Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Island

The mist rises from the lake like prophesy: you can't hold it, and you can't make it change. I know. I watch for it. Sometimes there are curves of mist that stick to the leaves of the surrounding trees. Caught by the hair. Other times there is one single animal lolling around the surface of the water. Each time the mist rises it reveals the island, although, in truth, it is not an island, but an arc of land which juts into and quells the lake.
      It is not even a natural lake. At the bottom there are a million stones which have been skimmed across its surface. Each stone bouncing off the water. Flicking the ligaments. Each stone succumbing, flat, flat, flat, then into the dark green, almost black, where it settles. And then another.
      And below that the large stiff debris of construction and blasting; the miscellaneous cast-offs of the workers and their families as they moved on to the next construction site, dam, tunnel, bridge, lake, railway. Their backs willing for the work or their pockets for the money. When they move they leave behind what wrecked cars, what children's high chairs broken in the back or with one leg shorter (inexplicably) than the other now, or what old wheels, or smashed billy carts. Anything.
      And underneath all that, what? Silt made up of rotting vegetation, yes, and then the remains of the town I grew up in. Buried there the memories and memorials, the lanes, the streets and secrets.

The island is not so much an island as a thin promontory, an arc of stones, curving into my own private sea. I know it is not an island because I made it. Every day since they left I have added stone to stone, pebble to pebble, sand to sand and pushed it out further, into the wide blue ocean. I am trying to make the valley. I will build it and then make the hills and mark in every street until it would be familiar to anyone. I will be home and keeper of secrets.
      Most of the secrets are my own it is true, but secrets are not secrets without circumstance. Circumstance changes truth to lies, and lies to secrets.

She lived in a little valley. She lived in a little valley which grew many vegetables and green things, did not have a dentist, a pharmacy, or a butcher. It did have a saddlery, a woodworking shop (called a 'cabinet makers') and a place that sold bread, the newspapers, and gave away the local talk. Inside this shop her people wandered about aimlessly cleaning and moving boxes around and counting money from the till. Sometimes she also pressed the buttons of the till and smiled at anyone at all who came through the door. In those days she was as fresh as any young girl should be. I saw you and I loved you. You smiled at me to know you. I loitered around the front verandah of the shop as if with intent. You did not notice me. You smiled at everyone who entered your shop; you smiled at everyone who left - you bruised yourself with the hard corners of conversation, your white teeth closing so precisely together I always expected to hear a little click as they shut.
      The big frill of your coloured skirt rustled behind the counter. I cannot imagine what it was that you did to that skirt to make it sound like that. The way a nurse's skirt might rustle, but loud, like a bride's dress.

In the valley, there was a post office and a small school. When the children got older, they would have to go to boarding school or take a bus every day over the several mountains to the nearest secondary school. The bus was modern but the mountains were rickety. As we drove back and forth up the big gullies the sky opened up. It was possible to drive all the way to the clouds, and they would envelop us like dust.

She had the most beautiful plaits. It was such a shame when she cut them off - still a woman has to be a woman some time and you don't get to be a woman with your hair done up in pigtails like a school girl.

She was always a schoolgirl. I liked the way her hair was parted in the middle: the plaits long and loose and drooping as if there was nothing to stop her being fifteen all her life.
      But it was such a shame, nevertheless, when they had to go. It was the only time I ever saw Harry cry. He couldn't believe that his little girl. Wait til she gets married I said. But it's always the mother who does the crying then. Always the mother. An ally gone you see. Left alone with the husband again. It's like that. The two old ones left alone. Look at us I say. Just look at us.

The old parents doddering around. You never knew where they'd turn up. They'd stand up close to you as though inspecting you. They'd say.
      And how are we this morning dear.
But it wasn't a question and I wouldn't answer. I wouldn't let on. I hated the way they said 'we' when they meant me. I did not know how to answer. She'd look on and smile and then her plaits would fall across her cheek and I'd want to put my hand out and touch.
      Don't touch dear.

I never would touch because she seemed so far away and so adult. I'd wait until late afternoon, closing time, and sit in the cool valley air as the sun disappeared over the ridge and I would tell myself that soon she would be coming outside. I would sit on the verandah and feel the texture of the skin on my knees with my tongue. It would taste blue, but like metal nevertheless. Like salt.
      Then she would come out and she sit beside me and rest her chin on her knees too and we would not talk. Our breathing would begin to synchronize and our hearts pulse at the same rate. We could both hear the ringing, sizzling noise of the quietness.
      What are you two doing out here at this time of night.
Finally, the air would go soft and she'd go back inside and I'd go home.
      Whatever it was, it certainly wasn't Maisie's doing. She was not the sort of girl to go off and get herself into trouble. There were scrapes of course but it would always be Maisie who looked after the others. She was a good girl, no matter what anyone said.

And what didn't they say about my Maisie my love eh. What didn't they say. That she was a moon-face, precocious little cow. That even so young she was a bitch on heat and no better than she ought to be. And she'd do some man great damage before she was finished. You mark my. Butter wouldn't melt. Led them all astray. As if we were so many dogs, or sheep, or children of Hamlin to be taken off into the hard mountains to emerge years later in the miserable reaches of Transylvania still dressed like children, gabbling and chattering, as soft-eyed and dopey as we had been when we'd dissolved into the solid rock.
      I just wanted to be near her. A girl like her: there was no right or wrong in it.
      One hundred per cent charisma that girl.

We just wanted to be near her.

On the fourth day after the fourth night the ranks of the press cameras had already begun to thin. There was no news. Nothing continued to happen. They couldn't get a decent meal or refills for their asthma sprays - the local post office couldn't fax anything anywhere. No meetings. No lunches. They got bored. They wanted to go home.
      Fourteen children went missing and there was nothing anyone could do. There was no hint, no clue, no one knew exactly when they had gone. But by tea time fourteen had disappeared.
      Most blamed it on Maisie. She was the oldest: silent, sulky, old for her age.
      She was always into mischief that one.
No-one could imagine where they might have disappeared to. Triangulated maps were pulled out, laid flat on the bonnets of Landcruisers, helicopters called in. Sympathy expressed by politicians, but then the dollar went up (or down) or there was another drought (or flood) and the cameras and journalists were wanted elsewhere. Even the searchers eventually wandered off and the police went on with more ordinary things.

I like to think of the layers of it as layers of memory caught under each stone. You take each one and give it to a child and the child holds it in their hands and plays the game. I was the one who came back.
      It is always the one who's not quite one hundred per cent who's spared.
Blessed. That's the way it is.
      The stones are a jig saw puzzle, you see how they fit. Then they make up a picture. You take them down to the river. And pretty soon the construction workers arrive and we submerge all our memories.
      The valley is very deep where the river was. My little stone bridge will take a long time to reach the original bed.
      My arc, my island, my stepping stones: the little plip as each one drops in; the water understanding, holding each one flat.

© 2006 Chris Mansell
Previously published in The Age Monthly Review (Australia), Dandelion (Canada) and Eat the Ocean ed. Lizz Murphy (Literary Mouse Press, Perth, 1997)

1 comment:

Kate Smith said...

Thanks for great post.