Mairin Holmes (Deakin University, Australia)
We met. Very simply, we met. No other exposition is needed for this event.
When I sleep I dream. I see images of all those I have known who have gone like you. None of this is your fault, but your death started it. There is no calm, only nightmares of destruction. I live this because of you, relive these tasters of my future. I see your face in all their deaths.
I try to put off sleep, try to remember the calm images of you, images that take me into the skies with you, imagine you before your fiery demise, but my eyes close on me. I relax, let my body sleep.
My sleeping mind is startled by death flashes of you.
A field of flames, trees askew, metal twisted, ashes. Pilot error and the ground rose up to be your furnace, steel doors welded shut around you. Soaring heights to soaring temperatures, charcoal limbs and ruptured gold. All in vain the way you wanted it. I close around you, take the heat from you. The smell of decaying flesh attacks me, burning flesh, taken from you. You had no wings. Who dares to fly with no wings? It’s all a matter of gravity. Flames are no respecter of gravity. And so you burn. Your madness burns. Your sanity burns. All those around you burn. All those flames around me.
In the white bed you lie unknowing. There has been no-one to tell you of your secret. The cells, the rampaging leucocytes coursing, cursing. The silence. The cry for help that never came. I lay next to you to absorb your final warmth. I am a thief. You need it. I cannot prevent your coma. Is no-one allowed to know the timing of their own demise? Tiny insects are the only recollection that I have. And butterflies. All the methotrexate, cyclophosphamide in the world couldn’t save you. No transplants, no radiotherapy. You were too soon. I was too late. I was never alone for long enough to help. All those around you pain. All those cells around me.
The Christmas tree, sparkling lights. The bullet mark in the wall from last week when you didn’t have the courage. Now there’s only blood, only bits of you. When I walk out of that door I see you under the tree. Your head spread around the room. Your fingers clenched around your gun. Whitened clasping fingers. Cadaveric spasm. Left for no-one. No concern. No timing. I walk towards you. Warm flesh, still twitching. No point in resuscitation. You’re not there. You’re on the wall near last week’s gunshot. You’re on the pine needles with the Christmas baubles. You’re somewhere else; were never, will never be here again. All those around you anger. All those brains around me.
The crassness comforts me. That you should go on such an auspicious occasion was so succinct as to be planned. Your lump grown big again. All that saving grace you gave me years ago contained within its cell walls. All that death you gave to me. All that life you saved me from. To be so manic. To suffer from both manias. That was our end. How so calm? How so serious? How so fucking stultified? Words cross my path like those small furry beasts in my past. They climb and natter, seek and destroy. Under your careful gaze they disappear. I am left with a shell. All those around you drown. All those storms around me.
The gas, the unnatural. You turning cherry pink. Your brown hair silent down your back. You scream for help so many times. Cry wolf. That the wolf comes. The cold dark winds of winter pierce you. Ice breaks inside you. I have no connection. I have no close images of you. No means of helping you. Of escape. Did you cry? I cannot control your loss. Yet it grows inside me. Still ices over my heart when I dream. All those words. All those vainly written down letters. All that green ice. It builds in its effect. Far better to ignore the most part. Far better to leave ovens for cooking. All those around you suffocate. All those doors around me.
Lying skeletal you have no need. Your anger has outgrown your body. Your comrades lie in wait. And they follow. Hundreds of years ago your end was foreseen. But how could they know? How could they realise what has to happen first. My only murder. A stark reminder that love has some strange outcomes. Birds sing their song beneath your bed. Animals sing your praises. All that dirt and all that squalor. All that selfless grace. Mo chara, can nothing stop the relentless torture? Can nothing wet your lips, quench your thirst, ease your aching joints? All those around you starve. All those words around me.
The screech of time across the road. Just blinding. Just silence. Just nothing. And then for forty days and forty nights, wandering through the desert. No home. No body. No soul. Ripped untimely and then turned off. The air sped past as if a hurricane was loose. The fumes upwards; sky black and anger-filled. And no moon. We eat and eat and eat to keep you going. With immortality on our minds. With infernal life inside us. Bloody June again. The ends and means are always justifiable in June. The world always ends in June. Leaving immortals to bear the millstone. All those around you recall. All those Junes around me.
Ever so gently she left the bough. Flew heavenwards. Wings spread. The tawny brown wings of an owl. Marble eyes gleaming in the dark sky. Upwards towards the Alabaman stars. I sit and wait, older and wiser, than before. Wait in the torrential rain. My wings wet and useless. Too far. Warmth huddles in on me. Surrounded by distant hoots and glassy sounds. The end. The End. A new star in March. Owl star. Marble star. What’s in a name? I’ll look for it tomorrow when the clouds have passed. Ever so peacefully I need to sleep. All those wings around me.
I return to the twisted metal where I lie now. I was there. I too braved gravity. I feel every last breath of yours ebb out of me. Every wave of my nausea flows out of you. You are black. Charred out of life and limb. I hear a scream. A horrible scream. It renders me helpless. But I move. You knew I would not let you down. I’ll water you into the ground so you’ll grow again.
It was all a split second. All that death, all that past before me. It was all over. A scream.
We are taken. Washed cleaned and stripped of sanity. Pain and screams. Edge. It’s etched in my conscious life. With acid, etched into my dreams. Every second.
And then I know that you have lived. You have outdone your achievements. I’d know your screams anywhere. Its harsh grittiness. Its horror. And nothing works. There is no control strong enough. No absolute hope.
All those deaths around me, and you of all people choose to live. Death could be no worse than what we have.
The mosquito net still covered me when I woke in the early morning. I heard a sound. A long drawn out cry. The heat was oppressive. Like dictatorships. I could see the sun already glaring through the open window, the curtain no match for its brightness. I slowly moved from the bed, not bothering with slippers. The floor was too hot. I walked to the window hoping to get a glimpse of what I knew could not possibly be there, would not possibly be there. The dust lay outside like it always had, a pale apparition on the surface caused by the breeze. As far into the distance as I could see, there was nothing. Only white cirrus clouds like soft mist far into the sky. No sign of rain, no sign of relief. The vulture I had heard sat on a tree close by. Always vultures. Always after something. You can come back now, I thought, it’s all over. The twelve months up. There’s no more. But there was no sign this morning. Just an endless stretch of dry dirt and heat. I let the curtain go, and left the bedroom. The worn timber of the floor was smooth and splinterless on my bare feet, jagged and harsh in my memory. I went into the kitchen, to the back door, and opened it as I always did first thing in the morning. Just in case. Again I looked towards the horizon. My airstrip needed some attention, there had obviously been more wind than I had been aware of over the past few nights. Tree branches were sprayed across the clearing, with leaves and other desert detritus. It would keep me occupied for a few days. For when I got my plane back. A week they said. At least there were no vultures on this side of the house. Just brownish green trees. Half dead with the drought. Half alive only from the cool of the night. There were no sounds now but the imagined whistle of the wind moving the dust. No movement but a shimmer of light on the ground. Leaving the door open, I went over to put the kettle on. Another endless day.
I waited for the whistle, as I waited every morning. There was really no past. All that went before will come back. I brushed my hair from my face. I felt sticky with the humidity. There was no end to that. Sitting at the table looking into my coffee mug. Shaped like an elephant. Ella, you said, is that short for elephant. Eleanor. Ellaphant. Sycophant. The kettle called me back to the present. I put a spoonful of coffee in the mug and filled it with water. I looked out of the window, planning my day. Planning to forget again what came every morning to me.
I drank my burning coffee straight down, taking my tongue by surprise, scalding my throat. No pain I could not bear, no times I could not endure. I repeated this like a mantra, into the darkness near sleep I chanted it to myself, in the arid sun, in the cool mosquito infested dusks I chanted, to the rhythm of the wild sounds. But still it came. Like a nightmare, like a vision I could not control. No pain I could not bear, no times I could not endure. It was echoing all about me, seeping out the cracks in the timber, underneath the doors. It lurked in the silence and the oppression of the heat; lingered in the still silence of the night sky. Yet I still could not believe that it was true. Deaths don’t happen like that.
I’m dreaming of the day when the fires came. When the flames covered everything; and the time before. When the trees caused death; the branches coming up from nowhere and snarling at your wings. The black ashes are the things of nightmares. The red fuel, the glowing embers are the history of life. Too many times it’s happened, too many times I’ve been taken in by all the innocence of the fiery visions. Now I know you were in it. A hot August night; a cold December day. No snow, no black ice, no wind: perfect conditions. Absolutely right. Yet the air smoked like a blocked chimney. Suffocatingly the small space enclosing you filled with fumes. The air killed you. Filled with carbon monoxide. If you had not been black, charcoal black, you would have glowed with the cherry red of monoxide poisoning. Your haemoglobin stolen for its own purposes. Just like in June. Just like nine years ago. All there is now is to stroll across the Sahara with your ancestral Kikuyu dreams, your Masai warrior ambitions. Hunt the Serengeti. Climb Kilimanjaro. Waka. To burn in the African sun of your adventures.
“It’s only for six weeks,” you said.
“You could burn to death,” I thought out loud.
“A lot can happen in six weeks. The African sun is very hot.”
“You cannot burn to death in the sun.”
“It’s very hot in Africa. People are always dying there.”
“Not from sunburn.”
“Just be careful,” I added for good measure.
“I’ll take some sunblock, if that’ll make you feel any better.”
And so you went. The sun crushing everything in its path. Trees dry like the Kalahari sand. The dunes burnt you, the desert flared out in front of you like my vast nightmare. I dreamt again of you in flames. Your ancestral paths crossing at the wrong moment. But you returned full of your jaunt, full of tales of the not-so-hot African desert sun. You told of vultures circling as you repaired your land rover. “More likely to get eaten by them than to burn to death,” you said. How you craved more of the desert sun.
It was not to be; your flames brought you to a different end. Charcoal grilled. To return to your Africa. Your mother’s home. All those years of warnings were not enough, all that sunblock in vain. I was stupid not to see it in your eyes. That silver metal stare. Down among the rescue workers there were bones lying, ashen-covered. Up among the dead people there are flames catching on, wrinkling like filigree in the heat, tainted gold by the heat. Memories with scarlet endings. Sounds like leaves crackling dry; the sky dropping calamitously to meet the ground. All those black scars, painted wooden flesh. All this I see as a nightmare of the past. There was no saviour like I recall, no cross and resurrection, no stone to roll from your tomb, no more, no more, just ashes. An unnecessary cremation.
The same oppressive heat is around me. My skin is burning from the inside. Like a fever. Maybe my mind is not functioning. Maybe the crash never happened. Maybe I am here for no absolute purpose. But to burn like you did. Tormented like fires in hell until I die.
I moved to Africa to wait.
And death has come. In the form of murder, assault, suicide. Death has come. Like a great white light in the early morning. Death has left us without each other, with only death in common. Woken up by cold, woken by alarums of fear. Bullets, cold, shaking in the night. Where to go? What to do? Especially with those left. How to console, how to comfort. So new.
And death will come again. In the form of night. Dark, mischievous nights. Sleepless nights and wakeful mornings. By icy knives. Long handled swords that snicker-snack. I hope.
In the air there is nothing but the smell of diesel fuel, sound of cracking tiles, taste of ashes. In the nights to come the smells and sounds and tastes are evidence in themselves. All tempting to one, tearing to the other, insurmountable flames of summer. Only the African sun could burn so hard,
desiccate and blacken into dry dust. Nowhere but the desert, no-one but a goddess, nothing but the rain could spare it. Time is so acridly slow, so tortuous with pain, the rarity of the air spins out of control. With no second chance, no unrealistic future, all the blurs and branches fly flailingly. There is one aim in mind, the rest is hearsay. The only unerring witness today is death.
Why was I the one to witness all these deaths? Why was I the one who taught you to fly? I no longer want my plane to be returned, no longer want to fly.
I will take no responsibilities upon myself. I have lost myself in the timeless desert. Images spark in my memories like bright flares lit for danger. The plane with metallic echoes, lurching closer to the ground, tree branches shrieking, wings in fiery pieces. You in fiery pieces.
I walk through the door out into the golden dry air. The leaves blow silently across the airstrip. No sound can touch me here. I walk to the open ground. My mind crackles with the static of lost radio contact, of antennas far away timed out in the desert. I sit in the heat and cry into the sand watering the dried out seeds. I need to leave, need to fly away but the stench of blackness holds me back. The liquid gold and burns of my dreams, the metallic wrenching crushing life. I sit there for many years, or so it seems to me. All those deaths take their toll on me. That one death, that one plane.
Until the moon glows through the trees, and dark specks, like ashes, falter over its surface, as the wind blows and the night moves. Everything is alight with the moon and death is no more than just a distant shadow closing in on me.
I sleep where I sit. As I gaze into the sky I imagine the horizon crimson. I see flickering. I am tainted by a smell I recognise all to clearly. Fire. Heat around my body like the flames of Hell. All my edges blur, merge with the trees. My mind stops for a second, and life flashes, death flashes. Death grasps me. It will not leave. The sky is red and black, wind fanning as the crimson descends on me.
I cannot move. There is no life left in me.
I hear crackling, the bangs and pops and cries of metal expanding in the heat. The screeches of panicked animals. I am not one.
I lie still until the end.
Mairin Holmes is studying towards a Masters in writing and literature at Deakin University and lives in the Dandenong Ranges outside Melbourne. She has severe book-related OCD and a milder form related to knitting. She has teenage twins who hate anything yarn-related, but thankfully like books.