Ironbark

Jay Carmichael

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Markus is shoeless. He burnt his pairs on a bonfire held beside the house about two weeks ago. Shoes make no difference. He looks through the lace draped across the inside of his bedroom window. It’s lunchtime. He’s naked and yet to shower. He yawns and scratches his balls, akin to stretching out your muscles after a slept-like-a-log night. The sun fails to break open the thin film of clouds. Since that storm, the rain withholds itself and everything is preserved, overcast. Inanimate things breathe, and some mornings he’s been stunned by this apparent breathing. Everything around him is living, and he’s stagnant because of the knot in his belly.

One of the flat northern plains is covered by knee-high grey-green grass. Murky violet sways between its tufts. There’re no persons or animals, and there are no fences or houses or trees. This Plain takes a day’s travel from one side to the other, and if you make the journey to its edge, you’ll find the Hills, which bear on their backs eucalypts (various) and grevillea (family Proteaceae). From the middle of the Plain this hilly edge is unseeable, because at its centre is the Plain’s only imperfection.

The grass grows to the imperfection’s edge and no further. At this edge, the ground falls down sharp cliffs to form the Depression: a gaping, deep gash in the otherwise perfect surface. The Depression, bound by these unscaleable cliffs, is a smaller area set one hundred and fifty metres below the level of the Plain. Here there are farms and fences, properties and people, sheep runs and dairies, furrows for wheat and rye and barley and canola and maize and corn, orchards and vegetables. Wind dances in the grassy paddocks and screeching sulphurcrested cockatoos (Cacatua galerita) frequent the area. In the centre of the Depression is the township of Narioka (aka Noaks).

A hundred people live in Narioka, with a further hundred producers living on the farms and properties spreading outward to the cliffs. This is enough to make do. Other than this binding rock-face, there’s an ephemeral lake on the outskirts of town with a tributary creek, also empty, cutting through town. The Lake has a natural ironbark (Eucalyptus sideroxylon) bushland around its edges. They say you’re lucky to see either lake or creek fill in your lifetime.

Thirteen days after the destructive thunderstorm, the Narioka Leader is folded over a dining table chair. Markus Bello looks at its front page, which has a story on the progress of the railway to the city. It says they have surveyed the valuable space — ‘valuable’ because there’s only so much land they can acquire from the Depression without affecting the producers. The final paragraph mentions that the recent storm, and the record-breaking rain it dumped, may cause delays. This same rain, even though it’s winter, will not have broken the drought.

The master bedroom door opens behind him. A warm hand touches his shoulder. Elba: his to-be stepmother. She keeps walking, her fingers sliding across his shoulder blades until there’s no more of him for her to touch. They coexist. She re-boils the kettle. She prepares a tea and when she sits across from him, he smells chamomile. She’s sitting side-on, and this pose allows her to rest her left elbow on top of the chair, hand under chin. She gazes out the glass sliding door behind the table and runs her fingers through her long hair. Outside, her to-be husband, and Markus’s father, tends to pumpkins in one of his veggie patches. Elba asks Markus when the overcast will clear. He watches her pick up her tea with both hands andblow across the peachy surface. He scans the Leader for the weather report. She puts the teacup down. He stops at a random page of the paper and points to a random illustration. He needs hope as much as she does.

He says, as Cat jumps up onto the table, There’s a story about the weather. Cat sits for a bit, sanctioning Elba’s strokes under its chin and behind its ears. It stands and stretches and walks to Markus, where it rolls down over the paper. Elba resumes her initial pose. Each of the previous thirteen days has felt like a late-arvo soapie; a little bold, a little beautiful.

Markus walks into the bathroom and turns the heat lamp on high. Soon its strength pricks into the back of his neck. He assesses his shoulder in the mirror. A large bruise the colour of bile wraps itself over his pectoral muscle and collarbone, down his right arm, and stops above the wrist.

His phone rings beside him. No Caller ID.

For thirteen days — those bloody thirteen days — he’s been flicking through his past to find a point of reference. He hadn’t yet caught on anything, until now, until this: Georges’s phone call. He sees Georges and Grayson in the same place. They appear to him as markers of faith amongst a crowd of hundreds of others from around Narioka. These others surround them, but to Markus, they fall far short.

On the other end of the phone, Georges clears his throat. He could be at a café, for there’s the tink of metal on china and the hush of traffic. Georges has put a bookmark in between the pages containing Narioka and the pages of his success as an emerging artist. Which is, in part, why Markus agrees to meet Georges at the pub in Noaks later that afternoon; the conversation is over before he can take any of it back. He spends most of the arvo lag looking into the pantry. He doesn’t want to eat, necessarily, but a hunger of a different kind is growing in his stomach and can’t be satiated with chips or bikkies: Markus wants to redeem a part of his past, and it’s Georges who’s to be consumed to satisfy this unsteady need. Or so he hopes.

With half a pot warming in his rough hands, Markus waits for Georges. The bar bench is sticky on his forearms. Sweat forms in the space where his bare feet touch the barstool. The fire in here’s too hot. There’s no one else except the bartender. Markus avoids eye contact.

The bartender says something about being a brute. Yer can’t trust what the paper says.

Markus looks up at him. Molten lava bulges in his throat; his face may begin to melt. He says nothing, which doesn’t matter because Georges comes in. Markus turns to greet him.

Georges is straight from the turn of the century: distressed jeans, tight, knees torn out, thighs threadbare, the cuffs hanging down the backs of his dusty Volleys, which are scuffed. Markus stops himself from checking to see if there’s a hole in the denim showing off the undies Georges may be wearing. Faux-silk boxers, Marvelpatterned, perhaps? No. Though there’s pattern here: a patchwork of red, grey, and black intersecting in the flannelette long-sleeve, buttons undone, hanging over Georges’s slim frame. Underneath, a white singlet.

Nice, says Markus. He’d forgotten that Georges’s gaze is almost ceremonious: eyes like the blue light coming through stained glass and shining into a phial of holy water.

Georges is looking at Markus’s feet. Least I’m fully dressed, he says. Where are your shoes at?

Markus fills his mouth with beer.

If you tried to get round like that in the city, says Georges, you’d get a syringe in the bottom of your foot. A laugh. A smile. The gap since the last time they spoke closes, a tiny bit.

They sit beside each other, exchanging little.

How’s the city? says Markus.

Busy. Georges puffs out his chest.

Still living with your mum down there?

Georges nods.

Must be different to ol’ Noaks here.

Sure is, says Georges. He sucks in a draught of his own.

Most of the boys at high school used to call Georges dirty sanchez. Markus had had to Google what it means: after anal, you pull out and wipe your bare dick across your partner’s lip, forming a faecal moustache. At the time, the unknown meaning of dirty sanchez, the implication of ‘dirty’, had been enough for Georges to be undesired, to be tainted.

Markus wants to say sorry. Doesn’t.

It’s been too long, he says.

Georges’s fingers swirl in the condensation on the side of his pot. Things get in the way.

But with phones and stuff — two people shouldn’t stop talking. Markus coughs, brings his chin to his chest, and then sips his beer to clear his throat. Georges pats him once, hard, on the shoulder, his healing, bruised shoulder. It doesn’t hurt as much as bring Markus comfort, for some bizarre reason.

C’mon, Georges says as he gets off his stool. Enough of that. He’s at the jukebox, and in minutes a Kanye and Jay-Z song plays. ‘Otis’. Markus spills his beer as he turns on his stool to face Georges.

They’re not going to talk about what’s brought Georges back to Narioka, which is why if he were drunker, Markus’d smash the glass pot on his own face to cover what he begins to notice. It’s an urge towards Georges, as if to pick him up. To take them both away from here. Narioka. Or even to crawl up Georges’s body and pitch a tent inside his heart. He watches Georges dancing as if he knows how to dance. Dirty sanchez.

At the end of the song, Georges skols and says, Time for me to go. Early start back to the city.

Markus says, You got a place to stay?

Kinda.

What’s that mean?

Well, I—

Nah, Markus swats the answer away with his hands. He says, Come to mine. Ren won’t mind. And before Georges can answer, Markus is up and out the door.

Outside the pub, Markus shivers. The night is silent and silky-black. The streetlight orange and hazy in the fog. When Markus breathes out, a white plume coils from his lips. The scene spins, repeats, back and forth. Fark it’s nippy, he says.

Georges laughs as if trying to puff away dust that’s rested on the tip of his nose. Markus bites his tongue because Grayson used to do that. Georges’s voice, whatever he’s saying — maybe something about the cold — stops Markus from speaking, from acting.

The young men walk back to Markus’s father’s farm with the silence from the paddocks wedging between them as they go into the darkness. Markus blames the drink for not making small talk — he’ll probably slur his words — though it’s more that his redemption never came. Redemption he wanted for all the lost years, for all the things unsaid and those he witnessed being said but never stopped those boys from saying. And now, still walking, the crushed stone soft-crunching, Markus fills with confusion about what it is he wants.

Once inside the old farmhouse, Georges says, I’ll sleep on the couch.

Nah, man. Markus makes up an excuse that Cat will piss him off. It’s better in my room, he says, we can topand- tail if you want. Georges scoffs at this, so the young men sleep side by side: Georges on top of the covers and Markus underneath. In the morning, Markus wakes with his head on Georges’s chest. Georges isn’t awake and Markus needs to shit. He slips from bed, from the room, and to the toilet. No one else is up. When he returns and finds Georges sat up on the side of the bed, putting on his shoes, Markus says, You off?

Georges nods.

Will you be back?

Georges shrugs. He stands up and puts his hands in his jeans’ pockets. Dunno, Mark. He smiles tight. Dunno if I wanna come back to this shithole. He laughs.

And so does Markus, but when he crosses his arms over his chest the laugh cuts short. He says, You need a ride back into town?

Nah, the walk’ll clear my head.

Afterward, Markus returns to his bedroom’s window, hiding behind the lace like an introverted pervert. Georges disappears down the drive. Outside, a bead of dew falling from the eave lands on the petal of an orange geranium flower with such force that the flower’s stem bends, as if bowing, to release itself of the drop. Once released it flicks back to stillness.

Sometimes Markus likes the night, and sometimes he wishes he could sleep right through, undisturbed, from the moment of last light to the moment of first. Other times he wishes light didn’t exist.

His clock radio flashes an angry, red 3.59am. His father, Rene, will be up soon, and Elba: for work, for passing time. Markus goes by the weak moonlight filtering through the skylight in the hallway, walks past the kitchen/dining room and into the lounge room.

Snake is Rene’s pet carpet python (Morelia spilota). Coiled in the sand at the corner of its glass tank, which his father displays in the lounge, it looks like a tiger snake (Notechis scutatus) in the dim light. It’s passive now, facing its abysmal eyes outward, unmoving. Markus hasn’t had to feed it in a while. When he did have to, Snake, coiled as it is now, would eye the shaking rodents and, without warning, Snake’s slim body would pounce, mouth agape, spiny teeth bared. Snake would make a dull thud when it struck, and the mouse would declare a dying squeak as it was squeezed dead.

Markus moves across to, and bends beside, the fireplace and opens its door. Inside, he builds a loose tepee of kindling and puts scrunched-up balls of newspaper underneath. He lights the paper and watches as it burns against the wood. Mute orange flames behind the dirty glass wobble like liquid. Markus wishes he’d fall into those flames and drift away on the log burning beneath. He pulls the blanket from the couch, lies down in front of the fire. The glow sways over the floor in front of him.

Later that week he walks barefoot into town, allowing himself to unwind with the sandy track through the fields and across the bridge over the empty creek.

A little away from the road and outside the township, bulldozers and rollers and other brutish things stand sleepy at the site chosen for the future Narioka Station. The metallic beasts guard the site manager’s office.

Markus finds himself not at the shoe store but at the brim of town and, a little further, the library. Ananke, the librarian, has crisscrossed the carpet with cold steel shelves. The aisles are quiet. He pulls three books: a Thomas, a Byron, and Maurice. He puts the Forster on the bottom and grabs a fourth paperback, a collection by Dorothy Porter. At the service desk, Ananke scans two, and then, at the third, halts. Maurice. The words rush by Ananke’s soft-skinned fingers, flipping the pages. Ananke smiles lightly and places the books in a calico bag, saying to keep them an extra week.

Markus walks down the main street. Georges is right: shoes are a necessity. Though Georges hadn’t said, it’d been in the way he’d looked at Markus. Markus follows the ancient scratching in the main drag’s pavement, and the flat black circles of discarded gum.

Melville Street glimmers in daylight. Both the street itself and the people who walk it are unperturbed. As they approach him on the street, he knows they are preparing their piss-weak smiles, preparing to meet his gaze and offer pleasantries. For your loss, they might say. He walks with his head down and denies them their self-satisfaction. He walks by the chemist and then to the shoe shop. He doesn’t know the assistant inside, and she seems not to know him either because she waits behind the counter. She flicks some paperwork and picks a scabby pimple on her jawline. Close up, she has brown eyes. And where she stands she fills some kind of space, as if a guardian. She points him to a burnt-orange pair of Vans, which he tries on, tying the orange laces tight. Beaming smile. Purchase. He leaves, wearing the Vans and carrying the calico bag of books.

He walks almost three-quarters of the way along Melville Street before turning down Quinn then left on Madigan. The streetscape opens up: on his right the Lake, or rather, what is left of it. Under a eucalypt, he sits by what was once the Lake’s edge, maybe three years ago. About that. It had filled, frozen, broken up, and flooded, making Narioka fearful of any water that fell from sky or tap; fearful that things would overflow again. Fuckers. Now, the Lake is an expansive dip in the ground, covered in drying weeds and surrounded by a binding face of ironbarks, which look tired, black, and smug. In the middle of the Lake is a faux island whose tapered end, which you can’t see from here, joins onto the time-share Country Club. Along the side of the Lake, two rabbits (feral) scratch the hard dirt and bound about each other, in and out of the sun and shade.

He makes his way back to his father’s farm. He finds an empty shoebox under his bed. Small clumps of dust blow away to the windowsill. It’s getting on in the late afternoon. He places the library books inside the box and slides it under his bed, hearing it hit the wall at the bedhead.

He’s touching the bandage he’s kept around his hand, which used to cover the bite Cat had made. He takes it off now because when he pushes against the dirty fabric there’s no pain. Underneath, his skin is pale, and the bite’s no more than a shiny scar. He decides to wash. The shower’s steam makes the white tiles underfoot dissolve into each other. He almost can’t see his feet. The smell of the Pears soap calms his belly, his mind. He wipes the amber bar over his body and around his junk. He replaces the soap on its holder, and foams up its residue on his skin. At his cock, he rubs the foam into his pubes, which, along with heat and tranquillity, makes him hard. He soaps his shaft while his other hand touches his scrotum. He closes his eyes …

Georges grabs him, draws him close, like chest to chest. And there, in between their faces, he hears air whistle through Georges’s nostrils. Georges. Markus doesn’t want to be let go. He wants the chest, the heartbeat beating against his own. He listens to Georges. Warm. He listens to the air whistling in each of Georges’s nostrils again and watches his eyeballs slide from side to side to side to side. Alive. There is a silent moment no longer than a second in which he wants their lips to press hard against each other. Present—

Markus cums. Their lips do not touch.

He knocks his kneecap into the glass shower screen, and that sound — the very disjunction and the little bit of pain in his patella — shatters the imagery. Rene keeps four hanging baskets along the front veranda. In each he grows a single succulent, which, he could’ve once told Markus, is called a donkey tail (Sedum morganianum). Long lime-green tendrils of clustered claws escape the red dirt their roots are confined to. In a light breeze, even if you just breathe out nearby, these tendrils sway like horizontal ripples on a body of water. Too much. If you pull back on imagination, as Rene does, these hangers are embellishments that take the eye away from flaking weatherboards and a rusting bullnose. The recent storm knocked each of the four hangers down. They’ve lain smashed and spreadeagled on the brickwork pavement since. Rene’s cleaning them this evening. The straw broom brushing outside distracts Markus because its sound mimics that of rain. He rolls over. Breathes in and out of his nose to calm his irritation — well, at least that’s what he wants to believe it is. His stomach has begun strangling itself. He slides his window open as Rene scrapes the broom, sweeping the last of the first pot’s dirt away. A phone call interrupts Markus: Cecily. Again. He ignores and deletes the message she’s left.

It isn’t pleasurable for him to wake early. Today, he starts the apprenticeship he was meant to a few weeks back. Dark outside.

His father comes in and turns the light on. Markus covers his face. Rene pulls the doona off. In the kitchen, Rene’s made him toast and packed him a lunch box for the day. He hands him a mug of coffee. Markus chews a mess of toast he doesn’t want and chases it with the last of the coffee. Rene takes him into town because Markus is bringing his faulty motorbike. At Brute Burrows’ Mechanics, his father helps him heave the metal carcass out of the ute’s tray and then heads off. Markus wheels his bike into the garage, stands straight and kicks the bike’s stand down.

The garage smells of oil and is cold; it would feel almost clinical if it weren’t for the pot-belly fire crackling. Smoky scent fills the room.

Brute holds out his hand.

Markus clears his throat and puts his shoulders back. He shakes with Brute. Not long ago, he’d slung this elephantine body up against the pub’s brick wall, because it’d threatened him. That’s irrelevant now. Forget it. Markus doesn’t need a tour. Brute says, Yer’ve been here enough with me son that this place should be like a second home.

A few galahs (Eolophus roseicapillus) burst out from a stand of thick melaleuca across the road. They chirrup and screak and swoop up and over the garage’s entrance.

Brute gets to work on the motorbike. Bent down beside the bike, he sucks his bottom lip. He asks, Who did the shoddy cover-up job?

Buff.

Brute asks for the spanner.

Markus reaches around to the bench behind them, steps a little. His shoe, one of the orange Vans, stubs and his fingertips knock the spanner. It scrapes over the bench’s edge, drops. A dull light reflects off it before its head hits the concrete floor. The noise slows, echoing in his mind even after the spanner rests. Markus hands Brute the spanner. Brute discards it and grabs lock-grip pliers instead.

At lunch, Brute says he has to pop down the street. Yer want anythin’?

Markus shows him the lunch Rene made.

Brute sniffs and turns away.

The day continues in a quick rhythm.

Brute says, Yer motorbike won’t ever go properly. He’s interrupted by an older man dropping his car by, telling them to fix it up quick.

Brute remains silent as a ghoul. A sullen face indicating leave it with me, and again to a woman, and again to the youngest Drumanure boy, whose pushbike’s spokes are done for. Brute tells Markus to leave at about three o’clock. I’ll have a chat this evenin’ with Ren, mate.

The land between town and Markus’s father’s house stretches wide, flat, and forever. And it makes him feel like he’s flying upside-down.

The way Brute had held his body when he’d undone and rolled down the top half of his jumpsuit was forceful. It had revealed a grey singlet and, dangling in the low-cut neckline, a gold neck chain with a crucifix attached, which had swung side to side as he moved. Brute’s son, Buff, wears one similar. As does Elmyra, Markus’s oldest friend, who says she got her crucifix from the two-dollar shop, off a rack that has plastic skull-rings and peace-symbol earrings; says that because she paid no more than half the price of a cup of tea, she may as well’ve stolen it.

Why’s the focus on that gold cross? Some things are better left unsaid, even if they say you can say anything in the confessional. The stained glass, the statues looking down at him when he’d gone to church in primary school: these were enough to make him internalise everything. I farted on my father’s pillow was always good to tell the priest each Friday. Father’d once said, You’d best get off to the doctor, sort that out. Father’s dead now, one of them at least. Markus had gone through the Catholic primary school, and the fates of the other Fathers were and still are irrelevant. Sometimes in the afternoon, when the sky’s looking deep, he wishes he could throw a stone right up at it and smash it. Watch the shards of blue fall into the Depression. He’d smashed with rail stones, back whenever it was, the church’s stained-glass depiction of Jesus and John. And since then it has pissed him off that from the outside, where he had thrown the stone, he couldn’t see how the coloured glass must’ve fallen on the crimson carpet inside. He keeps walking, hands in his pocket. A throw to smash the heavens now from him would fall away, harmless.

The house is empty. He wakes sometime later to the sound of clanging pots: Elba cooking. His bedroom seems smaller. He could use a rail stone, maybe piff it at the window and let the twilight in. Rising and no release. Wanting to break. Abstaining.

He can’t.

This method he hardly knows.

He takes the needle he’s snuck from Elba’s sewing kit and places its sharp, thin point against the skin of his leg. On the inside of his thigh, closer to his groin, he begins to move it back and forth. His skin reddens and tears and bleeds. He pushes harder. When the blood beads and wriggles away from the imperfect gash, threatening to drip to the floor, he stops. He pokes the needle into the side of his mattress. He wipes the blood on his finger and licks it off.

In the shower, he lets the hot water stream onto the wound and the stinging makes his leg shake. He clenches into the fading bruise on his bicep. Numbness.

At dinner, with a hand under the table, he touches the covered abrasion on his leg. Pain.

Rene’s concerned. That face ya makin’.

Markus nods and says, The potatoes are too hot.

Elba’s on the couch, watching The Great Outdoors. She says, It’s the potatoes’ way of telling you not to eat them because they’re bad for you. She sighs, as if the world’s an irritating speck of dust she’s directing away. She becomes Elmyra, whom Markus has suddenly remembered, and whom he silently promises to text.

His promise is intercepted by Rene’s wink. His father’s calloused hand slides the latest Leader; his thick forefinger points at a headline. There’s a charity football match, he says.

The picture his father’s pointing at is of Buff in his footy kit, leaning against a goalpost. Markus stuffs a forkful of potato in his mouth, blowing through his open mouth as the heat sears the roof of his mouth.

His father wakes him by torchlight on the weekend. He touches Markus’s foot. I need a hand, one a the heifers is calvin’, he says.

Markus follows without complaint because his father’s eyes are wide.

Out and down a track, he lags behind. When Rene looks back, Markus nods. He’s pretending the bucket’s thin metal handle in his hand isn’t there. It may as well be slicing him open. A clean slice. The cold, the early dawn the stars out — all that’s meant to be romantic. The chain and jack Rene holds clink together in a steady rhythm. The crispness biting the tip of Markus’s nose and the lobes of his ears spreads itself out like freezing pools of water. His breath is dark matter drifting through deep space. Rene turns the torch on him and even though Markus squints, he catches the dark matter turn to silver and the silver go white before it disappears again when Rene flicks the beam away. His father pulls out a handkerchief and hands it to him. The material’s warm. Markus wipes his nose. He hears a rustling nearby. Rabbits skitter in the reedy wild oats (Avena fatua).

When Markus was a boy, the man had taken him hunting, perhaps for distant relatives of these same rabbits. It was at dusk, when the strong, slender animals bounded across wheat-stubbled paddocks. Rene had caught them in the spotlight while Markus stood in the ute’s tray.

Have a shot, bud, his father had said, trying to hand him the shotgun.

Markus’d shaken his head at the smooth wood and matte metal shining in front of him. Rene hadn’t wasted any time — he’d aimed at one of the rabbits, which had stopped and perked up to look right at him, and pulled the trigger. A spray of pellets must’ve caught the rabbit in the head, because its body had flicked backward, spun round, and landed, back legs kicking, on the soil.

This morning, though, his father’s occupied with just the opposite: a louder sound follows, hugging the ground. Rene points the torch to where the sound has come from. Markus puts his free hand in the water in the old white horse-feed bucket he’s carrying. Some of its contents splash over the edge with the motion. His flesh is too numb to register the temperature. He licks the residue from the tip of his finger. Rene turns left and wades through the wild oats growing beside the track. At the fence line, he turns the torch back on Markus. Rene takes the bucket from him, lifts it over the fence, and sets it down over the other side. He opens a horizontal gap between wires, and once both men are through, Rene locates the cow.

Markus holds the torch.

His father stands behind the prostrate cow, pumping the jack. The chain moves along the rig’s pole and away from the cow as it brings out the calf. The mother groans. It’s too slow, and the calf ’s feet are unmoving. Rene huffs and Markus stands near, not knowing what to do. After a few minutes, Rene pulls the black calf away from the mother and begins to wipe the mucous out of its mouth. Markus rests the torch on the ground; its beam partially illuminates the scene. He pulls at his father’s shoulder. Rene moves away, and Markus tips the bucket of water over the calf ’s head. The mother moos and steam comes from her mouth. The calf remains still. Rene grabs the calf ’s forelegs; Markus grabs the hind. His father looks at the calf ’s head, at his hands grasping, at Markus’s hands around the hind, and then at his son. They lift it into the air and its head is limp over the soil. They begin to swing it back and forth. Mucous dangles from its mouth. They put it down. Red dirt sticks to its body, to its eyelids. Rene wipes mucous from its face, and he strokes his hand along its throat, back and forth, slow and gentle. The calf coughs, shifting the phlegm from its throat. Its eyes open and roll in its head and it makes a guttural sound.

Persisting with, starting anew, starting same, forgetting about the wound on his leg, a run perhaps, walk … Persisting isn’t quite the right word; a word, though, suited enough to the way the Depression is drifting around Markus. Persisting isn’t about forgetting the scabby-red wound on his thigh or the bruise that’s now faded from his shoulder. Telling people that he’s persisting masks what drifts inside him. Smoke haze makes the eucalypts grey and half put together. He recalls those damned rabbits by the Lake as he fiddles with the pen in his pocket. Persisting’s pooling his thoughts, making them shallow, making them reflect the things above with wavy iridescence. Some ‘thing’ stronger is breaking through the surface. Yes. There it is, coming in like a hefty breaker: he’d missed the funeral.

Had said to Rene that he could not go. Rene’d tried to push the bedroom door open. Markus had dug his feet into the carpet and pushed back. Because of that sickness growing in his stomach, which he gets most days (today, it is quiet). Gnarled, solid nausea. It had started after the accident — amidst the dark and beneath the cold falling rain — and grown larger and larger until, in the half hour before Grayson was going to be buried, it had incapacitated Markus. Miss it, Rene had said as he’d thumped his fist on the other side of the door, the force of which had made Markus jolt. Markus spied, from the gap in his bedroom curtains, Rene drive away to town, to the funeral. He’d sat down on his bed, again leaving the drapes unopened, the door closed. There, in the dimness, the outside light had been threatening. Thirteen d ays it took him to open those damned drapes, as violent as tearing paper.

Being in that bedroom or being out here — there’s no difference. It isn’t the light that’s threatening. Absence produces a vacuum so powerful that any words spoken in it are torn apart.

Ironbark Jay Carmichael