Authors: Jennifer Mills
Tags: #FIC029000, #FIC044000, #FIC019000
Jennifer Mills is the author of two novels,
(UQP, 2011) and
The Diamond Anchor
, 2009), and a chapbook of poems,
(Press Press, 2009). She won the 2008 Marian Eldridge Award for Young Emerging Women Writers, the Pacific Region of the 2008–9 Commonwealth Short Story Competition, and the 2008 Best Short Story Award in the Northern Territory Literary Awards. Her award-winning short stories have been widely published, and are collected for the first time in
The Rest is Weight
. Mills lives in South Australia.
Also by Jennifer Mills
The Diamond Anchor
Look down with me
There’s one swinging tonight, but only one. It’s all they could catch. In the stable I water the horses and I take my time about it.
I stop with Queenie, I want to cut the sores from her hoofs. She lifts them for me when I think it. I scrape pieces from her feet with the sharpest knife and check her shoes are all intact. When I’m finished I touch her side, gentle, and she puts her foot down. Horses trust me. I fold the knife and put it in its place on the beam above the horseshoes and the brands.
There’s a wind up, a chill from the south, and it moves the branches, but the sack hangs limply from the tree, as if it’s been painted onto this picture. Painted blue from the moon, which is swelling to full like the gut of a dead kangaroo filling with maggots.
The moon will burst when its skin gets too thin and all the flies will spill out of it. They will come down out of the sky and crawl all over us. They try to get in at the mouth, the ears, the eyes. I can squint, dig my pinkies into my nostrils and my thumbs into my ears, but eventually I will have to breathe.
The house is full of troopers and syrupy air smelling of port wine, fat and tobacco. There aren’t enough chairs so the troopers stand against the walls and my sisters seem to take up all the rest of the house. They seep out of it like honey poured into a sack. I want the men to leave so I can get in and bury myself in Mother’s lap and hear her say,
Look at this boy
, to Father, the way she says about the sulky dogs.
But they won’t go until they catch them.
I want to paint the swinging sack out of the night but it peeks in at me from every gap and crack in the stable, which is only a shack no better than a lean-to, and gives splinters wherever you put your hand.
I put my hands down on the horses. I lean into a neck that leans into a basin of water. I put my nose into the place the mane starts and smell horse sweat like rotten straw. I stay there until Queenie finishes and lifts her head and then we lean against each other, saying nothing. Neither of us could speak even if we wanted to.
I could stay all night and sleep standing like these animals. When the stable is full there’s a space the right size for me. There are four of ours brought in tonight and the four the troopers came with. I’ve watered them all now. Tomorrow they’ll be taken out again, taken by those troopers and the two trackers who are resting on the porch on the other side of the house, tobacco for them and a little fat but no port wine.
I hear my father’s voice and I can’t stay. He says,
, and just as loud,
Where is that idiot boy
. They all know I know my name, but they think because I don’t speak I am deaf. I touch the horses in the loving way of a mothering mare, wiping my hand down over their eyes like their mothers licked them at birth. It calms them like it calms me to bury my face in my own mother’s skirts.
I step out of the stable and move towards the house. My feet as silent as my throat. I walk slowly across the dark dirt yard looking at my quiet feet. I walk in my own blue shadow. If I don’t look up I won’t see it and it won’t be there.
But it is still there. When I reach the porch the tree creaks. The sack will be turning.
The trackers see me, they are watching. They’re only cigarette ends under hats in the shadow but I can feel their eyes on me. I go into the house, wanting to press myself into its warm honey.
Alfie will have watered your horses, he’s so good with them. Might have made a trooper himself
, Mother tells the policeman with the white moustache. There is a space where they think about what I could have made if only. The moustache twitches but the lips don’t move. He’s troubled by me, so I give him my reassuring idiot smile. I know she means to tell them I am good, so I don’t mind that she talks like I’m not there. They all do this. They do it to the horses too.
Long day tomorrow
, says Moustache, and tips the sweet red liquor into his mouth. The glass looks tiny in his hand. He pats the barrel of a rifle which leans against the wall like a stiffened snake.
The troopers sleep in my room, I sleep on the porch with the trackers and the dogs. Mother and Father offer their bed to the men but are refused. My sisters sleep in their own room. They file into bed like obedient children but I know they will dream of troopers riding, dream with their delicate honey hands pressed between their legs. I’ve seen them like this before. They whimper gently in their sleep like dogs.
I can move as quietly as a snake in this house at night on my mute feet.
I slip into the hammock that’s hung on the stable side of the porch. I can hear the horses snort themselves to rest and the troopers snoring in a rhythm. I close my eyes and make myself still and small and shapeless.
The tree creaks. The tree creaks and the sack will be turning. The moon is bright over the edge of the roof. I can see the painted-in shadow of the hanging sack. I can hear the dogs breathe, alert, knowing they’ll be called to hunt. The tree creaks and sleep won’t come.
I slip out of the hammock and pad barefoot to the stable.
I walk from stall to stall and touch each of them on their eyes, and when I have seen that all are held fast by sleep, I stop and lean into Queenie and I take my knife from the beam. I return to the beginning of the line and start with the troopers’ horses.
I keep one hand over the horse’s eye. I press hard, expecting thick skin, but the knife slices easily through the soft place under the chin. I am calm and I stroke each of them like a mother and they do not bark with pain. Blood slips over my hand, warm and thick, warmer than my own. It smells good, like wet metal.
Queenie is last in line. When I reach her, I think I should just let her go. They will only catch her again. I look down the row of stalls, at the steam rising from the floor, and through it, through a crack in the wall, I catch the movement of the sack. I know what to do. I wipe the knife on my sleeve, and I work it into Queenie’s neck. She sighs as she slips and falls.
I don’t fold the knife. I have one more cord, one more thread to sever. I step into the chill night, walk across the dark dirt yard on muted feet. A dog growls low in its throat, then settles. I hear the tree creak and I face the sack.
It is not a sack at all, but a man. I feel the man-sized weight of him as I stand close. The knife slices through the rope and I let him fall.
Look down on his body, meek against the earth with me, moon
, I think. But the moon doesn’t answer. Its belly is beginning to split.
I fold the knife and go to my hammock. The tree doesn’t creak any more. I sleep sound through the night, until the flies wake me.
The wind and other children
Bell knows three songs. They are all about autumn.
Autumn is her favourite season. Some of the trees change colour, so do her scarves and coats, and at school she made a bright collage out of red leaves, veined and holey, which now hangs on her bedroom wall and accumulates spiders.
Down below, new life will spring.
She sings about death and rebirth. She sings about death and rebirth as she walks through the park, kicking up leaves. In her red coat, she resembles the child incarnation of a fertility goddess. She might turn against her subjects, growing to a giantess, fire-eyed and hair all snaky.
But in her present incarnation she is benign. Her eyes are the blue of the reflected sky in the pond, with its echoes of algae, of life beneath the surface.
Bell’s present purpose lies across the park, across a particular place where the lawn adjoins the hospital. It being a public hospital, the patients use the park as their private sunning
ground, and also their smoking ground and, sometimes, when
the psych ward patients come down, their ground for yelling at things that aren’t there.
Bell had a grandmother until recently. The grandmother developed pneumonia, was taken to hospital, and died. Bell’s mother, a kind, emotional woman, a teacher of the cello, told her that Nana went to heaven to become a star in the sky.
Bell is of a scientific temperament. Her kicking of leaves is investigative, her every step lifted by an empirical urgency. Bell understood what her mother was trying to suggest. Heaven, she concluded, was situated precisely within the walls of the large, rectangular hospital building. Lights in upper storeys were of stardust, supernovae. Its peeling facade was merely a container, and did not reflect the condition of the interior.
Bell is unaware as yet that her own skin is in a similar position. That others can only glimpse at what lies behind her windows, guess at her inner nebulae.
She passes through the red and yellow leaves, swept into kickable piles by the gardeners and daily redistributed over the paths by the wind and other children. She sees ducks, dogs, a child watching a remote-controlled boat on the pond. Ahead, the white gowns shift on the grass like landed clouds, and she approaches with the polite stealth of a scientist.
The hospital part of the park is a kind of middle layer between life and death. Native trees, which never change except to shed their bark overnight at surprising times, and the windbreak of the large white building, protect it, so the grass grows greener in a band. Bell gets the impression that whatever grows near heaven grows better, just like the long grass over the dog’s grave in the yard.
Approaching, Bell eyes the white gowns for her grandmother, who may yet return from heaven bearing fantastic gifts, as she once did from Singapore. There are several old people, but the fire in them is out. None of them has her nana’s glow.
The old ones are clustered in the sun to one side, away from the smokers. Old pyjama pants dangle from gowns, drop thick, yellow ankles, which swell and vanish into polyester slippers. The smokers eye her warily. She edges around them, false nonchalance lending her stride an adult air.
A new mother lifts her eyes from the baby at her chest. She opens her mouth to ask a question, but promptly closes it again.
With a tiny tremor, half-thrill half-terror, Bell becomes aware of the absence of her parents.
She is resolute.
As far as Bell knows they are exactly where she left them: on the other side of the park, up some stairs, in a second-floor flat with a view of the yard behind. More specifically, her mother is in the bathroom and her father talking through the door, tense yet trying for calm. Having taken this scene in and come to the conclusion that they were wholeheartedly occupied with one another, Bell took the opportunity to investigate.
Bell turned on her radio and closed her bedroom door before she left, so they wouldn’t notice. She is a precocious child, and her parents are by no means neglectful. They are grieving, her mother has lost her mother, there are interest rates to worry about. If anything they should be commended for raising a child so independent, so curious, so spirited, so in possession of the quality her late grandmother referred to as gumption.
Gumption has got her unmolested to the automatic doors with a red stripe across them. She hesitates near a hedge box filled with orange woodchips. Two people in green overalls emerge from an ambulance, unload a body on a wheeled stretcher, and roll it towards the doors, which slide open. There’s a brief conference, inaudible to Bell from her position, and then four hands take the stretcher inside. The people in green return to their vehicle, laughing and smiling. They sit in the ambulance with the engine running.
A chip packet sails by on a light breeze. It lands near a pigeon, which edges away. The hedge box is level with her small shoulders, and smells like an ashtray.
Finally, the ambulance moves away, but Bell remains where she stands. A woman walks past. Bell (clever, precocious Bell) follows her, at a distance far and close enough to be taken for a stranger by the woman, for the woman’s kin by everyone else.
She passes through. The smell and noise surround her first, before she can register anything visual. The smells are of the elements, the modern elements: electricity, bleach, gas, and plastic. These are big, simple smells; they have gravity. The sounds, the squeal of a trolley wheel, the mesh of voices, sail between the smells like bodies, in their own orbit. Her initial impression is of comets colliding and of meteors smacking into atmospheres.
The senses settle themselves, and soon she can distinguish intercoms, single voices, and the primitive, terrestrial stimuli of blood and shit and worry. When her eyes adjust, she sees the bodies revolving around each other, around the slow gravity of the nurses’ station. Bodies colliding, or fading gently in corners light years distant, where a vending machine with a broken bulb pings its interstellar sonar.
She does not notice what all adults in Emergency notice first – the wait.
It’s clear to her that this is still the real world. At best, it’s an extension of the park’s middle layer. None of the bodies looks remotely like stars. She recalls the glints of upper windows and looks for the stairs.
She comes to a corridor where another set of four hands passes a wheelie bed into an elevator. Bell risks discovery, but ducks in as the doors close. There is a ding from somewhere in the wall, and the lift moves upwards.
Two male nurses talk to each other over the bed. The creature in the white sheets has a plastic tube that ends in a mask, like a snorkel, over its mouth. It stares down at her with yellow eyes sunk into a baggy elephant face. Bell smiles gently at the snorkelling elephant, and it looks pacified. The breathing apparatus makes a noise like a broken party whistle.
The lift stops and they all get out.
They are in a sort of space station. Glass panes and doors everywhere, and cool corridors curved like they lead to a bridge, the kind with a captain in it. Machines whirl, readying themselves for take-off. The wheeled elephant disappears down one of the curves, guided by the swift hands of its carriers.
Bell goes to a black window in the corridor and puts her hands and eyes to it. She sees tiny lights outside: the earth at night, a long way distant. Somewhere on its surface, a vending machine blinks in a waiting room, and her parents argue through a door.
She thought that stars fell in the night sky as leaves fell, only to be replenished.
Down below, new life will spring. Down below.
She is dizzy looking at the earth’s surface. Heaven is the sound of lasers, their precise incision, the scent of electricity and death, bleached to neatness. Bell would take another form and break the peeling eggshell walls, release heaven from its firmament and let it sail to earth. Its colours, piled up by gardeners, would make a good thing for a smallish deity to kick.
But in the stars there is no autumn, stars don’t fall like leaves. They fizz and burn like sparklers and will not return. And she’s not a deity. She’s just a kid.
‘Who do you belong to?’ asks the nurse kneeling beside her.
Bell clings to the nearness of him.
‘Down below,’ she whispers.
The nurse takes her by the hand and leads her back to the ground floor, where her parents are paged. They are already in the waiting room, clinging palely to each other, breathing hard from having run, as parents will, to the nearest worst-case scenario.
Three bodies collide in a private gravity.
They find each other’s hands and walk out through the sliding doors. Bell is held, restored to orbit. They walk together through the park, through heaven’s green wake, and home.