file0001233953397
Type
Fiction

Frank O’Hara’s Animals

Dimity is about to sneeze. She is lying in the yard, watching the bees around the clover. Grass between her knuckles, and at the back of her heels and her daisy-chained ankles. She turns her face to the sun, breathes in and –

Dimity is nine.

It is two days after the third occasion when she accidentally stopped time. She asks her mother to make her a cape.

‘Red, sweetheart? Like Red Riding Hood?’

‘No,’ she says. ‘Black.’

She doesn’t sneeze.

She holds her breath. The wind has stopped blowing, the gum leaves and branches waiting like a conductor gathering an orchestra to coherence. Everything is still, as though Dimity has just walked into a room that is the world, and it has fallen silent at her entrance.

After an age she notices her breath coming in short, sharp gasps and tears behind her eyes. She knows she can move, but can’t bring herself to. Movement would expose her as the only living thing in this motionless landscape, and that is too much for her to bear.

Eventually she reaches one finger out, to a bee suspended in its frenetic dance. She brushes her fingertips against its legs, hanging from its curved abdomen, and the still thin wings start once, and then twice, against her skin.

Heroes.

‘Are you going to be Batman? Should we make a mask, too?’

Her mother is standing at the cutting table, black fabric pooling under her hands.

‘No,’ she says. ‘I’m not actually Batman, Mum. I’m just like Batman, okay?’

A weight has lifted.

This is what it feels like for Dimity. It’s not time that she’s lost, it is the occupants of time. It is the gaze of strangers on the street, the stern voices of teachers, the ceaseless rivers of traffic, the barking of dogs at night, the fights between her parents, the inevitable end of the day. All she needs to do is concentrate, breathe in, and the silence of the world blooms out of its crevices and surrounds her.

It isn’t easy, though. Deprived of action, things become heavy, and it takes a long time to do anything in this absence. Doors don’t want to open, swings won’t swing, computers flicker strange and slow. The more she handles something, the more it cleaves to her, and to the time that has gathered beneath her skin.

She is lost for hours

Or more than hours, that first time. She thinks, when she’s older, that there never was a silence so profound. Her father finds her sleeping under her bed, blankets and bedsheets pulled down around her, as dark as she could make it against the persistent sunlight.

‘There you are, sweetheart! We’ve been looking for you, we were worried.’

Sometime after she had cried herself to sleep, time had unstuck itself. The silence and the stillness retreated, and the world started moving again. She clambers up into her father’s arms. The daisy chains are brown on her ankles and the bees are dancing above the lawn.

It’s like

Breathing in and never breathing out. It’s like the top of a bounce on a trampoline. It’s like hearing your mother’s died. It’s like finding a spider in your hair.

‘Hold my hands,’ he says. ‘And show me.’

There’s a kind of stillness that means danger.

Her mother stopping dead a few paces in front of her on their walk to school. The weight of her hand on Dimity’s shoulder when she tries to walk past her, and the fear that drops, heavy and sudden, when she sees the black dog standing there: legs squared, head lowered, mouth open. Its stillness speaking hers, and her mother’s.

They stand, the three of them, for an age. The hackles on the dog’s back rise as it lets out two ugly, rough barks. The noise echoes against the concrete driveway and the walls of the carport and the gate, standing open. The world shrinks to the sound, to the weight of her mother’s hand, and to their unmoving communion: her, her mother, and the dog.

She is seven years old. Two years later, time begins to stop. Whenever it happens her mind returns to this scene. It is as though she is always struggling to escape the gravity of that moment, and the space between the jawbones of that black dog.

One Sunday morning

Dimity provokes a fight, just to be sent to her room, just to be able to stop everything and leave again.

She spends her stolen time exploring the nature reserve a few blocks from her house. She pulls the bark off trees to expose lines of ants, and climbs to perch eye to eye with birds – perfect feathered sculptures. She finds the blue gems of eggs in nests and rare unbroken spider webs like doorways in the morning. Every so often her gaze is caught by the brilliant, unchanging clouds. She walks and climbs until she aches. Until the silence starts to chew at her mood.

When she gets home she closes the front door quietly behind her, although there is no need. Her mother is reading the paper, her father breaking eggs into a pan. She studies them, trying to imagine them into animation. Waiting for her mother to smooth down the crease in the arts section with the side of her left hand and her father to wipe his hands on a tea towel and sigh impatiently. They have set a place for her at the table. She knows, any moment, that they will call her from her room, the fight forgiven. A rush of something reciprocal surges in her – call it mercy, pity, gratitude. Dimity has no words for it yet.

She goes to take a shower, knowing she can’t explain the dirt and mud and bark on her skin, although she’ll get away with stuffing her clothes into the washing basket. The shower won’t work, even after she coaxes the tap into turning. The water, stuck somewhere behind the walls, doesn’t come. But they’re waiting for me, Dimity thinks, her forehead resting on the dry white tiles. They’re waiting.

It is her 21st birthday.

By her calculations she is 21 years and 87 days old. How old will she be at 30, 52, 74? She has asked for sunscreen and moisturiser, cookbooks and a bicycle.

There aren’t many crimes to stop in Dimity’s hometown.

She walks into the bank, her cape kicking out behind her. There is a line of impatient people and a teller leaning anxiously forward, pushing a form towards an old, sour-looking man. There are no getaway cars to sabotage, no bullets to pluck from the air. She walks behind the counter, through the offices. If someone is committing fraud, she can’t tell. In a small office, across the table from a man with a dozen statements spread out in front of him, a manager is playing online poker. A two and an ace of spades. The mouse is poised to bet.

Back in the waiting room, Dimity’s old teacher is waiting to be called. Ms Byron. Paused with one stubby white nail between her teeth, and her handbag sliding off her lap. In class she wore pastel dresses loosely buttoned from ankle to neck. When she leaned on the edge of her desk, bending forward to tell them about fractions or Egyptians, the fabric between the buttons opened like eyes, and from the right angle you could see her body. Greyed floral underwear, a pale stomach in rolls and a heavy silver crucifix hanging between low and flat breasts.

The boys in the class would push each other over to sit just there, by her left foot. They would stare keenly and openly. They would draw pictures at lunchtime for those who couldn’t see.

Ms Byron had once told Dimity that she was her favourite student. Dimity swelled at the compliment; she didn’t think she was a good student, but she tried, and tried even harder from that day on. A few months after this, Ms Byron’s mood changed. She gave Dimity detention for getting caught in a water fight. It was summer. Ms Byron had looked down at her school dress sticking to her legs, water dripping on the green carpets and said, ‘Don’t be a whore. Just because you won’t be anything good, doesn’t mean you can be a whore.’ She left before the end of the year. A nervous breakdown, a slapped child, or both.

Dimity reaches out and with both hands undoes the top button of her blouse, and then the next, and the next. She leaves the bank, walks through the shopping centre back into the bathroom where her mother is washing her hands, sits down and takes a breath. Everything unsticks again.

When she gets home she writes a list. Reasons to stop time: Extra sleep. More time to study. Do nice things for people. Pranks. Stop bullets. Revenge.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?

He asks.

‘In time or out of it?’

‘Dimity,’ he says. ‘They’re the same thing for you.’

‘What’s it like for you? When I do it? Does it feel strange?’

‘Not really,’ he says. ‘If I’m around you sometimes it’s like … watching a movie with bad editing. Or making faces out of clouds. My brain sorts it out somehow.’

‘One day you won’t be older than me, you know. You’ll blink and I’ll have aged. Will you still want me then?’

‘I’ll want you for all my life. And all of yours.’

‘There was a dog,’ she says.

She pats the black dog on its flank.

It is cold and still, sleeping on the neighbour’s back deck. No, sleeping is the wrong word for this. Dimity pulls her knees to her chest and covers her toes with her new black cape. Her mother has added big, bluish glass beads to the ties. She puts them in her mouth to hear them clack against her teeth.

She thinks of her father back at the house, poised with a knife over carrots, and of her mother somewhere in town, among the bodies in bars, maybe with a coffee or a beer, relaxed and unguarded.

She keeps her hand above the dog’s heart, willing it to start again. Waiting for time to creep back into his lungs. She doesn’t want him to wake up, but knows he has to be breathing, moving for the rat poison to work. Even after he wakes enough to swallow the paste that Dimity has pushed into the back of his throat, she still waits. Waits for it to work through his sluggish metabolism. If he starts to look alert she removes her hand, and whatever is animating him retreats.

He is warming to her touch. The heart thuds slow and irregular under her palm. How long does she sit there? The sun doesn’t go down, and Dimity’s watch wouldn’t work even if she wore it.

Dimity doesn’t want a brother.

Her mother sits her down, grips her father’s hand and says, ‘Honey?’ in that way she does, not when Dimity is in trouble, but when she is about to ask for something. ‘We’ve got exciting news.’

After the talk she sits outside at the top of the slide. She isn’t allowed to play until she’s finished her homework, but her parents don’t stop her. Two measures of forgiveness on a mild summer day. She kicks her feet on the metal plane. It answers with a dull, hollow thud. She practises stopping time, watching birds startle and stutter through the air, their wings splaying thin and uncertain mid-flight. A breath in, a breath out. Every moment stolen from the inevitability of her brother’s arrival. A hospital, waiting. Sheets twisting at ankles.

Breathe in. If she stops time forever, he won’t be born. If she stops time forever, her mother won’t open the sliding door and ask her to come inside, dinner’s ready. Her father won’t go to work tomorrow. Her homework will never be due. Her best friend Katy won’t tease her in front of the boys. Katy’s other best friend, Nyree, won’t tell her that her clothes are ugly, or that if she wants to be in their group she has to kiss Russel Waters.

Her band teacher won’t make her play on her own. That awkward chorus of brass instruments will never stop, and never start. There will be no heart beat inside her mother’s stomach, nestling in next to her mother’s heart, closer than she could ever get again. Don’t you know, she thinks, don’t you know what I did for you. There will be nothing except Dimity, sitting on the slide, poised to fall.

Breathe out. Ankles on metal. A racket. Birds take to the air. ‘Dimity!’ Her mother calls. ‘Come inside. Dinner’s ready now.’

Tara Cartland is the winner of the Overland Victoria University Short Story Prize. She is a Melbourne-based fiction and nonfiction writer whose work has appeared in Voiceworks and The Big Issue. She currently contributes to Feminaust.org and works for an environmental charity.

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