Warning: disturbing content
The daughter is back with her photographs. Searching, as she has through the winter and into the wet heat of summer, and still she hasn’t found what she’s looking for.
She wants to remember the man. She has only one image. It’s a photograph of him and her mother on their wedding day. When she thinks of taking the photograph out of its envelope, or even approaching the box in the cupboard under the stairs where it is stored, she feels an unpleasant churning in her belly. A vertiginous sensation, as if she’s not turning in time with world and could easily fall right off it.
She takes the brown envelope from where it lies separated from the other pictures. Then the photograph is in front of her. She’s taken it from its cover without any awareness of what she’s doing, and she’s placed it on the cream carpet in her cool, safe room where she sits in the lotus position, planning first to discover and then to tell herself the story of her life.
She stares at the ceiling. Her heart is too loud. She doesn’t want to look at the photo but she knows she has to. She feels like she felt the day she found a snake on its way out of the upstairs bathroom. The snake and she froze in place. After a few moments just staring, she crept backwards down to the kitchen where she found the metal dish cover they used to keep flies off food. She tiptoed back to where the snake had held its position, halfway across the threshold between the bathroom and the hallway. Slowly she lowered the cover and then, when it was in place, she leapt away as the snake understood it had been confined and began to thrash and spit.
She fetched her glasses, the better to observe and identify. She stared, with that fearful fascination typical of the enthralled. It was a long thin snake, its brown scales flecked with blue, and as it raised itself to strike at her she saw it had a pale yellow belly.
When finally she looks at the photograph she can’t see him. Instead she sees her mother. Her mother wears shoes with high thin heels, a wool coat that comes to the middle of her calves. There’s a small hat perched on the top of her head, over hair the daughter knows is very dark. She’s smiling, though it looks like a forced smile. Her handbag is over her arm and in the same hand she holds a pair of gloves. Her other arm is linked through her husband’s. I don’t know where my blonde hair came from, is what the daughter thinks about next. She thinks that thought for a long time.
Still the daughter doesn’t look deeply, instead skimming over the surface of the image like a dragonfly hovering nervously over a still pool. Maybe some murderous fish will leap out at any moment and take its small life, regardless of its future plans. The daughter has no desire to draw the man out into her present world but she does feel compelled to describe him, as if description is the first step towards making him real. This is a paradox: she knows she’s holding off the reality of him every day and night. It isn’t lost to her, far from it. She’s simply become adept at shutting it out.
If she can let him be real will she become real? Is this the price she has to pay to uncover her own authenticity? Can they still be so linked, after death and time and memory and forgetting have done their work?
The daughter is dizzy from shallow breathing. She looks towards the door that she’s left open in case she has to run. The Dog has draped himself across this threshold like a guardian at the gate. The sight of him reminds her of where and who she is. She whispers his name. His tail thumps on the floor but his gaze remains fixed beyond this room. A small growl escapes his throat. Who is he warning?
It’s very hot and still this January morning and she’s sweating in a light sarong and cotton blouse. She untangles her legs and lies flat on her back. She watches the daddy-long-legs drop from their threads in the corner of the ceiling and hang suspended in midair. There’s not the slightest breeze to disturb them. The photograph lies beside her and she’s careful not to look at it, or to let her hand touch its flat shiny surface.
After she’d trapped the snake she was at a loss as to what to do next. Alone in the house, she thought she’d better wait till Jane came home, as Jane is much more knowledgeable in these matters. Nevertheless, she felt compelled to go back to the scene every few minutes. Once there, she’d get down on her knees and put her face close to the spitting snake and stare at its small head and forked black tongue. Perhaps the power of her gaze might help her to incorporate the animal into the familiar, might rob it of its alterity, that disturbing aura of the utterly other, of being out of reach of any human appeal. She knew though, that what they had in common was life, and a blind impulse to live it, and she felt bad for imprisoning the animal, even though letting it roam the house was out of the question.
The daughter sits up and puts on her glasses. She leans over the photograph. She sees the man beside her mother is in his early thirties, tall and substantial, with thin, brown hair that falls across his forehead. She knows that when he is anxious or needs to connect himself again with his body, he runs his fingers through these strands of hair that lie across his forehead close to his eyebrows, and sweeps them away with a slight backward movement of his head. He has grey eyes. His face is well-fleshed and broad, and pleasant for those who look without knowledge. His teeth are discoloured from the unfiltered cigarettes he smokes. This habit has left his fingers stained. His nails are bitten to the quick. They are thick, stubby fingers stained brown. They are big fingers on big hands. He is a doctor and well liked in the small community in which he lives with his wife, and the child of his wife and another man. The child is ten. Her name is Angel. Her mother and this man call her by another name, but Angel is the name given to her by the grandmother the child loves most out of all the grown-up people in her world. When she is most lost and most afraid she whispers Angel to herself, and calls up the image of her grandmother.
Angel accepts the fiction that the fair man is her father though she is aware of some mystery surrounding her origins. She calls him “father” to herself and everybody else, until she is thirteen and he tells her otherwise.
Angel hears things in the night. The unforgettable sound of feet running down the hallway of the house, pursued by a heavier tread.
You lie in your bed, in your bed and your heart beats so loud you’re certain he’ll hear it. Your breath is so noisy, and you try not to breathe it. You slow down your heart and your breathing like a hibernating creature in a long dark winter. That, you believe, is the only way to stay alive in the circumstances in which you currently find yourself.
But will you ever learn to open up again? To let the heart beat to its own desires and the breath whistle carelessly through your body?
The day comes when he decides to do something he’s been contemplating for some time. The child is pretty, though not exceptionally so. More than that she is full of life, bright and intelligent with a wide smile and the skin that is the privilege of all young children, the skin one longs to stroke, like satin under the tips of the fingers. He likes the idea of having two females in his house available to him. He chews on his fingernails as he sits in his chair drinking beer out of a pewter tankard and looking at his roses through the sitting room window. He brushes the hair out of his eyes and tosses his head. Then he chews his nails again till he draws blood. He isn’t contemplating doing anything wrong, he decides, giving fleeting attention to the morality of the situation. It has to be secret because other people will put their own interpretation on it. He gets angry just thinking about other people’s opinions on the matter. He gets defensive just thinking about someone else’s disapproval of him.
If he knows in his heart that he shouldn’t carry out this plan he stifles that knowledge. This is easy to do as his desire is great and outweighs every consideration his better nature might put forward. He has a better nature. He is a doctor, well liked in the town, he has healing hands. He has a better nature.
But his dark desire puts him beyond the reach of the ameliorating qualities of human love that would have him first consider the child. He pours another drink out of the bottle on the small table at the side of his chair, and lights another cigarette. He is not a man to deny himself his desires. He is a man with a sense of entitlement.
The phone rings. His wife calls him. He grinds out his cigarette and stands up, pushing the hair off his brow, adjusting his clothes. As he strides down the hall to the surgery at the side of the house, he puts his fantasies aside. By the time he’s reached the phone on his desk he’s become the doctor. He listens quietly to a patient’s concerns. He reassures, and says he will be there in ten minutes. He hangs up the phone. He gathers his bag, his stethoscope, the miniature torch he uses to look down sore throats. He strides out to the garage, gets into his car and takes out the packet of mints he keeps in the glove box. He puts two in his mouth and sucks on them. He’s thinking of the patient, what might be the cause of the sudden onset of high fever. He enjoys the regard in which his patients hold him. He won’t allow anybody to spoil that.
Sometimes while she was observing the snake, the daughter imagined fetching the shovel and decapitating it. But she was confounded by the logistics. How was she to keep the snake in place while she lifted the cage, put it down again on the floor, picked up the shovel and made ready to strike? How could she be sure the snake wouldn’t leap at her and sink its fangs into her cheek as she bent over and lifted off the metal cover? She paced the kitchen, thinking things through. She couldn’t settle to anything, knowing that snake was in the house.
She even thought she could let it bite her. She could take that irrevocable step into the unknown. She could alter the course of her life forever, in one instant. She could give in to the “unnameable lust.” She could. The decision was hers.
There’s a barrier between those who’ve known violence and those who haven’t. Behind this barrier Angel is, she fears, forever an outsider.
Her secret sets her apart. Dark knowledge taints her. She’s sullied. How will she ever make herself clean again? Once she sought to bridge this distance by confiding her experiences, only to see reflected back in her listener’s eyes her own confusion. Confessing something can sometimes make you feel worse than keeping it to yourself. Whatever is most difficult to tell. That is what counts.
If Angel reveals to you what she knows will she taint you in some way? Will she force into your life knowledge that can’t help but change the way you look at the world? Against your will, angering you, causing you to avoid her next time you pass in the street? Will she make you afraid of her because of what she knows?
The daughter experiences this barrier as a dense membrane, impenetrable, a thick sac in which she is enclosed and from which she attempts to look out at the world. The world seen through these membranous layers is always distorted, as if she’s looking through wet plastic, material that ought to be tangible, that she ought to be able to grasp in her hands, but can’t. If she could, it would be slick, like a foetal sac she must break through, kicking and tearing, in order to get out into the earth’s atmosphere and breathe for herself.
She sees the world coloured by her own experiences, as does everyone, but she doesn’t know that. For example, she looks at her friends and thinks that their fathers must do the same things. All girls must know what she knows, and part of what they know is that the knowledge must never be shared. They are all enclosed in their separate, thick worlds from which they gaze at one another with dull eyes. They will stay this way as long as they are in their fathers’ houses.
There is no clarity of vision from inside a membranous sac. The edges of things are always blurred, and boundaries are uncertain. You can’t touch anyone and nobody can touch you. Only the father can tear through and the layers separate for him and he enters and when he withdraws, the layers close over again, skin growing back, leaving no visible scar.
In referring to herself in the third person, Angel believes that she not only puts a distance between herself and her experiences, she creates herself as well. She brings herself into being. When she’s accomplished this, when she’s managed to construct herself, she’ll step into this borrowed figure, much as the hermit crab crawls into an empty shell and makes it her own by virtue of occupancy. Much as a bird settles into an elaborately woven nest and is then identified by the type of home she’s built, the materials she’s chosen, the way she’s arranged them.
When she speaks of herself in the third person she does it to ward off a certain pain that is always threatening to overtake her. Only in the third person can she find the courage to allow voice to the truths that sit on her shoulder, chattering and salivating like cast-out demons wanting back in.
She has no desire to think of herself as victim for the rest of her life. There must be a way she can stand with dignity in the midst of the sum total of her life’s experiences, denying none of them their due, resisting any attempt at domination by a single horror, granting equal value to all.
Though the January day is dripping with humidity, the daughter feels cold on the carpet in her room. Chilled to her very bones. She puts the photograph back in its envelope. She doesn’t know what she’s achieved by this exercise. She doesn’t feel any closer to having a real past than she did before, her head is aching and she feels sick. She whistles the Dog, he comes to her and rests his head in her lap. She buries her face in the thick white fur around his neck and inhales his dog smell.
After a while she thinks perhaps she might have put a tiny piece of her heart back where it belongs. That’s what it is, this painstaking process of singing in all the voices languishing on the outer edges. It’s the delicate job of putting a heart back together so it can die whole. She dare not die as she’s lived, bits of her scattered all over the place, forgotten, repressed, and denied.
Angel hears Jane’s footsteps as she enters through the upstairs door and sets her parcels down in the kitchen. The Dog sits up and makes ready to go to her, angling for a treat. If Angel follows him Jane will smile at her, and they will drink tea under the mango tree and watch the sun fall into the river, and pray for a thunderstorm to clear the stifling air. This is her ordinary life. This is the precious and ordinary life, given to her by Jane, that she never expected to have.
Eventually, on the day of the snake, she realised she couldn’t stay in the house any longer. Carefully, she printed on a piece of cardboard: Beware of the Snake. She propped this warning on the top of the stairs. Then she went out to buy chocolate.
When she got back, Jane was home, pulling on her gumboots and gardening gloves. She’d found a large sack. Together they went upstairs. Angel slowly lifted the wire cage and the snake wriggled out into the bag Jane held in front of it. Jane tied up the bag and they transported the thrashing snake to the bush at the end of their street. There they let it go.
‘Did you want me to kill it?’ Jane asked later as they drank tea and ate the chocolate, their reward for bravery and endurance
‘Nope. I just didn’t want it in the house. That bloody dog was useless you know. Didn’t even notice it.’
As a child the daughter’s nature was ebullient. It was hard for her to learn to disappear herself. It was hard for her to learn to think of herself in the third person.