Authors: Karen Foxlee
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Years later when I go to the dry river everything is less than in my memories. The riverbed is narrower, there are fewer ghost gum trees. I remember an entire stand behind the sand track, or this is how it seemed. They were evenly spaced, each giant with its own territory of solitude. I remember the quiet. How there was only the sound of our footsteps on the fallen leaves, our voices in the stillness.
Now many of the trees are gone, fallen or cut down. There are more paddocks instead, the beginning of a new housing estate.
I walk in circles unable to find the place at first but our tree is still there.
When at last I find it I am surprised at the small-ness of the marks we left. I kneel and run my fingers over our carved letters. All this time and the tree has kept them for us. It could have easily healed itself. The cuts were not deep. They were made only with children's hands.
CERTAIN THINGS WERE PLACED IN THE BOX.
We were not supposed to touch them. No one said it but we felt it. It was the way our mother held the box to her chest as she walked along the hallway, protectively, as though it was a baby. She hid it from us in clear view.
Angela and I removed it from the top shelf of the linen closet. The door creaked. In the weeping house the only sound was our breathing in the silence that followed. Already, in the few weeks, a light layer of dust had settled over its lid.
It was Angela's idea. She said we needed to look inside to find my singing voice. It would help me to remember exactly when and how it happened that the words lodged in my chest quite close to my heart.
You'll never get it back unless you know why it went away, she said. She was full of ideas.
It was a simple blue cardboard box. I thought it
would be heavy. I thought the weight of it would make my arms shake but it was light. The writing on the lid said in flowing white script
CARNEGIE ELEGANT GLASSWARE.
In blue ink in the right-hand corner was one more word.
My sister Danielle was sleeping when we entered the room. She was facing us with her knees drawn up. In those weeks all anyone did was sleep. Our house was like Sleeping Beauty's palace after the enchanted spell is cast. People slept on beds and on sofas. They closed their eyes in chairs with cups of sweetened tea in their hands. Mum slept with pills that Aunty Cheryl counted out into her hand and guided to her mouth. Dad slept on the floor between us with one arm slung across his eyes.
Angela and I sat on my bed with the box between us. She looked at Danielle sleeping and then at me, asking me with her eyes if it was all right. I shrugged. I didn't know what my mother would do if she found us with the box. I didn't know if she would sense it had been opened and leap from her bed and come running to find us. I didn't know what it would contain.
When I opened the lid the smell of fifty-cent-sized raindrops hitting dry earth escaped.
Angela opened her mouth into an O.
Up rose the scent of green-apple shampoo. Of river stones once the flood has gone. The taste of
winter sky laced with sulfur fumes. A kiss beneath a white-hearted tree. A hot still day holding its breath.
We removed the contents one by one.
There were two blue plastic hair combs. A tough girl's black rubber-band bracelet. A newspaper advertisement for a secretarial school folded in half. A blond braid wrapped in gladwrap. A silver necklace with a half-a-broken-heart pendant. An address, written in a leftward-slanting hand, on a scrap of paper. Ballet shoes wrapped in laces.
From the box came the sound of bicycle tires humming on hot pavement. Of bare feet running through crackling grass. Of frantic fingers unstitching an embroidered flower. Of paper wings rising on a sudden wind. Of the lake breathing against the shore.
I didn't say anything. I kept very still. Danielle turned on her bed but kept sleeping.
“Somewhere in here,” whispered Angela, “is the answer.”
On the day of the funeral my nanna let the cat out of the bag about an angel and caused a great ruckus and then left squealing the tires on her beige Datsun Sunny. Even before that Kylie went ballistic and punched one of the Townsville twins on the nose. My singing voice disappeared long before then though the words to songs still ached inside my chest. I could
feel them in my stomach and taste them in my mouth but they wouldn't come.
After the funeral the house was full of the rustling of black chiffon and the smell of Cedel hair spray holding up stiff French rolls and already wilting roses dropping petals onto the shag rug. The visitors pressed themselves against the living room walls and tried to drink their tea without clinking their cups and saucers. They used up all the air-conditioner coolness and sweated around their necks. Men undid their ties. Women pressed handkerchiefs to their foreheads. They used up all the oxygen. I could feel my lips turning blue.
Our mother was laid out on the sofa as still as a statue and surrounded by aunts. Her only movement was to occasionally blink her see-through blue eyes. Her long eyelashes hit her tearstained cheeks and caused a faint and momentary breeze.
In the middle of the room the nest of tables had been spread apart from smallest to largest like a set of stairs. On the lowest were jam drops with smooth skin and jelly eyes. The middle held a round unsliced tea cake. On the top step there was a host of fairy cakes, still-winged, standing on each other's shoulders.
Nanna sat in Dad's recliner. She didn't have her legs up. She sat on the edge of the vinyl, knees together, legs sweating in her stockings. Dad didn't have
a seat. He stayed in the kitchen with the other men. They tried to remove beers quietly from the cooler but every noise they made was magnified in the house, the hushed rumble followed by an avalanche of ice, the exhausted sigh of the pulled ring top.
Nanna made a quiet moaning noise in her throat. Everybody tried to look the other way. She was building up to something and it wasn't a good idea to encourage her. Uncle Paavo, her brother, sat next to her. His funeral suit was two times too big for him because he only ate when he came to our house for weekend lunches and that was how he became a millionaire. Every now and then he blew his nose very loudly and interrupted the silence.
The Townsville twins were the first cousins to move. Patrick in his powder-blue suit reached out, removed a jam drop, and sauntered toward the front door. His mother, Aunty Margaret, made a deflating noise. Jonathan followed in his tan suit, running his fingers back through his hair. Outside they rounded the house and found a piece of shade on the back steps and lit up their Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes, which were the Passport to International Smoking Pleasure. They were identical apart from the color of their suits and the fact that Patrick had slightly more sensational hair flips. They both had small smiles, which they executed without opening their mouths
and exposing their teeth. Nanna said they had superior attitudes.
Jamie and Samantha were the Brisbane cousins. Sometimes the Townsville twins showed their teeth to them. The Brisbane cousins wore real Sportsgirl espadrilles and jeans. They had long shiny blond hair and Jamie said she was already a model and one day she'd be in
and that perms were yesterday's news, which made Danielle feel bad because she'd waited her whole life for the one she had on her head.
The Brisbane cousins sat down beside the Townsville twins and took drags on their cigarettes. They waved their hands in front of their faces to keep away the flies. Patrick called our town Nowheresville, which made the Brisbane cousins laugh, and Jonathan tipped back his head and looked down his nose at us with one of his smallest smiles.
Kylie was our cousin who lived in Nowheresville with us. She lived two streets away in a house right beside the park and she spent hours lying in her backyard on her trampoline staring into the sky. No matter how much you tried to sneak past she always saw you and asked to come too even if you were just going nowhere in particular. Kylie had brittle bones and buckteeth and a bad temper. She'd been born prematurely. Kylie got angry or sad very easily.
“Don't call it Nowheresville,” she said to Patrick.
We stood at the bottom of the back steps in front of the city cousins like strangers in our own backyard despite being the Most Bereaved.
“No-wheres-ville,” said Patrick.
He enunciated the word slowly.
“Don't say that,” Kylie said.
She made two fists with her hands by her side. She was fourteen, only two years younger than them but half their size. Her arms and legs were stick thin but the twins didn't know how strong she was. They didn't know Kylie could perform headlocks and give terrible Chinese burns and horse slaps. She could tear herself away from the restraints of two grown-ups by thrashing her legs in the air. She could spit across whole rooms.
“Calm down, you pip-squeak,” said Jonathan.
“Leave her alone,” said Danielle.
Our mother said we had to look after Kylie on account of her having very breakable bones and a very small amount of retardedness. Kylie's teeth hung over her bottom lip. She breathed loudly through her nose. She stared at Patrick, willing him to say it again with her eyes. Danielle's tight curls bobbed on her head. Jamie and Samantha regarded them with disdain.