The Summer Before/The Seahorse by Sari Smith
The east wind blows.
A field of wheat stubble can seem noisy from a distance, the second daughter thinks.
Full of lines, criss-cross yellow wheat stalks, the brown-earth edges of rows, the sky, moistureless and pallid.
But the flat horizon of the mallee country with its stunted trees, its lonely salmon gums, the dull landscape seen
quickly through a moving pane of glass, can be mistaken for silence.
A story has many beginnings. The second daughter chooses one.
I came early into a circle of women and a matrilineage of story-tellers continues.
Traditionally, my father decides where we are driving to and my mother explains why we are going there.
She has always told us the stories. The last story I remember her telling is the story of the water babies.
The hero, Tom the chimney sweep meets an Irish woman who lives by the sea.
"And Tom asked her about the sea; and she told him how it rolled and roared over the rocks in winter nights,
and lay still in the bright summer days, for the children to bathe and play in it; and many a story more till Tom longed to go and see the sea, and bathe in it likewise."
My grandmother never learned to swim but in dreams, she told us, she would often fly, doing the breast-stroke through her dream-sky.
Now we, landlocked, fly over the road to the other side of nowhere where Tom the chimney sweep has been before us. We travel continually, arriving to tell our impossible story.
But, "I have lost my way," says Tom the little chimney sweep.
The story has many beginnings. I choose one.
The summer before, we went on a family holiday. On Sundays if the weather should be fine, we would walk down to the flat, calm sea and watch the yachts with bright sails out on the water. Green and red and yellow sails.
The summer before, my mother watched us swimming down at the beach. My youngest sister played with a blow-up plastic duck. My mother, pregnant again and beautiful, I remember, stood on the beach with her black hair and a yellow dress that billowed in the afternoon wind.
My littlest sister's toy was caught up by the waves and my mother the strong swimmer dived, fully dressed, into the water to save her from crying. From a distance I see my mother floating buoyantly, bobbing up and down on the waves. She swims a long way out and I'm afraid. But she comes back, finally, with the toy in her hands. The yellow dress is dripping and clinging and the five of us -her daughters- are waiting on the seashore. We run, laughing, to meet her.
We all smile. Our father has taken us on a day-trip in the middle of the holiday. We nag him to stop the car.
-Mum, tell him to stop.
It's a field of flowers. We've never seen anything like it.
-Everlastings, my mother says from the roadside.
Dad takes our picture. The five of us, from eight to sixteen years, dressed in bright T-shirts and hipster jeans.
We smile. I wear a purple T-shirt and a peace sign on a chain. My father arranges us to his satisfaction in the field of flowers.
The summer before, the music stopped.
-A shame, my mother would sigh.
-On my next posting, our father would reply.
I used to love the curly S shape of the treble clef. I took Sylvie as my new elegant name and the curly treble clef as my insignia.
-I vill haf to tell your father, threatens our Estonian music teacher.
-Darlink. I think your father maybe vaste his money on you. You zhust don't mak the same proggress as your sisters.
At home on the old piano with the candelabra, I improvise tunes and sing opera.
-You will make a great soprano, my grandmother says, passing.
The summer before, the treat at the end of the holiday was a visit to an oceanarium.
We see fish in a tank but I love the seahorse. A curly S shape -a treble clef- sailing up and down the tiny lines of an invisible music sheet.
The summer before, I wanted to be kissed by a boy. Sometimes at night Elaine and I escaped the holiday house.
-Fishing, we would say. Our mother would smile slowly and say, Yes.
We walked up and down the mile-long jetty. Two boys followed us once.
He stroked my back as we leant against the jetty rail. The strength of my pleasure took me by surprise. I turned, as he tried to put his arms around me, and ran -as fast as I could- all the way back along the jetty with him running after me saying -She's a fast runner, and Elaine following behind, furious.
The summer before, we baked ourselves golden brown on the sand. We would go to the new town with the best tan.
If it could be called a town. Wheat-bin, pub, shop, school. Pale blue weatherboard school-house on the edge of town. Unfriendly people.
-You can't burn off at this time of year mate, a tall man in a hat tells our father. Not in this wind.
Later someone else came. There's a curse on the town. The white folk laugh but an elder comes to tell our father the school master.
They respect him. He is gentle with their children. They warn him. Then one Saturday the entire aboriginal population packs up and leaves. They never return.
Later the stories filter back. The man caught under a tractor. The boy who misfired a gun. The man whose daughter drowned. The town has very little water.
On the new school bus the driver tells us to be quiet. I'm telling the story of our last town. The swimming pool. The shops. It's a mistake.
-Why doncha go back there then? someone snickers.
At midnight, Elaine, Jill and I explore the town dam. We swim, naked, in the freezing water under a pale moon.
The town dam has white clay sides, a blue perimeter and a grey/green centre. Someone sees us.
-Do you realize, our father frowns, you've been swimming in the town water supply?
I pour a glass of chlorinated water from the tap. I imagine I'm a treble clef-seahorse, two inches long, swimming in the drinking water.
I hold the glass up to Jill and we try not to laugh.
The summer before the new town we swam. The swimming instructor taught us everything he knew about the techniques of lifesaving.
How to rescue a struggling person. How to rescue someone who is drowning. I store up courage in readiness for rescues.
One day I find the other dam, hidden by bush. The dam is large and covered in rusty sheets of corrugated iron. I stand back.
One sheet of iron has fallen away. The water beneath is black and deep. No-one ever tells me why the dam is covered.
I can't ask. My youngest sister just turned eight, would love to walk over the tin.
I catch her all the time, shinning up too-high drain-pipes after things that are lost. I want to warn her about the dam but if I tell her, I know she'll go there specially.
I am saved. Our father says, -Kids, don't poke around that old dam, will you? If you fell in, you'd drown. No-one would hear you. There's no way you could get out.
The tin sheets form a roof over the water. If you fell in...you'd be under a tunnel. You'd be going into a deep dark tunnel...
The summer before, I dream that I am the one who dies. I am caught under the black, brackish water of the hidden dam. I sink.
I try to swim up through the darkness, knowing that I must breathe soon. There's nothing to hold onto but I swim, finally, into consciousness.
Somehow at the last moment I am saved.
Now we are travelling. We stop at a pub near a wheat-bin. In the Ladies' Lounge my father drinks a glass of beer and my mother feeds the baby
with the baby's shawl draped over her breasts. We are given pink lemonade and striped straws. I take out the paper straw and hold the pink lemonade up to the light.
-I'll never wear it again, says my mother, looking down at the yellow dress. She wore it to the funeral and we were left at home.
A kind lady put her hands on our shoulders one by one and said, -Only God can help you now.
My mother gave birth to a son.
She keeps her silence to hold in the story of the east wind, the drive to the hospital with my littlest sister, the journey too far.
We wake to death.
-She's gone, says our father.
We drive. Without our mother explaining why. Her arms stretch wide to hold us all. She
doesn't know why.
The world spins fast/slow.
The car wheels turn but
I am as still as a crane standing on one leg
with one webbed foot on the floor of the sea.
I am a fish inside a tank,
a boat without a sail,
I am a diver in a waterglass who can't tell where the sky is.
She doesn't suffer, says my father, behind the woodshed. He cuts the wood and there's a certain trick to it.
You have to cut the mallee roots along their swirly lines. They make wonderful firewood. They burn to a fine white ash.
The summer before, Sylvie wanted to be kissed by a boy.
-I'll have no-one to play with, says the second littlest sister.
Her pyjamas are still in the wash.
No-one speaks her name.
Can I drink this pink lemonade?
Sh-sh! If we're good, maybe nothing else will happen.
Only GOD can help you now.
The summer before we saw a seahorse. The summer before we walked down to the sea, the summer before...
We drive on to the next town with selves we no longer recognize.
We are cranes standing one-legged on the floor of the sea.
We are seahorses gliding slowly between the lines of the invisible music sheet,
We are everlastings hung upside down to dry.
We are yellow ducks bobbing up and down on the waves,
We are divers in a waterglass who cannot find the sky.
The lines in italics are taken from Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies.
This story was first published in Westerly, c/o University of WA Press and later in No Substitute, Fremantle Arts Centre Press.