- I am going to tell you a story about my sister. It is not a beautiful story. There are beautiful pieces. But not all of it is beauty. But there is my nephew. His name was Joseph. He arrived not forty minutes ago at our place beneath the silky oak tree.
- So skip wee moat about the tre may kol.
- I embraced him at once. My relations descended the tree and gathered about him.
- Mi jup tre yee, he said. Hiwg ut ie ro.
- He began it thusly as a matter of respect, but soon Joseph freed himself of the formalities and told it straight.
- She’s dead, he said. They are on their way.
- And then we started on the road to Kuang Si Falls. We were all of us moving then: the breath of the harvesters hot on our necks and the stink of the past in our lungs.
- Her captor was a large woman with teardrop eyes you couldn’t see through and you couldn’t see yourself. If she came close she’d spill right over and she always did come close, for there was the stuff inside you she had to get at. Her touch was of pickles and wine – that is to say salt – and wherever she touched the wound was there, gaping. It hardly matters that I was not there to tell her it would all end in death. It does not matter that here I am now, waiting, always waiting, for what is coming for us was always coming, it was only time, there were instances of joy, yes, but it was always coming and what we were to be in the coming and in the instant of that was nothing.
- Nothing so much as a sunset could hold all of the angry world …
- … and beyond the roof, way up where the blue was beyond it all and so blue – where the marks of blue were a fable, fatal, and assured – was all that there was but the silence.
- The silence, as I say, was right there in her teardrop eyes. It was there in the salt of her blood and in the bones of her touch, breaking. A baby on an olive branch, broken and green, can undo nothing of that obscure and wretched way we have (silence and fury) and the kinds of things we don’t talk about. For nothing going up the throat like that is quite as deadly. Only the love of her words (always words) and the smile on her face.
- The space of her silence, yes, and endurance, for the mountains reached beyond the road where it wound, where one or two people in a bus stopped against the thick grey of the heat at the top of that mountain, paused, swatted at fat blue flies that bumped themselves against the large and filthy jar, just sitting there, yellow, beside the road. What the hell is it? (An American.) I think it’s a paw. (A Swede.) That’s just how it looks in the water. (A junkie.) That’s not water. (The American again.) I forget what it’s called, I used to know what it was called, but I sure know that stuff isn’t water.
- The house was made of stone. There were three young children, well-clothed. Two of them were asleep on the porch the day they brought my sister in. She walked. Joseph was tied to a stick. Chickens darted out of the way. This woke the children. It was raining that day. The children slept up against each other in the corner of the porch, their toes in the rain. The children liked the chickens, the rain. They fell back to sleep; at times they woke up again.
- And this was my sister’s fortune. Her resting place. This was where the harvesters took her, not far from this restaurant, this gift shop, to a little home some way up the mountains but not all the way, overlooking as it were the restaurant, the gift shop. Some way up the mountains was where she was, down below they served pineapple to travellers, in tiny pieces, and fine noodles with threads of chilli. Later, in the evening, they served roti with chocolate sauce and sliced banana, sometimes honey. It was rather a large home where she was, obscured behind a dense thicket of malva and betel nut trees. For there was business there.
- All the cages were behind the house.
- My sister lived behind the house and loved there. My sister had never known such love. She must have thought to herself that the woman, as big as day, was some kind of reverie, for she was surrounded by her, and always breathing her in, and she could not remember her life before that love, and she could not recall a scent that was ever as potent as the threads of smoke in that hair, that hair so black and so straight and so long, that hair that fell and swept her sometimes.
- And the hard green fruits were everywhere, and hanging. The tapestry of that place was familiar and foreign both; above her head and between her paws those iron bars, but they were only the end of all she had feared and the beginning of all she would know. Those bars in that place, made of iron and visible, yes, and yet the smell of fried banana came up to her, and burning chocolate from down below came up, and golden batter popping where there were new humans, young humans, old humans, trading fares. The hard green fruits dotted the sky like tiny birds, blinking, and my sister knew that there she would stay, that she must, for to return home or even to long for it was a bloody memory, an ancient and bitter thing, though she didn’t know why. All she knew was the vitality of that new place, the perfection of her entrapment, the grace. All she saw was the promise of that land. The iron bars her boundary and her becoming. A necessary freedom.
- On the floor of that house an old woman with her skirts wide apart, splay-legged over a little bench, was cutting onions. The woman who kept the farm stood at the sink siphoning bile. The woman did feel but couldn’t say it how the eyes of that great bear bore into her, drew a line through the atmosphere and bore directly into her, how the colour of those eyes was of leaf and of something else, how she was made hollow with it. The woman stood at the sink siphoning bile: clean and ordinary work. Sometimes she did it out the back, where the others were, but the rain made everybody restless and they cried and stamped, and the woman feared the noise would wake the baby. The baby was strapped to her front, in a length of material expertly wound, made from a pink-and-orange hand-turned silk her mother had sent down the mountains.
- A small fact: Years ago they would have killed my sister and removed her gall bladder. Perhaps they would have reared Joseph on sugar and water, waited a year but no more, then killed him the same. But the seventies had brought much in the way of technology and innovation. It was now possible to keep anywhere up to a hundred bears at a single premises. Joseph was fed formula imported from Vang Vieng and sometimes honey. Most cubs had their bile extracted with a needle. Adults had a catheter implanted or a hole drilled in the abdomen so the fluid could drip out. There were: catheters, full-metal jackets with neck spikes, medicinal pumps. There were open, infected holes from the drilling.
- Soft belly of the bears.
- And on my platform in the silky oak, eating honey and malva nuts and sometimes betel I was home and I stayed there, I ate and I stayed. They were vanished some months and in this time I developed a habit of leaving my nuts in a basket, coating them with honey, leaving them out for weeks at a time, watching them. Though the air was very humid in time the mixture would grow firm to touch: I cracked it apart with a stick. I sharpened that stick with my teeth. The sweetness got stuck in my teeth.
- The love for, and always words, and the drill going in, through the air, splitting the air and bleeding it, bleeding the air of air, always words, my sister, her bitterness, in a cage, and a woman. With these hands.
- These raw and easy things; these slippery things; these hold-on hands and always hot long dark things – fingers – that could touch you there, that could penetrate, that could Holy Mother of God lead you to God and bring you back again. I don’t think my sister ever forgave God; forsaking her. Trapped in the wrong body; the wrong species; my sister. Bitter teeth bitter tears bitter blood of my sister, bitter bile.
- Her captor: she was a woman reared on silk. And here, of all the moon bears in Northern Laos, a secret. She gifted my sister a name, called her Raiko. Meaning ‘distant.’ It was on account of my sister’s ears being far apart on the top of her head that the woman called her Raiko. Joseph she never worried for, that is to say, named. She had children of her own. She knew from the first that Raiko was a violent, ambivalent mother. In the night, some six weeks in, that woman opened the cage door, and Joseph ran. Raiko pretended to be asleep; the woman shut the door. Joseph ran, he searched, but could not find us. He stopped running and nearly died. Then he ran again.
- His mother, behind him, a love:
- of intimacy, extraction. The woman did not love Raiko. For my sister was a bear. A large and cumbersome beast, my sister, covered in hair. Unrequited love, then, this affair. Of pain and only pain and always pain and extraction, of entrapment, extraction, absolution. And, in time, Raiko grew desperate, achieved the unthinkable. She taught herself to vomit on cue. She gave without being asked, everything she had inside of her.
- She was moved to a cage on the other side of the house. It did not rain there; there were silky oak trees. She was fed malva nuts on porcelain plates. The woman picked the nuts and soaked them in water taken from puddles at the foot of the bromeliads.
- As she grew, the bars of her cage grew into her, embedded in her hair and the cells of her flesh, and she never did a thing but move her mouth, always mouth and always moving, waiting, long lean dark fingers. And the woman:
- she could see my sister. That she was dying, suffocating as it were, stolen by that cage, sucked in by it. She tried to maintain her sickness, my sister, her strategy. But she could not give. No thing would come up. She ate, and yet that intake betrayed her, would give nothing, the woman grew desperate, too, with the longing. She threatened my sister: more than once. So far as I know only humans can hold you like that. And in the end, my sister told.
- You see at times there was sun. But it was too bright. The trees were too thick. Green and only green. Hanging. Bitter fruit and hanging. Oh God. And at some stage, there is no telling exactly when, Raiko could no longer do it, her powers were interrupted, or simply gone, the metal had borne through her flesh and she was material, she was cold. Of no more use to the woman without any bile inside her. The woman killed her.
- I believe a fat woman lying in St Mary’s, Greater London, has one of her paws on a chain about her neck.
- And we would, of course, rather die than live with this. For as far as I know and I only know by being here, we are not a species prone to delusion. We expect more of ourselves. And we will go on and always on, and we will speak for the history: sacrifice. It was enough to know what she had done, and they were coming for us. I only regret now the fate of Joseph, who having told us they were coming, fled. I never knew him on the edge of Kuang Si Falls.
- For all of my effort then, and for nothing. For all of my woven baskets. For all of my being on the verge of the brink. Those fingers. And I dreamed sometimes of long dark fingers. That sense I might have of holding a thing.
- For all my effort, then. For all my hours. For all that I invented, spoke and saw, nothing compared to this, nothing to bring her back, nothing to know what it is she has done in her going there and in her staying. Nothing to say for it now and nothing to do, for there is no reason in this kind of anguish, and no relief. Anyway, they were upon us then, but that hardly matters. We were all of us on our way, on my call.
- And I was full of pity for myself. And enough of that now. And I slashed my paw on a sharp bit of stone and the blood dripped out. And it was a simple thing and a simple truth. We would not endure.
- I suppose if there had been another morning, you might have seen a trail. The pain shot up through my leg and I, into my heart. I into my heart the pain. But it was only pain. And the pain was in the recognition. For I saw his face myself: my father.
- I recognised my father first of all. I saw the top of his head as he rounded the trail. We stood there at the top of the falls in our furs of black, those cream crests about our necks thick and fine in the sun.
- Father says something to his party and they stop. He comes on alone. It is only him there, with his gun over his shoulder, poised, intent on stunning. But we are calm. That is to say I am. If I had known he would be there perhaps I would have led the cubs, at least, elsewhere. The fact is we were always running. You can spend so much time in an oak tree soaking malva nuts in woven bowls and waiting, waiting, always waiting for some kind of fury, for some thing to happen, for war or peace or the hint of adventure. Some man, I mean, to arrive at the bottom of the tree with a string of dried mackerel from the markets or a tower of marigolds. Waiting. Always waiting. Or you can go on ahead. To the edge of the falls and jump.
- Rest assured that swirling sound below is not the end, not the beginning.
- He watches me, for I am at the front of the clan. Perhaps he knows me. I like to think he knows me, that in my black eyes he recognises her, that in the mark on my chest he sees something familiar as he comes for us, for he was always coming.
- The limestone is cool under my paws. The water is rushing and turquoise, beneath me. We had thought to send up a call – of grief, mourning or resolution, perhaps – but I had not begun and they would not begin without me. As her closest living relation they looked to me for order. Had I jumped then, they would have jumped, too, for it was in our nature to trust one another, and in the trusting, to let go. So when he stopped directly across from me on the trail and I did not move, not one of them moved. I made no rush to warn him. My limbs remained lowered. The water rushed all the more, and a smile not of satisfaction but of almighty awe, for the greatness of life that lay before him, spread across my father’s face.
- And he just stood there.
- And there is a moment, if I’m being honest, I think he will turn around. I hope he will. There is a moment I believe I will for once see his back, he will return to his party and they will return to their village, with some feigned albeit accurate fairy tale of not only their near miss but what they have seen on their travels. There is a moment I think we might have made a mistake, coming here like this – a single moment these things go through my mind. And then I think of Joseph. And I jump.
- And behind me each one follows, one by one. And into the rushing water the shots are fired neat, but I only feel the rushing water, turquoise and cold, so fresh and full and falling, so splendid: a blue green rush of life and living, all about me.
The Overland Neilma Sidney Short Story Prize is supported by the Malcolm Robertson Foundation