You are now breathing manually.
In through your nose and out through your mouth in through your nose and out through your mouth in through your nose and out through your mouth … keep going, keep going, keep going…
Listen to the wild, hummingbird-thrum of your heart. You’re working together to set the rhythm – in and out – badum-badum-badum – in and out – you’re laying the foundations for the story yet to come.
Now, take in my story: in through your ears, from out of my mouth – no, wait wait wait wait – put that junk away, the only things you ever need to record what passes you by are your eyes and mind – why don’t you borrow mine?
Awright, now we’ve gotten through all of that, I’ll keep the story itself wishbone-thin:
Upstream, in Mississippi, mothers unknowingly sing their children to sleep through their womb. Downstream, bodies cram themselves into the mouth of the river, gagging it, silencing its endless story: onward, onward, onward…
You’re not the first one coming here armed with endless, quiet interrogations. I’ll tell you the one you’ll eventually rehearse in your sleep… it goes something like this…
‘What happened to you that night, madam?’
‘I sang Nancy to sleep.’
‘I put her down.’
I mean, what else is there to say, y’know? It’s still the truth. We aren’t killers. I been told to die in your sleep is the easiest way to go. So, if anything, we’re doing these bubs a favour. All those men cooped up in the factories on the hills have it backward; I’m the one doing an honest day of work, with not a clink of money to show for it, and you don’t see me pointing the finger at any old so-and-so –
Hm … limbs … yeah, I could tell you about the limbs, I s’pose, that’s pretty ’sential, actually. There are lots of limbs in there. Some interlock. Others make like twigs and stick out. It’s a tangle of tumbleweed in the distance, but up close, it’s a human dyke – of males, of females, of you-don’t-wanna-know – heavy with sleep. Some are still sucking their thumbs, even. Don’t ask me why. I guess they just want to get comfy for the journey.
One-way ticket … uh-huh, that’s a good one. Yeah.
Nup. I don’t see how it’s a paradox. Nothing new can ever enter here, that’s the law.
But it’s not murder, you see, ’cause things are still growing. Look at me. Look at you. Look at all of the trees; anorexic conifers filled with silent screams.
I don’t know why nobody wants to keep the babies, either. They’re adorable.
But nothing new can ever enter the village. That’s just the way it is, as I’ve already told you. Everything has to go. There isn’t anybody saving bodies from going over the cliff here.
’stead, I’ve been making the cliff. The only time I help the babies is when two of ’em are all tangled up from the current. That’s when I shake myself out of the sawdust like a light wind and do my job: pick them apart, break their limbs, put the bodies down, and arrange them as neatly as possible.
Just ’cause they don’t come in a basket of reeds, don’t make it wrong.
I have to do it, and that’s all there is to it.
Sometimes things just are what they are.
…well, most of the time.
Aw, why do y’all always have to know what happens in between? Does it really matter? They’re dead. Why can’t you just admire how sweet they are, as I do?
Oh, fine then … let me give it to you straight:
Shut up and listen.
The reason why things are the way they are is in the faint draw of breath before the mother’s words flow out, and in the thick, honeyed air catching and carrying them. In those foetuses blistering and disfiguring from sunburn, all them rotten apple cores far from the tree. All you visitors keep telling me the youth is the future and all I wanna do is ask if you want your money back, because there isn’t no future, it’s coming and dying by the second, and these, these are all the by-products, them Beloveds choking the river.
If you’re not killing you’re dying and that’s all there is to life, the end.
What do you mean, that’s ‘too bleak’? Novel, you say. But what does novel mean?
Aw, look around. Nothing’s pleasant. Nothing’s new. Nothing’s different. Everywhere I’ve seen looks like God got lazy, got bored with making everything, so he made do with what little he already had. ‘Arrange whatever pieces come your way,’ as someone once said.
Don’t ask me who.
I don’t know.
I don’t need to know.
Well, if you’re after something novel, I guess we could try lyrical, bordering on surreal – for example, you could try dipping into the river with the carp, your cheeks bulging with the burden of gills. Scratch the itch fever-stuck in your gut on the bottom, you lazy dog. Stay still. Hold your breath. Wriggle in close. Press your ear against the miniature mountain of bodies, like blown glass – no, like pearls as big as a man’s head and twice as slippery from all the moss. Flesh against flesh. Listen to them sing. Is that your heart in your throat, or their heart? Or is it a heart at all?
Count the beats regardless. Listen to them sing.
What? This is getting kinda stuffy, is it? Hm, ’kay ... let’s see what I can do…
Change the backdrop, then. Make it a rainforest.
Ah, any forest you like, I don’t care, what difference does it make, as long as it makes you feel better?
’kay. Go find your forest, and then come back here. Don’t rush it.
Is that better now? Hm. ’kay … well, that’s not too bad. You did well. Got yourself a little Amazonian utopia there, I see.
The setting can’t be a rainforest, because I don’t want it to be one. This is my country, my landscape. I make the rules; you follow them. Besides, they say to carry a scar is to carry a story. I want you to carry a scar, a story. I don’t care if your jaw is aching, and your cheeks are ripe like the women’s pregnant bellies, waiting to burst. Bear it; wear it, let it whip your back until a tree grows there.
But I guess we could keep moving around. Keep things exciting. Go somewhere new. Tell a new story. Even I’m tired of catching babies. As you do. By you, I mean the ‘general you’. Sorry, made you feel a bit displaced there, didn’t I?
Anyhow … myself, I’ve always wanted to see the ocean, you know, just a salt-sprinkled bay out there somewhere. Why ruin it with a name? Let’s just call it the special place. Somewhere where mounds of mud poke out of the shallow water like stubble; yet are slick and smooth, pleasant to run your hands over, to compare to your legs; your head. You could crouch there, stuck in a rhythmic trance, while the waves rise and fall behind you like unsure greetings. Dances. Rituals. Allegories of life.
I go there every time I hold a dead newborn, though, so what’s the point of leaving this place? When I press them against my chest, I swear I can feel that final, forgotten memory of a breath oozing from them, trickling like seconds. If you could bottle either of those, you’d have something far more valuable than moonshine in all its meanings.
First time I felt a baby’s pulse flicker and fade against mine, I didn’t sleep for days, even when I wanted to. ’stead, I floated through blank stretches of time, in and out of consciousness, unable to be anchored; an astronaut in my own space. You’ll know the feeling eventually, kiddo. Soon you’ll know something that’s worth knowing, other than the sensation of being full.
Hm? What happens to the women? Well, I guess they’re important, too...
Yes, it’s awright to guess they’d go mad … but nah, not really. They don’t go mad. At least, I don’t think that they do. They appear fine to me. Then again, I haven’t seen another woman for a while now.
You never know with people though, do you? Some people look like they’re right there in front of you, they got a schedule, got a purpose, got a hope, but they’re long gone, they got no schedule, got no purpose, got no hope. They go around collecting scars, letting life carve fissures into them. But then somewhere along the way something cracks at just the wrong angle, slips and falls, and then it all leaks away until only their husk remains. Still, they go on, collecting more scars, carving more fissures. That’s a real hero, isn’t it, to live on without a life, building a dam wall of your own inside you, by yourself?
The catcher stopped talking then. She took out a cracked mirror and glanced at her face as though it was a routine reminder.
Eventually, she filled the silence with her lopsided gaze. Her eyes flicked from your left eye, to your right eye, and back again, over and over and over. You still remember how her lazy eye struggled to keep up with the more active one while she spoke.
‘Will you stay with me?’
‘Okay,’ you responded.
‘Yes. I’ll stay with you.’
The seasons soon become one, but you learn to discern winter from the other seasons, because that’s when you watch the carp die of an unapparent cause, and every time, as if on cue, the catcher crows that they’re ‘passing through the gate’ to go to ‘the better place’.
And every time, as if on cue, you search for the gate, but you can’t see it. You search for the better place, but you can’t see it. You search for understanding, but you can’t find it.
‘All of them: from Bighead, to Asian, to Silver, to…’ she notates in a single breath.
Regardless of their species, the carps’ bodies turn into driftwood the moment they hit the surface, but you can still see life brimming underneath the instantaneous rigor mortis, glinting in their carved scales, whittled in their eyes.
As soon as your eyes take this snapshot, the carp are netted by the current and dragged to the horizon, the only one happy to accept nature’s scraps.
Initially, the infantile bodies that come to a standstill at the catcher’s feet appear to be identical to the carp. But the catcher shows you otherwise when her calloused hands cradle the corpse, gripping the feet, the legs, as though they are the last sweet potatoes pushed out of the land. She whispers to each corpse about the better place, and sends them sailing without much thought. Above all, she’s taught you that thinking is inhibitive, prohibited.
Then, one day, she hands one of them to you, and you forget. You gaze down at the foetus cupped in your inadequate hands. A girl? A boy? You can’t tell, but this Lacanian mirror stirs something deep in you, something outside of language. There are no wounds, but lifeblood stains your hands, seeps under your skin.
The catcher notices your uncertainty, and says, ‘She’s going to the better place.’ She turns around, whistling, scuffing the reddish dirt. Plucks some bark off a nearby tree, and chews it while singing under her breath about picking bales of cotton.
How could something like this go anywhere?
With that question, you find that you can cope with what you must do. You wonder if that’s how the women have coped, and continue to cope … that’s if they cope at all.
You just never know with some people.
A snap, sharper than an epiphany; the transformative thud.
Natalie Harman’s work has been featured in Writing from Below, Gargouille, Social Alternatives and other journals and magazines. Natalie read one of her short stories, ‘The Transfiguration’, at Late Night Lit: GUTS during the 2017 Emerging Writers’ Festival in Melbourne, Victoria. She has judged writing competitions and read submissions for various literary journals. Her website is: http://neharmanauthor.weebly.com/
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Vol 22 No 2 October 2018
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Julienne van Loon & Ross Watkins
Creative works editor: Anthony Lawrence