Three graves by a rising moon, white hot in the sinking sun.
The freckled moon won’t weep today,
He cracks a crescent smile and Nan says it means the rain will pour out of him.
It’s too fucking humid for that,
Like shrines, with solar lights, the sentinel bodies lie,
While fake roses yearn for heaven
And the bleaching wash of a lemon sun.
MY HOME TOWN HAS THE SOFTNESS, the stillness and the coldness of the freshly dead. The aroma of death lingers to the west of the main drag, not of rotting corpses stacked to the rafters, but of candles and shrines relentlessly burning, and widows drinking cheap rum. I return quarterly, with city grit against my teeth, to my mother, perched on a wooden bench and waving eagerly. I returned at Easter, to her and Nan in a concert of flurrying hands that grabbed my bags, grabbed my hand, grabbed me, and clutched me in the crooks of their arms as we watched Home and Away in the evening. I’d asked them weeks earlier if they’d speak to me about Aunty. My nan held me close as we perched by what is now a grass-fired field of melting candles. My mother mouthed, ‘Not now.’ A lazy drizzle of wax burned the inside of my elbow as it dripped from the mound below the portrait of my deceased aunty. She was the cork that burst and let loose the latest wave of death stench. We did not yet know if it was flammable.
Every morning my nan’s gnarled hands light the waxy, dripping stubs that line her home. All of the candles have burned her once or twice; now her hands are liver-spotted, blistered and leaking with watery pus. In December last year she scoured the Reject Shop, wringing my right hand and my mother’s left hand trying to decide which scented candle would represent her sister. My pop was chocolate. Another aunt’s candle (she was murdered in my youth), had a cheap lavender scent.
Aunty always smelled like shit to me, but Nan decided on aniseed. Aunty had been dead her whole life, but by some cruel fate she remained animated for sixty years. All my cousins and I really knew about her was that she was completely humourless. Her whole being drooped, save the one fold beside her mouth that twisted upwards when she played the pokies. She was endlessly dying, it was her niche, her party trick, and at every family gathering she loomed as a present and haunting reminder of the temporality of our flesh. Caz, the step-daughter of Aunty’s son, and I cared little for her or her husband, my uncle. Caz called me at the start of December from her new city home and said, ‘Ay, are you at home?’
‘Yeah, well, nah, I’m in the city still.’
‘Oh, ha, yeah, that’s what I meant, but like, you … you’re in your apartment?’
News of a death doesn’t bring the plummet in the stomach any longer, and when a woman like Caz, for whom all kinds of talk are performed with the same ease and necessity as drawing breath, begins a call with stuttering, there is little doubt about how it will end. ‘So, youse aunty died.’
They dug him a metre deeper
And they put a blank slate beside his picture
Where Nan waits, cleaning the rock with sugar soap
To join him in the ground.
He had a summer funeral and we all wore short skirts
And I could hear him whisper ‘Ira skanks’ as the ribbons wound him down. And when little cousin Courtney put a soft-serve on his coffin
Nan hissed through her tears
‘He’s lactose intolerant, you cunt of a thing!’
I kiss his picture and hope wherever he is now
That he doesn’t shit himself for days
When he eats a square of cheese.
So Caz and I boarded the plane, lulled by expectations of ordinariness, my nervous hands gripping the armrest, Caz adjusting her Louis Vuitton bags (fake, not that anyone in my home town could tell). There was no foreboding drum, no anything, just me with a pad in my knickers in case I pissed myself from the terror of the turbulence, Caz fearing me screaming on the plane and making a scene. But the terrifying lurch into the sky never came because as we taxied towards the runway, the propeller engine on our tiny vessel burst into flame. I screamed and made a scene. Caz rang our mothers to tell them there was no way we would make the funeral. The air hostess clucked disapprovingly at Caz, who, being a creature of conspiracy theories and anti-authoritarianism, never switched off her phone on planes. ‘Yeah, look, we’re not going to make it.’ (To the hostess: ‘Back off, cunt, I’ll be off it soon.’) ‘Yeah. Look, tell Dad I’ll get there. I—no, there’s nothing we can really do on this end. W … oh, okay. I’ll put her on.’ Caz put the phone speaker to my ear as we gathered our bags, bundled off the plane and retreated to the lounge. ‘Girl, you got to get here soon or youse’ll never get to say goodbye.’ Caz chuckled as she tucked the phone into her breast. `That bitch never even said hello.’
On Easter Sunday, visiting for the first time since Aunty died, while the wax on my nan’s home grew opaque in the cold wheat breeze that carried the calls of auctioneers and pained cattle from the saleyards, my mother, Nan and I brought cheap plastic flowers from the cupboard and crammed ourselves into Nan’s car, cluttered with brooms, mops and buckets. The graves stand stoutly, broad, deeply covered with ornaments. A grave from our family is identifiable due to its lavishness, compared with other country graves. Nan had installed a lattice framework upon each to support the weight of fading fake lilies, bears and clay angel sculptures. As Nan tidied the grave, she began idly telling us about the many fake flowers she dispensed weekly at the cemetery, now that the new graves are dug eerily, too frequently. In clusters or alone, they keep coming, three suicides in a week, at least one stroke every month.
I had come to hear their stories, ready to take notes and ask questions, a journalist in my own life. My mother indicated that I should listen and not speak.
Crouched and small by the grave, my mother couldn’t talk when I held a notepad in my hand, and when I asked to record her instead, she didn’t say no, but her lips drew tight and thin and her voice withdrew into her throat. She could only utter a few words, and later, when I played back the recording, even those few words were just breaths punctuating the sounds of a magpie’s call to her chick and a road train sighing down the nearby road. I’ve lost some of the memories of this moment since then, but I do remember watching as Nan scraped the sugar soap achingly over a his-and-hers headstone. For a while both she and my mother were silent. The chimes hanging from a cousin’s grave just two plots away chittered in the breeze. My mother said, ‘When I was young we lived by the river and the women cooked the food and the men beat the women.’ Nan paused for a moment, and then added, ‘And youse are not by the river no more, but it’ll stay the same. Youse gotta live and fight for youse kids. Cos they’ll beat us. Beat us till they’re in the ground, and they get to rest. But we go into the ground and we’s still cooking. We’ll just cook these fucking cunts of weeds now. Look at ’em. Fucking everywhere.’ Then we drove silently the whole way back to the cottage-cum-crypt.
No-one would speak of Aunty the cork, or the slew of adult, senior and child graves freshly dug in her wake just metres away, though they hung heavy in the air, rich with bitumen dust. It was undoubtedly flammable. Later, my mother, bored and cold, asked me and my sisters to sift through the archives under her bed, to look for pictures of the good times. They were pictures of all the twentyyear-olds we had known, photos taken fifteen years ago. We could count the still-alive people in these photographs on one hand.
The narrative of Aunty the Aggressor died with her, but so did our hopes of an apology. At the viewing we saw Aunty the Victim, almost a skeleton, pale in the heat and under the glare of so much attention. But she still burned a hole through all who touched her bloodless face as they passed by. Caz and I had not been at the viewing. Instead we sat at the airport, gripping our breakfast vouchers as the miniscule leaking plane was led out of our sight. Our conversation was terse and honest. The last memory of Aunty that we shared was of her at a barbecue, screaming at our cousin Joe, for chucking doughies in the yard and shitting her pants. In the airport, shrouded by city dwellers, we openly expressed our derision of her. It was no secret that Aunty was a contemptuous, selfish cunt. It was no secret that we ought not blame her. It was a secret that we all did. There were other things that were secrets from us. It was a secret that she had stayed the abusive hand of her husband and made an accidental revolutionary feminist of herself. If she had known the impact of what she had done and how much we who came afterwards owed her, maybe she would have thrown tantrums at barbecues more often, knowing we would have to let her get away with anything.
When I was young, as when my mother was young, we lived by the river and the women cooked the food and the men beat the women. And then one day we all lived by the river and a man killed a woman in front of us all and the smell of her guts never left the tree that they spilt against. So my aunty took a wrench to Uncle’s head next time he hit her and he never touched her again and Pop never touched Nan again and then on his death bed he said he was sorry, to a whole room of people, sorry he beat her and how glad he was that she didn’t leave and she just patted his hand and said ‘Sure. Sure. Sure.’ And he died unforgiven but with a death rattle that sounded of relief and the guilt left his body with the last of the hot blood in his balled fists. But still, Aunty locked the food in the cupboards and sent her son to school without shoes and gave steaks to her greyhounds to make them run faster and lashings and stale damper to her children to make them run faster. Neither Caz nor I ever saw Aunty beat Uncle, but Caz’s eyes grew warm when she spoke of it and her fingers curled around the ticket. I applied red lipstick over and over again and recalled the red, chipped polish on my nan’s fingers as she patted my pop’s coffin, in part with love, part with pity, part with bitterness, as Aunty looked on, bitter and dead, yet still animated, Uncle’s hand on her shoulder. My lipstick was the same red as the air hostess’s skirt as she placed a hand on Caz’s shoulder and escorted us to the replacement plane.
Great Nan and Pop
The ground has sunk a couple of centimetres since they were put down there And Uncle tripped over, twisted his ankle and tried to sue
A couple deep in sleep in boxes
Who can’t even brush their fingers together
Hers black from a catastrophic stroke
His gnarled from a life of slitting cows’ throats
And when we come to see their grave Mum makes me pick off my nail polish Or clasp my hands behind my back so Great Nan don’t think I’m sassing her
or her black-fingered passing.
You can trace the bike tracks around the grave.
They weave around town and track dirt from her grave to the lives she touched Who come here to mourn the strength of a woman
Whose home brew landed us in hospital
Whose cheese started an outbreak of listeria
Who would tickle me until I pissed myself
And offer me one of her adult diapers
Caz drove far over the speed limit on the open road from the two-plane airport, frantically texting while I nervously watched the speedometer. We had estimated that we could get there in maybe thirty minutes at this speed, and air in the rental car grew thick with her cigarette smoke. She tore down the no-smoking air-freshener when I directed a nervous eye to it. We travelled on. The text messages from our parents stopped. Caz accelerated. It took twenty minutes. We ran a red light at an abandoned roadworks and overtook on a bend just metres in front of an oncoming road train. When we finally wedged the hatchback between two HiLux snorkelled utes at the cemetery and emerged from the vehicle, Caz abandoned her heels and launched into a sprint. We were too late, of course. The casket had already been half-lowered into the grave by a nexus of whirring gears and red ropes. Lily petals hit the air twenty-five metres in front of us, fluttering off into the adjacent wheatfield. It was then that I noticed the fray by the grave pit and the small throng of people who had gathered to howl down into the ground in indignation.
A hand rose from a grave, veiny and desperate, tossing aside the flowers on Aunty’s casket. Pockmarked, thin and worn, a distant cousin’s head emerged from the cavernous grave. She was perched upon the coffin, trying to jimmy her way through the box to Aunty, screaming until the tendons in her throat pulled tight, animalistic and shrill. Three ambulances lined the path that separated the bulk of the old cemetery from the new, scattered plots where Aunty lay. One ambulance was for a relative who had twisted her ankle in an affray between two cousins; another had been called for Uncle, Aunty’s husband, who had wept with such intensity as the coffin was lowered that he had fainted; and the third was loading a screaming young woman with a bulging stomach. My cousin, Kira, was giving birth, and her broken waters had deluged thickly into the grave pit, catalysing a small familial riot as relatives struggled to save the corpse from this particular indignity. Caz’s sister approached us gleefully, a humid summer sheen on her face. ‘You guys are not going to fuckin’ believe what youse missed out on. It’s a fuckin’ disaster. Reckon the ambos are gonna call the cops.’ No-one bothered with the cousin in the grave, though a small group stayed to eat funeral chips and dip and to make sure she didn’t leap away into the fields with Aunty’s corpse in tow.
Eventually the funeral party found its way to my nan’s home, from where, if you crane your head to the south-west from the bathroom window, there is a neat line of sight between the trees down to the smattering of graves. In the garden the mourners chopped up Nan’s favourite wooden bench, lit a barrel fire and a barbecue, and feasted. My nan had wedged herself in the loo by the window for two hours, two dogs at her feet, pants down, blankly tracing the gauze on the south-west-facing window with her finger, when my mother and I entered to ask her about the beef sausages. My mother placed one palm on Nan’s scalp. ‘Let’s go get some candles, eh?’ Nan mutely rose from the toilet seat and shuffled towards the sink, sans pants. My mother dressed her to the beat of a cousin’s subwoofer. Nan held our hands until they were soaked with sweat as we stood in the Reject Shop, watching her sniff candle after candle until she’d decided, and then to the register, into the car again, back to the party and then away from the party and to the kitchen for a cup of tea, which is when the sobs began.
I looked at Nan, waiting for the next candle, the next stuttered phone call. The town was dying of And without one of its matriarchs, it would die off all the faster. Nan was aware of it coming. She had been waiting for it. My mother gritted her teeth and denied it. And I’m watching my mother watch her mother die, as generations have done before me. The three women in that tiny cramped kitchen that smelled like dog shit and aniseed could not escape the gravity of this knowledge, though it was soft and odourless, like the wheatfield breeze that carried from a local cemetery. We listened to the howling of my nan’s dogs as cousin after cousin arrived with beer and goon and got trashed in Aunty’s memory.
At night, when I get up to piss and Nan’s two dogs howl at my ankles, I peer through the trees. Solar lamps, fairy lights, the luminescence of a glow-in-thedark dolphin statuette. To die in my hometown is a novelty, forgotten in a day. It is normalised. It is celebrated. It is kitsch and it is without dignity. They drop dead with such alarming frequency that the throats of mourners are too thin and worn out to howl any more. So they observe their mourning in two silk flowers per month, a lit candle each day until their own death, and a drunken obituary at a family barbecue once a year.
This daily instalment of sadness dampens the eruption of grief at a new death each week, it allows mourners to chuckle at the sight of three ambulances at a funeral and a cousin tearing at the casket. It is the accumulative mourning that leaves its hot stench in the air, air that rings with the shrill wail of a child who has stumbled upon another suicide, the twentieth since Aunty’s death. It is a collective depression, a symptom of the deeper anarchic desperation. It is a stench that sticks to your clothing after you leave, and those who brush against you can feel it, greasy and scalding, tingling in the hairs of their upper lip. Terminal Aboriginality will hit my nan at sixty, my mother at forty, me today, and my home town forever more. It endures, horizonless and cruelly hilarious.
There is no dirt in the town
Sufficient to hold her body down
Always floating toward the ceiling
In celestial white hospital sheets for fifteen years, floating In an ocean of her own filth
The grass won’t grow over the road base they used instead
And even the white stencilled cross makes you wither at her scowl
Her forget-me-not fake lilies like a preschool flower arrangement
Howl ‘Don’t you fuckin’ forget me or forget to feed my dog!’
(And how could we forget when her son recorded the funeral
And tagged me in it on Facebook.)
When her husband collapsed with grief and the ambulance came
And cousin Kira started having contractions.
And two days later, when the lemon sun began to melt her grave’s tar
I received a photo of her first great-grandchild
Swaddled in an orange blanket, black, his scalp white like the crescent moon.