Joshua Comyn is a research student at the University of Melbourne.
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It happened in winter when three o’clock is a time of growing dark. She was walking home from the hospital where her mother lay in bed convalescing from a long illness. She had moved out of her old apartment into a new apartment that was closer to the hospital that held the bed in which her mother lay. Now she was between jobs and a renewed sense of purposelessness had overtaken her.
It had always been there of course, but she’d been able to ignore it in the bustle of work and the space that work defines. But now the bustle of work had ceased.
There had never been enough time before, now there was too much time. Before she had felt that she was wasting her time in work, but now she saw that she herself was wasting away in the hands of time.
So it was with these thoughts and passing over the field that lay between the hospital and her apartment building in winter at three o’clock, that there interposed a shadow: cast upon the ground before her; of definite shape, yet irregular; of determinate variety, yet diverse; of density uniform—not like a smudge or a smear or a stain.
The appearance of a shadow on the ground is not ordinarily a cause for remark. This field (she said to herself counting the seconds between breaths) is a large field. This field (she thought to herself at three o’clock in the dark time growing) is not bordered by any trees or buildings tall enough to cast their shadows here, in this spot that I am standing. This shadow (she understood thinking of breath in this growing dark of time) is not a passing shadow. And she knew not to look up. But she did anyway.
That there is an eye is plain—it is my eye after all and I am seeing through it. That there are other things besides the eye is evident too—by means of my eye I spend much time gazing upon them. I can attest to their existence from the time I devote to observing them by means of my eye for I do not spend my time (which I hold precious) gazing upon things that are not worth the time spent doing so. That there are things besides the other things besides the eye is evident by conjecture, for knowledge of the part inevitably brings to light knowledge of the whole.
Let me explain: I was several days ago witness (by means of my eye’s gazing) to a play of light upon the ceiling. It was unlike anything I had seen before for it was dappled like the pelt of a fawn, yet shivered like leaves chiming in the wind. I was awestruck by this vision, but did not allow my admiration to take the superstitious turn that it does in other minds, and quickly surmised by means of a series of ineluctable deductions that it was caused by a sequined dress dancing somewhere below the ceiling from which place the light was reflected upwards in its breathtaking gamut.
But to give account of the thing before me now is more difficult by far. It was preceded by several other objects discerned but a moment ago. First grass level with the eye. Then the grass passed down, below view and there appeared two dark grey columns of scaly veneer. Steadily these too passed down and out of sight and there appeared an arras of black leaves rippling like the surface of a tarn. The arras tapered as there fell into view a sickly grey moon floating in egg yolk and centered by a dense dark star. A moment later this too is changed to a nervous point proximitous, like a black and steady dagger. And now, for the first time, I wish I could turn and look away.
You return home, your boots red with dust. You stand in the kitchen bathed in the light of the refrigerator whose door you hold ajar, reach inside for a carton of milk, unfold the lip and throw your head back letting the liquid pour down your throat. When you are finished you wipe your mouth with the back of your hand, and then you wipe your hand on your jeans. You pick your duffel bag up from the kitchen floor and sling it over your shoulders. You remove your shoes before crossing the house—you should have taken them off before coming inside. You open the door and place the boots and socks outside. The windmill creaks in the night. You pick your bag up again and walk down the passage listening like a thief at the doors as you go, listening for the heavy breath of sleep. You are looking for an empty room –they weren’t expecting you till tomorrow and you don’t want to wake them now, but you’re exhausted and you have to sleep. Soon your own breathing sounds through the door.
Come morning the house begins to stir: clinking of teaspoons in tea cups, whistling boil of the kettle, the toast popping up with a metal spring. Your mother’s voice sounds through the house. You sleep on oblivious. Your mother is asking your sister whether she has prepared the room. She expects you to arrive at lunch and she wants to have a room ready because she knows you’ll be tired. She approaches the door of the bedroom and opens it her voice shouting instructions. You are frightened awake and spring up in bed. Your mother not expecting this is frightened too and clutches her chest. She stops breathing and sinks down slowly to the ground. You shout for help and the house comes running, all your brothers and sisters and your old father too. Your mother is dead, but they call the ambulance anyway. Your father won’t stop crying. The other children don’t cry because their father is crying. You don’t cry either.
That night you cook dinner. Your father is still crying. No one says anything. You ask your father to stop crying which only makes him cry more. After dinner everyone leaves the kitchen and disappears into the house. Your father stays crying in the kitchen. You hear him sobbing all through the night. In the morning your father is gone and a great pool of water is left on the floor. You find a chair and sit on the stoep. You sit there all day. You watch the sun set. You watch the moon rise. The windmill creaks in the night.
You wake up early the following morning. The house is quiet. Your brothers and sisters have gone. You go to the back yard to chop wood. You halve then quarter the logs. You begin working to a rhythm: place log, raise axe, split log, place log, raise axe, split log. You are raising your axe for the thirty third time when a voice interrupts. There are two women standing in the road. One is old and the other young. Both are dressed in their Sunday best. Their skin is scrubbed very clean and their teeth are white. The older woman is asking if there is any work for the younger woman. This is her daughter she says. She is sixteen. She is a good child. She will cook and clean for you. She is obedient. She will do whatever you ask. You try to explain to the woman that you don’t have any money, that you couldn’t pay her daughter to work, but the old woman is persistent and you relent in the end. Yes alright you say, she can come and work for me. Come back on Monday. Then you turn around, pick the axe up and return to splitting logs. The old woman claps her hands together excitedly, thank you thank you thank you she says. The young woman doesn’t say anything. They walk away.
Monday comes and so does the girl. You are standing behind the screen door drinking coffee and watching the road. She comes walking up in her Sunday best. When she arrives at the door you open it for her and she walks inside. You offer her a cup of tea which she accepts. You show her the kitchen, the lounge—you imagine her house which she shares with four others, a quarter the size of this room—the bathrooms, the bedrooms. Then you take her outside onto the porch then down the stairs to the cottage, now empty, then the yard.
She starts work in the kitchen. You ask her if she has a change of clothes because these are her Sunday best and she shouldn’t ruin them with house work. She doesn’t say anything, she looks at the ground. You go to your mother’s bedroom and find an old frock. You give this to her, then you go outside to sit on the stoep. A group of guineafowl is moving across the fields below your house, their heads darting about hunting for food. The guineafowl continue their hunting, you continue watching, the sun passes westward and descends. You look at your watch then go inside the house to tell the girl her work is finished for the day. She isn’t in the kitchen. You walk through the lounge into the passage. You push open a bedroom door and are about to quietly call again when you see her reflection in the mirror. She is singing quietly and unbuttoning the top half of her dress, her face turned away from the mirror so she does not see you watching her. For a moment you stand gazing as her deft fingers descend. Then remembering yourself, you begin to close the door again, inching it slowly closed, your eye on the mirror, on her face, and just at the point where the door is almost closed she looks at the mirror and straight into your one eye reflected there. You close the door and leave the house. You walk out across the fields into the evening, only returning again late in the night. The girl has gone, the dress you gave her is hanging from the mirror so that when you open the door to the room and look into the glass, you see an image of yourself in a dress looking back. You close the door and leave the house. You walk out across the fields into the night. You return to the house the following morning to find the girl waiting outside the kitchen door dressed in her Sunday best. She doesn’t say anything and neither do you. She doesn’t look at you and you avoid looking at her. You open the door and hold it open for her. She walks inside. You offer her a cup of tea which she accepts. Then you go outside.
You spend the morning working in the garden. You weed where weeding is needed. Some sections need cutting back and this you do with a pair of large shears. Then you walk around surveying your work and plotting new vegetable beds. You go into the shed and find seeds for pumpkin, spinach, radishes, sweet potato, beans… You stake out the ground with string and begin breaking up the soil with pick and hoe. After this you rake the surface smooth and plant the seeds in rows. Then you water it. You have planted two new beds. You sit underneath a tree to rest. It is already ten o’clock, but your breath billows white in the air. The girl watches you from a window, concealed behind a curtain which she clutches in her hands. It is already ten o’clock, yet her breath frosts on the glass. You look at the garden and survey your work, you look at the house, at the window. You notice a quick movement then nothing. Then you see the white patch of frost on the pane.
Just before sunset you enter the house. You shower and scrub your whole body clean. You are drying your hair with a towel as you walk through the lounge. You look toward the garden through a window at a tree where, pinned to the bark a dress is fluttering in the wind, just above the place where you sat down to rest. You do not leave the house to return at dawn. You stand looking at the dress and the tree. The sun sets.
That evening you sit on the stoep, a paraffin lamp lit beside you. It spluttered when you lit it first then shed an even yellow light. A large moth has been circling the lamp ever since you lit it. Now, for no apparent reason, it errs and falls into the flame. It flutters about inside the glass trying to escape, but its wings soon catch alight and then its body. The fat crackles and spits in the flame and the smoke blackens the glass.
A sudden movement in the house startles you and you stand up. You enter the house quietly. A shadow disappears down the passage and you follow. You are half crouching, your feet are silent as you walk but your breath is audible. You are approaching the door of the room, the room of your sleeping and gazing, the room of your return. In the dark behind the door, I bristle, I loom, I ache.
Joshua Comyn is a research student at the University of Melbourne.