Authors: Sue Saliba
Sue Saliba lives on Phillip Island, where she spends her summers caring for endangered birds on the beach. Her young adult novel,
Something in the World Called Love
won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award and her following young adult novel,
, was short-listed for the Prime Minister's Literary Award. She has taught English at secondary school as well as Creative Writing at Melbourne University and RMIT.
Nella stood by the creek and waited.
Blue sky above and thistles below that reached her knees, she knew the swallows returned in the second week of spring.
Nella was fifteen and each September, she came here. No one knew about her vigil and she held it private inside her like a thing that might die if it were to flee into the open.
Ghosts, fairies, spirits might visit the creek, but nothing was as special as the swallows: strong, fragile, bursting from the sky in that second week of spring just as their ancestors had for thousands of years. What was it that it made her feel? It was somethingÂ .Â .Â .Â something like belief, like everything in every other part of the world, of her world, would be all right if she could just witness the swallows.
âPlease come home,' she whispered to the darkening sky, and she was sure the birds had heard her. âPlease come back.' And then she stepped away, one damp shoe and then the other, and climbed the track that led from the creek.
Through the streets of North Fitzroy Nella travelled,
past the milk bar, the hidden church, the secret children's park and at last into Mark Street with its asphalt footpaths and bluestone gutters. She'd lived here all her life. At number fourteen, she stopped and pushed gently on the gate.
Silently she went into the house. Past the silent gate, the silent front door. Only the small noise of her shoes on the hallway made a sound. She walked past the unused lounge room and then the dark bedroom where her mother lay beneath the eiderdown. How still everything was, but not in the way of the creek or the dragonfly she'd seen holding itself motionless against the sky. This stillness was heavy, immobile, as if even the air when it entered the house stopped circulating and became a solid thing.
Fixed, was that the word? Mired. It hadn't always been like this. For the first twelve years of Nella's life the house had been different, lighter. Sun had filtered in through the curtains and the seasons had shifted throughout. Once, a blackbird had built a nest in the corner of the lounge and her mate had flown in and out as he'd collected worms and slaters, moths and caterpillars for the young. In and out he'd gone, as if there were no boundaries to the house at all, as if there were no difference between inner and outer.
But now there was a difference, there was always a difference. Ever since her father had left and Matthew had grown to fill his space, and their mother had shrunk smaller and smaller. Time had stopped for Nella, then, and the voice inside her had become quieter until now it was almost impossible to hear â unless she promised herself that certain thing.
I will take him with me. This time, this year, I will take him to the swallows.
She'd said it before, in previous years, and then somehow, at the last minute, backed away. The swallows will be frightened, she'd told herself. The swallows will be confused, unsure. But really it was none of these things. What if he doesn't like them? she should have said. What if the swallows are nothing special at all to my father?
This time, this year, though, she would take him. This time it would be different. She touched her fingers to each other in a sign she made secretly whenever she created a promise that she knew she must keep. It was a tiny gesture she'd seen the last of the swallows make with their wings as they left for their northern homes each autumn.
Yes, I will take him with me.
She was comforted, then, renewed. She moved along the passage closer to the kitchen. She'd make herself toast and peppermint tea, her favourite meal. It made her feel clear and weightless like the swallows as they fell through the sky with their bones of air.
She'd sit on the back step and watch the nightly lacewings as they made their way to the neighbours' lit windows and she'd practise what she'd tell her father, what she would say, how she would introduce him to the swallows.
They come back every year, she'd tell him. They never fail to return.
She stopped at the doorway of the kitchen. It was dim inside.
I will call him tonight, she said to herself. And she put her hand into the shadows and turned on the switch.
Lightness, illumination. Everything became sharp and focused. The stovetop with its iron grid, the row of wooden cupboards attached to the brick wall, the calendar with its days divided into boxes.
And there, across the room, she saw the four chairs around the laminex table. Sitting on one of them was a lone figure. Solid, distinct.
âI've been waiting for you,' it said.
Nella stayed very still.
âHe's in hospital,' Matthew continued. âOur father's in St Vincent's Intensive Care. He's had a heart attack.'
Everything froze and did not change from that moment on, not for a long time.
And then, when it did, none of it felt real. Nella was aware that her right hand covered her face and that she was crouched on the tiled floor and that her whole body was tightened. And she was aware that Matthew had risen from his chair and was standing above her.
She could only think of her father. Did it mean that his heart had stopped beating? Did it mean he would never wake again?
âI need to see him,' she said at last. But she did not say it loud enough for Matthew to hear. Instead she said it to herself as she rose to her feet and went out of the kitchen, out the back door and into the yard. It was night, the long grass they never cut at the back of the house was in darkness. Nella waded through it to the shed where she kept her bike. She opened the door and felt through the air with her outstretched hand until her fingers touched the rusted handlebars and she pulled the bike towards her.
Back she wheeled through the path she had made and along the side of the house until at last she was standing outside the front gate, the bitumen footpath beneath her. Then she pedalled away from the house as hard as she could and turned the corner, fleeing into Falconer Street and riding quickly through the gardens.
On she went, along Brunswick Street with its shops and apartments and traffic lights and cafes until at last she entered a laneway that she knew led all the way to the back of the hospital.
What if he never wakes up? What if my father dies? She was suddenly engulfed by a huge darkness. How could she ever imagine a world without him? It was true, her father had come and gone from her life, appeared and disappeared â there had even been that long Saturday afternoon when she had sat at the front fence waiting and waiting and he had not arrived â and yet, still she felt connected to him as if by an invisible force, as if by a special thread, and if it were to break â
She pedalled harder and harder, eager to leave the night-time of the laneway behind her. But even as she entered the light of the car park, even as she leant her bike against the hospital wall, even as she climbed stairs and then more stairs and followed coloured lines and signs against walls that directed her onward, even as she got closer to him, this feeling would not leave her.
What if she were cut adrift?
And then there he was. Nella saw her father through a glass pane that separated the hallway from the patients. There he lay on a bed of white sheets. Tubes entered his arms and left them again. A piece of wire connected his chest to a machine at his side. The machine's screen scribbled red lines. Nella watched him. His eyes did not move. They were closed. He was so silent, she thought.
She crept into the room and stood beside him. âI'm here,' she said. His dark blonde hair looked pale in the strange light. His hands â large and rough and square â seemed softer. âDad,' she said. And she leant closer to him. âDad, don't leave me. Please don't leave me. Please please don't leave me alone with them.' She reached her hand out to brush a stray hair from his forehead, but as she did, something fell from the sleeve of her jacket.
Slowly, carefully, it drifted to the floor and when she turned to pick it up she saw, resting against the polished lino, a perfect tiny feather.
How had it come to her, this feather?
Had it fallen from a branch above as she had left the house? Perhaps she'd startled a bird sheltering from the night or simply walked beneath a nest that had shifted in the wind. The feather was as perfect as if it had been delivered to her directly from its maker, without the passage of fear or the elements at all â a perfect swallow's feather.
She looked at it now as it sat on the windowsill of her bedroom. She'd placed it there the moment she'd come home from the hospital. She'd pulled back the curtain to let in the sky and she'd fallen asleep. Feather, window, night above her.
And now with the morning, she looked again at the feather. It was black â grey actually, if she tilted her head to see the light pass through it. And it was long and slender. And strong, she knew that. A feather to speak of flight and promise and destiny. And something else, as well.
What was that something else?
She looked away from it now. Pulled her arms around her knees and stayed very still there on the floor beneath the window.
She'd watched the swallows as they'd left and arrived, seen them fly away to disappear into nothingness. With each year, a certain feeling had arisen in her â just the edge of a feeling really â and she had scurried in her mind to think of other things. School, homework, the chores around the house that she should do when she got home â anything to paste over this feeling, to make it go away. But of course, it never did, not entirely. And now, here it was as she sat in her bedroom with the feather above her.
âWhat if they never return?' it whispered. âWhat if the swallows fly away and never come back?'
Nella stared at the door of the bedroom. The rim of it was dark from the hallway on the other side. Morning hadn't yet made it into the house beyond her room. She thought of her brother Matthew and she knew what he would say if he knew about the swallows, if he could hear her fear. âThat's right,' he'd say, âthey won't come back.' And he might add, âWho cares?' or, âWhat are you going to do about it?' Perhaps he'd just shrug or stare into her with his ice-blue eyes, as he often did. And at this thought, Nella felt her arms tighten around her knees. She felt herself grow smaller and smaller and she might have vanished if she had not heard a sound outside her bedroom door. It was a soft sound, like the creaking of floorboards beneath the foot of someone who might want to remain a secret.
Most likely it was her mother on one of her endless journeys to the kitchen from her bedroom. Back and forth she'd often go throughout the night and early morning, carrying cups of tea and walking carefully through the house as if it were that of a stranger's.
There, Nella heard it again. Yes, she was sure it was her mother moving uncertainly along the passage. Nella should go to her; go to the door, open it, talk to her, listen, or at least just be there to stand in the dark with her mother.
But she was hesitant. What if she saw the same eyes that looked back at her from her own reflection?
How stupid, how selfish she was. That's what Matthew would say.
Nella got up and she moved to the door through some feeling for her mother or some shame at Matthew's assessment of her, it wasn't clear. But as she moved, she imagined her mother part glad to see her and part embarrassed, as if to match the odd bits of Nella's own feelings.
There again, she heard the sound, closer now to her door. She held her breath and turned the handle.
And in the darkness she saw a small figure. Small and quiet and not expecting her at all.
âMatthewÂ .Â .Â .' she said.
He stopped where he was.
âHow is he?' her brother asked. âHow'sÂ .Â .Â .Â Dad?'
Dad. Matthew seemed hardly to use that word now. Our father, the old man, him. But rarely Dad. There'd been an unspoken distance between Matthew and their father ever since he'd left the family. Actually, if Nella cast her mind back she realised it had been there even before.
In the house filled with light, she remembered her father sitting with her at the kitchen table. They had spread out the bits and pieces they'd found in the backyard that afternoon â a huntsman's airy skeleton, a case moth's cocoon, the torn wing of a micro bat â and together they were looking each one up in a nature book. âDid you know, it says here that the pattern on a huntsman's skin never fades?' she said and her dad looked at her.
There had just been the two of them then, or so Nella believed. But now when she thought about it, when she took herself right back to that very day, she remembered a shadow. It was there in the background, hovering when she spoke as she looked onto the collection of things. âHow amazing.' Posing a silent question when Nella and her father got up from the table and went out one last time into the backyard. âCan I come?' it asked.
But no one heard it, not at the time. Nella didn't and her father mustn't have because he gave no reply. It was only later â months later â that Nella could remember her father belatedly answering Matthew. Her brother had come into the lounge room with the model aeroplane he'd made from a kit. He'd been assembling it for weeks and today was the day he would fly it. âNot now, mate,' their father said as Matthew approached him. âHow about tomorrow?' But there had been no maiden flight. Perhaps their father was too tired or perhaps he'd had to prepare for his work in the country, Nella couldn't remember now.
What she did remember was how Matthew never flew the plane. How she found it broken into a hundred tiny pieces in the backyard bin. How much later, when she asked him, âRemember that aeroplane?' he looked straight through her and said, âWhat aeroplane?'
And she remembered how in those early times he had been there with Nella by the front door, waiting for their father to return. After days or maybe weeks. Their father would go off to the big properties out beyond the city and classify the wool, depending on its strength and softness, once the shearers had taken it from the sheep. And when he'd return there would be Nella and Matthew waiting by the door.
âHere's a curl of wool for you, Nella,' her father would say. âThis came from the most beautiful ewe in the flock.' And then he'd turn to Matthew. âAnd here's something I thought you'd like,' and he'd pull from his pocket a matchbox tractor he'd picked up from a local store or a peaked cap with the name of some remote town or football team.
And Matthew would nod and accept the gift, although he'd look and stare at the fleece in Nella's palm.
And bit by bit, Matthew appeared less often at the front door.
âWhere's your brother?' her father would say when he came home, and Nella would shrug. She knew Matthew was in his room and she knew he was conscious of their father coming home. âHe's probably gone to the library,' she'd say. âHe seems to get a lot of homework now.'
âIt's good he's serious about school,' their dad would answer.
And Nella would agree, although she didn't add that Matthew had stopped studying biology and that he'd taken up an advanced maths class and started talking about politics.
These were things that were foreign to their dad â mathematical formulas, political life. There had only ever been nature and the bush, vast paddocks of sheep and the voices of magpies through the early light. In the city he watched the sky for stray corellas and sat on the front verandah late at night, listening to crickets. And Nella sat beside him.
âWe're the same, you and me,' he'd say. And she'd feel a blush of pride, afraid that Matthew may have overheard.
Now she looked at Matthew standing in the hallway, waiting on her answer. âHow's Dad?' she echoed. âHe's going to be all right. Yeah, everything's going to be fine.'
And that was when the plan occurred to her.
It would require very little really â a curtain, some blankets, her own set of drawers that she could empty and wheel into the tiny room. She'd need a broom to sweep away the old cobwebs and a rag to clear the dust. And as for a mattress, she was sure she had enough money to buy a single one from the op shop in Smith Street.
Everything would come together. Everything would be restored. She turned from the hallway and went back into her room. It was full with the morning sun and she closed the door to contain it.
There, in the instant light, she pulled her school dress from the wardrobe. Just a standard uniform with its lines and checks, but today it formed part of a story â a special story â like the magnificent gown in a grand opera or the simple camouflage of a quiet lacewing. Yes, that was more likely it, a camouflage. Nella's plan must remain a secret, she decided, at least for now. No one â not Matthew, not her mother â must suspect a thing.
She fitted one foot and then the other into her school shoes. Quietly she knelt and tied each lace with deliberate tightness and a most beautiful bow. Then she went to the basket in the corner of her room and she dug beneath its layers of clothes and found the tiny silk purse where she kept her money â private money that she knew might one day be needed for something â and she counted out eighty dollars and slipped it inside her sock. Next she looked around the room at what else she might need. Her miniature clock, a black texta, the blue rug at the end of her bed. She collected each object and put it in her schoolbag as carefully as if it were an injured animal. And then, at last, as she was about to leave the room, she remembered the feather. She had not forgotten it, not really. Somehow its whispering had not stopped since it had asked her, âWhat if they never return? What if the swallows fly away and never come back?' But now it spoke of different things â of promise, of possibility, of a deep deep trust that even in the absence of all physical evidence told her something wonderful was about to happen.