These are emperor months, when the night holds sway and daylight is carved grimly from the cracks; we have left the gods behind and hunger for the blooming of numbers. Depression is a species of claustrophobia; there are daggers in the long alleys, there are pits. We long for the easy unravelling of hours on long summer evenings, then wonder how time has passed so quickly in the darkness: where are these hours we have spent housebound, in all of the elsewhere we can summon? Who was it that discovered the months in winter, who exposed this spread of fortune and misfortune that tallies up and down through the year?
Our calendar suggests that Fridays may be auspicious days for dinners, particularly when they fall like the ghosts of leaves on the tenth or twenty-ninth of these dour months. Images in the margins: flames reflected in dangled glasses, eyes skimming the wine, warm meetings across the table, overflowing. There are those who decry Fridays; and sadness did strangle the hours last night when we were welcomed by Laurie and Martha in their new house, built from earth and its dry beard, the wide wooden table littered with plates of curries and sauces. The fire crackling into dust and beating back the cold drafts pressing at thin clefts. I didn’t feel at home. This was not the damp Federation ruin we had shared and I didn’t know their neighbourly intruders.
Earlier this morning I had scrabbled in the dark for a fresh shirt below the carvings I’ve been shaping in the night, hunched in bed, abandoning a wren for a blackwood flathead, the flathead for a king billy telephone, leaning on one side in the wavering head-torch beam, trying to spill the shavings off the bed’s deck. Saturdays are for letting go, and so on Saturdays I follow the slope to the rivulet at the bottom of our patch and let the realised pieces float east, rafts bobbing into branches and rocks, over the gentle weirs. Sundays are a time of transition, of movement from one state to the next, when we run after the meaning we have hurled away and listen to the roar of the looming weekdays when I take my lunch to share with the seagulls by the river and search for drifting wood.
‘Today?’ Sally asks, emerging gingerly from the bedroom. I check the cup for cool dregs and set the kettle on its run. ‘What are you thinking? It’s Saturday. The eighteenth? I’m forgetting the significance. Are you going to the creek?’
‘I’m still asleep,’ I say. ‘There’s nothing done. I’d be dropping sticks in the water. There’d be a race.’
‘You say race,’ she says.
‘One after the other,’ I reply.
‘It’s just’—she goes to the toilet, leaves the door open—‘well there’s what Laurie and Martha said. You were there. Yes, I know you were somewhere else.’
My cup has emptied itself. I pull out from the couch and pat at the kettle, searching for the switch, checking for the weather. The water begins to purr. I let my hand rest against the steel till the heat evaporates my fingers. ‘What, what were you saying? What do they want again?’
The toilet flushes and she joins me in the kitchen. The room is suddenly warmer and I think to retrieve another cup from the draining rack. Sally fusses around me, organising the tea and smelling the milk that I have left on the bench. ‘It’s fine,’ I say, ‘it’s colder than the fridge.’ She smells the milk again and manages the water into cups. ‘They were talking about the game,’ she says. ‘The game, what am I saying? They said they’d call by and see how we’re feeling.’
The smell of saturated tea. Perhaps the smell of steam. I nod. ‘Maybe, see how we go.’
As the morning wanes I itch for hollowness. There is no weeding to be done and the bins are empty. The sandstone rocks lie at the bottom of the garden and I consider carrying them back up the slope. Even as I hold the first flat weight in my heavy hands, I remember the old Greek allusion and let it fall. I carry late drafts of carved apples, nectarines and teapots down to the water, holding them awkwardly in skewed arms as though they’re about to spill. I pull at my hair with pliers, slash at it with knives. Later in the day Sally will square the messy strands.
The smell of smoke pools down the valley. The longer, uneven and extended call of a currawong. I wander back inside and idle from place to place, following electronic whims. When footsteps slap the concrete I jump from my chair and grab a green and brown scarf.
‘You want to go?’ Sally asks from the counter. She is stirring flour into a fresh sourdough.
‘I don’t know,’ I reply, fingering the wool, wrapping it tightly, too tightly around my neck.
A snare drum bangs on the flyscreen door. Sally throws the wooden spoon into the sink. ‘C’mon,’ she says, ‘get up.’
Laurie and Martha always keep their Saturdays free, but this is my first for the year. We are gathered in the weak forest spread along the mountain’s foothills, dressed in scarves and beanies, hundreds of people hidden in the trees, some standing, others sitting, and for just a few minutes we barrack for the forest as loudly as we can. We release our voices like souls and feed them to the trees that are struggling in the grey mornings, the low, half-hearted sun. These evergreen shrubs retain their winter modesty, but they have slowed and tired in the cold; it is hard to rise, to get up, and so we scream at the myrtles, come on! We call out to the sassafras, keep at it! Fear that their roots should shrink from touching the dense, cold soil, fear that the trees should faint their hearts against the sleeping forest floor, branches all blended and cracked. Are we sublimating our encouragement, a crowd cheering itself on, mouths become ears? Are we galvanising our tempers, letting go of the moods that winter pours down on us?
We do not thrust our faces against opponents; there are no rival supporters emblazoned with the red of flames or the yellow of chainsaws. This is not a protest; we are done with ordinary allegory. We warm with our voices, we press forward together.
Most of the supporters are drifting off; while some arrive late, the crowd is diminishing, a sink emptying as the taps run on. ‘You should come more often,’ says Laurie, his dark eyes open and evaluating, ‘it’s good for you.’ Martha shivers, draws closer to her partner, blanketed by his body. ‘They … we can use your voice,’ he continues.
‘I don’t know,’ I say. ‘It’s good, but I repeat it and I lose it.’ Sally puts her hand on my shoulder. ‘Tim feels he gives his best when he gives rarely,’ she explains, and Laurie nods and looks away, disentangling himself from Martha’s arms and pretending to work at a shoelace. He scratches his back. ‘That’s fine,’ he says, ‘it’s up to you, of course.’
An older woman slung with blue crocheted blankets shuffles into camp and begins her support. I watch her body shudder as her voice drills through the trees. ‘Sometimes’, I say, ‘I like to go down to the salt-plains’—and then I notice Martha is mentioning the drizzle. Laurie has turned to focus on what I am saying, but I wait awkwardly, and Sally lets the lull continue before turning to Martha. ‘Yes, it is getting heavier, I think, it’s probably time to’—she also stops, distracted. Then calls uncertainly to a middle-aged man who has picked up his backpack and begun to press down the hill, the understorey brushing his knees. ‘Aaron? Aaron, yes? We met the other day, at the lunch down at the museum?’
Half-continuing through the dark scrub, the man turns, his careful voice searching out confidence. ‘Sandra?’
‘Sally,’ she corrects him.
‘Sally,’ he says. He walks across, bends in close, hand on her shoulder and pecking her cheek. ‘Good to see you again.’ Looks at our faces. ‘Hi,’ he says, ‘Aaron.’
We nod, introduce ourselves, stumbling over the order and pointing with our fingers, raising our hands. ‘How’s it going?’ Laurie offers, ‘have a good yell?’
Aaron lets his pack drift back down his fingertips and onto the ground. ‘Well, I gave it a go. I’ve not been before and wasn’t in the spirit I don’t reckon. I think I get it, but you know.’
Laurie nods for all of us. ‘Yes, mate,’ he says, ‘we’ve been coming for years now and Martha’—we all turn to Martha—‘still feels pretty strange, especially the first few times every season.’ Martha says nothing. She smiles at this new figure and then her face is flat.
‘Hard to keep it up,’ I contribute. ‘So you know Sally? There was lunch?’
Aaron nods, ‘Yes, what, we’re negotiating a contract attached to the museum development. I’m the government. How about you?’
I’m not sure what this question is directed towards, and I repeat my name, while Laurie explains about his small business restoring and building cast-iron implements. ‘Our house is full of camp ovens,’ he says. ‘The shed’s full of rust. Fire’s always going.’
‘Love a fire,’ says Aaron, ‘and speaking of which, this rain’s something shocking.’ The lengths of water are densely packed and the downpour can be heard above the rush of the streaming rivulet. ‘My place is just on the other side of the hill, down by the creek. Want to drop by for a cuppa on the way?’
For no good reason, I had been looking forward to going home and I see Martha tug on Laurie’s sleeve, her eyes searching out his, and he is about to say how great it sounds when Sally accepts and they are talking about the valley, the owls screeching in the night. I wait too long to counter and to be fair, the cold air and shouting has emptied some of my anxiety. As we follow Aaron down an open lead to the dryer sclerophyll forest, the simple idea of warmth summons feelings of friendliness. We link up with an ochre-coloured fire-trail covered in stumbling stones, then come out on the main road at a locked gate that I recognise from cycling downhill. The bitumen under our feet is suddenly loud and certain, and light conversation dries up. We are all business, directed down the row of houses. A four-wheel-drive with its headlights on pours down the road, a disturbing noise, and we give it a wide berth as the puddles leap towards us.
Aaron’s place is a single-storey weatherboard sunk into the moist grass. ‘Can keep your shoes on,’ he says, ‘we don’t worry.’ As he opens the door we recognise the spill of heat from the coals, and following Aaron’s quick directions, we hurry to the fire and lean back into it, revelling in the warmth creeping up our legs, balancing against our downturned palms. A kettle clicks in the kitchen and we think to remove our coats, which I gather together to drop in the hall near the door. Better, there are hangers, and I arrange the jackets methodically and watch as they drip in singular pools. Voices in the living room, the kettle breathing louder. The coats mingling, the puddles joining their bodies. I reach down and trace the water from one to the next with my finger. It forms a shape on the wood, a smear resolving itself into a cloud or a bush or a stone. A quoll, perhaps. I haven’t done a quoll. I nod to myself and start back towards the living room. There is an open door on my left, a door that I’d rushed past earlier in the race towards the heat, but now I see a bed, unmade, a small desk and chair. Above them a shelf holding a series of familiar faces.
A coincidence, I think at first. So he works too. And then I step over the door’s threshold, blind to considerations of privacy as I realise the resemblance is too clear. Every night above his sleeping body, every morning as he rises in the early dark: there sit my carvings, my birds and my devils and my orchids. What else has he gathered of mine? The eighteenth, I think, what is the meaning of the eighteenth? Could that be what prompted him to join us in the understorey pushing up the trees?
A voice from the door. Aaron is holding two cups of tea, one stretched slightly towards me. ‘There’s a couple of bushes edging the rivulet down below,’ he says, ‘every year we get a dam growing up round them until a strong rain blasts it out. Filters out everything. Mostly just rubbish and a load more sticks like the rivulet has turned hydro. Or badger,’ he laughs. ‘Didn’t they used to call wombats badgers?’
I reach out and pick up an old axe that I had carved on an ironic Tuesday evening. In the living room, Laurie is telling a loud story, and everyone laughs. ‘Where’s Tim got to?’ Sally wonders.
‘Anyway, yeah,’ Aaron says, gesturing awkwardly, the mugs in both hands. ‘Every week one turns up. There was a backlog. I found five or six, like when the chooks come back on the lay, but then I worked out the rhythm and every Saturday I go down to check. It’s a gift,’ he says, ‘I take it as a gift from the forest. That’s why I went up this morning. Time to give something back.’
I hold the axe tightly, think of gathering everything together and throwing them back in the rivulet, pushing against my rival and upending the hot tea against his shirt, but I say nothing and do nothing but finger the edge of the blade. It was all still here, waiting for me. And now it seems I have also gathered this man.
‘Anyway,’ says Aaron, ‘here’s your cuppa. And look,’ he continues, a little awkwardly, ‘you can take one if you like. They’re not really mine, but I like the idea. Can imagine them growing in spring, sprouting like the live wood. Course I know that’s stupid. But have the axe,’ he repeats, just as I return it to the shelf.
‘Sorry, mate,’ I say, shaking my head, ‘it’s Saturday.’ I squeeze past him and as Sally appears in the hall, I grab my coat from the hanger, the remaining droplets leaping to the ground as I open the door and hurry uphill through the rain.