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.
Society and Culture Question 1.
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)
- Put up with it.
- Drive 20kms and let it go feral.
- Hit it on the head with an axe.
- Get your neighbour’s wild dog to tear it apart.
- Drown it in dam. (Remember, this question’s worth 5%.)
- Drive 300kms to vet for treatment or euthanasia (remember, a 12-year-old cat = 90-year-old human).
- Put poison in its food.
- Spray it with deadly poison.
- Nurse it until it dies (slowly). (Assumption is you have no gun.)
- Give it extra special care by taking it to bed and letting it vomit in your bed instead of lounges.
- Give it to a friendly neighbour, or your children who love cats, and would love to nurse a dying cat.
Question 2. (10 marks)
- 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?
- Have you ever seen a baby lamb?
- 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.’
‘It was him then, it was him all the time.’
‘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?
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?’
‘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.’
‘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.’
‘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.
The Wake was first published in Kill Your Darlings, Issue 8, January 2012.