jessie cole

novelist/writer

Category: Stories

The Letter

In the months before he died, Lily’s father wrote her a letter that he tore up before sending, so when the envelope arrived, she tipped it upside down and the tiny fragments wafted down, fluttering over the floor of her small city flat. Lily swept up the white paper butterflies and put them back in the envelope, and then she rang her mother.

“Why does he do things like that? Why send a letter ripped into tiny pieces? Does he want me to stick it together? Is it some kind of test? I won’t do it.”

“Lil, I don’t know,” Alice sighed on the other end of the line. “He’s not well, he’s depressed. He did a lot of things when he was…sick…he feels bad.”

“Well I know, but why does he do things like that now? I’m throwing it out.”

“Yes, throw it out Lily, you can’t try and read a ripped up letter.”

But she stuffed the torn letter in with all the rest in the back of her cupboard, and tried not to think about its maimed black scrawl.

In her bedroom in the house, Lily scrambles through old letters, birthday cards, drawings and notes, searching for the familiar folded envelope of the letter from him. She has held this envelope in her hands many times, folding it up into a tiny square, and then smoothing it out again. Creased with the lines of Lily’s sad thoughts, inside it holds the scraps of the ruined letter she has never read. Finding it tucked against the bottom corner of an old shoe box, Lily pulls it out and folds it again into a tight square, the reflexive habit returning on cue. In a shiny metal box, today she is going to bury it.

Under the cover of overhanging trees, a ridge of land grows from Lily’s front garden like an arm thrown out in sleep. In its eternal meandering journey the creek has shaped and carved it, and now the ridge stands, a thin stripe of unharnessed ground that drops away sharply at either side. This ridge seems to point to some kind of destination but instead ends abruptly in a tapering muddy slope.

Lily takes her sons out along this secret ridge, carrying the metal box and a small shovel. Oscar races ahead, fearless and filled with ease, but Noah clings to Lily’s legs, trembling slightly as he peers over the steep edges. They scramble together down the muddy slippery slope. Lily must half carry Noah down the steepest part, the shovel clanking heavily against her ankles. At the bottom she holds open the barbed wire and they slide carefully through. Once down, Lily’s boys are nimble and they skip across the rocks of the creek and onto the pebbled flat. On the higher land above the creek, under a wide canopy of camphors, Lily begins to dig.

“What are you doing Mum? What have you got in the box?” Oscar is watchful as he slides around the trunk of a wide tree.

“I’m burying this box. I don’t want it with me anymore, but I’m not ready to throw it out.”

“But what’s in it?”

Pushing the shovel into the dirt, Lily pauses to look at her son’s face.

“I can’t tell you about it, Oscar. It’s just something that I don’t want, but I can’t get rid of.”

Noah wanders closer, kicking at the red dirt with his bare toes.

“Mummy, I can help. I can do some shovelling.”

“No baby, not without shoes. This is a job for Mummy. You can help me put the dirt back on top afterwards okay?

Placing the box in the hole, she begins to cover it with the damp pebbly soil. Noah throws small handfuls while Lily squashes the dirt flat with her feet.

“There. Now help me find a stick to mark the place.”

“A big one, Mummy?”

“One I can wedge into the ground, so I don’t lose the spot.”

Oscar strolls over from his tree with a long, slightly curved stick.

“But I thought you didn’t want what’s in the box. Why do you need to know the spot?”

“I just do. That’s all.”

Lily stands a moment beside the stick, wondering if the damp soil will turn her box to rust, and knowing that a flood will wash it all away. She imagines her metal box wedged between the branches of a tree on some lone farmer’s land.

“Come on boys, let’s go for a wander.”

Leaving the shovel propped against Oscar’s tree, Lily and the boys head downstream, watching for stray pieces of barbed wire and the low thorny bushes that always catch against their clothes.

As a child Lily loved this secret place. One year when the creek flooded, a large tree capsized and she made the exposed roots her hideaway. Equipped with a basket of fruit from the orchard, Lily headed down the edge and settled into the welcoming arms of her tree. She took her brother down this rambling slide to the tree, and they played intricate games in the many tangled caverns of its roots. Tiny imagined houses and tunnelling secrets, infinite worlds that exploded in the siblings’ minds until the whole upturned tree seemed to teem with life. This secret space had soothed Lily, free from the sculpting power of her father’s hands.

All along the curving creek edge grew dark green straight leafed plants that thrust from the ground like wild pompoms. Covered in a furred green moss the rocks of the creek sat solidly in their random placement and to Lily their rotund bodies seemed quietly alive. Ferns grew from the rock’s dirt crammed pockets and roots of the trees lay exposed in the ever-changing creek bank. From above ground Lily could see the trees’ private underworld in all their intertwined and sprawling layers, and to her – even then – they seemed naked and evolving. Gazing upon the banks with a kind of inarticulate wonder, Lily was calm in this quiet secret place.

The uprooted tree is no longer there, washed away years before in a flood. Lily and the boys walk along the banks of the creek, weaving in and out of the well-trodden cow paths. Noah stops to poke at the water with a stick, stirring up mud, and Oscar looks across at Lily as though searching for something.

“Mum, what was in the box?”

Oscar’s face is tilted to the side. Watching Lily, he pulls at his bottom lip with his new top teeth. Her children seem to study her for clues to some great mystery she can never explain. They seem to find her incomprehensible, sheathed as she is in this old unspeakable grief. She sighs, a strange sad sound.

“It was something private. Something sad. Something I’m not ready to share.”

“A secret?”

“Yeah, baby. A kind of secret.”

Oscar watches Lily and then shuffles toward her, wrapping his arms around her and leaning against her hips. Used to being too heavy to hold, Oscar cuddles her with a restrained gentleness. Catching sight of them, Noah drops his stick into the creek and runs across to squeeze in against his brother, working his way into the embrace like a wriggling puppy. Both boys press against her then until they begin to jostle until overwhelmed Lily nudges them from her arms, and turns to head back.

“Come on, boys, let’s go up. Let’s go back up to the house.”

And that night lying in bed, sleepless and cocooned, Lily thinks of her special place along the ridge after darkness has fallen. The great shadows of the camphors and her metal box beneath the shallow layer of red dirt. Imagining this place encased in a deathly black, Lily trembles beneath her covers. Remembering her escape plan, the horror of it crushes her.

In the dark years, half way through his first bottle of wine, her father’s face began to change. His skin reddened and his eyebrows protruded. His eyes behind round glasses seemed milkier and his cheeks more jowly. His voice became harsh and soon it would begin. Her father talked and talked, an enraged monologue of grief, and one by one Lily and Joe got up from the table and left. Fifteen and thirteen, they found refuge in the television or their separate rooms but their mother stayed and listened and listened. She did not argue, she did not inflame, but sat unbending and calm beneath their father’s lashing barbed tongue. Lily and Joe went to bed to avoid his incessant monotone, but Lily’s room was closest, and she could hear it as she lay quietly listening in the dark. The menace in his voice carried through the air, though the words were lost and Lily could not breathe for the waiting.

Lily listened in terror for a silence so ominous and deep that she could not mistake its meaning. She waited and waited for the sound of her mother’s footsteps on the walkway bricks so that she would know she had escaped safely to bed, and then Lily waited, her whole body alive with dread, to see if his heavy angry footsteps would follow. She was panic stricken about what she would not hear once her father had her mother alone in their private bedroom in the green garden sea, and the ringing of this waiting silence filled her mind until she could think of nothing but the plan.

In the plan Lily would know the moment when she would need to act. The sound of the silence would inform her, or perhaps a noise, a frightening meaningful noise, and she would creep silently from her room. In all her waiting wakefulness Lily had planned and plotted how she would get Joe out.

Sliding along the back garden in the dark, Lily would slip in through her brother’s half opened door and wake him and urge him up. Joe would be disorientated with sleep and fear and he would stumble out the door behind her. She would drag him quietly through the jungle palms they had watched through the glass as children and when she thought they were far enough from the rage of their father Lily would urge him into a run and they would race out toward her secret ridge and slide down the muddy slope in the cold hard darkness.

In her plan their clothes would tear against the barbed wire and they would graze their backs trying to slide beneath its jagged edge, and once they were in her secret place beneath the ghostly silhouetted camphors they would not be able to stop running. In their pyjamas they would race along the creek, their feet slamming against the sharp edges of the rocks. Blinded by the dark, Lily and Joe would run and run until they were free of him, and then they would huddle together, wretched and shivering, knowing that in their panicked dash they had left Alice behind. They had left their mother to defend herself against the fearsome possibilities of their thrashing drowning father.

In her escape plan Lily could not rescue them all.

But most nights Lily’s father would not follow her mother to bed. He stayed up late instead, drinking more wine and playing old records so loudly that Lily couldn’t sleep. Her father was stuck in a circular broken grief and it played upon his mind like the records scratched against their frightened hearts. He listened to the first few bars of Judy Garland singing ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow,’ just the first line, over and over again, as though in his drunken despair he was trying to capture this one moment; the one epic moment when the music swells and she begins to sing. Her sister was dead, vanished from their lives, and to Lily’s father this moment was like holding in his palm the smallest particle of her. Every night he listened to this short phrase of notes as though grasping in his hand the skirts of the girl who had so potently left him, as though in these swelling soaring seconds he could almost keep her in the room. And when the line was over he had lost her, she had escaped his hold and his grief returned in a colossal swamping wave.

And then, he played it again and again.

And Lily listened with a fury so large that she felt it rock and swell inside her, and sometimes when her anger overrode her fear she swept out of her room to confront him.

“Dad, we can’t sleep. Do you not understand that we have to go to school tomorrow?”

Her father stood unsteadily in the doorway unable to hear her through the force of the amplified orchestral strings.

Lily shouted then, her whole body shaking. “Turn It Down!”

Her father shuffled to the record player and turned the volume down a tiny notch, and Lily shook her head, holding her body still in stiff defiance.

“It’s still too loud.”

And then his anger roused, her father exploded.

“It’s my fucking house! I can do what I want in my fucking house. You’ve all gone off to bed and I’m just listening to some songs that make me feel good. My favourite songs, you know? Me! I can’t do anything in this fucking house without you all fucking complaining.”

Lily stepped back, her fists clenching. He stood over her radiating a kind of pulsing violence, his lips curled in an ugly snarl. Lily took a sharp breath, her body trembling. She could not let go of her closed fists.

“Dad, I have a test tomorrow and I need to sleep. I can’t sleep with that music, it’s driving me insane.”

Lily’s voice was strung tightly across nails. Her words came out in a monotone. She couldn’t bear the necessity of speaking them. She didn’t understand how her father could not know she needed to sleep. How could be so careless of her, of them all? She wanted to scream, a primal howling cry, but she could only seem to stand before him and speak her quiet angry words. They were deadlocked, and neither could win. Lily turned from him then, her temples pounding in her ears like the flapping of a bird’s wings. She walked back to bed and lay awake the night through, listening to the endless welling of her father’s one sad song. She could not cry, though she longed more than anything to feel the hot slipping release of tears.

Curled tightly beneath her covers remembering of the helpless rage of her adolescence, Lily forces herself to breathe. Stretching her body out like a gently pointed star, slowly she feels herself soften. The tears slide from her eyes and glide across her cheeks, a delicate soundless flow, and she feels them pool languidly behind her ears. They tickle strangely and she rubs her head softly against her pillow, wiping them away.

Lily is, in that small moment, freed from the crushing, unremitting weight.

First Published in Island Magazine “Women,” #129, Winter 2012.

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The Wake

In the dark years, engulfed in a black mania, Lily’s father murdered her cat. Lily and Joe left their two pets behind when they fled the house with their mother, and their father ranted and raved, once ringing them up, wild with fury.

‘You take everything and leave me with the fucking cats!’

He made a mound of all the things they’d left behind. Discarded exercise books, old ragged t-shirts, their mother’s basket of furry knitting wool, and a dusty pile of New Internationalist magazines that he had always despised. He stamped across the orchard to find the kerosene. Tipping the pungent liquid haphazardly on the pile, he leant down and struck a match. Exploding in his face, the fire burned him all the way up his outstretched arm and along his livid, mottled cheeks. For weeks afterward the peeling skin hung from him like a grotesque parody of the living dead, and Lily and Joe were frightened by even a furtive glance at his face.

When Lily’s mother, Alice, didn’t return to pick up their cats, old and finicky creatures, her father taped them inside a cardboard box and took them down to the waterhole. Lily’s father thought to drown them like kittens, but the box would not sink, and the cats frantically clawed their way out. Enraged beyond control, all his plans rebounding, he waded out and drowned her cat by hand. Joe’s cat escaped, skinny and shocked, and swum away to the rock to hide in the lantana. Her father did not have the heart to hunt out the escaped cat amongst the spiky undergrowth. He felt a sickness begin to swell inside him, crawled up the bank and retched, and then stumbled up the forest steps to ring his children, to tell them what he’d done.

Lily stood on the other end of the phone-line, stunned and quiet, and then hung up. The next day, her father dropped Joe’s cat at their yellow house by the sea, and it raced inside and sat, with wild eyes, upon the kitchen table, licking its paws with a kind of quiet madness. Her father didn’t come inside; he stood on the doorstop and yelled to Lily. He pointed at the livid scratches on the length of his forearm where the now-dead cat had fought him from beneath the water, and his burnt skin peeled and flapped in the breeze.

A few days later her father sent her a letter in the post.

Dear Lily,                       

Society and Culture Question 1.

(multiple choice)

Re: CATS

Supposing you lived at Gulargambong, 300kms from the nearest vet at Dubbo, and your special 12-year-old cat was ill i.e. started vomiting nearly every night, and losing hair, and shitting in the corners of the house, what would you do.

(Circle one answer)

  1. Put up with it.
  2. Drive 20kms and let it go feral.
  3. Hit it on the head with an axe.
  4. Get your neighbour’s wild dog to tear it apart.
  5. Drown it in dam. (Remember, this question’s worth 5%.)
  6. Drive 300kms to vet for treatment or euthanasia (remember, a 12-year-old cat = 90-year-old human).
  7. Put poison in its food.
  8. Spray it with deadly poison.
  9. Nurse it until it dies (slowly). (Assumption is you have no gun.)
  10. Give it extra special care by taking it to bed and letting it vomit in your bed instead of lounges.
  11. Give it to a friendly neighbour, or your children who love cats, and would love to nurse a dying cat.

Question 2. (10 marks)

  1. Do the Chinese eat cats and tortoises, and if so, is there a difference between this practice and Australians eating lambs, calves, rabbits, crabs, lobsters, fish or kangaroos?
  2. Have you ever seen a baby lamb?
  3. Why were the Japanese so small in size for so long?

Dad xx   (Good luck in your exam).

         Lily read it and then put it in a box at the back of her wardrobe, hoping to forget it, while Joe’s crazy-eyed cat went on endlessly licking its paws. This cat lived for seven more years, five more than her father. Rickety and strange, Lily glimpsed something frightening and familiar in its wild, maddened gaze.

Before her father’s death Lily hadn’t been home for a year. Turning into that shadowy driveway on the day before her father’s wake was like travelling through the back roads of memories so ingrained as to be almost mythic, and nothing, nothing had changed. Every lazy tree folding against the car, every white pebble squashed deep within the dirt, remained the same. Even the grey Wonga pigeons that wobbled unhurried along the roadside, continued unmarked and untouched.

Lily and Joe and their mother had come early to clean up the house before the gathering. When they arrived, Lily shielded her darkened eyes against the blinding brightness of the sun. Walking about the garden, she slid uneasy fingers against the prickly walls, gently caressing the palm fronds and Birdsnest ferns that poked onto the walkway. The stillness was strangely comforting, as though a peace that had been missing through the dark years had settled about the place.

‘It’s so bright.’

‘Yeah.’

‘It was him then, it was him all the time.’

‘What?’

‘He was the darkness. It was him.’

It struck Lily that this was so. Her father who had battled the garden for years, who had battled the enormous trees and her mother’s heart to bring in the light, had been battling a darkness that came from within. This darkness, that had gripped its fingers about him, had blackened the whole house, leaving it smudgy and cold and filled with shadows. And they had battled it too, never really believing its source, never really trusting that a man’s heart could colour their whole world. And now he was dead. A quiet fell upon Lily, Alice and Joe, and they wandered about, aimless and unsure. Where to begin in a dead man’s home?

         Their home.

Lily’s throat knotted with the emptiness of it, the word – dead – sitting like shiny droplets of mercury on her tongue. And later when the house filled with people come to help, the talk turned to practicalities.

‘What music are you going to play?’

‘I don’t know. Haven’t thought.’

‘I know a good song. You want to hear it?’

‘Now?’

‘Yeah.’

‘If you want to put it on.’

‘Okay, I’ll put it on. It’s great. It really reminds me of your Dad.’

The soppy tones of the unfamiliar song pierced the hushed peace of the house until Lily felt that the glass in the long sliding doors might crack. But still she said nothing.

At the wake Lily was dry-eyed and fierce. Anger shimmered within her, and she bit her lips, unable to speak. Cleaned and freshened, the house filled with people and they spilled from the doors into the gardens. The day was bright and beautiful, hot and green. Almost everyone she had ever known was there. Her cousin who she’d not seen in years, teachers from the school she no longer attended, her father’s colleagues and cronies and lovers and friends.

The familiarity of every face stung her, and Lily felt herself curl inwards, away from their sliding glances. She was on show, the grieving daughter, the grieving family.

‘It’s so awful. I’m so sorry.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Lil… I don’t know what to say.’

Mostly they didn’t speak. They looked at Lily, and when she caught their eyes they looked away, guiltily, mournfully, and she felt herself the cause of sorrow. All these faces from the past. The presence of so many only seemed to emphasise his palpable absence – and theirs – the lonely darkness that had surrounded him for the six years before now. It was all she could do to restrain herself from standing on a chair and yelling.

         Where have you all been?

And when they did speak it was worse. In their absence Lily had grown, she was eighteen and not a child, and they grappled hopelessly with words that would sound right.

‘You’ve changed so much. Last time I saw you, Lil, you were this high.’

A man spoke, his hand hovering unsteadily in the air beside his hip, his smile spread tightly across his teeth.

‘Yeah, I’m at uni now.’

‘Are you enjoying it?’

‘It’s okay. Well, it has been. So far.’

Finally Lily retreated to her parent’s bedroom, cool and soothing, searching for a tiny fragment of time alone, a moment to think of him and calm her fury. But she was not alone. On her parent’s big solid bed lay another quiet mourner, her father’s colleague. Tears trickled slowly from her eyes.

‘What’s wrong?’ Lily asked, and the sentence lay absurdly between them, stretching out and taking shape.

‘I just miss him, that’s all.’

Lily stood a while, torn between leaving, or lying down too and surrendering to tears. ‘Do you want me to get you a glass of water?’she whispered at last.

‘No. No, I’m alright.’

Standing a little longer, Lily watched the woman cry, and then turned and walked from the room into the green, dazzling world outside. There was no space where she could go, and Lily felt all eyes upon her until she could bear it no more and hung her head, watching her feet as she walked.

Later, when sufficient alcohol had been consumed, another of her father’s friends insisted on taking Lily into the garden.

‘It all looks so familiar, Lil. Like I’ve never been away.’

It was dark, and she cringed with trepidation at the secrets he might try and tell her now that he was drunk, and he had her alone.

‘Your dad… Fuck. He wrote me so many crazy letters.’

Lily hung back, waiting, dreading the new information that she did not doubt he intended to impart. So many secrets she had heard in the last few days, so many whispered horrors.

‘He swallowed nails, you know, once. He wrote me. And shattered glass.’

He pulled her along, and Lily stumbled a little on the uneven ground.

‘Come on. I want to show you something.’

Lily followed him, unwillingly, until finally he stopped.

‘Look. Look out there. What do you see?’

She looked, peering into the darkness. He pointed toward a densely bushed embankment in the expanse of the night, and finally Lily saw what he wanted her to. There, in the distance, were two luminescent spots.

‘Mmm… Some type of glowing mushroom?’

Perplexed by the urgency of the excursion, Lily held herself stiffly against the onslaught of more furtive uttering. She was wary, but the man was silent, staring at the two spots. He tugged again on her arm.

‘No, look. Look. It’s him.’

‘What?’

‘It’s his eyes. He’s here. He’s watching us.’

Glancing longingly towards the house, Lily thought of her bed and sleep. She began to walk inside, leaving the man swaying uncertainly in the dark.

Lily and Joe buried their father’s ashes in the garden, overlooking the orchid and the black bamboo. They tramped through the trees, their faces like masks. The ground was damp and the red soil stained the hem of Lily’s blue silk dress. Kneeling, she felt the fine fabric give way at the shoulders, the dress falling apart at the seams. Fraying and muddy, Lily banged the heavy dirt into the hole that they had dug, covering the fine grey ash with vehemence.

            Stay there. Just stay there.

But everyday her father seemed to seep out, creeping about below and infecting Lily’s thoughts. The dirt did not contain him, and he spread with the roots of the trees until there was no place left that her father was not.

 

 

Lilli's picture of roots

The Wake was first published in Kill Your Darlings, Issue 8, January 2012.

 

 

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