Shel Sweeney is a published author of short stories and poetry. Born in England, but raised in Australia, she has worked in cafes, publishing houses, schools and, most recently, for the London Olympics. She is currently working as a freelance writer and proofreader, and occasionally runs writing workshops.
Gumbooted and Blanket Wrapped
I’m at home. I can see her, but she can’t see me. I’m wearing an invisibility cloak and I’m flying. I always wanted to fly for real. We used to talk about it. She told me once that she could fly in her dreams, but she could only take off by climbing to the top of a fence and jumping off with her arms out like the wings of a falcon. We used to pretend to fly. She let me stand on the coffee table. It was my launching pad. Now her arms are wrapped around herself.
She gave me guinea pigs one spring; we kept them in a hutch in the garden. She said they were called cavies, but I called them cave pigs. I talk to them in my head and imagine they’re telling me things. Now I can hear what she’s thinking. I’ve tried talking to her, but no words come out. It’s like my mouth is chocker-block full of marshmallows and no sound can get past. Sometimes we would cook marshmallows on the open fire. I would fill my mouth with them and try to talk and she would laugh and laugh. But now it scares me. There’s a sweetness in my mouth and it’s dry and fluffy with marshmallows. I’m gagging, but no sound comes out and she doesn’t hear me.
I can feel her too, the way her head hurts and her body hurts. If ever I was upset, she’d sit on my bed, wrap us both in my orange blanket and cry with me. She’d get me to put her hand wherever it hurt the most, kind of above my tummy, just under my ribs. There’s sadness in her ribs like a punch in the stomach, but the pain doesn’t go away. She puts her hand on her own tummy. I can feel the warmth just like she’s rubbing me better.
It’s nice to be around her. She is reaching out to me, calling my name, pretending to cradle me in her arms like I am still a baby, but we keep falling away from each other. It reminds me of when we use to play hide-and-seek and she would come right up to my hiding place and I would hold my breath so she couldn’t hear me, then she would pretend not to find me and walk away. I would always start giggling and fall out of my hiding spot and she would be there to catch me. Only this time she’s looking and there’s no pretending, she just can’t find me.
It’s been crazy lately, lots of phone calls not answered. I always used to answer the phone, it made me feel like a grown-up, but she screamed at the top of her voice, “No more calls!” So now I let the phone ring and she just ignores it. I would open all the mail too, and bring it to her on a breakfast tray like she was the queen. She has taken to snatching at the mail box and stuffing the letters out of sight behind a chair. But I don’t want to think about that, I just want to be with her.
* * *
Hi, Sharon? Look, I know you’re there. Pick up the phone. I just want to see how you are, you know, check in. If you don’t want to talk, that’s fine. Just want to make sure you’re ok. Look, pick up will you? Are you there? Anyway, it’s Catherine. Call me...anytime.
* * *
Today I release her cave pigs. I am gumbooted and blanket wrapped against the rain. The heavens pour tears of a thousand lost souls and a rainbow shines the way like a road to salvation. The grass out here, once comfortably clipped and safe, is now wild and close. I can no longer see the hutch from the back deck, it has been engulfed in a sea of green. I make sodden tracks through the tangle. Above the rim of gumboots, my bare legs are wet-whipped and drips squelch around cold toes. The cave pigs run to the front of the hutch, excited, hopeful, but they recognise my tiara beneath the orange blanket and huddle back. I was not who they were expecting. I open their cage.
“Freedom,” I tell them, “here is your freedom.” I utter the word like it is my redemption. I have visions of them charging through the doorway on squat legs and stopping to look over furry shoulders, full of gratitude, gazing up at me starry-eyed like I am their saviour. And in return for this good deed, I would be free. But they peer up at me through the wire in confusion and huddle further back into sopping straw. Their fear matched only by my grief.
I have come prepared for this too. I entice them with carrots hidden in orange folds and to my amusement, once outside, they look around quickly, and briskly, in single file, scamper through a space in the grass forest. I leave the cage open. Perhaps they will they need somewhere familiar to sleep, or perhaps they will avoid their hutch in fear of entrapment.
I look back to the house nestled against the crest of the hill. I imagine her laughing at me wearing nothing but gumboots and tiara, cape wrapped in her orange blanket. Queen of the grasslands. I smile back at her, just for a moment.
The double doors are open, violent-pink, wind-whipped curtains slash in and out like the house is breathing. I imagine her dancing in the doorway. The stereo is quiet now, but she is dancing just inside, her tiara sparkling, beckoning me back.
I lie down right there on the wet grass, her blanket pulled over me like a cave. I peer out at the empty cage and the empty house beyond. The cold of the earth seeps into my body and holds me. Grief coils and uncoils in the pit of my stomach. Perhaps I can stop breathing now and get on with my next life. The rain of a thousand souls washes my tears into a puddle just under my cheek, caught momentarily by a dead leaf before overspilling. The earth, cold and still, takes my tears like a gift. The grass bows down over me as if in prayer.
* * *
* * *
She’s crying in the garden. The cave pigs watch from the grass. I tell them to snuggle her, but they are too scared. I want her to laugh. She has a nice laugh that sounds like the stream at the bottom of our hill. She looks so funny all nudey-bum in her gumboots. She is wearing her tiara, the one she wears when we dance. I dance for her in the doorway. I want her to come and dance with me. But she lies down in the rain and can’t hear me when I try to call to her.
The trees shake and cover her with their leaves.
She used to call me her angel, come to save her life. We would dress up in fairy wings and sit on the top step of the stairs that go to her bedroom. We would pretend we were angels and talk about what we used to be in our past lives, before we were born into this one. She said she had been a falconer. She tied purple and blue tassels to her falcon’s feet. I told her these were called jesses, but she already knew that. She wore heavy coats and a gauntlet on her arm where her falcon would rest after big flights.
I knew this was true. I could remember it. I told her I had looked after her horses. I love horses, but she was scared of them. I told her she had fallen off a big horse in that life and hurt her legs and this was why she was scared of them now. And she had laughed and said I told the best stories. I said that was because I had written books in a different life and lots of people had read them. She laughed even more and said this had to be true. She bought me notebooks to write my stories in.
* * *
* * *
I’m immersed in the scene around me. Sun shining, dancing on the tops of the eucalypts where the new growth is, yellow haloed, just beyond the grassy slope, velveteen and lush, a prehistoric paradise for guinea pigs turned back to their former primitive selves, cave pigs in an intricate mess of tunnels and secret ways. Last night, like Alice following the White Rabbit, naked but for my scarf and wine bottle, I tried to follow the furry glimpses through the maze of grasses, finally resting, burr-bound and upward facing, laughing to the stars as the cave pigs retreated to some dark, warm place, terror-trembling at my midnight ramble.
The sky is so brilliant today, inviting, inaccessible. I want to fly straight into it, free-roaming, tummy tickling the tree tops. I’ve tried astral travelling. I have a stack of ‘how to’ books beside my bed and a chicken scrawled note pad for furtive, darkly written grasps. But, frustratingly I never get anywhere, like the attempting itself keeps me human-heavy and blanketed. But she’s out there, somewhere.
On the back deck, a breeze nestles in the crook of my neck for a moment, close and warm, before licking its way down my spine with a fleeting shiver. The music, curling through the corners of the house to flow out and over and around me, is lively, uplifting. I kick unopened letters under a chair, toss my hair to the sky, fleetingly free and dance to my own private audience of cave pigs, peering upward cautiously through grass stalk and leaf at the twirling movement, the colourful maniac and her sonorous sounds.
* * *
* * *
Last night while she slept, my angels came for me.
I went to her bedside. She was so pretty. The moon came in the window and lit up her face. Her hair looked like a halo spread out on the pillow. Her eyes flickered and she talked to me in her dreams. I told her I loved her and she said her heart would always be mine. She held me close and I didn’t want to let her go, but she knew it was time and uncurled me from her arms.
“My beautiful angel, it’s time for you to be free.”
* * *
Hi hon. U dont txt back I gunna hav 2 call in. Space is 1 thing but dont know if u ok? Just txt me n I leave u alone a bit longa. I miss her 2. & I miss u. No presha. Just txt me. X bestie 4eva.
* * *
The sound of a text wakes me. My eyes open. The moonlight is streaming in through a crack in the curtains. I know I’ve been in a deep, deep sleep. All around is peaceful. I wrap her orange blanket around my shoulders and head to the garden. The grass forest glistens with a thousand fairy lights as the moonlight strikes the dew. I find myself by the long abandoned hutch, hand on my open locket.
The curl of hair hidden in there seems so fresh as if newly trimmed; I can smell her warm, soft head. I sprinkle the strands of her hair across the grass. A gentle breeze picks up and carries each strand further, beyond my reach.
I stand there a long while; still, quiet, peaceful. Something soft brushes against my foot. The cave pigs have gathered for a final farewell.
* * *
"The Brain, within its Groove Runs evenly -- and true -- But let a Splinter swerve --" Emily Dickinson
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