When he left the country, her father’s bones remained. He packed them in a wooden box decoupaged with butterflies. Brian from Ballarat—nature photographer, only friend left in Australia—was happy to give that secret box a home. Over time, he took the bones from their butterflied hiding place and displayed those private things on his mantelpiece with cabinets of dead moths and blurry photos of the sea. The butterflies peeled from the empty bonebox. Dust took to the cracks in its wood. It stopped being a memory and started being an object, so Brian put it in the garage with his grandson’s bike and other things he didn’t want to fix. Spiders crawled inside. The box gave them a home. But the bones remembered their future. Brian was just one thread in their meshstretch of history. The bones remembered their futuregirl—several threads unwound to make a tear. They wanted to speak her onto Cassaurina Beach
cycloned fishbowl diving
for pearls, hunting postdead
animals, skulled ribcages
tusky little girls, ankh shells made
for that international trade ban
on you and black coral love
for every single toe of you little nautilus love
backwards love extinction dyed
silk love testing waters
They waited for the future of themselves like refugees.
She staggered through her childhood like a spider sprayed with pesticide, tried to remember back towards the face of her father. She pulled his striped shirt with buttons made from pearlshells all the way through time, but her father lost his face. He wore the striped shirt on the day of the committal hearing. It could have sent him to jail, but didn’t. The girl’s mother spoke the ways the father had hurt the girl. The magistrate tossed the case—mother too headsick for court and girl, five years old, still forgetting to make memories. There would be no trial. The father walked—all the way to France.
He first arrived in Australia at 18. Broome, 1985. He peeled the grey of a London childhood from his eyes like cataracts. For the first time he saw colour—orangeblue westcoast bright enough to scar a retina. A place with the ferocity to turn cells against themselves, burning cancer into human skin. He became browned, crusted with salt, made a life for himself diving for pearls. Doctors removed a mole on his leg and he began wearing sunscreen. Later, he found his wife in mangoheavy Darwin, cyclone season, raw papaya salad, fish sauce in her hair. They carved pearlshells into pendants, sold them at markets, carved marks into the selves of one another. On the drive down to Melbourne they detoured through the Nullabor. She waited until they were sufficiently nowhere to tell him she was pregnant.
The girl was brought to life through the words of her mother, foetal, a thing to make people argue about the nature of existence. They decided the girl would exist—imagined her into being. Their girl, bushchild, able to name all the native fish in the sea before the age of five.
Now, the memory is a sick one for both of them. Freud calls it afterwardsness—the effect of the future on the past. The cellular beginnings of a loved thing made murky. Afterwardsness infected the father’s Australia, the place of his wellwife, lovedwife, the place of a skin cancer pulled like a pearl. Afterwardsness grew his cataracts back, rendered the orangeblue westcoast grey. In his beloved Broome, reremembered, it rains. The committal hearing could have sent him to jail, but didn’t, only transformed his Australia from country into woundplace. Only
cycloned the Cassaurina pines
for girls, hunting postdead
animals, skulled ribcages
tusky little pearls, ankh shells made
for that international trade ban
on me and black coral love
for every single toe of me little nautilus
extinction love backwards died
silk love testing daughters
The father’s bones waited for their future like refugees. They waited to tell the girl this story. When she was old enough to remember to remember, the girl became sick with not knowing the truth of her parents. Her mother spoke stings into her father, spoke them sworn on the Bible, Christian woman. Woman with honesty under her fingernails. But the girl could not remember her father hurting anybody. In time, her mother fell into hospital, where doctors tried to untangle the tendrils of her brainroots. She remained forested. Honesty under her fingernails.
The girl was reconceived in afterwards-ness. She told people her parents had never been married. She told people she didn’t have parents. Nobodiesgirl. Every time the girl and her mother drove through Ballarat, they came so close to the bones on Brian’s mantelpiece that the girl breathed bonedust into her lungs. She was always carsick. The bones knew this from the start. The girl became nobodieswoman.
Her father’s bones are ancients. They come from a time and place before technology shrunk timeplace into fibreoptic irrelevance. There is no way to unshrink timeplace. The bones have lost their context. Things have died since they were fossicked. Ecosystems have died since they were fossilised. Tusks without a boar, skulls without a species. There is no place for her father’s bones to go. Her father’s bones know this—remembering into the future—they know they will arrive via postage slip at her North Melbourne apartment in the summer of 2015, having found their way to her through a series of Facebook messages. Messages that would write the distance between France and Australia into their very text, small as the word ocean typed in 12-point font. The bones know nobodieswoman will have to give them new context in love,
backwards extinction dyed every single toe of you
little nautilus love
Inside the small words, father and daughter tell themselves to eachother. They try to unshrink timeplace. She wants to know the truth of him, but he is artefactual. All she can do is speculate about the meaning of the words he writes to her. He doesn’t swear on the Bible. He is an atheist. She prefers agnosticism. He sends her a photo of his face to prove his flesh and bloodstuff, but he is still a striped shirt with tiny pearlshell buttons. She can’t make the photo of his face into a memory. A photo is a fossil of a person. A fossil is a thing without a home.
Refugee. He remembers her. He remembers her five years old. He remembers her hands, toes, the impossible smallness of a child’s fingernails. He remembers swearing on the Bible, explaining his daughter’s fingernails to the magistrate, explaining how he could not possibly hurt something with fingernails the size of hers. He remembers swearing at his wife in the private of the room they shared, while his wife curled like a shell around her own battered Book of the Lord, telling him he was the devil.
He is surprised by the biglanguage that smallgirl uses now, to speak herself. She has learnt herself into nobodiesgirl. Nobodieswoman. She lives in the city, feet uncalloused. She does not know about the species of fish that live off the west coast of Australia. Nobodieswoman does not swim in the ocean.
They try to share an emotional experience. Fourteen years together in which they were not together. Scientists say human beings struggle to experience loss that does not occur in their own lifespan. It’s true—only less about lifespan and more about memory. Fourteen years as small as the word ocean typed in 12-point font, because the girl has never been able to remember her father, and her father has never remembered that his daughter is now a woman.
Eventually, he tells her about his bones. Brian the bonekeeper is contacted. His time is up—his thread has come unstuck from the meshstretch of history. History does not belong to him. Brian must clear the spiders out from the bonebox. She has emailed him her real address. His mantelpiece looks bare without the bones to fill it. He hunts on eBay for more cabinets of dead moths. He has since begun classes in taxidermy.
It takes three days for the bonebox to arrive. Time and place haven’t disappeared completely. There is still no way to transfer matter into light without burning it. In the past, people burnt matter into smoke signals. A transformation of material into written sign, skysign, temporary, windsensitive. Nobodieswoman does not burn her father’s bones to speak their stories.
It begins with nautilus love. Love borne up from the sea. Gently fossicked love bone. First bone in her father’s body. It curls. Furturegirl, nobodieswoman, is drawn to it before the other bones in the bonebox. She takes it in her hands and holds it up against her heart like a stethoscope. Cut nautilus love, listen to the heartbeat of this girl. She puts the nautilus shell to her ear. Cut nautilus love, return this woman her heartbeat. Nautilus thrown up from the unshrunk ocean by a cyclone. Ocean that will swallow the father and daughter and their 12-point-font exchanges and the internet itself into the deepest part of its guts. Ocean heavy enough to crush human bodies. Ocean without mercy, tossing the protective shells of its deepsea dead up onto Cassaurina beach, while those namesakepines bend their heads in the wind, patient as nuns. Nautilus cuts love into nobodieswoman like a scalpel. It is the heart bone. She begins to build her father. He tells her the Nautilus belonged to her mother. Nobodiesfuturewomangirl knows this—she can smell it—a family smell in the shell of the nautilus
every single toe of us
little nautilus love
Nobodieswoman asks the bonebox for more of her father. She finds him next in fossilised crayfish. Inside-out skeletons kept delicate. Memorysedimented. Ten thousand years in sandstone layers, timepreserved, rough under her skin, roughing the tips of her fingers. Nobodieswoman rests a fossil on the tip of her tongue. It is cold and tastes of blood and prehistoric dust, flavours her spit. She swallows history, multiplies her age by 450, fossilised girl.
Nobodieswoman dreams of her father. A father who flickers. A father who makes shadows dance on wet cave walls. Before-time father, collecting the bodies of longdead things, secretly, while her mother sleeps, while she sleeps inside the belly of her mother. She dreams of her father fossicking for treasure like a bowerbird. She dreams of the three of them nesting together,
a family smell in the shell of the nautilus love,
and fossils like blood on your tongue
Nobodieswoman has stolen a fossil to keep in her pocket, cool in the palm of her hand while she catches the tram, while she catches her breath as it comes from her lungs in hot bursts, sick with winter. Nobodieswoman walks home in the dark with a pocketed father, memorysediment against her skin. She imagines the fossil as weapon—imagines defending herself from a stranger. Thousands of years strong enough to smash bone. She feels safe with the pocketfossil. Dead crayfish carried through time, carried through suburbs and underneath suburbs on underground trains, a journey mapped onto a GPS system and relayed through airwaves back to her father. She sends him a digital map. Yellow lines criss-cross back and forth to track the fossil’s pocket migration. Yellow lines help him remember his daughter into a woman.
Subterranean night traveller. She catches the underground train home from work, emerges with bleary eyes. Deep in the suburbs. M for McDonald’s. Yellow arches that glow, bleed yellow light into the sky. She follows the M home through the dark. Two hashbrowns and a caramel cappuccino. Coffee before bed. She sleeps past midnight, fossil under her pillow, history flickering into her dreams. Sometimes she emails her father at 2 am. In France, it is early evening. He has arrived home from work to sit at his computer and wait for her words. A girl
unfurled in the shell of the nautilus
fishbowl diving for that international tradeban
on black coral love
Nobodieswoman has started to add to the bonebox. On cold mornings, she sits at her desk to make origami fish until the frost on her window starts melting. She makes goldfish with big eyes, angelfish, pufferfish with bodies like balloons. She papercuts her fingers, bleeds, licks her creases, inflates pufferfish with hot morning breath, vegemite smears on the corners of lined paper. Sometimes she cries, and the salt in her tears tastes like the sea. Sometimes she lies to her father. She writes herself in 12-point font. She writes herself out of her words. Nobodieswoman feels dishonest. She seals her truth into valley folds and reverse creases. Spit, sweat, blood, breakfasts, pressed into the fins of origami fish. She nestles them down between the nautilus and black coral, between fossilised crayfish and pearls like tiny eyes, making sure she tells the truth.
Winter solstice comes. Fog settles down over the city and the bonebox and nobodies-woman like a shroud. It is the longest night of the year. Thick, navy, starless night. She is awake. So are the bones. They glow. Phosphorescent. Bioluminescent like those bacteria found on northern beaches in summer. Inside the bonebox, origami fish unfurl from their nooks. They swim above bones, leaving trails of light, traces of blue movement. Fossilised crayfish break free from their sandstone casings. Memory sediment dissolves into clouds of light, and black coral softens to kelp. Everything sways. Nobodiesfuturewoman smokes sticky marijuana through an old coke can. She is sleepless, eyes dry, skin thin as paper.
She is sorry for her father. Everything she says to him feels like loss, heavy as water behind her sternum. The bones in the bonebox continue to glow. She remembers the impossible smallness of a child’s fingernails, is guilty in the ways she has grown up—in the ways she is a woman.
She was born in July. Darwin’s dry season. A humidicribbed creature kept alive in the hospital, while her parents returned to their weatherboard house and the horrible absence of baby. Nobodiesgirl was nobodies girl before she belonged to her parents. For three weeks she grew in a plastic womb, while her father filled the space of her with treasure-obsession. Coral and pearls in the shape of a daughter. Coral and pearls for his blueringed woman, already showing her sadness in the skin under her eyes. He said he was going to polish the coral, transform it into expensive jewellery, rim it with pearls for his lovedwife. But the coral and pearls remained unpolished. Saltcrusted. A father’s bones for nobodiesgirl.
When she was finally unwombed, the girl cried for a month. She was a baby unhappy to be born, sometimes screaming, other times whimpering, the sound of her melding with the nightly expulsion of fruitbats from mangroves at dusk. Nobody slept. She was born into a family of insomniacs, her father tells her now, and every night she watches the bonebox glowing impossibly blue, bringing the beaches of her birthplace up through time, collapsing history, so that she can see
those Cassaurina pines
traces of girls, hunting postdead
animals, ribcages and pearls for you
and that international trade ban
on black coral love
for every single toe of you
little nautilus daughter
She tries to write the story of the bonebox in 12-point font, spidery black text crawling across a white screen. She writes her father into a man. A man made of pearls and black coral and text. A shellhearted father with crayfish for ribs and a history bound to her history, bound to her cellular beginnings. She reremembers herself in the context of love and parents. The bonebox glows at night while she types, while she layers history with history, discovering the westcoast inside her body, the orangeblue colours of Perth in her veins. She is all blood and paper, but then there is the fact of the bones. The weight of them, hard and cold, to prove that nobodieswoman exists. She writes: My father’s bones waited for their future like refugees. They waited to tell me this story. •