Catherine Gillard (University of Western Australia, Australia)
I have never explained myself, perhaps because I lack trust. I have felt that way for all my life, but now that my death is approaching, I am compelled to write something confessional, to make some sense of it, if only to myself. How do I know death is near? Because I saw it. Glimpses of the future have plagued me since my childhood. They have always come true, or at least a version of them. My husband will be my killer. An ocean or perhaps a lake. The vision is more than just a pastiche of images. I can feel it: the sudden shove, the falling, the gasp of shock that fills my lungs with water.
But I get ahead of myself. If I trawl through my life, I hope to find the answers. Not why my husband should want to kill me. I know that. My purpose in reflection is to discover what I am supposed to do with my cursed power.
Where to start? Not with my conception—I shall come to that later—but with the first sign of my otherness: my appetite, or rather, lack of. Mama breastfed me for a decade. It was our secret—until on my 11th birthday she pushed me away. ‘You’re a big girl now, Gaia. Getting your next set of teeth. Mama will be in trouble if anyone finds out.’ In fact, it was my third set of teeth. There have been another three since then. The mouth of a shark. Whenever Mama tried to feed me after that, I vomited it up almost immediately. The sight of food has always made my throat constrict, my stomach clench. I never experienced what Mama or my sister Kristie called hunger.
I just drink milk. Though not nearly as nice as I remember Mama’s. Pasteurised, homogenised; it tastes like cow. So, you might imagine that I was a skinny, sickly child. But I wasn’t. I was healthier, faster and stronger than any of my classmates. I never once lost a race. Did I mention my scent? A fishy odour that made me the object of ridicule and repulsion. Trimethylaminuria. It emanated from my pores, my breath. It stuck to my clothes. It inhabited my bedroom, our house.
My childhood was not unhappy, though perhaps it appears happier to me now. In light of what came later. Mama loved me as best she could, considering her glitchy wiring. Her illness freed me from the usual constraints imposed on children. I roamed without curfew.
I had no father. At least in the sense that I don’t know who he is. And neither did Mama. Maybe neither did he. Mama would say only that sometimes bad things must happen before good things are able to.
One glance at my sister was all the proof anyone needed that we didn’t fall from the same pod. Kirstie’s father was a fly-in-fly-out worker who had flown off a few years before my arrival.
It was Kirstie who said my conception was the result of Mama’s attack. She had walked into the Police Station at dawn to report she had been assaulted by a group of men at the Harbour. Mama had been swimming (though couldn’t explain why), when she’d been dragged down and raped underwater. Dumped on the shore, half-drowned. She couldn’t describe the men, nor how many there’d been. Just that they’d spoken ‘in tongues.’ Strangers in a strange land. Immigrants.
The police doctor found signs of physical trauma, but no DNA could be obtained. The social worker recommended a mental health assessment. Mama was involuntarily admitted to a psychiatric facility and the police closed the investigation, concluding that the bruises and scratches on Mama’s body were the result of misadventure. Kirstie was sent to live with her father. And later, Mama was moved from to hospital for my birth.
I was an alert baby girl, seemingly unaffected by either the drugs Mama had been prescribed or the electro-convulsive therapy that was only reduced when it became apparent that she was pregnant. Was my father from the asylum? Or, as Mama claimed, from the ocean? Mama was sent home on the proviso that she continued her medications. She collected Kirstie from and we were allocated government housing. The pills made her a zombie, but she was determined never to lose her children again.
Mama was vigilant for the signs of her sickness in her daughters. Did we ever hear whisperings? See strange things that others couldn’t? Did we think people were talking about us behind our backs? Messages from the TV?
Each day after we’d left for school Mama merged into the sofa to watch TV, eat junk food and smoke cigarettes appended to her tar-stained fingers. She didn’t encourage visitors to our dismal flat in the housing block by the railway, so when I wasn’t swimming in the ocean or the river, I kept Mama company; holding her hand, tuning out the droning television by sitting motionless and practicing holding my breath. At bedtime, in my small, creaky bunk, I was a prodigious consumer of borrowed books. I read Melville, Defoe, Louis-Stevenson and Shakespeare at a speed that I didn’t realize at the time was impossible.
Kirstie brought Jason into our lives. I remember the day clearly, but then I remember every detail of my life, as though a memory chip had been implanted in my brain, recording every experience, lived or vicarious. Every fact, thought and sensation. I met him after I contracted the Chicken Pox virus; a disease the other children had been immunised against. Mama didn’t trust doctors, not after what had happened to her. When I became delirious with a soaring temperature, Kirstie called for an ambulance. At the hospital, the doctors placed me in an induced coma. Several days later Mama agreed to switch off life support. Viral encephalitis. Temporal lobe scarring. Seizures. But I didn’t die. A miracle, the doctors declared, implying they had rendered my recovery.
My first visitor was Kirstie, accompanied by a boy about her age, 17 or so. He was tall and athletic: short gelled black hair, flat brown eyes, skin sun-polished to bronze. Handsome in the way she liked her boyfriends. She smiled hesitantly as they approached, but before they could reach me, a nurse drew the curtains around my bed.
After a few moments, I asked, ‘Where’s my sister?’
‘No idea, love.’
‘I just saw her.’
The nurse peeked through the curtain. ‘No one there!’ She removed the needle taped to the back of my hand. ‘Your mother will be here soon though.’
I puzzled at Kirstie’s evanescence until Mama arrived, perspiring with the effort. She hugged me, stinking of nicotine. ‘You gave me such a fright, Gaia. I didn’t want to leave you, but the doctor said you were out of danger and insisted I go home.’
‘I saw Kirstie, with a boy,’ I said, accepting the tetra pack of my favourite milk and a few books from my bedroom.
‘She’s been here? With Jason?’
‘I only saw them for a second.’
Mama looked at me askance, a crease forming between her shaggy eyebrows. ‘I haven’t met him yet. They were going to Rottnest but cancelled because … the doctors thought …’ she said, unable to finish her sentence. ‘I’ll be back in a moment, love. There’s a vending machine down the corridor. I could do with a little treat.’
Rottnest Island, the holiday playground for the wealthy. The island I had so often studied from the shoreline. I imagined myself on a beach in a secluded bay, searing white sand under my feet. Imagined is not the right word. I was there! Not just my mind, but my whole body. The lacy edges of sea foam curled up the wet shore, bringing with it a briny odour. I squinted against the molten sun, the heat stinging the membranes of my nostrils. Seagulls squawked and performed plummeting dives into the Indian Ocean.
You understand my surprise then, when I awoke to find my sister and the boy had returned, wearing the same clothes I’d seen them in the previous day.
‘Jesus! Gaia!’ Kirstie said, scrutinizing my skin. ‘Pox scars! Your face is a mess!’ When she realised what she’d said, she backtracked. ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got it covered. Something with a green base.’
Kirstie worked in the cosmetics section of a dying department store and was therefore an expert in beauty. A large part of her day was occupied with grooming herself or advising others on how to replicate her look. She’d met Jason when he’d asked her to help him choose a perfume for his mother’s birthday.
‘We can’t stay long,’ Kirstie said. ‘I have to pack for Rottnest. Jason’s family are taking their boat over.’
‘Weren’t you here yesterday?’
‘Sorry, Gaia. We couldn’t make it—’
‘I saw you.’
‘Don’t be weird.’
I sensed her annoyance at my freakiness making her look bad in front of this boy she was desperate to impress.
‘Good drugs?’ Jason asked, and flashed a mouthful of neat white teeth.
As they walked away, Kirstie clinging to Jason like a limpet, I thought I heard her say: ‘I told you she’s strange. But she’s only my half-sister.’
That event seemed to mark turning point, one where my mind worked differently. Not exactly defective, but certainly not normal. Without warning, it conjured unintelligible sounds which I realised, eventually, were being generated by the minds of those around me. Incessant murmurs gradually transformed into a kind of speech as my brain learned to filter and tune. Each day the words became clearer, as though I had been learning a foreign language. I discovered the petty preoccupations of my classmates: sex, computer games, clothes, reality TV shows, football, fingernails. And rarely did spoken words and thoughts equate.:
‘Great shoes!’ [Did you get them at The Good Sammies? Freak!]
‘Found someone to go to end of year river cruise with?’ [Unlikely when you’re such a freak!]
‘Ready for your exams?’ [What else would you be doing besides studying, weirdo.]
I graduated from high school early and was accepted into university on scholarship. I chose an arts degree, majoring in philosophy, though ultimately, I studied everything on offer. My thirst for knowledge that I had first experienced in my Spartan bedroom was now unquenchable. The campus was majestic but there was no tranquillity amidst the learning, no escape from the buzz of intrusive thoughts of those around me. When the noise became too oppressive, I crossed the road to the bay and swam with the black swans, pelicans, or dolphins. Only underwater was my mind truly at peace.
Jason was in his third year of Commerce when I started university. He recognised me one day in the Business School library and invited me to the university tavern for a drink. I tried to tune into his thoughts but inexplicably, his mind told me nothing: a blank slate. So I accepted.
Jason introduced me to his friends around the pool table: Tiny (because he was huge), Yoda (his ears stuck out), Brucey (part Asian and liked Kung Fu movies), the Hulk (anger management issues), Winnie (he smoked Winfield Blue). Their mouths mumbled polite drivel while their minds asked:
What’s Jason doing with the fish girl?
Is that his girlfriend’s sister? Impossible to believe they’re related.
What did the postman look like?
Next he invited me to a party with him and Kirstie. One of his friends, he told me, found me ‘cute—in a Lord-of-the-Rings-Elfin-way’. So that I’d be less of an embarrassment, Kirstie picked me out some of her clothes and did my makeup. The house was a mansion. Girls stood in tight circles wearing what were no doubt the latest fashions, their words for once closely matching their thoughts: who was sleeping with who, which shops had sales, holiday plans. Except when they glanced in my direction:
Who’s the tadpole on the couch?
Sister of the girl who caught Jason Samson! Can you believe it?
Who invited her?
I sat alone, swinging on a pod chair by the lagoon-style pool, thinking about diving in to drown out the noise. Jason joined me and shouted above the techno beat to relate some ‘hilarious’ incident involving one of his mates, though his gaze was fixed on Kirstie on the dance floor being casually touched by another boy. I didn’t laugh where I was meant to, but he didn’t seem to notice. The boy whispered something into Kirstie’s ear, and she dissolved into giggles. Jason winced. I knew enough about mating rituals to recognise he was paying me attention because Kirstie was admiring another peacock’s tail feathers. He pointed out his friend who ‘had a thing for elves.’ I recalled ‘Winnie, the smoker’ from Friday, 26 March 2017 at 12:05pm at the Uni Tavern.
Jason took off in Kirstie’s direction as Winnie replaced him. He wore a black t-shirt with the words: “You’re only young once, but you can be immature your whole life.” He tried to make small talk as his thoughts circled around surfing, sex and drugs. When that didn’t work he offered me a pill. I shook my head and he placed it on his tongue, washed it down with a sip of beer. I stared silently at the pool, lit by underwater coloured lights. The surface shimmered and transformed into a giant screen with a vision of Kristie’s boyfriend lying naked on top of me. He rolled off me and landed on the floor with a thump! But instead of standing up, he dragged himself across the room using his arms, legs trailing, limp and useless. My watery vision dissolved as someone broke the surface jumping into the pool. Several others followed—fully-clothed—into the water. I revelled in the idea that one day Jason and I would be together. The one person whose thoughts didn’t clutter my skull.
When Winnie first placed his hand on my thigh, stroked casually, I felt nothing. Then, sitting still as the Buddha, a wave of pure joy coursed through me. His hand sought mine, and he led me upstairs into a dark room. I sensed the presence of others, although I couldn’t see them; their buzzing excitement intensified as I was undressed by more than one pair of hands. Winnie guided me onto a bed. The touch of his skin aroused urges in me, and despite not really knowing what I was doing, I tussled and wrestled with him until he cried out.
‘Bitch scratched and bit me,’ he said, as another boy, naked from the waist down, took his place.
There were four that night, all hot haste and fumbling fury. They didn’t seem to mind my smell, or that I left it on them. After they’d finished with me and left the room, I fell into a state that was neither awake nor asleep. I swam in a vivid landscape of impossible colours and textures until Kirstie turned on the light, shattering my aquatic travels. She was ashen faced, her full lips pulled into a thin line. ‘Gaia! Get up! I can’t believe what’s happened! Everyone will think you’re a total slut.’ She searched for my clothes. ‘Jason’s furious.’
‘Why?’ I asked, with the strongest sense of déjà vu.
‘They took advantage.’ She studied my features, searching for signs of emotion. ‘Oh God! You can’t tell Mama, she’ll be furious too.’
From that night I developed a voracious appetite for sex to accompany my already insatiable hunger for knowledge. When experienced together, they delivered true ecstasy. It wasn’t until I had slept with the tenth boy that I realised why I craved these random encounters so much. During sex, I could hear none of their thoughts. But it was more than achieving a kind of peace. With each consummation of flesh, I experienced a flow of knowledge from them to me, as though they were a full cup and I could drink them dry to slake my thirst.
Far from being ashamed about rumours of being ‘easy’, I saw merit in the spreading news of my reputation. I slept with at least one boy from each faculty: arts, science, engineering, medicine, dentistry, commerce, and law. Invariably, boys wanted to ‘hook up’ again, surprised that a little tadpole like me could be such a piranha in bed. But after I had finished with them their inner voices returned, and I couldn’t wait to get away; I always refused a second encounter.
Kirstie tried to play big sister and counsel me. ‘You’ll get a disease or get pregnant. It’s not like Mama isn’t embarrassing enough, now you are completely humiliating me. No boy is going to want to marry you.’
My studies left me plenty of time for sex. Because my memory was eidetic, I could write my assignments in one draft, regurgitating quotes, references, page numbers. My powers steadily increased so that by the end of first year just flipping each page of a book was all that was necessary to absorb its contents. I couldn’t explain why I did this, but it was deeply satisfying; a dry sea sponge soaking up water. I wandered across campus seeking wisdom, watching cadavers being dissected, studying microbes through microscopes, attending lectures on every subject.
But especially Marine Biology. I listened to whale song sped up to sound just like birds chirping. Learned that there are sea-slugs that decapitate themselves to rid themselves of parasites. That a sea-cockroach Cymothoa Exigua bites off the tongue of a fish, and then lives its life as that fish’s tongue. That an octopus’ arms each contain an independent brain.
Despite the massive database I held inside my brain I was no more interesting or likeable to my fellow students. Except one. Jason. At first for correcting his assignments, then writing them, and eventually preparing him for his exams. With my guidance he went from a “C” student with a marketing major to “A plus” in Advanced Finance.
Kirstie was furious about my invitation to Rottnest Island, but I suppose Jason felt indebted to me now that he was graduating into a new world of corporate finance. My first impulse was to decline, but I was curious to find the beach I’d imagined in my hospital bed. After a few champagnes on the boat, Kirstie confided her wedding plans. Whilst Jason hadn’t yet asked her to marry him, she knew he would soon. She had designed her dress, picked out the venue, the ring, and her bridesmaids.
‘Finally, I’ll be living on the right side of the river. We’ll have at least four children. I’ll host dinner parties for his important clients.’
After a few beers Jason also confided his plans. ‘I want to do Europe with Yoda and the Hulk.’
I guessed a confession was coming.
‘Haven’t broken it to Kirstie. She’ll be disappointed, but I need a break. She’s so … needy.’
I watched my sister dancing in her bikini to music that made me feel nauseous.
‘Your sister is a stunner, but she doesn’t challenge me, intellectually’—Jason stood up—‘At least you’ll be part of the package. She as my wife and you on my team in the business world.’
After mooring his father’s massive boat in Thomson Bay, Jason ferried us to shore in a sleek launch. His nicknamed friends with the anonymous girls who hung off their arms headed straight to the Quokka Arms. I did not follow. I had to find my beach. It didn’t take long to find. The Basin was exactly as my fevered brain had pictured it. I felt a tingle of anticipation. If the beach existed, then Jason and I were destined to be together. I lay on the sand and shut my eyes. I could sunbathe for hours and my skin never burned—stayed as pale as spent ashes, cold as iced water.
The ocean whispered to me. I stripped down to my bathers, waded into the ocean, swam out, further and further, then dived deep down to the seabed. I remained submerged, feeling no need for air. A school of yellow jackets darted past, seeking the camouflage of reef. A large stingray skimmed the ocean floor. I sensed its curiosity about me.
I reluctantly cycled back towards my hosts, until I was forced off the road and sent veering into the scrub by the vision of a speed boat hurtling towards me before ramming into a jetty. I picked up my bike and pedalled as fast as I could. The insect whirr of a helicopter grew louder as I stumbled into a war zone. Howls of grief and barked instructions competed with the discord in my head. I fought through the crowd to find Kirstie, lying on the sand, lifeless. Nearby, a man performed CPR on Jason. Yoda held a bandage made from a t-shirt to his bloody head. Winnie sat dazed, arm dangling at a strange unnatural angle by his side.
Jason was paralysed from the waist down. His father ranted at the television cameras until he died of a heart attack in his sleep a month later. Mama’s health also declined rapidly; she was hospitalised after a stroke.
‘I loved you as much as her,’ she said, squeezing my hand from the hospital bed. ‘How are you going to get by without us to look out for you?’
That was the last thing she said to me. I was alone.
Except for Jason. I was one of many who visited him in rehab, but the visitors soon dropped off. I became his nursemaid and in a fit of self-loathing, he offered to share his misery and asked me to marry him.
We kept mainly to ourselves, occasionally mixing with the sort of people who could help him climb the corporate ladder. He threw himself into his work and I played the role of the supportive wife and carer behind the great man. For myself, I had no ambition: not money, fame, or even pleasure. I was content to run the household and tend his career. Thanks to me, Jason became a minor prophet in the arcane world of commodity pricing. Whilst I couldn’t always see the future of gold, my encyclopaedic access to international trade data, production outputs and monetary policy made him alchemist enough to outshine his peers and their algorithms alike.
In the mornings I helped Jason with his physiotherapy. In the evenings I lifted his feather-light body into the bath. ‘Why live like a nun?’ he asked as I wiped his atrophied limbs with a flannel. ‘Why stay with me? You could find a real man.’
I dried his broken body on our bed, the disproportionately large torso, wasted legs abducted together like a useless tail, paunchy stomach. I don’t know why I tried to stoke the desire I had aroused while drying him around his groin. It was reflexive; after seeing for the first time his long dormant phallus twitch with life. He seemed to notice what was happening, staring down wide-eyed. I threw aside the towel and gently stroked him, felt the veins throb beneath my cool fingers, smelt the unfamiliar scent of musk. He shut his eyes, lips parting and closing like sea anemone. I took him into the crevice of my throat, tasting salt and feeling the swell. I slipped off my underwear, hoisted my skirt and eased myself onto him. Instantly, his eyes opened, devoid of any fire, and I realised that my engorged mussel pulsed against a limp sea slug as he wrestled to get on top of me.
And there it was. The vision I had waited for our whole life together. He rolled himself off the bed in one fluid movement and dragged himself across the floor and out of the room.
I don’t know whether our aborted attempt at intimacy precipitated the unveiling of Jason’s soul, or what happened on my swim the next day. I was a kilometre offshore when a white pointer cruised towards me. The shark exposed its jagged teeth and arched its back to prepare for attack, but I felt no fear. I detected its confusion, sensed its primordial thought: Food? Seal? Not seal. Not food. Eat? No! No, swim away! Swim away! With an agitated flick of its tail, it turned and glided back out to sea. Despite my affinity with the water, I had never before had access to the inner lives of its inhabitants. As I dried myself on the beach seagulls screeched around me, fighting over a dead fish: Aarrrk arrrk! Food! Don’t take mine! Arrk! Arrk! Mine. My food.
When I returned home, I sought Jason out in his study. One look at his cold, blue, unblinking eyes and I knew all. The shroud that had covered his mind was gone; not to reveal anything of beauty, but rather an ugly concrete wall, scrawled with small-minded graffiti. In an instant I understood he was now no different from anyone else; I saw myself through his eyes—a suffocating chain round his neck—an aberration who knew everything but could not even apply that knowledge to help herself.
From then on, Jason’s thoughts assailed me—petty concerns for ‘getting one over the other guy,’ fears about the effect of the US president on the gold price, Russia on uranium supply, and China on everything. His lust for his attractive junior analyst, his frustration with his impotence. And he blamed me for everything, including the accident. He found a way to replace me, hiring a nurse on a working holiday visa from Ireland as well as a cleaner, gardener and cook. My home transformed from a place of monastic peace to a cacophonous hell. The raven-haired, porcelain-skinned nurse had thoughts of love, but they were infused with money and permanent residency; her pretty features distorted by predatory meditations as she admired my BMW.
But still, I could not leave my husband. I was the paralysed one, still believed that something of purpose was planned for me. To restore my sanity, I set myself the task of mastering what I had only achieved while underwater, asleep or having sex—drowning the thoughts of others. Whilst I couldn’t banish them, I found that I could turn down the volume by conjuring imagines of waterscapes, kaleidoscopic and populated by diverse life forms, so exotic that they did not seem to be of this world. They felt familiar, safe.
I agreed with Jason’s suggestion that we go to Rottnest on our boat despite knowing it would take me to my death. Half-way to the island he cut the motor and we bobbed in the waves. He opened a bottle of champagne, poured himself a glass and handed me a flute of milk.
I had been through this before.
‘To us,’ he said. He moved his head to kiss me, but despite my foreknowledge, I was caught off-guard. I instinctively grabbed him and we both tumbled over the side.
Looking up at his determined features distorted by the water’s thick ripple. Then his face dissolves. The noise inside my skull quietens. I take a breath and the water fills my lungs. I shed my clothes, dive to the coral bed, and tuck myself into a crevice. Reach out every so often, to passing jellyfish, or stingray, slowly losing any need for words.
Catherine Gillard lives in South Fremantle, Western Australia. She is currently doing a PhD in Creative Writing with a focus on how the elderly are represented in science fiction. Her work has appeared in Westerly and Verge (Uncanny edition 2019) and she was shortlisted for an unpublished manuscript for the TAG Hungerford Prize (2016).