My mother had a house in the Blue Mountains, has a house up there still. I went up to there after I did the Bad Thing to myself. I knew the house would be empty that week, and I knew under which pot plant the spare key was hidden. I was meant to be in classes, so I emailed my professors with unclear stories. A sick grandmother, I told one. Appendicitis, I told another. I borrowed my housemate’s car and drove out along the highway the two hours from the city, the radio on, yellow lights slipping by. Far beyond the road flames vaulted up into the night from the chemical plant at Silverwater where the poison turns fresh air to fire. It was almost beautiful. In the dark.
Red and white lights darted past me until the traffic disappeared just before Medlow Bath and the turn-off. My mother had owned the house for ten years. She had inherited it from a great aunt who’d lived and died a quiet death, up there amongst the bushfires and rhododendrons and tea. My mother adored the house. It was too far from her office for her to consider living there permanently, but she used it every other weekend, tending roses and tramping through the vegetable patch in gumboots, leaving them at the door so as not to trail mud through the kitchen and its hardwood floors. The house was warm, it smelt like roast dinners even when there was nothing in the oven. In the morning the air was sharp in your lungs.
PULL QUOTE: I needed time for the Bad Thing to settle
I had spent the past week walking into the graffitied bathrooms in the university library, closing the door and sitting down on the closed toilet lid. I needed time for the Bad Thing to settle. I stared straight ahead. Now. Now is when you cry.
I stared still.
But nothing happened.
There were advertisements taped to the bathroom door. International students offered tutoring in Korean and Mandarin, flyers for the Rape Counselling Hotline, invitations from the Psychology department to be involved in experimental research on the condition that you had a long-standing and potentially troubling affinity for certain types of over-the-counter pain relievers. I stood up, opened the door, cupped my hands in the sink to splash water on my face and gazed at my reflection in the mirror.
There was only a very small vanity mirror in the Mountains. And no internet. Once I had turned off my phone the night was silent but for the heat rising in the pipes, the rustle of possums in far off trees. I turned off all the lights and I slept. In the morning the daylight filtered through the blinds. I looked at the closed door and the cold light and I lay very still, in the quiet, in the room. In my on my own. Where there was a mirror that was empty. Where my shoes lay turned at acute angles, kicked off my feet to the floor. Where the bedspread was rumpled and kicked to the side. The smell of empty spread out through the air.
The next morning I wrapped myself in an old, tartan dressing gown that reeked of cigarette smoke and stepped out into the icy garden. In the air drifted the scent of firewood and eucalyptus trees – a sharp, clean smell I supposed had always been there.
I wanted none of it. I went back inside and crawled into bed. I read the novel I had, about artists in New York, and when the light crept to the western wall of the room I watched films on my laptop, about artists in New York. When evening came I drank steadily. A bottle of cooking sherry I’d dug out from the back shed. I ate chocolate, an orange, and salmon from a tin. When I slept, I slept without dreaming. I kept the curtains closed. The whole house was sterile. Nothing could fester. Although nothing could grow, either. I was inside a parenthesis. And there was no reason to leave the clean, white plane of the sheets.
I had been sitting at the edge of the university grounds when I called Luke, at the end of the empty veranda that ran down the side of the Holme building Engirded by oleander. Deserted and worryingly quiet. As though the whole campus had been abandoned after some catastrophic tropical storm.
There were things I knew that I had to do. Things I had absorbed from films or books maybe. There was a special choreography to the whole thing that I couldn’t get right without talking to him, and I knew, distantly, there was some moral imperative to doing so. But I didn’t know how to get through to him anymore. The month before he had taken to wearing a hoodie which shielded most of his forehead and everything in his peripheral vision. He was afraid that his eyes might stray to the space around him. His world had become so narrow that it had filled out and acquired depth, a canopy, a sterile ecology. It grew so densely around him that he had become lost in it.
PULL QUOTE: And all I could do was apologise for ruining his birthday.
We hadn’t spoken in two weeks because we’d agreed it was for the best.
It was his birthday.
I wanted to present him with a conclusion, a scenario in which there was no choice that needed to be made. His voice sounded distant. Very far away.
He said he couldn’t come with me. He just. He. Just wasn’t. No.
I should tell somebody else.
And all I could do was apologise for ruining his birthday.
I stayed longer. I liked the emptiness of the town. It reminded me of mornings when I was little, waking up warm under the eiderdown, the few moments I could lie there in the soft sheets before padding down the hallway in my slippers to my grandmother.
My grandparents had lived on a small farm on the coast before they died. My mother would drive me down and leave me to spend the school holidays with them. I collected eggs from the chickens in the morning, swam in the nearby ocean, fed the pigs and horses, set the table at night with wildflowers snatched from neighbouring hedgerows and scrub. In the photographs I have of myself from then I’m forever racing about in blue dresses, strawberry blonde curls a tumult around my head.
PULL QUOTE: I saw the knife, heard the sound of her cry, almost human
In the autumn my grandfather went down to the paddock and killed one of the pigs. I wasn’t supposed to see, but the year I turned ten I managed to find a hiding spot and watched. My uncle and grandfather restrained her. I saw the way her body went stiff in their arms, as though it hadn’t occurred to her that she could struggle. I saw the knife, heard the sound of her cry, almost human, then my grandfather and uncle rolled the body into the trough. I sat for a long time looking at it from my place in the garden. The longer it laid there the less it looked like the dirty pink thing I had patted and fed. My grandfather spent the rest of the afternoon storing and preparing the butchered parts.
My grandmother explained how she preserved the meat. The pork belly would sit in an airtight Tupperware container in the garage. Each morning she would take it out and meditatively rub it with a mixture of salt, brown sugar, pepper and bay leaves. The salt was what preserved the meat, she explained. The bacteria and fungi couldn’t survive in so much salt, so there was no decay.
When I went to the beach by their house that day I swam out to a flat rock and sat drying in the sun. I looked at the fine dusting of salt across my shoulders, and I remembered the dark room and the pork in the Tupperware container. I thought about how much salt it would take to preserve me as I dried my hair on the flat rock, far from land. Where no decisions needed to be made, where there was no going forward and no moving back. Like Lot’s wife looking back upon Sodom and longing for it.
PULL QUOTE: Scrawled doctor handwriting. Like thorns.
There is no part of me that wants it, I said to her. She snapped her eyes away from me and back to the prescription pad she was writing on. Scrawled doctor handwriting. Like thorns. I needed to say it. Because it was close to frightening. That I couldn’t feel anything about this idea in my belly. This is a thing people feel things about.
She glanced up at me, her eyes full of disdain. She was round, pink in places people usually aren’t pink. Her skirt was faded around her ankles, her jacket long, boxy and tight around her upper arms like it had been tailored badly in 1986 and she’d never fixed it.
Don’t be ridiculous, she said. Of course you want it.
No, I said. I wanted her to understand. I don’t. There’s nothing. This isn’t even a choice. I wanted her to understand how astonishing it was that I felt nothing.
After four days in the house I ran out of food. I walked up the road to the bakery, my boots crunching through the frost hardened to the grass overnight. I ordered black coffee and a chocolate croissant and then I went outside to the long table. I sat reading, picking at the pastry with buttery fingers.
Look who it is. I looked up and saw Ian, the old man from three doors down, heading towards my table. I thought it was your mother there for a minute. You look so alike.
Many men before him had apprised me of this.
Ian’s voice gave the impression of being issued from a powerful man. He walked like he was marching. But Ian was unemployed, and had been for some time before they found the thing that was eating him on the inside. Now he looked deflated, the skin on his face papery and loose, dark rings under his eyes which could have been as much from the illness as from the three bottles of wine he’d put away between lunch and bedtime the day before.
I’ve seen the lights on in the house, but I haven’t seen you out and about. I told him he must have missed me. I willed him not to sit down with all the hostility I could hold in my shoulders.
What have you been up to? he said, shifting the discarded sports section further down the bench. Not much, I told him.
Did you hear the racket last night? he asked.
No, I didn’t hear anything.
I had, in fact, been woken in the middle of the night by what sounded like something crying out. Quiet again. And then screaming. The blood pounded in my ears and I was unendurably alert to how alone, how trapped, I was in the house. The room expanded around me as though all the darkness was crowding in. I couldn’t move.
I went to The Rose after a seminar, and came back from the bar with a bottle of the cheapest red wine. There were three on the table already. We sat on long benches outside in our coats, sitting snug to one another for the warmth. I drank the whole thing away. I wanted to be resolute. I thought, somewhere in a place that wasn’t quite thought, that even if I kept what was inside, it would be damaged. Broken. The cells too fractured to grow. Too broken to make anything nice.
I didn’t want a nice thing.
I drank until I was slick with it. Pure alcohol. We left the pub and bought more wine and drank as we walked, drank in parks. Played on swings. I laughed. I loved the. Something of it all. Feeling weightless, empty.
In the Erskineville tangle of a garden I sat on a stolen plastic chair smoking cigarettes with someone from my seminar, a man whose voice was low and deep. He looked at me with a directness that felt explicit. I floundered in it helplessly. In some secret CinemaScope part of myself where the artificial rain falls I could hear him say to me that he would have me, take me, that he would build me a house at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow.
I climbed the stairs to his room and turned out the light on my almost naked body and crawled into bed beside him. His body swallowed mine and I wanted to tell him that he could, that it was safe, inside of me. For the first time it was safe. But I didn’t. He held me and when I woke up the next morning there were moments, the first moments, where I felt easy in his arms. He threaded his fingers through my hair. I lay there with him for a long while. My mind thought to the side of the Bad Thing, as though it wasn’t a thing at all.
I walked home from his house in the late afternoon, along a busy road during rush hour. The six lanes of traffic made the pavement vibrate beneath my feet. It was ugly, noisy, fume-clogged. But I walked that way so that I could be alone with it.
PULL QUOTE: I wanted people to keep away, like an animal caged in the house of my body.
I wanted to bite somebody. I wanted to growl. I wanted people to keep away, like an animal caged in the house of my body.
I told Ian I was going to go to Pope’s Glen and then to walk down into the valley to Bridal Veil Falls. I guessed. I wasn’t sure. It was misty. There would be fewer walkers. I hadn’t thought about going anywhere at all, but I didn’t want him to think I would be home to visit if the mood struck him.
That’s a bit of a walk, you know, Ian said. I agreed.
You heard about the body they found around there? I had not.
He only knew what he’d heard from the bloke at the pub whose brother-in-law was one of the local policeman sent down to deal with it. The table rasped as he leant toward me. I closed my book as he spoke. There was a woman, a little while ago.
The woman had left some clothing behind at her sister’s house when she hopped into a taxi one day in 1969. As though she were coming back. She had been jilted by some Canadian, or maybe an American, nobody seemed entirely clear. Nobody reported her missing. Because of the clothing. They carried on, thinking she must be having a nice time somewhere, with somebody taking care of her. But she had taken the taxi away from the airport, into the middle of the bush. She paid the driver in fresh ten-dollar bills and he left her along the side of the road with two suitcases, surrounded by trees.
She walked along paths cluttered with dry leaves and twigs, deep into the remotest parts of the canyons. She found a cave with a high ceiling, which sheltered the entrance from the rain. She set up a banana lounge, her treasures, some canvases. And she lived there until she died. From exposure, they said. Some poor kid discovered the skeleton a couple of years back – stretched out on the sun-bleached banana lounge, surrounded by jewellery, handbags, a bank passbook, a knife, fork, and a vinyl record of The Last Waltz recorded in French. She still wore her mother’s wedding ring on what had once been her finger.
No, I said. I hadn’t heard about the woman they had found.
Well you just be careful, said Ian. People get lost out there, and it’s not easy to find your way back.
Back at the house I found a parka and some cheap sandshoes in the laundry. I put on an extra pair of tights and a jumper over the flimsy dress I’d brought. The only dress I’d brought with me. I put some things in a backpack: some water, Band-aids, a tattered Visit the Blue Mountains guide from 2003, with a sunscreen-thumbed map printed on the back. I drove over to Pope’s Glen, parked the car under a blue gum and walked down the hill.
Since I was a child, I had never felt at ease on the thin dirt paths, mapped badly onto an unmappable terrain. They had an eerie, malevolent quality. When I was six our teachers first herded us onto coaches and drove us two hours from school, and they emptied us out into a national park so that we could go walking through the bush. They did it every year, and always when it was hot, the kind of hot you should stay in the shade for. They told us to look at the flowers, the tall trees and the leaves, but everything was always the same interminable middle-shade between green and grey. The scrub scratched at my legs and stung me, and I was forever falling and scraping my knees in an endless kind of surrender to the thing.
PULL QUOTE: I was scared of the bush. I was sure it did not want me.
But as I walked towards the Falls and the sun cast bars of darkness across the path I thought that perhaps it wasn’t dull so much as a medium for light. There was a painting that hung over the bed I slept in at my grandparents’ house. Before I fell asleep I’d stare at it, thinking about what it could possibly mean. A young girl in a blue dress clutched a sprig of mistletoe in her apron, all but trapped in the vertical bars of a eucalyptus forest, the bush swallowing her up in the glare of the sun. That painting was muddled up in my subconscious with stories of dead explorers, fallen women, lost children, firemen on the television the summer before, families poking over charred photo albums, smoky late afternoons when the sun turned blood red as it moved away from the coast. I was scared of the bush. I was sure it did not want me.
After an hour, we came to a clearing, and we sat cross-legged on the rocks. A park ranger accompanied by an Aboriginal man in paint-stained boots showed us faint drawings on a rock, the animal figures sealed off behind logs mounted on smaller logs. They explained how the people who painted the animals and the plants had loved them. Had understood this place. And I felt rebuked because I was scared of it, felt like it could swallow me up along with all those men who walked out into the landscape to conquer it and died.
The ranger pointed to the trees growing around the rock, black and dead. The fires had gotten to them. He held up a spiked burnt-looking thing, something that might once have been a blossom, and asked us if we knew what it was. We all shrugged.
He explained that it was a flower fallen from the branches of a banksia tree. And that, despite how black it was, the fire hadn’t killed it. The trees needed the fire to grow. The ranger handed us the black thing so that we could feel the woody, two-valved capsules opened up like hungry mouths. He explained that the trees wouldn’t spread their seed unless they are exposed to extreme heat, the kind of heat you only get in a fire. That the trees grow on ashen ground, sterile, empty, cleaned by heat.
PULL QUOTE: Breathing tasted strange, like peppermint, with all the sensation and none of the flavour.
The further down the hill from Pope’s Glen that I walked, the quieter it became. There were plaintive cries from birds, the rustling of lizards and small animals, and sometimes the sound of water. Breathing tasted strange, like peppermint, with all the sensation and none of the flavour. The sunlight acquired a murky quality. Gum trees and ferns grew at implausible angles, and there was a lot of obstreperous bush and things with thorns that discouraged straying too far from the thin dirt path.
Everything down there undulated to the beat of some subterranean music. Everything was dancing: fronds, leaves, twigs, everything. I understood why the woman who they found in the cave might have sought solitude out there, why she might walk so far into such inhospitable country. When things grew so densely between you and the world it was easy to become trapped, until all that was left was a knife and fork, a banana lounge, and a recording of The Last Waltz in French.
I walked for hours before stopping to eat the sandwich I’d bought myself in the village. I emptied a bottle of orange juice. The trees were all grey, or maybe green. I put one foot in front of the other and kept an eye out for snakes on the path. Although I did not know whether it was the right time of year for snakes.
PULL QUOTE: There were charred banksias, their little mouths open.
In a shaft of light I walked into a grove of ashen trees, back burnt, in preparation for the summer. On one side of the path there was green, the other was burnt out, ash, branches of chalked bones. There were charred banksias, their little mouths open.
After ten minutes of silence I heard a cry. I turned to look behind me. Something white flickered amongst the trees. Distant, shadowed, child-height. Something alive. Excruciatingly alive and encaged. There was another cry, and a nickering giggle, branches crackling underfoot. A milky, melting light moving swiftly through the trees. Ash stirred from the ground and floated in the air, obscuring my vision. But in that flicker it had looked like a little girl. In a blue dress, her hair a tumult around her head.
I gazed out into the trees long after the bush was silent once again. Waiting. But there is only so long a person can wait. It had sounded human. But I knew that not all things that cried out were human. Pigs screamed at the knife.
An hour more of walking and the path began to tend right, across a creek, to the hill I needed to ascend to get out of the valley. I was tired. As I walked I stumbled, taking a header into a thorned bush, gasping, embracing it dreadfully.
When I got back to the house I peeled off my cold and dirty clothes and threw them in the laundry sink, wrapping myself in the smoky tartan dressing gown. I stood on the kitchen steps and looked out to the back of the garden, across the grass to where the roses grew. I was drinking gin. I had taken three sleeping pills.
My limbs felt longer than their length. My cheeks were warm. I was drunk. I thought about hoods, bottles, banana chairs, the little thing in the trees. I thought about the drive up there on the highway, and how the factory threw shapes of flame into the night.
PULL QUOTE: Some howl came from me.
I thought about the green shapes my pulse had made on the heart monitor, when they had attached the clip to a finger of my right hand. And I thought about how I shivered, how they couldn’t make me stop shivering, and how, when the anaesthesiologist had rolled up my sleeve to past my elbow so that she could insert the cannula I had been surprised by how pale my arms were, I had not remembered that my body was so pale, and I thought about how I had looked away, as though I were six years old so I could bear the fear of needles, and I thought about how when I’d come out of the ether I was crying, and the nurses asked what was wrong and I had said it hurts, and the pain had wrenched through my abdomen and I’d whimpered but I had been too weak to lift my head to look at them. And then they had left me alone in the bed behind the curtain.
And some howl came from me.
And I thought about how strange it was that that was the only time I had cried.
I went to bed very late, tangled in the sheets that were beginning to grow sweaty and sticky with liquor. I opened up the curtains, and the window was huge. From bed I watched the lights snap off in the row of neat cottages until all that was left was Ian’s shadow moving through the rooms of his empty house. In the middle of the night a thunderous diesel train reverberated through the leaves. Heading east to the coast, to be engulfed by the shapes of the city. In the dark.
Madeleine Watts is a Sydney-born writer of fiction, essays and journalism based in New York. Her writing has appeared in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Believer, The Hairpin, Junkee and Griffith Review amongst others.
This story has been edited since it was first published in The Lifted Brow: Digital, Volume 15, Issue 2 to amend a minor and unintentional resemblance to another piece of published fiction.