Authors: Jennifer Mills
Tags: #FIC029000, #FIC044000, #FIC019000
The taxi driver
sits in the dark bar, his broad nose hovering over the matching hollow of the bottle he is emptying. Clear glass that shucks its foam. He sniffs at smoke-machine air and tastes the mountains: burning plastic in a tin stove, the phlegm of children that crawl and beg at him when he gets home, if he gets home before they are in bed, which is rare. Sometimes they wake to find he has returned in the night and teeter out wide-eyed to witness him, like a saint’s visit. These sweet-shit-smelling children maul him, ignorant as dogs. He swigs the cheap yellow malt to rinse the taste.
watches the city-style boys work something up in this sad small town, boys with shine and wings trying for glamour. His eyes are shaded under a cap in the dark, he hopes the check shirt doesn’t show its dirt marks. The tear in the shirt tail carefully tucked into his jeans at the back. He’s traded the woven belt his mother made for a plastic one bought at the market, changed in the taxi. The barstool’s thin foam layer hardly protects from the metal frame and his arse hurts after two hours. Two hours he has been sitting on his one beer smoking half a cigarette at a time. The beer’s long warm and the cigarettes are tinny.
feels his eyes stick to a chest here, hook on a silver-edged shirt, trimmed like a mock cowboy’s. An angel’s wings in the corner, the floorshow, but it’s still too early. The performers are mixing, getting the
to drink up; they don’t bother with him. He is too old to be beautiful and there is a smell on him, a mountains smell of heavy lifting and bad schooling.
watches the angel wings molest the air, little breezes like a hummingbird, now behind, now straight ahead of him, talking to the cowboy shirt,
silverado. A shimmer close enough to smell the animal under the bright perfume. The boy’s neck exposed above the collar. Tiny jewels of moisture cling to the stubble of a fresh haircut, he can see where the clippers have trimmed around a mole, almost feels the buzz of the machine against that part of himself, the neck muscle, and reaches for the itch.
drops the cigarette in the ashtray and scratches it out like a mistake. It’s the lack of alcohol that makes it seem like he’s wasting his time here, that time is not passing at the rate it should. Thinks of the comfort of the meter ticking over, the bottle of tequila in the cabinet at home, bought for special guests that never arrive and drunk alone in increments coming off a late shift, avoiding bed. The boys are so close now he can smell the limes in their drinks and feel those hummingbird flutters with his ears. His throat is dry. Too many cigarettes.
lunges in slow motion for the edge of the silver boy. The wings beat and scatter broken feathers.
. His own hands, sober, pass the air over the boy’s shoulder. As he leans out, foot braced against his stool, he wonders if they’re real or artificial feathers. Probably real. There are more than enough birds. At home chicken feathers line the yard, always creeping into the house, saddled on some child’s sandal. The human smell of burning them among the rubbish. His hand returns to him. It has touched air and the boys have felt nothing.
slides off his stool and goes to the bathroom to piss. Aware of his body’s smell, cheap soap, or that is the urinal cake, sharp and sweet as the act. There is chilli sauce on his jeans. It is stupid to have this need to put it inside something that is not his wife. Though sometimes she will do, like a pressure, a tap needs to be opened. He has heard of men and cattle, men and pigs.
zips and returns to his seat. He knows she will smell the smoke machine on him and think it is mountain trash, or the cigarettes will cover it. The customers, he will tell her, a late fare to the next town over, a drunk – no, a drunk and his
. His noise, her innocence. In the morning the children will get on his lap and wipe their snot on his chest, and the weight of desire will not be lifted, it will stay in his body like a great fat cyst. He will not come here again. When he was small he would eat his mother’s moisturiser out of its flat tin. The chemistry of perfume, fat, and sugar still works on him. His mother took the tin away and beat him. It was the flavour of trespass he loved. The heart nestled in its cushions. What fixes him to this specific body.
shifts the napkin, sops the pool of condensation under the beer, examines the last centimetres of warm foam. The angel and silverado laugh, pushing at each other’s shoulders, leaning close to shout some remark about the music, their futures spun between them, or a word about the weird
on his stool, still nursing one warm beer.
drops the sodden napkin in the ashtray, where it hisses on the ember of a cigarette. He takes the last sip of beer, rises to leave, resists a final look across the room into that winged air. At least he is not numb, can leave with that comfort stuffed in the gaps between his ribs. As he goes down into the street, he leaves them behind, leaves them where they might remain whole in their perfection.
stumbles on the third last step, trips and slides from the open door. A moment’s flight, and then the concrete. His head rests in the gutter, collarbones and hands grazed against the raised pavers. A car slips past without slowing, dangerously close to his face. Then hands come to lift him, young hands scented with perfumes, and a feather falls beside his one open eye. The boys have followed him down the stairs. They raise him by the armpits like a child. Silverado hovers over a winged shoulder.
We will give you a lift
, says the angel boy.
I have my taxi
, says the taxi driver.
No, I’ll drive you, your head is bleeding
, says the angel boy.
Raúl will take your taxi.
passes over the keys and feels his legs swim. A small knock on the head, it’s nothing. No alcohol, one beer, but his thighs feel made of stringy
. Blood trickling over one eye and in the crack at his nostril. He needs the strength of both young men to get to their car, and is thrown across the back seat, where he sleeps.
wakes to lines of sunlight across his face. Some small bird chirping in the rafters. He is in a room. A house? A shed. Steel frame, aluminium, a concrete floor, his eyesight bitten by the sharp edges stuck with light. Aches in his legs from lying bone-hipped against the hard ground. His head throbs where he landed on it, the heels of his hands too. Nothing else in pain, only stiffness. His hands go to his back pocket. His wallet is missing. He probably left it in the taxi. The taxi.
clambers up and towards the brick of light at the door, the heavy light of midday in the mountains. There’s a car park outside, gravel, a few lengths of pipe, but no taxi. In the distance a church with a blue and white belltower. It’s San Juan, the village that hubs the spokes of the surrounding villages, forty-six kilometres from town, eighteen uphill kilometres from home. He is alone. He begins to walk.
thanks the driver of the
, a young cousin of his wife’s, and promises to pay him next time.
Your taxi broken?
the kid asks, his genuine concern redoubling shame.
It’s in the garage
, he mutters.
Left my wallet
. There is no explaining it. From the roadside he turns to walk the dirt track down to his place. Almost surprised to see the house is still there at the end of it. It is very quiet, though it’s not siesta yet. The wife fills the space of the door, folded arms amid the dark of hearth. The corn crackles meekly in the lesser air. Her mouth is thin, her hard-worn forearms bellied as two hams. She could almost have hoofs, he thinks, for her stance is like an unmilked cow’s, then he sees the reason. The yard is silent of chickens. The yard is covered in feathers, and there is blood.
, she says.
I slept in the dark although I was afraid of it. The lamp would attract moths. If I leaned to one side of my bed I could watch the moths flash around the streetlight. I tried to count them, the flickering of their white bellies beneath the wings. I got quite good at this, and listening. Counting helps me hear better, helps things to clear.
After they thought I was asleep my mother would talk
about wanting a baby. Something in her had broken when I was born and she couldn’t have any more kids. I’m not saying that I broke it, just that I was the end of the line for them. Not a good end, either. These talks would finish with my mother whimpering. She would cry and my father would say,
We’ll work something out
We’ll figure it out
, as if it was a maths problem. I am the best at maths in this family but no one asked for my opinion. They didn’t know that I was listening. They didn’t know that the moths were listening too.
Another thing I liked about sleeping with the lights out was that it made the shadows walk around the room. I was an only child and I liked the company, liked to count them while they danced. Sometimes I would take a torch and read under the covers from the
Child’s Book of Poems
. When I looked out from under the covers I would see them, the little people. I had outgrown the book and didn’t believe in them, but it was familiar and I liked reading the rhymes out loud under my breath:
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.
If anyone had invited me, I would have gone, even though I was past believing. But no one asked.
I was an only child until I was almost ten, until the discussions between my mother and father grew louder, and then quieter, and one day at dinner they gave me a Talk about wouldn’t it be
to have a little baby brother or sister, and I said, no, I didn’t think it would, and they said there were poor children starving to death all around the world, and we had plenty of room to spare in our family, and I thought to myself, Let them starve, but I didn’t say it aloud. I said,
No we don’t
, but even that I whispered. I scraped the gravy with my fork and my dad didn’t even ask me to stop, so I knew they were serious.
It turned out it
a maths problem. There were more talks and a visit from a man with glasses who didn’t want tea, and the problem was worked out on pieces of paper.
A few weeks later, Mothling arrived. He didn’t arrive in the normal way, like you or me, tugged from our mothers’ bellies. He came out of an office and Mum and Dad had to pick him up. Before that, he was from a poor country with a lot of extra children. Mary has nine apples, and Johnny only has one.
When they brought him inside I peeked into the baby carrier and saw that Mothling was a silky grey-brown colour. His eyes were closed and his forehead was as wrinkled as a witchetty grub. I prodded him but he didn’t stir. He didn’t look right to me, all still and folded, but what did I know? It was late and I was soon sent to bed to listen to them coo over him. Before I turned out the light I counted the small dead moths in the bottom of the glass fitting. There were twenty-six. When I switched it off, the streetlight came shining into the room like a cold electric moon, and I could see the moths dance spells around it.
The moths are called bogongs. I looked them up on the internet. They are migrants, fat and hungry. They come in huge numbers every spring, on their way to aestivate in cool dark caves in the mountains. Aestivate means summer like hibernate means winter. They ‘aestivate in a prolonged torpor’. They are pressed up against each other in a pattern like roof tiles, still and close and folded.
Mothling was a very quiet baby. He hardly ever cried. When he opened his eyes they were solemn, like the boy in the poem. At first my uncle Keith thought he was soft in the head. He told me so with beer-breath at the showing-off barbecue. I asked my dad if the baby was soft in the head.
They are all soft-headed when they first arrive
, he told me.
You’re not to squash or hug too hard or press down on his head
. Mothling’s eyes always looked where the light was. I practised turning the light on and off in the hallway and watched his slow fat head turn towards it like a bug.
In some of these caves there are fifteen thousand moths per square metre. That is a lot of moths. If you spread out your hand and pushed it into the cave wall you would squash an average minimum of a hundred and fifty moths. When you lifted your hand again it would be covered in brown dust and the moths would fall in a soft heap. They leave their dead on the ground. In some of these caves the bodies of moths are over a metre deep.
The head of Mothling hardened but his body stayed larval, so soft you could poke through to the guts with a matchstick. I sometimes did this if I caught a moth in my room: I’d press into the long furred abdomen, and a wet white goo would come out and the moth would crawl along with its guts leaking, stuck to the ground. Then I’d have to crush it altogether.
Are there mountains where he’s from?
I asked my father.
, he said.
And caves in the mountains?
, he said, and then he looked doubtful.
I think so. It’s very dry there. It’s mostly desert
Mothling hated water. The first time we tried to bath him
he was very still, very quiet, until Mum got him near the
tepid water, Johnson’s at the ready, and he began to scream. The scream came from his body like a flapping blanket, like wings. Mum couldn’t bear it.
I thought I’d get more tolerant of a baby crying, not less
, she said.
But I can’t stand it. Not just this baby. Any baby
. It was true: she’d hover over prams in the street, gurgle at strangers, give other mothers looks when their children kept on weeping. It was embarrassing. And if it was worse now, like she said, that meant it was better before. She wasn’t like this when I was a baby. She just let me cry.
When Mothling cried he meant it and everyone heard. The
neighbourhood shook 5.6 on the Richter scale.
, I said once from his doorway.
My father stood beside me and placed one heavy hand on my head.
Call him Matthew
, he said.
That’s his name
, I said.
, he said, but he went in to lift the crying baby and left me in the hall.
That year there was a plague of them. They liked the school hall. The teachers said they got in the old air vents and headed for the light. On Diversity Day we had to watch international dancing in the hall, which meant assembly went until recess. There were moths crawling on the ground and packed into the corners. Other girls squealed in the aisles. I sat in the back of assembly next to the Year Six boys. They didn’t talk to me but they let me sit there because I’d punched Leah Nolan in the mouth the previous term and made her lip bleed.
We crushed moths with our shoes until we got bored. Then we gathered them up into piles. The boys began to stuff them down the shirts of kids in the row in front. I pocketed mine and felt the shimmering dust creep over my hand as they burrowed for safety.
Why are refugees like sperm?
whispered Jaydn West beside me.
Heaps of em get in but only one of em works
. The other boys laughed. I wriggled into my chair and wiped the moth dust on my uniform.
Then Jaydn West leaned over and spoke to me:
Hey, isn’t your baby brother a reffo?
, I said.
Why don’t you throw him off a boat?
he said, and laughed.
He’s not even my brother
, I said.
He’s not even anything.
At the end of the day I ran to the road before the bell went so that I could see my mother arrive. I got in the car before anyone saw Mothling curled in his chrysalis in the back. He wasn’t my brother. He wasn’t even human. Was I the only one who could see it?
As the days grew hotter and the bogongs began to thin out, I wondered when Mothling would disappear with the mass migration to the mountains. But he just slept a lot. Summer was tip-toes, lots of Milo sitting on cold milk and the morning sun like a light on in the kitchen.
Dad and I had breakfast together and I ran out into the heat when the bus came. It stopped right at the top of our cul-de-sac. I looked down the clean street at our house of mottled brick and red tiles, thinking of the roof tiles of moths that were gathering in the mountain caves. Maybe today he would go with them, I thought. The bus heaved me off to school, brought me home again. Soon it would be holidays.
The heat got to all of us, we were all tired. When I slept in on Saturdays Dad said I was growing. But Mothling slept the most of all. Slowly he got fatter and paler and mothier. His eyes were too wide apart for a baby. His hair grew dark brown, silken, and tufted out like feelers. His skin had a brown shine like glittery powder, which came off on my hand. I tried not to hurt him but it was impossible to touch him without rubbing the dust off. I always had to wash my hand afterwards.
Mum called it
. His down would grow back the next day. The dust shine was like a fine fur. Up close in certain lights the brown was rainbow colours like the glaze on the teacups I wasn’t allowed to touch at my grandmother’s house. It was pretty and gross at the same time.
The longer the days grew the more Mothling slept, until he only woke at night to feed. Mum dragged a camp bed into Mothling’s room. She became pale and fat and nocturnal. My father and I hung around the house all day with these soft fat lumps breathing at the end of the hall. He was frightened of that baby, I knew it. I sat at the pine table and did my homework. I heard the fluttering of mothy breaths.
At night my mother prowled around the house. She carried Mothling wrapped in a blanket on her chest. Sometimes in the night he would look out over her shoulders with his big sorrow-dark eyes. Sometimes I got up and followed them. They never noticed me, they were under some kind of spell. Mum had her whole body curled around Mothling, and his eyes were fixed on the windows. He peered towards the streetlights outside, waiting for something. Waiting for his real family to come.
Sometimes I walked home from school past the shop. Once I ran into the Year Six boys. It was almost holidays, they were almost at high school. I almost ignored them but then Jaydn waved and I paused, took half a step towards him.
, he said.
Tell your little brother something for me?
, I said.
Tell him fuck off we’re full
I ran home without going into the shop. I ran into Mothling’s room and stared at him for a while. Then I opened his window. I swear that was all I did. Opened a window. I stood in the room with Mothling and I wanted him to leave, but I didn’t do anything. I counted the posts on his crib and the rings on the curtain rail and then I started on the lines in the carpet. Finally I wiped the dust from my hands and went to my room.
I turned off the light and waited. The streetlight outside flickered on and I could see the last of the moths flying around it, not wanting to leave the bright circle. But it was the end of the season for them. It was time for them to go.
In the morning I woke early to the sound of crying. It was a peaceful sound. There were no moths left anywhere in the world.
It’s almost a year since Mothling disappeared and now I’m almost eleven. An only child. Mothling took half of my mother with him and half of my father too. I didn’t know he would do that. Now another winter is over and the moths will soon return. I wonder if there will be a plague this year. I wait for them at my window. I wait for them alone.
There is only one at first. One enormous moth on the glass. I peer at it. The white belly, sticky feet, the perfect feather stripes underneath. She is a queen. I put one finger to the glass where the moth is sitting, wonder if she can feel my warmth.
Bring him back
, I say. The wings shift, but the creature stays closed and folded.
She stays on my window all night.
All night she doesn’t move. Now I sleep with the lights on.