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At 33 he goes back to the town his mother was raised in. She’d taken him there as a child every summer, for her own birthday, and they’d rowed out in a hired tinnie to eat a picnic above the place she believed her house must have been. Must still be – the doorstep, at least, which had been made of concrete, and maybe the skeleton of the house itself, the brick chimney home to nests of eels and whorls of trout.
I was born down there, she’d told him between mouthfuls of egg sandwich and swigs of portello. And when I was 14 the Hydroelectric came, so we all had to leave.
He’d looked out over the side of the little boat, into the green depths, and imagined his mother being hauled up out of them. Reeled like a fish to the surface, into the dry boring world, gleaming and furious and fighting the air.
He’d imagined his father was down there too, though in fact the man had never seen the town, or even the lake that lidded it. Still, he was somehow there, doing father things – tending to lake weeds, shaving his jaw, leaning over the underwater sink to stare at his reflection in the underwater mirror, his features made bleary by the grey-green murk of the government-ordered lake. Cristian had never known his father’s face. Not even the picture of it. His mother hadn’t tried to chase this stranger down, knew he wouldn’t have stayed in any case. It didn’t matter, she’d said. She had everything she needed.
Someone gives you the sun, moon and stars, do you hang on to the wrapping?
Does he even know about me?
Cricket, how could he?
There was no truth she meant to protect him from. Other people are going to lie to you, she’d told him once, and some are going to do it out of what they think is kindness. Not me, though. I’m never going to. You might as well get used to it.
At the boat-hire, Cristian buys three hours from the man who has run the shed for the past two decades, and likely before. Cristian recalls seeing him there, all through the ’90s – hair a little less wild then, a little less white – bringing the boats in or directing them out, otherwise leaning in the shaded doorway of the hire shed, perpetually in the act of rolling a cigarette he never seemed to get around to smoking. He’s doing so now, licking the gummed edge and letting it hang on his lip, unlit, a thin cocoon. He lumbers bearlike across the dock, looks down at Cristian’s suede bluchers, up at his stiff-collared shirt – Just get outter church? – and leads him to a silver tinnie, unhitching it with an in-ya-get.
Cristian knows he’s thinking tourist. It’s mostly tourists who hire. On the jetty, two children squat to stare into the buckets of live bait while their father threads their hand-reels, socking hooks with worm flesh as he explains about the bells. It’s a story that Cristian has overheard many times before: if you stick your head under the water at just the right time of day, you’ll hear the old church bells ringing.
His mother had had no patience for that sort of thing.
They don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. The church was shifted out along with everything else. Stick your head under the water and all you’re going to hear is your ears getting wet.
She’d told him other stories. What she called the true Provost stories. Of how the new town remembered the old, and over the years had inched down the mountainside, trying to sneak back to it. Of weekends spent watching boys freedive the drowned town. They would row out with rocks to use as sinkers, tipping over the sides with them hugged tight to their chests so they’d reach the bottom fast and easy, wouldn’t waste any time or breath getting down there.
It gave them longer to look around, she’d said.
Look around for what?
Oh, they just wanted to see for themselves. They wanted to get down deep enough to look in the windows of the houses that got left behind. Like there were people still down there living watery ghost lives or something. Sitting down to breakfast at the table like normal, but when you pour out the cereal it just goes everywhere like fish food. That’s what they wanted to see, things like that.
Out there on the water she’d looked glamorous. Even rowing, her forehead creased with the effort of sawing the oars back and forth, and the humidity pressing her fine hair flat. Her dress was tucked up to keep from the slimy water sloshing in the bottom of the boat.
Sometimes she’d rowed them out over the house where a man had maybe killed his wife and child, or maybe not. It had been a talky sort of town, she’d said, and that talk just seemed to increase with the altitude after the relocation. The town had been flooded the year after the girl and her mother were found dead in their kitchen. No one ever said how. Too awful, was the only answer that parents would give. Too awful to talk about, perhaps because they did not really know, and the rumours were outrageous and conflicting. Something about poison, but whose fault, and maybe an accident? But let’s all watch and just see how the fella copes …
Most people’s houses had been trucked out of the valley, up the side of the mountain. But that house was either too rickety or too sad, and it stayed where it was. The roof tiles were salvaged but the rest was left to the flood. Cristian’s mother’s house got left behind as well, feasted on by white ants Cristian’s grandfather had been happy enough to surrender a three-year battle to, knowing the termites’ mingy victory would be short-lived.
It was the other house, the roofless, too-awful-to-talk-about house that the boys had dived down to explore. Hugging stones to their chests all those years ago. Sometimes they had surfaced with things held between their teeth or tucked into the pockets and belt loops of their cut-down denims. Things they called evidence: rusted cutlery; a brown glass bottle, medicinal or sinister. Someone said that if you pulled up the waterlogged floorboards you’d find – what? Proof. Of what? You know. How he. You know. And when they couldn’t bring back proof they’d surface with stories. Something down there. Something grabbed me. Swam past two shadows in the doorway. Swear it then. I swear.
She’d known the daughter, of course. Emily. Hair short and soft and black as cat’s fur. And her teeth when she laughed were like a cat’s, small and sharp. His mother and Emily had clattered over the town’s corrugated dirt streets on boys’ bicycles. Torn pages out of great-grandmother’s leather-bound King James and dared each other to eat them.
And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird …
Was that it? His mother had shivered, out there above the town. Em had said Ecclesiastes tasted best.
Cristian unlaces his shoes and peels his damp socks from his feet. His shins are white from the Sydney winter, from too many months lived under office fluorescents. He has brought no food, no water. Just the old biscuit tin and its sifting cargo. There’s an ache in his fillings for the store-bought cake his mother had taken out to the lake each year: fake cream, icing shiny and hard like a beetle’s back. Nothing close to what she could have made herself, but she had thought it bad luck for a person to bake their own birthday cake, and his own efforts would have been a clotted mess. They would take their sandwich crusts and empty drink bottles home with them, but they’d crumble up some of the cake and scatter it over the side like rice at a wedding. Watch the white sugary sponge dissolve into the lake water, splashing away any fish or ducks who tried to paddle in and eat it.
Not for you. Not for you.
This is what he remembers, looking towards the ghost gums at the lake’s edge, hoping for something concrete, familiar, that might act as a point of reference. There is no such thing. Even the boatshed is gone from sight, and there is nothing to indicate whether or not this is the right place. The lake tells him little, dumbly reflecting the mud-coloured sky. Cristian takes the lid from the biscuit tin, sees the powder and bone gravel, and cannot do it. He gives himself a minute to recover his nerve, thinks he could maybe drop the entire tin over the side. But that would be worse somehow – he can’t explain it, even to himself – like burying someone alive.
Cricket, can you just do as you’re asked?
But alone on the lake he feels helpless. Stranded. He opens and closes the tin, unable to look at its contents. He opens and closes his fists. From a great distance he watches his trembling, over-scrubbed hands fumble the lid off the tin. OK, he says to the hands. OK. But they scramble to close it up again.
Her body was tiny when she finally slipped out of it. When he went to collect the ashes, he thought there must have been a mistake, because what they gave him couldn’t have filled a coffee jar. But she’d always been a little thing. Where was there room for a tumour? No one knew how her body had hidden it, a growth the size of a clementine. It had been kept secret until it was too late.
Why do they always measure cancer by fruit, she’d wanted to know. Why always citrus?
Well. Orange you glad it wasn’t a grapefruit?
It had exhausted him to even think it, let alone say it aloud, but there was the sound of her laugh, her real laugh with the huskiness it had acquired since she’d started therapy. They were outside that afternoon, under the loquat tree, the fallen fruit soft and rotting under their shoes. The air was boozy with ferment, and the effects of the chemo weren’t yet too visible. She sat in a dining chair, a blue towel draped around her shoulders. It might have been a moment in which to pretend things were otherwise. But she’d seen the other patients around the ward, their hair falling out in great drifts, and decided that wasn’t for her.
You’ll do it? she’d asked. I’m tired of all these strangers touching me. I just don’t have the patience for it anymore. I’ve never really had the patience for anyone else, but now I’m excused from pretending.
She held her hand out for the clippers and adjusted the setting, then handed them back to him. Just give me a number 3. It’s all going to go anyway.
He’d started underneath, at her nape, so if she changed her mind they could rescue it to something less drastic. But she stared straight ahead as the shoulder-length tresses of copper blonde fell into the grass around their feet. He was thinking that he should save some, remembering the envelopes of baby curls she’d kept, the date and his age in months noted in blue biro. But that kind of keepsaking didn’t belong to the deep end of life. It would look morbid. Unhopeful. He left the hair where it fell, two inches of pale grey already showing at the roots. Two inches, what did that amount to in weeks? Five or six? That was how long ago she’d given up on hair dye. She put her hand up to check his progress, brushing fingertips over the soft stubble.
Isn’t it funny, she said. It’s what I used to give you.
He turned off the clippers, leaving her with a fine fox-silver fuzz that rubbed away over the following weeks, until she was a vulnerable, newborn-looking creature, but with sharp, haunted features. She lived long enough to see it grow back, a darker grey, in tight, dense curls. Then something got into her chest, fluid on the lungs, and she didn’t have the strength left to fight it off.
He’s late bringing the boat back, the unemptied biscuit tin balanced on his knees. As he rows into shore he can see that the blue doors of the boatshed have been pulled closed and the buckets of live bait are gone from the jetty. He docks and bangs a few times on the side of the shed. Inside there is radio noise, talk at commentary speed, but he can’t make out the sport. Something from the daylit side of the globe.
There is the sound of a bolt sliding, and the boatman opens the door, chest hair sprouting from the low neck of his navy singlet.
I’m sorry, Cristian says. I’m late.
I see that. He looks Cristian up and down, for the second time that day, his eyes coming to rest on the biscuit tin tucked under Cristian’s arm. Hopeful, maybe, for the offer of a Monte Carlo.
Cristian starts to explain but the man just nods, and Cristian can see him putting it all together – the good shoes, the absence of fishing gear.
Come in for a tick.
He leads Cristian into the boatshed, under low-hanging bulbs in safety cages and past the rows of upturned boats in hibernation, awaiting trout season.
The man doesn’t give his name and Cristian doesn’t ask it. But he accepts a sweating can of beer and lowers himself into a folding chair. The surrounding walls are lined with shelves, and these are buckling with their load of old manuals and fishing guides, pages crenulated and thickening in the damp, and rusty souvenirs dredged up from the old town.
Some years earlier, a drought sucked half the lake away and the town rose right up out of the mud like a sludgy, shipwormed beast. Former residents returned to tread gingerly across the lakebed, old shoes breaking through the thin, brittle layer baked over the softer, rich mud. From this they unearthed the detritus of their own histories. Things not worth the taking three decades earlier had appreciated down there in the silt, and people fished out bicycle parts, letterboxes, typewriter keys, the iron frame of an upright piano. Then the rains came back and the town was swallowed again.
Here are the photographs and newspaper clippings, tacked along the boatshed wall, mildew blooming under the glass frames. The townspeople picking over the lakebed like prospectors.
His mother is there among them. Like all the rest, she’d put on old shoes and walked right out over the cracked mud, across the not-lake. Right up to the empty windows of that too-awful house to see if the table was still set. All she saw, she said, was a roomful of rocks.
Come on then, the boatman says. Are we going? Have you got her? And Cristian hauls himself up from the chair to follow. Outside the air is cool and heavy, and it can no longer be said where the lake and the night divide (moon slapping boatside as if to spur them on). There is a charge now, a change in the air. A resonance. Whatever comes after a bell has rung out and the sound has drifted away.
Josephine Rowe is the author of two story collections and a new novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal. She currently lives in Hobart.