Shortlisted for Fish International Prize 2013
The last bomb did the trick, as far as she was concerned. And you can’t say what it is gets into her, as she eyes the chips and marks around the door-latch. She waits and packs the children’s things that night, by candlelight, ‘The way they did it in the old days’, she says to herself, getting to work. Her grown children’s things and her grandchildren’s, fending off their many objections, her daughter’s tugging at her elbow and she curls away from the pulling hand, she’ll stand firm against the children’s anger, their care for her and their resistance. “It’s time.” She will say, pushing out her chin and eyeing them severely.
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And it will rain so hard that night that morning comes.
So she’ll send her children running off into the early morning, send them in to nothing, in to nowhere they can see or have seen before, and she’ll be dry-eyed when she does it, she’ll do what she has to do. Although she herself will stay put, that’s the strange part, the unfathomable part, her grown children and grandchildren, she’ll send them into nowhere, into nothing, send them away, because, Well. Because hers will never be sins of omission, she thinks, never failures of imagination. The day you think will never come, Child. It’s here. It’s now. It’s time to run again. It was time yesterday.
She will use her father’s money to get them gone, she’ll give them everything he’d left her, everything he’d got and she had got and leaving herself destitute, destitute, not a pot to piss in, spreading the goods between them so that none can make a tally of what’s left, what might be left for her, the last sleight of hand she’ll cast over her children, but hopefully, she’ll think, her last of everything will be enough to set them all up, just a little, where they’re going, and the place itself she cannot see but knows it’s there, knows it, feels it, the promise that’s invested in the running moment. She imagines her long gone father, just for a moment. Gazing at her softly, bleakly in the way he used to, he seems to raise one ghostly hand toward the rain-smeared window, the hand quavering in mid-air, her children and grandchildren are bright blurs outside the glass. And caught in the loops of water running down the pane.
The rain comes down then, hard and sudden, throws a dark veil over everything, a shadow. She finds a deep hole in her mind and buries herself in it, Dee-Men-Chaaa, is what her doctor calls that, “Demon Char,” he runs the sound of it along his tongue and smiles. A long, grave smile.
And the sky was grey and heavy and foreboding, she thinks, when the children left, storms coming, always the storms, but it doesn’t matter, as her senses fall away in pieces and in parts and the great forgetting beckons, either a forgetting or a different species of understanding, you can’t say which. And she’ll watch the tree outside the kitchen window, hauling its vast arms in the air, being thrown about and battered by the first bomb’s blast and then the next one and the next one and the next, somehow they all miss that tree, she thinks, perhaps they’ll always, dangerous to gamble, hope, delay, she knows it, better run before, only because you can’t run after, and it doesn’t matter, the storm, she tells herself, because safety’s not a quality of light, of rain or sunshine, cold or heat, she’ll think, but of a father, of your father, who is just a man. And he’ll smile, softly, gently, as she leans towards his ghost, her heart is cracking open like an egg. In two clean empty parts.
One morning she forgets her grandson’s name, curls over on her own doorstep. She howls. Thinking of the boy, of his soft infant features, dark irisless eyes, small body bumping at her daughter’s spine that day as the children ran, him entangling baby fingers in his mother’s hair, and hers too, when she’d leaned in to kiss her daughter brusquely, for the last time, she’d had to stand quite still as they’d pulled his tiny fingers out of the knots in her steel gray curls, because it is time, because it’s now, now, Now. And as her heart is softly cracked, in two clean pieces, she finds she always knew it would come to this. Because we inherit fear with all the other things. Fear with the clocks and watches, only so we’ll know when it’s time to run.
So when her long gone mother whispers down her mind’s left ear, she’s unsurprised.
And still unsurprised, even when that long gone voice is joined by her dead grandmother, that woman who’d once crossed a continent with her mother as a baby, bumping at her spine too, and Mother’s tiny fingers curling in Grandmother’s hair. It’s never over. Demon Char softly shifts behind her, tilts its knowing head.
The baby’s name won’t come to her the next day either, it’s sudden, she thinks, when it happens. And she roots for the now nameless child like conjuring things.
“No.” She had said. “No.” As her daughter had pulled her softly toward the front door on that last day, “Come!” And the old woman had to calculate what her daughter would refuse to, how much an old woman could slow them down. “No.” And in that moment she is boiled down to that word. And then it’s No to her very veins and bones and sinews, No through the corsets and the pearls, No thrown to the roofs and rafters and the bubbling plaster walls, the cracked kitchen sink, It’s always been No. But her daughter’s face flinching with hurt, with bewilderment, because the children never understand, never, and it’s better that way. She’d dug a long, slow fingernail into the soft part between her knuckle and her thumb, ground it there slowly, thrusting out her chin to stop the tears. “Get Gone.” She told her daughter fiercely. The last dark gift, she thought, looking at the way the hair curled into the soft dip at the back of her daughter’s neck, and then she pushed her toward the door. “This is my house,” she said to her daughter, her daughter who was turning back to her once more, once more faltering in her tracks, she was turning, turning. The old woman responded to this with some ferocity, she opened the door, she hardened her heart, she’d tried to harden her heart.
Her daughter sighed and turned away to button her middle son’s backpack.
And once the softest parts of her were gone, in the form of her children and grandchildren, then she no longer felt soft at all. She felt invincible in defence, if only for a moment. Like every grandmother in her own lineage who was ever left behind, she told herself then, when the children ran, when she told them to, when she made them, summoning her whole self to get them gone.
Next day, in her mind’s eye, all the children are leaving, all the children in the world, as an eternal line of old women troop through her memory then and she joins them, takes the place they’d readied for her, she believes, come on, come on, they’ll say to her, with love, a single voice, running down her left and inside ear. A hundred old women she has conjured now, her mind’s eye, in long ranks, their gray hair curling, dusty, in just the way hers curls, their eyes are dark, irisless or else tawny, lapis lazuli and silver, only the lousy ancient knees are always the same. The knees. That are the other inheritance they’d taken with them on their travels across the earth, the women of her family, getting stuck sometimes in the rucked rich country earth, unholy mud, the knees, inherited along with the stubbornness, and what stubbornness, watching their children leaving, spying on them fiercely through a hundred gold lit door hinges, and the children seem to whir and bob, from this distance, ‘Don’t turn, don’t turn, don’t turn,’ the old women mutter toward them as they go.
Prayers for the living, she thinks. And then she couldn’t go on with that thought.
Demon Char dips and rises, falls again.
She’d buckled behind that closed front door, she’d folded. ‘His name,’ she thinks, ‘His name already’, like ash dunes, after the bombings, slowly washing to the doorstep of her mind. And her mouth had opened to make a perfect O. Slow and amazed.
And now, through the low slung kitchen window, somewhere at the rockoned skyline, she imagines she still sees the children, like small dots against the land, she thinks, like they’re ripe to fly, and tells herself ‘And then they go out, like small lights, into the place, the places, that you can’t see, spreading out across the dark unfathomable land and going on, using the money of men and women whom they’d never met but who had worked their whole lives, as it turned out, toward this moment.’
Prayers for the dead, she mutters a quiet thank you to her father, that chink and chink he makes in her children’s shoes, and tells herself she hears her father whispering still, in the tick and clink of metal upon metal coin, a thin voice heard in the rattling, and a chance then for them. In the place you could not see but knew was there, the safe place, and she’s throwing back her head, softly butting at the wooden door behind her, ‘You just knew it, running, walking, rattling down the train tracks, sailing, flying into the future, going on and on. No home, no home at all. For any of us. Prayers for the living.’ She thinks, screwing her right fist into the cold pain along her pelvic bone. ‘Godless and most necessary prayers.’
She wonders how she’ll get up from this floor. Feeling the cold hard kitchen tile now.
‘Wanting to get up, that’s the trick’, she thinks. ‘That isn’t nothing. Though whether I can get up or not, Well.” She sighs, she strains against the door handle, ‘That’s a different question.’
“Go on, Child,” she’d spat angrily, at her daughter, because she was turning, tripping, on that last day, knowing that she’s seeing her mother for the last time, “Go On, Child!” And so the old woman in that last light dashing the misty view to pieces, throwing out the rose tints and the petals, the soft falling light, so’s she’ll look bloody boiling mad in the final frame. And then thrusting out her chin, shutting the door.
It was her last gift to the children, her worst and best gift, “Just go!”
She’d known enough to move from the window then, because her daughter was still hovering, trembling with the enormity of the turning page, the huge oak at the bottom of the garden dragging its vast arms in the air and shook like being hauled out by the roots, the leaves were shuddering and the branches creaking, rising. Then the old woman watched her through the hinges of the door, muttering things she couldn’t say out loud, ‘Prayers for the living’.
Her eldest daughter’s wavering onward feet, ‘Prayers for the onwardness and for the wavering, prayers for the feet. Above all things,’ the old woman thinks, ‘prayers for the feet.’
And rubbing at her aching pelvis, watching the sky, she pauses like that.
‘Any kind of prayers. It all will sound the same when this dark comes down’.
“Gone.” She’d told the neighbours, days later, as the dank of early morning turned into a sweltering afternoon. And then her own stout feet are heading homeward from the busy market, where she suddenly remembered she’d nothing to buy supper with, then seems to hear it in the rattling wheels of a passing car also, “Go on, go on, and just keep going, running ’til you’re past the bomb-dust, ’til you’re past the ruins of all this, this…”.
And she thinks of her father once more, what he’d left behind of himself, now heard rattling in the hems of skirts and false bottoms of children’s shoes, she’d sewn Him to them all through that last night, Money. Her needle going in and out and flashing in the lamplight, bent to the task like a sacred ritual, perhaps the ancient kind, and the sacrifice that’s torn asunder, stitched back in slow parts, quite changed. ‘Money. Yes,’ she thinks, ‘those ‘magic stones’ are real enough,’ mere twitches of battered metal or small printed letters, with their patterns and their swirls, which can be exchanged for other things, by some strange incantations, like the right to flee unharmed, the freedom to live and then the sense of things curls into Demon Char.
Money is what her father had amounted to.
What he’d left behind him.
“And it depends how you look at it,” she thinks aloud.
And Father’s voice, his work, his sacrifice, uncurling in the fleeing moment now, in the clink of metal clacking into metal, gold watches, shining gem stones, red and gold and lapis lazuli blue, silver, silver, all of it.
Demon Char gathers, rises.
Soft and dark behind her.
‘Listen carefully,’ she thinks, ‘not everyone can hear my father’s music, the soft steps and the hard ones and the lilting leaps, go on, go on, go on,’ she tells them, in her mind’s eye, her own voice running down her long left ear, ‘Go on and just keep going, tink, tink and chink and softly rolling silk. Only take with you what you can carry. Only ever buy what you can take, what you can roll in rags and run with.’
That was her father’s credo all his long life. Although he never said it out loud.
“So take Him with you, take him back,” she tells the children, in her mind’s eye, and that lone voice running down her mind’s left ear, “His last gift to you, his last of everything, because you’ve got to love it all to love at all,” remembering how often Father would infuriate her, and his many blindnesses, “But a generation’s worth of back ache and chafed fingers”, the way that best of minds, she thinks, was turned, again and again, with each blood beat, to the most brain-boiling and soul-curling work until his brain quite boiled, his soul quite curled, “So take it now, my life, my unlived lives, the past shouts,” she says and she stops in the street and raises up her arms. No longer muttering to herself but shouting, crying, curling into all the clarity of madness, “Take it! Run now, he Always Meant It For This!” And with a sudden and an unfathomable joy, prayers for the mad and for the madness, drops her bags in the street, drops everything and rises, nearly knocking a cyclist off his bike, he turns and curses, and she comes back to herself a little, finding that she’s honoured her father to a nearly empty street, to the chicken peeping from the dusty gutter, “Take It All!” She roars at the chicken, who appears to listen gravely, and two mustached men passing roll their eyes and snigger, “Take all we ever were or will be soon, don’t …” and her throat is wrecked from roaring at the backs of the sniggering men, “Don’t Turn”.
And she can’t remember who she is for one long moment.
What she came here for, what she feels, she can’t even feel it, then, “Don’t Falter.”
And she’s muttering to herself and she’s faltering, telling it to herself now, to a chicken,”Like a baton,” she says, then feels it curling into light once more and then remembering, Demon Char curls one solid looking finger at her, beckons her closer, “A baton, that’s not handed down but thrown. A long, slow lob, parent to child and on and on and so one hand to the next and hard and slow and skilled it was, that lob,” she points a bony finger at the chicken, sighs. “And the… the baton rises.”
The chicken tilts its head in wonderment, the moment passes slowly.
There’s a cold feeling in her stomach, seeps toward her bones.
A long slow coil of doubt, she pauses, like that, on the pavement. Doubting.
“I’m a silly old woman.”
‘Prayers for the mad and for the madness,’ Mother says. It’s sudden. Down her left ear. ‘Godless, twisted, necessary prayers, also nothing less than the injunction of every grandmother behind you, going back a thousand years or more’, and she screws that fist into the pain that’s moved to the left side of her pelvis.
” ‘I am not coming,’ I said.”
‘Your own grandmother said the same. The same words, all the languages there are’.
The chicken scatters wildly as the old woman rises to her feet, she watches it go thoughtfully, fingering the strand of hair that was once caught by her scarf and isn’t now.
The child watches her mother get up from the huddle of anxious adults, softly picking at the ground with sticks and talking in low voices and, wearing the old woman’s scarf, the child’s mother picks her way around the rocks and rubble of the bombed out barn, and bothers with the children, scratching their own small sticks into the old barnyard floor, in unconscious mimicry of the adults, making their own endless swirls and plans and patterns in the dust, then she steps clear across the barnyard floor, still wearing her mother’s scarf ’til one of the men calls out to her and she turns softly toward him, looks, “Take it off”, he says and gestures toward the scarf. “Take it off.” He says. And the child’s mother stands there bewildered for a moment longer, and several turn their heads to look at her, “It’s a dead giveaway”, he says, or something like that. Again, words said and unsaid, said again, a thousand years or more of passing through, of passing by, of passing for the other. The same words in every language that there is.
And then the mother seems to see, to see what he means and, still as if she’s dreaming, takes it off. Soft black curls tumble down her neck, slow and forlorn, unraveled from the scarf. She stands there for a moment longer, gazing, not at him, not at anybody, lost in the middle distance, “What about my hair?” She says. As if to no one, to the air around her, to herself. And she stops. She sits down on the busted wall behind her. She gives up. Her brother’s wife picks her way toward her with the scissors. “We’ll give you a nice bob.” She says, she says something like that, then with a single gesture toward the children seems to gather them up, herd them toward their father, “Eat something.” She tells the children then she gets to work on the mother, not without sympathy, soft black curls falling to the barn floor, buried in the bomb dust and the rubble. She kicks over the traces before the mother sees what she has lost, then stands on them, she clips and clips and when she sees the hair-shorn woman’s daughter watching her so shrewdly, so carefully, so amazed, then the aunt turns away from the excavation in those bright large eyes, lapis lazuli and silver, also green and edged with gold about the iris, and hums a light song from the radio, something about a girl leaving things behind, something about love, something about leaving, unfathomable to the woman-child but it has a catchy tone and the woman-child stands up suddenly. She’s hungry and she gets up with the others, striding so wide-legged, lolloping, she is definitively a child in the moment, nothing else, wide rushing gestures of the sort that her grandmother as a child made too, going everywhere she went as fast as birds and bees, her father used to say in a sing-song at the gate as he came home, as he gathered her up at the gate and threw her, laughing, over his shoulder, “As fast as flying things,” he’d say in a lilting sing-song, and had they only known it then, the problems with the knees already there, and in the grandchild too, in this woman-child who’s lolloping now and keening forward, fast as her grandmother once went, and only a soft crunching in her now, just now, but the stillness that those lolloping, striding, leaping legs will come to written there too, from the beginning, even in the lope, the stride, the racing moment of the bright-lit child, rushing onward with the things she has forgotten, all the things she can’t forget or won’t. Them too, them too. The soft swish of her skirts, the silks, soft rattle of precious stones along her hemlines and the bumps of all the hidden pockets at her skin. Her dark, warm skin and the bloodbeat just beneath it too, under the silken rustle and the soft rattling of beads.
Prayers for the dead.
Later the child finds Grandmother’s key in her pocket. Rusting but solid and it glistens in the long seam of her palm. When she was small her grandmother would never let the child leave the house without giving her The Rules to follow, sternly and brooking no dissent whatever. The child can still remember her grandmother looking her in the eye, softly, warmly, as a general can be sometimes with his troops, the key to the door held out toward the child so that the child could let herself back safely when she got done playing, and then as the child held the latch ready to go, “Home.” Grandmother used to say. “Before the dark, Child.” Pointing at the gentle space then, between the child’s eyes. Holding her short and very square brown finger there before her, and that way casting a stop over the other sorts of clock a child might care to find. In shadows or the drift of dust and other shades of grey. “Before the dark comes plunging on your head.” And held the child’s head against her apron, one long moment, fiercely, and then holding her apart, the child’s grandmother would clarify, “It’ll come down fast, the dark, Child. When it comes.” And pointing out the shades of grey, “So not ‘a little dark’, not ‘mostly dark’, not when any but your own eyes tell you what it is. Come running. Before not after dark starts, no excuses.” Pointing her stubby nailed and sun browned vein-strewn finger. Framing the child with rules. And only, “Yes.” The child would tell her grandmother, happily, in those suddenly disappeared days, “Home before the dark. And I’ll be good.” Not remembering the question. If there was one.
Only now that the adults are stressed and anxious and exhausted, the children too scared to whine, only now the girl misses her grandmother’s sun-browned, vein-strewn pointing finger. Laying out the world for her in black and white.
Her own small hand lays softly in her lap, she raises it and looks. Gently amazed.
There was an important moment days back but she hadn’t known it then, being just a child, having nothing to compare it with, all of the moments seem important to a child. Her grandmother was hedged about by policemen. One held her scrawny wrist, not rough but firmly. And her grandmother hadn’t spoken, passing the child. She had acted like she barely knew her, knowing how this policemen likes to know the value of all things, so then what value child to grandmother, or grandmother to a child?. And of course her grandmother had returned, and the policeman was all smiles then, a long curved, grim-lit thing, that slow smile, leering and patting his pocket and Grandmother pats his arm, apparently they are great friends now and he is full of charming words that fall short of apology. Later, after her grandmother locked the door after him, in all three places, the child thought she saw the dark lines of her grandmother’s skull, just for a moment. A grey shape moving deathly underneath her skin.
The child had dreamed about The Important Moment on that last night, fitfully, in candle light as her grandmother took her clothes, her shoes, and did strange things to them, there was a needle going in and out like that and flashing in the small flame, then the child had slept and dreamed about that bombed and depthless cat’s eye that was her grandmother’s as she left them that day, the policeman’s hand a claw around her thin, old wrist, in this dreaming. And then only a few days later her grandmother had seemed to turn against her family so abruptly, to turn away like that with a capacity for cold they’d never dreamed of, and in all the granddaughter’s dreams thereafter her grandmother turns her once more in that cold cat eye, the child quite bemused by it, just as her mother had been.
Because only an old woman understands the impossibility of protecting anyone you love from anything at all, perhaps only an old woman understands it.
And so the old woman’s twisted, necessary prayer, as she shuts the door behind them, it will sound like madness, sound like muttering, it will sound and look, and even feel, just like despair although it’s nothing of the kind, nothing of the kind, the same exact time, only fearing bottomlessly, in the way you fear for children, then a rooting, to the veins and bones and sinews, to the growling stomach and the aching pelvis, to the sharp pain in the soft skin of her hand where the fingernail drove in that last day, rooting for them with a savagery that’s unfathomable and strange, for the children to go on, go on, go on and just keep going. And in every language that there is, has ever been, and down the ages, eons, before even the words there was the grandmother, rooting for their travelling feet, their running feet, although the wooden door hinge that she’d peered through will have been the wood itself, the door’s lamp-lit edges just slow falling light. Falling in its traces.
“Run!” She will say, not clawing at the children’s heels but rooting for their feet, their wavering onward feet, their feet, their smooth hard and still growing feet.
There’s nothing else.
And then as if the radio playing tinnily in the bombed out barn changes its tune, with all the children gone, and starts to sing Demon Char’s song instead. Something about the phantom limbs, the hidden hands that help us, and then the flesh and sinew, silk and stone, the soft rattling and the chink and clink of round metal safety nets, that the living can exchange for other things, Demon Char sings, all down the left and inside ear, like safe passage and the right to flee unharmed, flat shining stones, then start again, start again at the beginning, and without them, where they’re going, and still nothing lost, nothing can be lost or taken, nor can it be, not ever, the past being written in us to the veins and sinews, secrets in our bones, also the inheritance of fear and a certain quality in the way we say goodbye, and so we take it with us anyway, anywhere, the past not dead, not even past, all that, Amen. We know not what we are.
Prayers for the dead.
For the running moment and the secrets sewn to us, the futures written in our bones, and the radio chimes merrily in the burnt out space, in the bomb dust, in the ruins of everything, and the past not dead not even past, and safety just a quality of grandmothers with their stony and uncompromised goodbyes and of our mothers. Our mothers, running, running without looking back, a soft shift in the light and watch us go. Watch them go.
Prayers for the smooth unfolding limbs, the leap, the seamless joints of knees, the running moment, then, prayers for their slowing and their crumbling, prayers for what makes them crumble, bloodily and savagely and rising, because you’ve got to love it all to love at all, and all of it, all of it. To the veins and living sinew, oh, oh, oh, the bones,
Prayers for the living.
Godless and most necessary prayers.
And the tinny radio claps out at last and they let it lie and in a bit the dust will seal transmission, clog the works, and still the music plays on, running down the child’s left and inside ear. “Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry, Child.”
The child imagines rolling off Grandmother’s shoulders like a sigh, like a song,
“Because you’ve got to feel it all to feel at all.”
The old woman will make a small remembrance of her grandmother when she gets home from the market, and one for her mother who had once come running past us somewhere near here, with her before she’d even seen the light of day, unborn, and as her cloth bag wrestles strangely, tries to remember swishing in the red, gold lit, against her mother’s pelvic bones. Being shaken gently to the rhythm of her mother’s pounding feet. Knowing safety in that moment was not a quality of light but only of her mother. Of her mother as she ran and stumbled, picked herself up out of the dark rucked, bloodied earth, caught her breath and ran again.
The old woman pauses at her front door, puts a hand out, she leans hard against the hinge. Opens up the dusty shopping bag with the other hand. Then slowly, tenderly pulls the chicken out.