Up here I am a bird. The wind blows through my feathers when I spread my wings and I am alive. The treetops tip and bow, beckoning me to launch into the wildness, to freedom. But I am only a fledgling; the thought of flight makes me quiver. I nestle into my sheltered perch, the scent of eucalypt swooning me into stillness.
Up here in my tree I can do anything. She can’t stop me. She can’t even see me.
Until the autumn of my fourth year of school I had an average life. My dad mostly off driving trucks, my brother giving me and my mother lip, my friends making up for it all. Then over weeks and months those friends began to drop off like the leaves from the trees. By the end of my sixth year I was down to just one.
Maddy lived out of town and her mum delivered her to our local primary school each day in their dusty or mud-slopped ute. Sometimes it was her dad who drove. Probably the family was too busy with the farm to get involved in the local gossip. Maddy and I spent every recess and lunch break together. She wasn’t around after school or on weekends so she never had reason to visit our house. Until the summer holidays.
Sylwee wash the spuds and don’t bloody leave dirt in the sink—Sylwee get me a beer from the fridge—Sylwee go nick a packet of tampons from the shops. She can’t pronounce my name in her drunken slur.
It’s a 40-something-degree day. I’m leaving the local IGA—a twenty-five-minute walk from our place—with a ten-kilo bag of spuds and four litres of milk. Maddy and her dad pull up out the front in their ute. It’s not their usual place to shop.
‘Hey, Sylvie!’ Maddy slams the ute’s door and dust falls from it like a sprinkle of brown talcum powder.
Maddy’s dad is wearing suit pants with a sweat-soaked long-sleeved shirt. A yellow tie is folded into his top pocket. He nudges the driver’s door closed with his elbow, leaving a dusty mark on his white sleeve.
‘Dad, it’s Sylvie from school.’ Maddy skips over the kerb and comes to stand next to me on the footpath.
‘G’day there. Got far to go with that?’ Maddy’s dad shoots me a smile—spares me the pitying look the other kids’ parents dish out. ‘Give you a lift if you hang on. Just buying smokes.’ He reaches into his pants pocket and brings out a crumpled cigarette packet, holds it up for proof.
I hoist the spud bag onto my hip. ‘Thanks, but nah, it’s not that far.’ Maddy’s dad doesn’t know how much trouble I’d get into for accepting a lift from one of them bloody two-faced shamesters who can shove their pity up their arse.
He says something about the heat and the weight and my arms stretching down to my ankles like they’re made of play dough. Plenty of room on the bench seat for three. Maybe Maddy can play at my place while he goes to the accountant. He marches into the supermarket and Maddy is loading the bag of spuds into the ute before I know it. She slides into the middle and beckons me in.
All the way home my legs burn on the hot vinyl and I wish I could open the window and fly out.
Up here on my perch I am weightless. Nothing to carry except my thoughts; not her guilt and not her bags of bottles down to the dump and don’t let anybody bloody see what you’re doing. I’m out of reach. Up here she can’t blame me for anything. Sometimes my wings glow pure white in the dazzling sunlight. Sometimes I imagine my bird-spirit soaring up out of the canopy that is my true home.
Year seven. Art class. My painting springing to life in vivid acrylics. Details revealing themselves with every brushstroke: the water—roiling, raging, rushing relentlessly to who knows where; his face—owl-eyed. My monochrome memories emerging in full colour—splashing all over the page in blood red, mud brown, vertigo green—everything swirling, churning, converging.
Then Miss Brown’s voice making its way into my consciousness.
I look up to see her standing wedged in the doorway, as though trying to hide something behind her in the corridor. Her lips are moving but I don’t hear the words.
‘Sylvie, I’m talking to you!’
The desperation in her eyes propels me into awareness.
‘Huh?’ When I look around the room, all eyes are on me.
Miss Brown tilts forward then steps back again, like she’s doing some sort of strange dance move. ‘You’ll have to finish that later.’
‘But… my river, Miss.’
‘Pack up your things. No arguing. You can finish it at lunchtime while I eat my sandwiches.’
Miss Brown lurches forward now, like she’s been given a shove, steadies herself, then backs out into the corridor, closing the door with just enough of a gap to stick her head through. ‘Hurry, Sylvie—please!’
Next thing the door flies open and my mother explodes into the room. She sweeps Miss Brown aside and staggers across to the teacher’s table where she tries to sit on the desk chair. She misses, spectacularly. The chair goes careening across the room, almost collecting Miss Brown, and my mother lands on her bum and tips backwards so that her splayed legs shoot up into the air, exposing her private parts in the most public way.
She’s wearing a nightie and one slipper.
Up here it is all light, rippling through the leaves of my nest. Nothing can cast a shadow over me—not even the gloomiest thunder cloud. Even the fear of being struck by lightning high up on my perch thrills into something glorious. Here I am the blazing sun, the full moon—she can’t eclipse me. She can rampage all she likes, slosh her way through every single day, but nothing can siphon the light from my eyes this close to heaven. High up in my tree is all the light I need.
The dream is always the same, but always different: I’m small again, playing in the bath, the soap scent fetching every faltering memory, bringing it back to life. Until the temperature drops and the bath becomes bottomless, morphs into a lake, an ocean, a sucking quagmire. Her arms reaching down from far above, plucking me up out of the water; her eyes swirling whirlpools drawing me in to where it’s safe and warm, to before my birth; her heartbeat singing me a lullaby of pure birdsong.
Then I am on the outside, I’m on her lap. She is stroking my hair, warbling a love song—her voice all softness, her hands the wings of a dove. But when I look up into her eyes they are hollow. I see through them like windows opening onto a laneway shrouded in mist—where a man and a boy are always running away from me.
Up here in the sanctuary of my perch there is no today. I can conjure up yesterday or dream of tomorrow. I can mosey around my imagination for as long as I want without her telling me to bloody well snap out of it. I can unwind the clock and get my mother back. Listen to her rough-and-ready rants that end with her killing herself laughing—before she discovered a slower way to kill herself for real. Or fabricate the future; sneak a glimpse of my fully-formed bird-self, soaring free. Up here I can do as I bloody well like.
She’s dried out for the landlord’s visit, even washed her hair. I’m on the couch looking through the photo album. When she comes into the room and fixes me with a stare I anticipate an earful about me being a bloody useless layabout. But she sits down next to me, leans across for a look. When her wet hair brushes against my shoulder the smell of her shampoo washes over me in a swell of remembering. The page is open at a photo of Dad and Luke and me standing in front of the Luna Park mouth. We are so happy our grins show just as many teeth as the face behind us.
‘I took that.’ She flashes me a small smile and I catch a glimpse of her own teeth, the two front ones chipped from when she tripped up our back steps. ‘You were only five but you loved all them rides. ’Specially the high ones.’
She pauses, momentarily closing her eyes, remembering.
‘You wanted to stay on that one all day.’ She pulls the album across to her own lap and points to the photo of me and Luke with the Ferris wheel in the background. ‘After the ride finished you came running up to me. You were yellin’ out, “I want to be a bird, Mama. I wanna grow wings so I can fly up high whenever I want.” Funny little bugger, you were.’
She turns the page and runs her fingers over a portrait of Dad. She strokes his hair as if he’s come alive in the photo. ‘And that one. I took that one, too. I used to think he looked sexy in that shirt. Showin’ his arm muscles like a weightlifter or somethin’.’
I turn to face her, a smile creeping across my features. ‘Remember how I’d jump up on him, like I was a monkey? And then he’d hoist me up onto his shoulders and run around like an angry bull?’
But the light fades from her eyes, as if my words have flipped a switch somewhere inside her. ‘Yeah.’
She slams the album shut, making me jump. ‘That bloody landlord will be here any minute. You wash them dishes like I told you?’
Days and days of rain. The river a torrent, breaking its bank before our eyes. Four cars parked along our street swept up one by one, bobbing along like corks. Dad taking a video out of the kitchen window. My mother shouting at him that we should leave. I want a better look. Luke says no, stay on the veranda. But I know a tree that’s easy to climb.
Falling, falling. My branch upside down against the leaden sky. An unearthly shriek. Mine? Someone else’s? The shock of impact. A tangle. Hair floating in front of my face, a wafting anemone. Then it’s around my neck, shuttering, smothering. Blond strands whipped this way, that way. Body tumbling over, over. Arms, legs—which are which? Vision a blur of murk. Taste of dirt. Brown water in my mouth, my nose. No control against this force as it crashes my body against logs and rocks, a road sign, deck-chair, wheelbarrow. What else has been sucked into this mauling monster watercourse? Ache for air. Fight the urge to breathe. Flashback to childhood: lungs almost empty, under the warm bathwater, watching bubbles rise to the surface. One more, one more. How much longer? Relentless invisible fists pound from every angle. Tree trunk, table. Ram, clout. An arm reaching out, making contact, tugging my hair. Up, up. All the light. My brother pulling me with all his might. Wrenched away. Disappearing. Darkness.
Up here with my raptor eyes I can see everything. The new levee bank protecting our town. The river winding its way through the willows and gum trees and reconstructed houses—I can follow its course for miles. I can re-imagine. Re-write the story. Pick the spot where I hit the water. And downstream where my brother hurled himself in after me, my father after him. Re-write the ending in a million different ways.
Up here when the wind blows through my feathers I know I am alive. The treetops tip and bow, beckoning me to launch into the wildness, to freedom. The day is coming. I will spread my wings and fly away.
Carole Poustie is a poet and author of children’s and YA books. Her work has appeared in various literary journals including Verandah, Swamp, Page Seventeen and Poetrix. She teaches creative writing and lives in Melbourne.