Authors: Tara June Winch
In 1996, Chinese artist Song Dong travelled to the sacred Lhasa River in Tibet to conduct a performance. Song sat in the river for an hour, ritualistically stamping the surface with an old wooden seal carved with the character for water.
Of course the seal left no trace. The impact of the work resides instead with the artist's gesture. Futile and heroic, it recalls those manifest small acts through which an individual attempts to make sense of the world.
And for all of us, attempting to make sense of the world.
I remember the day I found out my mother was head sick. She wore worry on her wrists as she tied the remaining piece of elastic to the base of the old ice-cream container. Placing her soft hands under my jaw so as to get a better look at me, Mum's sad emerald eyes bled through her black canvas and tortured willow hair. She had a face that only smiled in photographs. She finished fixing my brother, Billy, also in an ice-cream tub helmet and sent us fishing. Puncturing the fear that magpies would swoop down and peck out the tops of our heads.
She shuffled us out like two jokers in her cards, reminding us to go to Aunty's house before dark, and telling us again that she loved us. The screen door swung back on its rusted, coastal hinges and slammed under the tension. When I looked back down the driveway she was gone.
Billy rode fast, his rod suspended in the distance like a radio antenna. My reel thread over my handlebars â attached with a small bag of bread mix, a flip knife and some extra hooks and sinkers that I'd got from school as a trade for Monopoly money. All was swaying with my slackened momentum.
The sand was stewing. I threw my bike with Billy's below the dunes of spinifex and headed for the point. From there I knew that I'd have the best view of the beach, deep into the surging breakers and practically standing on the locals' surfboards. Last summer I'd seen a turtle from the same spot; he immersed half his body â just to spit. Only a few moments he'd stayed, but it was long enough to remember his beauty.
Mungi was his name, the first turtle ever. They said he was a tribesman who was speared in the neck while protecting himself under a hollowed-out tree. But the ancestor spirit was watching and decided to let him live by reincarnation or something. âAnyway, using the empty tree trunk as his shell, he was allowed to live peacefully forever as a turtle.' Or so Mum would say. She had some
pretty crazy ideas and some pretty strange stories about other worlds and the government and the âconspiracies'. But the story about Mungi was my favourite. It was what she'd really wanted to say, she wasn't paranoid about a turtle.
I crept over the rock pools; the edges were sharp so you had to walk softly. Gazing down at every shale shape, contorting each footstep onto its smoothness. At the furthest rock pool, searching the ledge for my usual spot, I saw something strange. Draped over the verge was a silvery mould, like a plastic raincoat sleeping on the stone.
Sheltering over the eagled remains, I inhaled its salty flesh burning under the afternoon sky. The stingray's overturned body looked more like a caricature of a ghost than a sleeping raincoat. I stepped back, imagining its tiny frowning mouth screaming in pain. It'd not long been dead and I wondered if it had suffocated in the air or if this was only its mortuary. Either way it had swallowed its struggle.
I pulled it onto the rock ledge by its wing; the leathery shields made a slapping sound at my feet. I wanted someone to see my prize but Billy was
way back on the shoreline, too far to hear a girlish call. There were three short cuts on either side of its body â where a rib cage would be. They were like fish gills, I guessed, for special breathing underwater. My forefinger slid down its stomach and stinging tail to the tip, tracing around the two thorns that stuck out at the end. In my mind I saw the tail whip across like a garden hose and poison me with a quick and fatal sweep. I sat further away, just to be safe, and thought for a long time about throwing it back in, though I decided it was best kept away from the living, best kept up here in the air.
Pain had boiled up under its swollen body; I could feel the stingray's fight in its last moments of life. It looked exhausted, like a fat man in a tight suit after a greedy meal. But I had pity for the ray; I saw only the release of the dead inside. Stabbing my flip blade through its thick skin, I drew a long gape down the underbelly. An orange sack split open, pierced in the cutting. Oozing paint like liquid, the colour of temple chimes, over its pale torso.
An angel fallen, lying on its back, was now opened to the sky. I was no longer intrigued by
cause of death, loss of life. It had died long before I had cut it open, but only blood made dying real. No longer whole and helpless, the stingray was spilling at the sides â it was free.
I took up my bag, blew a loving kiss to what remained and returned to my brother, taking care not to step on the sharp-edged stones.
I remember the beach that day, still scattered with people; the sand had cooled with the falling sun. Blankets with babies and families in those half-domed, tent things. It was that time of the afternoon where mums and dads were getting tired and bodies could get no more bronzed. The entire beach would be packed up in minutes. Billy hadn't caught anything; just a handful of pipis lay in his hat.
âHow'd you go, sis?'
I showed him my empty palms. âYou?'
âJust the pipis, maybe we could get Aunty to fry em up, ask her if she got any fish fingers too! Jeez I'm starvin.'
We carried our bikes to the taps and washed our feet. Billy's feet were so much darker than mine; he'd sometimes tease me and call me a âhalfie' and âcoconut'. We'd be laughing and chasing
each other around the yard being racist and not even knowing it. I peered out past the bitou bush toward the point, following the pairs of surfers' legs disappearing over each wave. The sea was again a moving silver gull, mirroring sunset's embedded lilac. And I was again a child.
When we arrived at Aunty's house there was a police car parked out front, its wheels scraping against the gutter. There were no flashing lights, no siren. We tossed our bikes into the yard and Aunty leapt off the porch and shuffled us inside, just as Mum had earlier shuffled us out.
Her arms were sticky against my shoulders; she was shaking and sighing like sleeping through a bad dream. She sat us down at the kitchen table and opened the top cupboards, the ones with the barley sugar in them. Though she looked inside at the back walls only to gather her thoughts. She flung her head down, limp at the neck; still gripping the cupboard handles. Aunty cried a lot, it made Billy cry too. I thought she looked like Jesus, with her arms holding the rest of her up like that.
She sounded all broken up, like each word was important but foreign. âYour mum â she gone.
She gone away for a long time, kids. Me sista, she had to leave us.'
Aunty wasn't sure of the words. They'd never crossed her lips before, not when Mum went to the TAB, not when she went to Woolies either. I knew she was dead.
I took off the ice-cream tub still crowning my head, and stared into its emptiness. Mungi and the stingray floated around in my beating mind. I thought about Mum's pain being freed from her wrists, leaving her body, or what was left. Her soft hands overturned and exhausted. Tears fell into the ice-cream container, dripping off my eyelashes and sliding over my cheeks. Salt water smeared her handwriting of black marker â
And I knew it was all right not to forget.
Aunty never used to reckon she was lucky. She always just figured she was passed a raw deal, dealt a bad hand. I supposed she'd surrendered to being
kid, and then to being
woman in the same rotting suburb, born into a lifetime of ill fate. Her sister, the only stronghold out of loss, would follow suit in the sequence of lucklessness, and die. Everything, through Aunty's tired eyes, was bad luck. Bad luck until she won the Tip Top Bread Grocery Grab. After the win everything seemed to be a game, a gamble.
It started when Aunty would take the entry forms from the bread stand at Woolies. They never said you had to buy the bread and the checkout ladies never seemed to mind. Every pension day she set aside five dollars for stamps, and then she'd trace her name in thick memorised letters across the forms that still smelt of cooked flour. I don't
think she really believed she would actually win anything; maybe it had been her time to at least try.
I wasn't there when she went to Woolies that pension day. Aunty told us when she saw her name up on the big poster she had to pinch her arm to make sure she wasn't just dreaming. She came home and told us how great Christmas was going to be.
We're gunna have a bloody Christmas turkey this year, my loves.
Billy and me stood behind the barricades of streamers with Tip Top Bread balloons strung from our hands, a crowd of the other contestants' families engulfed us at the front of the supermarket. Aunty had three minutes to fill her trolleys with anything from the aisles of labels. Her fingers wrapped tight over the trolley handle, light brown knuckles pushed over from the grip. The timer began to count down. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Go! She flung her wobbling hips down the first aisle whilst Billy and me chorused the names of all the chips and lollies that we had scabbed from the other kids at school, stopping mid scream to piss ourselves laughing.
Aunty was piling in arm-sized cans of beetroot
and pineapple slices. The one-minute timer was counting, 5, 4, 3 ... We saw her start to panic and skip a bunch of aisles, targeting the trolley towards the frozen food section. You could see on her face the dread, thinking any second all time would be up. She got caught there in the frozen aisle, throwing in white plastic-wrapped turkeys and frozen chickens and pastry pies. The trolleys filled faster and faster, their hospital castors wobbling under each load. The presenter ran up to the far end of the supermarket where Aunty was and began flinging empty trolleys up the aisle with one hand, a microphone attached to a long black cord in the other. The trolleys sat stray and bloated, swollen like fresh driftwood. By the time the fire engine lights and the shrill siren flashed and shrieked through the supermarket she had three full trolleys, two of frozen food. Exhausted, she wheeled the last trolley, slower now, back to the checkouts for a quick interview, puffing and laughing.
Aunty leant over the barricades to Billy and me to give us a big hug, clapping her hands together and laughing.
We don't even own a bloody freezer!
She half whispered it at us and we looked at each
other laughing. Aunty asked Billy to count how much was in her purse: fifty dollars. We each took a trolley and craned their heavy baskets to the taxi rank outside.
âCan you take us to the hockshop, please, driver? Take us to the best one and there's a turkey with your name on it.'
He looked back at Aunty with night-shift eyes and a toothless, thin-lipped grin, as though a Stanley knife had just slit open the skin between his fat nose and the end of his chin. He sped the station wagon to a second-hand goods place just down the road and stopped right on the footpath. Aunty asked him to wait with us and she came out a minute later, the sun spiking the shine of the white rectangular freezer being wheeled out by the salesman. Big jolly smile still on her face.
I remember that smile, we mirrored it, and I reckon it was the happiest day of her life. She was at last lucky. From the front seat in the cab, she looked back at us and said it herself.
I think kids that I'd have to be one of the luckiest people around!
She laughed at her luck then, and all that Christmas, right up until the food ran out and the vacant insides of the freezer iced over. It stuck to
her though, that luck, like a scrounging leech.
It was the scratchies at first, four-dollar winners were pinned up against the fridge, while tens of the losing stubs lined the bins. Then it was lotto, then trifectas, pool comps and then that slapping death knell, the pokies. We rarely saw Aunty those days, when we did, she'd just lie about winning, or where she'd been. Aunty drowned out, she faded from our safety.
I try to imagine what she would've been thinking, perched up on a bar stool, tapping at the plastic, lit-up buttons. Raising the stakes. Hoping to light up another grocery grab or that fortnight's rent money or the electricity bill with Paid ink-stamped across it. I suppose that when those clinking dollars chimed in the shiny metal gutter, all those bills and red-letter promises disappeared. And it was just another bonus, another incentive, a quiet celebration for her luck.