THIS COLLECTION OF FOUR SHORT STORIES INTERSPERSED WITH BRIEF CREATIVE ESSAYS WAS WRITTEN AS PART OF AN INDEPENDENT STUDY PROJECT IN BYRON BAY, AUSTRALIA IN 2015. THE COLLECTION IS FOCUSED AROUND LAND ETHIC AND HOW EMOTIONAL RESPONSE TO PLACE FORMS IDENTITY.
- The Hunt
- The Burning
- The Night Boy and the Munitions Man
- Foreign Tongues
- Homeward Bound
In the nature of most people there is a pull towards safety—the allure of open plains and calm, shaded lakes with clear water. In these people there is no beauty to mountains apart from the shelter of peaks across a valley. In others there is a space in the body, resting in the cavity behind the heart and in the muscles just above the knees, that draws as firmly as the needle of a compass to the summits. Ridge lines and plateaus, bluffs of rock and dirt seeded in tall grasses or in stone, volcanic cones rising from the calderas of their infancy; these places where the air is thin in oxygen and lungs are weakened from the climb into cold high climates of fog and frost. Places with names like ghosts or gods, called such by tall men rendered small and temporary on this earth. Those who grow up beneath such pinnacles may know the land below such that if they were walked blindfolded for many hours, their ears filled with wax, and a perfumed cloth tied beneath their noses, they would still guess with unwavering accuracy their exact location if a handful of dirt were poured into their palm. They may know the patterns the rain will make on the ground in spring while the winter is still heavy upon them from the way the moon tilts in the sky. They may grow up to breathe in more deeply with the downdraft of a bird flying overhead and to exhale with the direction of the wind, and so they do not need to climb to see their valley laid out before them. They know the land, and so it is theirs in dirt and trees and rivers. The idea of the land is in that dirt, those trees, and these rivers—it does not reside in their minds.
For the climbers, the land lies just below the clouds, stretched thinly across the belly of the earth, painted with each footfall against rock and each brush of leaves across the nose or brow. The climbers form the land with the sheer effort of their limbs and then they gaze upon it, awed in the presence of their own creation. They stand on the summits with their bodies full of glory and look back at the long way up to see where they have come from. The climbers draw their maps only once they have succeeded, in retrospect: they are the memory-hunters. They do not want to run their fingers through the same soil at the start of every growing season, or to know the taste of it on their lips when the wind blows hard against the valley walls. They would rather stand waist deep in water so cold that it does not freeze only because it tumbles so virulently down from the mountains, in a rain that turns all that they can see to silver. They would rather hold that image of a sensation in their mind so that the mere word silver would draw the river up to their hips and veil their eyes in mist once more. They keep lists on pocket-softened scraps of paper of the places they have been to and the places they should like to have been to. At each summit, they turn a full circle, pacing the last bit of ground before there is only sky with their eyes wide open, then squeezed tightly shut as if to reproduce the image within their mind for later reference. They know the air is clear and strange in the high places only because they have come from the low places to seek out the taste of that air which does not smell of them or of the earth.
The people of the valleys look to the peaks and imagine the climbers there, gazing back down with the glint of empire in their eyes. But the climbers no longer make their maps with borders to be drawn and redrawn in their favor—in the age when all empires by definition must fall and have fallen, the memory-hunters chase instead after themselves. They believe that if they can look from every peak to every bit of earth that lies below some summit, perhaps they shall find the land that they will recognize as their own by the taste of its soil against their lips in a strong wind. They do not know that you must grow up with a place to know its body like your own, and so they climb.
I met a girl once who loved me, and because I loved her she brought me to the blue alfalfa fields in the place where she grew up. She kissed me coolly by the lake she used to swim in with her brothers when they all jumped together from the dock into the center of that rippling body. But when I asked her, “Where did you live?” she drove me to those endless fields, cultivated by her father and grandfather but always to them a foreign place, a land of immigration. She walked with me through rows of Lucerne so tall that there was nothing but grass and sky and this girl in front of me. When it seemed that we had reached the middle of that field or the middle of the world, she lay down and I lay down beside her. We did not touch because we were in the place where she was only herself, and I knew then that as much as I loved her I would never know her nor she me as she knew the ground beneath our loosened limbs. I asked her, “Is this where you have always lived?” and she nodded and said, “Because it is what it is more than anything else that is.” Then after a long time she asked me, “where do you live?”
She might as well have asked, what if you were a bird. I knew that when magpies fly low they pull their wings tight against their bodies before flinging them wide again, but I did not know what it would be like to be hollow boned; I could not feel that weightlessness in my own earth-bound frame. I had grown up in a town that I disliked so much that sometimes it felt as though I came from a place that no longer existed. I was young then, but I had already given myself to others as fully as I could at such a point in my life—this girl was the second whom I had loved, and she was not the last. I thought that I knew how to give myself to people, how to open a space within myself from which to watch them that was like a blind constructed from the materials of my natural environment, and then to stagger from that observatory and let them watch me, to move like an animal that knows it is tracked and feigns ignorance, the position of its ears the only betrayal of the overexertion of its pumping heart. I thought of relationships this way: like a hunt in which both parties feel their blood run cold at every movement of the other, until each realizes that what is hunting them is really their own prey. Places were the landscapes across which these scenes played themselves out, with glances exchanged in hallways, a chance meeting in a park, coffee on a side street, and a drive through pastureland to some weather-worn lookout over a valley. When the second girl I had ever loved asked me where I lived I told her that I did not know, and while we fell out of love—partially because of what I could not show her—I held onto her question.
. . . . .
I graduated from university in the spring, and spent that summer trying to find a job while staying with various friends who had already dispersed across the country. I found myself in dry inland towns as I roamed towards the center, hitchhiking further and further from the zero place of my origin. One day I was dropped off at a gas station where a bar stood next to the pumps like the sentinel of an era that thrived here as the last of its kind. I wandered out into the bush beyond those structures tired of the human life within them. I was thinking of very little, enjoying the pleasant sensation of the stiffness of my legs fading as I walked and then broke into a sprint. I flung my arms around me, hands loose and foolish, and this running made me think of a time when I used to imagine my future as something mystical and mysterious. I remembered one of my family’s cross-country road trips to visit my grandparents, and an adolescent anger that left me screaming so vehemently at my father that he pulled the car over and made me walk the last few miles.
Walking along the edge of the road I had imagined myself living high up in the mountains, watching for lightning fires in the forest below—the danger that no one else could see was coming for them. I was so strong then, every muscle keen; I was a live wire, I was electrified. I was fifteen, walking the road alone. I was more alive than I had ever been, and then I was just a kid opening the latch on the gate to my grandparents’ house and dragging my feet across their lawn and exchanging pleasantries and drinking a cup of tea, flimsy and gutless again.
Now I was on the road alone and lonely, thinking about my lightning tower, about a place to hold within myself that was wild and mine. I did not know if I could find it by myself.
. . . . .
A week later I was sleeping on the couch of a friend a year older who lived in the center of a city and was working at an all-night diner. I arranged to meet him when he got off of his shift at midnight and I went to wander the concrete strip. By midnight I was surrounded by the tide of people that circled me, silent-eyed and preoccupied in the glare of that neon labyrinth. I found my way back to the diner and my friend and I sat on a bench in a concrete square lit orange by the streetlights to talk and eat pie. His name was Mac Waker, and he told me that he had just bought a car secondhand and was planning to spend some time traveling at the end of the month when he got his paycheck and his lease ran out. I got a road map of the country the next day and started drawing lines west, to the sea.
I grew up several hours inland and by chance rather than some aversion my parents had never taken me to the ocean. We even spoke of it after my graduation. While my father was joking when he said that I should see the sea as the first step in my life education at the completion of my formal academic one, his idea, like that of the girl who had just left me—struck at something. For many years and during university particularly, I had been forcibly edging a half-formed thought out of my mind with assignments and late nights overtaken by friends and drinking. This thought was the reaction to a sense of unease, a lack of settling that at times made my stomach ache. I needed to find the place within myself where this discomfort came from to remedy my restlessness, and my thought was that the cure might be in a place outside of myself. Like most of my fellow graduates, I had no plan for a career and no skill or overwhelming passion to write me a future that I could not help but fulfill. Rather I seemed to be in a world suddenly and terrifyingly open to whatever I chose to do, whether that be to buy myself enough ties to obstruct my breathing for a full paycheck cycle, or to get lost somewhere in the woods. The night that Mac and I agreed to leave, my restless unease, this fearful freedom, and my idea of the unseen ocean came together in my mind. I drew a route that would take us across the country and to the coast.
We began to call one another by our surnames as if we thought we could be some other aspect of ourselves, some interior truer version, if we called each other by the names that were not quite our own. Those names belonged to our fathers and so we wore them like the masks they were, making them meaningless through their repetition.
Waker and I were not by any stretch of the imagination best friends. I had always thought of that term as one reserved for children who grew up in houses across the street from one another. It seemed a puerile idea, as I have always found that people bring out different aspects of my personality according to their own, some better and some worse but none that pinnacle of best. Though if I were to mete out that designation now I would say that Waker and I were best friends, purely on the standard of best as most true. There was a feeling I had during the time that we spent living within a few feet of one another that summer, that with him I was more like I was when alone than I was with anyone else that I knew then or have known since.
There were still times when I thought that he might be crazy. The first day that we were on the road together, the backseat filled with half the contents of Waker’s apartment, we were not an hour outside the city when he pulled the car over to the side of the road. He jumped out without a word and pulled the hood open, then stood looking down at the engine until I got out and joined him. He had positioned himself a few feet from the car, hands on hips. He was a skinny kid, barely twenty-three, tall and lanky so that when he stood with his fingers wrapped around his hip bones, one foot out in front of him and his head cocked in concentration, he looked like a boy running away from home.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
He tilted his head the other way and said, “I could have sworn it was smoking.” He bent low with his hands on his knees so that his eyes were level with the engine. He shook his head. “Going crazy,” he said. He kicked at the dust a bit and we got back in the car.
. . . . .
We slept in the car, in an old army tent Waker had found in a closet before we left, or out on the open ground, and we ate in diners and subsisted on peanut butter sandwiches. There were times when ours was the only vehicle on the road, and Waker would slow the car until he no longer had his foot on the gas. I would get out and walk next the car while we talked through the driver’s side window and listened to whichever radio station came in the most clearly.
Waker liked to look at things with a hard glint in his eye, to be pragmatic to the point of cynicism and most certainly not to abide by the ethic and values of our parents and grandparents’ generations. He questioned everything from the validity of our federal government to whether or not the chemically induced nature of human feelings—the fact that we could now explain the processes behind the emotions that drove our best and worst actions—meant that we should ever take our own feelings into account in making decisions. He could be incredibly logical, and he was well read enough that he could bring up names and theories of philosophy and literature from the ancients to the moderns. To most people he sounded as if he knew what he was talking about.
His mannerisms did not match his occasional erudition, and he chatted easily with grocery store clerks and gas station attendants, often finding out within minutes about various dirt roads leading to waterfalls or men who sold moonshine. He could assimilate his accent, his tone of voice, and the way he held himself to whomever he was speaking to, and people implicitly recognized something in him that they could identify with and trust. He enjoyed chatting with strangers and making jokes, but he always directed the conversation away from himself in such a way that once we were gone no one knew where he was from or where he was going. He could have been a local for the way he spoke and was not only for the questions he asked. He never wanted to get closer than that. If we stopped at a diner or a roadside bar for dinner he would look at the girls and sometimes comment on them, but he never engaged with anyone when he didn’t have to.
We drove on the main roads but stuck to the wild places. We climbed hills, wandered to lie in the dust and look at the sky, and watched rivers run until our own legs grew tired. When you go into the wild places and you live with and within them, life becomes wilderness. Waker and I grew up under the firmly denoted scale of suffering that placed starving children at the top and did not allow for the recognition of the quieter mental miseries that our parents subjected one another to, largely by virtue of the society they lived in. We grew up with carefully apportioned servings of meat and vegetables, with fish on Fridays and ice cream on Sundays, so we were told that we were happy. There was nothing that we lacked that starving children needed or wanted so our deficiencies could be ignored. We grew up tired and mean and hoping for something we knew was familiar but could not recognize. We ached to climb mountains so we climbed water towers. We yearned for tumbling rivers loud enough to drown out the cars on the highway and our parents’ dashed dreams for our futures, so we drank until the blood pounded in our ears. We were lost, so we burned our maps in motel parking lots to light up one another’s eyes. But in the wild places, life became wilderness, and we became ourselves. In the wilderness we were always and only ourselves.
Set against the backdrop of wars and genocides, starvation and stratification, persecution and totalitarian regimes, happiness seems some kind of a sick joke, a trivial infatuation for the easy-born. In the wilderness, there is no happiness; there is only awe, exaltation, and a concentrated calm that cures mind and body with the same extremity of relief and joy as water does thirst or sex does lust.
. . . . .
I watched Waker yell with blustering confidence from the summit of a rocky pinnacle we had seen from the road, heady with the wind and the climb, “In a society that has abolished every kind of adventure the only adventure that remains is to abolish the society!” His arms were raised above him and he looked fragile against all that stone under a gunmetal sky. I clapped for the performance and he turned and bowed with a long sweep of his arm, cool-eyed.
We set up camp that night in a clear spot in the bush, with the car pulled far enough off of the road that it couldn’t be seen easily. The sky had cleared and we did not fall asleep for a long time. We talked quietly about the things we were afraid of without uttering a single word of fear. We felt as though we were radicals or visionaries or the idealistic leaders of the next generation. Waker told me about his father, a staunch conservative who thought his son would take a year off to mess around and screw up but then return to the city he was raised in and go into advertising. I knew then that the thing that Waker feared most was that he would prove his father right and follow in the footsteps of the man whom he so loved and loathed. That his life’s purpose would become the higher order whose emblem of honor was the white picket fence.
“Ah, love is love,” he said, and sighed. “I know why our parents love us: they have to, it’s the only way for us to be evolutionarily viable, because our brains are so goddamn big that it takes us a year to even stand up on our own two legs. But when you think about it, why should we love our parents the way we do? I mean, I know a lot of people don’t, kids who got beaten or abused or whose dads are alcoholics and whose mothers are whores, but you and me, man. I hate my dad, he votes against all that I stand for, he and my mother haven’t liked one another for years, he mocks me for everything from the milk in my coffee to the way I don’t blindly accept the consumerist bullshit he thinks is God’s gift to man. Honest to God there are three vacuum cleaners and two blenders in my parents’ house. And still I feel this sense of obligation to him, still I feel that he’s taller than me even though I have three inches on him. It’s as if I want him to be right just because he always seemed to be when I was ten. He was a goddamn god then, coming home from work with a briefcase and his hat placed just so to cover his bald spot. I don’t agree with him anymore, I don’t respect him, and I don’t trust him. But I still love him. Show me the brain chemistry for that one.”
I looked at the stars, found the familiar constellations: Orion, the seven sisters, and the Southern Cross. I liked my parents, I respected them, but as I came to know more of myself and to have my own uncompromising opinions, I had stopped asking for theirs. Ours was a quiet relationship in which my mother would make tea and my father would sit down across from me at the table and ask, so how have you been? I would say either well or good, depending on the situation, and then I would ask them how work was, or how my aunts and uncles and cousins were. In the evening we would watch television and over dinner our conversation consisted entirely of the things that had changed since the last time I had been home, from the marital status of the neighbors’ daughter to the color of our mailbox. I told Waker that I could not think of a reason for us to love our parents once they had taught us all that they knew, once their role as protectors and teachers was fulfilled. Perhaps though, we should be able to love them differently than we had as children—not a love to keep us close or to keep us obedient, but a love like that we held for old friends. A love of the better parts of them and a repudiation of the rest. Ideally, they would always be wise, but for those who weren’t there could still be love and there could still be lessons learned.
“And what if there are no better parts? What if our generation is one of greater ambition, more profound thought, and increased compassion? What if it is not our generation that is better, but just you and me, alone here in the dark—outside of humanity, outside of love?” He said.
“Well,” I said. “Do you really believe that we are alone here? You may hate your father, but you carry him with you everywhere that you go and no matter how far you run—he is in your genetic makeup, in the things you love and the things you fear, he is to you the very meaning of the word “father.” We drove here on a road laid decades ago by our own progenitors in a vehicle made from the cold ingenuity of generations of men before us. Wherever we go, we bring humanity. Let us hope that we bring love too.”
“Ah, love,” he said. “Is love not a poison too? Unless we love only and always the right things, love allows us to destroy one another, and to destroy the world. We are blinded to the trespasses and transgressions of the people we love and we would kill for them to not be killed even if they were in the wrong. Love of men has led to the death of men and love of nations to the annihilation of nations.”
“What could give us meaning beyond love? What would give us pleasure? What would attach us to anyone or to anything or to ourselves?” I asked.
He breathed heavily in the dark and shifted in his sleeping bag. “And what if we just loved this,” he said. “What if we just loved this little bit of land right here beneath us. What if we pretended that we lived here, that we were born here, and that we would die here. You would love this dirt more than you love me, and I would love you less than the earth.”
I didn’t speak to that, my mind slipping into sleep, but the next morning while we sat in the car in the early morning half-light that necessitates silence I repeated over and over the way he uttered the word “love.” There was a certain confidence in how he pressed his tongue to the back of his front teeth then moved it down and opened his jaw to release that sound that seemed suddenly like the motion of flint against steel in the tinder of the air around us. It was as though he had a firm definition of the word—as if it were a smooth stone he could hold in the palm of one hand and interpret, weighing it against the world. I was not used to men, or boys as we might still have been, speaking of love to one another. However, when I thought about the sensation that was like a string tied between myself and a few others to whom I felt attached—my parents, childhood friends, girls I’d loved—I found that I was similarly connected to Waker. I knew he had become one of the people by whom I judged the world. A benchmark for the value of humanity, a gauge on the maneuverings of society. I knew that I wanted him in my world, and perhaps that is one of the best kinds of love. It asks nothing of either party, it does not try to bend one to the other’s will, and it requires no hunt.
. . . . .
One afternoon we were talking through the driver’s side window while I walked next to the car, and Waker turned the radio down and asked me, “Do you think that life will drive us crazy?”
Since the morning the sky had thickened with clouds shot through purple-grey, threatening rain, and I walked the line of the road that ran between two vast expanses of green hills. Dairy cows grazed on one side and meat cattle on the other, separated by two lines of barbed wire and the asphalt I walked. I had been watching the cows over each shoulder, squinting to see the patterns of their sable and chestnut and speckled backs in the verdant wash of the land where they gathered under ancient eucalypts. I squinted at Waker as if he were another cow.
He gave me a glance with a tilt of a smile as if he were joking, but then he continued, “Sometimes I think that I am not one individual person but a receptacle of all of the other people I interact with—their personalities and experiences and ideas become the context for my own personality, experiences, and ideas. It is as if there’s this network of human minds, each one created by and creating those around it in a vast web in which no individual can truly stand alone. And so what is there to you or me that is only ours? When I spend too long alone I hardly know what to do with myself and I think in strange circles and live half in memory.”
“Memories can be beautiful,” I said. “Sometimes more beautiful even than reality is in the experiencing. Last year I threw this friend of mine a party because he was graduating early and everyone who would feel his absence when they looked out of the corner of their eye for some comfort came. There were thirty people in my apartment, and they all were in love with my friend. At the end of the night someone asked him to sing, because he’s always had a lovely voice. He sang this old folk song that he said his mother used to sing, and he sang it like a lullaby. This room full of people sitting on couches and across one another’s laps held themselves in absolute silence, watching him while he sang with his eyes closed. Afterwards I asked him why he had shut his eyes, and he told me that he could see us all better that way, so that our faces didn’t get in the way of the people we were then.”
“There are some moments of human beauty but most of the beautiful things in this world are wild,” he said. “Too many of the human moments are also terrible: the beauty of unnecessary wars fought by boys and lovers who die too soon.” He paused to hand me slices of bread and a jar of peanut butter, but I could tell from the set of his mouth that he was still thinking. I gave him back a sandwich and made one for myself, then tossed our supplies onto the passengers seat. Halfway through his sandwich he said, “I think that if we want to be ourselves, some deeper self that is without the context of others, especially with everyone going around buying second blenders, we have to do things and see things in isolation and then hold them within ourselves as sacred and true. We can give those things away, but only with great care to a small few. Some things we need to keep only for ourselves, so that we know that we exist: not I think, therefore I am, but I remember, therefore I am myself.”
He told me that if he had to pick somewhere to live in his mind, he would live in his memories of the sea, because the ocean was always changing, and because it was an edge: the edge of his known world, the boundary of human habitation, the forefront of his mind. He spread his arms wide so that they encompassed the span of the whole sky and he said that the ocean was the closest thing to the sky that we could submerge ourselves in. “And doesn’t it look like infinity,” he asked. I nodded in the dark and wondered where my edge was, what physical boundary at the brink of which I wanted to curl my toes and gaze out upon the horizon in order to find what I could create in empty space while the momentum of my past thrust me forwards. I hoped that perhaps that line that I would not be able to cross without finding the absolute core of myself might be that of the sea. I told Waker that I needed to get to the ocean. “The ocean,” he said, “is what it is more than anything else that is.”
. . . . .
At one of the petrol stations we stopped at during the first few days Waker had gotten the man behind the counter to draw on our map where all of the other petrol stations, diners, and bars were that he knew of. We repeated this request every few days and were always able to find somewhere to eat. During our second week we heard about a bar up the road from another driver who was chatting with a petrol station clerk, and the man winked at me after he said that it was the only place with a worthwhile view for kilometers around. Waker grinned in response to the man but he shrugged when I asked him if he wanted to go.
“Come on,” I said. “I haven’t seen a girl who wasn’t wearing an apron in two weeks.” Waker shrugged again but when we passed the sign for the bar he turned into the parking lot. The open asphalt and all of the cars looked out of place against all of the cool, dry eucalypt forests we had been driving through for weeks. When we got out of the car Waker stood watching the building for a long moment, and he turned all the way around to look down at the gritty line between the edge of the trees and the road where the grass was blackened with exhaust before he followed me towards the lights of the bar. Inside there were more people than we had seen in the previous two weeks combined: men with beer bellies and thick white moustaches, girls in tight jeans and tank tops, boys trying to look five years older than they were. Everyone had hard eyes for us, because most of them had known one another since the first time they had gotten the dust of this country in their hair. Some of them even had a little of that dry dirt on their cheeks and behind their ears. We got drinks at the bar, but Waker sipped slowly from his glass and when the music started he stayed firmly in his seat. There was one girl with long pretty legs and she let me slide my hands around her hips when we danced. The night got late and I caught Waker’s eye each time a song ended. I could see his fingers start to tap at the bar out of beat, faster and faster. He was biting his lip by the time I excused myself and rejoined him.
“Ready to go,” he asked, looking past me towards the door. I nodded. I waved goodbye to the girl on the way out but Waker gazed straight ahead and he walked quickly to the car. We drove in silence and his eyes flicked quickly across the road in the dark. I watched the speedometer creep up and I could see Waker’s hands clenching the wheel.
“Hey,” I said. “We’re going to have to slow down if we want to find a camp. Turn on the high beams, will you?”
“Yeah, sure,” he said. “I’ll do whatever you say.” He wasn’t sarcastic often, but when he was each word was heavy with derision.
“What?” I said.
“What do you mean, ‘what’,” he bit back.
“Well, if you’re just going to act pissed then fine,” I said.
“Oh, fuck you,” he said, and the conversation was over.
Waker didn’t slow the car and I watched the headlights illuminate a thinning eucalypt forest, with more and more scrub grass—the land was getting drier and I knew that we would have to go through red dirt and spinifex before we reached the coast. The lights flashed through the undergrowth and I leaned my head against the cool windowpane to watch for the iridescent flash of animal eyes—wallabies and bush turkeys who might have approached us if we sat with their land long enough.
When we did find a place to camp Waker couldn’t find the torch and he spent several minutes leaning over the backseat running his hands over the floor of car and digging through the boxes of clothes and books that were waiting for him to settle somewhere less transient. Eventually he gave up on finding the torch and turned the headlights on so that we could locate the flattest and least rocky bit of land on which to set up our tent. Waker was very particular about the texture and orientation of the land where he lay his head every night. He stalked back and forth, sweeping his feet across the dirt until the dust rose up around us as we paced a circular track that slowly narrowed to a certain point where he threw down the tent with a decisive utterance low in his throat. I had stopped protesting his verbose machinations after the first few nights on the road, and usually I closed my eyes against the dust and followed him by the sound of his voice without fully listening.
Some nights he stopped short and I walked into him, but that night I just leaned against the frigid body of the car and watched him pace in the glare of the headlights. The nights were getting colder and we had taken to sleeping under the stars less frequently because Waker complained that the chill made his nose drip all day. He said that he could feel the frost on his eyelashes in the morning.
Once Waker had chosen the ideal location, we moved through the patterns of setting up our tent and laying out our sleeping bags in silence. I was getting an extra blanket from the trunk to put a barrier between us and the bitter ground when the headlights went out with the sound of flashbulbs. The moon had not risen yet and the sky was black as the river Styx but for the stars.
“Waker?” I said. “That you?”
“Nope,” he said.
“Did the bulbs just burn out?” I asked. I could hear his feet crunching on the rocky ground at the front of the car.
“Both of them at the same time,” he intoned.
“Seriously,” I said, and then he started to laugh. I had been able to identify that noise as his since I had first met him by the way he gasped with every few seconds of laughter as though he were smiling too hard to breathe in fully. The sound echoed and expanded beyond the scrub and back into the eucalypts at the edge of the overgrown field we had chosen.
“Dammit, mate,” he said. “What are the chances of that. Both at once. Has to be a goddamn miracle.”
“Hey,” I said. “You got a light, mate?” Then I laughed too because if we wanted to drive after sunset we would have to use only the high beams. Waker always said that the high beams made him dizzy and I had noticed that he couldn’t drive straight when they were on.
I walked around to the front of the car running my fingertips along its side to meet Waker just two meters away. Our hands were the first things to touch and I wanted to laugh at this too but did not. I kicked something on the ground and when I put my hand down I felt the torch. It must have fallen from the car when Waker got out. I picked up the torch and said, “Hey mate, I’ve got a light.” When I turned the warm glow on Waker’s face he squinted and grinned so hard that I had to giggle at his overexposed features. I turned the torch off and let us fall back into darkness.
“Why were you pissed?” I asked. Waker was quiet and then he sighed.
“I’m not here to meet people,” he said.
“Who are you here to meet then,” I said. “Me?”
“No,” he said. “I’m here to meet the country.”
. . . . .
When Waker did his surveying with a torch I didn’t like how the beam shone on the ground to obliterate everything beyond one luminous circle so I closed my eyes against the residue on my retinas and put one hand on Waker’s shoulder so that he could lead me. This was part of our routine, and Waker pushed me into eucalypts, acacias, and spinifex; streams, puddles, and rocks, all with my eyes shut tight. I started to trust him not to hurt me, and there were times when he showed me things that I did not immediately recognize by their sound or feel. He would put his hand on my arm and let me touch a small thing—a smooth stone, the blade of his army surplus knife, a caterpillar. I never opened my eyes to break the illusion. After a few weeks together we had formed our own world, created our own framework of normalcy and strangeness within which we could live like a fraternity of two. Anyone else that I knew would have laughed at us, stumbling around in the bush with our eyes closed. They might have called us by certain names for the ease with which we talked and touched and spoke sometimes only with our eyes and were silent for hours, but that was the way things were. We were only ourselves and nothing more.
. . . . .
I told Waker that I couldn’t swim when he tried to push me into a lake that we found at the end of a pathway that we could just make out through the trees from the road. He grabbed me around the waist and picked me up but I was too surprised to react at first. He was thinner than I was but his height gave him the advantage because I couldn’t get my feet on the ground. I struggled but he had my elbows pinned so when we got to the edge I finally yelled, “I can’t swim!” He let go, apologized, laughed until he couldn’t breathe, then went quiet and pointed over my shoulder with one finger over his lips. “What,” I whispered, and he hissed at me. He crept forward and started to follow the stream that fed the lake back into the bush. There were a few ripples in the water but I couldn’t see what had produced them—perhaps no more than a fly landing on the surface without even breaking the tension. I followed Waker as he stalked the stream. We had both left our shoes in the car so we moved fluidly through the trees on bare feet, sleeves catching at twigs and bark. Several minutes later Waker stretched to his full height and let his arms fall to his sides. Turning around he said, “Alright, back to the car. Hate to disappoint but no platypus today. Trick of the light.” I was looking over his shoulder though, and before I started to walk back along the path we had formed through the undergrowth I saw a ripple in the water, and the sleek back of a mammalian creature surfacing, then its slick bill.
On the way back we sat at the lake to run our fingers through the grass and watch the webs of huntsman spiders drift in the branches of soap bush trees. We were good at being quiet together, at letting our thoughts occupy the same spaces without them leaving our mouths. We were defeating the impulse to express the inexpressible. Before we left I took a picture of Waker with the camera that I was using to try to document what I saw as the final summer of my youth.
I never told Waker what I had seen. I took that strange water-dweller as one of the experiences to hold close to my breast and call my own, untainted by any efforts at description and that implicit bastardization by language.
. . . . .
Waker told me that the things he loved most were those halfway between crumbling humanity and nature—things dilapidated, damaged, through whose structures grew new wild life. This was because he saw the world as falling apart around him, and the only thing that gave him hope was the sanctity of the world beyond men, the very world that had first made men. He liked to walk through old buildings with peeling paint and light falling through shattered glass and fissures in the ceiling.
He told me about an inland lighthouse once, a gray tower in a field with a cupola whose windows were blown out, its lamp decades unlit. He had climbed the stairs while wondering whether the foundation had been transported along with the structure, and the central shaft seemed to shift in the wind. He told me that when he reached the platform at the top, he stood looking through the empty window frames at the fields below, stretching to the horizon like echoes of one another in an inland sea, and he thought about how certain places become embedded with ideas and emotions.
He felt desperate there, he said, with an intensity that was not his own—it was a lost place, out of place. It made him wonder who could have the authority to take a lighthouse away from the sea, and if he were a lighthouse, how far he was from the ocean whose treacherous shores gave him purpose.
. . . . .
Before we saw the water, we saw the lighthouse. The white tower surged from a headland lush with foliage and we scrambled up a rocky path to reach its base on the assumption that we would find the sea below. On the summit of the cliff we could look down the bluff to the tumble of stone below, and to the beaches pounding with the surge of the sea. I had thought that the ocean would dominate my gaze once we attained the shore, but instead it was the sky that overwhelmed me. I had to turn in a full circle with my head thrown back, and even then I could not see it fully. The clouds spun out across the horizon and the water glowed below. We sat on the steps of the lighthouse and looked out upon the edge we had been traveling towards.
“Conclusion,” I said, because we had written ourselves an adventure and gotten to the end.
“Do you know why people read books, why all of those women love the sort of romantic fiction you find in airports with the embossed covers?” he said. “It’s all about conclusion. There isn’t any in real life, there is no happy ending because we never reach the end until we die. We spend our whole lives laying out these images of what we are going to do and what our future is going to look like: next week, next year, next decade. Then we keep living and all of a sudden it is the next week, the next year, the next decade and we find that our imaginary milestones are all behind us, but those images of the conjured future remain like some alternate storyline that we can flip the pages forward to read again and again to convince ourselves that we aren’t any older than we were when we started to fantasize. So we write books and read books so that we can hold the whole scope of human life between our two hands and judge a person in full, so that we can experience all of the joy, sorrow, and intrigue of a life that must end and then close it between two pieces of cheap cardstock and pretend that our own lives are eternal.
‘Maybe that is what our real problem is: we want eternity and conclusion at the same time. We want to know that we have found a good stable thing and that we can have it forever—we can stop looking, all of our choices are right, each of our endless days shall be happier than the last. We look at ourselves and we see these brilliant, infinite beings. Nietzsche declared god dead and consumer capitalism proclaimed man immortal. But we are finite, and we just might get the conclusion we’ve been looking for pretty darn soon, with a much bigger punch than we ever could have hoped for. The end of the world’s going to do it, mate. I’m not talking Armageddon either or the hand of god—no, it will be pollution and climate change and rising seas and desertification. But the birds will fall out of the sky just the same.”
“Hey,” I said. “Is that how you pick up girls in bars?”
“Though, you know,” he said, as if he had not heard me. “When I was growing up there was a kid who lived on my street who read all the time—during lunch, on the bus, sitting on his lawn after dinner. I used to do laps of the neighborhood on my bike until it got dark and I used to pass by him over and over again. Sometimes he made me feel as though I could freeze time, but little by little the sun set every night. I asked him once why he read so much and he told me it was because while I was riding my bike in circles, he was living twice as much as I was. At the time I wanted to punch him for the way he smirked when he said it, but now sometimes I wonder if when I get too old to really live myself—too old to do all this—maybe I should get myself a cabin in the woods and fill it with books and hide out there until some bush hunter finds me dead.”
“Shouldn’t you be giving back your wisdom then? Passing down your stories to your grandchildren?” I asked. My tone was facetious when I spoke, but in a way I was serious. I had always seen old age play out in the theatrics of birthday cards and evening phone calls, afternoon tea and the smell of dusty books and photo albums with broken bindings. “Who says I’m going to have children?” He said. “Having children is all fine and good for normal people who experience emotions like love and anger and can leave the complexity of their minds at that, but can’t you imagine that if I had kids I would go crazy thinking about them, trying to figure out just how much to let them know and when? Then they would go and do exactly what we are doing now—running away from everything our parents stand for. Having kids is like taking out a twenty-year lease that you’ll be paying off for the rest of your life, without any kind of returns. They love you and then they leave you, but you never stop loving them. To have kids in this day and age I’d need to get married, and then I would have a wife and children and we would have to live in a house and have jobs and a front lawn, and around that front lawn I’m sure there would be a white picket fence pretty soon.
‘You can look at it as though creating progeny is really just another way of trying to be immortal ourselves: to clone ourselves, to experience the world over again through the eyes of another, to make a receptacle for your stories and the idea of you for when the physical is gone. They don’t want to be your box of myths, they want to live themselves and write their own stories. Maybe if our society was different, they would want to listen, but in our culture we have made everything old outdated and bad, akin to falling back into the primordial ooze, but then we want each new generation to honor the old soldier, to listen to the tales of our own youth—partially I suppose to learn from us, to be better than we ever were, but I doubt that each generation really is any better than the last and it seems that we tell our stories because we are afraid of the locked box of our minds being thrown into the sea or crumbling to ash without anyone ever having been given the key—we want to be known and known intimately. First by friends, then by lovers, and finally by children and grandchildren. It never quite works, though. We can never fully know one another.”
“You really believe that?” I said. “Even you and I, when we are out here all alone the two of us, experiencing the exact same things every day and telling stories all night about how we grew up and the things we did and saw and felt?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Because I can’t feel what you feel when we experience something together, and I cannot have the same immediate connotations as you do—my mind does not leap to the same connections as yours does when you tell me a story, or when you see something out of the corner of your eye. We are separate, you and I, even when we are alone together.”
“So all this effort to be close to other people, relationships as the rope that binds, the connection that creates meaning, all of that is just futile bullshit, is what you are saying.”
“No, no, it’s not that. We can still try to get closer—if there is any pleasure in life beyond the physical it is in trying to know people and to be known by them. It makes us feel that we exist and that we are a box whose contents merit the efforts of the lock picker.”
“So how do you pick the lock then?” I asked.
“Like this,” he said, and threw his arms wide as if to hold the land between two hands in a single gesture. “Here it is, that terrible beautiful thing that is what it is more than anything else that is. Where else could we possibly be more true to what we are, more honest, than here? The land does not love us like some messiah or savior, and it does not demand our love—yet it provides us with everything we need to do more than survive. This is where we can know one another and ourselves. Where people learn when to be silent because the world demands to be heard with cold summits, parched plains, hurricanes, and rain. Then everything that they are becomes less tainted by the world and you can see what is good in them and what is bad, what parts of them come from society’s ills and which from their own. Then we can hate them or we can fall in love with them.”
I looked to the horizon at his shoulders and I remembered the night we met, in university, at the birthday party of a mutual friend. She introduced us after telling me that she thought we would get along. At the end of the night, after the door closed on his lanky figure, she drank the liquor he had left in his glass and sighed, “I would be lucky to have that boy if I didn’t know that the world is going to eat him alive.” I had thought for the last few weeks that it would rather be Waker who would eat the world—he saw through the illusions of happiness and stability that had sustained both of our childhoods to the tensions and volatility of life behind the white picket fences that I was coming to realize I still lived behind. He gave me an enormous sense of unease when I thought of my parents, of the life I had thought I was returning to at the end of our juvenile pilgrimage to the sea. If I had felt that I was questioning everything that had made me and everything that I would make in my life by running for a few months before settling down, now I was in a total oblivion of confusion. Yet walking down a dusty road alone with Waker under dull grey skies with my hair wet with lake water and my skin clean against a cool wind and the grass tall and bright and wild to the horizon with hills on either side I felt more comfortable than I ever had. I felt settled in myself even though we drove somewhere new almost every day. It was as if the land unfolded before us like an expanse of places that we had been to before, always welcoming us home.
“All of that,” I said, pointing in the direction of my gaze. “Used to be forest. Now it is pastureland, and soon they will want to drill there to extract gas or oil or minerals to run the old gadgets and to create new ones, and all of the chemicals with get in the water and fill the bellies of the cows and sicken what has already been halfway destroyed.”
“We are just a part of the ecosystem—one that’s gotten out of hand. And now that we’ve breached the bounds of our natural limiting factors as a species we are coming up against those of our ecosystem itself—and our ecosystem is the planet. Some people think that we have evolved beyond the world, that we are bigger than the earth now—as if we could work together long enough or peacefully enough to refer to humanity as any kind of collective—but they are in denial about their own dependence on the earth. Their souls are lost deeper in the depths of whatever earthly or heavenly hell you can conceive of, no matter how hard they pray. I think that we have stretched so far beyond our ecosystem that now we are compelled beyond the responsibility of any other creature to take care, to stop fucking up the world and to try to repair as best we can the damage that we have done. It is not enough for us just to love it, not enough to just let it fill us up now. Not anymore. Not now that we are at the edge,” Waker said.
I looked down at the sea before us, at the thunderous, breaking boundary between sand and surf—at this entire ocean that I had never seen before. “Let’s go,” I said.
. . . . .
We stood at the edge of the dunes, looking down on the sunset ocean, and I yelled over the pounding surf, calling to the gulls. I looked at Waker and he looked back at me and he started to laugh so hard that the wind whipped tears from his eyes and he had to hold his stomach, doubled over.
“You can’t swim!” he laughed. I shook my head. The ocean glittered before us and the beach was empty. He straightened up, put his hands on his hips, and stared out at the grey horizon shaking his head slowly. “We drove across the fucking country to get to the goddamn ocean and you can’t even fucking swim.” He turned back towards me with lit eyes, “Well, let’s go,” he said and took off, sprinting across the sand and pulling off his shirt as he ran. He was stumbling out of his shorts by the time I caught up and then I felt wet sand beneath my feet and the blood pounding in my ears and then we crashed into the water. When the first wave hit my chest it was so cold and so strong that I lost my breath. Waker dove and surfaced next to me, panting from his sprint and grinning. He grabbed my arm and held on tightly and we stayed in the ocean until our lips were blue and our limbs were numb.
. . . . .
We slept on the sand above the high tide line, curled next to one another. The next morning we would wake when the sun rose behind us and drive down the coast until we found a beach with public showers and toilets. We would emerge clean-shaven, smelling of soap and seawater, and put on collared shirts. Our skin would look dusty in the pre-dawn light, then tan in the glow of morning, and our hair would be too long against the back of our necks and dampen our shoulders. We would drive away from the sea with all of the windows down to hold our freckled noses to the breeze. We would open our eyes wide against the rising sun, and the light would catch at our irises to make them flush green and gold. We would watch the land rush by around us and we would breathe in too deeply so that the expansion of our ribcages would make us blush. We would make plans without speaking, to come together or to fall apart.
But before that, we awoke in the hours that lie directly between night and morning to the flare of lightning over the water. We sat up simultaneously to the roar of thunder that rolled across the waves and seemed to break against the shore. The boom echoed in our ears and the trees shook beyond the shimmering beach grass at our backs. The sky burst violet again and again and again. Each bolt of lightning tightened our shoulders and shivered our spines. The hair rose on the back of our necks and our eyes flashed white-hot in that electric glare.
“Will it rain?” I said.
“No, the storm will stay out at sea,” he said. He wrapped his sleeping bag more tightly around his torso against the cool, humid air. His forearm brushed mine and I fit my shoulder against his. Waker leaned into me, rested his head in the curve of my neck. I could feel the warmth of his breath on my cheek when he spoke.
“Our youth is a place that we will be exiled from,” he murmured softly.
“We can live here forever,” I said. “We’ve met this country and it won’t forget us now.”
“What if we are the ones who forget?” He asked, his voice timorous. A bolt of lightning split the sky and struck at the sea, and when that hot air expanded to ring through the night I put my arms around Waker.
“In my mind I live alone high up in the mountains,” I said. “Watching for lightning fires in the forest below. I built a tower on the ridgeline, a single room with windows on all four sides. Inside there is a bed, a little wood fired stove, and a stack of books. I spend my days wandering at the edge of the tree line, climbing rocks and collecting whatever I need to supplement my monthly re-supply trips down the mountain. I read late into the night by lamplight. When the sky threatens rain and pitches lightning against my ridge I curl up on my bed and close my eyes and beseech the lightning rod affixed precariously to the roof to shelter me. Then when the heavens clear I report fires to the towns below on the radio in Morse code.
‘In the storm season I lie awake at night waiting for the strike, and when I feel most lonely I lie flat on my back on the dusty wooden floor with my boots still on, ready to run down the mountain but so in love with the wedge-tailed hawks and the metallic smell of the explosive air and the sound of thunder as it echoes through my chest that I cannot leave. Many nights I fall asleep there, pressing my back into the floor as if to add to the structural integrity of the building while it quivers against the wind and rain.
‘Once in the summer I got caught several miles out when a storm hit and had to stay in the trees, watching each dead giant above me as if it were a tinderbox and each thunderclap the hiss of a struck match. I was shaking with cold by the time the gale subsided enough for me to make my way back through the forest to my ridge, and when I returned to the tower the sun was emerging from the hazy sky so that when I looked down at my dripping arms and held my hands out before me every calloused finger was outlined in liquid gold. I was so strong, every muscle keen; I was a live wire, I was electrified.”
We fell asleep with one of my arms under his neck and one of his arms splayed across my chest, the wilderness curled all around us. We were only ourselves and nothing more in a place that was what it was more than anything else that is.
. . . . .
The things that we love are the things that remind us of home—the familiar sensations and smells—but while we ache with memories of the places we are without when we find ourselves somewhere foreign, as soon as we leave the foreign we ache for that lost bit of home as well. Home becomes all of the places that we have ever left. My original home was the sea, and I never swam alone because I had Waker to hold my arm tightly against the waves. Our youth remains in a photograph of him in the summer grass by a lake in a plaid shirt and jeans, wild hair just past his collar, sitting in such beauty that I was once witness to but could not hold nor see fully at the time. To know Waker I live in my memories of the ocean. To know myself I live in the lightning tower of my mind. The lightning tower is where I live, where I have always lived, laying on the floor of the room I built as it shakes with summer storms and the wind riots in the trees and the land around me echoes with thunder at the edge of earth and sky.
In this old, quiet country the people are hunters and always have been, but their prey is always changing. For many generations, they caught the small vigorous creatures of the bush, and held those slender animal corpses in two hands to feel against the heartbeat in their wrists the thrumming of the other’s in co-sanguinary fellowship, until the other faded as their own grew stronger. These people were in love. They lived as ones in love do, curling beneath turbulent skies, human isles in seas of red desert dust or wind-torn grass, trees pale as ghosts, water-weighted ferns—holding themselves close to their earthly lovers, these places of them and for them. They waded sunburned into the rivers and opened their eyes under water until their bodies quivered for air and their lungs sang with the intonations of the silt below and the reeds by the banks and the minnows swimming with the current.
Then the people began to hunt a new beast to consume, and it glittered and it sang to them deep throated in the night the songs of their strangest, strongest yearnings. They had poured their desire into the earth like desert storms, pressed their tender bellies to its every landscape as if it could hold not just their glory and grief, but their weakness and insatiable hungering as well. They felt themselves forsaken and they forgot the stories they had told of the stars because they no longer lay with the earth and looked up from their sleep wide wet-eyed to confess their restlessness to the firmament and to trace their dreams across the heavens. They left the deserts, the plains, the wet forests and the dry forests, the mountains, the lake shores, and the sea to stalk a phosphorescence that they could only recognize in the eyes of others.
They began to fall in love with one another. Then they realized that the luminosity of two pairs of eyes looking to one another was really the recognition of a shared longing—the luster they sought lay somewhere else, merely reflected in dark eyes on a dark night. They poured their fitful thirst into one another as if they could give not just their weakness and insatiable hungering, but their fear and loathing too. So they became these things, they became desire itself, and then they began to hunt one another.
When the mountains burned, the people of the valley used to burn with their homeland. To watch the trees fall to the fires and the rivers choke with ash lit something within their souls that could not be smothered or washed away. Sometimes they would leave themselves to the flames within days, for others years passed before the burn hollowed them fully. When their bellies were tight with fire, they would gather thin dry sticks and desiccated leaves from the forest floor, and in this delicate nest they would place an ember, glowing with golden heat, from their own hearth. Cradling this burden between two palms white with cold—for these acts were always carried out in the dull suffocation of winter—they would walk with firm steps to the ridgelines, at times sheltering the ember from the wind, at others pulling more tinder from their pockets to nourish the nascent blaze and glove their fingertips. When they reached the highest point, some peaked pinnacle or icy plateau, they would allow the ember to burn. The fire would first swallow the leaves and twigs, then the hands would press closer to the body, as if to place the cinders within the ribcage, and finally fold against the chest once the fire grew tender to the palms. The flames would catch at clothing and then at flesh, swelling around the torso and the head. The consumed would lie down with great care on the rock and snow, eyes wide open on the sky, until they became fire alone.
Let us begin with the land, because the land is the beginning. Even if children are born wiped clean as a blank slate, the land comes before them; it provides everything which could ever be inscribed in mind or soul. So here lies the land: a heavy sky of grey layered in clouds that curve closely against the horizon line of the mountains whose summits seek the earth below in the water that runs from their flanks into the foothills and the plains. The foothills are aglow with Norfolk Island pines, forest in shades of green from the blackest shadows to the bright pale cones at the end of each branch in spring. The plains are more wind than grass, black spear grass whipped quick enough to cut loose limbs. At the border between plains and forest lies a body of water like the eye of a cyclone.
Alone not lonely in a known place, a girl stands at the edge of the lake holding her towel around her by her chin while it rains as lightly as the fall of the evening under this low bank of clouds, trying to put her underwear on without touching the fabric to her sand-covered feet.
From the beginning of human consciousness, we have known that we are not whole. Some tried to fill themselves by creating a language and a ritual to make themselves holy, some walked across the deserts and climbed mountains, some learned to consume all that their bodies could swallow. She has searched for wholeness in pleasure and in pain: the wordless sensations so poundingly physical as to negate everything but the points of contact between her body and that of the world. The nape of a boy’s neck in the dark and his torrid hands, the shock of the bitter ocean early in the morning, her belly full of blood every month, the splintering of the finer bones in her wrist when she jumped from the roof, as all children invariably do in an effort to fly.
Her knees are white with cold and her lips are purple and quivering, but she finds the rest of her clothing, turns her back to the mountains, and falls away into the black spear grass that whips around her, stinging. She walks from the lake on a road that runs parallel to the mountains, her skin dry and cool so that without physical traces the body of water that she swam in becomes a fragile memory, tenuous and hers alone. She grew up in this country, falling asleep against her sister in the backseat of cars to her parents arguing softly about money and their own parents with easy meanness. In the liminal space of dusk on empty roads she believed that they would never reach the narrow driveway beside their house, but then they would pass the lake, imperceptible from her window but marked by a certain double notch in the ridge, and time would rush forwards. On those nights she and her sister used to lay closely in the dark of their shared bedroom and talk about Australia. About the deserts to the west that seemed so cruel and unforgiving, about the softness of the ocean winds to the south that could turn to cyclones, about the high country and the low places. How it would feel to ride a horse across that country; so full, full to surge with each coming night towards some frightful, luminous future.
. . . . .
Human beings are dichotomous creatures and they grow from children to adults in both the negative and the positive—for and against, into and away from—the ideologies, desires, and embedded tragedies and tensions of their parents, who did the same in their own youth. And so children grow into or away from certain ways of combing their hair, eating food, drinking alcohol, and falling in love with people, religions, nations, and landscapes.
She had grown away, afraid of her mother’s collection of bottles and her father’s unerring faith, all the while aching for an anesthetic and hungering for a glorious certainty in right and wrong. She grew towards the land, wandering in the hills with her sister, two quiet creatures among trees that they would curl beneath and kiss with sweat-salty lips. She heard dingoes cry out deep-throated and ran unnerved from the yearning of their baying, hands against her ears. They made her whole body hurt with desire, a live pain of want. Theirs was the sound of the emptiness in her, that lack she felt but could not place. As she grew up she tried to find the spaces yet to be whole, so she filled her stomach and her head, but found only a fleeting adolescent fullness that hurt like eating too much pineapple.
Children are made of myths—myths about swallowing watermelon seeds and staring into the sun and ghosts that appear when the bathroom mirror is serenaded and sickness that shall overtake them if they stand too long in the rain. They grow up when they realize that the true dangers lie in certain kinds of silence. The silence of the day overwhelms them, made terrible by the voluminous night and the sounds that tell them that all is not all right with the world, not just in the faraway places but where it converges with their own life. The children who grow up happy, without need for food, water, shelter, or education, learn true fear in the night from the sounds they hear in the silence of the day. This fear becomes akin to mythic fear, for it is real but becomes as irrational and engulfing as a fear of some great and ancient darkness lurking in a wild forest.
The muffled shouts rose through the floor and filled her bedroom like the booming echo of the trees cut from the hills by loggers, falling amidst clouds of sawdust and screaming birds. Her parents had problems, as all people do. When they were young they too had believed in the salvation of the beauty of a life that they could share delicately, deliberately, deeply. But her mother broke cups on the white-tiled kitchen floor one after another until her slim ankles were surrounded by glinting glass and her voice broke, while her father sat without moving, barely breathing, absolved by the ablutions of the television glow.
Those who raise them pray that children will hold sacred the best parts of their parents and shy from the worst, but parents, still children themselves, cannot recognize the best parts of themselves or the worst ones. Parents let their hearts grow full with a reservoir of love they believe shall last them forever—but it is a silly word, forever, that lets us believe for a long time that we will never die. They love the things they have created and then those things grow into creatures more or less human, no longer malleable, but already twisted, sickened, and distorted in their efforts to grow into and away from, within and without.
Her mother used to wait for her and her sister to come home from school, sitting on the lawn with a tall glass of dark liquid. The ice in the glass used to make a soft sound as her mother sipped it, shimmering in the yellow afternoon light, the sky blue and the clouds sunset pink above that verdant lawn. She would walk down the street until she could see the outline of her mother as a dark figure in the distance, and stop to close her eyes and imagine a land of deep red rocks and sand and hard blue water, hot and cold, wet and dry. Then she would walk to where her mother sat on the lawn in a cigarette haze.
When she was sixteen her mother would offer her a cigarette and a glass of her own, and she accepted these benefactions without a sound, for confessions must be received and absolved in silence. Her sister, four years older, was two years gone.
. . . . .
Her sister found the lake when she was twelve. At sixteen her sister was bent so fervently on escape that she had started to run, getting further and further from the house each day. Her sister found the path to the lake a few kilometers down the main road from where they lived, and some nights one of them would tap the leg of the other four times beneath the dinner table, and it would mean, come away with me. At first her sister drove them to the lake, but then they walked. Their mother’s car was a mark upon a hallowed place.
They would walk through the dark and the tall grass, feeling the rough-edged blades gentle on their summer skin in the night wind, cool and quiet. The only sound for a hundred kilometers was the noise of wind and grass, grass and wind. They would sit in the reeds by the shore or wade up to their knees, whispering of luminous futures and the weight of sadness that did not belong to them. Once all of their words had been sunk beneath the calm waters they would swim to the center of the lake and float in the middle of that sky-black body, eyes on the heavens, until there was a loosening in their chests and they could call out to the night in sounds that they barely knew were their own.
When she was thirteen she was still thin and narrow-chested. She wore loose t-shirts and started running hard as if to chase her sister down. Her mother yelled at her for dressing like a boy and her father prayed for her. When the boys at school joked she would grab their wrists and twist, digging her fingers into that tender bird-bellied skin that she loved to touch. She ran to the lake every afternoon and when she was alone there she felt like a creature of that dust and water.
Then the boys found her. They followed her on their bicycles and the wind carried the din of their fervent pedaling and laughter away. They stalked her through the tall grass and they emerged onto the shores of her lake just as she raised her shirt above her head. They had not made a sound, but she heard the magpies call out their warning cry and turned to see the boys from the corner of one eye. That half-eyed glare froze the boys where they stood as though senseless, and she dove against the silted lake bottom to flee their gaze. The boys watched the ripples wane from the water’s surface and then one of them, the shiest with the most to prove, stole forward and pulled her shirt from the shore and took off through the grass. The other boys followed, sprinting flat out and hollering their victory. She walked home with her arms crossed over her chest, and her face blank in revenge, impenetrable.
When she was ten she had pooled her spare change with that of the shy boy to buy a map of the world at the petrol station, but he had used their money on a chocolate bar because there were no maps of the world. She had thrown rocks at his legs in frustration. After the incident at the lake she shied away from that boy like a colt at the scent of feral dogs in the bush.
When she was sixteen she learned to drive and found her way to the mountains that hemmed her valley in. From the summit of the nearest peak she looked down on the lake, its smooth surface marbled milky blue by the wind, and she felt so hungry that she had to close her eyes. The house with its lawn of dry yellow grass and its egg yolk shutters that was hidden from view at such heights was too large for the people that lived within it, yet it would have been too small for the individuals if they had broken apart. She was two years lonely without her sister, and she did not like the girls in school. They played their games and flirted with boys and seemed to have outgrown skinned knees.
In the spring of their sixteenth year the shy boy lingered in front of her house, and he accepted her mother’s cigarettes to sit on her lawn. He walked home from school as quickly as he could to get there before her, and for weeks they raced each other to reach that withered patch of grass. She was fast and strong but his legs were lengthy and full of longing. When she ran she remembered when they were young and had gone to watch movies in the dead heat of summer. She loved horror films but the anticipation and gore had made him queasy. He sat next to her with his teeth clenched and his eyes wide, swinging his legs into hers. She would leave the theater with bruises up and down her shins and the thrill of his pallid face. She ran each afternoon as if to pound that old tenderness from her muscles, but she was always last.
The shy boy would look up at her from the lawn and smile with a mouth that stretched his cheeks and left his face wide open. The sun would turn his brown hair dark red and the freckles would stand out across his cheeks and down his nose. He was beautiful in the way of adolescents who have gained the agile confidence of adulthood without the bitter stubbornness that comes with age. “Hullo,” he would say, blinking the sweat from his eyelids, watching her with his unrelenting grin. Somewhere between thirteen and sixteen he had lost his shyness—perhaps he had drowned it in the lake three years before. He had learned to push his hair back from his forehead as if he knew himself too well, and he did not know that he was too skinny for his own good.
. . . . .
The summer that they both turned seventeen was the summer that the drought began. In three years it rained three times. When the clouds lingered over the valley plain that first desert summer she thought that the dry season was over, but the water evaporated from the surface of the lake and sank into the parched ground below and it did not rain. Watching the waterline recede made her thirsty. Each time that she called her sister she would talk loudly over the sounds of the travel agency where her sister worked to speak of how far the water had dropped, measured in four finger increments. There was nothing but blue skies, sun, and clouds white hot on the horizon.
It was in the spring that the rain first did not come in the initial year of drought, and it was late summer before the cyclone hit. Halfway through that first summer, a water ban was put into effect. She shortened her showers from five minutes to three, and swam in the lake every day. She had to run by the shy boy’s house to get to the lake, and she would see him sitting on his lawn reading a book, his back pressed up against the cool foundation of his house. He was there even when she awoke at dawn. She could see his eyes flick back and forth across the sentences, then snap up and down to watch her go by.
The day it rained that first dry summer she was halfway down the street when the water started to fall, and she was so glad that she hollered to the sky. The wind blew hard and she saw the screen door on the shy boy’s house bang open. She slowed as his lean form wandered to the middle of the road, and she watched his back while he stood with his arms raised and his shirt whipping around him. She looked at the way he tipped his head to the billowing fog, and then she started to run faster, as fast as she could against the wind and the rain that was coming in waves, pouring from the sky as if to drown them both. He did not have time to turn his head before the full force of her momentum had driven him to the ground. He bruised his hands against the pavement catching himself, and then he took off after her. When he got to the lake she was standing waist deep and wild-eyed in the water. There was something of the chill of mountain ridgelines to his long nose and a water-lit glow to his eyes. When he looked at her they felt the wildness rise around them.
She grew up slowly on the shores of that lake, and she grew up quickly in the waters of that lake when she was seventeen. They kissed beneath the surface of the water until their lungs were empty, and he said he felt the fin of a fish against his cheek. By nightfall the rain had ceased, and the drought began again.
In the dry summer heat that followed the first rainfall she led the shy boy to the lake with the lure of a fishing rod. In the passing afternoon she let him run his hands all the way down her stomach, instead of gutting the fish that lay quivering in futile inhalation at her feet. On the way home she held the barbed wire at the edge of the road carefully above his shoulder, and his hair brushed against the inside of her forearm, damp and sweat-dark at the base of his neck. He smelled like stone under a hot noon sun.
Letting go of the barbed wire she cut her palm, and when she looked to see the blood pool in the cup of her hand she remembered fishing with her father. It was a rainy morning blushing with the dawn when she closed her fist on a fishhook while balancing on the seat of her father’s dingy in the middle of a wide river many miles from home. Her father had wrapped her hand in his handkerchief and told her to hold her hand high. Like you are asking a question, he said. She was not afraid then, and the cut did not hurt for the rest of the day, not until they got home after dark and her mother’s face grew pale at the sight of the bandage. That night her mother’s voice was tight with anger and her movements were swift with what would in a few years time become a dull hatred of the man removing fish from the cooler in the kitchen. Only then did the gash begin to feel hot and to throb painfully.
When she cut her palm on the barbed wire along the road, she looked at the boy and felt the brush of his too long hair linger on her skin. She closed her fist on the gash and held her hand high as if she were asking a question. They walked home and the blood ran all the way down her arm before it began to dry. She loved the shiest boy the way she loved the lake, as if a line were tied around her stomach to hold her fast to a creature in whose eyes she saw a little bit of mystery, a little bit of something dark and twisted, a little bit of joy.
. . . . .
The next summer, when a cyclone broke the drought for the second time, the shy boy saw the bank of clouds rolling in above the plain and bolted down the street to find her, knocking fervently at the doorframe until she came from the kitchen with a glass of water. He took the glass from her hand, pulled her onto the lawn, and poured the water over her head just as the rain started to fall.
The lake was swollen with the torrents of water washing across the dry earth, and the rivulets that streamed to the shore bubbled with oxygen released from the ground as the desiccated dirt filled with water. The lake was milky brown and when she dove to the bottom she felt the silt at three meters below the surface. The lake pounded with the rain and their eyelashes grew thick with water until they could not see. On the lakeshore they lay in the withered and battered spear grass with their feet pointing away from one another and held their hands above them to shield their faces from the rain.
“When I told you last summer that I felt a fish brush my cheek,” he said. “I knew that it was your fingers, reaching for my face.”
“When the fruit bats fly overhead each evening, I think of how you used to wrinkle your nose and close your eyes at the scene in that silly horror movie with the vampires when the bats cover the screen and the girl in the white dress screams,” she said. When he laughed the sound resonated in the ground and she felt her shoulders shake with his.
“When you leave,” he said. “Can I come with you?” He pulled his hands down from the sky and covered his eyes with them so that there was no part of him that she could see.
“If you promise not to kick my shins,” she said.
“I swear on this water that I will not,” he said. Then he let her run her hands all the way down his stomach until he giggled.
. . . . .
When the drought was broken for the third time, three thirsty years had exposed a meter of lakeshore that she had never seen before. The rain came a week after her mother died. The night that her mother died she sat at the kitchen table with her father, and neither of them cried. Her father had waited many years for this sickness to part him from a wife who could never make him feel as whole or as holy as he did sitting alone in a pew, bible in hand. She had spent many years trying to absolve the woman on the front lawn of the sins of dark liquid poured like poison into the grass, draining that finite reservoir. After an hour her father took her mother’s last bottle from beneath the kitchen sink and filled two glasses with a grimace and a sigh. She looked at him, at this man who lived within and without her family, and she left the house, asking, the world is too much with me. Can it not be beautiful and terrible enough without this?
The night her mother died they tangled the seeds of spear grass in their hair and clothing to reach their reservoir. The lake was full of stars because the sky was full of stars, and she closed her eyes and imagined the shy boy drowning in them. The light of Orion and the Pleiades, Taurus and the Southern Cross cold and congealed around his limbs, parting his blue-violet lips and filling his mouth. She saw the gleam of that light in the slick sheen of his hair, sleek on his wet neck. The light slid off the bridge of his nose and the curve of his collarbone and he was underwater, his laugh a bubble of air rising to the surface. The world is too much with us, he said while she held the barbed wire fence carefully above his shoulder as they walked back onto the road.
Her sister came for the funeral, and the rain came two hours after her mother’s body was in the ground. She and her sister walked to the lake wearing jackets over their dark dresses and pitched their mother’s wedding ring into the depths. Their father had offered them the thin gold band like a relic, but they did not want it to belong to them. When the ring hit the surface of the water the sound that it made was drowned out by the deluge of rain that slicked their clothes against their skin and pooled around their bare feet.
. . . . .
She left, and she took the shy boy with her. They moved to the city and lived in her sister’s apartment, sleeping on the floor until they were able to afford somewhere to live on their own. They awoke late in the night and the shy boy asked her questions because he could not fall asleep. He would say, can you climb a eucalypt, have you ever eaten goanna, and always where would you rather be than here? Always she answered, the lake.
The shy boy’s long tan arms grew pale and the freckles faded from his cheeks. His hair lingered past the nape of his neck and she cut it too short one night while he sat still on the edge of the bathtub. He stopped running his hands through his hair. Sometimes she would ask, what if you were a bird? Always he answered with one of the hollow-boned creatures of their childhood: kestrels, harriers, and lorikeets; magpies, carrowongs, and cockatiels. As he called them by their names she could imagine their cries and the sound of wings beating on still air in the summertime.
Alone in a big city people are reduced to bodies—they can be anyone, but they can also become nothing. When people run from those other people and daily patterns that make their life their own, there is no one to recognize them as part of the network of influences in their life, so the sudden city-dweller becomes an observer, outside of the social pattern. They can exert external forces on other people; they can make others uncomfortable with a sideways glance from the corner of their eye or a jostling shoulder. They can even grab the arm of a stranger, shout in ears, kiss and slap. But the strangers will not recognize the way they move and cannot know the things they think and feel, because the city people do not know the language of their movement. They can exert no internal force—they cannot affect the minds of those around them. In the wilderness they were always and only themselves.
In the autumn of the third year, the drought ended and it rained for five days. The water came up from the grates in the sidewalk, spilling from the storm drains, and the river inundated the central business district at high tide when it overran its concrete bounds. The streets were slick and the wind blew at harsh angles. The sky was the same color by day and by night. The sounds of the city were reduced to a single oceanic roar. At night the gnats crawled up the windows while the rain ran down the panes. On the fifth night of cloudburst, the shy boy woke her up with a hand wrapped around her wrist, and he led her outside. They walked down the streets filled with water alone until they came to the cemented banks of the river.
The shy boy ran his fingers through his shorn hair as if he knew himself too well, and she asked, “Where would you rather be than here?”
“The lake,” he said, with his eyes on the river.
“When you leave,” she said. “Can I come with you?”
. . . . .
They drove out of the city, inland to the valley of their youth, because they had no other home. The pine sap hung heavy in the air along the river that they followed into dryer country and the smell made her stomach twist. She believed that they would never reach the lake, but she watched the barbed wire fence run along the road. The shy boy pulled the car over to the place where the wire was bent before she told him that it was there. In the late afternoon the sun was setting over the foothills, and lit the clouds gold against blue-grey skies. The spear grass was flattened by the storm that had ended the drought for the final time, and the adolescent path they had made through the tall stalks was obscured in some places and exposed in others. They walked lightly to the lake, but when they reached the shore they saw what the lifting fog and dying daylight had concealed.
The Norfolk Island pines that had grown across the foothills from the valley plains to the bare ridgeline of the mountains that rose like shadows beyond that smaller range had become sawed-off stumps. The land had not been emptied. It had been made over anew—filled until turgid with woodchips and gravel, perforated with steel stakes and tied with orange flagging tape. Black spear grass grew in tussocks around the sliced root masses of the pines, and seed cones lay crushed into the darkened dirt. The water that pooled in the gullies of tire tracks was dark as sable and shimmered with oil. The air was thick with smoke and the smell of fuel. In the silence left by the branches through which the wind could not blow and the birds who had flown far away there was only the quickened breathing of the sole witnesses to what had been and to what suddenly, unspeakably was. The waters of the lake were clouded not with rainwater and sediment but with wood dust and petrol. The trunks of four trees hollowed by age, rot, and the owls that had nested within their recesses, were piled against one another at the edge of the far bank. Water ran from the muddied ground beneath their feet and when it met the lake it swirled in rivulets on the surface like a poison.
. . . . .
The shy boy’s hair is cut too close and he does not try to run his fingers through it. His broad mouth is settled in a long line and his lips are pale. He has long and elegant legs that were made for running and his arms bow at the forearm to better hold the sky in reverence, but he watches his feet along the path that leads from the memory of wildness to road to avoid the gravel that threatens to bruise his ankles.
Her pale hair is cut against her collarbone and her limbs are drawn-out and hardened from the impact of the earth against her body. Her hands are large and slim-fingered, hands for writing letters, for hauling hay bales and holding horses to the ground, for gripping door-knobs white-knuckled and touching eyelids. Those who see her fair hair and the bridge of freckles across her nose think that she must be innocent. But she is far from unsullied, she is wary, she is terrified. The fear is in her stomach, and it drains into her legs and arms, electric to her fingertips. When she lifts the barbed wire fence above the shy boy’s shoulder she is not careful. She presses the rusted metal into her palm, yet it does not cut.
“Where would you rather be than here?” The shy boy asks.
“Nowhere,” she says.
“Nowhere,” the shy boy echoes, for it is a nothing place.
There are moments that become turning points in lives and generations, like rocks submerged beneath the water around which whirlpools form, to pull us down into the depths of ourselves again and again. Sometimes these events are great wars and human atrocities that have thickened the earth with the blood of youth, at other times they are minute acts of violence, from a hand on a throat to photographs cut apart or a letter thrown away. And sometimes they are not events that fall within the realm of individual action or the grand sweep of human tides, but moments when a single emotion becomes so overpowering as to make a single person or a group of people something other than human: when men and women become fear, anger, hatred, or love corporeal. When she cut her hand on a fishhook her mother became hatred, out of love. When she and the shy boy left the lake in the third year of the drought they became thirst. When they returned to the lake they became the memory of wildness.
. . . . .
In the chill waters of the lake backed against the cathedral walls of the valley, the shy boy wades up to his knees before he can catch his breath against the cold and look up to the sky and the quickening of night. She watches him as he watches the clouds to see the paleness of his knees and the mist shivering his shoulder blades. He tightens the muscles down his spine the way horses do when they hold themselves taught in the moment before they bolt. When he becomes old enough he will be only a body and never a bird as he is now early in the morning and sometimes as the light is fading, and he will lose himself. Three black birds jolt from the trees above and cry out when he holds his arms high, but he dives and do not even turn his head to them.
When he is beneath the surface he is only a rippled arrow across the water so he could be a fish or a turtle and never return to being human. At their backs the lights of cars and camper vans glow on distant roads but they are within the curve of the valley and the trees thicken around them and make them everything, and he is everything, and she is everything.
He staggers out of the water tripping on rocks, already shivering while the moon rises against the back of his neck, cold skin streaming from his slick wet hair. His hair and his face are dark-damp in the sunset shadows. In the water he shakes from his head the thing that he says in his lips pressed tight against one another, because the movement of his body alone can utter the language of this place with eloquence. That is why they ran here, and why they will bolt from these waters, to protect these cathedral walls from the unholy places to which they must return. They will always be falling out of these waters, drenched in the unspeakable glory of this living night.
We do not know ourselves but that we are here—here in some forgotten field that was once a forest, writing to write ourselves back into ourselves. Warm dry grass cut at the end of last season and the border drawn between this flattened open space and the tangled rainforest by grasses grown tall and wayward to lean against the edge of what some unknown person has carved away, made separate and barren. Overhead fly rainbow lorikeets, black-billed ibis, and swallows, while in thin-limbed trees bats roost like dark, membranous chrysalises. This land runs against the power lines, another alleyway of men in dark cloth, always marching on, from coast to coast and through the open center of every continent. We play at that terrible guessing game—who lived here and who died here—but we forget that we can read the story of every dark-cloaked man, every person who preceded him, and the animals who have always lived here, if only we would curl up against this land. We live as though we are something separate from this place, as if we could have grown up anywhere and still been ourselves, still been human. As if we could describe ourselves with a first and last name and a mother tongue without the land that wrote our language. When we look to one another we see not eyes but oceans and lakes, mountains, moonrises, heavy rains, droughts, and some exhausted patch of worn grass deep within a city. We utter names as if they are unique to us, but to know one another we would need to ask what the air smelled of in the summers of a stranger’s childhood, what dark paths they blazed in the anger or guilt or sadness particular to adolescence.
THE NIGHT BOY AND THE MUNITIONS MAN
The munitions man is tall, with dark hair and a clean-shaven face and throat. He has a large, bony nose and sharp cheekbones, so that when he squints against the lights of a car or the afternoon sun he looks like he could be a cruel man. As his features relax he appears to resemble instead the aging military men as they were twenty or so years previously—when their waists were still thin and their fingers quick, frozen in backyard photographs taken in full uniform. He is from the north, and he has a northern accent. He takes apart, inspects, and puts together bombs that weigh more than he does by several hundred kilograms. As a result of his profession, he is a cautious man, but he also has a desire for a taste of danger. Since he was a boy he never wanted to get used to life, and he found that in order to be so aware of life as never to become lulled into a living death he has to be in a constant state of danger. When he was young he used to want to be a bushwalker, to live in the wild and to climb every bit of earth he could get beneath his feet. Now he holds his hands steady in a barrel of gunpowder.
. . . . .
Before his sixteenth birthday the munitions man had been a careful kid. He followed rules and never looked too hard at anything he felt he should not. Then one night he did look too closely, and he got a taste for wilderness. The summer that he was sixteen he worked at a hotel in the mountains, exchanging keys for the frayed smiles of parents who had spent too long in the car with their children. He enjoyed getting to watch people all day, and he enjoyed being thoroughly tired in every muscle in his body when he went to bed—his legs from standing behind the desk, his arms from carrying suitcases, his neck and fingers from scrawling names in the sign-in book and filling out forms. He lived in one of the attic rooms with the boy who did the night shift at the front desk, but as his nocturnal counterpart slept all day he was often lonely. During the slow weeks of early summer he drew birds and airplanes on hotel stationary while imagining who could walk across the ground-level veranda and through the open double doors to make the days a little shorter. Sometimes there would be a girl with long shining hair and he would watch her and in his mind he would lead her away form her younger siblings at dusk and take her down to the big blue lake that the hotel stood behind like a fortress of light. He would run his hands through her hair and some of the shine would rub off on his fingers.
He and the night boy at one meal together each day, dinner for one and breakfast for the other. One of the selling points of the hotel was the constant watchfulness of its staff, so while some guests found it unprofessional, the boys took their shared meal seated at the front desk, in order to not abandon their post. They ate at six o’clock on every night but Thursdays, because on Thursdays the hotel’s owner liked to sit at the desk and they both had the day free. In the evenings they would put their plates on the shelf below the countertop of the front desk and eat slowly when the lobby was empty or when none of the guests were looking, talking about the guests and the gossip of the hotel staff under their breath. For several weeks their dinners were consumed by the night boy’s longing for one of the maids who flirted with him when she left every evening, but then she left without warning after an affair with one of the guests. Then the night boy took up slipping away from his post to watch the girls with shining hair swim naked in the lake. He spoke of all of the things he would do to those moonlit bodies if he were to catch one alone, but he never was so lucky. The moonlit girls were the magic that the hotel held for the night boy, who had perfected a dreaming wakefulness with the aid of two cups of black coffee and a shot of brandy. In the evening the hotel lobby was soft in the yellow lamplight and the day boy watched the sun set over the lake with the sensation that the summer was endless and he was living in the middle of it. The lobby, with its faded black and white film photographs and heavy stone fireplace, made the hotel seem an ancient monument to recreational splendor and joy. In that very lobby, at the wood paneled counter that he rested his elbows upon each day, they sold escape along with each room key. He watched the women walk past in dresses on their way to the dining room and imagined those wives curling against wax-white sheets where their husbands lay like blown-out church candles, whispering, let’s take a vacation, let’s just get away from it all. The hotel and the mountains and the lake were not the day boy’s escape, because he lived there, his lungs pumped with the freedom others could only taste for three days, a week at most. He ate his breakfast with his feet in the lake at sunrise, and his lunch with his eyes on the mountains. He liked to imagine that he had grown up there rather than in a small house in a small town several hours away by car. He liked to imagine his parents in their valley home slowly pouring coffee in the kitchen while speaking softly to one another with their eyes, rather than settling their divorce. He felt that he would stay young forever, never quite reach out far enough to turn back the veil that hid the things that made life feel mysterious, even magical. The day boy was the son of summits and shores. He was not born such, but had become so over two long and lonely months with days off spent wandering the forest.
His wanderlust was driven by his desire to see the herd of Sambar deer that the hotel owner had told him about since the beginning of the summer. The deer had been brought across the ocean from the Asian subcontinent in the hold of a ship, by a man who wanted to make himself feel at home in this country by populating its foreign shores with the creatures of his ancestors. Because his own homeland was at a remove beyond the endurance of animals that needed four feet on solid ground, he brought the next closest animal from the closest continent. None of the guests had ever shot, let alone seen one. The day boy had found their hoof prints in the wooded areas of the foothills, or come across places where the long grass had been laid flat by a sleeping fawn, but they moved like a myth across the land. The man who owned the hotel told him of the sound the stags used to make in the night, a roar to send chills up your spine and freeze the blood in your veins in the hottest summer twilight. The day boy spent his days off walking trails he had made for himself through the underbrush, listening for a rustle of leaves, an echoing below, or any animal sound.
The night boy always found a way to get a ride to town on his days off, and he would return on Friday afternoons hung-over, with stories of neon-lit early morning hours and girls with shining hair under streetlamps. The night boy was eighteen, with dirty blond hair, freckles down his nose, and straight white teeth that he would tap with the end of a pen from the hours of seven p.m. to seven a.m. The day boy spent his Friday night dinners imagining in the night boy’s descriptions of the town in the valley below the splendor of a bright city, a gleaming beacon of culture and events beyond check-in and check-out. Life and death happened there, in public and in private, and it happened dramatically. The day boy could see the arched throats of the girls the night boy kissed, pressed up against alley walls, the yellowed grass of the strip amidst a sea of asphalt, the fast friends made in darkened doorways. The night boy would cut his meat below the counter and hold it on his fork beside his mouth, whisper a phrase, then chew to allow the day boy a moment to express his astonishment. One afternoon the night boy was dropped off in a teal Ute with one headlight smashed. He walked into the hotel loose-hipped and swaggering to the sound of the gravel skidding under tires on the driveway. He leaned over the counter and whispered to the day boy, “I’ve got a story for you” with his eyebrows raised and his cheeks flushed, hard-eyed.
By dinner the night boy’s left eye socket was a soft purple, and the skin along the bone of his cheek and brow was a dusty gray. They ate pasta with pesto and tomatoes too old to serve to the guests. This was their least favorite meal out of the seven that rotated through each week, because it was the most difficult to eat with subtlety. They held their plates in their laps when the lobby emptied to consume pasta in excessive forkfuls. The night boy stared from under his bruised brow at the middle-aged men fleeing their families for a weekend to go hunting. “They pity us,” he said through a mouthful of lukewarm tomato. “So young and dumb, working shit jobs all summer and wasting our money on girls and cheap booze.” The day boy nodded. He had heard all of this before so in his hunger he let the night boy talk, only half listening. “They’re the fools though, the lost souls. They hate their wives who the married just for the money, and they hate their kids who see through their parents’ bullshit now but will grow up to be just like them, and they hate themselves. Fat old fools, giving us a smile and thinking they know what our lives are like. I’m the one who’s living, goddamnit.” The day boy nodded away, knowing that really they were all fools, those sad bastards and the night boy too.
“What did you do today anyway?” The night boy asked.
“Went up the mountain for sunrise, wandered around a bit,” the day boy said, watching the pasta twist around his fork.
“And how was that for you?” The night boy asked. “Did you get any up there or did you just freeze your ass off for some pretty colors?”
“It was indescribable.”
“Course it was. I keep telling you, you’ve got to come into town with me next time—places I go it won’t matter that you’re underage. Get out of this goddamn hotel. Why do you want to live in somebody else’s vacationland all of the time? The world’s going to blow your mind when you finally get out of here.” The night boy whistled soft and low, as if the world were a woman he would like to undress.
The day boy could not tell the night boy how cold the floorboards were beside his bed when he woke up at five in the morning, how easy it was to get dressed in solitude without worrying that a far flung elbow would knock the night boy’s sleeping form. How he could walk behind the hotel to a narrow trail that curved up the eastern slope of the mountain and make his way halfway up to a bald granite face without using a light. The stars were still visible in punch-drunk brightness when he sat at the crest of the slope facing the horizon, sweat on the back of his neck from the near vertical climb. The rock face curved below him like a river of granite pooled above the valley as if above a waterfall, and behind him in the crevasse that ran along the ridgeline a stand of trees arced against the sky to safeguard him from the wind that made the only sound of the pre-dawn dark. There were no birds yet—avian life resounded through the range only once the horizon had lightened enough that he could see the mountains to the northeast that sheltered the valley below, as vast and undulating expanse of land that was forested a deep green. The rock below him was illuminated orange, then golden, then gray. The colors of the brightening sky and of the rising sun were merely the colors of sky and sun. He could not put words to them beyond this because there was no earthly pigment to match their shades. A red-bellied, green-backed songbird flew low over the slope before him and the animal vibrations of the day began. He had not spoken a word aloud since dinner the night before, and this suited him. He was calm and beneath the calm he felt all of the emotions that people once had words for but have since unnamed for the unease they bred—the more complex mental sensations beyond love, happiness, anger, and fear.
On the mountain the only light that he could see was the hotel far below, and though he loved the crush of the thick red carpeting and the smell of resin from the low wood-paneled ceilings lit to a burnt sienna, the glow of the hotel was a flare of civilization—a forerunner of new roads and freshly cut timber, power lines and ice cream shops. A new era of exploration would begin to push the limits of escape back further and further as more and more people grasped at its edges. The people of the city would sing the praises of cool mountain air and glassy blue lakes, then pave the dirt roads through the trees, stock the lake with fish, and carve trails into the mountain. He hated the middle-aged bankers and lawyers who drove up to the hotel expecting him to take their bags at the car. He hated them because they got up early to kill, not to watch, and because one day their children would own big houses with verandas overlooking the lake, and it did not belong to them. He thought of those waters as his own. He did not flinch at the sensation of the silted bottom oozing against his feet and when the night boy confessed watching the moonlit girls take off their clothes to swim he laughed to himself because the day boy had had left his own underwear on that pebbled shore and been a moonlit creature himself, lithe and liquid diving from the dock at the center of the lake. On hot nights he had fallen asleep stretched across the cool surface of the wooden planks, head back far enough at the edge of the dock that his hair dragged in the water. He would wake confused to find the starlit blackness suddenly illuminated by the rising moon, and more than once he had slipped into the water at the sound of girlish voices to hide on the far shore, floating on his back to watch the sky rather than the pallid bodies splashing raucously. Not for lack of interest, but for fear of losing his job to the glint of his dark eyes or the rise of one pale shoulder above the surface of the water. They appealed to him only as much as the neon lights of town, because they were loud when they should have been quiet. They tried to make themselves feel wild, to taste danger, by taking their clothes off for a world they were not yet intimate with, and never would be, there for three days, five at most. They had no animal grace. They would be lulled into life as softly as the wave they made in the lake eddied at the shore. They would get used to air conditioning, their own affairs, wall-to-wall carpeting, and their husbands’ affairs. The world would become a door that they themselves had eased shut with every lawn mown and every evening in front of the television with a bottle of nail polish. He though the shiny-haired girls more foolish than beautiful, he thought their fathers were fools, and he thought the night boy was a fool too for mocking what he would become.
The Friday afternoon that the night boy came home with a story was the day the night boy had seen a dead man for the first time. As he told the day boy, he had seen his grandfather’s corpse at an open-casket funeral, but the dead man was entirely different. The night boy had been playing pool, and as he was doing poorly he had begun drinking heavily. On his second trip to the bathroom he found a man leaning against the sink from the waist, legs splayed beneath him. The many appeared to be in his early sixties, balding and beer-bellied, with thick wrists and broad fingers resting on the edge of the sink. His nose was pressed against the faucet and his eyes were shut. The night boy asked the man if he was all right, but the question cut out halfway through its utterance. The night boy put his hand on the dead man’s cold shoulder and at his touch the body slipped to the floor and slammed into the tile, its elbow smashing bone on bone into the night boy’s eye socket. The night boy pressed his hands to the pain and stared from one open eye at the figure before him on the floor. He told the day boy that the body looked like that of a dead animal, like a wild pig whose throat had been shot through, except that there was no blood. Then he said, “it was just so… Unnatural. That’s the only word for it.”
“Unnatural?” The day boy said.
“Just dead,” the night boy said. “Dead, dead, dead.” He shook his head back and forth as if to free his mind from the image of the dead man’s face. “Nothing natural about it.”
When the hotel manager left for the evening he stopped at the front desk and told the night boy that he couldn’t work with a black eye. The night boy poured the day boy two cups of coffee, set them down on the counter, poured brandy into each from a flask, then went to bed crossing himself with a grin and a wink from his bruised and swollen eye.
“Sleep well,” the day boy said, the night stretching before him in red and gold. He thought about the night boy’s dead man, the corpse that could be the natural end of the night boy himself once adventure turned into alcoholism. The day boy wondered when emptied bodies had become unnatural—when human life had become so all consuming and normalized that the most natural of processes had become unnatural.
. . . . .
At one thirty in the morning the day boy awoke with his head in his arms on the counter of the front desk to the sound of someone walking on the veranda. Another footfall echoed against the wooden deck but it was too sharp to be human. The day boy looked towards the double doors that were still wide open—usually the night boy closed them at nine p.m. but the day boy had fallen asleep, and now he felt the fear rise like bile from the bottom of his stomach and a shiver ran down his spine. The image of the night boy’s corpse was distinct in his mind. He sat perfectly still with every muscle in his body tense while he waited. He did not allow any air to enter or exit his lungs.
The first thing that crossed the doorframe was a muzzle, black with a sheen of dampness in the lamp-lit lobby. This was followed by a dark split hoof on a slender pale foreleg. A Sambar stag stepped quietly onto the thick red carpeting of the hotel, so tall that if it had thrown back its feathered neck the furthest prongs of its rack would have grazed the ceiling. The creature was gunmetal gray and the insides of its legs were of a soft white, as were the areas around its muzzle and eyes. Its ears were cupped and broader than the day boy’s spread hand. The day boy watched the deer as it crossed the threshold and bent its head to sniff the carpet, then raised its neck again to glance around this domain of hunters and hikers. As the stag turned its head one large black eye met the gaze of the day boy, who stared at this wild creature as if he were of the wilderness himself. The aliveness of him recognized the aliveness of the animal watching him over the hotel’s front desk, and he met with the consciousness that flickered in that feral native eye. There were rivers in that eye, there was the moonlit lake, there were russet-barked forests and the sides of mountains carved by ancient glaciers. Then the deer turned from the day boy and he saw its withers tense.
The day boy looked beyond the antlers that framed his view of the lobby to see the night boy on the stairs, edging forward soft-footed in nothing but his boxers, with the lines of his pillow still on his cheek. The night boy raised one finger to his lips and kept his neon light eyes on the stag, who watched the night boy slip against the wall and make his way to the fireplace, over whose mantle hung a rifle. Neither the day boy nor the deer flinched as the night boy took the rifle down from the wall and fitted the but of the gun to his shoulder, guiding the barrel to point between the ridges of bone on the deer’s forehead, directly in between its eyes. Nothing moved, and no one breathed in the silence of that moment. Then the wind blew outside in a heady rush, the night boy pulled the trigger, the rifle clicked, and the stag swung its body on its delicate legs to spin out of the room and into the night. It was a weightless creature for whom the wind would call out against the machinations of man: a creature of flesh and blood and bone that moved in the tongue of a foreign land. Never indigenous, but at home in the forests where men who longed for their own homes had set its forbearers free hundreds of years prior to this exchange between two accidental settlers of a certain wilderness.
The night boy let the rifle fall to his side, the barrel pointing into the lush vermillion carpet at his feet. His teeth gleamed like the lights of town from the shade of the fireplace next to which he stood with his mouth half open and his eyes on the darkness beyond the gaping doors that suddenly seemed charged, electrified with wildness. The night boy turned to the day boy and their stares met without recognition. The boys looked at one another for as long as the day boy had watched the lucid umber eye of the deer, then the night boy hung the unloaded decorative rifle back up on its hooks on the wall. The day boy shook his head and the night boy nodded in return. With that it was decided that they would never speak of this, and the night boy returned up the stairs. It would seem to him by morning that this nocturnal theater had been a dream or a nightmare, and the impotence of his actions in his efforts to play the man as hunter and the hunter as protector would silence him with the shame of failure. The day boy would remain silent because for a moment, in the eye of that creature brought from so far away so long ago and become a part of that place, he had found a hallowed ground. He had thought that the night could absorb him as well, that he could recognize in the sound of the wind roaring through the trees the call of the wilderness in his mind and the stirring of life in his limbs.
Alone once more in the hours halfway between dusk and daybreak and torpid but for the adrenaline thumping through his body, the day boy thanked a god he did not believe in and whatever fates or forces could sway the events of earth for the rifle’s empty barrel. He recalled the fear he had seen in the hollows of the night boy’s eyes and he was certain that it was the dead man’s face that had kept the night boy lying so still and wakeful in his bed that he had heard the footsteps of the deer on the veranda. The night boy’s neon eyes were so cold behind his bluster. The day boy knew that the night boy was terrified of the dead man without realizing that what had really frightened him was the unacknowledgeable recognition that he too would be a corpse one day. The night boy could not imagine himself as anything other than alive, so he put his fear into the empty body of the dead man in order to defend himself from that all-consuming idea of death. The night boy had heard something moving on the floor below and had crept down the stairs carrying the image of the sliver of exposed white and pupil behind the dead man’s purpled eyelids as the face of his enemy, and that was perhaps what he saw when he pulled the trigger against the deer. That, or a tri-pronged rack of antlers on the wall, a trophy for his victory over the middle-aged men for whom the mystery of life had withered and then died.
. . . . .
When the day boy had nearly become a man, the federal government decided that for the sake of national safety and security another munitions factory was necessary to manufacture bullets and bombs for use at home and overseas. Scouts were sent to regions that had been circled in red ink on full color maps to find an isolated location where the factory could be kept from the public for their own protection. Men in dark clothing came to the day boy’s valley, cut their way up the mountain with machetes, and found it satisfactory. The hotel owner was ready to retire and he signed away his land. The hotel was kept intact and became dormitory housing for the munitions workers once the factory was built behind high fences. The valley was closed to the public, blockades were placed on the roads into the forest, and no trespassing signs were nailed to trees along the perimeter. Plans to build vacation homes with swimming pools were halted and the orange flags marking future lots rusted into the ground. The pre-dawn gunfire of hunters was silenced and sometimes in the night the forest echoed with the bellows a Sambar stag.
The day boy got a job at the factory because everyone around him seemed to have neon eyes, and because he couldn’t bare to leave those distant mountains that had made him feel at home. He slept in his old attic room of the hotel, and the lobby still looked the same, from the thick red carpet to the rifle hung above the fireplace mantle. He took apart, inspected, and put back together bombs eight hours a day, five days a week, and on the weekend he wandered the mountains of his adolescence and swam in the lake whose shores were empty of any sign of humans. The metal panels of the bombs were cold on his hands all day, but in his first summer back in his old room in the hotel he felt as though he were settling back into himself in the place where the wind could call to him in a familiar tongue. Sitting by the lake alone or with a few other men who worked at the factory in the evening and listening to the water curl against the pebbled shore, he felt that summer would last forever, and that he was living in the middle of this eternal season.
Then autumn came and the nights cooled and the bombs chilled his fingers more and more each morning. The munitions man began to look too closely, and his thoughts kept him awake at night. On the night of the first winter frost he lay sleepless until one thirty in the morning, then he walked downstairs. In the old lobby he ran his fingers along the stone of the fireplace and the smooth lacquered wood of the counter that he used to sit behind. One of the other men had gone into town earlier that day and brought back a stack of newspapers from the previous few weeks. The munitions man did not read the newspaper. He said that it was because he was only concerned with where he was living, and that the papers only printed the nonsense that would sell these days.
The munitions man sat on the counter and swung his feet in the lamplight, and he began to read. The newsprint was thin between his fingers and the ink smudged under his palms, but the images were stark in black and white. On every page there were explosions, deadly detonations, guns fired, and bombs dropped. And when the dust and debris cleared, there were cities reduced to rubble, forests splintered by shrapnel, lakes filled with ash. Then there were the corpses—the people of all ages ripped from life with a bang whose aftershocks seemed to echo in his ears with the pumping of his heart. The munitions man sat without breathing, as if staring something wild in the eye, his body vibrating with every beat of blood through his veins that shouted his aliveness.
The bodies looked unnatural, and they sent a chill up his spine. The munitions man understood then the cold look in the night boy’s eyes when he spoke of the dead man he had found in a pool hall bathroom. There are some things that you don’t want to do or see as a person because if you do or see them and you find yourself unchanged in the aftermath, it can break your conception of your own moral code and your own sense of self, because you have done or seen things that you thought might break you with their wrongness, yet you have remained unbroken. The corrupt and reprehensible thing, the sickness in the human world, touches at some twisted and monstrous part of a person, and they recognize one another, the sickness within and the sickness without. Once a person has realized the darkest parts of themselves through their familiarity with the darkest parts of the society around them, they must carry the weight of the name they have given to the demons that roost in them.
The munitions man carried the demons of his parents, as do all children, and he carried the weight of his personal tragedies: a dog struck by a neighbor’s car who had bled to death in his lap on the front lawn, his grandfather’s watch that had survived world war two only to slip from his wrist and shatter when he fell off his bike, and a long list of people to whom he had never confessed the love he felt. He carried too the knowledge that all dead bodies should be natural, that a body should slow with age and leave life not without fear or turbulence, but of its own accord—not at the strike of bombs or bullets.
He recalled once hearing the night boy ask one of the weekend hunters how he could justify killing another creature for the pure visceral entertainment of the act rather than to eat the animal’s flesh to sustain himself. When the night boy got up too early for dinner, his own entertainment was endeavoring to make the guests whom he most disliked feel uncomfortable for the amusement of the day boy. The hunter had appeared unsettled, but like most of the men who came with rifles and an impulse for adventures in the power of gunpowder and metal, he had bluster. The man told the night boy that he would understand when he was older, and the night boy smirked back with a wink for the day boy. The munitions man had never liked the way the carcasses of dead wild things moved when dragged across the ground, though he had often helped to drag them, but looking at the pictures of men, women, and children broken into death by the artistry of his own steady hands, he knew why men dragging animals through the dirt made the bile rise in his throat.
The mountains and the lake that he loved and held in reverence had taught him that the world is comprised of hierarchies and systems of inequality in which each animal, plant, weather pattern, and geomorphic feature played its own specific role to maintain the balance that kept each creature and each tree and bit of scrub alive and healthy. The place that showed him awe showed him the beauty of a harsh balance. The munitions man held one belief firm, and the sickness within him came from the transgression of that belief. The munitions man believed that a person should never take from another what they did not hold in their power to give back, that their own life was the only thing that any human or animal could truly own and to deprive them of it was to become inhuman yourself, to play the role of time in meting out death that was not yours to give.
The munitions man wept for the unnatural nature of death and for all of the boys whose lakes and mountains had burned. For the houses and roads that sprawled across the country as part of the vast network of a society funded by foreign wars and foreign imports and exports, for the people for whom the wind would never sing of the wilderness and for those who had listened to the song and then lost the valley through which the wind ran and the trees through which the breeze whistled and the water over whose surface the wind raised waves.
As the pain in his throat subsided, the munitions man looked up at the rifle that still rested above the mantelpiece, and there was the night boy shivering in his underwear with the rifle empty-barreled at his shoulder, standing tall and strong as if to kill death itself.
The day boy returned the last newspaper to the stack and walked to the end of the lobby, slid the double doors open onto the veranda across whose weather-worn boards a Sambar stag had once walked, and stumbled into the night. The wind thundered through the trees and marbled the surface of the lake. The air was cold and sharp in the day boy’s lungs. A waxing moon showed him the outline of the mountains rising behind the lights of the hotel, but the blue-black sky seemed finite.
We started early in the morning, and brought water and food with us, wearing hats to shade our eyes and coats to keep us dry in the impending rain, and it took us the whole stretch of hours in a single Sunday to climb the circumference of the island. The shoreline was rocky along the eastern and western sides, an expanse of tumbled stones that rolled beneath our feet and twisted our ankles. The southern end was the highest point and the cliffs there were difficult to navigate and often slippery with the outgoing tide. This was the part that took us the longest to traverse, particularly as one of the boys lost a handhold and while he caught himself before falling into the waves, his hat slipped from his head. The cap was of great sentimental value, so we spent almost half of an hour watching the waves lift it up and down within a small, protected inlet before it became clear that it would be impossible to retrieve. The northern end of the island was heavily forested, with pine and some deciduous trees, and the undergrowth was verdant due to the high moisture content of the soil. The shoreline around the basin was thick with reeds growing in the brackish silt that pulled at our feet before we entered the trees. The sun had set before we made our way with headlamps through the tall grass to the center of the island, where we had lived for as many summer months as were necessary for us to feel that we lived the insular lives of the people of isles and archipelagos. Meaning that when we gathered in the evenings, we gazed at the faces around us and knew that the people beside us were the only human creatures on this minute expanse of land. We were lonely together at times, because none of us were born there and some of us missed certain mountains or rivers in whose shadows or curves we had grown up, but we had fallen almost violently in love with our island. We knew all of the places where the mud pooled after a storm, where each different species of bird would fly up from the vegetation along the pathways that we could map easily, drawing in the air with our fingers to describe the curves of our coastline and the undulations of our land.
The day that we walked around the island was also the night that we realized that the island was not ours: we knew the landscape of it as well as we knew our own bodies and the wind and fog on our skin no longer chilled us, but the air belonged to the gulls and the earth belonged to the birds that burrowed there and the water to those avian divers with their sleek plumage. The night was filled with their calls and the beating of their wings and these sounds were a language that we could not speak, so we fell silent to listen.
The boys came home late on a summer night with their hair dark damp and smelling of whisky and of beer. They pulled the chairs away from the dining room table in the gleam of the hallway light to sit and unbutton their collars and unlace their shoes. They sat for several minutes of silence with their shoes all a pair on the carpet beside their feet, listening to the heavy intake of their own breath. On the floor above their mother made her way down the creaking hallway to the bathroom and back again. With each utterance of the ceiling the three boys looked up with a steadier gaze, the whites of their eyes aglow, like children. She used to keep watch in their doorway while they slept in the early morning hours. In the wet midnight stillness of their mother’s sleep, the boys turned their eyes to one another, and their lips slipped across their mouths to reveal three matching sets of teeth.
The tallest boy had dark hair, black in the shade with a reddish sheen in open daylight, and eyes of the same coloration. His small ears were set against his head along the line of an angular cheek and jaw, softened by a long nose twisting slightly to the right and eyebrows that lifted towards the forehead at the bridge of the nose like the markings of a German Shepherd. His body was lean and formidably limbed with wide boned forearms and lengthy legs. The middle brother, the second tallest, was similarly slender but with a delicacy to his features that made him at times seem sharp and at others fragile. His hair was a dark red and there was a flush of freckles across his nose and cheeks that stood out against a deep summer tan. The youngest, shortest by a solid inch, sat opposite his brothers at the table with one arm draped like a coat over the back of the next chair. He had removed his dress shirt and sat in his undershirt alone, the edge of his sleeve falling at the curve of muscle in his upper arm that marked the divergence of his body from that of his brothers. His form was taught-bellied and quick with youth, belying the stiff knees and thick neck of their father, two years dead of cigarettes and whisky. The tallest boy was called George, the redhead was Eddie, and the shortest, a blond, was named Samson. They were between the ages of nineteen and twenty-two.
After several minutes of silence, Eddie got up and made coffee in the kitchen, and his brothers began to argue quietly in the dining room. Samson leaned back against his chair, running his fingers through his fair hair in confidence, nearly whispering.
“I really didn’t think you would do it,” he said.
“Well it wasn’t up to you,” George said. “The title was in my name.”
Samson grinned back with both feet on the floor and palms flat on the table. His smile was scrupulously mean. George held his elbows in his crossed hands and let his voice rise at the end of each phrase. Samson had watched these ticks for years, arguing his way to his brother’s candy bars, old winter jackets, and poker chips, but the stakes were higher than a pyramid of dusty bubblegum or a few dollars, and he had lost.
“You should have done it still in your best suit. Why wait until Dad was two years under the ground?” Samson hissed. “I grew up on this land and so did Eddie. You had no right.”
Eddie came back into the room with three cups of coffee, something hot and bitter to sober them before sleep. Without taking his eyes from the cups he carried, he said in his soft voice, “the hell with this, both of you.”
“And what would you like me to do?” George asked, turning to squint at Eddie, who had placed the coffee cups on the table and stood with one hand in his pocket, the other tapping at his thigh. “What would you like me to choose, giving our mother enough to live on, or sitting on a piece of land that someone else should be worrying about? If you want to you can pretend that we can pull apples from acacias until we are dead. We aren’t kids anymore. No caves and bonfires and jumping in the river, Eddie, just water and electric and insufficient paychecks.”
Eddie met Samson’s hard gaze across the table whose surface was scarred with the knife points and hungry fingers of their childhood, and he saw a songbird warning in Samson’s half-drunk eyes. “Don’t be a snake about this George,” Eddie said. “You know that it’s not so simple. We can’t exchange the past for the present and stack the deck to gamble for the future.”
Samson’s looked to the thick darkness beyond the window at Eddie’s back, where in daylight he would have been able to see a disfiguration in the line between desert and sky created by a jumble of boulders that had been piled high by the momentum of glaciers long ago. Their father called these rocks the Cathedral, and told them to watch for snakes in the overlapping shadows. The Cathedral marked the edge of their property and the beginning of the desert, though the green left the land in a gradual gradient from the edge of the river, one of the eleven tributaries of the De Grey. The river curved through their property, running west-north-westerly to flow finally into the Indian Ocean. Along the shores of the river grew acacias: silky wattle, sweet-scented Minni Ritchi, narrow leaf Pindan, bark ashen and fissured. In the dry season those stunted half-trees half-shrubs withered as the river sank into the scorched earth and the grass dried silver in the heat. There was no regular wet season, but when the cyclones hit the river flooded its banks and the washes surged with water dyed red by the dirt. Then the acacias bloomed yellow-gold and when the river subsided it ran burnt sienna with the tannins from the leaves torn from the trees by the wind. When their father first saw the land the river’s shores were brilliant green and sown with the wildflowers whose seeds had been carried downstream with the storm that still hung heavy in the western sky. By the time the wildflowers died and the river dried he was running one hundred head of cattle across the scrubland of spinifex, with its roots driven three meters deep into the ground and its spiked leaves inedible. The house was built with the money their father made selling the easternmost third of the lot to be mined for iron ore. The kitchen had a new stove and the hallways were wood-paneled and carpeted, but the river ran darker each year and when the wind blew hard the air smelled metallic as a thunderstorm.
The summer that George got his first job, Eddie and Samson had mapped every intricacy of the only monument in their skyline. Night falls slowly in the desert before it settles on the horizon, and in the half-dreaming of their games they did not see the sky above them for what it was but for what it could have been if they were the first humans to walk this land. They climbed the rocks and held their arms aloft against the wind and yelled long, incoherent sounds to one another. One evening Eddie placed his feet incorrectly, and instead of finding himself atop the highest point of stone, he slid into the crevasse between two boulders. His slim frame caught at the widest point in his ribcage as he inhaled sharply, and he was pinned as his legs dangled in the cool dark space below. His mind was quick even in youth and panic, so he whistled for Samson only after bracing himself with his hands, the short warning whistle of songbirds that makes even city-dwellers shy away from a source of danger unconsciously. Samson leapt across the rocks, his body small and lithe even then, unfailing. He looked at Eddie and tilted his head, drawing his eyebrows together so that a scar on the bridge of his nose was the color of milk in the half-light, and began to laugh. Samson pulled his older brother from this mouth of earth, giggling with such force that his stomach hurt from clenching until he peered down into the hole from which Eddie’s feet had just emerged. Five death adders curled below, unwinding the long muscle of their bodies from their fat diamond heads to the worm-like ends of their tails to search out the warmth of the rocks above that still held the heat of the sun. Snakes, he said, just snakes Eddie, as if they would not hurt.
“Dad was the snake, Eddie,” George said. “That bastard, not me.” George stood up from the table. “It’s one week,” he said. “Let’s work together for one week to get everything out of the house and then I’ll leave. Just help me for five days. You don’t have to enjoy it but it has to happen.” George left the room and climbed the stairs.
. . . . .
The boys went to bed in their childhood rooms, Samson and Eddie across the wood paneled hallway from George, who had always slept separately. Samson felt for the edge of his bed with his feet, but hit the end of the wooden frame with his shins in a dull thump that made Eddie giggle as he stumbled second into the dark room that had always seemed to belong more to Samson than to him. The window above Eddie’s bed was open and outside the sky was flush with stars, Orion flung to one side of the sky and the Southern Cross at the other, only visible if he stuck his head and shoulders out the window and twisted himself to face the high dome of the sky. Eddie lay down still fully clothed on his bed, and Samson had done the same next to him. Eddie ran a hand along his jaw to feel the heat of his own skin and pull himself firmly into awareness as if in preparation for some physical feat or mental endurance.
“You know,” he said, turning his head towards his brother. “It doesn’t seem like all that long ago that we were kids and it seemed as though we would be children forever. None of this would have been ours to deal with—it wouldn’t have been George’s decision to make and it wouldn’t have been our responsibility to fight him on it.”
“To hate him for it, you mean?” Samson sat halfway up in bed to pull his shirt over his head, then lay back down, arms slung across his stomach. “All of this did belong to us then,” he said. “And I think it still does.”
Eddie looked into the darkness of the ceiling. “I never wanted to get older when I was a kid, you know? Everyone else did. Everyone else wanted to move up a grade or be taller. To drink beer and bribe strangers to buy them a pack of cigarettes so they could smoke out behind the school for the first time, but I didn’t want any of that. I just wanted to be a kid and climb around on the rocks or figure out how to jump into the middle of the river from that one big overhanging tree. You grow up and the world gets scary. All those things you were afraid of when you were little, all those things mum and dad told us to get over, they are nothing compared to this world. To this responsibility. We get bad.”
“George got bad,” Samson said, like an echo. “What a shit.”
“Not shit,” Eddie said. “It’s life. People and things, that’s all.”
“And that’s life, yeah?” Samson said. “I hope it’s more. I want to make it more.” He slid his arms from his belly and rolled onto his side to face Eddie. “Eddie, I think I really could do it, or I could have if George hadn’t sold the land like that right out from under us.”
Eddie turned back to the window. “Would you farm the desert, Samson? Grow dust up from the earth by planting the wind and sell it for good money too, take all of that dry dirt from the walls of this house to the horizon in every direction and squint at it until it blurs to green before your eyes?” Eddie asked with the air moving softly from his throat, one hand stroking the other as it lay across his chest. He squinted his own eyes, and in the blue-black haze he tried to picture a verdant wash over the red earth and scrub, but the dull russet of stone remained firm in his imagination. He knew that red dirt because it was engrained in his skin, because he coughed it up in the middle of class in grade school, because every time he came home he would edge the bus window open and press his nose to the pane to smell that sunburned earth that tasted of the summer of his childhood. Samson knew this red dirt as well as he did—Samson’s hair was stained pink with dust when they played by the river or on the rocks—and they both knew that it could not grow much besides mallee scrub and the stunted wattle trees along the river.
“I would farm this desert, Eddie, I swear that I would. Those rocks out there, that’s my cathedral. I pray there just as much as our mother prays in a pew on Sunday mornings. You don’t want to grow up Eddie? This is it, right here, our childhood, our whole lives, this fucked-up family.” Samson flung his arms wide, sitting half upright, bright-eyed, his hair flung at odd angles by his restlessness.
. . . . .
The dining room was the last to be emptied. George, Eddie, and Samson behaved as if they were men, because they had sold their childhood home, but they were boys because the weight of their forfeit sat so heavily on their shoulders and in the corners of their eyes. George grew pale, looking at the walls that he had made bare, while hatred glowed in Samson’s thicker features and Eddie ran his fingers through his hair over and over and over again.
“Well let’s be done then,” Samson said. He folded down the leaves of the table and the oval around which they had gathered each evening when their family was full was reduced to a square, one side for each of the living. Samson wrapped his hands around one edge of the table and looked to Eddie, who stepped forwards to take the other side of the table. George backed away from the doorframe and let them carry the dining room table outside to his Ute, parked in the driveway and filled with the last of the family furniture. Everything that did not fit into their mother’s new house or George’s apartment they put in a storage unit in town, wrapped in old towels or tablecloths to keep off the dust and protect the varnish their father had painted slowly and carefully over several weeks on all of the furniture he had built. Each time the storage unit door slammed shut and each time another room was hollowed out Eddie felt as though his childhood was dissolving like film left too long in the chemical bath. Once the table was secured there was nothing left in the house—the walls were empty, the cabinets bare. Looking out to the Cathedral rocks beyond the curve of the river they had always called their greatest luck, Eddie knew that the house could not bear the marks of all that had happened within its walls. The house would become an object once more without him to read the stories in the dents in the doorframes and the floorboards missing nails. The land would change and he would not be there to watch the seasons of rain and of drought alter the course of the river and let the trees bloom and wither.
George got into the cab but Samson walked around to the front and made George roll down the window to tell him that he and Eddie were going to take a walk.
“Come on,” George said. “Samson, you know I have to get this stuff back by five or the storage place will close.”
“You can come if you want,” Samson said, hands in his pockets and eyes half-shut against the sun. His tone was far from inviting.
“Fine,” George said. “But don’t take too long. I’ll be here.”
Samson walked away, out towards the rocks on the horizon. Eddie followed him, raising one hand to George as he passed his older brother. George shook his head at Eddie as he waved, and Eddie saw George’s face tighten while his jaw clenched. Eddie looked away.
Eddie let Samson walk ahead of him all the way to the Cathedral. He could see the sensation of loss, the ache below the ribs and the swelling of the throat, in the set of Samson’s shoulders. He knew that Samson would protect the wound with fury, because anger was a feeling that had a word to name it. Fury was a region with clearly demarcated borders, unlike this feeling that no one spoke of, this sensation of being stripped clean of a childhood, an adolescence, and a nascent adulthood as thoroughly as a corpse could be reduced to bone in a sandstorm. Samson had hoped for this land, he had sown the dry earth with the memories of his past and with the plans for his imagined future. Now his soul was as infertile as this land in a drought.
Samson climbed the Cathedral slowly, rock by rock, each foot placed with care as though he could no longer leap as surely, as if he were not still a lissome boy. His limbs moved against the stone with reverence and Eddie paused below to watch his younger brother’s grace. When Eddie sat next to Samson at the apex of their chapel of the desert, he could see that Samson’s eyes were wet.
“Maybe it was never meant for us,” the youngest of the three brothers said. “Maybe it was never ours. Fuck George.”
“The first time I climbed to the top was with George,” Eddie said. “He was six and I was four and it was the first time that dad got really bad. You would have been two, so mum had you upstairs when it happened. She must’ve been too scared to come down and get us so when it started George backed me out of the front door and grabbed my hand and made me run, all the way here.”
Samson tucked his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms around himself with his chin on his hands. “That was the worst time, wasn’t it?”
Eddie nodded. “George’s arm was fractured but mum didn’t realize until the next day when he told her that it hurt. We didn’t come back until it started to get dark and we were so hungry that we couldn’t stand it anymore. I wasn’t very scared but I think that George was, even though I was bawling the whole time and he never cried.”
Eddie leaned back into the wind, recalling the events that were bright points of clarity in his childhood, small bursts of noise and violence engrained in his mind. When Eddie was ten their father slammed George’s arm in the door and shattered his wrist just below that old fracture. Their mother pleaded with their father until he finally drove them both to the emergency room. Eddie was in the back seat with his brother’s head in his lap and George was stretched out across the seat like a corpse, his right arm with the swollen wrist clasped to his chest like a broken-winged kestrel. Their father’s hands were shaking on the steering wheel and he looked straight ahead, then asked George in his low-down whisper, what the fuck were you thinking, you fucker? Eddie looked at George and didn’t say a word. George’s eyes were closed, and Eddie pressed his lashes together, made his mouth a line, and stayed as still as possible, holding his breath. He thought about the cool dark water of the river when they snuck out of the house to swim at night, grabbing at each other’s ankles under the water. Eddie thought about how Samson giggled and screamed until he wrapped his long fingers around the blond boy’s mouth. Their father put his hand on Eddie’s shoulder and Eddie did not move, he let the fingers feel their way across his collarbone and up his neck until they found the line of his mouth and released. The fingers left Eddie’s skin tenderly, the way he had imagined the girls at school touched the boys they caressed with their eyes in class, then pulled their hands away so softly, softly, softly. His father’s knuckles were warm and hard against the corner of Eddie’s mouth, and then Eddie’s teeth were in his lip and there was blood on his white shirt. Their father did not turn around, but he made a noise in his throat to say that his question was not rhetorical. I was thinking I meant to do it, George said. In the emergency room Eddie lied through his bloody teeth, and the nurse put cotton balls in his mouth and told him not to fight. You are your brother’s keeper, she said, while behind her George pretended to chew on the gauze around his arm that would soon be replaced by a cast.
By that time the hair on the backs of their necks would stand up whenever the badness started as if there were lightning, and the brothers knew to find each other in the house, and wait for George to say let’s go adventuring. Which meant: move silently and get out. During the summer when they were at home for weeks on end they spent entire days outside. They learned to get up early, to make themselves lunch and sometimes dinner depending on the amount of electricity in the air.
“George showed me the jumping tree,” Samson said. “You wanted to push me off to make me hurry up, but George wouldn’t let you. Three meters used to seem like so far above the water—far too high to fall.”
“Yeah and then you pushed me off right afterwards and I almost hit the rocks,” Eddie said.
Samson let out a hushed laugh. “You deserved it. When you were still stronger than me you used to hold me under the water until I couldn’t hardly struggle anymore.”
“I don’t even remember that,” Eddie said after a pause.
Samson was quiet and the wind blew through the rocks, whistling between crevasses in the stone. Eddie held his hand up and measured with four fingers the distance between the sun and the horizon to show Samson the hour that they had left before five. The drive into town was a half hour.
“I think that we forget all of the ways that we hurt one another here, you and I,” Samson said.
. . . . .
The day that their father went to the hospital and did not come home until he was in a coffin was Samson’s fifteenth birthday, and the boy threw rocks from the top of the Cathedral and screamed until he had to pant for breath. George and Eddie watched their younger brother as if made of granite and greenstone themselves. They kept their eyes firmly on the horizon or on the dirt and scrub below. When they were young had been no space between them because their bodies and their minds fit together as if none of them had edges. When the badness had come at night it belonged to their mother alone, but Eddie and Samson used to slip furtively across the hallway and sit with George in his narrow bed, falling asleep tangled in one another.
What do we do now, Eddie asked his brothers. I don’t know, George said, even though he always knew. I’m leaving, George said finally, in two weeks, for university, and we are going to sell this land once Samson is old enough.
Samson turned to the boy his senior by four years and four inches, put his hands on George’s chest, and pushed. George, you fuck, he shouted as George fell back and stumbled down the rock. When George caught himself he looked up at Samson and at Eddie, who was holding Samson’s arm as if it were a loaded gun.
You think this is my goddamn fault, George said, not in question, but in answer. You think that it is my fault that the man you have never loved a day in your short life is going to die like he deserves to. It’s not cancer that’s killing him, it’s not a pack of cigarettes a day. It’s his addiction to making us suffer. He never called these rocks a cathedral because he had any reverence for them, he called them that because he liked the taste of blasphemy on his tongue and the way he could spit those words like poison at our mother. George spat at the rock beneath Samson’s feet and turned away to walk home alone. Samson let him go.
George was the truth seeker, but one who knew the value of a noble lie. Samson had never felt the sting of their father’s fist, nor had he known the weight of their father’s words. Their father had driven them into town every other Friday night to see a movie, taught them to gut a fish and skin a rabbit, and drawn them a map of the sky so that they could call the constellations by their own names. Samson was the strongest of the three, with the edgiest temper, and he had the cleverest eye for all that he wanted to see. Samson’s dreams were filled with life in every shade of green and cattle of every coloration from sable to piebald. He was the farmer, the planter, Samson was the one who wanted something more from the earth than the tender and intimate aliveness that prickled Eddie’s skin and satisfied the wanderlust of George. Samson wanted to watch the life spring up between his own two palms; he wanted to grow happiness.
Eddie was the observer, who could sit with the river or the dust or the wattle trees and see the life in every square meter—each insect and every stalwart bit of scrub smelling of warm dirt and plant matter. Eddie could name the kestrels, the budgerigars, and the smoke hawks by their silhouettes and call to them in their own cries. He knew where to find the pebble-mound mice and the olive pythons in every kind of weather, and he could tell when a cyclone was coming by the smell of the air and the iridescence circling the moon. George was the adventurer, ardently exploring the land within the limits of his legs and the length of the day. George stalked the mallee scrub with his eyes always on the horizon and a compass around his neck to navigate the undulations of the land that obscured the house once he ventured beyond the Cathedral rocks.
It was not his sons their father had raged against, though it was their mutable hearts and limbs he had twisted. It was the land that the boys loved, their childhood Eden, that had culled his mind and invoked his dislocated rage. Their father was from the north, from the eastern coast where he grew up to the chorus of rain and birds. He had traveled first west and then south to discover the country, and then he had discovered their mother. She was delicate and beautiful, as tall as her new husband when he bought the land that they both believed would become their home. Their father did not know this land as he had known homeland, and he did not try to learn it. Instead he planted what he did know in foreign soil, and each crop he put in the ground withered there at the edge of the desert region. There were no other farmers there, no one who believed with such unswerving faith that they could draw anything up from the ground beside oil, iron, and asbestos.
After three years of dry grass, dead calves, and the birth of one stillborn child, their father closed his mind to the land and began to open holes in the earth, digging for iron ore at the mine built on the land that had once been his. The mines in Pilbara had names like Christmas Creek, Cloud Break, and Hope Downs, others like Nammuldi or Paraburdoo: named for holidays, birds, and optimism in a settler’s tongue and the language pilfered from the Aboriginals who pre-dated them by so many tens of thousands of years. Steel structures rose from the eastern horizon and descended into the pits that men dug into the earth with backhoes and cranes and the trains spun their rhythms into the hot blue skies while the red dirt piled high. Hope went down those mines and it rarely came back up.
. . . . .
Eddie stood and picked his way down the other side of the Cathedral until he could no longer see the house if he turned around. Eddie looked out across the dry and desert land lit gold in the evening sun, and realized that he had never before crossed the boundary of the Cathedral’s peak. He had gazed upon this unknown region all his life without stepping into it, as if confined by his need of one part of the land from exploring a country that could also be his if he cared for it. Somewhere beyond that red dirt expanse and hard-edged spinifex was a deep blue ocean that he had never seen. A smoke hawk faded into the darkening sky and the white horizon.
This skyline was where light and stone met, because that was how George had spoken the word Cathedral. Their parents had filled the house with all of the inhuman hardness and fear of people so consumed by one another that their emotions reign above the earth and cloud their perception, as if there could be fog in the desert. From that darkness George slipped his younger brothers out of bed and walked them into the sunrise. He laid these somnolent boys with their blinking eyes and drooping heads down upon the rocks and put his arms around them as if they would never grow up, so they grew up good.
Perhaps that was why George had left, to find another land to fall in love with, a more forgiving land. Eddie knew that George had this place etched deeply into his mind, but that just as the dry earth held all of Samson’s hope, it also held the fear and pain that George had kept from them. The seeds of George’s broken limbs and black eyes, his nightmares and moonlit wakefulness had grown like rainforest strangler figs, surrounding him with fears that did not belong to this place until he was hollowed out.
“Why do you blame George,” Eddie whispered.
“What did you say?” Samson asked. He got up and walked down to where Eddie stood.
“How can you blame George?” Eddie asked. Samson put his hands in his pockets and lifted his shoulders in a half-shrug.
“Do you remember how he used to wake us up and make us walk out here just to watch the sunrise? How much we hated that and would whine and complain but still go?” Eddie said. Samson nodded.
“He was giving us this place instead of our parents,” Eddie said. He glanced at Samson, and held his brother’s gaze.
“Samson,” Eddie asked. “How can we blame George?” Eddie’s throat tightened and his cheeks felt hot.
Samson turned away from the horizon and looked back in the direction of the roof under which they had grown up, now emptied beyond recognition. “Let’s burn the fucking house down,” he said. “Every room that was never home,” he muttered, his mouth softened like that of a horse brought to rein.
Samson sat down behind Eddie, and ran his fingers across the rocks looking for scattered pebbles, gathering the stones in his palm. Eddie looked to the ground and out of the corner of his eye he saw a serpentine shadow over Samson’s shoulder. If Samson had looked up he would have seen Eddie’s fingers begin to shake. Without a sound Eddie circled the shadow until he realized that it was just the skin of a snake, shed in the warmest season. He picked it up and held the snakeskin delicately across two hands to show it to Samson. Samson reached out to hold it, and Eddie took the stones in Samson’s palm to give him the snakeskin.
“I’ll be rough,” Eddie said. “You be gentle.” Samson smiled into the transparent cupped eyes of the snake as if they were evidence of all that was written into this land and all that he could choose to leave behind or to carry within him when he left.
“George will like this,” Samson said. “We should get back.”
They climbed over the edge of the Cathedral rocks and walked across the land of their childhood in the quiet of the coming night, gathering the memories that they would have to take with them in order to make themselves a home, harvesting that final yield. When they returned to the car George was leaning against the hood of the Ute with his arms crossed over his chest and his eyes closed. He opened his eyes as they approached and they sat down on the hood on either side of him. Samson handed George the snakeskin with a half smile and George accepted it with his mouth a hard line, but then his features softened and he leaned back so that his shoulders rested against those of his brothers.
“So we’re leaving,” Samson said.
“We’re leaving,” George echoed.
Eddie took the stones from his hand and arranged them across his knees to resemble the Cathedral rocks behind which the sun was sinking. Samson leaned into George’s shoulder. They sat with the land until the sun had set and the budgerigars had roosted along the river and quieted, then they drove home.
I look upon this land as a foreigner. I come from conifers—white pines, pinyons, and ponderosas. I come from deciduous oaks, maples, ash, birch, and beech—from willow trees, redwoods, and sequoias. From the high, dry country of mesas and red rock to glacial mountains with their azure lakes to the low wetlands and mangrove estuaries. My northern forests are dusty gold in the season of their cascading plumage, and then the water turns to ice, the ground crystals with frost, and the land is covered in snow to the depth of my knee. The water freezes along the length of the shallow river until it reaches the sea, and in the bay the waves are held in place, salt-encrusted. I climb these mountains, I walk through these trees, I taste these brackish waters and I look up at this sky with my limbs holding, hitting, and hungering with those who know when to laugh until they cannot stand upright and when to be silent because the world demands to be heard with cold summits, parched plains, hurricanes, and rain.
Here there are temperate rainforests, wet tropics, dry sclerophyll forests, eucalypts and tree ferns. The forests along the beaches whisper with bush turkeys and long lizards rather than squirrels and sparrows, and bats sweep the clouds from deep blue thunderous skies. When the Europeans came to this continent it seemed to them hostile and they named the mountains for the unease cast by the shadows of the peaks. Within their adventurous, seafaring minds there was no fear of uncharted waters, but there was a terror of setting foot on shores whose stories were buried deep beneath the sand and rock and could not be forgotten with the swell of another tide. It was a land that could take their stories from them and their lives too, so they drove the stake of empire into the heart of this country and men with tan necks and white throats stalked the forests, the beaches, and the deserts, embedding their own story in the land the only way that they knew how—with bullets and blades, axes and dynamite. Boys cried in the bush to find themselves so far from home, and they bit at the earth in their anger and desperation for a land that could speak to them in the tongue that they had known since birth. They cried out like the curlew, but had no words to name the sound or the creature that they mimicked, and so they lost themselves in the fight to beat back all that they could not call by name. I look upon this land as a foreigner and my tongue works at the edges of this place with the names of deciduous trees, alpine lakes, glaciers, and another hemisphere.
At first we did not like this country, because we did not know it. It was beautiful but it was strange, and everything moved in ways that felt foreign to us—the trees in the wind, the clouds in a storm, animal eyes glowing in the dark, and the land itself. We walked to the edge of a cliff and looked out on the caldera of a long-cooled volcano and then we traveled up and down the lacy coast with its estuaries and bays. We found ourselves by the sea and looked out over the water, close enough to hold hands and too far apart to brush shoulders, then we moved through the broken inland country that had been molded to appear part of another continent. We learned the land, and we began to like this country.
The mountain that once was a tower running to the center of the earth was always on our horizon. It is the center of this country to us, we fall back to it in our dreams and when we think of home we first see the peak that guarded this country from us when we did not know it. The volcano is a place of violent shifting that has long lain silent, dead rather than dormant, but it heats something within us that is slow and solid as rock.
We are young enough to see life as a vast expanse laid before us, and old enough to wonder how to proceed and whether it is worthwhile to do so. We all have a friend who has kept us awake late at night with rapid gesticulations to tell us that the table on which he rests his fist is not a table. Rather, it is the idea of a table—the word places no claim on the object, the object, by its very nature as a thing in existence, is unnamable, indefinable. The word is merely an expression of human perception of the world. A table is merely the idea of a table, and therefore is mutable in a way that timber and metal will never be, though the words timber and metal themselves are mere ideas. The friend would say, raising the idea of a half-emptied glass to the idea of the ceiling, “the key that you carry in your pocket to let you into your house is not a key. No, it is an idea that allows you to access the sensations of home. Not a piece of metal fitted to other interlocking bits of metal set into a plane of wooden boards glued and nailed together. That scrap of metal is something else entirely from what you carry around in your pocket everywhere that you go—you carry the idea of a key to allow you to carry with you the idea of home. Or perhaps you wear your key around your neck because it is a secret-keeper, the cold embodiment of the thing that you have closed off from the world, the thing that you have tried to keep from your home.”
He never quite recalls his speeches by the time the morning comes, but we know that in some ways he is right. Those eyes of unknown creatures look at us from the dark bush night and gleam with our inability to describe them, with the sparks they strike against that hard place within us. The mountain is our key—with the idea of the mountain we unlock the idea of this country. Once we have been here long enough we read the land in one another’s faces and our features bend to shout home, in the language of the trees in the wind, the clouds in a storm, animal eyes glowing in the dark, and the land itself.