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Saturday, November 19, 2011

To The Light

At the foot of a lighthouse, one finds darkness – Spanish Proverb

Having exchanged the life of an inner city skateboarding punk for a man and a fetus she finds herself astride a Malibu surfboard, paddling across a channel of water where sharks have been sighted. She’s wondering about the choice she’s made. Some might call it a sea change, while others think that she’s lost her mind.
This is a long way from the terrace house in Melbourne – from op- shopping expeditions and sessions at the pub. Her belly is four and a half months swollen; the hardness against fibreglass reminds her of what’s there. She hasn’t thought about it much.
The man behind her paddles furiously. He carries a backpack with two weeks’ supply of groceries wrapped in plastic bags. Waves rock the board and sideswipe them, and sea spray prickles her skin.
She’s excited, anxious, wavering somewhere between faith and apprehension as her guy restates his knowledge about the ocean and its ways. What would she know, having grown up on an inland farm? Her only experience of the sea being a childhood holiday at Rosebud, where tentative tongue waves lapped the shore and seaweed octopuses threatened to snare. Here the currents are tea-cozy warm and the expansive ocean beckons like a siren.
The sand on the island’s back beach is fine and squeaky under foot. He drops the backpack and they lug the surfboard to the far corner of the beach, setting it among native grasses. Once it’s wrapped in an old tarp they turn to the next leg of the journey: the sand-hill. He carries the pack and she navigates herself – a tired baby carriage. They traipse along the rough bush path towards the lighthouse cottage.
He’s inside, strumming his guitar. He’ll remain the same for hours until she initiates a conversation or stirs an argument. Sitting on the sandstone veranda she has no choice but to hold strong, and at least there’s an outlook.
Thirty metres or so off the Point a bombora stirs from beneath, receiving the crash of white water with nonchalance, as it has cargo ships and simple sailing boats. She’s been told that dozens of vessels have gone down on this rock in the past hundred and fifty years. This makes her shudder. Even recently boats have run aground here, regardless of the light.
Alertness to all she can see casts a shadow of oblivion. She walks the length of the veranda to find another angle. Daily, she sights spouts, followed by full-bodied eruptions as humpback whales migrate south. She’s constantly searching and straining her vision for the passing traffic. Last week, during the ritual of the heated outdoor bath they saw one heave itself from the water, only fifty metres away, and in falling slap the water like a kid’s belly-wacker.
“Ouch,” they said in unison; “that would have hurt”.
Today there are only coal ships passing, on their way to Singapore or Valparaiso.
She’s nineteen years old and the horizon is infinite. A crisp, perfect afternoon is imprinted on her mind forever.

Imprisoned by her otherness in the company of a boy-man who’s no more than a stranger, she as vacant as a seashell. Is she running from something or towards something? Her heart hurts when she thinks of her sisters, brothers, and parents worrying. They join her in futile dreams. Australia Post is reliable even at this distance, carrying regular missives from both ends. But nothing is said. She does her best to fight the undertow. I am an off-cast, an outcast. I am cast away.
She wants to express this feeling somehow, by skywriting or shrieking, psychic resonance or tragic journalling, but her feelings can’t form words. Seeing beauty is not conducive of happiness – she’s reminded of Coleridge’s lament and makes a cup of tea, wondering what to do with herself. There’s a constant clawing din in her head. I do nothing, I am nothing. I don’t belong. What is my nature?
The sandstone cools her body from toes to earlobes. Even on a mild day she’s on the boil. An incubator, she’s in charge of its growth. She asks of inner space, what is your nature? Who will you be? Her belly quivers; the little fish is swimming laps. They commune in tones resonating with heartbeats, organ- gurgle and breath, and she is nurtured.
Resting on the lumpy old mattress she yields but cannot sleep. Though the floor is made of stone, sounds of padding feet and vibrations rising up through the bedframe hold her attention. A storm out at sea gathers force and lightening snaps her into full awareness. Rampant rain pelts the baubled convex window, inventing mesmerising kaleidoscopic swirls as wind batters the building. Throughout the years wind and rain have infused the porous wall fashioning an ugly mosaic of bee-hives and pockmarks. How does this place endure? She coils into herself, wishing that the sun would set on this very long day.
Before they moved to the lighthouse, his father told her the history of the place. In 1824 convicts blasted, dug and cut the enormous bricks from perfect sandstone hills surrounding the Hawkesbury River valley. With the aid of bullocks, and the enigma of human endurance, the stone was loaded onto ships as ballast, and transported more than 150 miles to this island. The ships were reloaded with cedar from the Myall Lakes district and returned south. The newly landed Sydney gentry required the premium timber to build their stately homes, and the ships bearing the precious cargo could not be risked. By way of inverse logic the lighthouse and its cottage were built with stone ballast, and the fancy Sydney homes were built by forces against nature.
The local landowners, a clan of the Worimi nation, live along the coastline and further inland on the lakes. The island had been in their care for thousands of years. They brought their dead here. It was a sacred place for souls to journey undisturbed.
The Governor’s men negotiated the island’s purchase, proffering tea and flour and instructing the ‘natives’ how to make damper. When they realised that the owners would never abandon their vigil, the colonials offered flour laced with arsenic.
The cottage was built as a symbolic ship. Three families lived in adjoining quarters. The seven-room section was inhabited by the Commander or ‘Head Keeper’, the middle four rooms were allocated to the Engineer, and the last two rooms were reserved for servants.
The lighthouse was automated in the 1970s. Humans were no longer required for operations, so the Department of Transport ordered that the disused cottages be shovelled into the sea. His father, being a local businessman with some sway, intervened and signed a ‘peppercorn lease’ for the cottage, and took responsibility for its care.
In the Head Keeper’s bedroom she senses ghosts circling close then uncoiling away. She stirs herself and goes to her designated post to prepare their evening meal.
The next day he rouses her with his ambition to clear the island’s orchard. In the middle of the island and off this century’s well-beaten path, they cut their way through overgrown weeds. Among the entangled catastrophe of introduced species they glimpse the sparse limbs of old fruit and nut trees reaching outward. The orchard has been strangled by lantana, a South American import that in the subtropical environment has become a rampant triffid. She remembers it from the farm in Victoria – contained by pots and tamed by a different climate it was admired for its petite flowering clusters. With ancient, blunt secateurs she hacks into the tough vines and is rewarded by the foul stench of its sap. The plant bites back with barbed tendrils. Within days these tiny nicks bruise, swell and erupt into pustulant tropical boils.
He’s been digging with an old mattock, making rows and planting native shrubs that he sprouted from seed. He trips on his tool, injuring his foot; and they limp arm in arm, back to the cottage.

Most nights she wakes to the weak refrain of a woman crying.

The surfboard mysterious disappears, so his father finds them a tin rowboat. They catch the usual bus to the Port, and this time they purchase a month’s supply of groceries. He forks out money for a taxi back to the boat.
On the girth of the bay, feeling the pull of a heavy load he tries a different tack. If they paddle to the north of the island, to Shark Bay, they’ll have an easier walk to the lighthouse. She knows it. It’s near the orchard, and a bit north of the beach where they found a speared dolphin and gave it a grave. With no counter-argument she acquiesces. He’s four years older, has travelled, studied at university, and been so much more in the world than she.
On the way, she demands her turn at rowing the boat. As they both expect, she can’t get past popping an oar from its rollick, churning the boat in circles and showering them both with brine.
She calms herself after a giggle fit, relaxes under the sun, and enjoys the visage of him leveraging the boat across the swell.
Shark Island comes into view. He explains the geology and topography of this side of the island – something about rock formations, pre-historic earthquakes and the prevailing wind. She tunes into the word shark...Shark Island, Shark Bay... Her eyes sweep the waters, scouring from left to right, right to left for a fin. She imagines a pod of them circling, charging the boat and capsizing it. In a soup of shiraz infused froth, severed limbs rise to the surface.
He cries out, “Holy shit!”
Her heart leaps in its cage. There’s a narrow tract of water between the two shark places, through which they intend to pass. Waves are lunging through and breaking from the island through to the bay point. He looks at her and for a moment she sees a small boy lost in a shopping mall.
“Do something!” She shrieks and clutches her belly. “Turn the boat around!”
“I can’t,” he replies, “the tide’s against us. It’ll throw us back onto the rocks.” He points to a spot where waves are breaking less often, and says that if he times it right, they’ll get through. If they’re unlucky a wave will spill into the boat and capsize them.
“Right. So where’s my life jacket?” she spits.
“Too late for that now,” he yells, pragmatic in the absence of options.
He manipulates the oars to hold the boat steady, watches and times the 
wave-sets to gauge the ocean’s intent. She curls her fingers around the gunwale, leans back and rolls her eyes to the gods.
Fairy floss clouds scud past, the sort that charade as earthly objects then morph into other shapes. She catches the cloud slipstream and soars up. Seizing a view outside of herself, she feels futures leap in her womb. Time trickles and the ocean refracts light like a mirror ball. She recognises two people in a toy boat near the edge of a continent, and feels with certainty that there’s so much more of life to come.
He sees his opportunity and takes aim, paddling like billy-oh towards the foe. The wave will peak and spill but it must first give them a chance. They mount the brewing rise as foam forms underneath; the wave preparing to follow its pact with the moon. She holds her breath.
They ride through, the wave breaking a split second later, and together they squeal with relief. He turns the boat towards the bay, so suddenly swarthy and confident. She, recalling the adage; never turn your back on the ocean, turns and takes a look. A bold, briny wave slaps her in the face, engorges the boat, and drags them under. 
Flotsam at the shore-dump’s mercy, grazed and disoriented they haul themselves onto a pebbled beach and slump, weak as rag dolls. Her hair is seaweed salad, his smirk an unsavoury assault on her good nature. She throws a handful of stones at his head.
Under the dark sky their squabble is snatched aloft by a squall. The ghosts chuckle, then plan their next move.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Write Something, Right Something

Invent a new word and scrawl it on the footpath
Create a peace banner and hang it on your chest
write 'left' on one foot and 'go' on the other
- get a job and wait patiently for the aftermath

Spend your only life as an artisan scratching
scrimshaw into bones of frames for scaffolds,
for masterpieces. Pray for patent protection, or an afterlife,
and wait for the plan's inevitable hatching

Sledge stone, incise, align. With ten thousand other
slaves you join this chorus with the sky. Climb past breath
until with battle spit, collapse you are revolting
with the very stench of hope

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Chipping away at the despised potato? Wondering why the chips fall the wrong way? Perhaps you’re just a chip off the old iceberg?

I was loud for a while on the blogosphere. For around 4 days I waved my cocktail flag about as if it could claim some ground. Since, then, who knows why, but the flag has flailed. Had its breeze lost puff, or had it’s own stuff fallen flat?

This is me periodically. Feeling flat, having nothing to say, striving to know what’s good about myself. Onomatopoeia created the term: ‘meh’.

I cooked dinner for darling daughter, who had her first big exam today. She too was quite maudlin, yet again took to study. So I sat in the fading-light-yard and breathed in the freshly mown and humid air. I sipped another glass of wine and thought about nothing useful. I pondered thinking about nothing useful. I thought about not wanting to do anything more useful for the day, or for that matter anything that was a florid waste of time. I didn’t want to hear music. More deeply I dug at myself for not wanting to create.

Cranky at myself, tired from work, and knowing I was in the mood that wouldn’t let me sleep tonight, I took myself for a neighbourhood walk. A limping-ish one, thanks to my sandal breaking.  To add salt and insult to my efforts to outsmart anxiety, and doubt to my desire for community connection, I noticed that people around here are more often putting their chins at right-angles to the passers-by-ers, casting their vision aside in preference to a view of nothing.  Shucked off, my nod and smile falls into the newly made curb and guttering.

I’m sure this is just me in a low mood. If you’ve read this tiny thing, I hope you and I sleep well. Nigh night.