights that were the worst, they told him. She would thrash around in her bed, shouting. She had violent dreams. Most nights they calmed her with a pill, or a shot when things were bad. He knew it was true but couldn’t imagine it, seeing her now, laid out on the bed like a corpse. The merest rise and fall of her chest, an infrequent twitch of an eye were the only signs she was still alive.

Bill had been solicitous, at first. He had lost June years ago and he knew—he thought he knew—the score. June had had a sudden stroke. Deep and long, it had killed her right then on the kitchen floor, soap bubbles disintegrating in the sink. Bill had found her a few hours later. Cold. He had said. That was all he ever said about it, she was cold.

But this was different, the long slow decline, the faculties going one by one. It was like she was folding in on herself like a used map. There were places darkened by thumbprints. The creases never sat tight again. He had always had trouble folding maps. He could never get it right and the seams bunched and rolled. He thought of the maps in the bottom drawer of the kitchen. The trips they had been planning, their escape from the Third Age.

None of that would happen now of course. His life’s work. Not that office on Stanley Street. Not the people who came in with their numbers to be arranged in tight rows. Not his secretary Susan with glasses that pinched her nose.

They had never had children, not because of Susan, though that hadn’t helped things. They couldn’t, no one knew why. After a while, they both stopped asking. No, his life’s work lay here in this room. In this small, getting smaller room. His life’s work was laid out here on this bed. A map that was getting harder and harder to fold.

the smell of lemons

The floor tasted like salt in a way he didn’t expect. Maybe it was the recent rain accumulating in little dried piles. He breathed heavily. There was an earthy smell too, muddy and rich. For a moment he was a child again, making mud pies with his brother, their mother calling them in for tea.
But no, here on the floor he was alone, his brother was as distant as the sky. Here, there was only the feel of the cool floorboards on his cheek and that salty-muddy smell, to tell him he was alive.
He tried to reach with his good arm, he could see his phone, sitting on the coffee table, gleaming like a grin. He managed to pull himself around but his arm fell short and it dangled uselessly in the air until he dropped it again.
He felt the blood pushing around his body, all at once. It was buzzing through him, alive as a swarm of bees. He lay still a moment, waiting. The feeling passed and everything was quiet again.
He thought again of his brother, he remembered the way his brother would pin him to the ground. His brother sitting on his chest, triumphant. The feeling of being unable to move. The deep fear, irrational, persistent. A dark shape sweeping through his body whispering—you can’t move, you can’t move, you can’t move…
He couldn’t help it, but as soon as his brother released him he would roll to the side and curl up like a threatened caterpillar. Strange really, that his reaction being trapped, was to bind himself in a ball of his own.
He longed to do that now, to roll to his side and curl in on himself. Make the strong smell of salt and the warm wood of the floorboards disappear into the cave of himself. But he couldn’t move. He knew that, as he looked at the gleam of his phone.
The pain in his chest began again, sharp and tight. It travelled down his arm this time, up into his jaw and deep into his back. The pain explored his skeleton, sent out to excavate his bone marrow. It spread like an invader. The tip of its arrow a dark reaching inside of him.
He concentrated on breathing now, short shallow breaths so as not to move his lungs too much. He could not inflate his chest without the pain gaining another inch, colonising another continent of his body.
It lessened for a moment, and he thought he could smell lemons. He thought of the lemon tree in the garden. His brother used to lob them like missiles over the neighbour’s fence. The smell of the bruised fruit, bleeding juice was the smell of his childhood.
His phone began to ring. He could not. Reach it. He could not. Do anything. Now.
He lay there.
Smells entered his mind one by one. It was confusing. It was as if his senses had been transposed. The salt smell was a gauzy fog that blocked his vision. He could feel the mud-smell as a warm blanket laid on his chest. The lemon, this he could taste, sour and astringent—it made his throat clench.
Faintly now, he heard his phone still ringing. He closed his eyes. The weight of his brother was on him. They were boys again and his brother had him pinned to the ground. All he had to do was keep breathing. He concentrated on this—short shallow breaths. He waited for his brother to roll off. He felt himself being pressed, slowly out of his body. He kept waiting for his brother to leave. As he always did.

The Visit

Having lived away from home for some time Joe did not miss it. He had learned the basics of bachelorhood. He could keep the washing pile low by turning his underwear inside out. He could iron his shirts. There were more creases when he was finished but they were flat creases which was enough, he thought. He could fry an egg, turn it onto toast and call it dinner.

He looked around his small apartment. It was clean. He had a nice Polish lady called Eva who came once a week. He enjoyed it, the day she came, the apartment had the smell of cut lemons.

He began to unpack the shopping. First was the bunch of tulips a deep orange that slowly lost its colour bleeding yellow at the tips. He took a jam jar from the recycling and washed it before propping the tulips in it.

He put the cheese in the fridge along with two bottles of wine, because—who knew how the evening would go? The crackers he arranged on a plate.

It was quiet, so he put on some music, soft jazz rose in the air and it got all mixed up with the tulips and pulled at something in his chest. Joe checked his watch, he had about half an hour. He placed the crackers and the jar of tulips on the coffee table. He straightened a cushion.

After he had showered he stood in front of the mirror wiping the steam away with his hand. He examined his face. He closed his eyes and tried to picture himself—square jaw, eyes the indistinct colour of standing water, thick caterpillary eyebrows that moved like they were alive. He opened his eyes quickly but the picture he had of himself escaped into the steam and it was a stranger he saw looking back at him.

He wiped the mirror with the edge of his hand and sighed. It was nearly time. He shaved, cutting the edge of his chin. He stuck a small piece of toilet paper to it to stem the blood. It bloomed red in the shape of a tiny heart.

He pulled on a shirt and clean underwear. As he buttoned his jeans he heard a knock at the door. He went through the living room, stopping for a moment to prop up a tulip. He fetched the wine from the fridge and stood it on the bench in salute.

Yes, he thought to himself, this will pass. He opened the door and was swept up by the scent of her, roses and talcum powder. He breathed it in, it smelled like home.

“Hello, Mother,” he said.

“Joe dear,” she said as she leaned towards him, “you have something on your chin.” She pulled the piece of paper from his skin. It tore a little, a short needle of pain and a tiny dot of blood began to bead.

She patted his cheek. “That’s better.”

They stood there for a moment. The tiny cut on his face throbbed. Joe felt all his blood slow. It was cold in the apartment he noticed now.

“Joe,” she said, smiling, “aren’t you going to invite me in?”

I am not a Painter

~after Frank O’Hara

Being painted wasn’t what she had expected. No, it was dull she found, sitting still while he peered at the canvas. He looked at her, momentarily, then his eyes were back on his work. He scratched at it as if there were something emerging, something he must chip away at. Something he must peel from the layers to reveal.

She looked out of the window. He didn’t notice at first, he was leaning so close to the canvas. She imagined the smell of the thick oils beading near his skin. He looked as if he were about to press his thumbs into the paint. But he didn’t, he looked up and said—move back, sit still.

Her eyes roamed around the studio. It had a low, southerly light. She had shivered that first day because the light was watery and cool in the long shadows. She longed to be outside where the sun was bright and high. He had explained to her that a studio must have consistency of light—it must be diffuse, it must be even, it must not wax and wane throughout the day. So she shivered as the sun busied itself on the northern horizon. The windows were closed, but she imagined the icy southerly blowing up from Antartica and felt colder still.

After that first day, she had begun wearing thicker jumpers to the studio. When he wasn’t looking she rubbed her fingers together, or stamped her toes. She imagined the brilliant winter sun that was licking the other side of the house. She imagined light.

She stole a glance his way. He was peering at his brush, rubbing the tip together between his finger and thumb. She took the opportunity to stretch her arms and felt the tingle of blood returning as she pushed them high above her head. She rolled circles with her neck. He looked up and she quickly dropped her hands back in place. He nodded at her and picked up another brush. He seemed to sweep away the paint he had just laid out.

It was interminable, this waiting. Her mind wandered. She thought of the orange she had for breakfast that morning. She had oranges for breakfast every day in winter. She thought about the oil released by her fingernails as she peeled the skin. She could still smell it, she was sure. A warm smell, like a splash of gold.

She thought about the paper she was writing, the research she still needed to do. She thought about the library, like a cave of glow-worms, the long threads of words laid out to trap her, to reel her in. She thought of other things too, what Charlie had said to her that morning—about the way she came here, the way they didn’t talk, the way she wasn’t sure why she did.

When it was finally finished he wouldn’t show her—wait for the exhibition—he told her. When she went, a month later, to the University gallery she walked around once, twice, three times before she found herself. She recognised it only for the shape of the canvas, the back of which she had stared at all those weeks.

She didn’t see herself in it at all. It was abstracted, the paint was pushed this way and that, her face exploded in a cubist crush. She did not recognise anything in it. Then she saw the title. Oranges, it said, A Portrait.

She thought again of the smell of orange that she carried on her fingers all winter. Yes, she thought. There was no orange in the painting. There wasn’t even yellow or red. There was nothing in the blue and green and grey that swept across the canvas that could be said to be orange. But she thought of the O’Hara poem that he had recited to her all those months ago, in that low and tangled voice. Yes, she thought, it was a portrait of Oranges after all.

 

A List of her Hungers

A list of her hungers would be long—

First would be her physical hunger, the gentle gnawing feeling that lived in the back of her throat. It had resided there since she was fifteen and Janice Brown had called her stocky. Starving herself was second nature now, though you can’t change your bones. While her muscles had long since melted away, her bones hung solidly on. No matter how little she ate her legs and arms hung thickly from her broad body, like branches from a tree.

Oh, but she had other hungers too. The constant feeling of physical hunger left her light-headed and dazed. She was cold, she shivered under her thick jackets even in summer. She kept herself separate, away.

Because of this, she was often alone and she watched as the Janice Brown’s of the world floated together in gossipy groups, twittering like birds, or peeled away and coupled off. When she saw this, from her spot on the classroom stairs she felt a hunger that was more like an emptiness. A hole inside her that couldn’t be filled.

She was hungry at home too, where her mother pushed great plates of food towards her, piled with potatoes and meat.

She would look over at the spot where her father used to sit and its emptiness was like another hunger— more like the feeling you had after a terrible bout of food poisoning when everything had been removed and your stomach was bare. That was the hunger looking there gave her.

These were her large hungers, the ones that kept her up at night, black holes that sucked everything away.

She did have smaller hungers though—

The sound of rain on the roof, the memory of the taste of ice-cream, the coolness of a breeze that made the hair on her arms tremble. The sky in the morning, a few minutes before dawn, salt air, the sound of an owl deep in the night. Water on her skin, warm in the shower or cool in the sea, it didn’t matter. Her niece’s fat wrists. A photograph of her father, upright in his uniform a smile behind his eyes.

Oh so many more—

Clouds shaped like rabbits. The pocket of warmth in her bed in the mornings. Painting her nails with a hard vermillion. Feeling them clack as she drums them on her desk. Music, trees, the whole great wink of the world. The crease in its eye, the space for tears.

Oh, she had so many hungers, large and small. She did not know how to fill them. It seemed to her that her hunger was an endless void. A wanting that could not be tempted—even the smallest morsel would make it grow ever more ravenous until it consumed her entirely.

No, she pushed away the plate of food her mother had prepared. Better not to taste it at all. Best to keep her hungers where they belonged, unsatisfied, yawning.

Yes, the list of her hungers is long, but she knows better than to eat.

A gleam in the dark

Callie sighed and heaved her backpack to her other shoulder. She peered around the corner, but she couldn’t see the bus. She busied her toe into the dusty ground. Her sneakers were already dirty, they had been a muddy colour for as long as she could remember. Just this morning the sole had begun to peel away from the toe, a great flap forming like a chattering mouth. She would have to remember to get some glue when she got to school.

She heard the distant roar of a vehicle approaching. She looked up but it was only a grey station wagon. It shot past her, the occupants lost in a blur. Callie sighed. She checked her watch. Quarter to eight, the bus was late.

She lifted her backpack from her shoulder and placed it on the ground, propping it against her legs. She shrugged her shoulders a few times and rolled her neck. Everything felt tight, her muscles were coiled like a snake, she could feel the thin ribbons of them knotted under her skin.

There was no one else around. The morning was quiet and the sun was already beginning to strip the air of moisture. It was going to be a hot one, over forty again, perhaps. She craned her head around the corner, still no bus. Then something caught her eye a few paces away. She pushed her backpack away and stepped closer.

There was a crevice beneath a large flat rock—there in the dark something moved, glimmered. Callie looked toward the road again, then crouched down. It was dark in the little clutch. She pressed her cheek to the ground.

Under the smooth grey rock, in the dust and darkness, a family of lizards gleamed. There was the large one, the mother she suspected and then a dozen babies, maybe more, crawling over each other in a heaving heap. It was like a tangled knot of string that was alive and shimmering.

One, a baby, braved the open, pushing its head from the shadows. It was small, no longer than her finger, but thinner like the bone stripped bare. Its skin was a dark not-black colour, a colour that had absorbed all other colours and become the darkness of all the colours mixed together. Its head twitched upwards then from side to side, testing. Then it crawled with quick, jerky movements to the top of the rock.

One by one it was followed by its brothers and sisters until the rock was alive with their twitching eyes. Last of all the mother walked languidly and sat squat among them. She flicked a lazy eye at Callie as if to say, I’m watching.

Suddenly the bus roared around the corner. Callie picked up her backpack and jumped on board. She did not believe in mystical experiences, but even so, she sat at the back of the bus and watched from the grimy window. As the bus pulled away she watched the rock gleam black like it was alive. She watched the glint of the sun on the lizard’s tight skin. She kept watching until all she could see was a dark-on-dark speck getting smaller and smaller in the sun.