ELENA RAN UP THE PATH to the rotunda above the beach. The stairs were uneven, planks of splintered wood doing little to hold back the sand and encroaching brush. She tried counting her steps but lost count after fifty or so. Instead, she listened to the rhythmic sound of her breathing, concentrated on nothing else. The dense ti-tree created a canopy overhead, fingers of light peeking through them. Among them singing honeyeaters chattered and trilled. They sounded just like the tennis club ladies at coffee mornings. When she finally arrived at the lookout she leaned against the concrete barrier.
The sun lingered above the sea and the rocky cliffs glowed ivory. Silver gulls cawed overhead, blown landward by the northerly winds off Bass Strait. Down below, a dozen surfers dropped in on the churning waves, riding them to the breakwater before paddling back out again. She watched them for a while, before clambering down the steep path to where she’d first started. Daniel would ask what she’d done that day, always wanting to know;so she pushed herself to keep going. She straightened and took off. Her sneakers skidded across the soft sand, shunting her sideways. Everything hurt. Her heart felt like it would burst out of her chest but she didn’t stop until she’d done half a dozen laps.
Afterwards, she flopped down on the bench outside the toilet block. A stab of pain in her lower back. It was a familiar feeling, a reminder of the real pain. She winced as she straightened, brought her face up to the weak sun. For nearly a year, she had been waking in the mornings with spasms in her spine, which usually passed after an hour, sometimes two. Finally – reluctantly – she’d gone to see a doctor. “Lumbar stenosis,” he’d said. “It usually occurs with ageing, but in your case – you’re only thirty-five – it could be congenital. Still, it’s manageable.” He’d shrugged apologetically, then proceeded to outline her treatment options. There were only two. And surgery was a last, drastic resort. She’d since grown accustomed to exercising every day. Barely.
Eventually, she pushed away from the lovely warmth of the limestone, stood on wobbly legs,and walked over to the car. Seated in the driver’s seat, one leg hanging out the door, she took a long drink, the entire water bottle in one go. A seagull landed on the bonnet, peered at her expectantly. Elena wiped her face with the back of her hand, and looked around for something to throw it. There was a muesli bar in the middle console, a pen and a handful of coins. She shook her head. “Sorry, pal,” she said. “Today’s not your lucky day.” It flew off in the direction of Jonah’s Rock, a plinth-shaped outcrop a few hundred metres off shore. She was watching the waves, lulled by their rhythmic movement, when her mobile rang. Her head jerked at the sound, intrusive, shrill. She fumbled in the driver’s side compartment, answered.
It was Julie Miller, Daniel’s caseworker. Elena felt an instant rush of blood to the head, like a sharp blow. It was like this every time – the anticipation of bad news, a fear which was for her, like the pain in her back, a constant companion. She swallowed hard, steeled herself.
“Good morning, Julie,” she replied with false cheer.
“Just calling to arrange our visit next week. See how Tyson – Oh, sorry … you don’t call him that, do you? I mean, see how Daniel is doing.”
“Yes, of course.”
“Usual stuff. Nothing to worry about, love.”
Elena felt her throat loosen, the saliva returning to her mouth. They were the words she was always desperate to hear. She wondered if Julie had detected the fear in her voice, the uncertainty of her position. Or just compassion, knowing how hopelessly she loved the child. They arranged a day and time for the following week.
“All sorted,” Elena said, a finality in her voice. “Just give me a call if anything changes before then.”
There was a pause down the line. Something more.
“I got a call from Greenvale House last night,” Julie said. “The director. His name is John Walker. A youngish fellow, late thirties. He’s new to the job, enthusiastic, likes to keep me in the loop about his clients.”
“Right.” Elena shifted in her seat, suddenly uncomfortable. She didn’t know where this was going, didn’t want to know. If only she could hang up. Her heart fluttered and she said, “What … what did he say?”
“Well, he mentioned one client in particular, and I thought you’d like to know. Nathan Anderson. Ty– Daniel’s dad.”
“He’s doing well.”
“Yes. Apparently he’s been sober for ninety days now. Keeping it real, whatever that means. Walker’s words, not mine.”
Elena stifled a snort. Fifteen months earlier, Nathan Anderson, a mid-level drug dealer, had smashed in a junkie’s kneecaps with a baseball bat over an unpaid $30 debt. The man spent two weeks in hospital, and never walked properly again. Julie had told her the whole story in a resigned tone, having heard every unremarkable detail a thousand times before. Now Anderson was in rehab, ordered there after he’d managed to convince the court the entire episode was the result of an alcohol-fuelled binge. A one-off, he’d said. Except that wasn’t even partially true. There was no mention of the time he’d slammed his wife’s head into a wall, broken her orbital bone in two places, angry because there was no food in the fridge. Anderson had made violence a lifetime habit. He wore it like a badge of honour. Only this time he’d been caught. At least he was no longer out on bail.
“Good luck to him, then,” she said, wanting to tell Julie what she really thought, that she couldn’t even bear to hear his name. And part of her – God forgive me – just wanted him to die, and leave them alone forever.
“Luck,” Julie replied in a sarcastic tone. “He’s going to need more than that.”
Elena smiled, relieved. As if she needed reminding whose side the other woman was on.
Julie cleared her throat. “Anyway, I just wanted to keep you in the loop.”
“Thanks. I appreciate it.” Something occurred to her then, something to ease the tension. “Julie.”
“Keep it real.”
They both laughed.
Elena sat there a little longer. It was warm in the car – quiet, peaceful – yet in spite of Julie’s reassurances, she couldn’t dislodge the unease which sat firmly in her gut.
That afternoon she went to pick up Daniel from soccer practice. The boys played on the oval behind the marshland at the edge of town. They set the nets up at each end, in front of the permanent goalposts, the boundaries of square orange traffic cones. They were eleven a side, mostly from school, and two of the dads coaching. At the end of the game she waved from the sidelines.
Daniel ran over, his face shining.
“Did you see that? I did a push kick!”
“I did see that,” Elena said, smiling at him with pride.
He was a deft kick when he got the ball, so much so the others passed it to him any chance they could. Then he funnelled it down the pitch to the goal kicker who invariably sank it into the back of the net. It was hard to believe he’d been playing for less than a year. Even harder to believe this was the same kid who’d first come to live with her, so silent and withdrawn. He turned to wave at his friends who were calling goodbye from the middle of the field.
“We might as well make you captain,” she said.
Daniel beamed and ran to the car.
When they got home the sun had begun dipping over the water. She sent Daniel upstairs to shower while she thought about dinner. In the fridge there was half a capsicum, furred at the edges, and a bottle of soda water. She didn’t think she could be bothered going to the supermarket now. Instead, she went into the hallway to fish out takeaway menus from the hallway table.
Daniel had come down the stairs. His hair was half-dry and sticking up. His tracksuit top was on backwards, the tag sticking up like a flag.
“Pizza OK?” she asked.
“Pineapple!” he shouted.
“And garlic bread?”
“Right, then. Give me a kiss.”
Daniel threw his arms around Elena’s neck, and she held him briefly. He smiled up at her with flushed cheeks, then headed to the lounge room to watch television. She felt her eyes well as she watched him go, as though her love for him might actually tear her in two.
Out on the verandah they sat facing out, their backs against the top step. She closed the empty box. After a short while the air around them sharpened. She stood and peered down at him, softly.
“Come inside.” She pulled him up. “Time for bed.”
He didn’t even protest.
Elena closed the window against the mist from the bay. It was getting cold, the tail end of summer, thinning light on the horizon about to disappear behind the channel island where the seabirds roosted. She felt melancholy at the change of season, at its end.
Daniel rolled onto his side, watching her. He was almost asleep now, eyelids flickering. His eyes betrayed equal measure of suspicion and curiosity. As if he still wasn’t sure she could be trusted – even after nearly a year – and had to study her with utmost attention every day. She understood his fear. The fear of being betrayed by another grown-up. Again.
She walked over and switched off the lamp. The outline of his face was visible against the nightlight, eyes liquid black. He waited for her to lie down, then nestled into her side. With a sigh, he closed a small hand around her forearm, as he did every night before story time. Yawned. Rafi snored at his feet, a furry sentinel, all four legs pointing north.
“You promised me a story.”
“Not tonight, darling. It’s late, and you have school tomorrow.”
“But you promised,” he protested.
Elena sighed, looked away. Outside, the sky had turned gunmetal grey, a mottled twilight.The wind whittled through the moonah trees on the cliff, rattling the slate roof tiles. She rubbed her eyes, suddenly tired. “Well, OK. But just the one. Otherwise you won’t be able to get up in the morning.”
“The old lady story? With the flowers and the bird.”
“Oh, that one,” she said, shaking her head. “I haven’t told that in ages.”
“It’s my favourite.”
Elena saw from his eager expression that he’d already made up his mind. She could never say no anyway. “Alright, then.”
The boy smiled a half smile, satisfied.
“There was an old lady who lived by the entrance to the national park. She lived in an old weatherboard house with a fence that was neither here nor there – half up, half down – and a garden which had seen better days. Her name was Olive and everyone who spoke of her said she was a recluse. A bit batty, some said. She would collect her mail at noon everyday, hobbled by age, tapping along with her walking stick along the concrete path bordered by a wild mess of hydrangeas, and then, back inside until the same time the following day. When her neighbours called out a greeting, she nodded, sometimes waved, but never lifted her gaze. The elders said she had a spirit guide, a great eagle called bilyara, which was a strange thing for a whitefella but not impossible. Because she had lived for so long, there were many stories about her, but they were mostly that, just stories, which were no more true or false than the day was long. But there was one story in particular which stood out from all the others.
“It was said that every day at dawn she would turn into a beautiful bird – as large as an eagle but with the brilliant feathers of a peacock – and fly up into the sky, which shuddered with the beat of her enormous wings. There, she would catch the night in her feathers, just a little at first, then great sheaths of darkness with every downbeat, entire clouds at a time, until finally all that remained was pure blue sky for as far as the eye could see. Then, as she turned in a majestic arc for home, a beautiful sunrise would appear on the horizon, as golden and perfect as the very first ray of sun at the beginning of time.
“And it was said that if you were to ever to catch a glimpse of her crossing the sky– so graceful, so beautiful – you would be rewarded with a long and prosperous life. But people only spoke of the myth, not of actually seeing her up in the clouds, because it was said to be a sight so beautiful it reduced grown men to tears. That none could look upon her for more than a moment without having to turn away, as though they’d looked straight into an eclipse. As though their frail human hearts couldn’t comprehend – or accept – such beauty could even exist. Easier to dismiss the whole thing as nonsense.”
Daniel appeared to have fallen asleep.
She looked down at the boy. With an involuntary spasm, his hand came up from his side, and folded into a tiny fist on his chest. Even in sleep there was sadness in his face, and she wondered which memories had chased him into his dreams. His proper name was Tyson, and he was six years old. He was pale-skinned and had a thin face, a button nose, dusty brown hair. His real parents had only ever shouted his name, usually attached to an expletive, and a flying hand. At first, he’d winced when she called him that, his body shrinking away, instant recoil. So she had taken to calling him by his second name. He liked that, smiled when she did. She touched his cheek, longed to take the pain away, but it was bigger than both of them. If love was enough, she whispered, and went to kiss him good night.
Suddenly the boy’s eyes widened. “But you haven’t finished the story,” he muttered. “You promised me a whole one, mama.”
Elena nodded, blinked back an instant tear. The word caught her every time. Sometimes, in moments like these, she imagined their future together – the birthday parties, new bicycles, Christmas mornings – and her heart swelled in her chest until she could barely breathe. But just as quickly she shut down the thought –pointless as it was – and faced the reality that as a ward of the State they could take him back at any moment.
“I thought you were asleep,” she said finally.
“No. Did someone see the bird? What happened to the old lady?”
“Sure you don’t want to save the rest?” she ventured. “For tomorrow.”
He shook his head slowly, heavily.
Elena gave a soft sigh.
“Then, after a while,” she continued in a soft voice, “Olive’s neighbours began to talk. Nobody had seen her at the gate. Not for days and days and days. ‘How strange’, they said. So they decided to investigate. And that’s when they found her – gone at the grand old age of 89 – lying peacefully on her bed, her face in perfect repose, hands clasped in front of her, the entire bed, in fact, the whole room, carpeted in the most beautiful peacock feathers anybody had ever seen, glinting gold and emerald in the sunlight.”
Daniel’s eyelids began to flicker and droop. He was fighting sleep, its inexorable creep, but wavering fast. Eventually, he shifted himself, reached out for Elena’s arm once more, almost gone.
“After they buried her, and after a kind soul had taken some hydrangeas from her garden and laid them on her grave, it was said that they began to creep across her lawn, slowly at first, until it turned purple and blue. Fat blossoms sprung up through the floorboards until they’d taken over the entire house. Until hardly anyone remembered there had ever been a house there. And it was said that if you were nearby, around the stroke of midnight, you could hear the call of a peacock, shrill and magnificent, cutting across the night sky. ‘But they were just stories,’ everyone said. ‘Just stories’.”
“That’ll do for now,” Elena whispered as she looked down at his perfect face, waiting for more protests. But there were none. He was already snoring, his small chest rising and falling to its own particular rhythm. She pulled up the sheet, tucked it under his chin. “Sleep tight, my beautiful boy.”
Elena shut her eyes for a moment, as exhaustion began to throb behind them. She wasn’t sure how much the boy related to the story of the old woman’s 'death' and how much, if anything, it had to do with his own mother’s death. He never talked about her – ever – but it was there all the same. In the tired cast of his eyes. In his silence. Then there was his other parent, his father, who was waiting in the wings. And, no doubt, one day Daniel would have to go back to him. She shooed away the thought, and from somewhere outside a yellow-tailed black cockatoo, screeched against the blackened sky.
MADE IN PIXEL TOGETHER