Welcome to The Summer Library: selected extracts from the best new books this summer
But Wren has not come home. Now it’s so dark the only noise in the sky is the stars. No way to know exactly how long he’s been gone but it feels several hours too long, maybe more.
Stand out the front of the house and listen – ‘Hear anything?
let’s go further down the road what for?
come on how far?
as far as he is
we can’t walk that far but
let’s walk and see boots?
a flashlight at least? No – give us away who to?’
Our grassy drive has retreated into the night. Follow it from memory. Trees lean in, listening. Find the end of it and walk on up the road in the dark with the swollen, nearly-full moon our only guide. Hands on our hearts and our hearts boom out in the otherwise silence.
‘Stop stop! what?
don’t know, the ground is moving a snake?
Drop to one knee but we can’t see anything in the grass around us. Stand and regain our balance and are still in the cold bluish stellar light. Dead quiet. No wind through the trees. Stand and listen to the silence and then we go on, stepping slow and light on our toes along the side of the road. At this pace we’ll not get far at all, which is partly deliberate. Wren could be anywhere along the road, anywhere from here to the city and we don’t like the road – at least, we don’t like what it represents or where it may take us. The chance of finding him out here in the dark is awfully slim. But we must try.
Our own shadow is always more company than we’d like, unless it is in profile. Hold hands. Then the sound of a dirt bike off in the distance and we skitter down in the long grass off from the road, lying faces down and flattened against the earth and wait till the sound moves away and disappears completely. Only then do we rise and walk on – fear held eerily between us like moth-wings, soft and too delicate to touch. The shapes of the trees are etched against the moonlit sky. The deep, long oom of a tawny frogmouth makes us stop still and listen,
oom-oom-oom-oom-oom-oom-oom-oom. Look for him in the trees
around and above us and he calls again but there’s no silhouette on any tree branch or in the sky.
‘Does he see us? he sees us
what does he think of us? not much.’
At last here is the ’58 Austin’s engine rolling over in neutral as though it has stopped in the road. Then it revs and backs up and the gears get shoved around, and then the screech of a gear not slotted in properly and it idles down again. Then more revving and the truck coming up the road and relief in us – not a throb but a glow. It comes up so slow the engine groans and the gears crunch more and slot in awkwardly and the engine groans again and it goes right past us and on. Turn around and follow it, back the way we came. Up ahead the truck turns painfully into the driveway and it goes on. When we finally reach it the engine is off and there’s no sign of Wren – the cabin windows are grimy and the night appears thick and solid and brown and the truck hasn’t had workable headlights for years. Open the cabin door, sweat blotting all over the black air and the darkness streaming and the silence awful.
It’s too dark to see in the cabin. Inside the house a kerosene lamp flares through the windows. ‘Thank god.’
‘Sea? Serene?’ ‘Here
Wren comes out with a flashlight and runs past us, round to the passenger door of the truck and we follow him.
He says, ‘I missed the turn.’
Light from the flashlight shines trembling into the cabin.
She’s lying across the seat, humped, like a doll flung away by a child in a hurry. There’s an old army pack on her back and a cloth, a pair of blue knickers with white lace around the edges and a water bladder that’s burst hanging off it. She’s not a child but not old either. She isn’t moving. Her face is tungsten white. The pack is knotted tight around her waist and under each arm. Her left leg is lying at an odd angle like it doesn’t belong to her anymore and there’s no-one else here to help us, no sound either, not even wind through the tops of the trees.
Wren drops the flashlight, leans into the truck and eases her towards him, gathers her in his arms. She’s small – younger than us. Her clothes are stained. Is she bleeding? Is she breathing? She has no shoes or socks. Her eyelids are purple.
‘Quick quick what?
get inside where there’s better light.’
He carries her into the living room and kneels and lies her on the floor. She is so broken.
‘She was lying in the road. I thought she was dead—’ ‘Who is she?
what’s happened?’ ‘—but she’s breathing.’
Kneel down beside her and flick a hunting knife out of the left pocket of our trousers and it shivers the light and we cut the cords of the pack from under her arms and from across her belly – snitchsnitch – and pull the pack away across the wooden floor. Is she breathing? Pick up a feather, a tiny, downy feather, hold it by its quill under the woman’s nose and the feather – like fire – comes alive. Ah. Now we call on the umbilical cord that connects us and binds us and holds us. The blood that is the same in us. Our double-yolk. Our blood-red yolk. Our life- and-death, fervent-and-furious red.
In her backpack is a pair of smelly woollen socks, a compass, a topographical map, a notebook, a pencil and a flashlight and a baby’s blanket – pale blue, covered with silver stars. No money. The flashlight is dead. All the pages are white and blank in the notebook except the fifth page that says,
‘—you’ll not know the hour’ and the page opposite that says, ‘unless—’
Kneel, our kneeling shadow is the profile of two people. Whole. Still as still. Eyes? Hold hands, a quick and firm embrace of hands. Then we begin to look for her injuries, to see if we might work out how bad they are. Cut off her long pants and her shirt.
She opens an eye.
Opens an eye – wet and shot-red. The other is swollen shut. She stares up at us, not seeing us at all. She says nothing. But she’s not dead thank god o please o lord she’s not dead not dead. Wren closes his eyes, rubs his hands over his face and leaves them there like he doesn’t want to look at her and we wonder whether her injuries scare him or if it’s because he knows what’s happened to her or because he has never seen a naked woman lying on the floor – bruising and swelling with round scars like embedded pearls on her wrists and down the sides of her neck. Her eyelids are purple and her left leg looks badly hurt and after a long time Wren uncovers and opens his eyes – they widen and widen and he whispers so low it might just be the wind, ‘Oh. She’s beautiful.’
‘Like a bird
we’ll mend her like a bird water and ice
finger-cold something wing-soft wing-soft
her veins like poetry her bones
and her skin her symmetry like a bird
yes like a bird
we’ll mend her like a bird.’
Wren isn’t looking at us tending to the woman on the floor. He hasn’t left the room but he isn’t looking at us. This is only the second time in ten years that another person has crossed the threshold of our front door, and the first time that the person is (a) a stranger and (b) unconscious. Rub her breastbone and she responds by curling her fingers into fists. We’re quite good at mending things. It is intuition and feeling and seeing. We know how to see all of a thing and we know how to listen and so much is said without words.
everything we have yes.’
Covering her with a blanket, go out of the room and pour two shots of apple liqueur in the kitchen and drink them and then we sit with her all through the night – warm water becoming cool water and a feather and our hands mark time and mark the changes in her breathing and the wounds on her body. She has suffered a forceful injury, a blow or a fall. She has suffered slowly too, some time ago.
At Hope Home we watched how the nurses splinted and bound the broken bones of the children so we splint and bind her poor leg in the same way so it’s immobile and closer to straight. Warm a pan of water on the wood stove and pour it into a jug and gather up a towel and a cake of milk soap and clean the dirt from her face and bathe her swollen eyes. Wren watches us without speaking. There is an orange-round lump low on the side of her skull. We bathe her torn and blistered feet and her hands. Her hands. Delicate, long- fingered, neat defined bones. But her nails are broken and dirty. Sing her a lullaby just above a whisper. And when the sky through the windows changes from black to darkest grey to the middle of grey, Wren disappears.
hunting rabbits – or maybe it’s our singing?’ Laugh low.
Now we sit cross-legged by her head. Together we communicate by thought alone, feeling each other’s thoughts as they rise and fall like heartbeats, the warmth and cold of them, the love and fear in them. This is our gift.
This is an edited extract from Fusion by Kate Richards (HamishHamilton; $32.99), published in February.