At first glance the heap of green on the side of the road looked like a small cairn of mossy stones. I rubbed my eyes, blurry from the long drive, and refocused. The lame wing of a tui bird waved in the wind, its colourful feathers caught in the dying light. I pulled over. The bird struggled to lift its head. Its good wing flapped feebly against the ground. While I stood there and watched it fight, the slipstream of memory engulfed me.
The year I lost you was the same year summer never arrived. The sky stayed black for two seasons yet didn’t yield a drop of monsoonal rain. Trees stopped reaching for what had become an invisible sun, their branches stripped in defeat. The land had turned a dry, sickly yellow, cracked like the skin of my heels. When the buds of the silver fern you planted on your last birthday should have been green and unfurling, I found mum on her knees in front of the withered plant crumbling its fronds to ash between her fingers.
Despite the taste of cinders on my tongue and the smell of fire on the wind, the windstorms were the worst of the weather that year. They blew across the northeast of the country from a place where the earth had erupted and burned, and brought with them ferocity and malice that drove people mad. Ash clouds fell like snow, covering the world in flakes of tiny ruins. Roofs collapsed under the weight of falling embers, house pipes exploded from heat; women went into labour early and dogs howled at midday skies indiscernible from night. People started to talk. There were sightings of monstrous shapes in the ash, of apparitions in ghastly, charred forms.
Mum drew the shutters, bolted the windows and laid sandbags over the cracks under the doors to keep the ash and any more bad fortune out of the house. She took to running deep baths and locking herself in the bathroom for hours, or lying on the couch with a cloth over her eyes and a brown glass bottle lolling in her hand. Sometimes she’d put lipstick on, spray perfume, and say she was ducking out for eggs and bread; we’d make French toast and drink tea from her wedding china. I’d wait at the kitchen table but she wouldn’t come back for days. It was in those times when she was gone, when the house creaked under the weight of ashes, that I started swimming in the black river.
At first the brackish water frightened me but as my limbs grew stronger with each stroke and my lungs expanded with each breath, I became invincible. Deeper and further out I went towards the estuary where the sea snarled in dark, white-lipped waves. I was hungry to meet the tides. But on the day I intended to do so, I dove into the river, opened my eyes, and forgot how to swim.
In the watery gloom, you were there. With your lustrous skin and long hair fanned around you. Just as you were before you got sick. Before, when we were still identical.
I gasped, sucking mouthfuls of dark water into my lungs, and shot through the surface, choking. The burning air stripped my throat and my heart beat painfully fast against my ribs. Panicked, I thrashed about until I noticed the richly coloured tui bird sitting on a dead flax branch jutting over the river. I stilled myself and splashed a few times in its direction but the bird didn’t startle. A rush of goosebumps prickled up and down my spine.
“Esther?” I whispered, my tongue thick with longing.
“Esther,” the bird mimicked. It held something in its beak and seemed to be waiting for me. I swam closer but it dropped the object and whooshed overhead, a streak of colour in the black sky. Scrambling onto the bank I unearthed the shard of paua shell and rubbed my fingers over its surface, smooth except for a luminous blue nub.
People ask me if the ‘special connection’ still exists when one twin doesn’t. You have always been hidden in my answer like a secret language.
I’m a woman who hasn’t been scared of drowning since the day she tried to swim out and meet the mouth of the ocean. Who has worn a blue pearl at her throat ever since, and plants flax in her own garden now to attract the song of the tui bird every full moon.
I grow my hair out, cut it off this time every year and wrap it in a blue scarf that I drive home to bury by the river. I mark each year with a freshly planted silver fern. You have a garden of them now. I took a frond to mum at the home yesterday but she doesn’t recognise me as a woman, trapped as she is in her memories of twin girls.
I camped in my swag last night and woke to a sky as deep as your eyes. I cooked up tinned spaghetti, your favourite, and ate it out of the pot with buttered toast and flask tea. When the sun lined the horizon with the first seam of dawn I changed into my bathers and drove down to the estuary.
The headlights guided me as I walked alongside the road, holding the skittish bundle over my heart. I unwrapped her slowly but the healed tui bird rushed out, up into the blue. I watched her until she was a fading morning star. Around me the day brightened in contrasting shades. I strolled down to the sea.
Memories of twin girls with pixie haircuts followed me. They always do.
I reached out.
We held hands, walking in a line.
As they chattered, stopping only to squeal at the sight of the ocean, I caught myself yearning for an impossible thing.
I yearned for a photograph of we three, silhouettes, together under a clear summer sky.
A lovely end-of-year discovery: my short story ‘The Estuary’ and an accompanying Q&A have been featured in One Thousand Words, a new journal of critical reviews and essays on photography put out by the Ballarat International Foto Biennale, the biggest photography festival in Australia. This follows the Picture 1000 Words project, an exhibition held recently in Melbourne that was the brainchild of local photographer Cam Cope. Picture 1000 Words invited writers to write a response to photographs they didn’t know the backstory of. Both the prose and photographs were on display for a month at the Melbourne City Library.
My thanks to Cam Cope and Esther Gyorki for being wonderful to work with. I’m making my gratitude list for 2013 and being part of this fabulous collaboration is definitely on it.