cartland
Type
Fiction

Nativity

They come in through gaps around the pipes, and under doors and windows that don’t close tightly enough. Their heads are wide and flat, their skin translucent. When my daughter manages to catch one, she runs her finger from its nose to its tail, slow and rhythmic. The lizard trembles with its own heartbeat.

‘She likes it,’ Joy says, not looking up.

I am named after my aunt. Joy is named for her father’s mother. She gives the lizards princess names: Josephina and Anna-Maria. They don’t survive for very long. We bury them in the same containers they lived in; a shoebox for one, a glass bottle for the other.

Joy has been keeping the third one – Sophia – in a paper bag filled with grass and bread-crumbs. She hasn’t moved in a day. But when Joy unscrunches the top of the bag and breathes down into it to say goodbye, we hear scratching at the paper.

One thing I’ve learnt: what looks dead out here often isn’t. Try to pull a dry, wiry plant out of the dirt and you’ll find its roots stuck fast, or green where they split.

Even when you have been planning to leave for years, there are things you won’t realise you’ll need. A broken branch has wedged in the gutter and I listen to it scrape against the roof for three nights before I drive down to the hardware store to buy a ladder.

I ask the girl who serves me about the lizards coming into the house. Is it normal? This many of them? She thinks for a moment, as though trying to recall a conversation overheard between her parents. ‘I don’t know,’ she answers. ‘I never heard of that happening before.’

I buy mouse traps and insect spray, sealant for the windows and heavy sand snakes for the doors.

Cleaning takes longer than unpacking. The house is small but light-filled, white and square with a tin roof and thin walls. There is red dust on every shelf and the windows stick when I try to slide them shut.

Joy is decorating her room. She tracks in dirt and dead leaves, and she threads thin strips of leafy eucalypt into her bed-frame. Wildflowers and pebbles make a pattern on her windowsill. In each of the four corners of her ceiling, a lizard sits and watches her. Their heads, pale and mottled, move when she moves.

That night I shut every window and door. I glue plywood over the hole in the back wall of the bathroom vanity, and seal up the spaces in the flimsy metal window-frames. The house feels smaller when I’ve finished. I use a broom to shoo the lizards out of Joy’s bedroom. She watches me with Sophia’s brown paper bag clutched tight in her fingers, and that scratching coming from inside it.

‘It’s a council thing. They’ll be projecting archival photographs onto heritage buildings.’

This is what the woman at the tourist information office says, glancing at me from behind her perspex screen. She is wearing blue jeans buttoned tight around her stocky figure and a pale yellow work shirt with the cuffs triangled out.

‘That sounds great,’ I say. ‘Really interesting.’

The woman nods once and lowers her eyes to her computer.

I’m not a tourist in this town, but I stop in here every so often. I have a kid, I like to say. What’s good for children around here?

There is a tall man at the grocery store with a red beard and tattoos on his neck. He holds himself between his shoulders, stooping his head to talk to the customers who are shorter than him, which is all of us. I make eye contact with his name badge. I memorise the word ‘Adam’. I smile tightly while he scans my groceries, and I think of the things I could say but don’t.

The girl at the newsagency sells scratch tickets and long conversations to the pensioners who come in on Thursdays. She laughs easily. She pulls her ponytail over her shoulder, twisting it around her thumb as she asks if the rosellas have been back in the plum tree this week, or if the sun-dried tomatoes turned out. When she’s working I sometimes stand in line to buy magazines I’ll never read.

I already know about the projections. I have a kitchen drawer full of council-printed pamphlets at home. One day I’ll walk into the tourist information office and the woman behind the perspex will recognise me, and she’ll ask me how I am.

It’s not far into town. The wide black tarmac is lined with dirt driveways and no footpath, so we walk on the road.

We play the list game. Today, Joy is listing types of birds. We’ve already done the birds you eat, and the birds you keep as pets. Now we are naming the birds we saw in a documentary the night before we left. She had sat on the floor in front of me, quiet for nearly the whole hour. I looked at her face, silhouetted by rainforest green, and saw her mouth the names of the birds as the host introduced each one.

‘What’s the one that collects things?’

A car slides slow and careful around us. Joy is thinking.

‘What’s the one … we can hear right now?’

‘Mum!’ she says, ‘I don’t know that. You should know that.’

‘I do,’ I lie. ‘Do you wanna know? Or you do wanna guess?’

‘Guess,’ she says.

By the time we walk into town her guesses have grown nonsensical. She’s stopped saying words, and started making noises that sound like words, or maybe birdsong.

We find a place in the small crowd. I look around, wondering if I’ll recognise anyone. I don’t. I sketch a wave in the air.

A banner stretched across a makeshift stage reads: We Built This Town Together. Next to it, the logo of a company I don’t recognise. The walls of the post office show miners in white singlets curving their backs to the open cut earth. The sky is silver in the projection, and the bricks behind it make shadows.

A woman introduces herself at the podium as the granddaughter of one of the men pictured carting wood along a dirt track. She doesn’t live here anymore, she explains, but she came back for this special night.

‘This is my family,’ she says, and flutters a hand to her collarbone. ‘These are your families too.’

Joy has gone quiet, leaning against my leg and staring at the shoes of the crowd. I hoist her onto my hip, I point at the men in the pictures and the shapes of the sloping earth. She looks past my hand towards the trees and the birds calling in the dusk.

I tell her we can do whatever she wants, and what she wants is to go hunting. She brings Tupperware and cling-wrap and a safety-pin to poke holes.

There’s no back fence around our patch of dry lawn, just scrub and rocks that slide towards a creek where the water runs in a thin and twisting ribbon, if it’s running at all.

‘Nothing like this back home, huh baby?’

Joy isn’t listening. She’s picking up rocks, looking for grubs and anything she thinks her lizard might eat. I tell her that Sophia could find her own food, if she would only let her out of that paper bag.

There’s a walking track, if you cross the creek, although it’s mostly grown over. We kick through dried bark and saplings. The eucalyptus trees are thin and standing arm’s lengths apart from each other. There’s space here, between everything, between the trees and their branches and their leaves.

As we walk, the creek thickens and begins to flow. We follow one of its forks and after a while the water turns to orange and red, a thick pigment that clings to the rocks and makes the air smell sulphurous.

The creek eventually widens and stops. The red sinks towards the bottom, and the sunlit water on top of it makes the colour deepen and glow. A faded sign tied to a tree trunk says that the process of remineralisation will begin two years ago.

There’s an eeriness I can’t quite place, until I realise that it’s the absence of animal noise. Nothing moves here, not the branches nor the water.

When Joy reaches her hand towards the pond I see a paper band slide out from under the sleeve of her jumper.

‘What’s this?’ I say. ‘Did you make this?’

There are shapes like numbers and shapes like letters written on it in pencil. It’s stickytaped roughly together. I think of the pictures of me and her in the hospital, the ones I pulled from their yellow-glued pages in our photo albums.

These photos are what I read to Joy instead of picture books when I’m putting her to bed. Over and over again, she asks me to explain to her the people standing beside me, the people holding her and smiling.

Uncles, aunts, cousins. They came for you, baby. They came to see you.

In one photo, I’m sitting propped up in bed, holding her in my lap. Her head is in the crook of my elbow, her cheek pressed to my arm. My hospital gown has fallen off my shoulders. I’m looking hesitantly at the camera, mouth slightly open as though I’m about to speak. Her father stands off to one side. Joy’s tiny fingers curl lightly on the plastic band around my wrist.

I once knew a woman who had taken revenge on her lover by planting grass in his carpet.

This man had been sleeping with someone else. My friend sprinkled dry grass seeds evenly into the living room carpet, and pushed them down in between the fibres with her toes. Twice a day, she sprafuyed the carpet with a water bottle set to mist.

The way she told me, the grass grew overnight. Brilliant green and soft, curling at the feet of his bookshelves and couches, and along the skirting boards.

‘I wanted to make him angry,’ she said. ‘But I accidentally made something beautiful. The more he yelled, the more I smiled. I wished I could have taken it with me, when I left. I bet he wished that too.’

There were some times I thought about planting grass seeds in the carpet, and other times I thought about worse. And then thinking became the thing that I was doing instead of leaving, so I stopped it altogether.

In the evening it rains. I open the windows to let in the cool air, which carries the scent of wet dust and eucalypt. If I close my eyes and breathe in deeply, I think I can smell the sulphur of red creek water.

Tomato soup with pasta in it for dinner: the three-colour spirals that Joy likes. We eat sitting on the floor. The rain gets heavy. I think that I should have bought candles, just in case.

After we eat, Joy lies on her stomach and herds lizards between her walled palms. She whispers; they conspire. Sometimes she looks across to where I’m sitting with a glass of white wine and a magazine unopened on my lap. My heart crosses that distance in a second, but what I say is, ‘Joy, baby, I think it’s time for bed.’

Lizards eat mice, they say. Lizards eat spiders and mosquitoes and other insects. Lizards are clean and quiet and will not disturb you.

Lizards move mostly when you do. Staring at them and willing them towards the door will not make them leave. Lizards make noises in their throats that you don’t know quite how to describe. They are quiet when they are moving in the dark, and they are noisy when you are trying to sleep. There are more of them each day.

In the morning I open the door to Joy’s room and as she sits up sleepily, I see the bed and the walls and the carpet move.

‘It’s okay, Mum,’ she says when she sees me in the doorway. ‘They’re family.’

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

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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