Read an Excerpt
By Barry Jonsberg
Allen & Unwin Copyright © 2011 Barry Jonsberg
All rights reserved.
She was five years old when her father walked into the barn, put a shotgun into his mouth and pulled the trigger.
The girl stood framed in early morning light. Something was different about the inside of the barn, but she wasn't sure what. Maybe it was the texture of the silence. She took two steps forward. Her eyes squinted against the dark. The shadows were familiar. Rusted machinery parts, fence posts, bundles of wire and odd shapes covered with tarpaulin. Motes of dust danced in the sun's rays.
She took another step.
Her father was slumped against the back wall. A pattern of blood and brains was a bouquet against seasoned wood.
She took another step.
The farm was her world. The girl knew death. But this was different. She crouched by her father's splayed legs and tugged at his trousers. When nothing happened she stood and put one grimy thumb in her mouth. She remained for a couple of minutes, watching the flower spray that bloomed from the ruins of her father's head. She heard the buzz of blowflies.
Finally, she backed out of the barn and went in search of her mother. She didn't run. She didn't take the thumb from her mouth. The sun sweated. Dust puffed beneath her bare feet.
The girl was only five, but she understood that the world had shifted. Nothing would ever be the same again.
The men left. They took with them the strange bundle that used to be her father.
Her mother didn't cry. But she held her daughter for what seemed forever. The arms enfolding her were not gentle. The girl had difficulty breathing, so fierce was the grip. After a while, she squirmed from her mother's embrace and sat outside in the early afternoon sun. She hummed a small song.
The day grew old and noises from the house slipped under the door. She sat outside until the darkness came. For a time she was joined by Pagan, her border collie. He sat at her side and panted, lips drawn back as if laughing. The dog licked her legs with a tongue like a rasp. She giggled. When the day finally died, the girl went back into the house. She was hungry. She wanted her father to come home. She wanted the door to open, for him to kick off his work boots, pick her up and tickle her under her arms until laughter turned to sweet pain.
She didn't know it, but this was the beginning of a lifelong habit. The wish to wind back time and fix it. The sense of loss when time stubbornly spooled forward.
The house remained shadowy and empty. From her mother's room, a thin wail rose, like a pale flower growing in the dark.
'Books are alive,' said her mother. 'But only when you open them. They need you to bring them to life. Like Sleeping Beauty.'
The girl knew Sleeping Beauty. It was one of her favourites.
'She only had life when the Prince kissed her. You kiss a book by reading it. And the story stirs, shakes itself, becomes full of people and places and animals. A world grows around you. And that world is yours to explore each time you turn the page.'
The girl understood little of this. She was five years old. But she liked the idea of giving life to stories.
'I will write a story one day,' said her mother. 'And it will be perfect. The world I make will be so wonderful that we will never want to be anywhere else. I will write it for you.'
The girl wanted to ask her mother to make her father into a story. Then she could open his pages and bring him to life. But she was scared to ask. So she turned the pages of her book of fairytales, let her eyes kiss them and felt worlds shiver and stir.
The day of the funeral was stunned by heat. The girl stood on the verandah and watched the rows of apple trees. They were lined up as if for inspection. Their leaves didn't shiver or stir.
She wore her best dress, but it felt sticky, heavy against skin. She wasn't allowed to sit for fear of staining her dress. Pagan wasn't allowed to lick her legs. He didn't understand why and she couldn't tell him. She didn't know either.
There was a car and many people. She recognised some. Farmers from adjoining properties. Familiar faces from church. They were all dressed in fine clothes. Most looked the way she felt. She saw some tug at collars or mop faces. The girl had never seen so many people together at one time. It was like a scene from a book, a procession, a gathering. It should have been joyous, so many people. But instead it was dark. Men murmured, women wrapped arms around her mother's shoulders. Most people rested a hand on the girl's black curls, gave her a tired smile, tried to say something, but thought better of it. She didn't like the attention. Before long she wanted them to go away. They didn't.
It was her first car ride. The interior smelled of leather and polish. Each pothole in the dirt road sent jolts along her spine. When she looked back, the farm, framed in the rear window, was shrouded in dust.
The church was cool and familiar. So too the rows of hard seats. She sat at the front, next to her mother. People talked, but the stories they told didn't make sense. A beam of light, angled in from a high window, picked her out in rainbow colours, made her drowsy. She wanted to sleep, but knew that wouldn't be right. The girl sat straighter in her seat. Her bottom was aching and the light made her eyes narrow. She glanced over to the row of seats on the other side of the aisle.
He sat on the end furthest away from her. As she craned her neck to get a better look, he did the same. Their eyes met over ranks of pressed trouser legs and starched dresses.
His hair stuck out at strange angles. He wore long pants with holes in them and a stained work-shirt. She had never seen him before. He smiled at her. She smiled back.
When the people stopped talking, the girl took her mother's hand and stepped into sunshine. They drove home in silence, but her mother never once let go of her hand. It felt cold and clammy. Her mother's face glistened and she blinked many times. The girl wanted to let go, but knew she shouldn't. She wanted to be home, to find the cool darkness of her room and open a book. A special book. She had read it many times before, but never tired of it. It had a crisp world and almost everyone in it was happy.
So it was unpleasant to find that nearly everyone who had been in church had followed them back. Some came in rattly cars. Others in carts drawn by dust-coated horses. Her mother took the people into the house and brought out trays and trays of food. Everyone ate and talked in low voices. The girl had never heard so much talking in one day. She was tired of it.
She tugged at her mother's hem and asked – in a very small voice – if she could get changed out of her new clothes. Her mother, who was talking to a man in a dark suit, said she could.
'How can I explain this to her?' she said to the man. 'When I can't begin to explain it to myself.'
But the man only shook his head and glanced at his polished shoes.
'We must trust in the Lord,' her mother continued.
When the girl had changed, she didn't feel like reading. For some reason, the low rumble of conversation that carried into her room felt like a stain. She wasn't sure she could kiss worlds into existence against that background hum. So she stepped onto the verandah. Pagan uncurled himself from beneath a chair and sat beside her. He flicked his eyes up to hers and his tail thumped softly against the dusty boards. But he didn't try to lick her legs. The apple trees stretched into the distance, blushed now by a dipping sun. The day cooled. A light breeze brushed her cheek. She stepped off the verandah. Grass whispered against her shins.
The trees formed avenues. The girl allowed her eyes to drift over the rows until they settled on one, to her right. It wasn't a choice, as such. She never chose which avenue to explore. Her eyes fixed on one and that was the one she followed. And if she had been asked why she did this she wouldn't have been able to tell. There was no difference between the rows. They looked the same. They led to the same destination.
Pagan trailed her through the avenue.
The boy sat in the branches of the fifth tree on the left. She could see his scuffed boots dangling. But she kept her head down right up to the point when she came level. Then she stopped and turned her eyes up. He sat like an exotic fruit. His face was heavily freckled, his eyes large, brown and almond-shaped. His hair still stuck out at wild angles.
'Hello,' she said.
The boy didn't speak, but he smiled. And when he smiled a light turned on in his face.
'What's your name?' she asked. The boy shrugged. She sat cross-legged at the base of the tree and pulled out a blade of grass. She ripped it carefully up its spine, frowning as she did so. Pagan lay in a pool of dappled sun.
'I will call you Adam,' said the girl. 'Do you like that name?'
The boy shrugged again and pushed off from the branch. His boots landed a metre from her face. She didn't look up. She continued shredding the blade.
'Do you like stories?' she asked.
'Don't know,' said Adam. 'Never heard one.' He sat opposite her, crossed his legs and pulled a blade of grass. For a minute they were both absorbed, working fingernails into green flesh.
'My favourite,' said the girl, without looking up, 'is about a cold land surrounded by mountains. There is a castle. A beautiful castle. It is the first thing travellers see when they come to the peak of the mountains. It is nestled in a green valley, where the cold can't touch. It is golden with sun. Everyone is happy there.'
She discarded the split blade of grass and plucked another. The boy did the same. Another minute passed.
'I've seen that place,' he said.
Adam used the blade of grass to point. His arm stretched further down their avenue of trees.
'There,' he said.
Adam walked on one side of the avenue, the girl on the other. Pagan padded between them. The sun slid behind the earth and shadows grew from trees and changed the landscape. Darkness sprouted from the ground and the trees thickened and crowded. It was as if the path they trod narrowed so they were forced to come together. Branches drooped, the leaves and their shadows merged with one another. Dark walls rose.
Adam stopped. The girl glanced over her shoulder. She could no longer see the pathway through the trees. There was no sound, except their own breathing and Pagan's slow panting. Their breath misted against the darkness. The air was tingly with cold.
'Here,' said Adam, reaching forward and parting the darkness. He stepped through. She followed. Leaves caressed her as they parted. She burst into light.
They stood on the summit of a mountain. A dizzying drop yawned beneath. On all sides, ice and snow glittered. The girl glanced at her feet, a step from the brink. She shuffled backwards. The sky was powdered blue, dusted with wisps of cloud. The sun was swollen gold.
The mountains ranged on all sides, but her eyes were drawn from them. Down, down, down into a patch of green in the valley below. A winding road, delicate as a pencil line on green paper, led to a castle, its walls buttery in light. A thin ribbon of moat sparkled. The turrets, four, five, six, pointed towards the heavens. Each was capped with red. From this height she could see no movement, but the girl narrowed her eyes and thought she saw the thin lines of windows in the walls. She knew that people moved there and she knew they were happy.
'Is there a way down?' she asked.
Adam brushed her arm. He pointed to their right where a pathway sliced through ice and snow and rock. It curved down, became lost in the bends, re-emerged lower in the valley. After a while, her eyes could no longer follow its descent.
'It's as beautiful as I imagined,' she said.
A voice came to her, faint as a memory. It called her name.
'I have to go back,' she said.
'I know,' said Adam.
She turned and the leaves were behind her, a wall of darkness. As she reached out, she thought for a moment she would encounter something that would not yield. But the leaves parted and blackness spilled out. The girl stepped through. She could feel Pagan's presence but she could barely see him. He was a shadow within shadows. She walked. And with each step the air became warmer. Breath stopped misting in front of her face. Within a minute she saw the outlines of trees, an avenue opening. The voice was louder now. Her mother's voice, calling.
Halfway along, she turned. She could no longer see Adam but she felt him there in the shadows.
'Don't leave,' she whispered. 'Don't leave.'
There was no reply, but she knew he had heard. She turned again. Through the thinning trees, the yellow lights of home glowed. She ran towards them, Pagan at her side. The darkness fell away.
When everyone had gone, the girl and her mother ate a simple meal. Afterwards, the girl was bathed and tucked into her mother's bed.
'I need you with me tonight, my angel,' said her mother. 'Just until we ... get used to things.' Then she read her a story. But for once the girl didn't pay attention. She examined the walls of her mother's bedroom. Nothing had changed. The large wooden cross still floated over the bed-head. The pictures of the man with the bleeding heart and the crown of thorns. But change was there, all the same.
She thought about her father, but he was fading. It had only been five nights since he had slept in this very spot, but she could feel his presence drifting away. He seemed no more than a shadow now. Less solid than a story. Because a story could become dimmed, but it never died. It slept. Before too long her father would have no substance. He didn't sleep. Already, she could barely remember his face.
After the story, they knelt next to the bed and prayed. The ritual felt good. The coldness of floorboards against her knees. The recitation of words she didn't understand.
Later, the girl woke. The house ticked. Metal shrank in the cool of night. She felt the warmth of her mother's body next to her. She knew that if she turned, her mother's eyes would be open, that she would be trying to fix a face into the darkness. But she didn't turn. She kept her gaze on the far side of the bedroom. The moon was thin through curtains. All she could see were blocks of darkness stacked in random patterns. But as her eyes adjusted, the shapes resolved into a chest of drawers, the outline of a chair.
Adam sat in the chair. His legs swung, to and fro.
The girl smiled and closed her eyes.
* * *
'I am tired,' I say. 'I want to stop now.'
In truth, I have almost forgotten the child. Chasing ghosts along labyrinths of memory does that. It becomes difficult to distinguish what is real and what isn't. So when I focus on the now, when I tear myself from the then, it is a dislocation. The residents' lounge is leached of life. I feel ripped from a world of colour into something pale. As insubstantial as a thought.
The girl – I have forgotten her name – presses a button on the machine and the red light fades and dies. For a moment I wonder if I have spoken any words at all or if they've echoed only in my head.
'Hey, thanks, Mrs Cartwright,' she says, with unnatural cheerfulness. 'That's ... great. It's just ...'
She bundles the machine back into her school bag, brushes a hand through her hair.
'Well ... it's not quite ... not quite what I need. For my project, you know? I mean, it's interesting and everything, what you said. But Miss Jones – my teacher – she's given us all these criteria. I'm meant to research social history. And what you're giving me is ... well, a story. Which is great for English. But not for Soc Ed. You see what I mean?'
I have disappointed her. I can't find it in myself to feel sorry. But I nod.
'So next time I'll ask you questions, like a questionnaire,' she continues. 'Make sure I hit those criteria.'
'No,' I say. 'You won't.' I shift in my seat. Why does everything hurt? 'The only good thing about being old is that I can make my own rules. And stories are what I am interested in. What I've always been interested in. I do not have to do what anyone tells me. I please myself.'
She frowns and for a moment I think she is going to argue. But then a smile wipes her face clean. I am given another flash of her braces. It is as though she is chewing a rainbow.
'Make your own rules?' she says. 'I wish I could. I guess being old has earned you the right.' She delivers the cliché as if it's a profound truth.
Excerpted from Being Here by Barry Jonsberg. Copyright © 2011 Barry Jonsberg. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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