And as the waves take her apart, piece by piece, she watches the message of the lighthouse spelling itself out on the surface of the water. Its message is composed in the alphabet of light and dark. Flash, eclipse, flash, eclipse. If we see only the light, we are blinded; only the dark and we will never find our way. A tiny coin found inside a Cloudy Bay oyster, a postcard of a white-haired child leaning against a beached dinghy and a coconut peeled and carved once upon a time on the Batavian coast. These trinkets, found in a sea chest, and the fragmented memories of her grandfather's tall tales are all Essie Lewis has left of her family history. After her grandfather's death, Essie returns to Bruny Island, Tasmania and to the lighthouse where her great-great-grandfather kept watch for nearly 40 years. Beneath the lighthouse, she begins to write the stories of her ancestors. But the island is also home to Pete Shelverton, a sculptor who hunts feral cats to make his own peace with the past. And as Essie writes, she finds that Pete is a part of the history she can never escape.
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The Alphabet of Light and Dark
By Danielle Wood
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2003 Danielle Wood
All rights reserved.
1982 Cape Bruny
Almost dusk, fish-catching time. But Essie has left the hooks of her handline bare. They are silver and shining, suspended in dark glassy green. On the sea floor an octopus attaches itself to her sinker like a drawstring purse. She tows it slowly to the surface, where it lets go in a pulse of indigo.
Her grandfather reaches into a metal bucket, half full of the half-moons of dead flathead, their bodies webbed with mucus. He lays out a fish on a board filmy with clotted blood and runs a flat blade up its white belly. Then he flips the fish over and slides the blade up the back, slicing off a folded fan of spines. His knife twists and severs the backbone. To finish, he stabs the fish through the centre of its map-of-Tasmania head and tears the translucent flesh out of the skin with a fork.
'Thirty-nine he was when he went to the lighthouse. Not a great age by any means, but he already had the look of an old man ...'
Essie hears him without listening. She's heard the story of his own grandfather a thousand times before, and knows she will hear it a thousand times more in her life. Her bare heels beat a soft rhythm where they hang against the powder-white hull of the yacht.
'... shrunken as a salted Yarmouth herring, as if so many years at sea had left him pickled ...'
Often her grandfather's stories wash over her. It's as if there's water in her ears and the words float on it, half heard.
'... lost the better part of his voice in an illness, and a skipper's not a skipper with no voice to shout "clew up the forecourse" over the top of a howling gale ...'
The triangle of a fish head lands on the water beyond the stern. It's like a kite trailing streamers of guts and raspy skin. Gulls squabble. Essie observes instead the soft bristling fair hairs on her legs and arms. Her ankles have grown beyond the frayed cuffs of her jeans and the skin is covered with small scales of sea salt.
'... his whole life over again. Thirty-nine years, he lived here.'
Her eyes skim the still water, climb the corroded pillars of the cliff face up to the lighthouse — its white surface bright in the horizontal light of the late sun — and then return to the patch of water framed between her feet.
From the corner of her eye she sees him draw the blade of his knife across the fabric of his trousers, leaving behind a cluster of scales. He pushes the blade into a canvas scabbard edged with the vees of his neat glove stitch. The galley of his yacht is hung with many such scabbards and pouches and Essie likes to think that it is within them that he keeps his stories, tucked down inside with whittled knife blades and oilstones impregnated with years of spit.
He looks at her now with that look he sometimes has, with the sad little fold of skin that puckers up between his eyes. When he looks at her like this, she knows he is thinking that her face is like her mother's. And sometimes she will see the fold twist itself into a knot, and she knows what that means, too. That he's seen drift across her face an expression belonging to her father. Sometimes he even says it. You look like your father when you do that. And the disapproval stings like salt.
But she does it anyway, presses her lips together into a straight line and blinks, slowly, her eyes perfectly still, keeping the lids closed for just a heartbeat too long. She knows that he sees her father also in her strong legs, growing so long now. She knows that he wishes he could tear that part out of her.
Her grandfather calls himself Pop to her, but in her mind she calls him by his first name, Charlie. Charlie singes her waist-length hair with a hair drier held too close if she looks like going outside with it slightly damp. He winds her about with scarves, duffles her in coats, suffocates her in his great, woolly, overbearing love. She submits to all of this, patiently, because she knows that the best love is rough sometimes, and scratchy against the skin.
* * *
'Catchin' anything darlin'?'
She shakes her head.
'No? Mustn't be holding your mouth right.'
He pulls his face into a stupid grin as he flings the other line over the side, baited with thick discs of fish-flesh. And then he's reeling in, hand over hand, a sandy fish shimmying in the strange thinness of air. He laughs his big laugh, his great big guffaw which comes out with spittle and all. He has to drag the back of his hand over his chin to wipe it off.
'Got to hold your mouth right, lass.'
She stares at the fish on her grandfather's hook. Its concertina gills pump a panicked rhythm. She wonders if the fishes left behind, the ones still in the water, are sad for its loss.
Charlie and Essie go away together on Kittywitch often, but this is the first time that they have come as far south as the lighthouse. Earlier today he showed her the curve of Lighthouse Bay on a chart, explaining how the cape would shelter them from the wind this night.
The chart was not like other maps. All the contours and markings were given to the sea, and the land was a featureless expanse of pale yellow. She had traced with her finger the outline of the island, inscribing its two halves, the narrow join of the isthmus between them, the heel of the peninsula where the lighthouse kept watch.
She studied the chart and saw the truth of it. On the island there had once been a triangle-shaped house made of wood, with a family that had a mother as well as a father. But now, just like on the chart, her memories are fading into blankness. I am an island too, she thinks. Half her life she has lived without words, with a blue moat of silence all around her.
Charlie's knife comes back out of the scabbard and the last fish, still alive, squirms on the board as the silvery tip goes through the thin resin of its skull. Charlie scrapes and cuts and slices. There is the crunch of spine. His hands are covered with nicks and blood and scabs on old wounds.
Essie looks away, to the shore, comparing the outline of Bruny the way it had looked on the chart with the huddled-beast shapes of its headlands. Looking at the island makes her feel strange, almost like the bottom of her stomach has fallen out. It's the same kind of feeling that she gets when she wants something to be true but she already knows that it isn't, the same feeling she hhas when she lies in bed half awake at dawn feeling the dream-thing she holds in her hand begin to dissolve into nothingness in the light.
She peels off the clothes she wears over bathers stiffened from sea salt, and dives off the side of the yacht. Swimming down, hands then arms, torso then thighs, calves then feet, piercing the cold layer of water beneath the sun-warmed surface. She forces the pressure out of her ears with small flexes of her jaw.
She loves the cool touch of the water; feels herself becoming nothing more than a membrane of skin, water both inside and out. She swims under the water, away from the yacht, scissoring her long legs through the water. She loves to swim. Essie's a fish and the cat's got her tongue, the girls at school chant, sucking in their cheeks to make their lips into the two soft globes of goldfish mouths.
She surfaces quite a distance from the yacht circling gently at anchor. Drifting, hands fluttering at her sides to stay afloat, she can see so much of the open ocean to the south that she can sense the curvature of the globe, almost feel the earth cranking another notch away from the sun. The sun is a pink crescent on the edge of a mountain. Then the earth turns and it disappears, making dawn somewhere else. And at exactly that moment, high on the cliff, the lighthouse opens its eye to keep watch through the dark. The beam makes its first pass over the water, and is gone. The dusky dimness has fifty seconds, just less than one round of a clock face, before the light returns.
The water of the channel feels deep beneath her. She knows what's down there. Down deep are the wide ribs of ships and whales, and skeletons in chains. And there are the bones which drift, through the layers of the currents, in perfect formation of human hands.
She knows the story of the hands, has read it in a book in the high school library that is full of grown-up books about History and other things. In this story there are four hands, belonging to two young men who went to a white man's camp to tell a woman that it was time to come home. The white men wanted to take the woman in their boat, and although the two young men didn't understand all of the white words that were spoken, they understood the cruel shapes of the white men's mouths and the slavering of the tongues within, and they didn't allow the woman to go alone.
The boat sailed and the men were afraid. They sat in the small vessel, feeling the thinness of the planking which was all that lay between themselves and the dark, the deep, the water. And then they felt hands on them, and a spinning within themselves as their bodies were wrestled over the side. And then all they felt was water and fear all around. They were dipped in it, drenched in darkness but holding on still to the light of the sun. Their wrists, their hands still reaching up, up, holding fast to the gunwales of the sailboat.
It was the woman (soon to be spread, pinioned, beneath the gash -mouths, the slavering tongues) who saw it through her screaming, the savage curve of the blade falling; the red spray, the thick droplets, the brown starfish of hands jittering in the bottom of the boat before the toe of a boot flicked them over the side.
When Essie looks down, there they are, hovering beneath her feet in the inky depth. They are like white stars floating, five points of fingers and thumb. Naked bones, radiating spokes, the narrowing metatarsals spaced apart by muscle and tissue long decayed.
The lighthouse beam passes overhead, drizzling her with a fine mist of light downcast in the loom. She floats on her back and begins to feel in her body the time it takes for the light to return, searching, sending itself out over the rocks and the water. Flash, eclipse, flash, eclipse. She knows the things that the light can't see, the things beneath the surface that pull and suck.CHAPTER 2
1996 Green Gorge, Macquarie Island
Alone in the hut, waiting, he warms tomato soup in a pot on the gas stove, stirring in white swirls of milk until the liquid is a dark, uniform pink. Out the window penguins whirr, beaks to the sky, and seal pups open their sink-like mouths to each other as they roll their blubber on the grating, grey volcanic sand.
The air in the hut is still, but cold. He hasn't turned on the heater, or the lights. His feet in wet boots are cold, so cold that he can no longer be certain that the message he is sending to his toes — scrunch — is being obeyed, or even received. He longs to unlace his boots, unpeel the double layer of sodden socks and massage the feeling back into the white blocks of his feet. But if he takes them off, he will never put them back on again, and the day's work is not yet over. He pours the soup into a mug, sips its chemical sweetness and waits.
At dusk Pete feels something inside himself brace. This next hour of the day is a violent one. Across the island, he knows, there are claws and feathers and teeth and blood and beaks and tails tangled up in the fierceness of life and death. He imagines the scent of the bait, drifting across the terrain, low, inviting. He pictures the predatory slink through the tussock, and wills it to be so.
Pitch dark now and the only light is from a faraway fishing boat making a slow traverse of the bay. It rolls with the swell, the bright green of its starboard lights leaving behind the faint trace of sine waves in the night sky.
Pete closes the hut door behind him and the cold grips his face like a vice. An ice-cream headache shoots up beneath his brow like a cold blade. He zips his coat up under his nose and exhales down into the fabric cave to make warmth. He readjusts the rifle on his shoulder, and puts his head down to the wind.
The cage trap is up on the plateau, on a known route, where it's been every night for six weeks now. It's sheltered from the wind and the worst of the rain.
He walks and wills it to be so. He passes through tussocks, ankle-turning country, cursing as his boot disappears into a puddle he knows will be foul with the flaking skin and faeces of the seal cows. He begins to climb, scaling a steep slope upholstered with the furred leaves of mega-herbs, his breath misting out in front of his eyes. From inside the pitted earth all around and beneath him come faint sounds; the black curtains of wings folding for the night, the click-clack of beaks, large and small. He imagines the soft, warm nestling of a downy burrow. He is on their side. He is on the side of good.
When he is near to the place, he flashes his spotlight. He thinks he sees a green haze, like vapour, but he doesn't dare hope. Not yet. Closer, and he presses the spotlight's trigger again. Twin flashes of bright green. Eye shine. He flashes again. Yes. He's sure.
His blood is up, thumping away in his ears. The cold is gone now, his muscles shot through with electric force. He can smell the cat's fishy stink, its breath and coat reeking of the oily seabirds on which it preys and the marine detritus on which it scavenges. He gets close enough to see all of it, its tabby fur sticking out like it's a cartoon moggy shot through with five thousand volts.
'You little beauty.'
It's female, and lactating too, its undercarriage hanging down loose with little pink teats. Bonus. Somewhere a litter is already beginning to starve.
'You little ... fucking ... beauty.'
The cat's in a frenzy, flinging herself around the inside of the cage as if her weight could bust it open. Pete nudges the cage with the toe of a boot and she jolts away, clinging on to the mesh of the far top corner of the cage with desperate claws. Teeth bared, hissing, eyes saucers of luminous green in his torchlight.
He points the muzzle of his .223 through the mesh.
'Here kitty kitty kitty,' he calls.
He holds the rifle still and waits for her to move. He'll just stand here and wait until she passes beneath the muzzle of the gun. He always aims to hit between the shoulders, to send the bullet directly into the body cavity. It makes them drop instantly, still and soft.
It amazes him that he has the power to extinguish it, whatever it is that has this cat sprung so tight that it can cling upside down to the roof of the trap. In just a minute, he will be able to pick up its limp, warm carcass, touch if he wants to the benign white points of its teeth, the delicate translucent curls of its claws.
'Here puss puss puss.'CHAPTER 3
April, 1999 Bruny Island
Bruny Island follows Tasmania like a comma, a space for pause. The ferry chugs towards it, along the dotted line that is drawn on maps across the channel at one of its narrowest points, leaving behind the town of Kettering and its harbour cross -hatched with jetties and the masts of yachts.
On the crossing, the locals stay in their cars. They sit and read newspapers rested against steering wheels, or talk to their neighbours through wound-down windows. But Essie steps out of Charlie's ute and threads through the parked cars, brushing against their still-warm metal, making her way to the rail of the upper deck.
Straight ahead, down the gullet of the two shores, she can see only as far as the place where the channel twists out of sight, leaving a deceptive horizon of opposing folds of land. But she still remembers what lies beyond: how the dividing stretch of water widens and narrows as it fits itself to the jigsaw puzzle shapes of headlands and inlets, how it thins out over the wide, pale sand of a bay belonging to the isthmus which holds the twin nuggets of the island in balance, how it diverges and converges around small satellite islands, forks off into a river and, finally, opens its mouth wide to the Great Southern Ocean. It's this opening which is watched over, from high on a cape on the island side, by the lighthouse.
Leaving, returning, there is always a crossing; a stretch of time and distance between shores. Perhaps I am even invisible ... she remembers thinking on the day that she left Tasmania behind. Bass Strait was calm between its bookend islands. From the deck of the tall white ship, she watched the sandy rim of the northern coast slip away, and felt herself become as featureless as the pale grey water all around. She was in the centre of a great circular horizon of sheeny grey, a circle sliding north over the curve of the hemisphere. And she was alone, nineteen years old, and tingling with the possibilities of her own blankness.
The ferry touched land and in her small white car Essie drove west. The road took her into red dust and heat, into a parched emptiness both foreign and familiar, an Australia she knew only from images. Somewhere between a tumbledown corrugated-iron town and a rust-coloured roadhouse, she pulled over and got out to breathe it in. She had never felt heat like it. It was not only on one side of her face, or on her back. It was all over, beating down fro the sky, radiating up from the earth to the undersides of her outstretched hands, filling every crevice of her skin.
Excerpted from The Alphabet of Light and Dark by Danielle Wood. Copyright © 2003 Danielle Wood. 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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Table of Contents
Contents1982: Cape Bruny,
1996: Green Gorge, Macquarie Island,
April: 1999 Bruny Island,
The Face of Isabella Brown,
Historical notes and sources,
OTHER AWARD WINNERS FROM ALLEN & UNWIN,