‘Swimming’, by Emma Marie Jones


Photograph by Mimolalen. Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence.

I catalogue trauma. My memory touches on it, a thumbnail of anguish, but it won’t let me zoom in. My flight home is like this, a cameo framed in an airline window.

I last spoke to my family on the phone on Christmas morning. It was just past midnight in Germany, and I had a mug of Glühwein in my hands, thick socks on my feet. There was a pile of presents under the tree, a real tree, dropping needles on the floorboards. I spoke to my mother first. I knew she’d been waiting for my call; I pictured her, sleeping with the cordless handset in her loose hand like a baby monitor. She didn’t sound like she was 15,000 kilometres away. She sounded like a light pressure on the end of my bed, calling me “darling”. She passed me to my father, who doesn’t like talking on the phone, and to my brother, my sister. I guess I miss you, my sister said, but only ‘cause it’s Christmas. I called her a little shit. She told Mum.

We fly in from the west, over the sea, and Adelaide’s lazy domestic sprawl comes up to meet us unannounced. As the plane tilts steeply over the neat lawns, corrugated iron fences and second-hand caryards of the western suburbs, I catch a glimpse of the modest skyline, the sun winking slackly off the brown waters of the Torrens. Summer coats the city in tar, movements slow and deliberate. Heat quivers visibly over the roads and roofs and I’m dreading it. The last time the air touched my skin it was whistling with snow. I imagine pieces of it, of Germany, nestled between my sock and the sole of my shoe.

I have left behind a small house on the Buchenstraße. It had a steep driveway and a perfectly square front lawn and it belonged to my borrowed family. I have left them, too. Behind their house was a meadow, grazing goats. I used to walk there after school, photographing the leaves on the ground, chestnut and blonde, fading to silver around the edges as winter seeped slowly nearer to the village. The Viktoras lived at Number 8, at the top of the hill. We spoke German to one another. The language was unexpectedly beautiful, never quite as fluid as French or Spanish, but husky and a little reticent. They saved the bad news.

I had been skiing in the Alps, brushing my fingers on cool stone in medieval castles, eating marzipan by the ounce in Austrian sweetshops. I climbed from the train, rehearsing the German for the stories I wanted to tell. My pockets burned with trinkets, my lips with the blush of a first kiss in the laundry room of a Jugendherberge in the shadow of the Untersberg, momentous, crystalline. The Viktoras greeted me at the station with uncustomary silence.

Inside Number 8, my exchange father sat me at the kitchen table and presented me with a shot glass which, he later told me, was full of medicine to calm me down. His gaze was direct, his white beard heavy with a new sadness. Drink this, he told me. With such halting English there was no softening the blow. Four words: your sister has died.

We fly over the house my grandfather used to live in. I recognise it by the brightly painted shop on the corner of his street, the one that gets away with selling bongs by calling them assorted glassware. The plane spits out its wheels and I wonder how something so small can carry such weight. It has been three months, says Adelaide, leaning blankly below me. You’re different from the last time I saw you, thinner, bleaker. You’ve cut your hair. You’ve kissed a boy, you’ve let him put his hand underneath your shirt but not underneath your bra, you’re still a good girl really. But I can see her gone from you, says Adelaide, blinking up at me with the sun on shed roofs. It’s like you’ve lost a limb.

We were close in age, my sister and I. That should have made us allies, but she was more like my brother, dark-haired and skinned-kneed. I have no memory of being an only child. From the first there was her, red and nutlike in a blue lacy dress that I must once have worn, wagging fat fists, soft pink gums. My brother came later, so for a little while, it was just the two of us in matching pink tracksuits, in colour co-ordinated dresses with shiny party shoes and lacy socks. My mother cut our fringes while we sat on the yellow stool, my clippings gold and hers brown against the grained linoleum.

It was November when I left. On our last night together we walked after dinner, the bitumen too hot to stand on with bare feet. On one side of the road sprawled malignant yellow-brick bungalows, five bedrooms with a swing set and a swimming pool, splashing and shrieking floating over the high fences to the footpath below. The other side dropped steeply into the Sturt Gorge, to starveling gum trees rasping their dry leaves together and dropping their lank grey bark like so many dead, curling skins. How impenetrable was the leaning white veranda our father had installed the same summer we got cable TV, a veranda we never played beneath?

We paused for breath at the top of the hill and stared out at the coy city skyline curled up between the hills to the east, at the moody ocean to the west under the ravenous sunset. Mosquitoes feasted on our sunburnt shoulders. My sister sighed here, a contented sigh like the ones she made after eating a meal, and we left the sizzling road behind us for the narrow dirt path. It was almost dark by the time we reached the barbed-wire fence and climbed it, me first so I could help her over, scratching our bare knees and ankles. We were alone.

We walked out along the concrete knowing we’d die if we fell and we sat on it.

The path rose silently before us, crowded by emaciated stringybarks lit like wraiths by the swollen summer moon. The dense wood opened without warning onto the dam, a wall of cement exposed like a bone, which fell away to bold, greedy scrub on the left-hand side and a wide, black expanse of water on the right, a staggering yawn in the bleached undergrowth. We walked out along the concrete knowing we’d die if we fell and we sat on it, dangling our feet, facing whichever view fuelled the mood of our conversation, talking about boys and our blooming bodies and our futures, gleaming just within our reach like ripe fucking fruit. She said she’d be my maid of honour but only if I’d be hers. She said don’t forget about me while you’re in Germany. She had made me a friendship bracelet out of three strands of wool, brown, white and blue.

After she died I would take a high-school boyfriend to the dam and we would fuck there, my bare ass pressed against the grainy concrete, but I could not exorcise her. I would never go back but I can feel the sun set there, every night in summer, bleeding and terrible over the dark mouth of the river. Four years after she died that scrub would burn up in a bushfire. It would become black, skeletal. A charred and withered corpse, a pot of ashes like the one on my parents’ mantelpiece.

Chapter One of my high school German textbook: Transport. Flughafen is airport. Flugzeug is aeroplane. Fegefeuer is purgatory. It’s late at night, or early in the morning: the light is artificial, the air is filtered. My Converse sneakers squeak on the shiny airport floors and echo. In the food court, a few tired travellers pick at food from Burger King and Starbucks, in between flights, in between places. I am in between selves. The exultant self and the grieving self. Neither has met the other, not yet. Her ghost hangs here in the vaulted halls but I can’t be sure it’s her because I haven’t seen her face for three months. I hugged her before leaving. Her body was real. She stood in the kitchen making sandwiches. How long was her hair? How quickly did it grow? I chopped mine off and dyed it black in the basement of a boy who was teaching me how to play the bass guitar. I cannot use it as a yardstick. I eat a cheeseburger. I buy some headphones and listen to a CD. I can’t remember what the CD is called but it’s distracting, it’s lending me a rhythm. I cannot remember whether I should be awake or asleep or buried, buried under six feet of earth or under warm, shallow water in the backyard pool. My hair fans out in the water beneath my head. We used to pretend we were mermaids. I’m floating and the sun is on my skin, the water’s in my lungs, my uncle calls an ambulance but they don’t come in time. The neat chiming cadence shatters my reverie: it’s time to board my flight. I walk along the aisle, counting seat numbers. How big is a body? How big is a life? How does one contain the other? The overhead luggage compartment clicks smoothly shut over my backpack: snug, final.

She had a lazy eye and heavy brows. A prettier mouth than mine, a prettier woman than me perhaps, a prettier girl certainly. Taller. Well, she was taller when she was fourteen and I was seventeen, and with bigger feet, but I’ve grown now and without her to measure by.

We’ll be told we cannot touch her but I will anyway.

The viewing. She’ll wear the blue v-neck blouse and a necklace bought for her in Thailand by a cousin. I have a matching one and I’ll wear it like a rosary. They say the dead look like they’re sleeping but the stillness will be alarming. The coffin will be white and her face will look slack like a groan and she will already be decomposing, I’ll smell the formaldehyde and I won’t want to remember her this way. We’ll be told we cannot touch her but I will anyway.

The funeral service. The church will be full. It will be a hot day, in January, but the men will still wear suits. I’ll sit in the front pew but I won’t be there. I’ll feel the heaving behind me, smell the sweat on upper lips and armpits polluting the dry-cleaned Sunday bests, hear the quiet soak of the tears leaking down the lined cheeks of men with flowers in their buttonholes.

The wake. Our house will be so full of flowers my mother will have to sweep the falling petals into a dustpan three times a day and she’ll say she likes doing it, it keeps her busy. The bedroom at the end of the hallway, across from mine, the door closed for the first time in fourteen years. I’ll speak to myself, ridding my tongue of clotted German vowels, practicing the past tense. My sister was. There will be heat, my body limp and insipid in that heat. It will veil the world from me, give everything a milky tone like photos from a blown-out roll of film, a cataract from the inside.

Parts of her have been lost forever. I have forgotten the sound of her voice, her particular inflection, her tight little vowels. There was a brightness to her, a plumpness that had nothing to do with her soft belly; a fullness, an allness, a borrowed sense of comfort. She bounced on her feet, or have I added that?

I don’t know, so I pull on memory. It’s evasive. It’s a thin, thin string attached to something deeply anchored, something it would hurt to dislodge, something vital and pulsing and chemical that will react to, will evaporate in sunlight. Those little brushes, the fine-haired ones that archaeologists sweep lovingly over fragments of pottery, of glass, of bone. A root canal, a quick clean snap and you see it, a flash and it vanishes, an imprint on your eyelids like blinking after staring at the sun.

I’ve been thirty-six hours inside this beige expanse of plane, of carpeted surfaces and tinkling chimes. They changed my seat to business class in Darwin when we stopped for fuel. I am shrinking, or maybe the chairs are just getting bigger. The air hostess touches my hand. It’s time to get off, Miss Jones, she says. Your family is waiting for you.

Swimming first appeared in The Lifted Brow: Digital, Volume 11, Issue 2.

Emma Marie Jones is a Melbourne-based poet and writer and the Sex Editor at SPOOK Magazine. Her short fiction, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in SPOOK, Scum, The Lifted Brow, Stilts and The Suburban Review.