Seamus once and his mittened cat of Mairead’s second litter: Thomas à Beckett or Beckett or Thompson or Tom. Unlike other housecats inclined to their wry and lissom dignities of the favourite shelf or chairback, Tom à Beckett lay languidly on the coffeetable or beneath it with the dogs like Christ among taxcollectors, his pharaonic chin aloft the ceilingward flank of Baudet the germanshepherd Harriet first fetched home in a box. Tom was a prophet in his own land, but entered the room with a single vespertine miaow and pilgrimmed the occupants of the room where his family had lived:
→Mother her seat the lounge piano end
←Esther the pianostool songly or silent
→Harriet standing or reclinant sunroom lintel
→Morgan in brood the pinebookcase
→Seamus the loungefoot compendium affront
←Jeremiah coffeetable nethen eyeswide adream
→Father loungechair hearthfarthest his cups pendant
→Morgan anuzzle her leeward knee
←Mother softly her ankle
←Seamus his lap or compendium couchant
And the one evening when Seamus was on churchmission selling, as Father said, sand to the Arabs Jeremiah rode his bike home from Nick’s late as Mother would allow eightthirty seldom nine along the ridgeneck where the road was cool and quiet and the cool quiet streets wound ribbons of blue and white moon. Quiet but for possums askitter in the wet branches of scribblygum and floodgum and the rosesoft rosebloody flanks of rosegum that breathed on the chapeling road where Tom lay dead in his ruin.
The rainsilks of the road were quiet and quiet the rustle of the leaves in the distance of an uninterrupted desert of event or happenstance or the ending of a life. He tilted his bike on the overgrown kerb, and observed for measure of stillness the stilled body, and its sideways lolling face. His schoolshoes tolled the steps between the curb and the childcat’s body. His eyelids thumbed mostly shut by impact, just ajar over the dull sliver of sickly amber visible in the slack recession of an eye-socket. A crescent of pinksoft tongue crookedly protruded the misshapen jaw, and in the little cage of his sixmonths something lay far awry—o little ruined world.
Jeremiah knelt in the roadswathe of the seabed, where the lifebody lay among languidly drifting fronds of bullkelp, among which wraithful hands and fingers driftily distended the faraway moonward mourning light to touch and untouch the white and russet, tigerbright fur. Laid him down the wet roadbed neckdeep in a moon, streetlamp crissed and crossed his cheek to the stillwarm roadpress. Rain and blood or the place where blood had been washed away by rain. Seabed, roadbed, kelp crucifix. A resting place, final. His eyes were closed and closed the seachest its lockshackle crusting with verdigris, knobbled and gnarled like the bones of an old man’s hand. These pearls that were, these cries of gulls forget forget. He reached his boy’s hand across the black wet road in the imitation of a life, and touched with his fingertip the soft wet skin of the animalbody’s neck, as he would when. What did he see feel think suffer? A whorl of panic? Exquisite electric in speed like all cat. Mere interruption.
The business of a night, the gardens to pad, the leaves to twitch. Little lifeward boy I have known the cusp of the life you claimed. Lifeward kitten turn the narrowing spiral, the closing of an iris its verticil petals their minutes and inflorescent days infolding back the gravid stem, the sense itself unsensing. I have known the leaf the root the paw pitter patt thus and thusly the heavencrossed vinyl floor. Each blue skied gap in the green wading grass I stalk I leap and quiverquick clutch the summersong loud. That night and this I curl the ankles whom I will to share the houserooms many where blindmewling we gave you cling fumbled out into the folded old catblankets in the apple-box on your roomfloor, world, as mother howlhowled life high I breathe it breathes you breathe suck and nestle the lacteal drops of the world breathe and breathe no more howl, howl. Sense unsense I utter the little language of a life, lastlight’s callous unswerving is this not too love, blank onrush I rush? Little lightrush, fading. Pity and terror and pity. Brief birdcage love delight no more little brother we’ll wear one death.
Among the brittle constellation of solitaries that live the cat was dead and the callous second of his end spun a horizon upon which the jaws of his thought would not close—the stars winked each and died, and died. But neither was his death here, in the apprehensible arcs of the present still pressing the warmslick road. The death glimpse in the green shale eyes of the kitten had sprung elsewhere, from another, total elsewhere that lay occluded in the ineluctable parallax of the living instant, the living heart’s long companion consummated an abyss the helplessness of which defied concepts—whither art thou sprung truepenny.
Was that so? The mute perdurance of the bruiseblack clouds seemed that it was. The pitstars that shone in the press of their pilgrimly robes agreed with the wind that sighed the elliptic waxen leaves of the eucalypts that bristled the crooked ridges of this pitiable place. He rolled from his back to his side, and regarded the body regarding him. He laid his one palm on the ribside of his own body, felt upon the uncanny knocking that persisted therein, and then laid his other hand palmflat upon the pierced side of the catmartyr. Who’s there? Stirs no lingered plaint? He was dead, though, and nothing anywhere to do, so kneeling he removed his jacket and gently cered the ragged vessel in its cloth, and cradled him thus back to the kerb, and thence along the dewy footpath wending homelily to home. As he walked with it the limply unkit form of the life that’s gone spooled thisward and that, its every ravel a lack of breath, a signature of its absence, its unbreath. Walking as he went he observed along the boundary of his nerves a diminishment of particularities visible and not, these autumn leaves this mottled riverbed of barkflank, this the house the stars, the world faroff.
What now to ascend the chipped baked terracotta tiles where algae clings the grout to enter what house so appallingly mortal. And far off in the shoal of unspent time an image or glimpse of himself leathered sorrows, greeneyed and auburngreyed from the creedless covenant of pity this cup of words and flint was raising to his lip, gone too far come back kyrieeleisonchristieeleison home home where breath breathes there.
He opened his eyes upon the mothsputtering amber light of the porchlamp that descended the peppertree’s dangling vertebrae. The front windows of the house were dark, and Morgan’s caravan was as dark as it had been for how many years, desert of cds and cigarettes and Morgan.
The lamp lefton held what remained in a cup of yellow light. Father would be, so he carried him round behind the old caravan blanketed in lantana, and ducked his head beneath the extension cord hung between windowmouths. The gatelock was, so carefully he propped the burden between the crooks of shoulder and arm, and then leant down to feel, habbitblind, the boltprop where it planted the divot in the shivered and weed veined concrete. Carefully he fingertipped it up between two fingers and leant the gate back slowly to spare its wakeful scraping.
Trod carefully beneath the eaves of the paintflaked carport past Harriet’s old Beatle and the school’s old tractor where they wait the relics of an abandoned museum used to play, Seamus, millennium falcon prepare the cabin, onto the pale cement of the shaded path, in the shivers of which they cracked the rattling macadamia nuts that dropped in windrows by the roots of the honeygreen tree. You nestled a nut in the ravine of a cementcrack and one two with the ballhammer not the claw. Hear the ripe nut rock tremble in the shell, cupped to the ear like another shell. Auriculate, porches pour therein. Strike too hard and clackshatter shell and kernel both. Gorge, summer wide, landfat. Our piles of strewn shells like heads and bodies, shellcasings. Beneath the honey-locust by the edge of the patio, Babylon, hanging gardens thereof.
In the nightly shade that overlay the garden he looked through the broken sliding door to where his mother made her bed on the catcoloured lounge. She looked asleep—the flameglow did not touch her eyes. But couched in the sheets by one open hand, like an apple in a painting fanned the gaunt pages of her cracked leather King James, utterance of the Lord in red, Christ. His mother’s breast moved or the light moved upon it. He shepherded the arthritic sidedoor and padded down the hall to the loungeroom, where the uneven radiance of the coals relumed the inexorable pities of home. Above the cove of coallight resolves the gnarled planks of the featurewall, the idea of a forest extinct on a cavewall. Around the hearth the yellow grey whorl with scorch, and in the lounge the topography of his mother, her ragged lavender voice sussuring the cracked sides of her face.
—What are you reading? The fire was burning low, once in the blankets loathe to stir. Bed down in diminishing light. Wake in nightwaste to the flare of a single sputter.
—We’re doing Habbakuk again. Though the fig shall not blossom, though the vine grow bare. What?
—Tom. Hit by a car, I think. She properly looked up from the timeworn translucent pages of her Bible and regarded him with unsurprised sorrow.
—I’m sorry, darling. Is he gone?
—I don’t know how long he’d been there.
—Seamus will be heartbroken. The shadows rearranged themselves about her head and shoulders. No, he wanted to say. Seamus’s heart doesn’t break; it sheds its skin.
Crossing the hall towards the room he shared with Seamus he heard the faint strum of the gas as his mother lit the kettle. Further out into the house the sounds of his family followed their circumspect orbits. The door of Esther and Morgan’s room was shut, like that of his parents, where his father’s chthonic breath reverberated. Beneath his feet the faded frescoes of the yellow linoleum familiarly creaked. The half-painted weatherboard walls held arrangements of dust and light and silence as reliable as tidewaters. On the slats of Seamus’s empty bunk the old phosphorescent stars winked before he switched the light. He removed his school clothes and donned jeans and a handmedown jumper. The privetleaves pattered the window.
Mother suggested he not wake the girls either, but fetch the smaller shovel from the carport; do what’s done. She brought two mugs of tea and he lit a gas lantern and sat it sputtering on a milk crate. He planted the shovel in the wet black earth beneath the honeylocust and set his foot upon the blade. It was raining a little, or had been, and Mother came out with an old blanket around her shoulders and sat on the deck to watch the sparse raindrops fall through the edge of the circle of cream lantern light and disappear when they struck the black dirt. They formed a brief aureole of scattered benediction or parted wings about the boy. The animal phenomenon of his needful innocence struck her like a wound, need for something beyond broken glass. Truth, of course, is what should be, but the vale of leviathan bones rung them both about, spectral in his borrowed greengrass eyes, limning them like language, honing its mortal script in the nascent scars forming on his forehead.
When Jeremiah looks up from the hole in the earth he looks from buried time where the dead slumber in their laddered sconces like the creaking bunk-bed he and Seamus share. Down below Seamus would stir in his sleep and the tremor of his dream would reverberate up through the loose bolts and bending slats into Jeremiah’s. He cut it to a rough square, a foot deep, though the sides kept crumbling in. The shovel clinked against little stones, and tore up filaments of root structure. It was probably deep enough. When he had finished digging the grave however, the soft little body of the cat would be placed in it, and the dirt would be rolled over it, and tamped flat with the flat of the spade. He planted the shovel and walked three steps to the faded green plastic, leaf spattered table beneath the honeylocust. He slurps up some lukewarm tea. The inside of the cup’s rim is paler than its outside, and striated with fine lines like little cuts.
—Seamus told me that grandad Ennis used to drown kittens, he said shiverly, crooked, eye-strafing the dark yard of the tree and the night to blunt it.
His mother looked up at him from the step of the patio. In the outer circle of the light from the lamp her face looked as though she had forgotten a piece of glass in her foot. Standing there in the handmedown with the blue stripes, his sandy hair and slender shoulders faintly wet with secondhand rain, her youngest, with a pale yellow leaf stuck to his collar. Wayward and absent and different. Quick eyes, and soft heart, and the way one spared her the other.
—Yes, she said. People did that then. I don’t think he wanted to.
—But he did it.
—Yes. Once or twice, I think.
The thought stalks him. Horror of the act itself, a nauseous dread of soft awful helpless mewling and terrible fragilities beneath the hand. Like looking down over the edge of a cliff and knowing that if you only wanted to you could, or like the memory of cutting his thumb on his penknife. The thought of the edge hurt more than the cut. Branching from the dread of the act itself was the dread of the memory of the act. Because a thing done or said was done and said in time, and so was done and gone. But the man who performs the thing must sit with it in the room where he sits, in the house where he imagines he will live. His hands become those hands. Are these things that people do or think they must do. And then his mind snagged and split and hung both from the dread he couldn’t work the cruel knowledge, and that he must and could. He split there, following both fears like stripped bark on a splintered branch.
Knowledge descended the nightly halfworld and reshaped it. Out in the darkness suburban lintels slanted the earth clutching sullen lights to their breasts. The mineral eyes of men looked out through the prismed reticle of their verges and their walls and their fences, as thinlipped women remembered the battered artefacts of automatic children. Grandad Ennis’s house, its redbrick walls and its burnished parquet floors. Its ubiquitous naphthalene must, and the jaundiced afternoon that dragged its palms over the matching parkerteak furniture and down sepultural corridors. In the wing of dusty light spat by the stormlantern their own house resumed its form in the rotten and paperghostly leaves that were heaped along the corrugations of the sunroof, and the cracked and lichenous panels of its weatherboard, where a dispute of limpid green commemorated the point where Father lost interest.
The walls of the rooms he had grown in spattered and smeared with oil and smoke. The carpets frayed and torn, ancient enough; a Bayeux tapestry, charred black in a corona around the hearth where father severally spilled kero. Beyond flicker’s edge the shadows of trees swayed the carrion of the Camry where it stopped unregistered somewhere in the eighties, picked clean of tyres and windows, spilling its other organs for sport. Behind the body of the car, within throwing distance of the two-roomed aluminium shed squatted the empty weedwarrens of the chicken coop, untenanted since the dogs got in. Empty but for the bottles piled floor to thatch, buried and halfburied in the wilderness between the coop and the backfence. Heaped on heap, like war dead their mouths filled half with dirt, throttled by roots.
That was it, he supposed. Somewhere independently of the kinder words the cup drank the lees and a small imponderable heart beat the unswerving flint of a pointless and solitary end. His little body lonelier in the vast dark world that broke itself for bread. The gravedirt resumed the hole.
—Did grandad Wright ever do it?
—Not that I know of.
—Has dad ever drowned kittens?
She smiled. —He never killed anything he could help killing.
Jonathan Dunk is a critic, poet and PhD candidate at the University of Sydney. He has been shortlisted for the Overland VU fiction prize, and lives on Wangal country.