Excerpt from Transition Events
First published in Strange4 2008
Apnoea wakes: her eyes spring open and she sits up with a breath. A breath!? More a wheeze, cluttered, but still a breath. She holds her chest: heavy— full, like it expanded during her sleep. Sleep? She hacks up a cough, ‘Heh,’ her throat tender and dry from the air flowing through it for the first time. The room is still dark, even though a warm breeze blows the curtains — a weighty material — and lets sunlight in here and there. Each time the light looks like filling the room the curtains swing back and cut it off before it can make the room part of the day. She keeps the window open all year round. In summer for the cooling night breezes that tickle her naked skin; in winter for the contrast between the cold room and her warm bed, her body all snuggled in under the blankets, only her face exposed. She swings her legs around and drops her feet to the polished wooden floor — it’s cold despite the warmth of the morning outside; she puts her dressing gown on and supports herself using her walking frame. ‘The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog,’ she says. Raspy, a whisper, old. Should it be old? She’s never spoken before, so maybe it should be new, or young, or unused? She doesn’t know what to say. ‘Red leather, yellow leather.’ Her voice isn’t loud. ‘The rain in Spain falls in the drain!’ Her yell is soft. It should get stronger the more she uses it.
Her walking frame catches on the edge of the cream and blue rug in the hall and she almost trips she is walking so fast. Her legs can’t keep up with her mind. And thinking of what to do and what to say and where to go first and who to speak to first. She almost trips, again, on her own feet. And she’s mumbling to herself, enjoying the feeling of her voice tickling the back of her throat, despite her dry mouth; and she wants to go to the lounge room and the backyard and the bakery down the road, and she wants to play her instruments. She stops just outside the kitchen and takes a deep breath to calm her mind — too much too fast for her body. She can feel her diaphragm drop and rise. ‘Calm down,’ she says to herself, ‘calm down’. It comes out as a whisper. Her chest looks strange and she feels front heavy, still not having come to terms with all this breath.
In the kitchen — she has calmed herself — dried chillies, spices, garlic and preserved meats — kept specifically for this very day — hang around the large open window. The smell of freshly mowed grass wafts inside and it feels like specks of dust are inside her nose, irritating it. Then something forces her to inhale deep, her lungs expand further than they ever have before, and she doesn’t quite know what to do. Everything feels big and bloated. Then she sneezes, once, twice, three times, and each time her stomach contracts as the air is propelled from her. She never knew sneezes were so surprising, building so quickly then disappearing in a flash. After it’s gone there is still a tingle in her nose and throat, and now the muscles in her stomach, muscles she’s never used before, are stiff, but she feels much better for having sneezed. Relieved, in fact. She likes sneezes — she thinks.
She totters through the back door and it bangs closed as she takes herself down the ramp to the lawn. Leaving her frame on the path she shuffles over to her most prized garden, where she bends and sniffs the flowers. The pollen tickles her nose and makes her sneeze again, and again she’s not ready for it, and again she feels a sense of all-over relief when it’s done. The insects scatter. She smells the flowers until the ache in her back becomes too much.
Straightening, she stretches. The garden is bathed in sunlight, but a storm is rumbling in, unusually, from the east. She leans stiffly on her frame and walks back inside.
In the lounge room she props her frame against the wall and takes a flute off one of the shelves. Her house has become cluttered over the years; in the beginning the two of them, hand in hand, would go to garage sales and local markets — he enjoyed the rummaging and searching, she the smile on his face when he saw she was excited by a find — but for years now it’s been only her. She has surrounded herself with artefacts of smell: flowers, essential oils, coffee and coffee machines, spices, incense, pickled foods, smoked meats, pepper. With artefacts of voice: records of all the classics, all the greats from generations, their voices so beautiful to hear but painful to listen to. With artefacts of breath: trumpet, clarinet, pipes of all sorts, whistles, balloons, flute, old tins of different brands of cigarettes (she can’t find tins like that anymore), saxophone, megaphone, tobaccoes. And artefacts of taste: wines (both red and white), salt, cheeses (hard and soft), fudge, beef jerky. She plays the flute. A strangled note chokes out. Dropping the instrument on the couch, she picks up a whistle and blows: shrill, piercing. She yells again — still soft; blows into the clarinet, then grabs a pipe, one of his old pipes, and sucks in the tobacco taste. It probably tastes like he did. He was a good man, but she never mentioned her friends to him.
She left years ago, with no idea of where she was headed, while her friends were sleeping. Even back then she didn’t sleep, and until today never had. She gathered her clothes, she didn’t own many, put them into a waterproof bag, sealed it, dived into the lagoon, swam across to the waterfall and climbed up alongside it. The day had been hot and the night retained that heat. The few plants that grew on the cliff-face were only just holding on themselves, so when she grabbed at them, many came away in her hand. It was hard going, not least of all because the heat made her sweaty and her hands kept slipping. She almost fell about half way up and had to rely on a small, dead-looking plant to hold onto.
The river at the top was graceful as it surged over rapids, water-polished rocks, and then gurgled down the waterfall. This was the first time she’d ventured from the lagoon since the three of them moved there. She turned and looked at her friends sleeping on the bank and almost didn’t leave.
In places the river was deep and wide and she could hardly see the other bank; in other places it was thin and shallow and the rocks dominated the water. The beginning of her journey was easy, she followed the river as it eked out its path, her path, and she travelled far in a short time. But soon the bank grew steeper and the bushes thicker, and in trying to push through them she scratched and cut her arms.
When she couldn’t go any further she scaled the bank and came upon a dirt road. White stones soon appeared on the shoulder at what seemed regular intervals. After passing roughly thirty stones, a deep valley opened up to her left, ripping the landscape open like a wound. As the valley grew, dumped car bodies appeared at the bottom, leaching poisons and toxins. Soon there were more cars than trees and it didn’t matter how much the valley deepened and widened, the cars still filled it. In front of her the road stopped suddenly, the valley had ripped across in front of her. Without thinking, without missing a step she walked off the cliff. At first she had little control of her flight, she flapped her arms, genuinely thinking that would help her fly; it didn’t, and she spluttered up and down narrowly avoiding being entangled in the tops of the few tall trees still able to live among the car bodies. Eventually she settled into a pattern and relaxed into the flight.
When relaxation came to her and proper flight took hold (at first she trod on the leaves, as gently as her incompetence would allow, and used them to spring into the air), its gentle, weightless affect was not what she expected at all. There was stillness and foresight and knowing and remembering — eyes of the old, eyes of the young; and the stillness reached into her, submerging itself and submerging her so it transgressed. She held her head still — eyes of the old, eyes of the new — and saw things she had never seen before; and it is in these things that she saw herself; these things set her on her way.
What was she thinking all those years ago, to do such a thing? She shakes her head, part in awe and part in disbelief at what she did so wholeheartedly as a young girl. She wasn’t scared, would she be so brave, could she call it bravery, now? When she left — leaving as she did with a stealth and quietness only those who live without breath have the capacity to generate — she didn’t know where she was going, but she ended here in this house, with him and his smile and his baritone laugh.
Her lack of breath hadn’t mattered to either of them, but she still fantasised about the day she could breathe and do all those things that go along with breath: smell, speak, blow, puff. It feels like more than a lifetime now, through the early days of their marriage, when he couldn’t keep his hands off her, when he touched her adoringly, more than adoring, and she would anticipate his hands; to those lonely nights when he wouldn’t come home. Nights awake can be so long.
She remembers searching for him once, clothed in the dress he loved so much: a simple cut, red, it hugged her hips and the thin straps across her shoulders left her back, toned from years of swimming, exposed. He loved kissing and stroking her back. And even though she couldn’t be sure at the time; she thought she heard him laughing and singing in a house, his voice — both painful and beautiful, the words so absorbed and rich — cut her deep. She hadn’t heard him laugh like that for so long. When they were first married, he would tell her how much he loved her silence, the way her brow furrowed whenever she signed, the way she could move without sound. They found the same things humorous, his laughter made up for her silence, complemented it. In the end that same silence became the thing he hated most. (Maybe, once, she hated it too, but she eventually grew accustomed to it. Accepted it. Ignored it. They both did, or at least tried to.) She turned away from the house, wanting to be strong, but she couldn’t stop the tears.
Her frame, sometimes more of a hindrance than a help, bumps the telephone table as she heads down the hall from the lounge to the kitchen. The old phone teeters and almost falls. Not that it would matter, she hasn’t bothered connecting it for years. That’s something she has to do. At the kitchen sink she takes one of the preserved meats down, chops it and cooks it in the frypan: its smells change as it heats up and the spices, preservatives, fats and meats saturate each other. She chops an onion, some chillies, an eggplant and two capsicums (red and green). The smells and tastes are so defined; she cries over the onion, coughs from the chillies and eats both capsicums raw. She opens a bottle of red wine, pours some into a glass, closes her eyes and waves her hand over the glass to direct the aromas better. She smells berries and chocolate and tannins and oak. She can taste it without drinking a drop. She places the bottle and glass on the sink; through the window, the curtains tied back, she can see the storm moving closer.
Before she knows it she is coughing, uncomfortable, and her coughs hurt her chest and lungs and stomach. It’s not like the sneezes. The room is hazy with a blue-grey smoke that she can taste on her lips and in her throat. Course. Fanning the air, which doesn’t make much difference to the smoke, she turns the hotplate off, picks up the pan and, holding her breath, which she finds difficult, runs the pan and meat under cold water. They sizzle. She steps away from the sink, coughing, fanning the air again. To mask the smell she lights the oil burner (sandalwood oil) sitting on the bench across from the sink. She leaves the kitchen.
He stopped talking to her — the house became so quiet — and that’s when she knew for sure it was him laughing. He stopped listening to the radio while sitting down to dinner or smoking a quiet pipe after work. She enjoyed the gentle mumble of the radio in the background as she cooked or while she patched his pants. He stopped playing the music she liked. She knew it was his laugh, nobody else laughed like that, but she tried to tell herself it wasn’t him, ignore what she heard, ignore what she knew. Maybe he knew she heard him — maybe he saw her walking down the street through the drapeless window or he came out the front door at that precise moment? — maybe she changed towards him first, or maybe he just didn’t care any more. They never spoke of it. If she were honest, she hadn’t much energy left for their marriage either. When he left her for an opera singer she wasn’t surprised. There wasn’t anything she could have done. Even though there were so many things she wanted to say, like ‘I’ve never stopped loving you’, or ‘You’ll always be special to me’, or, simply, ‘I love you’; in the end she didn’t say any of those things, the words wouldn’t come, couldn’t.
He’d distanced himself from her, small things at first, but as he got further away she cut herself off too. She let him go. It was a decision. It wasn’t about control, she just didn’t ask anything of him, or at least not anything he couldn’t give — which was very little by then — so she asked nothing of him and she let what was happening happen, in the understanding that he needed to go, that she too, at the time, needed it to end because it wasn’t the way they began; she loved him and didn’t want it to be more difficult or painful than it already was, than it had to be. She felt nothing afterwards. And it wasn’t until some 18 months later that the enormity of what happened hit her; one day she was tending her flowers when she started crying: no noise, just tears.
The noise of her walking frame on the floorboards echoes loudly in the empty house. The air is so still. In the lounge room again, the rug threadbare between the couch and coffee table — both pieces of furniture are moderately different shades of brown and have never quite worked together — she, an old woman listening to her own breath for the first time, starts crying: long, loud sobs — plenty of noise and plenty of tears. The sobs coming from her throat don’t sound like her. Why would they? She’s never cried out loud before.
Doubtless, back then, confident in her decision, she left her friends knowing she was right, knowing it as defiantly as only a young woman can. Upon coming here, to this city, she met him and fell in love and knew that that was right as well. He wasn’t a bad man, but his love was conditional. And now she understands that as she left her friends, a hint of doubt had crept in and she ignored it. What a long time to carry a doubt.
She gets a Chandan stick from the packet and lights it, blowing gently on the end so it glows red and begins smoking, then puts it in the incense holder on the coffee table. In the hall she lights a cinnamon incense stick and puts it in a holder on a small table; then goes back to her bedroom — the frame on the floorboards echoing and, as always, catching on the hall rug — where she lights another oil burner, this time full of lavender oil. She stops and looks around — her chest heaving gently — and sighs. She can still smell the smoke in the air from the kitchen. She had never known how long it lingered. Now she understands why he used to get annoyed when he burnt toast. The breeze still pulls on the heavy curtains, the light and heat of the day yet to penetrate here, and her bedroom feels larger and emptier than ever before.
After he left she kept collecting; there was remorse, and she hoped — should she still hope? — he would return, but she hasn’t been waiting for the day or ‘holding her breath’. She smiles at her joke and sees how long she can hold her breath for — just in case she burns some toast herself. She holds on until her lungs feel like they’re going to burst and she gets dizzy and has to hold tight to her walking frame. Once she is stable again she shuffles to the window, wipes her eyes and pulls the curtains back. The sun has disappeared behind clouds, the breeze has cooled, and her skin goose pimples, so she pulls her dressing gown tighter around her. The storm rumbles and eats up the sky and the ground, until all three look like they condense.
As it comes closer she realises it’s not a storm. She gasps — for the first time — and her hand covers her mouth. It’s hard to see because the light is an unfamiliar one and threatens to crack. There’s a tightness in her chest like she’s never felt before. Where did they come from? She can hardly watch as they plummet and smash; some fly; others float feather-like; some hit the ground and struggle with their own weight, they scream, none lasts long; others turn into blue mush. This isn’t good. She drops the curtains and grabs her frame, her breath heaving. She has to leave, again, and part of her wishes she couldn’t breathe, because now she has breath, she feels like she’s short of it.