Richard James Allen is a poet, choreographer and filmmaker. His books include the critically lauded The Kamikaze Mind (Brandl & Schlesinger) and the NSW Premier’s Literary Award-nominated Thursday’s Fictions (Five Island Press).
His forthcoming collection Fixing the Broken Nightingale will be published by Flying Island Books, an imprint of ASM (Macau) and Cerberus Press (Markwell, NSW).
The Optics of Relationship, or
With this Poem I Thee Wed
For Chee and Stephen
Who I was in the past,
Who I will be in the future –
What distractions these are
From who I am now.
Who I am now,
Here, with you.
In this moment,
You have rewritten my past.
You are rewriting my future.
What I don’t understand about
Who I was or will be
Doesn’t matter now.
Whoever that is
– As we stand before the shimmering altar
Of the unfolding lights of our lives –
I know that we will find out together.
Because this is what a marriage is,
This is the optics of relationship,
The coming into focus of two lives.
The Secret Language of Border Guards and Those Who Wish To Cross
1. The Secret Language of Border Guards
What we dream we might say to each other,
if the roadblocks all came down
and the checkpoints disappeared.
If our language were not a secret one
we might share it with you.
If we had not already given up
on your ability to hear,
we might open our mouths
and allow that magic expectant
in and then eventually out
with some words for you.
If we had any faith left
in your capacity to listen, to think, and,
on such basis,
we might hope
for you to understand.
But you give us no reason
with small things.
2. The Secret Language of Those Who Wish To Cross
Do not speak to us of faith.
Faith lingers like smoke, drifting
through the rubble you have left
of our homes and our children.
But deep below, nestled
like burnt seeds in the soil,
the embers of the fires
you have planted fester.
We do not dream,
Even if the roadblocks all come down
and the checkpoints disappear,
the road between us will never be open.
Carolyn Gerrish is a Sydney poet. She has published five collections of poetry, most recently The View from the Moon (Island Press, 2011). She runs creative writing workshops in the community and at WEA adult learning. She is currently working on her sixth collection and hopes that one day satirical writing will save the world.
War of Nerves
sometimes the feeling nothing can harm you
the dizziness of freedom where anxiety’s
a useless passion & there’s no vigil waiting
for the end to begin you’ve lost the fear
life could just haemorrhage away or that the
mobile phone tower could morph into a Transformer
& ruin the suburb & there’s plucky Bette Davis
who after receiving a negative prognosis from
the handsome doctor claims I’m young & strong &
nothing can touch me
is an entry
but why are there so many security guards at the
Mall then there’s the worry of wrong weather
(this year summer was autumn) & those nimbus clouds
painters’ inspiration or evidence of Apocalypse
& that shadow just resting on the road becomes a
suspected portent & please note the asteroid
passing by us if we collide could certainly
take out a medium-sized continent so with
Armageddon averted for now one antagonist
is missing but the 24 hour news cycle never
stops as a rogue Afghan soldier kills
the omniscient narrator peers down the air
stoic rather than heroic no ignorant armies
(that) clash by night & Stendahl would find
nothing to swoon about it’s just a mess of stuff
detritus of the city’s zeitgeist & are these
your pets? dogs? camels? a baby in a backpack
on the way to Kindergarten Adventure Travel &
objects Jung would love to discuss a key for
no particular door residences are generic here
a torch to search for your neglected self a
globe of he world beginning to shatter after
ignoring all the warnings a lady’s hat housing
no skull & sheep & goats wander the street & he
shall set the sheep on his right hand but the
goats on the left a decaying apple brain in
cognitive decline when I am dead & doctors know
not why a life-size doll with attitude & paint
brushes that achieve an extinguished palette
but unfolding unfolding as being emerges
After Rita Lazauskas, View from the Ramparts # 5
(drawing in charcoal, gesso, conte)
A J Carruthers is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney and the author of The Tulip Beds ( Vagabond, 2013).
His work appears in Southerly, Cordite and Contemporary Asian Australian Poets.
patheme no. 7 (inverted bouquet)
by blind metonymy line (nonlinear &
horizontal) cuts flower, goes straight
thruit. curious about that stand – on the
same ground as it were – as the
inverted bouquet, as hard as it is to
imag | rays crossed ast a corresp | ine |
onding points of, quite easily, a sound
-box – sound-box possibly invocatory
patheme no. 18 (two mirrors)
you & I? don’t fool (us)! spherically
combine inadequates the correct feeling
| “I’ll have none of reality, thanks!” |
the subject’s on the edge of the mirror,
so this mightn’t end well. VS, that’s
you, code for virtual subject captured
from a young age in the secret contours
of an actual mirror
patheme no. 19 (simplified schema)
if you’re not sure just give me depth
psychology. can’t be on this see-saw
of desire forever! colorless green
ideas slip fervently read as careless
musicians sleep forever | “I read among
my disordered books” (Yü Hsüan-chi)
| let us be quite plane: your whole life
will unfold in O . . . . . and in O’
Born on Wakka Wakka land at Barambah, which is now known as Cherbourg Aboriginal Reserve, Lionel Fogarty has travelled nationally and internationally presenting and performing his work. Since the seventies Lionel has been a prominent activist, poet writer and artist; a Murri spokesperson for Indigenous Rights in Australia and overseas. His poetry art work and oral presentation illustrates his linguistic uniqueness and overwhelming passion to re-territorialize Aboriginal language culture and meaning which speaks for Aboriginal people of Australia. In 2012 he received the Scalon Prize for Connection Requital and his most recent collection is Mogwie Idan: Stories of the land (Vagabond) (Photograph by Tony Robertson)
For Him I Died — Bupu Ngunda I Love
For him I loved
For him I became a dove
For him I tamed a game
Why has he taken my love
Wine as shaking my dine
Woe who outer my dinner room
What great sound he calls
What graving sound it gave
Wrap sapping his heart
With dem he got sung
For him I loved
Forgive the tearing
four faces he has seen
Funk hunk drunk
For him I lived He been in a body
I been in a bottler
Since once he send me
Sin onto me
Now sinly I surrender
Sewer poorfully I adore
For him I loved Swear back just to glad
sweet birds just to grand
sweeping fights just to game
a one lone feels his sex
a two cone feeds his senses
a three owns feeds his sick
For him I loved
his silent liniment myths
his sires searcher meek in me
his resting bees many inner tests
even I forward his happy wills
even I forever his papa ills
even I forever his everlasting tills
For him I loved.
He bin in behind my soul
He bin in beloved mindness
He bin in beggar meanness
Why has he taken my lying
Win who in the taken winds
Will be bless my love my love giving
For him I love For him I loved
What great sound he calls calls
For I Come — Death in Custody
in a jail.
Even a Murri wouldn’t know
if him free
The land is not free
Dreamtime is not free.
No money needed.
See that scarred hand at work
that’s cutting away
Jail not for me
but a lot of my people in jail
White jail are cruel
Set up the family, stay away
come to see your Murri
look big and grown
in learning, of our gods teaching.
What they give you in here?
Away from the corroboree
In the fuckin’ jails
Murri get out, so we can fight
like the red man has done
Lord them a come.
My brother die there
in white custody
And I hate the way the screws patch up
and cover up.
He died at the white hands
it was there, in the stinkin’ jails
up you might blacks
Him not free
For when white man came
it’s been like a jail
with a wife and a family
black man can stay in jail
like its home.
Fuck, they hung us all.
Love…walk with me
Love…waken with me
Love…is a black newborn
Camp fringe dwellers are my love
Love is not seen in cities
Love is my Father
Love is my Mother
Scrubs are hid in bush love
and we say
Love is alive and received.
Love is a kangaroo
Love is an emu
Love is the earth
Love is the love of voice
Love is my friend.
And what about us
who has no love?
Well, love smells.
Us Murris knows
It’s love in bad love
Give us love. Give us love.
Our Dreamtiming is love.
Catch my love over a fire
Fire of love.
Culture is our love.
Culture is ourself in love.
The school don’t give love
so we black power give you love
Proud and simply
love is the love
to our lands love.
Love walk with me
Love awaken with me
Now give us the true love.
from New and Selected Poems, Hyland House, 1995
Walk white fellow, as you all can’t write
Our battle just at your sunrise and night sigh ties.
The noble note runs in our native modern now from then.
Black resistance is every were now on written,
Face books there door mat roof an in-laws.
Walk white fella, you all can’t rights us.
First lovers black and loving came and stays
No fables dreams stop our mountain eyes,
Bodies for the dirt tears can’t ours, pains can’t our pens.
Resistance with us makes no trance but struggle over struggles,
The black diligent are our gent, believe it ladies.
We appreciative our fighter of these times
Awaken white vital man physical to a black world women’s call.
They’ll find renewed upsurges.
Continuing the non-silence is what we about
Lazy exterminator in their policy’s
Will fall to a decolonisative voices powered by our master race.
Wall up white fell, as your impediments will not combined.
Our men sang weak walk on white fell as meant economic
Are seen to wider our children’s fight.
The continent still not there’s even in numbers contribution historical upheavals
Walk in sleep, walk in lifeless is still,
The dreamer’s white man men made
Under Over the Rainbows
It’s fair we have charcoal colours people
Being black child skinned by past.
It’s fair we have European cloth
But our art black not lacked.
We have darkest blue-eyed baby
White with complexion from a dark race.
It’s fair physically to keep love in own
Race speaking singing English or not.
We may material all thing white parentheses.
Yea but caste is half fullest to all human mentally black people.
They mightn’t mine old bludger sex anymore, the naked began to swim.
Bones blooded addicted spirit gave fair care a drug voice so alcoholic.
Better being of black sky light morning night never being palmed by lies.
Moon sliver peace just us now,
Sun redden please just us now,
Stars umbilical scalpel surgical the sterilized.
Wind dwellers purest those selectivity,
Specimens blanket enlighten burden of those rich unwittingly on arrival.
Its first race wills keepers to the lasting are not seen touched or spoke on toiled.
It’s benediction of Father Mothers smoke fire cherish sweetness symmetrical our souls campfire said wrote now painted.
Precision your blackfellas now babes
The race of your birth did know colour.
It’s fair when we black people off the charcoal not mined
I abstract salt: pans
I am we to the river in sky before the rain fell from the ground.
I am softly in wild nest in the city decent as veins land cut over devils dust
My gum mouthed washing cling all mountainsides.
I am those Australians snow hugged in the hot aerial elaborate systems.
I am wombat ready and the fight plains were roads kill them every day.
I am all killed no spirit police men’s,
Yes millennia soled guarded man off a tribe not colour-blinded.
I am dispossession in style baring about by possessions
Now artist concentric they motif privy were divulge boomerang the intriguing features.
Well a marsupial beliefs is not beliefs when not a leafs.
I am in account in gorges absorption,
Yes paws and print head somnolent are ancestral travels.
I am the Pop art and the pointillism for resemblance I will identifiable all broken families.
I am notion even central people heard my speaking,
I am broadly at your enterprises.
The Country Anywhere Race On Races
Racist are not children’s
Racist are not Mothers
Racist are not Fathers
Give unity peace a chance
Racism is a sick disease
As a place for Non humanity
Racism as no race in Australians
For the first race is the only race.
Racist are instil by cheaper cap chaps
And those that joke on slip mouth are drops of sin bad food bad bodies of all ages.
Racism owned up changes the pace off no space
As the ship code to learn.
The ray of the sun shines for all under on solar.
The earth equally birth human
Yet the world’s laws class those poor minds backwards,
When a racist sit with a first Australians proud
Of one race made a lace to lust we all comes from women’s
The Swan Book
by Alexis Wright
Reviewed by MICHELLE CAHILL
The hallmark of a great writer is the capacity to renew and reinvent their creative vision which Alexis Wright achieves with startling virtuosity, sureness, wit and political astuteness in The Swan Book. This is an eclectic fiction, mythopoetic, a meta-narrative epic that takes Wright’s invigorated representations of Indigenous and wilderness mythologies to new levels. Her third novel, it follows on from the internationally-acclaimed Miles Franklin, award-winning Carpentaria, turning its focus to the future, to environmental crises as much as Indigenous crusades. But The Swan Book goes further. It places Wright’s work in a rich, transcultural literary tradition, its verbal pyrotechnics reminiscent of Salman Rushdie’s fiction and James Joyce’s Ulysses; its unflinching forecast written with the potency of Cormac McCarthy or George Orwell, it weaves outback realism with remixed Dreaming, classical references with political allegory, post-colonial and postmodern tropes.
The Swan Book tells the story Oblivia Ethyl(ene), a girl who never speaks after being raped by a gang of petrol-sniffing youths. She is dug out and rescued from the bowels of an ancient story-telling river gum by Bella Donna of the Champions, a European gypsy refugee from climate change wars who arrives on the coast of Australia and makes her way to Swan Lake. The lake has become silted into a swamp, a sand mountain littered with rusted craft, overseen by a white Army. It’s a dystopian future where the policies of intervention remain widespread; where the current wave of conservative thinking is used ‘to control the will, mind and soul of the Aboriginal people.’ The themes of belief, sovereignty of the mind and ancestral voice which were heroically rendered in Carpentaria, find a pessimistic and cleansing register in The Swan Book. Nothing is spared; Wright turns her acerbic lens to illuminate an encompassing scope of Australian political and cultural life, while the land, topography, birds and mutant wildlife flow sinuously in spates and epidemics through the braiding of the narrative. Some passages are written with penetrating zeal:
This was the place where the mind of the nation practised warfare and fought nightly for supremacy, by exercising its power over another people’s land ─the night-world of the multi-nationals, the money-makers and players of big business, the asserters of sovereignty, who governed the strip called Desperado; men with hands glued to the wheel charging through the dust in howling road trains packed with brown cattle with terrified eyes, mobile warehouses, fuel tankers, heavy haulage steel and chrome arsenals named Bulk Haul, Outback, Down Under, Century, The Isa, The Curry, Tanami Lassie, metal workhorses for carrying a mountain of mining equipment and the country’s ore… (165)
There is a sense of the journey of storytelling running through the book, tracing Oblivia’s passage from scribe, whose fingers trace the ghost language of dead trees into Swan maiden, from First Lady wedded to Aboriginal PM, Warren Finch and living in urban sanction to a widow returning to the swamp as guardian of a myth-making swan. Along this winding odyssey through dust storms, floods and cyclones that exist outside of linear time, Oblivia witnesses and internally records the plight of refugees, illegal crossings, the homeless hordes, the aberrant reptiles and displaced birds. One senses that Wright herself gives over to the textual process, surrendering to its detours, its meteorology, absorbing and weaving whatever arises along the way. Her dialectical suppleness and impressive knowledge makes for an innovative, politically-engaged Australian and translocal vision.
The centrality of language is signalled in the remarkable opening prelude, Ignus Fatuus, (meaning ‘illusion’, or ‘phosphorescent light over the swampy ground’) in which the narrator embodies the creative voice as a cut snake virus replicating ideas and firing serological missiles at intruders. It’s a perfect metaphor for the sceptical, chaotically mistrusting tone and establishes voice as an internal harbinger of environmental destruction. Ventriloquisms and shavings of literary allusions combine with popular cultural references ranging from Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song to hybrid motifs such as an ‘Aboriginal tinkerbell fairy.’
Reading the opening chapters I almost felt assaulted by the insistent catalogue of swans: swans of all languages and lyrics are interpolated. The black swan in a Central Australian swamp is an unsettling symbol of Indigenity in its figurative miscegenation with the white swan of Bella Donna’s European folklore. But the brilliance of this excess is to intentionally fetishize the naming and discursive power of language so that the reader experiences language as invasion, as appropriation, as indoctrination, just as Bella Donna herself invades the swamp country of the Northern Territory like ‘an old raggedy Viking’ bringing stories of floating disasters, of refugees from zero geography. After she dies, the swamp people who had once rejected her stories begin to speak Latin in their conversation, becoming ‘Latino Aboriginals’. Wright subversively takes irony and parody to extremes as a way of destabilising not merely language but concepts of nation, deconstructing the colonial currency:
It appeared that the old ghost had colonised the minds of the swamp people so completely with the laws of Latin, it terminated their ability to speak good English anymore, and to teach their children to speak English properly so that the gap could finally be closed between Aboriginal people and Australia. (80)
In making this claim, the hyperbole exceeds stylistic effect and becomes predictive, a potent rehabilitation of colonial assumptions of control. Allusions to the European and White Australian lyric tradition of swans create ambivalence as they parody and place under pressure the authority and superiority of prevailing narratives. Instead, the omnipresent variety of storytelling is eclectic, transcultural and global, invoking inter-racial beliefs of future, past and present. Not only are all kinds of swans admitted into the way that stories are told, the characters are genetically diverse, or like Warren Finch’s minders, ‘inter-racially bred’. Half Life, the mild-mannered camel man who guides Oblivia during her Ghost walk tells her:
We are Aboriginal herds-people with bloodlines in us from all over the world, he added, and dreamily listed all the world’s continents that he could remember being related to these days, Arabian, African, Asian, Indian, European all sorts, pure Pacific Islander ─ anywhere else I didn’t mention? Well! That as well! Wherever! Even if I haven’t heard of it! No matter ─ we got em right here inside my blood. I am thick with the spirits from all over the world that I know nothing about. (315)
Wright’s work is reconstructive, seeking to operate outside of colonial paradigms and boundaries, refusing to be contained. She is able to seamlessly shift gears from third person narrator to interior monologue, from Warren to Oblivia’s point of view. Sections of the novel that contain more conventional dramatic prose such as those that describe Warren Finch meeting with the Aboriginal caucus are skilfully juxtaposed to provide relief from denser periphrastic prose. A descendent of the Waanyi people, Wright’s vast experience of activism, of policy-making bureaucrats and small-town, outback corruption is evidenced. One could argue that the meta-fictional structure of the novel feels somewhat contrived with a prologue and an epilogue used to frame a less self-conscious tension between the polyphonic narrator and the narration however the unevenness is intentional; Wright asserts herself as a highly skilful, erudite yet relaxed storyteller, warping the conventions to compromise aesthetic purity for the benefit of interrogation. The humour is eclectic, switching wavelengths and vernaculars arbitrarily so that languages and styles are remixed and mashed up.
Aside from its sheer literary brilliance, I find the strengths of this novel to be its refusal to seek order or resolution and the way it replicates so much diversity: indeed, as the narrator suggests, ‘How bold to mix the Dreamings.’ In her essay “On Writing Carpentaria” Wright speaks of memory and trauma, asserting that
When faced with too much bad reality, the mind will try to survive by creating alternative narra-tives and places to visit from time to time, or live in, or believe in, if given the space. Carpentaria imagines the cultural mind as sovereign and in control, while freely navigating through the known country of colonialism to explore the possibilities of other worlds. (1)
In The Swan Book she writes a mythopoesis of swan ghosting, of environmental havoc and (un) heroic Indigenity where the sovereign mind and colonial repression are in schism. If there is a swan song it is madness, but the many registers of Oblivia’s silence reinscribe themselves as a timeless Dreaming. This is a self-reflexive book, refusing paternalistic narrative conventions endemic to our literature. Wright compels us to read actively; to reconsider the violence that brutalises Aboriginal Australia and to deconstruct the assumptions and complacencies which fabricate our ideals of nature and nation.
1. Wright, Alexis “On Writing Carpentaria” HEAT, 2007
MICHELLE CAHILL writes poetry and fiction. Her reviews and essays have appeared in Southerly, Westerly, Jacket, Poetry International Web and forthcoming in Wasafiri. She was the CAL/UOW Fellow at Kingston University. With Boey Kim Cheng and Adam Aitken she co-edited Contemporary Asian Australian Poets.
Christopher Pollnitz’s Little Eagle and Other Poems was a Wagtail publication in 2010, and his six “American Idylls” were in Mascara 11. He has written criticism of Judith Wright, Les Murray, Alan Wearne and John Scott, as well as D. H. Lawrence, and been a reviewer for Notes and Queries and Scripsi, as well as The Australian and Sydney Morning Herald. His edition of The Poems for the Cambridge University Press series of Lawrence’s Works appeared in 2013.
Satin bower bird
He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not
watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter . . .
Black Prince of the undergrowth, to me his crackle
and hiss seem off-station, but you and he have a
thing together. As I finish each two litres
of juice, you put the lids out in the garden
and your pretty boy comes again and again carrying
awkwardly off in his beak the royal blue baubles.
So intense, so intellectual. I see him sitting
at a sidewalk café, trading Gitanes and banter
with Jean-Paul and Albert, him in lustrous leather
while Simone looks on askance from another table
or eavesdrops for news of post-existentialism
and clues on how to pick up. Smoke and mirrors . . .
It doesn’t do it for him, the bum-fuss and fluster
of hens flouncing in their pastels. Deep in his bower
blue-lit from below, magnified by his comb, I imagine
him preening, and know who it is he preens for
—him with his satin cloak and his rod of amber
his necromancy and his dark effulgence.
Subterranean cool that burns out—is this what maleness
amounts to? Brilliant fencer, prince, philosopher
or Freddie Mercury? Noting the uncollected
lids, you say He’s moved on, disappointed
but not surprised. You’ve other things to get on with
while I rack my brains conjuring up some witticism.
Quem deus vult perdere, dementat prius.
Whom the gods would destroy, they say, but isn’t it rather
since the gods are mad, their devotees drive them crazy?
That one at the barbecue, proper clever feller
left the bread roll in your hand, still with the sauce on
and stole the fire for his people, as well as the sausage.
And now this one, time and again dive-bombing
in the kitchen window his own adolescent image
—demented. We worry about him and the damage.
We tape up tabloids over the glass to distract him
but still he comes, kamikaze seeking his crystal.
One day it’s different, he approaches his rival close-up,
childish anger morphing to inquisitiveness.
You tell me I should speak to him more nicely
but my every word is laced with the mordant satire
reserved for watchers of reality television
or addicts of cooking shows who are just as stupid.
“Look here,” I say, making a chicken sandwich.
“This bird came in yesterday. His name was Hansel.”
Unperturbed he inspects the preparation bench and oven
—he doesn’t tweet but his eyes are bright with banter.
He peers in like Satan at this weird domestic Eden
little realising in his innocence what he’s seeing.
But hang on, if he’s innocent I’m the serpent
long, lithe and upright to his stocky Adam
and remembering how a kookaburra tackles
a six-foot common brown (a good yard dangling
each side of the beak, snake head a bloody tulip)
that gaze could terrify. No, no, forget it
—he’s a creepy bird, but he’s a bird for all that.
Comes another day, another stage of intimacy
—beak to the pane, and perched on the ledge of the window.
When I move towards him, he cranes even closer
when I step away, he edges back. Is he seeing
me in himself, outlined in his own reflection
Or is he seeing the greater Self ascending
to Nothingness with the ghostly Kooka Spirit?
I put the knife down, I fidget about the glasshouse
of my insecurities, my every move filled with
self-consciousness and loathing. I can’t bear his devotion,
he gives me the creeps, he gives me the creeps absolutely.
On the third day, you blow him a kiss through the window.
He pecks the pane and is off, to join the bush chorus.
He’s growing up perhaps, losing his religion.
White-bellied sea eagle
of ryal egle myghte I telle the tale,
That with his sharpe lok perseth the sunne,
And ys the tiraunt of the foules smale.
The Little Wobby eagle in my father’s death year
I remember like an incandescence burning
to burst from casuarina darkness, trawl the river
then flip back, and up again, with a wasp-like talon.
Had I been another Christopher I might have adopted
that estuarial Hawkesbury bird for symbol,
although, in hindsight, I’d rather take the little
smouldering wicks of the she-oak for my image
for there’s another candle that can light me:
us in the car park, the great swoop of coastline southwards;
their beaks like butcher’s hooks, gannet after gannet
mindlessly crashing into the cup of sorrows
that suddenly empties, as the eagle pulse-glide-pulses
overhead of all; and you in the car repeating
details of your friend’s cancer prognosis. All I could think of
was getting away overseas on leave and a conference;
and you—would she still be here on our homecoming?
Reviewing, Promethean eagle, your outstretched scalpel
drawn over the grey breasts and belly of the waters
I don’t yield much to my fear of you, nor do I take much
heart from your liverish victim. Given pharmacological
aid I can dispense with a demigod’s foreknowledge
(or doctor’s) of what I can endure for what duration.
Now it’s dementia I fear, particular losses
of others, and having no busy mind to distract me.
Benjamin Dodds is a Sydney-based poet whose work appears in a variety of journals and magazines. Two fun factoids: (1) Benjamin collects Mickey Mouse watches, and (2) his first collection, Regulator, will be published by Puncher & Wattmann in early 2014.
Split up the back like dirty
slips, the ghostly cases
stand unmoving in the heat.
They mark the places from which
these prawn-eyed death-rattlers
have lifted themselves
on broad leadlight blades into
summer’s ripening dryness.
A far-off version of
me holds one up close,
The alien skin balances on
up-turned palm, primed
to catch even the slightest breath of breeze.
It’s hard not to wonder
just how it might feel to peel oneself
from within a congealing shroud,
to leave a pair of crystal domes
where obsidian eyes
Zeina Issa is a Sydney based interpreter and translator, a columnist for El-Telegraph Arabic newspaper and a poet.
Khalid Kaki was born in Karkouk, Iraq. He moved to Madrid, Spain and has resided there since 1996. He is a poet, writer, artist and musician. He won the Grand Prize of Poetry at the International Poetry Nights at Curtea de Arges, Romania in 2012. He has published three poetry collections.
A belated message from “Halabja”
The children, the mules
and the dragonflies
fell asleep exhausted
in the shade of the village’s clay walls,
they will not wake up again…
Nor will the sunflowers
bowing their heads after the last sunset…
* * *
The women villagers
the harvesters of wheat,
the carriers of water from the spring,
the milkers of the morning’s first drop…
They shall stop
at this border in life,
despite the faithful sun
promising them much more
* * *
The singing voice of the pupils
spreading across the mountain’s map,
hurried towards the ringing bell of death
thinking it was time for class…
* * *
The sticky white clouds
did not distinguish the snakes from the sparrows,
nor the gates from the tiny windows…
They travelled through the houses and the alleys
and devoured the swallows’ nests,the village’s lamps,
its rocks and its fruits…
And they stretched, bleating inside the stables
like an animal spattering its poison and flames
* * *
grabbing each other in fear…
The four cardinal points
were leading to the same direction…
They died on their land
it was the only direction
* * *
The deformed birds made of steel
dropped their weighty gifts on them…
Coated by wrappers of pain
they returned to eternity
* * *
The dreams, the shoes and the horseshoes
melted in the crucible of this little hell…
Death was a mobile well
drenched in captured lives.
رسالة متأخِّرة من “حلبجة”
التي رقدت منهكـةً
في ظل الـجدران الطـيـنـيّـة في القريـة ،
لن يـستـيـقظـوا بـعد الآن ..
كذلك أزهار الشـمـس
التي أطرقَـت بعد الغروب الأخير..
* * *
حاملات الـماء من الـنَـبع،
حالبـات ضرع الصـباح ..
عند هذا الـحد من الـحياة،
رغـم إن الشمسَ الـمخـلِصة
* * *
نَـشـيد التلامـيذ الـمُنتشرين
على خارطـة الـجبل،
لـحـقَ راكضاً بـجرس الـموت
ظانّـاً أنـّهُ الدرس ..
* * *
السُحُب البِـيـض الـلَّـزجـة
لـم تـميـِّز الأفاعي مِن العصافـيـر،
ولا الأبواب مِن الكـوى ..
سارَت في الـمساكن والشِعاب
والتهمت أعشاش السـنونـو،
وأحـجارها والـثِـمار ..
وتَـمـَطـَّت وثَـغـَتْ في الإسطـبـلات
كـحيوانٍ من نِـثـار الـسُم والنـار
* * *
تـتخـاطَفُ فـزعاً ..
إلـى بعضها كانَـت
تؤدي الـجهات الأربـع ..
ماتوا في أرضهم
التي كانت الـجهة الوحيدة
* * *
الطيور الـحديدية الشـوهاء
هدايـاهـا الـثـقـيـلـة ..
مغمورين بالألـم الـمغـلَّف
عـادوا إلى الأبـد
* * *
الأحلام والأحـذيـة والـحدوات
ذابت في بوتـقة الجحيم الصغيـر..
كـان الـموت بـئـراً متحـركـة
تـنـضَحُ بأقـفال العُمرِ الكبـيـرة
He went and came back
He went to the orchard
and came back with a flower…
To the shops
and came back with bread
and a can of sardines..
To the war
and came back with a thick beard
and letters from the dead!
ذَهب إلى البستان
فعاد بلحية كـثـة
ورسائل من موتى !
Jan Owen’s most recent book is Poems 1980 – 2008. Her selection of Baudelaire translations has been accepted for publication in the U.K., and a New and Selected, The Offhand Angel, is also forthcoming in the UK with Eyewear Publishing.
La mort des amants
Nous aurons des lits pleins d’odeurs légères,
Des divans profonds comme des tombeaux,
Et d’étranges fleurs sur des étagères,
Ecloses pour nous sous des cieux plus beaux.
Usant à l’envi leurs chaleurs dernières,
Nos deux coeurs seront deux vastes flambeaux,
Qui réfléchiront leurs doubles lumières
Dans nos deux esprits, ces miroirs jumeaux.
Un soir fait de rose et de bleu mystique,
Nous échangerons un éclair unique,
Comme un long sanglot, tout chargé d’adieux;
Et plus tard un Ange, entr’ouvrant les portes,
Viendra ranimer, fidèle et joyeux,
Les miroirs ternis et les flammes mortes.
The Death of Lovers
We shall have beds imbued with faint perfumes,
and flowers from sunny lands on shelves above
the sofas deep and welcoming as tombs
will bloom for us as sweetly as our love.
Flaring up, our hearts will shine through space
like blazing torches spending life’s last heat,
with our twin souls, two mirrors face to face,
reflecting back their dazzling doubled light.
One evening born of rose and mystic blue,
a lightning flash will leap between us two
like a long sob heavy with last goodbyes;
and later on, half-opening the doors,
an angel slipping in with joyful eyes
will raise the tarnished mirrors and dead fires.
La mort des artistes
Combien faut-il de fois secouer mes grelots
Et baiser ton front bas, morne caricature?
Pour piquer dans le but, de mystique nature,
Combien, ô mon carquois, perdre de javelots?
Nous userons notre âme en de subtils complots,
Et nous démolirons mainte lourde armature,
Avant de contempler la grande Créature
Dont l’infernal désir nous remplit de sanglots!
Il en est qui jamais n’ont connu leur Idole,
Et ces sculpteurs damnés et marqués d’un affront,
Qui vont se martelant la poitrine et le front,
N’ont qu’un espoir, étrange et sombre Capitole!
C’est que la Mort, planant comme un soleil nouveau,
Fera s’épanouir les fleurs de leur cerveau!
The Death of Artists
How often must I shake my jester’s stick
and kiss this dismal caricature? Will I ever
hit the hidden target? Tell me, quiver,
how many more lost arrows will it take?
We waste our souls in subtleties, we tire
of smashing armatures to start again
in hopes we’ll stare the mighty creature down
that we’ve sobbed over with such hellish desire.
Some have never ever known their god,
and these failed sculptors branded with disgrace
go hammering their chest and head and face,
with one last hope, a capitol of dread—
that death sweep over like a second sun
and bring to bloom the flowers of their brain.
La Cloche fêlée
Il est amer et doux, pendant les nuits d’hiver,
D’écouter, près du feu qui palpite et qui fume,
Les souvenirs lointains lentement s’élever
Au bruit des carillons qui chantent dans la brume,
Bienheureuse la cloche au gosier vigoureux
Qui, malgré sa vieillesse, alerte et bien portante,
Jette fidèlement son cri religieux,
Ainsi qu’un vieux soldat qui veille sous la tente!
Moi, mon âme est fêlée, et lorsqu’en ses ennuis
Elle veut de ses chants peupler l’air froid des nuits,
Il arrive souvent que sa voix affaiblie
Semble le râle épais d’un blessé qu’on oublie
Au bord d’un lac de sang, sous un grand tas de morts,
Et qui meurt, sans bouger, dans d’immenses efforts.
The Cracked Bell
How bitter-sweet it is on winter nights
listening by the fire’s flicker and hiss
to distant memories slowly taking flight
with the carillons resounding through the mist.
Faithfully the sturdy-throated bell
flings its holy cry abroad. Unspent
despite it’s years, it’s vigorous and well
—a veteran keeping watch inside his tent.
As for me, my soul’s cracked through with pain;
I scarcely hold a tune in sun or rain,
and often now my voice turns weak and thin
as the last rattling breaths of a wounded man
crushed under a mound of corpses piled up high
next to a lake of blood. Struggling to die.
Tony Birch is the author of Shadowboxing (2006), Father’s Day (2009) and Blood (2011), shortlisted for the 2012 Miles Franklin Literary Award. His new collection of short stories, The Promise, will be released in 2014. Tony teaches in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne.
Walking home after the paper round one Saturday morning Sonny and me come around the corner and saw a furniture van parked in the street. Workers were unloading cupboards and tea chests from the truck and carrying them into the house next door to Sonny’s place. It had been empty for months and the landlord had cleaned it out, painted it up and fixed the roof on the old stable at the back of the house. The stable had been used as a carpenter’s workshop from a long time back, but had been padlocked all the time I lived on the street.
We stopped on the footpath and watched the removalists wrestle with a piano, standing on its end and strapped to a trolley. The workmen were sweating and swearing at the piano like it was some fella they might be fighting in the pub.
‘Fucken iron frame,’ one of them grunted to the other. ‘I hate iron frames. I’m marking up the job for this. Fuck it. Double time for the day.’
They stopped for a smoke. One of them looked over at us, leaning against Sonny’s front fence eyeing them.
‘What you two looking at?’ he bit at us. ‘Can you carry this cunt on your back? If you can’t, stop gawking and let us get on with the job.’
It was our street they we on, so we weren’t about to fuck off any place. I pinched Sonny on the arm and nodded. We shifted to the front of my place and sat on the front step.
‘You reckon he’s happy with his job?’ Sonny laughed.
‘Wouldn’t you be? No weight in that piano there. Your pushbike’s heavier. He’s piss-weak, I reckon.’
They finished their smoke and dragged the piano into the house.
‘My mum can play the piano,’ Sonny said.
It was the first time Sonny had spoken about his mother since she’d shot through on the family with some fella she worked with at the tyre factory some time last year.
‘You don’t have one in your place. Where’s she play?’
‘Before we came here. We lived with my auntie, mum’s older sister, for a time. They had a piano in the front room. Mum would play and we’d all sing.’
‘What songs did she play?’
He looked away from me, along the street, to the furniture van.
‘Just stuff. I forget.’
The men came out of the house and stood at the back of the truck. The one who’d abused us was scratching his head and looking over. He buried his hands in his pockets and walked toward us.
‘You two want to make a couple of dollars?’ he asked.
‘You just told us to fuck off,’ Sonny called back.
‘I was just pissing around.’ He held out his hand. ‘Jack.’
I shook his hand and Sonny followed.
‘We got a load of folding chairs in the back there, maybe fifty, sixty, and my mate, Henry, and me want to get away for lunch and a beer at the pub. You two want to give us a hand for a couple of dollars?’
‘What’s a couple add up to?’ Sonny asked.
‘What it’s always been. Two dollars.’
Sonny held up three fingers.
‘Two’s not enough. It’s a Saturday, so we’re on time and a half.’
‘Jesus, you a union organiser or something? Fuck me. Three dollars then. Let’s get cracking.’
The chairs were made of wood and weighed a ton. I grabbed one under each arm and followed the removalists through the house. It smelled of fresh paint. We crossed the yard and walked through the open double doors of the stable. The piano was sitting at one end of the room, next to a brass cross, stuck on the end of a long pole. Picture frames rested against a wall. They looked like the prayer cards the Salvos gave out on street corners, only a lot bigger. I read one prayer aloud.
There Can Be No Being before God, As God Has No Mother.
‘Amen,’ Sonny laughed, making the sign of the cross over his heart.
One of the picture frames was covered in a piece of green cloth. Sonny pulled it away from the frame. We stared at a painting of a man in a dark three-piece suit and tie. He had shining black skin, dark eyes and was posing in a big velvet chair. Kneeling next to him was a young woman with golden curls, flowers in her hair, and white, white skin. She was looking up at the black man and holding his hand. Across the bottom of the painting were the words Father Jealous Divine & Mother Purity Divine.
‘Fucken weird,’ Sonny said.
Jack, the removalist, called his mate over.
‘Henry, take a look at these two.’
Henry was stacking chairs against the far wall. He shuffled over, scratching the arse of his work pants. He stood next to me and crossed his arms and studied the painting.
‘She’s not bad looking, Jack.’
‘Look at the way that old blackfella’s into her with those eyes. Bet he’s fucking the pants off her.’
‘Fucking the pants off her,’ Henry agreed. ‘What do you reckon, boys? He fucking her or what?’
The black man looked old enough to be her pop, although he couldn’t be, I guess, seeing as he was black and she was white. Henry repeated the question to Sonny, who like me, was too embarrassed to answer.
I heard heavy footsteps behind me in the yard.
A tall thin man stood in the doorway of the stable. He was wearing a dark suit, white shirt and string tie. His silver-grey hair was cut short, and even from the distance of the other side of the room I could see his cold blue eyes burning a hole in Henry’s heart, who was rubbing his chest with his hand and showing pain in his face.
The man stepped into the stable, walked toward Henry and stopped maybe six inches from his face. He looked down at the ground, at his own shining black leather shoes and back up at Henry, who turned away, too afraid to look the man in the eye.
‘Your remark?’ the man asked, raising an eyebrow.
Henry licked his bottom lip with his tongue, trying to get it moving.
‘That wasn’t any remark,’ Jack interrupted. ‘We were just mucking about with the boys.’
The man turned and set his eyes on Jack, making him feel just as jumpy and uncomfortable.
‘Do you often speak on behalf of your co-worker?’
‘Like I said, we were just mucking about.’
No one moved. The man took a white handkerchief out of his coat pocket and dabbed his mouth. He looked around the room.
‘Please set the chairs in even rows, an equal number of chairs, separated by a clear aisle. And move the piano to right side of the room. Would you be able to hang the framed psalms? And,’ he looked down at the green cloth that Sonny had pulled away from the painting pointed to the end wall and said, ‘mount the portrait of the Messenger and Mother Divine in line with the aisle. Are you able to do that?’
‘The Messenger,’ Jack smiled. ‘Sure. We can look after him, can’t we, Henry? It ‘ll cost a little more … Mr Beck, weren’t it?’
Jack offered his hand. The Reverend ignored it. He wiped his hands clean with the handkerchief and put it back in his pocket. He took a small bible from his pocket and held it in his hand. His eyes flicked to the side, sharp as a bird spotting a worm. A girl had arrived at the stable door. She was around my age and wore a long plain dress, almost her ankles, and a scarf on her head covering most of her fair hair. Even in her costume I could see she wasn’t bad looking. The Reverend turned to face her. She blinked and bit her lip.
‘Selina?’ he asked, stone-faced.
She spoke with her hands held together in prayer.
‘Some of the followers are here, asking what work you need them to do.’
The Reverend opened his arms, raised his hands in the air and closed his eyes. And he smiled.
‘There is work for them to do here. In our church.’
He stared up at the roof. While Jack and Henry were looking at him like he was some circus freak Sonny and me slipped out of the stable, into the yard and jumped the side fence into his place.
‘Fucken lunatic,’ I panted. ‘Did you see his eyes?’
‘Seen them, but not for long. I was too afraid to look at them. And what about the picture of the old black boy?’
‘Yeah. Did you see the girl who come into the stable? She looked pretty, under that scarf.’
‘Your off your head. I bet she’s crazy too.’
‘Still not bad looking.’
‘And crazy. You hear what he said. A church? Must be against the law, putting a church in a back shed?’
‘Maybe. But then so is running a sly-grog. Or an SP. And the two-up. Police can’t close any of them down. Hardly gonna go after a nutcase running a church.’
Lots of people came and went from the house. Men in dark suits and women and their daughters in the same long dresses and head scarves that Selina went around in, although she didn’t go around that often. I never saw her in the street on her own, and if she went to any school it wasn’t to mine. I sometimes spotted her sweeping the front yard with a straw broom or sitting up on the balcony with a book. I made noises when I walked by the house to get her attention, but she never looked my way, not even from the corner of her eye as far as I could tell.
I was woken early one Sunday morning by banging in the street. I crept downstairs, so not to wake my old man, who’d got home in the middle of the night from a road trip, and opened the front door. It was cold out. The street was crowded with cars and people were pouring into the Reverend Beck’s place. I went back into the house, made myself a cup of tea and took it up to bed. I could hear the piano playing in the stable, followed by some singing of hymns and shouting and screaming out.
Sonny knocked at my window a few minutes later and let himself. He had sleep in his eyes, his hair was standing on end like he’d stuck his finger in the toaster and he was wearing the jeans and jacket he’d had on the night before. They were dirty and crumpled. He must have slept in them.
‘You look like a dero, Sonny.’
‘Fuck up. You’re no day at the beach yourself.’
He picked up my mug of tea and took a long drink.
‘You hear that racket going on next door?’
‘Yeah. It woke me.’
‘We should go take a look.’
‘It’s freezing out.’
‘Put a jumper on. Come on.’
‘Not me. I’m staying in bed.’
He finished off my tea.
‘Please yourself. Your girlfriend, that Selina will be there.’
He was halfway out the window when I called him back.
‘Wait. I’ll come. And next time don’t drink all my tea.’
I followed Sonny out the window onto his roof and down the drainpipe. A thundering tune was almost lifting the roof off the stable. Sonny unlocked his back gate and we crept along the lane. He put an eye to a crack in the stable door. I kneeled beside him and tried pushing him along so I could take a look. He wouldn’t budge and was muttering ‘fuck, fuck,’ over and over to himself.
‘Move, will ya?’ I hissed, ‘and let me take a look’.
He pointed to a knothole close to the bottom corner of the door. I lay down on my guts. The ground was muddy and I was soaked through in about two seconds. I put my eye to the hole. All I could see were hundreds of chair legs and the ankles of old women and young girls, escaping the hems of long dresses. I noticed one ankle, bone white. I reckoned it might belong to Selina. I followed it upward, tapping along with the hymn. I wanted to reach out and touch that ankle and slide one hand up its leg and the other down the front of my pants.
The singing ended and it went quiet, except for my heartbeat and Sonny breathing. When the Reverend’s voice boomed out across the stable, Sonny jumped and stood on my hand. I bit on a lump of dirt to stop myself from crying out in pain. The words the Reverend was preaching didn’t make a lot of sense.
‘… And we have been brought to this Holy Place at the call of the Messenger … God Himself, Our Father Divine has called us here from across the ocean … and Mother Divine, in her chaste beauty and purity calls us to abstain in this place, this House of Worship …’
‘You hear that, Sonny?’ I whispered.
He nodded his head and stuck his ear against the crack in the door.
‘… And was it not proven in the days prior to the Great Earthquake of 1906, that the Messenger attended the city of San Francisco, a site of pestilence and evil, at the behest of the Holy Spirit, and bought wrath upon the sinful … And do we not know that when the Messenger was imprisoned for His works his gaolers were struck down by lightning and He was able to free Himself …’
The more he went on with the Bible talk, the louder and deeper his voice got. Women in the audience started crying and the men called out in agreement. The Reverend stopped preaching and people in the room stood up and clapped and cried out. The piano struck up another tune and they sang some more. Sonny tapped me on the shoulder and called me back along the laneway, into his yard.
‘You ever hear stuff like that?’ I asked. ‘And all them women babbling? Gave me the frights.’
‘Look at you,’ he laughed. ‘You’ve been rolling in crap.’
The front of my jumper and the knees of my jeans were covered in a mess of mud and dog shit. I tried wiping it off, but all I did was move it around.
‘My mum ‘ll kill me.’
Sonny couldn’t stop laughing.
‘And after that your old man will kill you double.’
I scraped a handful of the mess from my jumper and flung it at him, whacking him on the side of the face.
‘Don’t think its funny, Sonny. She’s gonna flog me for doing this.’
‘Stop worrying. Come inside and I’ll throw the stuff in the twin-tub and dry it by the heater.’
We sat in Sonny’s kitchen, me wearing a pink frilly dressing gown that belonged to his mum, while my clothes went through the machine.
‘You got any toast, Sonny?’
‘I don’t have any bread.’
‘No bread? What about a biscuit?’
‘Don’t have any. There’s nothing left in the house,’ he said, jumping from his chair and tugging at the sleeve of his jumper.
‘Where’s your old man? In bed with a hangover?’
He sat back at the table and looked down at his hands
‘He’s not here. Haven’t seen him for two days.’
It made sense all of a sudden, why he looked like shit and why there was no food in the house.
‘Where’d he go? What have you been living on? Nothing I bet.’
‘Shut up with the questions, Ray. I can take care of myself. You want to play copper, get yourself a badge.’
‘I was just asking …’
‘Don’t ask. Or you can give back my mum’s pink gown and piss of home in the nude.’
With my father off the road we had roast for Sunday lunch. He never talked much while he was eating, but my mother loved a chat. Said that the table was the place for the family to come together.
‘Why’d you head off early this morning?’ she asked.
‘Come on, Ray. You’re never out of bed early on a Sunday unless you’re off with your mate Sonny somewhere you’re not supposed to be.’ ‘No place. I was in Sonny’s.’
‘Doing what?’ my father interrupted.
‘Nothing. Just hanging around.’
He poked his knife in the air.
‘You spend half you life hanging around with that kid. Ever thought of widening your circle of friends?’
I looked down at my half-eaten lunch.
‘Mum, Sonny’s father gone off some place.’ ‘What do you mean, gone off?’
‘Missing. He’s been gone for a couple of days and left Sonny at home on his own.’
‘Probably better off.’ My dad tapped the side of his plate. ‘His old man’s fucken crazy.’
‘Mum, he’s got no food in the house.’
‘None of our business,’ my father interrupted again.
She opened her mouth to speak. He slapped the table with his hand.
‘None of our business.’
I made it our business later that night when I climbed out of my window, knocked at Sonny’s window and told him I’d made a leftover roast lamb and pickle sandwich for him.
He licked his lips. ‘Where is it, then?’
‘On the top of my dressing table.’
‘Why didn’t you bring it here?’
‘Thought you might like to bunk at my place, seeing as you’re on your own.’
He didn’t want to make out like he was interested and shrugged his shoulders as if he didn’t care one way or the other.
‘Eat here. Or your place. I don’t mind. But what about your old man? I don’t think he likes me.’
‘Means nothing. He don’t like me a lot. Anyway, he’ll be asleep. Can’t keep his eyes open once the sun goes down after he’s been driving.’
He followed me across the roof, through the window and demolished the sandwich in a couple of bites. He sent me downstairs for a second
sandwich. The radio was playing in my parents’ bedroom. My mother would be sitting up in bed, reading a book and humming in tune to the music.
Sonny was a little slower on the second sandwich. He tried saying something but I couldn’t understand him because his mouth was full. He waited until he’d swallowed a mouthful of sandwich and spoke again.
‘What’s the time?’
‘Time. What do want to know the time for?’
‘Cause I’ve got a secret for you.’
‘And what is it?’
‘Tell me the time first.’
I pointed to the clock with the luminous hands, sitting on the mantle above the fireplace.
‘Nearly ten. Now tell me the secret.’
He wiped crumbs and butter from his lips.
‘Same time, every night, I been in the yard watching the upstairs back window of the Reverend’s place. First couple of times it was by accident. Putting the rubbish in the bin when I look up and see this outline against the lace curtain in the room.’
His eyes widened and lit up like he’d just told me he’d found a pot of gold.
‘An outline? What about it?’
‘The outline of that girl, Selina. Side on. I could see her shape. Tits and all.’
‘How’d you know it was her? Could have been the mother.’
‘Bullshit. You had a good look at the mum. She’d have to be twenty stone. No, it was Selina. I seen her there the first night. And the next, when I put out the rubbish again. I been checking in the yard most nights since. And she’s there. Every night.’
I swallowed spit and licked my dry lips.
‘What time is she there?’
‘Just after ten.’
The small hand on the clock was about to touch ten.
‘You think we should go down in the yard and take a look?’
‘Better than that. I reckon we should climb out of this window and cross my roof onto hers. We might be able to see something through her window.’
‘She’ll see us.’
‘No, she won’t. Not if we’re careful.’
I looked over at the window and back to my open door. I walked across the floor, closed it and turned the light out. I nodded toward the window. Sonny opened it, climbed out and crept across his roof onto Selina’s. I followed him, trying as hard as I could not to step on a loose sheet of iron.
We sat under the window getting our breath back. Sonny stuck his finger in the air, turned onto his knees and slowly lifted his head to the window. When I tried kneeling he pushed my head down with his open hand, sat down, leaned across and whispered in my ear.
‘She’s got nothing on but he undies. Come on. Take a look.’
I turned around and slowly lifted my body until my chin was resting on the stone windowsill. Through the holes in the lace I could see into the room. Just like Sonny said, she had nothing on but a pair of white underpants. She had no scarf on her head and her hair sat on her shoulders. Her arms were crossed in front of her breasts. She was crying. And she was shaking. Her whole body.
I felt bad for staring at her and was about to turn away when the bedroom door opened. The Reverend came in, closed the door behind him and said something to her that we couldn’t hear. She turned away from her father and faced the bed. He took off his suit coat, slipped out of his braces, unbuttoned his shirt and took it off. The Reverend’s body was covered in dark hair. He moved closer to her and pushed her in the middle of the back with a giant paw. She landed on the bed, her sad face almost touching the windowpane. Suddenly it went dark and we could see nothing.
We both knew what we’d seen but didn’t know how to talk about it. I made Sonny a bed on the floor with my sleeping bag and spare pillow. I hopped into bed, my guts turning over and over. I couldn’t sleep.
‘You awake, Sonny?’
‘What are you thinking about?’
‘Not much. You?’
‘I was thinking about her face. I’ve never seen a look like that before. Never seen anyone so frightened and angry at the same time. Like she
was gonna die. And like she was about to cut someone’s throat.’
When the bedroom door opened I jumped with a fear of my own. My mother was standing in the doorway. She spotted Sonny’s bed on the floor and closed the door behind her.
‘Jesus, Ray. I thought you were talking in your sleep.’ She looked down at Sonny, who’d ducked into the sleeping bag. ‘You warm enough there, Sonny? Can I get you a blanket?’
‘No thanks, Mrs Moore. This is plenty warm.’
She leaned over the bed and looked at my face.
‘What’s up? You look like you’ve seen an ghost?’
I shook my head and answered, ‘nothing,’ without looking her in the eye.
‘Right then. Sleep now, and no chat. You don’t want to be waking you father.’
The next morning she knocked at the door with a spare pair of pyjamas under her arm.
‘Put these on, Sonny, and the two of you come down for breakfast.’
‘What about, dad?’ I asked.
‘Don’t worry about he pyjamas,’ Sonny interrupted. ‘I can climb back out the window here. I’m okay.’
‘You won’t be climbing out any window. You do what I said. Put these on and come down for breakfast.’ She tousled my hair. ‘And don’t worry about your father. He might have the bark, but I’m the only one who bites around here.’
Sonny and me didn’t talk about what we’d seen that night. I couldn’t speak for his feelings, but I knew I was ashamed of what I’d seen, even though I didn’t understand enough of it. I also reckoned that speaking about what we’d seen would be dangerous. I had nightmares about the Reverend turning into an animal, a bear, and other times, a wolf. When I passed him in the street I couldn’t take my eyes of the long hair growing on back of his hands, something I hadn’t noticed before. And if I came across Selina in her front yard I’d look the other way, full of guilt, like I’d done something bad to her myself, which in a way I had.
In the middle of the winter I was walking home from the fish and chip shop one night sharing a warm parcel of potato cakes with vinegar with Sonny when we heard the siren of a fire engine off in the distance. His father had turned up back at home after a week on a bender. He put himself on the wagon and an AA program and hadn’t had a drink since. Kept himself dry but miserable. But at least Sonny was getting a feed and the house was in order.
We turned the corner into the street. The scent of wood smoke was in the air.
‘I love that smell of wood. Means my mum will have the fire going and it ‘ll be cosy in the house. You’re dad put the fire on?’
‘Yep. Since he’s been off the piss, he orders in whole logs and chops the wood in the back yard. Doing his punishment. When he was on the grog he was happy to throw the furniture on the fire.’
I could see people were gathered at the far end of the street, and sparks leaping into the sky somewhere behind Sonny’s place. Or maybe my place. We started running. Sonny’s father was standing on the footpath out the front of his place with his hands on his hips.
‘Is it our joint?’ Sonny screamed.
‘Na. The religious mob next door. In the back stable where all the singing goes on.’
Less than a minute later the Fire Brigade tore into the street, lights flashing. The men jumped out of the truck and ran through The Reverend’s house, into the yard. Another fire engine turned out of the street, parked alongside the back lane. I could hear the old timber of the stable cracking and exploding. Selina was standing outside the house, holding her mother’s hand. She was wearing a crucifix and praying out loud. The Reverend was nowhere to be seen.
By the time the fire was out there was nothing left of the stable. It was burned to the ground, along with everything inside, including the piano, which turned to charcoal, on account of the intense heat. The police had turned up and one of the firemen was explaining to them that they hadn’t been able to get close to the fire until some of the heat had gone out of it.
‘And then we had to break the stable door down. It was heavily padlocked.’
While the copper was taking notes another fireman came out of the house and spoke to his mate.
‘We have a body. A male.’
‘In the stable. Under a sheet of roof iron and framing. Would have fallen in on him. Got a decent whack in the back of his head’
The policeman looked up from his notebook.
‘I thought you said the door was padlocked from the outside?’
The fireman looked insulted.
‘I know my job. I’m sure.’
Sonny stared at me and I looked across the street at Selina. Her face was as blank as a clean sheet.