AphelionAuthor: Emily Ballou
Featured in the June, 2007 magazine
(A good read)
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Esme rises before dawn, carefully unpeels herself from the cat caught beneath her sleep-flung arm, fur rising and falling beneath her, the glowing warmth against her chest. She dresses quietly so as not to wake her sister, carries her boots through the house. In the cold kitchen she hauls a log onto the coals, leaves the stove door open for a moment and watches as the feathery bark catches, illuminating a tableau of table: the open Grace Brothers winter catalogue; the jar of honey, unstrained, that her father brought down from his high mountain plot, the bodies of bees still stuck in the comb; her mother's camp oven, a cast-iron cauldron of magic from which emerged a perfect damper, a hot oily chicken, golden syrup dumplings - though this morning there's only bits of last night's lamb stew stuck to the blackened sides.
She steps out into the dawn which is barely moonlit, sits on the damp boards of the back verandah, can feel but not yet see the fog of her breath forming shapes in the air before her, lets her fingers thread the laces through the last eyelets and loves the firm grip of the leather around her ankles when she pulls the laces tight. Beyond her mother's garden is the dark field where her father's horse waits at the fence line, munching the new grass. She can hear the cracking of his heavy jaws working at the fresh green. Beyond the field and the horse, the distant hills, stitched with lines of pine, give off flecks of first pink light.
Esme wheels her pushbike from the shed, hooks the lantern over the handlebar and slowly pedals up the gravel driveway to the road, the lamplight swinging in arcs and illuminating the muddy ruts from last night's hooves and rain. The lantern's flame grows and, though she likes the warmth seeping through the wide knit of her mittens, soon her left fingertips feel as if they are smoking. She lifts her hand momentarily. Her leg muscles wake with the exertions of turning. Her mind thrums. The dare of one-armed sterring and the squelch of mud, the sink of sudden puddles, the gravel shooting off into the wet breath of dawn, excites her; her plans for the day a rug unrolling in her mind on which she has swen in gold thread the moments she hopes to make happen. She is eager for it all, at once. Yet, she imagines, how much better to savour each second separately, because even this moment on her bicycle will soon be an unreal filament of a cloud that has passed.
Wind cuts through to her skin. The pine tree breaks do nothing. When shies happy she can take any degree of darkness or chill, to make up for those occasional mornings when she can't bear the day's sad air.
She reaches the small glade of pine and gum trees at the edge of a paddock a quarter-mile from the river. The town lies a mile behind her to the south, spread across the valley, farms continuing up the far hill, where now a few windows sputter kerosene and candlelight. She drops her bicycle into the ditch, crouches down and slides through the barbed wire fence into the grassy field. She steps over cow pats, feels the vibrations of the roos scattering nearby, the twigs cracking under their paws. Bits of leaf and wet grass stick to the toes of her boots. She dangles the lamp, scouring the paddock for the flesh and cream caps that sprout after a bout of wet weather.
Last night's film stays with her, like a dream. The flickering images, the violence of things, something she feels she has witnessed for the first time, about the world, about love. Something stays with her. An excitement. Bette Davis's wide, wild eyes.
She gathers the mushrooms quickly, filing a cotton bag, touching the wet spongy heads, inhales a lungful of them, already mixed with butter. Remembers the time she and her mother filled an open umbrella with fat fungi; carrying home as much as the paddock offered.
Esme, in her eighteenth year, wears none of the disguises of youth; she appears neither older nor younger than she is - perhaps younger when barefoot, or when her unpowdered skin reveals a splattering of freckles and the birthmark, which nobody fails to comment on, pressed into her left cheek. ‘Marked by a cupid, eh?' Her unique insignia, a pale milk chocolate heart, precise as if painted. And although she has not been perfectly formed - her pelvis is flatter and broader than she would like, with cello hips beneath small breasts — she feels she's been marked for something special, and that is more than most can say. She has a sense that if she fossicked inside the white bone cage of her ribs, her excavations would turn up rubies. As now, riding home, full bag jouncing against her hip, in a mist of rain, she sees in the road's mud puddles the shine and shape of opals.
Her house is still sleeping - letting off a cloud of steam, it seems - like damp clothes hanging by a fire. It is weatherboard clad with a hipped roof of corrugated iron, five rooms and a verandah, enclosed on one side for the laundry and bathroom, the loo down the back garden. Inside, one long corridor makes a spine for the house, then two bedrooms, one of which Esme shares with her younger sister Pictoria, and a living room, often unlived in, for it is this warm, yellow kitchen the family inhabits. Esme checks the fire in the fuel stove, puts the kettle on, and gets to work, slicing through the mushrooms' feathery gills, melting a pat of butter until it browns, adding the mushrooms to cuts of fat-edged bacon.
Lets the kettle scream.
Pictoria - Grandma Victoria altered just enough to reflect the infant's supposed beauty, though the family call her Sook - too antsy to sleep through anything that resembles excitement, or tragedy, or even just the high-pitched keening of a copper kettle crying for tea, is up first. As she should be.
‘I've already done it all,' Esme announces crossly, when secretly she is pleased to be seen as the most dedicated, the most loving daughter of the two.
Pictoria shrugs, sucks her front teeth. She picks a sweet, shrunken cap from the pan and manages to slip it between her lips before Esme slaps her hand.
‘I see in addition to your other charms you have that insolence generated by an inferior upbringing,' Esme says, playing Hepburn, if rather badly.
‘Evidently you're a very amusing person,' Pictoria replies, playing Hepburn back, only much more convincingly. She counts out four silver-plated knives and forks in need of a polish. ‘Bread?'
‘You said you'd make scones. It's too late now. There's a bit of that damper.'
Pictoria seizes her sister around the waist, leans her back across the table with a flourish, and plants a kiss on Esme's small, dry lips, then puts on a voice breathy with unexpected rapture. ‘Oh, Pres! In a lady's bedroom! Now you'll have to marry me.'
Esme pushes her off. ‘C'mon, help.'
But Pictoria squints her eyes, puckers her lips as if it will better bring on some approximation of masculinity and Henry Fonda's Southern lilt. ‘Whaddya think I aim to do?' She blocks Esme's passage from the stove to the table. The hot black pan clasped between Esme's hands sputters bacon fat. Pictoria's lids flutter shut, now black-browed Bette once more. ‘Then kiss me again.'
Pictoria, at thirteen, already taller by a head, is handsome, femininely handsome, and aims to wear exactly what all the other girls do, though with her socks occasionally rolled down to give off pink glimpses of her knees. She laughs with her mouth open, likes to yell just to listen to the echo of her own voice across the valley. Esme can often hear her hurling herself down Denison Street with her friends after school; even with a wet mouthful of dumbbells and sherbets there's no mistaking her, clattering and chattering the length of the shops on foot rather than riding her light blue Austral, so that her effect on the town is felt longer.
Pictoria leaves an after-burn on the street, a sharp sun halo.
When she's angry she breaks things, favourite things, then brings Esme small tokens of appeasement: a bird's nest, a half-used lipstick, a sulphur-crested cockatoo feather, a chocolate tied up in waxed paper with red-lipped kisses plated across the folds.