Read The Swan Book Online

Authors: Alexis Wright

Tags: #Fiction, #General

The Swan Book (4 page)

What for girl? My sweet Lord, they only see what they want to see. They are blind, not stupid. They see, but they are blind,
the old voice did not feel like answering the girl – never understanding the speechlessness, making it up as she talked.

The startled old woman, believing she understood whatever the girl was saying or thinking, having cracked the code of the language of windstorms or wind gusts, spoke in a pitched tone of voice that implied she held a high status in this poor community. She had given the girl a fancy name and everything. Oblivia, short for Oblivion Ethyl(ene), was her unconsciously inspired, synonymously paralleling sentiment for a girl perhaps best suited dead, instead of returning like a bad smell from the grave. She continued with pride in hearing herself saying the name again,
Oblivia! You have become a very cynical person for someone of your age.

The old woman was trying to make good use of her burden, whose aim in life was to get the girl to act normal: behave and sit up straight at the table and use a knife and fork properly, learn table manners, talk nicely, walk as a butterfly flies, dress like a normal person, learn something marvellous on a daily basis, and show some resilience. Over and over, Oblivia sings in her head:
Nah! Sporadically all the time. Be full of useful facilities.
And, this:
Treat people decent.

It seemed as though Oblivia had learnt nothing in years of living with the old woman except how to stay bent and rake thin, but not even she could prevent the force of nature. She could not go around in a perpetual state of warring with the obvious, by forever imagining herself to be like a piece of rotten fruit peel curled up inside the tree. Bones straightened out. She grew taller, and her skin darkened from the nondescript amber honey of a tree's heartwood, to radiant antique gold – darkened, like a tarnished red-yellow ochre pit blazing in the sun after rain.

In this world of the swamp, people had good ears for picking up every word that went skimming across the surface of the water, and vice versa, from the old lady's hull and back. You could almost reach out and grab each word with your hand. They were listening to what was considered to be some general crap coming out of the old lady's kitchen. The girl copycats those nicely spoken words, but prefers the tempo of the local dialect, to interpret like a local, and with her tongue tapping around behind closed lips, echoes soundlessly the homilies of her home life:
Toughen up. Get out there. Make a difference. Don't be like the rest of the people around here. And have a good day.

The old lady's speech was considered quite charming but inspired nothing in the local Indigenous people's summation, where it was generally thought to be,
Very good English for sure, and would go far for the language betterment of Australia, but not here
. Naturally! Out on the swamp where life was lived on the breeze, her tongue was considered to be too soft, like a cat's purr. It could not adapt to the common old rough way in the normal state of affairs,
, where all English language was spoken for political use only. Whatever was decent about English speech in the way she spoke it, was better for chatting a long way away, in its homeland. Maybe, while taking a leisurely walk with ladies and gentlemen through the environs of a finely constructed English garden, with those whose day delighted in the sight of every fresh rose, or were surprised by a squirrel scampering across the path with a plump autumn acorn in its teeth.

Swamp people were not ignorant of white people who, after all, had not turned up yesterday. Having lived it all, they claimed to have at least ten, or possibly more generations of knowledge, packed up tight in their mentality about white people doing good for them. Seasonal crop farmers, harvesters of potatoes, cabbages, fields of beans, yellow pears, wheat for whisky, wine grapes, dairy
cattle or pigs, truffles and olives, death feuds, imprisonment, domination, the differences between rich and poor, slaves, war and terror – whatever celebrated their faraway ancestral districts. Still! Why worry about the old woman's voice going –
Blah! Blah!
Or jumping –
Ting! Thang! Thing! Ting! Thang! What! –
it was only the needle of her compass spinning back to the north from any radius of her wanderings of the Earth. Opera! It was only opera. This was how the local population living packed up and down in the great distance around the swamp described her kind of talk.

The old woman spoke loudly to the girl while feeding flocks of black swans gathering around the hull. She was fed up. She had always gotten on well with people everywhere in her life before being rudely treated by a child.
Not just from this swamp. Yes,
she said,
I have used my opportunities for influencing people across the world. You must use the voice.
The girl thought that she should be silent if words were just a geographical device to be transplanted anywhere on earth. Then if that was possible:
Was it possible for her voice to be heard by imaginary people too?

white woman was from one of those nationalities on Earth lost to climate change wars. The new gypsies of the world, but swamp people said that as far as they were concerned, even though she was a white lady, they were luckier than her. They had a home. Yes, that was true enough. Black people like themselves had somewhere, whereas everywhere else, probably millions of white people were drifting among the other countless stateless millions of sea gypsies looking for somewhere to live.

Bella Donna of the Champions claimed that she was the descendent of a listener of Hoffmeister's Quartet in F. This music was cherished throughout the whole world she boasted:
But not here.
That was true enough! The swamp people had never heard of such music. She said on the other hand, whilst living happily enough among
the Aborigines of Australia now, she was from many other countries equally and felt
not really here and not really there
. When you had travelled so far and wide in a lifetime as she had, of course you would be heard anywhere on Earth if you had left your tongue everywhere. She had often told the girl that all of humanity's past and present had locations stored in her head.
That was what the head was for – storing knowledge about the world that you might want to use one day.

Right! As if!

As all stories begin with once upon a time, so the old woman always began her story, while looking into the levitating crystal balls she juggled, as though all stories that ever existed originated from these objects. Anything was possible when her snowy hair seemed charged with electricity and flew about wildly in the wind. All about her tall lean frame, the faded red hibiscus flowers of her old dress billowed as if caught in a cyclone. Her hundred-year-old face creased into a hundred more wrinkles. White lines of fog filled the fractured lines in one ball. Red dust swarmed inside the other.

With eyes the colour of the oceans, she continued staring absentmindedly, perhaps from habits formed on journeys over listless seas, but the scary thing was this gave the impression that she was releasing the words she spoke from inside the mesmerising glass, struck golden by the sun. So transfixing was the power of these objects, it did not occur to anyone that she might be fiddling with their minds, cursing them perhaps with overseas magic. Her trick made people stare straight into each spinning ball as it hung in midair like a miracle, the pivot reached before each slow ascension, while haphazardly heaping into their brains whatever they liked to remember about her story.

For all anyone in the swamp knew, she might have been Aine, the sun goddess of Ireland. An old woman, mortified from having
been dredged out of her lake in haste, and then, having to suffer the indignities of being dragged around the world in stinking boats. The swamp had become the place for reincarnation for all sorts living around the place. For sure, she was grand enough, enticing people, tricking their dreams, and juggling things around the edges of their minds. A goddess who had dragged herself out of the ocean then become an ordinary old woman.

Her country of origin, Bella Donna had claimed, was where people of the modern world once lived happily by doing more or less nothing, other than looking after themselves from one day to the next to fuel the stories of their life, but they were
finished now.
Always she returned to the memory of a single white swan feather resting on the spider web outside a window of her childhood home next to a forest where deer lived. She would recite a line from a poet from Hungary,
Snow, fog, fingerprints sprouting swans' feathers on the windowpanes…It was just a childhood memory,
she always snapped abruptly on reaching this point of her story, as if her most treasured melancholy thought was not fit enough for

She claimed that one day, some devil, not a person, but a freak of nature, went to war on her people.
Old woman what kind of freak was that?
Well! Swamp people wanted to know. Had a right to know. She looked startled, as though she had been asked to describe the inexplicable, of what happened to people affected by the climate changing in wild weather storms, or the culmination of years of droughts, high temperature and winds in some countries, or in others, the freezing depths of prolonged winters.
she said, it was called peace by the governments that called on their people to fight land wars. She had seen its kind rampaging across the gentle lands of her country, destroying everything in its path, and leaving those who survived with a terrible story to tell.

Listen to what I say: cities, towns, homes, land, as well as animals and crops, were flattened and could be no more. It was bad
weather that made fanatics like this. Her voice thrilled as though her tongue was on fire while she listed her foes:
Dictators! Bandits! People bashers!
She could spend all day listing the world's villains who had destroyed her people's land. Those willing to push the world into an unstoppable catastrophic slide of destruction and hatred with nuclear fallout, she shouted, as though swamp people were deaf to the sound of the outside world.
Everybody looking twice at his neighbour's property. One land-grabbing country fighting another land-grabbing country, and on it went with any people excess to requirement killed, or they left on their own accord by throwing themselves into the ocean.
Her voice fell into lady-like pretty-garden reminiscences now, quavering with the memory of a lifetime enmeshed with sea waves in a volatile shifting world that was irreconcilably changed.
With their country completely destroyed and radioactive, who could return? Which millennium, this one or next? What would her people be then?
Her words were caustic and frightening, but beguiling too in the minds of the overwhelmed swamp people trying to imagine this ghost country where nobody goes.

Then, without country, imagine that?
Imagining! Can't imagine. For country never leaves its people. This was what the swamp people claimed while seeing some sort of country in her, and dragging it out of her by listening, like scavenging rubbish out of a bin, rubbish lying everywhere – hard to imagine where it all came from. She asked them to think about the people of her nation as they joined a trail of misery forged by those who were walking before them.

What about them?
These people owned nothing but the clothes they wore and whatever could be carried away on their backs, handy things like:
television, computers, mobile phones?
Whoosh! Splat! Bang! They were the sounds you heard all day long when technology was being thrown over the side of mountains in the search for food and water. The story of her people, she claimed, was like the chapters in a nightmarish book. What would come
next? The people of the swamp knew about stories. Stories had value. Could buy trust. Could buy lots of things. Even silence. This story was new cash among people full of suspicion of one another.

Helter skelter, running away, fleeing people became refugees marching onwards just like deer would through winter steppes to nowhere. Hunger was constant. Waves of vermin, rats disguised as men, drove the moving chains of humanity into traps. The killing of people was without reason, fruitless and endless. This was Bella Donna's life when her people were being forced off their land. Eventually, beyond breaking point, there in the mountains under some spirit-charged rowan trees that were thousands of years old, they reached another summit of hopelessness. Bewildered, and staring down from above the clouds clinging to the sides of the mountains, they tried to locate holes in the scrims of mist to the fells, to see if the face of so much inhumanity was resting somewhere among the rivers and forests with smoke pluming from camp fires, but eventually, even those who had survived to this point resigned themselves to a fate of total annihilation.

So be it! Miserably, but almost bizarrely joyous too for such a final realisation that they were at the gates of their Maker, Bella Donna said those who were standing on the mountaintop ready to die, now turned their fragile gaze upwards to Heaven. If there was a bigger picture than the landscape, they were acknowledging the existence of a much mightier hand inflicting this enormous punishment on their depravity, even though they had once felt that their lives were normal enough. Then, as they knelt on the frozen ground to pray silently for the end to come quickly, something very unusual happened.

They heard God approaching in the fog. Music, so sweet as though nature was singing, it was just like hearing
Spiegel im Spiegel
played lightly on a cello. A single white swan flew by: its wings beating with music.
The bell-beat of wings above our heads,
the old lady whispered, a line that an Irish bard had once crafted with ink on paper to sweeten the world. They saw a Mute Swan, one of the biggest of the eight known types of swans in the world. It circled above, and then flew down and landed amongst them. It whispered a greeting of good day and good fortune. Its hot breath formed a little cloud in the cold air.

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