When she falls
The Matriarch sits on her chair, humming lullabies in pidgin to no-one in particular. She rocks back and forth, weaved fan in hand and journal in lap. She knows the end is near. I place my hand on her shoulder and squeeze.
‘You’ve been a wonderful resident Ophelia.’ A peculiar name that wasn’t given to her from blood.
She laughs. ‘Oh, shut up you. I haven’t died yet uh. My heart still tick and I gad one more thing for makem.’
‘We’ll wait for you,’ I say, and turn to the willow tree.
She smiles as she opens her journal. She scribbles and smiles with each new word. She’s writing another story. She always has a story. She hums quieter and closes the book before she follows me.
‘For as long as I can remember my Aka said that the house spirit would make sure we’d live long and happy lives.’ She places her hand on the tree and sighs. ‘I’ve done both for sure. But will you look after her, Loved One? She needs to know that she’s loved. Guilt can’t follow her too.’
After all these years, from watching her first breath and now her last, I can see her pain as she shares her last wish, her most precious request. She cannot see me. I take her free hand and hold it tight.
‘When you fall, she shall rise.’
Ophelia’s body becomes limp and sinks to the ground, underneath the night sky, amongst the stars. I know this is what she’s always wanted.
Towards the valley
Do I look different to the sun? Or does the sun look different now?
Maybe both, maybe neither. All I know is that my heart hurts. Maybe it is broken. Maybe I’m just numb. I really don’t know, but one thing is for certain, there’s something different today, and that difference is going to follow us all the way to the valley.
No-one says anything when we leave our small baby blue townhouse from the back door. We do this because the front door has been broken since the owner said he’d fix it when I was sixteen, but now I’m pushing twenty-one and still no sign from the landlord. I wonder how a middle-aged white man who sells ice cream and manages an extermination business from the same garage could be so busy for years that he is incapable of fixing his own door. It’s not like anyone’s rushing to buy ice cream that sits next to rat kaka. I guess once he found out his tenants were Black and Brown he decided he’d rather have nothing to do with us. Maybe it’s because he found out I’m a killer, and he’s too gammon to show his face again.
We drag our three vaguely purple suitcases we scored off our neighbours who bragged that they’d lost their colour from years of constant world adventures, out to Dad’s red Toyota Corolla across the wet grass. It poured down all last night. The kind of weather that makes it easier to sleep, that turns your breathing into another instrument for their orchestra. Dad and I help Mum into the car. I know Mum doesn’t like us fussing, so I pack the wheelchair instead. Dad insists that Mum leans on him while she gets in, and she refuses at first, but then Dad does his little bit, a combination of him tenderly telling her that she can always rely on him and his gentle dimpled smile. She gives in, as usual. Mum can walk, but it hurts when she does. She doesn’t know I know why she’s hurting this morning, why she’s trying her best not to cry out in pain. Even though it blissfully stormed last night, the thunder and pitter patter of rain didn’t drown out her footsteps up and down the stairwell.
Up Down And And
She didn’t stop talking to herself til three this morning and she only stopped walking when my alarm went off. I know she knows today is different and I know she’s hurting more than I am. She can hide pain from Dad, but never from me – she’s always been so readable to me. And then I guess prison makes it easier to learn how people try to hide their pain.
Six hours of silence on the drive, none of us hearing the radio blasting in the background as we rolled down winding roads I’d known since I was young, since I was ‘free.’ But are Black folks ever ‘free?’ We drove past trees I knew as seeds and empty fields that once held houses I’d played in. If you asked nice I could still draw the creeks and the journeys of their rushing water, the dips and hollows of the mountains that try their best to hold up the sky, and the kaleidoscope of browns that stain the oldest trees that stand stark on bare land once covered with their siblings. I could draw where the water once swallowed the land, and swallowed me, before it dislodged my body from its throat and spat me back out to the earth. But, to this day, my mind still wonders how and why the water devoured Rio.
We exchanged our goodbyes to the kookaburra that had followed us along our travels and rolled up Nan’s driveway, passing the farmhouse surrounded by parked cars and snotty children running and screaming while the aunties and uncles yarned in scattered clusters of yarning circles. They were all waiting for us, but I also knew they were scared of my Nan’s house and the spirit that lived there. Or maybe they were scared of me. My Nan gave the spirit many names, from Sogi to Big Ole Dory. Mostly she called her the Loved One. The spirit was only warm to relatives she liked. The ones she didn’t like would be scared off with her cheeky ways. One night, after my cousin Mango had gone and put a hole in the wall kicking a footy inside the house, he was jumped by a possum in the shower and had run off naked into the night. Poor thing, made me laugh for an hour before Mum told me it was bad for laughing even though she was there laughing too. Mum doesn’t really believe in the Loved One but Dad is sure she exists. When I lived in the white ‘Queenslander’ and my parents came to visit, Dad would leave biscuits and milk out for her, like white people do for Santa. It’d all be gone in the morning and he’d show Mum this ‘proof’. I never had the heart to tell him it was me who would sneak out for a late-night snack.
I’m the first out of the car but mum insists on walking up the three steps that lead onto the porch alone. She knocks while I close the boot. Even before we get inside, I’m grateful to be closer to my Papa. He’s a man of dry jokes and precious teachings – like how our bloodline is powerful and how love grows in so many places. The most important thing I’m grateful for is that my Papa always said I was innocent, even when I felt like I wasn’t.
I hear the wooden floorboards on the front porch creak from foreign weight. Who dares come to my verandah and knock on my door without first greeting me? I take my cane and approach, but my last resident reaches the door first. There are familiar faces that have aged through their beauty and their hopelessness behind it. A man, a woman, a child. The youngest one is sullen. She looks eager to greet her grandfather, but we all remember the last time she left here with blue and red light on her skin. I remember she did not fight. Her face is dressed in sadness and anger. Death has always been unfair.
The youngest one smiles as she greets my last resident. Once, I saw this beautiful face each day for fifteen years. I have love for this youngest one, this child. She brought life back into these walls, with her dreams, her emotions, her staunchness; reminded me of my very first resident before the pale skins knocked down my home and used its bones to build this house. Her sincerity radiates from her words, but I know her heart longs for our Matriarch as much as mine. But she’s also hurting from old scars that cover her heart.
I slip away quietly and make my way to the bedrooms. I must keep my promise and tend to my responsibilities, tend to our guests. Especially my little summer child. In each room I lift my cane up and down. With each rise of my cane, each and every belonging,
from well-loved beds to tired blankets,
from unlevelled chairs to sun damaged vases,
float toward their appropriate positions.
I take extra care with the last room, the one she once called her Ocean. The ocean mural that covered the walls has since faded, its colours almost translucent. This mural was special, its paint made from fresh and salt water, hues stolen from the sky; a miniature ocean for the little one, to teach her to breathe underwater, to teach her that the water will never take, but only give life. I trace my fingers against the wooden panels and begin to sing, raising my voice as the waves start to move across the walls. The guests might hear me if they tried, but my priority right now is to fulfil the Matriarch’s last wish.
With each note the blue hues dance and grow enraged with lust, wishing to be seen again. The colours twirl and embroider themselves into the walls. The sea creatures begin to stir and breathe. I welcome them to life again and greet them with the knowledge that their favourite returns. The room moves with life. I smile at my work and feel the ache where a heart should be. I have reached my limits for today but I have started to fulfil the Matriarch’s last wish. I give my farewells to the awakened creatures and leave for my sanctuary within the walls. Behind me I hear a slow creak at the window, but I don’t turn to the figure who passes through it. Trouble will always find the youngest one.
The heart of the valley
When my Papa creaks open the door his usual toothless smile does not greet us. Instead he stands back from the doorway, the aching hunch of his back not diminishing his height or the strength he exudes. This strength is what I admire most about Papa. I hope it’s a genetic trait. He looks like he hasn’t slept since Nan’s passing. His tight, kinked, white curls have been neatly groomed, and he looks like he hasn’t eaten in a while, his dark skin drooping from his bones, sunken over missing flesh. His eyes, green mixtures of grief and loneliness, move between each of our faces.
‘You’re late,’ he announces, his creole thick and familiar.
‘I’m sorry Daddia,’ says my mother.
‘It’s okay. I would be late too.’
I feel my mother’s stance soften beside me.
‘Papa, you haven’t aged a day since I last saw you,’ I say, hoping my smile covers my sorry eyes. He smiles sorry at me too.
‘You missed my dry jokes, ey?’ he asks tenderly.
‘I missed it all Papa.’
He opens the door wider for us to walk through and flicks his hand for us to follow him into the house.
In the kitchen the smell of curried chicken, sop sop, marinated raw fish and fry bread swirls around the room as the aunties scurry to fill each dish with love. They don’t seem afraid of this haunted house. I greet everyone who acknowledges me. I ignore the others who ignore me, and stand to the side to admire the food. Not everyone has forgotten the boy who drowned, and I can’t help but think of him as I try my best to hold conversation, but after a little while something else distracts me. I hear singing upstairs. It’s a melody I’ve heard before, within the walls. Only the Loved One could sing like that.
I slip out of the kitchen and make my way toward the sound. I can feel the floorboards vibrate from their singing. I slowly pass the guest rooms on my way to the Ocean. The singing stops just before I push the door open, and I am enveloped in the ocean crashing and waving across the walls, crashing against shore and rock and finally the girl standing in the centre with her long curls and sorry eyes. I can still feel the rebelliousness radiate from her though, she’s still the same girl I’ve always known.
‘Hey,’ Lexi breathes and makes her way towards me. My heart aches as I stand in the doorway, dumbstruck, shy all over again like the first time I met her. But also ashamed – we haven’t spoken since his funeral. She pauses at the window with her hands in her jacket pockets, looking me up and down, waiting for a response.
I feel faint, like I’m drowning again, in the Ocean, in guilt, in the pain that Lexi and I shared over Rio. Losing someone you love is hard, but that someone being your brother, I could never imagine how that felt for Lexi; how it still feels.
‘You know, I’ve always wanted to know what you’re really thinking. You’re hard to read.’ Lexi says it like a secret and looks out the window at the big willow tree, and the gums surrounding it. My papa says that a lot of our loved ones are buried underneath, like his papa. My papa’s Papa had dark skin and a big tall laugh that could fill any house. My papa said that he was a slave brought over from the States. He married-up to my papa’s Nan, a Kaurareg, Erub and South Sea-Islander woman, who was never paid for her work. In Australia, most people aren’t brave enough to call a slave a slave, they’re gammon and use ‘nicer’ words to hide the shame.
‘I didn’t think you’d come.’
‘Why wouldn’t I? I’ve missed you.’ She says it like a song. I can’t bear to look at her, or the Ocean.
‘I wrote you letters.’
‘I never got any,’ she says, looking surprised.
‘It’s because I was too scared to send them.’ I look at her and I know she feels the guilt I do. ‘I just – I needed time,’ I tell the floor, looking anywhere but her.
‘You did time. Time you didn’t have to do,’ she says softly, but I know there’s anger in her words. I feel her staring but I don’t speak. ‘You know I don’t believe the pigs. They just wanted to pin this on the first Black girl they could find, like they did with Moesha over the bridge, and Keepa down the road.’
‘You’re really a lawyer now, are ya?’ I look up. Her eyes are sharply fixed on me. I wish she’d look at me the way she used to. I wish she was holding me right now. I wish I was holding her.
‘If you let me defend you, I’ll fight for you like I always have.’
It takes me a long time of staring and silence to answer that. I know she’s trying to make me think that I didn’t kill her brother, that Nan wasn’t wrong about me, that our lives deserve to be intertwined again. She always was a convincer, but not everyone’s story is up for interpretation.
I hear footsteps on the stairs and remember that she’s not supposed to be here, that I don’t even know how she got in. I turn to check who’s coming, and when I look back, Lexi zips her jacket and goes for the window.
‘I would have knocked, but I reckon your pops is still raging about the last time he found me in your room,’ she winks. I’m surprised I can laugh but I do, and her eyes soften for a moment. ‘Don’t laugh too loud Egg, or he’ll know something’s up.’
‘Everyone always says there’s something up with us.’
She grins slyly, as she’s shimmying her hips back through the window frame. ‘I don’t know if you still have my number. It hasn’t changed, but I wrote it down,’ she nods to a note stuck onto a book on the bedside table. ‘Call me.’ She pauses, a head and shoulders between the Ocean and the afternoon sun.
‘I know. But, don’t say it. Not yet. A lot of things have happened since the last time we were together. Just … know that what we had, I want that again. I want us again.’
My heart races as she nods and slips into the afternoon sky.
‘I see our favourite Dory decorated?’ Papa’s voice startles me as he steps into the Ocean.
I laugh, and he cups my face. He looks carefully into my eyes, studying me like one of the many antiques he’s collected over the years.
‘You look tired bubba,’ he says. ‘You should sleep, ey.’
I nod into his large hands. He leaves me in a flurry of blues. I sink into my bed – a gift from my aunty. How I’ve missed every gift I’ve been given. I close my eyes and breathe in the room.
Away from the valley
Her feet are in water. Clear blue riding up warm honey sand. She can taste the ocean. She’s home, her grandmother’s home, her Nan’s island home. She realises she’s sitting down, and stands. Her skin glows brown against the sun. The sun feels real, feels like the sun she’s always known. She wants to talk to the star but she hears a voice. ‘Aye bub, you’ve made it.’ The figure smiles from the ocean depths, walking towards her with a hammerhead shark behind, as a green turtle circles her feet. ‘I don’t have much time Kianawah, I need you to listen carefully.’
She nods and her grandmother begins to speak, loud and clear. ‘I want you to know this. He knew if he held on you would both drown. You were a child. You were innocent.’
The girl’s face shines wet from tears, she muffles her words into her grandmother’s shoulder as she holds her.
‘I could have saved him. I could have held on. I could have protected him.’
‘He let you go, bubba. He told me. He had to let you go.’
‘He came to you?’
‘Of course. He came with love for you and I listened to him. He says he doesn’t remember how he got here, but he remembers the water and you. He remembers letting go. He has the peace that you need to give yourself. Death doesn’t always look fair my bubba. We are proud of you.’
The girl’s body is wrapped so tight in embrace she hardly knows where it ends.
‘Are you lonely, Nan?’ she manages to ask.
Her grandmother gently nudges her face. ‘Ere bubba, you think the dead are alone?’ she laughs, her voice like a song from another room. ‘Where I was and where I go is full of our people, our songs, our spirits. I’ll be right. You’ve got to rise above, my gel.’
The edges of the dream soften, and the girl’s image of the world loses focus.
‘Read the story. I’ve written what you’ve been looking for.’
The grandmother’s hands pass slowly over the girl’s face, wiping her tears.
‘Yawo my gel . . . Debeki . . .’
With these last words the girl watches her grandmother turn to ocean.
I wake up dizzy but somewhat, whole; lighter in fact. I feel, at peace, calm. I haven’t felt this way since … I can’t recall. The sun looks different too, not because its dusk, it’s the same star in my dream. The world feels different again, different from this morning. The hues of the Ocean look different too. Has it always looked like this? I text Lexi.
I’VE MISSED YOU
YOU’RE MY LAWYER
I KNOW THAT TOO
I smile. This means something – not just an overturned conviction, or an end to side-glances and terrified looks. I lift the note where she’s followed her number with an assortment of Xs and Os. It takes me a moment to realise what the book is – there’s no title or author, but it smells like Nan, and when I open it her familiar script curls over each page. I want to read every word, lean into every story she’s ever written down, find her in every line. But she knows, and the Loved One knows, and I know there will be time for that. Each page reminds me of my time with her, and I feel the ache for her fill the room. I reach the final entry and the grief I’ve kept in all these years can no longer be held in. I read each word, I digest each sentence. I close the journal and sit silently as I watch the sunset. Her last entry was long and there are so many important things to digest, but one thing stood out the most.‘There was a witness’
Image: Samuel Mann / Flickr
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